Put Your Best Foot Forward

This year I challenged my sophomore AP Euro students as we headed into the final weeks of class: Put your best foot forward. I asked them to create an “audition portfolio” to showcase and reflect on their best work in the class that they would hypothetically want shared with their prospective teachers next year. I also asked that they use this portfolio to determine and justify their final grade using evidence from each of the major aspects of the course.

One of the requirements was a cover letter in which I asked students to reflect on themselves and their learning. It also ended up being the most revealing and insightful for me since I had a firm grasp at this point in the year on where each student was in their understanding of the content and skills of the class. But this cover letter presented the opportunity to share far more than their progress on the standards. Below are a sample of excerpted responses from some of the prompts:

What do you wish every teacher knew about you?

“I wish every teacher knew that I do activities outside of school, so I’m busy a lot with band and softball. And also that I do try my best at everything I do. I try to be the kid in class that is quiet and respectful but can also participate and contribute my thoughts.”

“I hope that, moving forward with my next year in high school, teachers will not look at my past year and assume things about me. I am insightful and highly intelligent, I simply had a rough year. I am taking steps to recover from my actions, but I just want a fresh start.”

“I think all of my teachers should know that I am a fast learner, and as a result, I often get bored with the material and lose my motivation to learn early on. Despite this lack of motivation, I’m good at helping others improve upon their learning, and I usually understand the material fairly well.”

“I wish every teacher knew that I am willing to do whatever it takes to do well in their class. I am determined to do my best for all classes, even if I have to do a lot of work on my own time.”

“I love learning, but I have trouble motivating myself to do assignments if they take like, more than two brain cells, but once I finally do motivate myself, I will do the thing to the best of my ability until it is done. This also really applied to the rest of my life too, and that’s why I don’t have any clean laundry.”

“On my own free time I do research and look at maps from the surrounding area for my own enjoyment, so I am going to have a hopefully easy and fun time in this class. I also wish that every teacher would know about all of the out-of-school activities that I have going on and how it slows down the process at which I can do work outside of school greatly.”

What do you bring to the class that makes us better because you are in it?

“I often bring a somewhat funny sense of humor to the class, and I like to help people as often as I can…I also act as a venting outlet (when it comes specifically to my table group), and if they ever need to get something off their chest and just rant about their issues, they know they can talk to me and tell me about what’s bothering them.”

“I love to provide insight from different peoples perspective. I enjoy learning other people’s opinions and especially enjoy challenging them. I’m willing to listen to others ideas with an open mind always, and I think I bring energy to the conversation.”

“I think that I make the class better because I contribute to discussions. I try to say my own opinion or add in a new point of view. I also ask questions if I don’t understand something, which also benefits other students that may have had that same question.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

(Since this is an AP class and most students have a specific college-bound vision for themselves, rather than identify any particular student with specifics, I focused here on the broader aspects of how they see their future-selves)

“In five years, I have no idea what I’ll be doing. I don’t even know what I’m doing in ten minutes. I hope that it’ll be something with music.”

“I want to go to college out of state, and study something in the science field. I hope that I can make a living easily when I am out of college, and I hope that I will be happy. I want to become a successful person in terms of careers, and I want to hopefully make a name for myself.”

I want to attend the [university] to study linguistics, and hopefully, I’d take part in a foreign language trip to Europe. I would be in the marching band…

“In five years I’ll be in college I guess unless I drop out or die or something?? I have NO idea what I want to do with my life.”

I hope to go to [university] for aerospace engineering.

What part of history/the humanities interest you the most? Why?

“I really love history because it’s the best way to look both at ourselves and the future. While history might not necessarily repeat itself, human nature doesn’t really change, and we often follow patterns. Knowing how people act in the past is both interesting and something of a mirror for society today.”

“I hate math and science with a burning passion. I’m the most interested in music history. I love reading and learning about bands that shaped everything about music today: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors.”

“From the youngest age, I always asked why a ‘chair’ was called a ‘chair’. When I asked my parents, they always told me that God named it a chair. Turns out, I’m agnostic and ‘chair’ actually comes from old French, especially when pertaining to a throne.”

Write a challenge to your future self or words of affirmation for when you may need them the most.

“To future me: Always keep aiming for the sky, and you’ll hit it one day. One that day, remember how you got there, and inspire others to do the same.”

“Something I would say to my future self at the worst part of the year is get your stuff done as early as you can, because it is always easier that way instead of waiting as long as possible. Still try to budget your time effectively.”

“Hey there, Future [Me]. I know what you’re thinking. Past Me is the best. Well, she really isn’t. I mean, sure, she can sometimes leave your phone in a convenient spot for the morning, but what else is she good for? Future Me is able to grow and learn and understand. You are Future Me, and tomorrow’s Me is Future Me. It’s just going to keep getting better, even when you think it isn’t. Trust me.”

These students push me daily to be better, and these responses — even the ones I did not include here — are a challenge for adults in education: Ask students about themselves and their learning and, if they trust you, they will tell you. They will be brutally honest with you. Are you really listening?

If you are, what are you going to do about it?

How are you going to meet students where they are at and support them in their own goals and personal growth? Though it might be a beginning for some, their path in life doesn’t end with us, so what are you learning from and about your students every single day to help them in their own eventual journey outside your classroom? How are you going to create a classroom culture that simultaneously supports students and makes space for each one of these kids to assert themselves, put their best foot forward, and find their place and purpose?

Finally, as my seventh year in the classroom comes to a close, I’ll quote one last student from the final sentence of her portfolio reflection: “I am now sick of writing about Europe and all of the constant problems it’s had and will continue to have. Have a great summer, Covington.”

Have a great summer, and put your best foot forward.