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Section One: How do students feel about school? What did I get myself into?!

At the beginning of the school year I tend to feel like Im going crazy. This particular school year, I felt an extra dose of craziness because I chose to do things differently with my students and I wanted to be different. My goals relied on a student/teacher partnership developed between my students and me to guide what we learned, how we learned, and the pace at which we learned. I was their partner because I listened to their voices. We fostered an environment where our reflections were used to guide our learning. They had the courage to speak about how their learning environment was, or was not, meeting their needs because we trusted each other to respond. All of this was beautiful on paper nestled in my thesis introduction, living it out was not as pretty. It was September, as I stared at my planning book I was second guessing my research. I wondered, Am I really going to ask my first grade students what they want to learn? I finished putting the desks in groups and pushed the couch by the library. What if I asked my students if they wanted to change something and they said that they wanted to move the couch to a spot I couldnt stand? What if they all started revolting? I didnt have a colored behavior card to threaten them with! Would they trust me? Could I trust them? What if they didnt read and write proficiently by their first report card? Would my principal think I wasnt doing my job? My old system was comfortable for me. I knew where things went. I knew what we were going to learn about all year. If I gave that up, would there be chaos? Or would I discover something else I would never have gotten to see if I didnt give this research a try? What if listening to my students voices would allow me to recognize the beauty of children who love to learn and love learning with each other? This was an adventure I was willing to take. It was time to accomplish my goals despite my fear of the unknown. But boy was I freaking out! It was the first day of school. My first graders and their parents came in asking which seat they were supposed to sit in. I told them that they could choose a different seat every day this week as long as they felt comfortable in it. By the end of the week they could choose their own seats and tell me who they preferred to sit with. The first day of this seemed to excite the students. By the second day, one girl was crying because another student sat in the seat she wanted. At the end of the week, they used these experiences to help them choose who to sit with by writing three friends on an index card and three friends they preferred not to sit with on the back. After creating the table groups based on my students index cards, students were either arguing or talking too much. How could this happen when they asked to sit with each other? If I gave them a choice and honored it, shouldnt our classroom be peaceful?

I was beginning to sense that providing choices would be a challenging journey but how we worked through them would be the key. As Kohn states, The way a child learns to make decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions (1993, p. 4). In democratic classrooms, Kohn argues that conflicts or dissention arent seen as threats but as opportunities to strengthen democracy by remaining faithful to its process (1993). Remaining faithful to the democratic process by working through our seating chart dilemma helped us begin the foundation for our democratic classroom. I knew the next step was to find out how my students felt about school. The preliminary survey would be another opportunity to hear my students voices. How do students feel about school? If we were going to learn based on what my students chose, I needed to know what each of them were curious about. I wanted to know how they felt about school and about working with their peers. I wondered what they believed their role was in making changes in our classroom and what they thought my role was in making changes. I decided to give a survey (Appendix A) to each of my 17 students by administering it one-on-one since some were not writing or reading yet. I also interviewed them with the open ended questions. Eccles (1999) states that children at the age of six tend to be optimistic in their ability to master skills that they will rank themselves at a high level of mastery even though their actual performance may be different. This presumption was not completely true for my first grade students. Although under each subject, a majority of my students said that they liked them all of the time, I couldnt ignore that there were some students who said that they didnt like working on math, reading, and writing if they didnt have to. I found that Anna stated that she didnt like reading and writing at all. I have observed her struggling with both subjects. Her response gave me hope because this meant that I could rely on my students self-assessments even at this young age. Anna was aware of whats difficult for her and she was honest about it. Would my other students do this too? I couldnt wait to dive deeper into how students, like her, would want to change the way we learn when they felt uncomfortable.

How comfortable do you feel sharing when you want to change something in class? 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 We can't share! The teacher only decides this. We can share our We share our ideas We share our ideas ideas, but the and the teacher and have final say. teacher has the decides with us. final say.

Although 13 out of 17 students felt comfortable sharing their ideas in creating change within our classroom, I saw the opposite within the first two weeks of school. Students were not voluntarily making suggestions to do things differently in class after a lesson. I had to guess how they felt from their actions. Instead of completing work, I noticed some of the students talked about the latest design of their Bey Blade spinning toy, walked to poke a student from across the room, or asked to go to the bathroom multiple times. I began to think about how I could provide other ways to ask for their feedback that would make them feel comfortable to be honest without fear of my judgment. I decided to look at how my students preferred to share their ideas.

How comfortable do you feel sharing when you want to change something in class? 14 12 10 8 6 4 2 0 Telling a Telling the Writing what partner what class what you think. you think you think I really like doing this. I'm okay doing this sometimes. I don't like doing this.

