Eighth Grade Is a Movie About Middle School That Will Leave Adults in Tears

Slate

Bo Burnham’s funny, original debut feature is astonishingly mature.

A teenage girl in a swimming pool.
Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade.
A24

“The topic of today’s video is being yourself,” stammers 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) in one of the self-recorded advice videos she periodically posts to her YouTube channel. It’s hard to imagine any topic on which this insecure, awkward girl, with her apologetically slumped shoulders and digitally airbrushed-out acne, would make for a less convincing expert. As her generally unhappy middle school experience enters its final excruciating week, Kayla contends with some standardly bad teenage experiences: being awarded the superlative of “Most Quiet” at an end-of-year ceremony, being invisible to the “Best Eyes”–winning classmate she’s crushed out on (Luke Prael), and being pestered by her loving, hovering single dad (Josh Hamilton) to—get this—stop looking at Instagram over dinner and talk to him.

Eighth Grade never strains for topicality or hand-wrings at the state of Today’s Youth.

Kayla will later deal with scarier and dodgier situations than these run-of-the-mill indignities, even if Eighth Grade mercifully never goes as dark as first-time writer-director Bo Burnham sometimes seem to hint it will. The funny, heartfelt, and utterly original Eighth Grade is a movie about middle school starring real middle school–age kids, to which one might enjoyably take actual middle schoolers—so long as they and their parents are willing to tolerate a reasonably high degree of shared comic embarrassment. Whether or not you currently have a preteen child, every adult has been one, and it’s almost neurologically impossible not to avert your face in burning-cheeked sympathy when Kayla, face to face with the popular girls she both longs to impress and fears like the ego-destroying monsters they can be, can only summon the emptiest sycophantic banter. “By the way, I like your shirt a lot. It’s, like, so cool.” Long pause. “I have a … shirt … too.”

Eighth Grade alternates such moments of hyperreal cringe comedy with more stylized scenes filmed from Kayla’s point of view. A visit to her boorish beloved’s Instagram feed sends her down a social media spiral, captured in a montage of Snapchat selfies and BuzzFeed quizzes set to Enya’s hypnotic New Age classic “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away).” These dreamlike passages often end abruptly with the forced removal of headphones from Kayla’s ears, emphasizing the break between banal everyday reality and the curated fantasy space of social media. But Eighth Grade never strains for topicality or hand-wrings at the state of Today’s Youth: There’s a lightness and simplicity to this affectionate portrait of a girl dipping a first toe in the rushing waters of 21st-century teenagerdom.

Kayla’s omnipresent iPhone can be a vector of social anxiety and low self-esteem, but, like the YouTube videos she posts into the apparent void, it can also serve as a medium of connection. After she’s paired with a high school student (Emily Robinson) for a daylong tour of the school she’s about to move on to, the two become unexpectedly friendly, and a dazzled Kayla gets a glimpse of the only good thing about her current phase of life: Eventually, it ends. “Now I can’t wait to grow up,” she confides to her trusty webcam. But her newfound faith in the future is tested, heartstoppingly, by an encounter with an older boy (Daniel Zolghadri) who tries to pressure Kayla into a too-much-too-soon round of truth or dare.

A scene toward the end will do a thorough job of flushing out any eye irritants that might have been bothering you on the way in to the theater.

The 27-year-old Burnham, making a graceful and assured debut as a writer-director, already has a devoted following as a stand-up comedian. In fact, his career began at age 16 in exactly the place we first see Kayla: YouTube. In his most recent Netflix special Make Happy, Burnham uses his considerable versatility—he can sing, dance, take to the keyboard to pound out his own satirical pop ballads, and generally shift genres and tones on a dime—to mount a protest against stand-up comedy as a form. By the end of the hour, he’s exposed both the raw desire for approval that drives him to perform in the first place and the need for mass catharsis via entertainment that fills seats at comedy shows. At first glance, this kind of confrontational virtuosity would seem at odds with the emotional directness of Eighth Grade, which, though it showcases many acts of intentional and unintentional cruelty, is a deeply kind movie, curious and nonjudgmental even about the characters who in most coming-of-age films would be hissable villains. But some of the same themes that animate Burnham’s stand-up—his willingness to look at aspects of the modern experience that tend to be omitted from the stories we tell, his glee at subverting audience expectations—are also at play in his first feature.

