Creating Declarations

A blueprint for making meaningful student goals this fall

For Middle Level

Guide students to the creation of their own meaningful goals and take advantage of the excitement, expectations, and newness that the start of the school year brings.

Primacy-recency theory indicates that students are most likely to remember what they learn first.

On Day One, when students tend to be more fresh and hopeful, set aside some time to take your advisory class through these steps to successful goal-setting.

Primacy-recency theory:
In How the Brain Learns, David Sousa asserts that the first minutes of class are students' most attentive, what he calls "prime-time-1," and should be used for the learning primary to your goal.
Successful middle school goals are student-generated; caring adults set the stage and steer them in the right direction. Important steps include establishing a purpose and core desires, stating what will be done to get there, and predicting the consequences of success. Afterward, teachers commit to doing everything they can to assist in the realization of student goals.

Steps of successful goal-setting

1. Establish a Purpose

A. In a notebook or journal, ask students to brainstorm reasons for coming to school (2 minutes)
Give students all the information they need to be successful:

  • they have two minutes
  • they are to think and write silently
  • they'll be sharing their ideas with others after they write
  • their answers must be stated positively and be school-appropriate
  • they may write complete sentences or create a list
  • their answers will be used to help set goals later in the period

Ask: Why are you here? Why school? What's your purpose here?

Sample student response: My purpose is...
I'm here to get a high-quality education; I attend school in order to be able to make a difference in the world; I'm here to learn so I'll be able to make something positive out of my life; my purpose here is to learn as much as I can; I come every day to better myself; I'm here to prepare myself for a happy, fulfilled adult life.

B. Students share their ideas in pairs (1 minute)
Teacher facilitates by forming pairs and modeling how pairs should interact, including:

  • greeting each other
  • using appropriate voice level
  • listening
  • using appropriate body language of speaker, listener
  • thanking each other when finished

C. Pairs report their ideas to whole group (3-5 minutes)
The teacher facilitates; hand-raising and waiting to be called upon before participating are required. The teacher or a student scribes a list of student responses on a large sheet of paper. If a student offers an inappropriate response, don't include it in the list.

D. Review list (3 minutes)

  • Read entire list aloud, and post
  • Check for understanding
  • Celebrate

We have established and discussed what our purpose is. Knowing why we're here will help us as we think about goals we have for this year. Let's keep this list in mind as we proceed.

2. Spark Interest in Goal-setting

Set the tone for positive, meaningful planning. For example, tell a personal story, read a narrative or poem, watch a film or film clip, display a work of art, or play a piece of music that inspires people. The following are possible sources of inspiration:

Films to excerpt:
"Pride," "The Knights of South Brooklyn," "Mad Hot Ballroom," "The Ultimate Gift," "A Walk to Remember," "Hairspray," "Remember the Titans," "Snow Treasure," "Breaking Away," "Smoke Signals," "Pow-wow Highway," "Whale Rider," "Hoop Dreams," "Aquila and the Bee"

Stories to excerpt:
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
, Maya Angelou; The Absolutely True Diary of a Half-Breed Indian, Sherman Alexie; Snow Treasure, Marie McSwigan

"Magic Johnson" by Quincy Troupe; Langston Hughes' dream poems

Visual art:
"The Thinker" by Rodin; "Mona Lisa" by DaVinci

"Always Wear Sunscreen" by Baz Luhrmann; "When You're Smiling" by Louis Armstrong

Students must understand the importance of listening carefully and thinking about the messages contained in the spark you choose.
We're going to watch an excerpt from the movie "Pride," which is about what it takes to overcome all sorts of obstacles and become successful. Watch carefully: you'll be responsible for knowing what the main characters in the film desired, what got in their way, and how they overcame the barriers to success. I'll ask you for your input, so pay attention.

Check for understanding.
What did you notice? What were the characters' goals? What obstacles they had to overcome? What inner qualities did they possess that allowed them to persevere?

Create a link between the spark and students' lives.
The movie we just watched contained characters who struggled at many points, but once they set meaningful goals and committed to achieving those goals, nothing could stop them. And here we are, with the entire school year stretched out before us...the possibilities for successful learning are endless. What an opportunity! Let's come up with some goals of our own. What are your goals for this school year?

3. Write Initial Goals

The idea is to have each student create initial goals so the goal-setting conversation can continue. The goals needn't be comprehensive or in-depth at this stage; more formal goal-setting conferences will follow. They may jot them down in writing journals, academic planners, or on a piece of loose-leaf paper. The goals they write can include one or more of the following:

  • An academic goal for reading, writing, math, science, and/or social studies
  • An academic goal in each class they'll have during first term
  • A social-skills goal
  • A social-skills goal for each: Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-control
  • A study-skills goal
  • A leadership goal
  • An extracurricular goal

Ask: What do you want to achieve? Why?