No wonder my students didnt volunteer suggestions when I asked them as a whole class. They favored telling a partner or writing it down. I was surprised to see that 15 out of my 17 students were open to writing their ideas because they had been resistant to writing during writing lessons. I wondered if it was because they had freedom to write reflectively about personal topics that mattered to them without being assessed. After the first two weeks of school, every time we began to write I was saddened to notice that there were students who made similar comments as my student Andy, Ahh! Why?! Writing is boring! Although I was concerned that my first graders didnt enjoy writing right after finishing kindergarten, I was elated that Andy vocalized his frustration. I could see 16 pairs of eyes waiting to see my reaction to Andys blatant honesty. Andy was one of the four students who felt that they should share their ideas and have final say on the initial survey. I asked my students, I notice that when we write some of us said that we dont like writing or that it feels boring like Andy. Why does writing not feel good? One of my English Language Learner students named Kate said, Hard to hold pencil. I then asked them to tell a partner what would help writing feel good and tell the class what their partner said. Their discussion led us towards writing tools that felt good to write with:

What writing tool would help writing feel good?

Markers Pencils Crayons

82% of my students (14 out of 17) stated that markers felt good to write with 6% of my students (1 out of 17) stated pencils felt good to write with 12% of my students (2 out of 17) stated crayons felt good to write with

After I asked my students why writing with markers felt better than crayons and pencils, Kate said, Markers dont break. Pencils and crayons break when I write. I then added markers as well as colored pencils to the regular pencils and crayons in their table bins. I told them to choose whichever writing tool felt good to write clean and neatly with. As I observed my students writing with markers, I was struck by how they took their time and how carefully they wanted to form what they wanted to say. It was fascinating that even something as simple as what instrument they wrote with had an impact on kids' feelings about writing! This made sense due to their age and developing motor skill abilities. All I had to do was ask them what felt good and why. Then we could try it out! In the past, my response had been to make students write more. I owed this realization to Andys helpful outburst.

Students wrote which buddies they could and could not work with before changing table groups, using tools that were most comfortable.

Why is it hard to reach certain students? In the beginning of my action research, I was going to choose my focus group to be students who were a balanced representation of my class. But I couldnt shake off the nagging feeling that its hard to reach certain students in our school. We all know who they are no matter what school we may teach at. For me, the hardest to reach students were either the ones who took up most of my energy because they were the most resistant to what we were doing in class or they were the quiet students who were falling behind but didnt demand my attention. Eventually both types of students fell through the cracks. What would these students say about their learning experiences? If they could change our classroom space, what/how we learn, how teachers respond to them, how their peers respond to them, what would it be? What makes them feel proud of themselves? What makes them feel insecure? What if I changed my focus group demographic to be the hardest students to reach in our school, who would they be? I thought of Andy and Anna. What do my hardest to reach students have to say? Andy: What happens if I dont do it? Andy represented the student who requires more energy to teach than others, not because he is academically behind but because of his behavior. He was actually academically at or above grade level. He was the student that other teachers released a sigh of relief when they noticed his name was not on their roster. He was the student who already had a thick cumulative folder full of documents proving he was unreachable at the tender age of six. Andy came to my first grade class carrying the stigma of causing physical harm to other students and staff since preschool. He had already been suspended from school in kindergarten. He had bitten his preschool teacher. His kindergarten teacher evacuated their class and called code blue to the office because he was causing harm to other students in class. After the extensive documentation and assessment of Andys behavior in kindergarten, he was diagnosed as exhibiting autistic characteristics. All of this had happened in kindergarten and preschool, as you can imagine the first grade teachers were all looking at each other and wondering who would get to have Andy for first grade. I received the call the week before school began. Andy was going to be my student this year. He entered first grade performing academically at or above grade level. There was no question that he was a bright student. There were a series of questions that kept nagging me. What was he resistant to? What triggered his anger? This reminded me of Assor stating that if compliance does not occur then anger is evoked due to feelings of unjustness (Assor et al, 2005). Teachers are threatened when