Impressive as Burnham’s achievement is, Eighth Grade could never hit the heights it does without the right actress in the demanding lead role. Elsie Fisher—who was only 14 when the movie premiered at Sundance, with experience as a child voice actor in the Despicable Me franchise—delivers her “like”-heavy dialogue with such naturalism you might think the lines are improvised. But Burnham has said in interviews that the film is more scripted than it appears, and the story beats that it hits in its brisk 90-minute runtime are too precisely timed to be the result of adolescent ad-libbing. Though they get less screen time than Fisher, the rest of the teen actors, especially Jake Ryan as an earnest, geeky boy who takes a shine to Kayla at a pool party, are uniformly wonderful. And as Kayla’s devoted but confounded father, who’s alternately commanded to talk more, smile less, “stop looking weird and sad,” and just shut up and drive her to the mall, Josh Hamilton gives an exemplary performance, funny and sensitive and quietly soul-baring. A late scene by a campfire, in which Kayla’s dad struggles to articulate what watching her grow from babyhood has meant to him, will do a thorough job of flushing out any eye irritants that might have been bothering you on the way into the theater.

Eighth Grade doesn’t overstay its welcome or beg for the viewer’s approval. As Kayla records her last advice video of the school year, mortifying catchphrase and all, you’re sad to see her go, glad for the gains in self-confidence she’s made, and curious to know what she’ll do next. The same is true of Bo Burnham, who, unlike his tentative protagonist, arrives on the big screen already fully grown.

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What parents and teachers can do to not make the 7th grade the worst ever

ABC News

PHOTO: Middle-school aged boys stand in a hallway in an undated stock photo.STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
Middle-school aged boys stand in a hallway in an undated stock photo.

In sixth grade, Carrie Rountrey’s son Owen couldn’t wait to get to school.

“He used to get up, make his lunch, do everything for school,” she said.

What a difference a year makes because now Owen is in seventh grade and his attitude towards school has changed, according to his mom.

“He doesn’t like school,” Rountrey said. “He loves his math and science classes, and he hates everything else. It’s been pretty frustrating.”

PHOTO: Carrie Rountrey, J.R. Gentle and their son Owen. Morefamousjack Photography
Carrie Rountrey, J.R. Gentle and their son Owen.

A professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rountrey also can’t understand how her only child can be so disorganized.

“He forgets his keys on a regular basis,” she said. “He turns a lot of things in late.”

Fortunately, schoolwork comes pretty easily for him. Other seventh grade students aren’t so lucky.

Few kids, no matter how smart, manage to get through seventh grade without some hiccups. And, for many, seventh grade turns out to be the worst of their school years.

“Seventh grade sucked for me,” said Annie Fox, an award-winning author and educator, who has traveled all over the globe talking to teens and tweens.

A trusted online adviser for parents and teens since 1997, Fox said the reason kids — their parents and teachers as well — struggle so much when they are ages 12 and 13 is because there’s a lot happening to them developmentally.

PHOTO: Annie Fox, an educator and author, is an expert on teens and tweens. courtesy Annie Fox
Annie Fox, an educator and author, is an expert on teens and tweens.

Not only are they dealing with the onset of puberty, with all of its raging hormones, but the pre-frontal lobe of their brain, which manages impulse control, predicting consequences and planning ahead, is not fully wired.

“They are not playing with a full deck,” Fox said.

“Put 500 kids with that kind of insecurity in a group that spends six hours a day together and they are not going to be kind to each other,” Fox said.

Yet, this is exactly the time that their parents and teachers expect more from them.

“In sixth grade, they coddle them. In eighth grade, they are getting ready to go to high school so they are really elevated,” said Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Pace University in New York. “In seventh grade, no one really cares. You’re thrown to the wolves. They really are in such an in-between age.”

PHOTO: Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist writes about teens and tweens. courtesy Jennifer Powell-Lunder
Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist writes about teens and tweens.

Parents of seventh-graders likely expect their kids to step up, too, and they are usually surprised when they don’t — or don’t even seem to care.

“It’s the age of snarky,” Powell-Lunder said. “They tend to be more irritable, kind of touchy. They don’t believe they are a reflection of their parents, but that their parents are a reflection of them.”

That means the potential for their parents to embarrass them in front of their almighty peers is at an all-time high. It’s because kids at this developmental stage put more weight into what their peers think and where they fit in.

“Their emotional real estate is so fixated on where do I fit into my peer group,” Fox said.

For boys, that can mean how they match up against their more physically developed peers. For girls, it’s negotiating often tricky relationships, aka “mean girls.”

