Can I create I Can… Statements?

I have struggled with the idea of posting “I can…” statements on the board . To me, statements like this seem dry and lifeless: “I can use the information from my reading and what I know to draw conclusions and make inferences.” A quick (and far from exhaustive) Google search revealed “I can…” statements for all fifth grade subject areas that ranged in number from 86 to well over 100. Divided into 180 days or so, that’s at least one “I can…” statement every day or two.

Surely that’s too much stuff to learn in too short of a time. For instance, “I can summarize grade level text.” takes a long, long time to do well. I remember teaching college students who had a difficult time with that one. If the purpose of the “I can…” statements is to focus the learner’s attention and energy on what really matters, then how much focus can a learner give if that much stuff keeps on coming and coming and coming, day after day after day? Will students even remember what they “could do” a month later? A year later? Do near daily “I can…” statements actually (and perversely) create learner passivity, rather than learners who explore, inquire, create, and, well, learn?

And what might all of those “I can…” statements do to my teaching? Do I begin to see my teaching as a series of little lessons designed to teach over 100 specific skills spread out over the year so that I can fit them all in? For what larger purpose? And is that purpose clear to the children? Are they on board?

All that's left of the black and red raspberry pie that I made the other day.

All that’s left of the black and red raspberry pie that I made the other day. No lard, just butter and vegetable shortening, though, truth be told, lard makes great pie crust and we have it abundance here in IA.

Then an idea came to me while I was sitting around the dining room table eating pie and planning with my teacher friends Megan and Sara. It began with a question I posed to myself: What do I really want the kids to know and be able to do? What if I had only one “I can…” statement, what would it be? What would that single statement do to my teaching? To the kids’ learning? So I came up with this:

I can read attentively, write powerfully, question deeply, think clearly, and act ethically so that I can make a better world and a better me.

This “uber-I can…” begs questions like these: What does it mean to read attentively? How can I read more attentively? How does attentive reading connect with powerful writing? With deep questions? How does attentive reading make me a better person?

How do I write powerfully? What does powerful writing have to do with acting ethically? With creating a better world?

What does it mean to act ethically in school? How does ethical action connect with making me a better person? With asking deep and profound questions? With attentive reading?

Stuff like that. With this “I can…” the year takes on an exegetical feel, one based on a central hope to build a better world and a better me. Which makes me feel a bit better because these questions seem like they are worth pursuing.

Can we learn to write powerfully? Sure. We’ll study the writing of others. We’ll study our own. We’ll write a lot. Why? So we can use it to build something better — a better world, a better me.

Can we learn to read attentively? You betcha. We’ll try very hard to discern the central meanings an author wishes to convey. We’ll understand the power and the beauty that comes from that awesome act of communication.1 We’ll connect it to our writing, to our thinking, to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

Can we come to see ethical action as part of our learning? Yes. It happens every year. Without that, there is no community, and reading and writing and thinking go out the window.

So, maybe this is a way that “I can enter the world of I can… statements?”

  1. I sometimes introduce the act of writing by telling the children the Ojibwe word Mazina’igan, which means “talking paper.” I’ll write a message on a piece of paper, give it to a child, and the class will watch that child do some simple task, all in silence, as a way to show them that writing is an awesome act of communication across distance. A marvelous invention, this written language, and a powerful force that connects people.

8 thoughts on “Can I create I Can… Statements?

  1. The “I can” statement is such a crazy rant when applied to a list so large yet stunted. Who learns or thinks that way?
    This statement :
    “I can read attentively, write powerfully, question deeply, think clearly, and act ethically so that I can make a better world and a better me,”
    has power and I can imagine using it as a check point for student work. I’m excited for you going to 5th grade. Are you looping with your kids?

  2. Thanks for offering a comment, Julieanne. We are headed toward the “I can” statement world, and have been encouraged to think that way in the meantime. I’m not against the idea — especially the idea that kids should know what they are to learn. That’s great! (And should always be the case.) I just worry that too many small things to learn cause a learner to sit back and react, and, also, that then we tend to make the small stuff our reason for being, losing track of the real reasons we are learning in the first place. My thought experiment was my attempt to claim a bigger space for learning. We can fill in the small stuff to get there. It’s a rough draft but maybe it can be our North Star along the way and I can tweak as the year goes along?

    No. No looping allowed in our district. I tried last year when I moved from 3rd to 4th, but administration didn’t go for it. I had some children again just by chance, and some (with a bit touchier personality) who I insisted would do better because I already had a relationship with them and family, and because they had done well in our classroom the year before.

  3. This reminded me of an extremely uncomfortable moment I had in which I created “I can” statements on sentence strips & helped teachers tape them in their classrooms before a Quality Review team came to assess the school. I knew that good work was going on those rooms but I knew it might not be seen by the powers that be and, hence, the “I can” statements. Wonder if they would be satisfied with a beautiful and meaningful statement like yours that puts skills in a larger & more meaningful context.

    • Yes! I imagine me doing the same thing! The “I can” statements are “sold” as a tool for the student (though too many of them have precisely the opposite effect, I think, and there are far too many) but their real purpose is to demonstrate accountability. Strange that accountability might get in the way of learning. 🙂

      And that’s the point of a recent post by Pasi Sahlberg on THE ANSWER SHEET blog. Seems that US innovation in standardized testing is getting in the way of US innovations in teaching. The rest of the world is picking up US teaching innovations and using them well, but we can’t because we have other, more important things to do.

  4. Hi Steve,
    I am unfamiliar with the use of ‘I can’ statements as you have described them, but I can see how they would focus attention on the minutiae rather than the big picture. My initial thought about your ‘big picture’ statement was that it was covering too much, that it was more than just one ‘I can’, but further reflection (upon the statement and the content of your post) shows what a powerful statement it to be – connecting everything in the development of an empowered and ethical human. I look forward to following the progress you share on your blog this year.

    • Nora, thank you for offering a comment on this post! I think you are correct that this statement is very big, and certainly not “do-able” if the expectation is to fully explore and master. I think I am pushing back against a version of education that seems to be getting ever tinier, rather than larger. I am not sure if (or how?) I might use such a statement this year. As the world of learning gets smaller, I want to remind myself (at least) that learning is grand. I know that I have felt this grandness in my own life.

  5. First of all, that pie looks amazing!

    We lived through the iCan statement phase several years ago. Ours were given to us, but I was never very good at posting them. And then the phase ended and not so many trees were killed by my sentence stripping those vapid, empty statements.

    Your “uber-I can…” statement could be posted in every classroom in America and if we taught to those ideals much would be healed in the public schools.

    You are a wise man.

    And you make pie.

    Wow.

    • Thanks so much for reading, Mary Lee. It really IS so difficult and so important to “find oneself” in our school world. I’m worried that “I can…” breaks learning into smaller chunks than are really meaningful. Also, I suspect that they over-scaffold for children, as Vicki so nicely talked about in a recent blog post.

      I do wonder how to keep the big picture in mind…to open (keep open) a space for learning that is big and beautiful…?

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