students act out in anger or in overt non-compliance. Children who feel anxious that they will not be able to complete what they are doing may also react in this way. Students may check-out or wont make an effort because they find it impossible to succeed with a controlling teacher. Does Andys anger and non-compliance have something to do with having a lack of autonomy or choices in school? I decided to ask him more about his initial survey responses (Appendix D). When I asked Andy how comfortable he was sharing when he wanted to change something in class, he told me that he was comfortable sharing with a partner or the whole class. He actually said he really liked sharing in these ways. However, he was only okay with sharing his thoughts through writing. I was thrilled that he felt comfortable sharing when he wanted to change things. I noticed that Andy frequently asked why we did things in class and what would happen if he didnt do them. For example, when asked how he felt about writing, he chose Do we have to do this? I realized that it wasnt to challenge me into a power struggle although I can understand how other teachers may perceive it that way. Instead Andy asked me those questions to challenge me to be more explicit with what we were doing and why it was meaningful. If I answered his questions immediately and honestly, he would either nod and walk away or ask more questions to help him understand what we were doing. I was beginning to see Andy, not as a threat, but as someone who would teach me why having choices and freedom to question was vital to the learning experience. Anna: Quiet and Left Behind Anna is a quiet girl. She gets along well with her classmates and doesnt cause trouble in class. Although Annas behavior seems ideal, I found her quiet obedience was due to tuning out. Her lack of involvement worried me because she represents the students who fall through the cracks by lack of attention from teachers. This made me wonder if students like Anna fall through the cracks because we are consumed by the vocal ones like Andy. Anna was significantly behind academically and didnt ask for help from me or her peers. I wanted to ask her more about her responses on the initial survey (Appendix D). When I asked Anna if she liked school, she said, No. She also chose Do we have to do this? when asked how she felt about reading and writing. It was clear that Anna didnt like school but I was drawn to what she did like. Anna said that she liked, Playing with finger puppets at center time, telling a partner what sh e thought and she also enjoyed science and math. What did she like about math and science? I wondered if it was because those two subjects tend to involve more hands-on learning and collaborative work with partners.

Assor would advise that Andy and Annas anger, tuning out and anxiety we re signals that indicated their need for autonomy was being threatened (2005). They need to be given choices and safe opportunities to voice what they need when they are uncomfortable with their learning. If I were to reach Andy and Anna, I needed to use their feedback to guide our learning. Since they were the hardest to reach in my class, would my other students still benefit from Andy and Annas suggestions? What do my easiest to reach students have to say? Ryan & Deci state that students have a basic need for autonomy, competence, and belonging (2000). Autonomy refers to the striving of ones authentic self being reflected in ones basic needs and self-chosen values, interests and goals (Assor et al, 2005). When the basic need for autonomy is violated by external controls, two behaviors emerge: compliance (to avoid punishment) and anger. It may seem that I am reaching my compliant students because they appear well-behaved and are doing their work. But according to Assor, they are just doing what they are told. In actuality I am not reaching them because they do not have their own internal motivation to learn what we are doing. My students Charlie and Abbey came to mind. Charlie: Unleash the teacher pleasers! Charlie rarely missed a day in first grade. He brought his homework every day and began his assignments without being told twice. Charlies academic performance was at or above grade level. He was respectful to adults and his peers. He appeared to be the model student. I sat with Charlie to ask him the questions on the initial survey (Appendix D). Charlie functions well in the structure of a traditional school setting. When asked what he liked about school, he replied, Lining up at recess and lunch. He liked the traditional structures of school. Charlies response worried me because I wondered how he would react when given situations that required him to think more creatively or innovatively since he was more comfortable being told what to do. I was struck by his silence when asked what he didnt like about school or what he thought about when his mind wandered. I noticed during group work, Charlie would keep to himself and finish his work without sharing or asking for ideas from his table group. I would hear a student ask him for help and he would remain silent, ignoring the student. I was worried by this because being compliant or a well-behaved student could affect his ability to think critically or innovatively within a collaborative setting. Abbey: Compliance does not equal learning Abbey came to school early with her parents each day. She was similar to Charlie because she began work right away, completed it, and seemed to enjoy

learning. Abbey also performed at or above grade level. Abbey gave hugs to teachers and frequently said how much she loved to learn. Teachers hoped for a student like Abbey. I wondered if there was anything about school that Abbey wanted to change. When I asked Abbey how she felt about core school subjects on the initial survey (Appendix D), she said, I like it all the time! She clearly loved school. When I asked her what she liked about school Abbey replied, Mrs. Han. I worried that her response s reflected a desire to please me or appear compliant. Was she so used to doing what the teacher said that she had difficulty thinking on her own? What would Abbey do if she didnt understand what she was learning? Students may appear to comply because it is too risky to openly resist the external pressures. They study the minimum or only what is required by the teacher, just to avoid punishments or to obtain material rewards or a grade (Ryan & Deci, 2000). This narrows their learning experiences and their efforts. Assor argues that control appears to work because students are doing the work, but compliance can limit student collaboration and creativity because it becomes directed at pleasing me, the teacher. What was learned is short-lived and doesnt make a lasting impression on the student. I wanted them to think for themselves and own what they learned. I started to think that providing choices and creating space for my students to voice how they felt about their learning was vital for both my hard to reach and easy to reach students.