Sample student responses: My core desires/goals are...

I want to improve my math skills this year; I want to become a more creative writer; I want to experiment with exotic chemicals in biology class; I want to learn a lot about U.S. History; I want to improve my study and note-taking skills; I need to participate more is class discussions; I want to cooperate with others more when working in small groups; I need to learn to manage my time better when I'm in class and when I'm at home.

Goals are kept confidential; they'll be altered slightly and made public in the next step.

4. Transforming Goals into Declarations

By creating declarations from their goals, students move from stating a desire ("I want to improve my math skills") to crafting a positive plan of action ("I will improve my math skills by focusing in class, doing all the work to the best of my ability, handing it in on time, and studying for tests.") Their goal becomes, in John Dewey's words, "An idea with a future."

Solicit thinking about declarations:

What was the Declaration of Independence?

By declaring their independence from Britain, what did the founders of the United States commit to?

One powerful thing we can do with the goals we just wrote is to turn them into declarations. By beginning each goal with "I will..." we declare to ourselves and the world what we're going to do to make sure our actions fulfill our purpose here. A declaration is a call to action.

What are you going to do to get there?

Sample student responses: My declaration...

I will improve my math skills this year by focusing in class, completing all my work on time, and not procrastinating when studying for a test; I will become a more creative writer by reading as many interesting novels as I can and by copying the writing styles of the authors I like; I will keep complete, precise notes in my science lab notebook; I will do a research project on the Civil War and read novels set during the Great Depression; I will block out time in the afternoon, before dinner, to complete all my homework, and I will use abbreviations whenever possible while taking notes.

Take a look at the goals you've just written. Let's transform them into declarations by explaining what you'll do to meet your goals. Remember to begin each declaration with "I will...."

5. Students Write and Display Declarations

Students approach the chart and sign their names on it, thereby committing to action.

Example: Teacher has asked students to create goals for reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and social skills, and has prepared four distinct areas on a bulletin board in the classroom to display them. Teacher passes four Post-it notes to each student. Students transform their goals into declarations and write them on the Post-it notes provided. Finally, they post the declarations on the bulletin board. When all are displayed on the board, each is read while the class listens.

6. Analyze the Consequences of Success

Learners stop for a moment and analyze the consequences of success by visualizing themselves in firm possession of the knowledge they want.

Let's fast-forward to the end of the school year. Say, for instance, that we meet all our goals. What will the payoffs be? How will each of us be different? What impact will our new knowledge have on the world around us?

How are we better as a result?

Sample student responses: By the end of the school year, I see myself being able to understand and use algebra to solve problems; I'll be on my way to helping make the world a better place by seeing what the effect of burned carbon really is; I'll be able to communicate my creative ideas more clearly, which will give the ideas I have an outlet; my life will be better by next June because I'll have a better understanding of what makes US citizens unique; I'll have developed much better habits of taking notes and studying, which will allow me to learn more and forget less; by the end of the year, I'll have a lot more friends, which will make me much happier, both here and outside of school.

Answers may be shared in pairs, with the whole group, or kept private.

7. Teacher States Commitment to Guarding Student Declarations

Because you have successfully framed your purposes for being here, created goals out of what you want for yourself, and declared what you'll do to get there this school year, your ideas now have a future. There is nothing more important to me than helping your declarations become realities. I promise to do everything I can to make sure you all have every opportunity to achieve your goals.

With declarations in place, teachers can move to the next step: developing a Social Contract that students use to achieve their declarations.

We're going to need some rules so we make sure we fulfill our declarations.

Going through this process carefully, step by step, at the beginning of the year, and perhaps renewing it after the winter break, allows students to envision large, fulfilling goals for the year and plan to do great things in life. It helps set a smooth path for the year and creates the structure in which expectations and consequences for behavior will be established. Remember, "Go slow to go fast!"

Note about Teacher Language
The language used by teachers throughout the process of making declarations is paramount. How we talk to students-and whether what we say encourages reflection among them-can define the type of relationship we have with each student, can impact how clear they are about our expectations, can determine whether they grow their capacity to think, and can affect their own language use. Indeed, there's probably no single more important aspect to teaching than the language we choose to use when we're with them.

There are several moments during the school year when teachers need to be "hyperclear" with students-when our message is particularly important to the learning community-and this is the first such moment. Students must understand intellectually and viscerally how committed the adults in their world are to their success as students. If they feel it's true as they hear it said, it's more likely to sink in. Take advantage of this moment!

Chris Hagedorn is a Developmental Designs consultant and staff writer for Origins.

Published September 2008