URBANA — It's a hard task in theory, to take a class of sixth-graders, line them up in an Urbana Middle School hallway, and tell them to arrange themselves in order by birth date.
Give them 3 minutes, and tell them you can't answer any questions to help them, and see what happens.
The result: about 2 1/2 minutes of expressive faces, hands holding up fingers indicating numbers of birth month and date, shuffling feet as students arrange themselves and finally, students lined up in order. Students with January birthdays led the line, then February birthdays, then on down the line, with one April birthday mistakenly mixed in with the later months.
Samantha Douse, a sixth-grade teacher at Urbana Middle School, led the exercise before giving her students a short lesson on goal-setting Friday morning at the school.
It was the second time they'd tried it — the first was during the first week of school — and her students told her it was easier the second time around.
"Everyone had an idea of what to do," Douse reiterated as her students rose their hands and shared their thoughts. There was no, "I couldn't do it so I give up," she said.
Douse's lesson fits in with an initiative this year at the middle school that will have all students setting what the school district calls "personally challenging educational goals."
The idea fits in with the school district's strategic plan, to involve all students, staff members and families in helping students set and meet goals tailored to students individual interests and aspirations, said Alexis Jones, the school district's coordinator in curriculum and staff development.
"I think that the goal of the process is really to teach students to set goals for themselves and for their learning," Jones said.
By October of this year, middle school students will write their own personal mission statements and a couple of goals. They'll publish these to a blog that teachers and their parents will have access to, but not other students.
Part of the reason goal-setting is starting out at the middle school this year is because teachers and students are organized into teams, so groups of students share the same set of teachers. Those teachers can discuss ways to support students and their goals, Jones said.
Teachers can also learn more about their students and suggest ways for students to achieve their goals and even share personal experiences.
The teachers aren't there to judge the students' goals, Jones said, so they can relate to things such as sports or behavior in school.
"Students will examine what's important to them, what they want to be," Jones said.
Urbana Middle School Principal Scott Woods said teachers will support students, regardless of the goal.
"I don't feel it's our job as a school to tell a kid, 'No you can't do that,' and kill their dreams," Woods said.
Plus, Jones said, there are ways to relate even big goals to immediate education.
For example, if a student sets a goal to become a professional basketball player, Jones said, teachers will suggest ways to get there, like trying out for the middle school basketball team. That in turn means making sure he or she comes to school, on time, and gets the grades required to stay eligible.
"It really helps students take control over their own lives and really see they can control their own futures," Jones said.
Jones said she knows it might be "tricky" the first year.
"But once it becomes a culture of what we do, it will begin to be practiced and accepted," Jones said.
Woods said he believes goal-setting will benefit his students in the long run.
"The way I look at it is, it's students becoming better equipped with life skills that are practical and viable," he said. "These are skills we want mature adults to have."
Parents will also play an important role in helping students achieve their goals, as well, he said.
Meanwhile, after Douse's class talked about goal-setting, students talked about their line-up-by-birth-date experience as teaching them to work with each other and compromise on strategies.
Practice and setting specific goals will help students succeed, Douse emphasized.
And to prove her point, she sent her students to the hall one more time, to line up by birth date. This time, though, they finished even before their goal time of 2 minutes, with no mistakes, and finished the exercise with a cheer from students.
"Usually if you keep working at whatever goal you're (aiming) for," Douse told her students, "you will be able to achieve it."