Remember the excitement of fifth grade? We had enough tools in our backpack to read and write, problem solve, ask big questions, and attack the world with vibrant eyes and independence. Every Friday, I rushed off the bus to search encyclopedias (remember those?), call my grandparents, and contact library reference desks to find the answer to Ms. Setzer’s weekly trivia question. She piqued my curiosity and inspired my thinking with an optional weekend challenge.
By Monday morning, I proudly placed an answer on Ms. Setzer’s desk. Nothing beat the feeling of conquering another quest, and the look of satisfaction in my teacher’s warm smile. During the week in Ms. Setzer’s class, I eagerly completed daily content lessons so I could sit in the oversized chair—the one by the fish tanks—on the stage in the back of the room. In that sacred space, I had time to read for pleasure, solve brain teasers, learn how to play chess, or work on a project.
The most memorable project extended well beyond the fifth grade curriculum. Our school was running a silent auction to fundraise for a charity. Each student was asked to reach out to family and friends for auction items. My buddy and I brainstormed ideas from the oversized chairs in the back of the classroom. What could two fifth grade boys possibly contribute to the cause?
With wild imaginations and a shared passion for professional football, we asked, “What if?” What if we wrote letters to every NFL team asking for donations of apparel, memorabilia, autographs? Would the organizations get back to us? There was only one way to find out. For weeks, during any spare moment in the school day, we crafted handwritten letters to every football team. At the time, that was a totally rad idea. Looking back…it still is. We discovered a greater purpose and extra incentive to invest in school: we were receiving mail from super stars—athletic idols we emulated at recess.
I don’t recall how much money we raised, but I remember the time invested in planning, researching addresses, crafting each letter, editing our work, and networking in the professional world. Interestingly, I never received a grade for my efforts, nor cared about how I compared to my peers.
Ms. Setzer unleashed the learner in me; I was more motivated than ever before and confident to attack middle school challenges. For all the inspiration she provided, I returned the gratitude with my finest artistic masterpiece—a caricature in her image. She proudly displayed that pencil sketch in a frame above her desk until she retired. As I return to those fifth grade memories after more than twenty years of teaching, I get it. I understand how Ms. Setzer made every student feel important by empowering us as learners. Diana Setzer was a trailblazer.
It’s no surprise, with experiences similar to mine, three-quarters of fifth-graders are engaged in school—meaning they are interested and involved in their learning (Calderon and Yu, 2016). My fifth-grade daughter has the same look in her eye: independent, inquisitive, craving challenge, and proud to showcase her talents. But I worry about her enthusiasm for school fading over time. The 2016 Gallup Poll also indicates by the time students reach junior year, only 33% are engaged, leaving one-third not engaged, and the remaining third actively disengaged. I am even more concerned that my fifth grader will lose enthusiasm for herself, particularly if over 80% of students base self-worth on how they are performing in school (University of Michigan Study, 2002). What influences such extreme shifts in attitude? As graduation nears, why does the love of learning shrink and the desire to explore natural curiosities disappear? We have an obligation to our children to attack apathy and alleviate school-related stress.
As A.J. Juliani reminded an audience of educators at The 8th Annual National Convening on Personalized Learning, we have to Empower learners. We can’t let school get in the way of learning. Too often, kids play the game of school where the formula for success is: “make the adult in the classroom happy–make adults at home happy.” The best way to engage students in learning is through their natural interests. Students will get over their fear of choosing something to learn when their teachers take a similar risk with their traditional delivery of course content.
Following Juliani’s inspiring keynote, I co-presented a Unleashing Learners’ Superpowers with four of my heroes. In the session, students shared their stories and insightful perspectives of personalized learning from their experiences in our eleventh grade World Literature course. I proudly stepped aside and their heroic voices filled the room. Needless to say, the reward of presenting with my heroes was as gratifying as a fifth-grader’s pencil sketch tribute, and a memory I will certainly frame forever.