One mom of three, who asked not to be identified, knows this all too well. She says both her girls began cutting themselves in the seventh grade.

The younger one used to complain that she felt sad and empty, she said.

“Nobody likes me. I don’t want to talk to anybody. They are looking at me weird,” she said of what her daughter would tell her.

It got to be so bad, her daughter had to be held overnight in a hospital.

Fox hears many stories such as that one. In a survey she gave to 1,200 tweens and teens, kids said the number one stressor in their lives was their peers, with school and parents following behind in second and third place.

“Every middle-schooler feels different than their peers, whether gay, straight or transgender,” Fox said. “As human beings what we are trying to do is fit in. On a species level this is the most awkward time.”

Given everything kids are experiencing at this age — socially, developmentally and academically — Fox encourages parents to exercise more compassion.

“I want parents to be a safe place to talk about anything,” she said. “They need to talk less and listen more.”

Keep reading for more helpful tips from Fox and Powell-Lunder on to how not make the seventh grade worst year for everyone.

PHOTO: Middle-school aged students sit on a school stairwell in an undated stock photo.STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
Middle-school aged students sit on a school stairwell in an undated stock photo.

Control your own stress

Parents stress themselves out over what their kids are doing or not doing at this age.

However, parents need to let go of the idea that they have total control over their kids, Fox said.

“You have a remote control for your TV, but you don’t have one to control another person,” she said. “You can’t get them to do anything they do not choose to do. Most of the time, we parents are stressing because we are trying to point a non-functional remote control at our kids.”

Fox learned this when her own son entered the seventh grade, and it was like a bomb went off in his room, she said. After feeling like their relationship had been taken over by her nagging, she said she stopped trying to get him to clean up his room and their relationship improved.

“You cannot control someone else’s choices,” she said. “You can only modify your own behavior.”

Give them autonomy, not independence

At the same time, teens and tweens still crave structure and boundaries, Powell-Lunder said.

They may be looking for more autonomy from their parents, but they are not yet ready to be fully independent. Setting limits, especially when it comes to technology, is important, she said.

“A lot of time parents want to be the ‘nice’ parent, but kids need rules,” Powell-Lunder said.

Boundary-setting starts with knowing your child and what their individual needs are, as well as acknowledging that those needs change as they get older, Fox said.

“Mom and dad have to take a closer look at the children sitting in front of them,” she said. “They are changing so rapidly. If you don’t keep up, you won’t know how to communicate or listen to them.”

Don’t try to fix everything

With rules, come consequences. Both Fox and Powell-Lunder said parents have to let their middle-schoolers fail sometimes.

“Let them take responsibility for being a full-time student,” Fox said. “That’s a contract between student and teacher — unless you’re planning to go to college with them.”

“Be supportive but don’t try to fix everything,” Powell-Lunder said.

“Over-functioning parents will raise under-functioning kids,” Fox added.

Practice what you preach

Kids at this age are also learning a lot by observing the adults around them.

Be careful what you’re modeling to your kids, whether it’s screaming and yelling or being tethered to your smartphone.

“Show you have more self-control than your son or daughter,” Fox said.

Powell-Lunder tells teachers: “Teach by example.”

Organization helps

At a time when kids seem the most disorganized, being organized seems to count the most.

Powell-Lunder, who is a big believer in the “K-8” model because it “smooths out the rough edges,” said educators in middle schools need to be more understanding of seventh-graders and teach them the organizational skills they lack. Posting homework in one place certainly helps, she said.

Fox frowns on too much homework because she said it turns some middle school students off from education. This age group still needs time to pursue passions, she said, be with family and just daydream.

Talk less, listen more

Both Powell-Lunder and Fox encourage parents to show more empathy for what their children are going through.

“Ultimately, you want less stress and tension between parent and child, and more compassion and conversation and understanding,” Fox said. “They are not getting it from their peers or their own internal monologues where they are putting themselves down. We are just adding to the chorus if all we’re doing is finding fault.”

9 Great Movies for the Middle School Classroom

Try one of these thought-provoking documentaries to get kids thinking (and learning).

September 01, 2017

If you want to get kids’ attention, show them how an issue affects real people. From bullying to STEM to autism, the topics tackled in documentary movies can open kids’ eyes and encourage discussion. And when they’re shown as part of a lesson, teachers can help students understand and analyze what they’ve seen.

As the definition of literacy continues to broaden — encompassing skills for analyzing not only text-based media, but also visual media, audio, and more — it’s important to include documentary films as part of the classroom content selection. Happily, lots of documentaries either about or targeted at middle school-age kids come with educator resources, so they’re easy to integrate into an existing unit or use in after-school programs.

