Conclusions and Implications
I began this year with a renewed commitment to my profession and a desire to recreate the canvas of my classroom.  I wanted to “grow” my students into a classroom culture that valued effort and beautiful work.  For the first time in my school’s history, the sixth grade teachers and I, a lone seventh grade teacher, were teaching mixed ability classes.   These classes, termed the diversity cluster, had a ratio of 25% gifted and talented students with the remaining coming from the general population.  As our faculty contemplated phasing this model into the school as a whole, several questions were entering everyone’s mind.  Can teachers meet the needs of students with a wide spectrum of abilities?  Will gifted and talented students continue to be challenged in this setting?  Will students with special needs be left behind? 

          My intent was to help students become aware that they were all capable of creating meaningful, beautiful work.  Anyone who has ever taught knows that every year is different, and each class of students has unique personalities.  I don’t know if it was the luck of the master schedule or if the mighty action research muse waved her wand and sprinkled pixie dust over me, but I had unquestionably willing students this year who went along for the ride.  I do know that when I am passionate about something, it translates into energy and excitement for my students.  I’ve also been told by many former students that it is not what you teach, it is who you are that matters.  How teachers feel about their work and their students should never be underestimated when thinking about student engagement. In reflecting on what I have learned on this awesome journey, the importance of passion has been validated over and over again.  When you love what you do, believe it or not, things fall into place.  That is not to say there won’t be challenges.  There will always be challenges, but the good will outweigh the bad.  This is what have I learned…

about Classroom Culture

          As I stated in my findings, cultivating a classroom culture begins before students walk in the door. It begins weeks, if not months ahead of time.  It consists of seemingly unconnected things, yet, upon deeper examination, what may appear seemingly unconnected has a deeper purpose meant to support the foundations of a culture.  As Deal and Peterson stated in Shaping School Culture: Pitfalls, Paradoxes and Promises (2009), culture is the glue that holds everything together.  The way I designed classroom seating, the reading we did in the first weeks of school, the collaborative strategies students used to make meaning of a chunk of ambiguous text, all of these were critical building blocks in the community I fostered and the ideas I hoped would reverberate throughout the year—they became the glue that held us together, or, as Marvin Bowers said, “The way we do things around here.”  

          My students believe that they are capable.  I told them from the first day of school that they were in a cluster class—a class of certified gifted and talented students and high achievers—and that they were capable of succeeding.  I armed them with research like “The Trouble with Talent” by Kathy Seal that argued people aren’t born smart, they get smart by exerting effort.  And because I know that glue needs to be reapplied at different intervals for things to stick, throughout the year I interspersed poetry and prose like Michael Jordan’s “I Can’t Accept Not Trying” to remind them of their ability and potential.  I also taught them organizational strategies to keep them afloat.   By the end of this research, my students knew that I would greet them each day and there would be an agenda on the board.  They knew that I would model what I expected them to do and they knew they could ask a peer for help.  They grew to understand that their voice, whether on an exit card, a survey or via raised hand, informed my teaching.  They knew that at some point during the day’s lesson they would collaborate with a partner or group to substantiate, clarify and deepen their understanding.  They also knew that I expected them to work hard and that taking the easy way rarely resulted in success or pride.  They learned this from experience.  The work we did together created a culture. 

…about Learning as a Social Enterprise and Cultivating a Community of Learners

          First off, let me state that cultivating a community of learners is not something you “do” at the beginning of the school year, but something that must be done weekly, all year long.  You can’t “do” it and then “have” it.  It is an ongoing process that requires attention.  I pursued this goal in numerous ways – having students sit in table groups, assigning students randomly and purposefully to participate in collaborative tasks such as pair share, round robin, brainstorming sessions and of course, having them critique each other’s work.

          Research has said that learning is a social enterprise (Rogoff, 1998).   Indeed, I found that when I thoughtfully structured their collaborations students had a deeper grasp of the content.   This involved a lot of conversation.  Many educators and administrators view talking as disruptive and off task.  The whole idea scares many teachers.  I recently heard a younger colleague tell others that she overplanned each day for fear of vacant minutes dangling before the bell rang.  What would students do?  Surely, chaos would result.  Did students’ conversations lead to off task behavior?  Did chaos ever result?  Honestly, students did sometimes get off task, but I believe that the conversations that emerged as a result of collaboration strengthened the community and culture of our classroom.  Why do I believe this?  At the end of the year I asked students to explain how they viewed their peers in my classroom.  One student responded, “I see them with a lot of trust.”  Another commented, “I view my peers as trusting and understanding because I can trust them in working together with me and they understand what to do when I make a mistake.”  Both of these students used the word trust.  The trust students had in each other in my classroom was a result of having had multiple experiences that required collaboration.

