Student-Led Conferences: Letting our Students Steer their Learning Ship

Different, strange, weird, relaxed, slow, and nice. No, I’m not describing some new YA novel. I’m recapping my feelings regarding Thanksgiving in 2020. While it felt unlike any other Thanksgiving I’ve ever experienced, it was also refreshing that it did possess a slower tempo with less stress. It was as if some bizarre governing force pushed the slow-speed button on life yesterday. I wasn’t rushing from one thing to the next to get prepared for a big feast or family gathering. I had time to watch some delightful Christmas movies and breathe in all of the beauty and magic of this special time of year. My wife and I even had time to go for a long walk. It was amazing. Did I miss the chaos of a routine Thanksgiving? No, I appreciated the calm nature of this year’s holiday. Perhaps we’ll remember this feeling of tranquility when we plan a Thanksgiving in post-pandemic life and not try to cram so much into 24 short hours. Wouldn’t that be nice?

The one tangible lesson that 2020 has taught me is that I need to slow down and really experience life more. I’ve been so focused on the future that I forget to live in the moment and smell the conifers and revel in the ahh-some power of sunsets. This different is good, freeing even. Although the craziness of this turbulent year has produced so many sad, awful, and horrible things, it’s nice to know that this year has also been filled with many examples of positivity, strength, resilience. We humans are a strong, strange bunch, and for that, I am forever grateful.


Teaching during a pandemic has also felt like being on a never-ending roller coaster ride, but not one of the fun ones, one of the scary ones where you hear odd, ominous noises as if screws are coming loose or metal is bending. While there have been plenty of ups littered throughout the start of the 2020-2021 academic year, the uncertainty of not knowing when the next change will thrust us downward is unnerving. When will we go remote? Is my mask thick enough? Am I getting too close to the students? This pressure and constant motion weighs down on me, on all of us. What’s next?

Negative thinking is contagious, but so is the power of positivity. I was able to be in-person with my fifth grade class for two months during the start of this school year. That was phenomenal and allowed us to lay a solid foundation consisting of learning, thinking, and teamwork. In these wild, roller-coaster times, I find myself looking around every corner, over every peak for the good and the happy moments because they are there amidst the chaos and doom-and-gloom headlines. Students are making great strides in learning to change their mindset regarding math or other challenges facing them. Students are smiling, with their eyes and happy being together in-person or remotely. They love the fifth grade community of which we are all a part.


As it came time for the annual Parent-Teacher conferences at my school, I thought long and hard about how I wanted to structure them for my students and their families. I’ve utilized the Student-Led Conference format for over 10 years, and have been overjoyed with the results each time; however, in this very different school year, is that still an effective vehicle for conveying information to families? Should I keep things shorter and use the traditional conference format? I devoted much time and headspace to this dilemma in late October.

Then I started thinking about the professional development text the faculty at my school read this past summer, Teaching Students to Become Self-Determined Learners by Michael Wehmeyer and Yong Zhao. It talked all about providing students with opportunities to take ownership and control over their learning, giving them agency. The traditional model of Parent-Teacher conferences entirely removes the student from the equation. Teachers talk at parents about how their child is progressing and the family members ask questions. If the students are most often not a part of these conversations, then how do they know what they need to work on to improve? If we want our students to become self-determined learners, then they need to truly know and understand themselves as learners. What better way than having them lead their conference and talk about their strengths, challenges, and goals for continuing to grow.

While I took the time to contemplate and reflect upon the conference method that would work best for my students in this year of the pandemic, I came to the realization that the Student-Led Conference format is, in any year, the most effective method for conveying information on the progress of students to their families. As the students are the ones who are learning, they should be the ones taking charge of sharing their progress and growth with their families. Learning is about the students and not the teachers. We are the guides for our students, not the receptacles of knowledge. Sure, we know our students and could talk about them and their progress until we are blue in the face from a lack of oxygen, but that’s not the point. The people at the helm of their learning ship, the students, need to know where they’re going and from whence they’ve come. Imagine if the cruise ship you’re on, in five to ten years from now of course, is piloted by someone sitting in a room on land, far away from your ship. Can they see everything from their cameras and computers? Perhaps, but they might also miss little things like an iceberg or a tsunami that could transform your trip into a nightmare. I’d want my pilot on the ship with me, and so I say, let’s leave the reflection and learning to the learners.