These are nine of our favorite documentary picks for middle school classrooms. They’re not always easy to watch, but all will strike a chord with middle schoolers and are guaranteed to spark a great conversation.

Bully

It’s heartbreaking and difficult to watch, but this frank documentary is essential viewing for middle schoolers. Ultimately it encourages kids to stand up to bullies rather than stand by, and it reinforces the fact that everyone can make a difference.

Teacher tips: Because the movie addresses suicide and self-harm, it’s important to front-load and frame these intense topics carefully. Make sure you know which students could feel especially triggered by the movie and create a safe space for students to share their own experiences. Emphasize how kids can be empowered to help each other and what resources are available. Classes could even come up with action plans to address whatever bullying might exist in their school.

Available resources: Tools for Educators

Girl Rising 

The stories shared in this informative, intense film aren’t always easy to hear — it touches on topics ranging from inequality to human trafficking, child marriage, and more — but nothing graphic is shown, and kids who watch are guaranteed to want to talk about it.

Teacher tips: Before watching the movie, kids can create a timeline of their own childhood up to this point, highlighting the most important events. And what do they plan for the future? Since some kids will be shocked by what girls face in various places, make sure to prepare them for some of the more intense issues, like rape and trafficking. Then explore what their timelines might look like and how past events might affect the futures of the girls in the film. Focus on the resilience of the featured girls and how they see education as a path to a better future.

Available resources: Regional Ambassador Program

He Named Me Malala

Moving, intense, and also delightful, this film about Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani teen Malala Yousafzai introduces viewers to the inspiring role model while simultaneously making her a relatable teen. Meet your students’ new BFF.

Teacher tips: One way to frame this one is through the idea of superheroes: Usually, something extraordinary happens to an ordinary person, and their lives change. How is this also true for real-life heroes? Some kids in your class have probably heard her name, so tap into their prior knowledge before watching the movie, then talk about how her path follows one similar to a superhero’s. What does it take to be a real-life hero? Have kids explore topics that are important to them, and document their steps to make a difference in that area.

Available resources: Students Stand with Malala

I Am Eleven

Powerful and poignant, this film follows 11-year-olds from around the world (Australia, Bulgaria, China, France, Germany, India, Morocco, Japan, Sweden, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States) as they share their thoughts, triumphs, and challenges.

Teacher tips: Encourage kids to find connections between their own experiences and the ones in the movie, then explore the differences. What do they have in common with one or more of the kids in the film? What’s different from their own experiences? Consider having students become virtual ambassadors to a featured country and do research around school, family, and culture.

Available resources: Educational Screenings Kit

If You Build It

Want to show teens that they have the ability and the talent to make a difference? Then check out this empowering story of young people who learn the skills to create something (a new farmers’ market for their rural community) and actually get to do it.

Teacher tips: Seeing these teens and adults work together to solve a problem/provide a service in their community can be a jumping-off point for a similar project in your own community. Ideally, and depending on your resources, kids can identify a problem to solve or a service to provide. Then they can figure out the best ways to implement the plan (and hopefully do it!), which can be a great cross-curricular opportunity.

Available resources: Educational DVD Copies

Life, Animated 

This incredibly moving documentary beautifully captures the emotional story of a young man with autism and his lifelong love of Disney movies, which allow him to process the world and communicate with the people he loves. It’s sweet, funny, and relatable.

Teacher tips: Teachers can take this in a number of directions: You could talk about ASD and other learning differences that can affect how people interact with the world. Kids can then connect that to their own learning process and identify something — like the Disney movies in the film — that helps them in their process. Or you can focus on communication and the power of storytelling. Which stories serve as a window into your students’ world? They can create personal stories that might also help others.

Available resources: Curriculum for Educators

Right Footed

Kids are sure to be inspired by the story of Jessica Cox, a young woman born without arms who’s had a significant impact as a role model, motivational speaker, and activist for people with disabilities.

Teacher tips: Jessica’s story is a great example of overcoming what seems like a limitation and working with it in order to excel and thrive. Kids can identify their own strengths and challenges and create a visual representation of how they can overcome those struggles. In a museum-style exhibition, kids could display their artifacts with an artist’s explanation.

Available resources: Educational and Private Screenings

Underwater Dreams

Looking for a story to drive home the importance of STEM in schools? Try this feel-good true story about a group of low-income teens who beat groups from renowned universities (including MIT!) in a robotics competition.