          Getting off task happens.  It is part of the connectivity of ideas.  We read a short story about shame.  We make a connection.  We share the connection and that connection reminds us of something else, perhaps the intellect of Albert Einstein, which is slightly connected, but not really and then we end up talking about the atom bomb.  Hey, it didn’t start with the atom bomb, but isn’t that worth talking about?  So what do you do about the quandaries that a social enterprise, such as collaboration, stir up?  How do you keep the talk productive?  Today, right now, my response would be time limits and protocol.  Those are two things I’ve learned about, practiced and pondered in the graduate school of education.  Although protocols are not something that come naturally to me, they are increasingly becoming part of my routine.  When I feel that students are beginning to spiral outside the sphere of our intent, I’ve noticed that I did not set a time limit or that as a class we forgot to set norms.  I always feel this rush, rush, rush to get to the next thing, but sometimes in that rush I’ve forgotten to do the most important thing, which was to set a time limit or a norm so that our time was used productively. 

          Did students learn from each other this year while working together?  Yes, if you look at the data.  Some educators believe that when we ask students to pair share, or round robin, some educators believe that it is a waste of time, that the kids just going to get off task, but I didn’t find that.  I found that kids wanted to do well, they wanted to succeed and they wanted to please me.   And when they got off task?   I asked them to refocus and get back to work.  Over and over again, my students wrote on their exit cards that working with their peers helped them create good work.  At several points through the year, when my students were only crafting one draft, I had students come up to me and say, “But I really wanted to take this through critique so I could get some advice,” or “Can I go read this to so-and-so because I’m not sure about this part right here and I want his feedback,” or “I can’t think of what to do next, are we going to work in peer critique groups?”.  My students do see each other as resources and I find that more often most would rather go to a peer with a question, than to me.  Looking at student work over the course of  the year and comparing first drafts to final drafts I understand what Vygotsky believed peer interactions allowed for—students accomplishing together what neither could do alone (DiPardo &Freedman,1988).

…about Beautiful Work and Meaningful, Challenging Curriculum

          I know that a trait of good writing is to avoid clichés, but I’ve learned that truly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  With students who represent a wide variety of abilities and past educational experiences I’ve had to step back and reexamine my perception of beauty.  Is it up to me to decide what makes something beautiful, or should I leave that charge to my students? 

          All in all, my students took work through four critique cycles, two of which I documented in my research.  For each of these assignments or projects I asked students if they were proud of their work.  Looking at the data in my research I see that students were proud of their work, whether they had an advanced command of writing or not.  Because I have always taught more gifted than regular education classes, I found that initially my expectations for final products were possibly out of reach for some of my students.  This is something I’ve gotten better at as I got to know my students individual abilities over the year.  I think having high expectations is called for, but not so high that you don’t see the small gains and successes made by students who are struggling.  I need to remember that warm feedback fuels forward movement.  I need to remember to praise effort, not intelligence.

          It is difficult to separate meaningful curriculum from the culture that was cultivated in my classroom.  The curriculum became and fostered the culture.   Students began to know each other and build friendships as they shared the content of their writings, worked with each other, and gave and received feedback through critique.

          Going back to Figure 7-4 in the Findings section, 94% of students reported that the work we took through critique was meaningful to somewhat meaningful.  Students reported that there were many different aspects that made an assignment meaningful.  On exit cards students wrote that meaningful assignments were those that asked them to make a personal connection, share their thoughts and feelings, be creative, use technology, and put their heart into it.  One student wrote that an assignment was meaningful if “I put a lot of work into it,” and “did lots of drafts.”  Another student echoed this comment by writing that an assignment was meaningful if “I get to spend a lot of time to perfect it.”  So, I believe that I did provide students with meaningful curriculum, or as Slavkin writers about in Engaging the Heart, Hand, Brain (2003) curriculum that related to their personal lives and this in turn resulted in the creation of beautiful work. 

