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Do you remember the first essay you ever had to write? Perhaps it was a book report or an essay for your history class. It can be a daunting task, staring at a blank sheet of paper with word counts and page limits looming in your head and no idea of how to begin.

Last year, as a sixth-grade Social Studies teacher at North Little Rock Middle School, I introduced my students to their very first essay. My students had wide eyes and expressions of disbelief when I told them their assignment would be to write a five-paragraph essay about Athens and Sparta, and which city-state they felt was better.

It's early in their middle school career to learn about thesis statements and topic sentences and how to structure an essay. It was going to be a first for all of us.

Sixth grade is a big transition year for my students. In elementary school, they're used to being given everything they need to learn. However, as they enter middle school, it's our job to begin teaching them to become more self-motivated and more resilient. The essay was the culminating assignment of a nine-week project we did in class about ancient Greece. With their first essay, I was able to give each of my students a challenge, and then provide them support as they started encountering obstacles or getting frustrated.

This project is part of a new personalized learning program that North Little Rock Middle School introduced last year called Summit Learning. With this program, our classes are structured around projects with a focus on teaching students important skills, like critical thinking and analysis, alongside the content they would learn in traditional classroom. Students are able to own their learning, moving at their own pace and learning how they learn best.

One of the best parts of Summit Learning is how it enables me as a teacher to help my students through the transition by customizing learning for each of my students, based on their abilities.

I felt like a football coach in class. I put together lots of different "plays"--resources and supports that students might need, from additional information to read, to pairing them up in small groups or setting aside time to meet one-on-one. With their first essay, I was able to see which students were struggling to put together topic sentences, and pull them aside for a writing workshop during class. I didn't need to use all of my plays--instead, I would adapt different plays for different students, based on their learning style and where they were challenged.

Giving my students that kind of customized support, while pushing them toward a big goal like writing their first essay, had a big impact. It was really fascinating to see the evolution of their abilities as the months went on. From the first project where we were writing about the ancient Egyptians and which pharaoh was the best, to our journey through Greece, they started building stronger topic sentences and adding more analysis based on what they were learning each day in class.

At the end of that project, my students were more confident in their abilities, and more able to direct their own learning--to ask for the kind of help they needed, instead of waiting for me to help them.

And it wasn't just a change we witnessed in their day-to-day lives. My students' standardized test scores all went up--sometimes as much as 10 or 12 points in a single subject. Across the board, our Summit Learning students improved their test scores.

I know that my students' first essay was a big challenge, but it taught them lessons that they--and I--won't forget.

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Leilani Dallas is a mother, proud teacher, and lifelong learner. She is a graduate of North Little Rock School District and proud to serve the community she grew up in.

Editorial on 01/31/2019

Print Headline: Focus on students

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