Teacher tips: Talk about the students’ journey to success. What roadblocks did they encounter? How did they overcome them, what character strengths helped them, and how did others support them? With awareness around your classroom climate, you can also discuss the issue of documentation and what it means. If someone is undocumented, what are some of the potential challenges? Finally, talk about STEM and its importance. How do the students in the film show that STEM can go far beyond the classroom? Kids are bound to want to create something after watching, so capitalize on that inspiration and let them innovate!

Available resources: Including working with Title I Students, STEM, and the DREAM Act

Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines 

Holy girl power, Batman! This knockout film looks at the historical context of Wonder Woman origins and explains how she’s changed over the decades — yet how the need for girls and women to see powerful images of themselves really hasn’t.

Teacher tips: Kids can explore gender representations from different decades and determine what the messages are — and have been in the past — for girls and boys. How have things changed, if at all? Why does it matter? For a broader conversation, kids can talk about why representation matters in general and create their own superheroes to show which qualities and characteristics they’d include.

Available resources: Guides

How a School Ditched Awards and Assemblies to Refocus on Kids and Learning

When Paula Gosal took over as principal of the Chilliwack Middle School, she walked smack into the middle of a long-standing debate among the staff over awards. It wasn’t exactly a rumble that Gosal was tossed into so abruptly in the fall of 2016. Most of the teachers at this school for seventh- through ninth-graders in British Columbia had read the literature on awards, and were looking for feedback and support from their new principal. The majority wanted to do away with the school’s awards and awards assemblies, and needed the backing of their principal to make it happen.

“I did not have to be persuaded,” Gosal said. She called for a vote, and the staff unanimously decided to stop handing out awards.

Though data on the extent of school award-giving is scarce, the practice of delivering them is so customary that the Common Application to U.S. colleges includes spaces to report honors and other forms of recognition. Alongside their ubiquity, however, is abundant research showing that awards, rewards and other external incentives undermine intrinsic motivation.

“This is one of the most robust findings in social science—and also one of the most ignored,” wrote Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pursuit of the trinket or prize extinguishes what might have been a flicker of internal interest in a subject, suffocating the genuine sources of motivation: mastery, autonomy and purpose. “To say ‘do this, and you’ll get that’ makes people lose interest in ‘this,’ ” said Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards. Awards are that much worse than rewards, Kohn added, because they are simply prizes made artificially limited.

For the majority of students who don’t receive public honors, awards ceremonies spur boredom, anger or resentment, said Marvin Berkowitz, a professor at the University of Missouri—St. Louis and author of You Can’t Teach Through a Rat. Watching a peer receive an award inspires not a drive to succeed but rather a lingering bitterness, as well as an unfortunate association of school-sanctioned success with tedium.

“A key takeaway here is that awards aren’t bad just because the losers are disappointed; everyone (including the winners) ultimately lose when schooling is turned into a scramble to defeat one’s peers,” Kohn said.

Understanding the intellectual rationale for doing away with awards, as Gosal and her staff did, made their decision a lot easier. But there were other reasons. Teachers at Chilliwack bad been bothered by the exclusionary nature of the awards ceremonies; they noticed the same students and families being recognized year after year. As well, Gosal had been troubled in the past by the ugly encounters she’d witnessed among teachers who had argued for or against a particular student receiving an award. “My experience of watching teachers debate over children was unsettling,” Gosal said.

She and her staff also sought to change what motivated kids to work, so that they’d learn for the sake of it rather than for a prize. And they all had begun to realize that student life outside the classroom was just as rich as it was inside, and that those endeavors were just as worthy of notice.

Instead of being selected by the school for achievements in pre-determined categories, students were able to recognize their own achievements. (Courtesy of Paula Gosal) (Courtesy of Paula Gosal)

In May of 2017, Gosal told parents in her weekly newsletter that the June awards ceremony was off. Instead, the school would be hosting a success showcase for all students. “I wanted to marry the two worlds, who you are inside of school and who you are outside,” Gosal explained. The showcase would be more than a talent show, she added. It’s “this is who I am,” she said.

About 200 parents and children walked through the school halls on the night of the showcase. Everywhere, the students displayed their unique skills and interests: some danced, played a jazz set or sang. Others dribbled and scored on the basketball court, or demonstrated knot-tying, or dueled one another at a gaming station they had set up especially for the showcase. One child with training in professional dog handling showed her prowess to the crowd, and scores of others displayed their art, poetry and other creative work in the school gallery. Plastered throughout the school were one-page statements every child filled out that finished the phrase, “I am proud of ___.”