          One aspect of beautiful work that I did not focus on in my action research was providing students with choice.  While I provided students with many choices throughout the year in assignments that we did not take through the critique cycle, a few students brought up the idea that they would like to have more options to choose from for the final product.  This is definitely something to integrate with a mixed ability class that will undoubtedly have an effect on the meaningfulness and quality of the final product.

          Challenging curriculum is an essential component of productive collaboration and meaningful work.  Research shows that if the task is not challenging there is no need for collaboration.  Psychologist Frederick Herzberg (1968)  believed that people were motivated when they were enabled to take on difficult tasks that they hadn’t encountered before.  In my class, what enabled students to take on the challenges of the curriculum was critique.            

…about Developing Ownership and Pride through the Critique Process

          My students developed ownership and pride in their work as a result of the critique process, as revealed in the exit cards and surveys they completed along the way.    Instructional critique allowed students to develop analysis skills by requiring them to look at a model and generate the criteria that made that model effective.  While this was and remains a challenging task for students, as the year progressed we found that the standards of beautiful writing were consistent and became easier to describe.

In Peer Collaboration and Critique: Using Student Voices to Improve Student Work (2010),teacher and action researcher Juli Ruff found that when students analyzed an exemplar and generated the criteria for beautiful work, they began to internalize what they would need to do to achieve success. My findings were similar.  Another thing that I found was my inability to go back to pre-made rubrics and checklists once I had implemented instructional critique.  I found that when I gave assignments that did have pre-set criteria or a checklist, my students seldom read the criteria and often did not meet the standard.  Even for an assignment that was a single draft, I found that generating the standards with the class led to more buy in and better work.

 Self and peer critique put the responsibility of addressing the criteria on the students.  Before the action research a big concern of mine was the lack of ownership students took in their work.  I bemoaned hearing students beg the question, “Is this good enough?” over and over again.  While I still have students ask, “Is this good enough?”, I do have to say that it was not a frequent question in my class this year.  More familiar were questions like, “Do you think I provided enough detail here?”, “How can I express this more clearly?”, or “What would be a good title for this?”  While self and peer critique take a lot of instructional time, and this first stressed me out, I began to see that my students were developing skills that would allow them to be better thinkers, communicators, listeners, problem solvers, writers, and creative producers, to mention a few.  If thoughtfully structured and modeled, peer critique is an effective use of class time that supports and promotes the creation of beautiful work.

If there is anything I have learned this year, it is that students need models of providing feedback throughout the year.  Giving feedback is challenging work.  I believe that whole class critique sessions are necessary for each critique cycle to help students learn and refine their skills in critique.  Generating possible critique stems based on the kind of work that is being critiqued would be useful to students.  The take aways that my students and I generated after the whole class critique of the personal soundtrack was an invaluable strategy that supported students in revising their own work and giving feedback to others. 

Because of their reflective nature, exit cards and surveys also helped students take ownership of their work.  When I gave out exit cards that required students to list specific feedback they received that they would incorporate into their work or list two things they saw in their peers’ work that they planned to tie into their own writing, students understood that they were not only responsible for their own work, but they were responsible for learning from others.  While the sole purpose of using exit cards and surveys was initially to collect data for my action research, I quickly discovered their significance in informing my instruction and helping students reflect on their learning.

…About Celebrating Success        

Celebrations are a part of every culture.  When I first started my action research I envisioned the classroom celebrations as a ritual that would recognize students’ effort and beautiful work.  Celebrations would communicate the idea that I valued the time and hard work they had dedicated to a task.  What I didn’t have the foresight to see was that these celebrations were in fact publishing parties.  Students had an audience—their peers, and they shared their work.  I asked students why celebrations are important on an exit card.  Many students expressed the idea that after working hard they deserved to celebrate.  A few students said that knowing there would be a celebration made them try harder and motivated them to do their best work because they knew they would be sharing it.  One student wrote, “It’s an educational experience.”  While I never thought of it in that way, the type of celebrations we had in my class really were educational experiences.  Kent & Peterson write in Shaping School Culture (2009)  thatcelebrations bring people together, communicate values, reinforce fundamental purposes and recognize the success and contributions of others.  I believe that celebrations brought my students together, communicated the value of effort and beautiful work, reinforced the purpose of growing as learners, and recognized students’ accomplishments.