Classroom of the Week | Giving students a sense of autonomy, civility, responsibility

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Jenn Smith — The Berkshire Eagle
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DALTON — In Teresa Bills' fifth-grade classroom at Craneville Elementary School, there's a strict contract that's stapled to a bulletin board at the front of the room. It's called "Super 6 Rules." It's laminated and it's the law of the classroom, listed as follows:

1. Listen to others.

2. Include everyone.

3. Treat others the way you want to be treated.

4. Try your best.

5. Be positive and smile.

6. Have FUN!

In the white space around the list are the signatures of all 19 students, plus Bills, and her assisting teacher, Marie Bartlett. The accord was signed at the beginning of the school year. So how successful is it in being upheld now?

After the weekend, the class sits in a circle on the carpet and takes turns asking, "What's up with you?" A small object is passed to the speaker, indicating that he or she is to be the focus of the others' attention for the moment.

Fifth-grader Brady Provencher says, "It makes me feel like I'm a good listener, and it helps so you don't just hold it in if something bad happens over the weekend."

Bills said she explains to the students that it's not just about gloating about weekend trips or new possessions, but about sharing thoughts and experiences, ups and downs, to show that no one and nothing is ever perfect.

During a visit to the classroom on Tuesday, students were seen working independently and on teams during some math lessons. When one student, who had been repeatedly struggling with a definition for a math formula, finally got the right solution during a review, the whole class looked at them. The smiled, clapped, and offered encouragements like, "you did it," "way to go," and "great job."

"Mrs. Bills really pushes us to do our best, because she knows we can do better and we can do good things," said student Lily Cook.

A similar response happens when the class is doing review work with the aid of a free online program called Quizlet Live. Each student, using their own laptop, is randomly assigned by the program to work in small groups. Then they work together to answer the quiz questions during a timed period.

When the time is up and the team with the most correct answers is identified, there are no sore losers, but again, polite clapping and the eagerness to do another round.

But perhaps the project that best exemplifies this classroom's values and goals is an annual assignment held during the holiday season known as "The Giving Project." Bills has been coordinating the project for at least a dozen years, she said, inspired by projects done by her predecessors. In her version, Bills gives each child $5 out of her own pocket and a note explaining the project.

"I am asking you to take this money and try to find a meaningful way to spread peace and goodwill in the world around you," the teacher writes, explaining that it should be donated but not directly to a family member or friend. She also challenges the students to find ways to grow their donation, by earning money through chores or using it as seed money for a fundraising project.

Sophia Bessette, for example, used her money to buy ingredients to make homemade cinnamon dough ornaments. She then sold them for a dollar a piece and ended up donating $200 to the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The students then create visual presentations to share not only with the class but with their classmates' families as well.

After the experience, Sophia Bessette and her great-grandmother Lois Bessette, whom the girl lives with, decided to nominate the class as a "Classroom of the Week," to honor the efforts of the students and their supporters.

Lois also took Sophia out to the Springfield Make-A-Wish headquarters, and the great-grandmother said the staff was "absolutely wonderful" to her granddaughter.

"I just thought this was the best idea that I had heard of," said Lois Bessette of the project. "I watched the kids and their reactions and the reaction of our family. ... It drew our family together when they heard about it."

Another student, Ethan Cowell, who is in an autism program, decided to give back to an experience he had with a therapy dog named Murray, made possible through the National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS) program, also known as Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans. He used his $5 to make dog biscuits to sell to raise $30 for the cause.

"It felt good," he said.

Beyond this project, students are given a say in other class enrichment activities. This year, for example, students have the choice of participating in a yearbook group, nature club, coding group or volunteering to work as peer mentors for younger students.

Student Cooper Kincaid said that working in teams "can help us in the future. It will help us work with other people with different opinions and know that their ideas can be useful too."

Bills said that as a teacher, she's all about creating opportunities that "empowers" her students and builds in them a sense of autonomy, civility and responsibility.

"Our future is in them," she said. "I tell them that when I'm an old lady, they're going to be my doctors and my grandkids' teachers, our law enforcement and so on."

She said she hopes that The Giving Project is just one of the lessons she offers in her classroom "that stays with them for the rest of their lives."


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