Chris Wejr, the principal of James Hill Elementary School in British Columbia, eliminated awards and the ceremonies that go with them after talking with teachers and parents about the school’s practices and mission. He had wondered if the regular “student-of-the-month” assembly violated the everyday message of community they were attempting to build; the award seemed to be suggesting that “we’re one community—but you’re a little bit better,” he said. This approach also seemed to contradict the strengths-based model of education they sought to instill, which emphasized each student’s abilities and aptitudes.

“Every single person in school has strengths, skills and talents, and it’s our job to bring them out more,” Wejr said.

Courtesy of Paula Gosal

Together with the staff, they decided that handing out awards neither aligned with their beliefs nor brought out the best in their students—even for the sliver of kids who received awards. “Winners” got the message that product rather than process is what matters in education, Wejr said. “Learning should be the reward,” he added. And the far more plentiful “losers” heard that they weren’t good enough to be spotlighted on stage, or that their unique combination of attributes didn’t truly count.

Wejr replaced the ceremony that called out one student with a series of assemblies that highlighted chunks of fifth-graders, so that by the end of the year every graduating child was honored. Students said they learned more about their peers in the ceremony, Wejr said. And some appreciative parents approached him afterward to say that their child had never been recognized this way before. “If we believe all students can achieve, our practices have to align with that,” he said.

Neither Wejr nor Gosal heard much in the way of criticism from parents or students after they eliminated their school awards. From a population of 575 students, just two parents at Chilliwack Middle School sent emails questioning the decision, and social media channels were quiet. “The ease of the change has been surprising,” Gosal said. Though Wejr heard some grumbling outside the school about the educational system drifting toward mediocrity, he was quick to point out that marks of achievement at James Hill Elementary School have gone up since they eliminated awards.

“It’s not an award at the end of the year that drives achievement,” Wejr said. Excellence comes from a school culture that fosters collaboration and provides opportunities for students to lead, especially in those areas where children have special talents and skills, he added.

When people challenge him about the wisdom of removing school prizes, Wejr asks, “When was the last time you handed out family awards?” If school is an actual community, separating out individuals for special notice makes no sense. School leaders ought to be looking beyond the short term and thinking more about what kinds of adults they’re trying to develop. He added, “We hope that they continue to develop their best selves for their own benefit—not because someone tells them to or because there’s an award at the end of the year.”

Young Adult Novels That Teach a Growth Mindset

Edutopia

Use these novels to teach learning from loss and overcoming adversity to your middle schoolers and high school freshmen.

Heroes in books and movies captivate kids, many of whom could teach a master class on these characters. The fresh perspective teachers can offer is how students themselves can and should be heroes.

As advocates of growth mindset, we can teach children that heroism does not require obsession with perfection or product. We should show students that we also value process and progress. Heroic stories can help: They teach students about mitigating mistakes, learning from loss, and overcoming adversity, all of which are key elements of growth mindset.

The following books feature protagonists of diverse backgrounds and races, many of whom reappear in compelling sequels that reinforce the initial lessons and keep students hungry for more. While these young adult books are typically middle school level, their resonant subject matter, complex characters, profound themes, vivid vocabulary, and historical contexts make them suitable as enriched reading for elementary students and as a bridge for high school freshmen.

Don’t let the youth of the protagonists fool you: All of these books are worthy of serious study—and they invite multiple readings.

 

Kenny from The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis: Ten-year-old Kenny is tormented by school bullies and his brother Byron, but when a family trip to the segregated South turns tragic, it is Byron who rescues his brother from trauma. Byron gently coaxes Kenny to reconcile with the monsters and angels that nearly destroy him. As Kenny makes peace with life’s joys and cruelties, readers realize that giving up is not an option.

Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell: After the massacre of her father and many other members of their island tribe, an orphaned young girl is abandoned for 18 years when the remainder of the tribe departs for the mainland. Karana endures and even thrives by embracing enemies, both animal and human. This profound, beautiful story about the power of forgiveness and the triumph of the human spirit spurs students to summon their inner strength in the face of despair and desolation.

Brian from the Hatchet series by Gary Paulsen: Brian enlists grit, guts, and the grandeur of nature to come to grips with himself, his parents’ divorce, and the harsh wilderness. Equal parts adventure and introspection, these stories promote inner and outer harmony, emboldening students to appreciate what they have and proving just how resilient humans can be.

