In 15 years of teaching, I’ve filled lots of report cards with suggestions for how students can improve. And while I always hope the kids will proofread more carefully, read more deeply and use more detail, I don’t want them to accept my suggestions uncritically because they’re looking to please me or to get better grades, or to reject them just as uncritically because they don’t sound fun. I want my students to follow the suggestions I give them because doing so would serve their values—and values give our lives meaning.
This year when trimester reports came out, instead of having my seventh-grade students identify academic goals, I decided to try something different. I drew a matrix on the board, labeled the columns “yummy” and “yucky” and the rows “healthy” and “unhealthy” and filled in the boxes. For me, summer rolls are yummy and healthy, wheatgrass smoothies are yucky and healthy, chocolate mousse is yummy and unhealthy, and cheese puffs are yucky and unhealthy. The kids started making their own charts, and while I was excited that one kid thought kale was yummy, I was even more excited to get my students thinking about finding meaning in their schoolwork. (I’m coming to that.)
Just as “healthy” might not be “yummy,” values aren’t the same as preferences. The fact that a student enjoys a class doesn’t necessarily mean she’s doing important work. Conversely, serving values often brings deep satisfaction and vitality, but the day-to-day effort of committing to values sometimes feels like a burden. A student who values communicating clearly and spends extra time proofreading probably isn’t having fun, but the work might contribute to a pattern of action that brings meaning to the student’s life.
To make that point, I re-labeled the matrix so the columns said “fun” and “painful” and the rows said “meaningful” and “pointless.” Painful could mean boring, frustrating, stressful or scary. As the students filled in their boxes with activities, they noticed that most meaningful pursuits are painful some of the time, and that classifying a meaningful activity like hockey or dance as fun or painful was much harder than deciding whether a food was yummy or yucky. I shared that I even though I put writing my book as an activity I found fun and meaningful, there were lots of days when the work was painful.
With the distinction between fun and meaningful in mind, we moved into a discussion of what makes a class fun. They said class is fun when there’s an interesting topic, when they get to have a competition or play games, when the teacher is funny, when they get to be with friends and when they get to bring food. We contrasted those factors with what makes a class meaningful. To begin that conversation, I gave my students a list of possible statements:
Class is meaningful when it provides opportunities for me to…
- learn about topics that matter to me personally.
- learn about topics that matter in the world.
- learn about myself, my identity and my place in the world.
- use my creativity.
- explore, experiment and ask questions.
- build relationships with my peers.
- build a relationship with my teacher.
- develop skills that help me in other classes and/or my out-of-school life.
- develop skills I need to get into a good college and/or get a good job.
- develop skills that will help me make a positive change in the world.
- see new perspectives and develop empathy.
- belong to a community.
- show leadership.
- challenge myself.
Each student chose three personally important criteria for making a class meaningful. For example, Mason finds classes meaningful when he can learn about topics that matter in the world, develop empathy and show leadership. I encouraged the kids to make up their own criteria or adjust the wording, but most students copied the statements I’d provided. (Not surprising, since they’d never been asked to articulate their academic values before.)
Next, the students gave each of their classes a grade based on its meaningfulness, according to their criteria. So Mason evaluated how well each of his classes gave him opportunities to learn about topics that matter in the world, develop empathy and show leadership.
While some students expressed feelings of empowerment as they graded their classes in terms of their own values, others felt awkward. “What if I like the class but it’s not meaningful? Ms. Jamison is awesome. I feel bad giving her a low grade,” Lydia said.
I replied, “Well, the grades you get aren’t based on how much your teachers like you. Remember: There’s a difference between liking something and finding it meaningful. You’re basing these grades on how meaningful the classes are to you, according to your own definition of ‘meaningful.’”
Then the students wrote about how they can make their classes more meaningful. Paula said, “I could share my opinion because then we will be talking about something that matters to me.” Sondra said, “I like to have something to work really hard for. I can often do very well on a quiz with only studying for a night or two. I should challenge myself to study more so I’m not just getting by.” In future conversations, I can ask Paula if she’s been participating more actively and see if Sondra needs help thinking of ways to challenge herself.
Sharing the students’ articulations of their academic values and the behaviors that would serve those values set a positive tone at parent-teacher conferences. We still discussed the students’ progress, but I could frame these discussions in terms of helping the kids do what it takes to make school meaningful to them, even if it wouldn’t always be fun. One parent said that school doesn’t have to be meaningful and that his son had to work hard because “that’s life.” But the rest were interested in having conversations at home about distinguishing between fun and meaningful and connecting teachers’ suggestions to the students’ values.
Now, what if all middle school kids created academic experiences that fit their values?
 Hayes, Steven C., Kirk D. Strosahl, and Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change. 2nd ed. New York: Guilford, 2012.
Porosoff is a seventh-grade English teacher, curriculum design consultant and author of Curriculum at Your Core: Meaningful Teaching in the Age of Standards.
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