Third Shift: Is This Good? Am I Good? Is This Fun? Is This Done?
My son’s first grade teacher sends home, “Fun Work.” I appreciate that his first experience of school work transferring to homework is through this lens. The work is almost always creative (color, draw, imagine) or collaborative (roll, record, play). She doesn’t require that students complete it or bring it back to her, but she always welcomes students to share it with her if they want to.
Yesterday my son decided he wanted to do his “Fun Work.” Once he finished, he held up his work, and asked,
“Is this good? Am I done? Is this right?”
The questions my six-year-old posed were the same questions my seventh graders asked, and this brought me pause. My child and my students weren’t really looking for a confirmation that yes, the work was done, and yes, it was good, and yes, it was right.
I believe what they were really seeking was an affirmation of self.
Am I good? Do I fit? Am I right?
I believe that all kids, whether they are our own children or our students, have a fundamental need to be seen and heard by the adults in their lives. Whether a child is well-behaved or not, taking ownership over their learning or not, doing their homework or not, all children are seeking affirmation that they are ok.
This moment led to the realization that as teachers, we have an opportunity here to bring self-awareness to the reality of the competing need for both progress and product in our classrooms, and how those competing needs are affecting our students’ understanding of the purpose of learning and their self-esteem.
This starts with bringing self-awareness to our beliefs and values, as well as the reality of the systems and society we are teaching within.
Are we practicing what we believe? Can we practice what we believe?
What matters most: process or product, and what messages are we sending our students about what matters most? Getting it done or Being seen?
What can we do to support our students to shift their mindset as we are shifting what we ask them to do and why?
Back to my son, and the “Fun Work.” He was looking for an answer. So I turned it around, and I said, “Did this assignment help you learn?” “Was this assignment fun?” “What did you learn about these words and how you are learning them?
He is a thoughtful kid, and took some time to think. Then he told me that he was confused.
“My teacher gave us a paper with these words on it in class and we had to say the words we knew out loud,” he told me.
“How did that feel?” I asked.
“She had a timer, and I felt like if I didn’t say them fast enough that I wouldn’t finish and she would think I didn’t know them, even though I do.”
She wouldn’t see him, my son felt. She would see right or wrong. Good or bad.
“What do you wish she had done instead? I asked.
“The Fun Work,” he said. “I liked matching the colors in the picture with the words. I had as much time as I needed, and it was fun!”
I had to sit down.
It became so clear to me in that moment that as teachers, we may be giving students mixed messages about process vs. product in our classrooms. One minute we are providing students with creative options to demonstrate their thinking, and removing the barriers of time and completion. Another minute, we are setting the timer, and saying go.
I don’t think this is our fault. We are working within schools, whether traditional or progressive, where process and product are competing priorities. On the one hand, our students have to demonstrate mastery of standards and take state tests. On the other hand, project-based learning, providing students with choice, and giving students the opportunity to explore their own interests through tasks like Genius Hour are at the top of many teachers’ priorities and aligned to their core beliefs and values.
If we have to do both, how do we support our students to shift from, “how many paragraphs have you completed in this class period?” to “What do you think about Atticus’ decision to take the Tom Robinson case, and why?”
I would argue that there will be times where getting it done is the purpose of the task for students, while other times the process of engaging in the task will take priority.
However, we can’t expect students to shape-shift from doers to thinkers without support.
In order to unpack this, I think about my own choices around process vs. product, and I think about my relationship with running. I have been a runner since middle school, and run most weeks multiple times. When I am training for a race, my experience of running is very different. It is focused on product. I use an app on my phone to keep track of my pace and mileage. I schedule my runs specifically around getting ready for the race. I run on treadmills to work on intervals and speed. I will be honest, a lot of the joy I experience while running is lost this way. Running isn’t fun. When I am running because I feel like running, I am focused on the process. I don’t set out with a particular speed or distance in mind. Sometimes I think I am going to take one path, and I end up on a completely different one. Sometimes I don’t run with my phone at all. This is when my mind clears, and I am completely present in my body and in my run. Running is fun.
My son had a similar experience with his “Fun Work.” When he was doing this work at home, we turned on music. He sat on the floor. He hummed to himself, and sometimes sang along. He shared what he was noticing with me as he worked. He wasn’t being timed.
It was exactly what his teacher had intended, it was fun.
In contrast, in the classroom, there was no music. He sat in a chair at a desk. He was silent until it was his turn to recite the words on his page. He only named the words; he didn’t share his thinking. He knew he was being timed. It wasn’t fun.
The “Fun Work” gave him the opportunity to be seen. The schoolwork gave him the opportunity to feel right or wrong.
Am I good? Do I fit? Am I right?
I shared my experience running with my son in hopes that he would begin to see that there is a place for both: process and product in school and in our daily lives. We were walking to the playground.
He said, “let’s race and see who gets there first, but once we are there, let’s just play.”
So we did both, and shape-shifted from product to process, and it was fun. The most fun I have had in a long time.
Shift Small: Steps For Teachers And For All Of Us To Start Shifting
1. Define process and product for yourself and your students.
Be transparent that in the classroom that process and product co-exist. However, share your belief on both with your students. I often told mine that what I care most about is that they have time and space in our classroom to think, develop their own perspectives and ideas, and share those ideas in a way that they choose. I also told them that I care about supporting them to learn how to take ownership over their work, manage deadlines, and experience the pride of seeing a task to its completion. I do the same thing with running. The process is clearing my mind, enjoying nature and my connection to the outside world, and being present in my body. The product is the race I am training for and taking the steps needed to prepare to see that race through to the finish line. Sometimes I run for the process. Sometimes I run to work towards the product.
2. Name a task’s purpose for your students, and seek their feedback on their learning experiences. It will help students adjust their mindset before starting a task when it is clear to them that the purpose is the process or the product. Saying something like, “we have been practicing sight words, and exploring different ways to learn them. Today, we are going to check in and see what progress we have made, and the purpose of our work is to complete a timed assignment” could be very helpful. I use the same strategy with my son. I will say, “ we are going to the library to return our books, but we won’t check out new books because your book order just came.” Product. Or, “we are going to the library to find some new books, and we aren’t in a rush.” Process. Seek feedback from your students about their learning experiences. What is the experience of a task when the purpose of the task is to complete it like for them? What skills do they need in order to do that? Do they feel that you are teaching them those skills? What is the experience of a task like when it is process-oriented? What skills do they need in order to do that? Do they feel you are teaching them those skills?
3. Practice Shape-Shifting With Your Students
One of the teachers I coach plays a song when students are transitioning from working on a process-oriented task like a project to taking a product-oriented task like an assessment. The song has become a routine in the class that provides space and time for the students to transition themselves and their mindset.