 

Katie from Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata: When a move to 1950s Georgia separates her family from their Japanese community, Katie survives the stigma of bigotry with the help of her beloved, optimistic sister, Lynn. Lynn’s untimely death leaves Katie heartbroken, but she musters self-reliance and in turn becomes an inspiration to others. Katie’s family honors Lynn’s legacy, reminding readers to cherish hope even in the toughest of times.

Matteo from The House of the Scorpion novels by Nancy Farmer: While trapped in the savage country of Opium, Matt realizes that he is actually the clone of the evil drug lord El Patrón. Matt claims his own identity by recognizing that choices, confidence, and adapting to change create true character.

Cassie from the Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry saga by Mildred D. Taylor: The Logans cling to their land and little victories amid poverty and prejudice in 1930s Mississippi. Although Mama strives to shield her children from the pain of racism, Cassie grows up fast as the seeds of the civil rights movement are planted in her family farm. Students will struggle with the hard choice between standing down and standing up for yourself.

 

Stanley from Holes and Armpit from Small Stepsby Louis Sachar: Sentenced to hard labor for a crime he didn’t commit, Stanley digs deep into a family curse that turns to fortune. This intricate, ingenious tale of friendship and fortitude will provoke debate about how much control we have over fate. Stanley and Armpit, the protagonist of Holes’ sequel, embody the pluck and persistence of growth mindset.

Meg from the A Wrinkle in Time books by Madeleine L’Engle: Swept into a strange, scary new dimension on a desperate search to save her father and brother, Meg summons the supremacy of love to win the day. Alternately harrowing and heartwarming, the book reminds readers that the only way to defeat darkness is with the light inside us all.

The Heroic Challenge

Being heroic can mean simply showing ourselves and others the best of what humans have to offer. We should cultivate and celebrate the hero living in each of us. Teachers can assist in this noble quest by supporting students in finding what is special about them (and each other!) and in nurturing the singular gift that only they can heroically share with the world.

Once students can identify positive, productive qualities in others—first in books and media, then in friends and family—they soon recognize and develop those same positive attributes in themselves. Teachers who attend to the whole child understand how social-emotional-soulful learning directly impacts student success and satisfaction and actively encourage their students to become role models in their own right.

Traditional Report Cards Are Obsolete

Edweek

Screen shot 2017-03-01 at 12.26.09 PM.pngDepending on where a person teaches, a school district can dictate how often report cards and progess reports will be distributed to students and parents to “communicate learning” and keep families abreast of what is happening in the classroom.

However, the idea of what report cards are and what they actually do is fatally flawed from the beginning.

Communication about learning needs to be ongoing in a meaningful way and paper report cards being mailed home or sent home with students or uploaded onto an online portal as a PDF a few times a year just doesn’t cut it.

Aside from the infrequency of sharing, the content shared is often out of date and/or not a good representation of what students know and can do.

For example, in high school, each subject teacher gets one line to present a letter grade or a number grade (sometimes without any kind of precision or explanation as to what the criteria is) and up to three pre-written comment codes to help explain the grade. Often, these pre-written comments don’t have anything to do with quality of work or skill level, but focus on behavior and compliance.

There are other pieces of information that can be provided such as number of absences and/or midterm or final exam grades.

The act of sharing information isn’t the issue, it’s what we share and how we share it. Many elementary schools use standards based report cards now that focus more heavily on skill mastery and narratives written by the teacher. This is an effective means of communication, but it only happens three times a year in many schools.

There are also parent/teacher conferences, but these conferences often just review the report card rather than go deeper and share more important information that can really help students grow as learners. Ironically, many times the students are not even involved in these conversations which takes the most important factor out of the equation.

Many online systems now make it possible for teachers and schools to share information with parents and students regularly keeping families in the loop about learning, often assignment by assignment with narrative feedback. There are many iterations of how this can happen, but we need to be asking ourselves more importantly what and why we are communicating.

In an ideal world, teachers would be empowering students regularly with feedback that isn’t aligned with grades but rather with mastery standards, offering multiple opportunities for growth.

