By Tracey Marks, Ph.D., Lower School Head
The first time that I read one of my children’s Green Acres report cards, I cried. I was overcome by a wave of emotion and gratitude that someone knew my daughter so completely—her strengths, her needs, her learning style, her friendships, and her interests. That report card crystallized for me why I had chosen to send my daughter to Green Acres. All of the teachers at Green Acres know their students deeply. From the time they find out which children will be in their classes, our teachers engage in a process of getting to know the children who will spend the next year in their care, and this ongoing process lasts for the entire year. Examples of how teachers accomplish this include meeting with their incoming students’ former teachers and reading the students’ report cards written during the previous school year.
A hallmark of Green Acres is the before-school parent conferences in August. These conferences are designed to enable teachers to learn as much as possible about their students from the people who know them best: their parents or guardians. Teachers listen carefully to parents and guardians as they describe all that they know about their children and discuss their hopes for the year ahead. We are eager to hear everything that they have to say. As educators seeking to know children deeply, “We want to understand what motivates them and makes them tick, what engages and interests them, and we want to know why they act as they do” (Ayers, To Teach, 2010, p. 46).
One of the best tools that our teachers use to get to know children well is their astute observations. Teachers at Green Acres observe their students keenly in order to understand the choices that they make, the activities to which they gravitate, the classmates with whom they like to play, and the engagement that they display when doing a variety of academic projects and tasks. Teachers document what they see and notice and use this information in their instructional planning. For example, a teacher who notices that a young child is interested in books about animals might plan a literacy activity focused on matching toy animals with written animal names.
Analyzing student work is another powerful means of getting to know children deeply. When looking at the expression on the face of a self-portrait that a student creates in art, for example, a teacher might develop insights into that child’s self-concept. Similarly, analyzing students’ writing enables teachers to understand where students are as writers. Do particular students need help punctuating their work? Are children able to write in complete sentences that convey a full idea? Can children depict vivid scenes through the use of detailed descriptions? Analyses of questions such as these can help determine what lessons the teacher will prepare next.
Weekly team meetings offer teachers opportunities to discuss students collaboratively, incorporating the ideas, observations, and involvement of all of the adults involved in daily interactions with students. In one such team meeting, teachers decided to create a deck of cards containing each student’s name in that unit, devoting time during each team meeting to talking about every student. This in-depth discussion about one student at a time provides that child’s teacher with multiple perspectives, enabling the teacher to see the student in new ways and to benefit from the wisdom of the group.
Our students are the key players in enabling us to know them well, freely revealing their ideas and perspectives. As Ayers explains in his book To Teach, “The strongest source of knowledge about the student remains the student herself…” (p. 54). Students at Green Acres are comfortable with their teachers and do not hesitate to express themselves and share their thoughts and feelings. This is personified by our “first-name basis” tradition.
Perhaps the best evidence of how deeply we know our students is the continuing positive relationships between our students and their former teachers. Throughout the Lower School, older students may be seen at break and during lunch visiting their former teachers, still feeling that important connection and pull toward those who knew them deeply even years earlier. These connections do not fray with time in our community. Feeling that you are truly known is to be acknowledged and appreciated for who you are. This, in turn, creates the strong sense of self that our students display as they move through the years at Green Acres, in high school, in college, and beyond. It’s a foundation that Green Acres students never lose.