What one thing should a student know, understand, or be able to do by the time they leave elementary school?

I don't want to know how many other faces have been pushed into this toy.
I don’t want to know how many other faces have been pushed into this toy.

My daughter and I were in a waiting room today, trying to occupy ourselves while my son was with the dentist.

I browsed through the magazines available and saw the most recent edition of Popular Mechanics. The title for the cover article was “42 Things You Should Know How to Do at Every Age”. This question spurred a bigger question with me, which is the title for this post. Our staff is starting to discuss how to make our portfolio assessment process more coherent across the grade levels and more authentic for our students.

I shared the question out on Instagram, Twitter, a Facebook group, and a Google+ Community. I got zero responses from Twitter and Instagram. No surprise; I have found the bigger the pond, the less likely I am to get a bite. However, three members in the Google+ Community I moderate offered insights worth sharing here.

Think critically and be able to support original ideas with evidence. I think it’s important at that age to demonstrate independent thinking and believe in something that they can passionately argue for with conviction and valid evidence. How they do this should be open to individual choice.

Know how to safely search the Internet for information based on keywords, and evaluate the authenticity and bias of the resources found in order to make an informed decision about what they have learned.

How to problem solve….if something doesn’t go their way and they still need to complete an activity, what could they do to solve their own problem.  (ex.  I don’t have a pencil, I forgot what the HW assignment was, I left my book at school, I don’t have a lunch)

I received an even stronger response in the Facebook group Teachers Throwing Out Grades.

Paul Shircliff know how to get & use feedback so they can keep progressing in the learning process (& not “have to” wait for the teacher)…..know how to make mistakes and recover…..
Doug Gorham A great question! Be able to summarize their learning experience from a day at school, what new interests they have, and questions they want to ask tomorrow. I will keep thinking about this and raise it with my colleagues.
Greg Stapleton Problem solve…any problem that’s within their learning ability.
Jennifer Smithers Marten Be kind to others – show empathy, even when no one is looking.
Mark Barnes Self select a book from a curated to-read list. Identify its genre and connect its characters and plot to other life experiences or other works of fiction or nonfiction. Oh, and leave the conversation saying, “I’ve gotta go; I’ve just started a new book and can’t wait to finish.”
Peter DeWitt Know what to do when they don’t know what to do. Meaning…be able to figure it out when an adult isn’t there to help.
Jennifer Smithers Marten Peter DeWitt, I agree, and to do that, we have to let them have unstructured time, something desperately missing in the lives of our children. With my personal children, we talk a lot about how everything takes up time and you only have so much time in a day. It’s why my 11 year old decided not to play soccer this spring. He wanted his time to read or go outside and play with the dog.
Anneke Thompson I think of this every year as my sixth graders move on. After having them for three years there are definitely a part of our family. I want them to know that they belong somewhere. That they matter! That they can make a difference to someone everyday. That they can tackle problems that are hard, but sticking with it makes things easier, that they will be given new responsibilities and with that comes freedom. They need to know that freedom can become limited if they do not choose to use responsibilities wisely (shout out to my Montessori background), that they don’t need one particular person to teach them. They have the resources to seek knowledge on their own. To be kind, patient, and trustworthy.
Jennifer Smithers Marten Anneke Thompson, can I come hang out in your classroom? It sounds like an amazing place to learn.
Anneke Thompson Jennifer Smithers Marten , anytime:)
 Brett Murrey I like for my students to be able to problem solve and work well with others.
Colleen Fannin Arnold Know who we got independence from. Read. Well versed in arithmetic. Write a paragraph. Basic grammar.
Amy Hollingsworth defend themselves against bullying. And protect others.

 I even offered my own response to this question.

This might be old school, but I want every student leaving our school to be able to write a really good paragraph. I am talking beyond the basics of topic sentence, supporting details, and a conclusion. They should know how a paragraph does not stand alone, but connects within a larger piece of writing with an interesting lead, smooth transitions, and an ending that causes the reader to pause. They should understand that a paragraph online often looks different than on paper (no more than eight lines!). They should be able to write a paragraph to fit any form of writing – narrative, informative, persuasive, and everything in between. In my corner of the universe, the well written paragraph is king.

Care to cast out your thoughts on this question and keep the conversation going? Please share your opinion in the comments.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is a 17-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher. After seven years of teaching, he served as a dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary principal in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt is now an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

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