Here are things we can do differently today:

  • Stop putting grades on everything students turn in. We can provided actual actionable feedback without labeling the quality of it with a quantity.
  • Offer more opportunities for students to get feedback from peers and from the teacher.
  • Invite parents to be a part of the process and involve them in the learning in an on-going way by making out of school learning an integral part of the practice we do every day.
  • Teach students the language of the standards and be transparent in what and why they are learning different skills and content. Make sure the reason isn’t because it’s on a test.
  • Have students reflecting regularly so you can get a fuller read on how much they are actually learning. Often their work and performance won’t tell the whole story.
  • Include students in the conversation about their learning by conferring with them regularly and providing feedback for growth.
  • Allow students to be involved in the assessment process, so they can choose how and what they are learning.
  • Be clear about success criteria and help students understand where they measure up.
  • Truly listen to students and be flexible that learning happens at different paces for everyone and often in different ways.

When we think about preparing students for the world we live in, accountability is important, but teaching students to be accountable in a way that works for them that also helps us know where we need to adjust practice to better suit their needs.

Report cards were a solution once that probably made some form of communication easier. However, the kind of communication it fosters sends the wrong message about what learning should be. As we shift the mindset about learning, we also have be mindful about the subconscious messages we send systemically about what learning actually is.

How can you better communicate with students and families about student learning that makes the outcome more meaningful? Please share

Going Gradeless: Student Self-Assessment in PBL

Edutopia

I like reading professional material. I would posit that most teachers do. Professional reading (OK, all reading, really) allows our thoughts to constantly shift, transform, and travel to currently uncharted mental territory. If we are lucky, we encounter a watershed idea or concept that shatters our thoughts and understanding to such an extent that it requires a complete rebuilding of our philosophy.

I was provided such a moment when I read Mark Barnes’ Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in a Student-Centered Classroom in the spring of 2015. Mr. Barnes advocated using narrative feedback to enter a feedback loop that would culminate in mastery of specific learning targets within the context of a larger project. I was immediately transfixed by this idea. My mind was figuratively blown when Mr. Barnes mentioned that he did this without ever assigning a formal grade until the end of the grading period, at which time he and the student conferenced and agreed on a grade based on feedback. I stewed on this for a roughly a year until I decided, for the good of my students, that I had to do it. I was going to go gradeless. My question became: “How can I implement this in my sixth-grade PBL classroom?”

My Goal

It was my intention to simultaneously promote mastery learning as well as increase students’ ability to metacognitively assess their work against a given set of standards. Here’s how I would accomplish this:

  • Remove grades from the daily equation.
  • Have students reach learning mastery using narrative feedback loops (Mark Barnes’ SE2R model).
  • Students would self-assess their work in a 1:1 conference with the teacher at the end of the quarter, at which time student and teacher would agree upon a final grade.

My Plan

I knew that I needed to maintain accountability to various stakeholders in this process — the students, their families, and the administration. After a great deal of thought, I came up with the skeleton of a plan that looked like this:

    1. Use the SE2R model to provide feedback on our two PBL projects per quarter via documents created on Google Classroom. There would be no grades assigned to any of the projects, just feedback.
    1. Furnish families with an outline of the process at the beginning of the quarter, complete with learning targets and the research behind this process.
    1. On the first day of the quarter, provide students with a list of the learning targets for the following nine weeks.
    1. Administer approximately one standards-based assessment per week on the provided learning targets using the program MasteryConnect.
      • The results of the assessments would be placed in our online grading system for parent viewing. However, the results would not calculate toward a final grade.
      • The assessment scores would be used as data points in our end-of-quarter meeting.
  1. Confer with individual students on the last two days of the quarter and ask them: “Based on the project feedback that you received, the standards-based assessments that you took, and your ability to elaborate on how you showed evidence of the learning targets in your projects, what grade do you feel that you have earned this quarter?”
    • If I agreed with the student’s response, I would put that grade into the grading system.
    • If I didn’t agree, I would interject my viewpoint based on the feedback that I had given, as well as on the results of standards-based assessments. I would then ask the student to reevaluate his or her response to encourage deeper metacognitive thinking.

The Results

I’ve only been officially gradeless for less than a quarter, but the results have been astounding. As soon as the students came to understand and be comfortable with the process, my inbox has been continuously flooded with their emails asking me, “What can I do better?” The conversation has completely shifted from getting a grade to learning. It’s been amazing! Similarly, when I communicated this process to students’ families, I thought I would be walking into the lion’s den. Of the 80 families who received that communication, I heard back from only three — and all three said, “Sounds awesome.” All in all, it’s been a wonderful experience, and a true illustration of the power that the written word can have over all of us. (Thank you, Mark Barnes!)

I would love to hear your feedback, thoughts, or other ideas in the comments section below. And please feel free to follow our story this year at our Byron 6th blog.