Earlier this week, each of my amazing and talented fifth graders completed their Student-Led Conference with their family. The students used the ePortfolio that they spent two weeks working on prior to their conference, as a script. They talked about their progress in each class, the challenges facing them, the struggles they’ve overcome, and the academic strengths that they possess. They even shared specific examples to support their claims. They articulated goals that they have created to help them jump into the winter trimester head first. They demonstrated to their families that they truly know themselves as learners. They did a fine job addressing questions their parents posed to them as well. It was so amazing watching them totally own their learning and progress. I am deeply proud of my students for their hard work, effort, ownership, and reflection. After the students shared and fielded questions their families had for them, very few questions were asked of me, the teacher, because the students had done such a great job talking about how they are doing in the fifth grade. I then ended the conferences by praising the students for their amazing work. While I allotted an hour for each conference, most of them were done in about 30-45 minutes.

Although I see the power in and benefits of the Student-Led Conference format, I don’t want to get stuck in my own line of thinking without taking in information or feedback from all parties involved. So, I sent out a feedback survey to the families asking for their thoughts on the Student-Led Conference format. Here’s what they had to say…

I am very pleased with the results of this year’s Student-Led Conferences. The students knocked that metamorphical ball right out of the stadium. I am very proud of and impressed by how they did. The families were also blown away by their child’s performance and reflection. It doesn’t get much better than this. Currently, I would not change anything regarding this format or formula for next year. I’m happy with the outcome and look forward to using it again next year, regardless of how chaotic and turbulent things may very well be. In the meantime, I’m going to focus on the vast amount of good that fills my life on a daily basis: My students asking thoughtful questions, the passion my students bring to their writing, how accountable my students hold me and their classmates…

Do You Ever Feel like a Pebble Stuck on a Stream Bed?

There once was a pebble that lived tethered to the bottom of a tiny stream. For the first few thousand years, the pebble loved being around his fellow pebbles and rocks. He loved having friends nearby and he enjoyed his comfortable surroundings. However, as years flowed past him, he started to yearn for something more. He noticed that his top side was the only side of him that was getting polished. Because he was not the tiniest pebble, the slow moving current wasn’t strong enough to move him and so he spent his life lodged between two very large rock friends on the soft and slippery stream bed. Over time, the pebble grew sad that he would never move, never see life beyond his spot at the bottom of the stream. He tried to tell his rock friends how he felt; tried to persuade them that they were all missing out, that if they could just move and flow with the current, they’d see and experience the most beautiful things that life had to offer. Unfortunately, his rock friends were stuck in their thinking and learned to be content with where they were. They were happy being trapped together for the rest of their rocky lives, but not the pebble

One day it started to rain and didn’t stop for five days. It rained so hard that the pebble and his rock friends could feel the drops from their home at the bottom of the stream. As the rain fell, the current in the stream grew and grew. The stream was bursting with water and flowed faster than ever before. This great rain flooded the stream and caused it to flow more like a mighty river than a small stream. As the water flowed over the stream bed, rocks and pebbles were being dislodged and pushed free. Suddenly, the two rocks keeping the pebble trapped at the bottom of the stream were set free, and the pebble and his friends started moving with the wild current. They were bumping into new friends and seeing things they had never seen before. They saw water insects and animals that had never visited their part of the stream bed. They saw light shining through the water in the stream as they were pushed along in the strong current. The faster they flowed, the happier the pebble grew. He was finally experiencing life and polishing all sides of his rocky self. He felt alive like never before. The craziness and chaos of the great flood was just what the pebble needed to experience life. He needed something big to come along so that he could finally feel alive, free to be his true self. While some living creatures were perishing under the wraith of the water, the pebble was thriving. Other rocks and pebbles were also surviving and loving this roller coaster of an adventure down the flooded stream.

Soon the current slowed and the pebble found himself falling to the bottom of a river. While he fell, he knew that he was no longer in a calm stream. The water felt cold against his minerals as he slipped to the bottom of the deep body of water. While he rested on the river bed, the current would periodically push him along the bottom causing him to continue to get polished on all sides. He also found himself constantly meeting new living and non-living friends. He was no longer stuck at the bottom, unable to move. He was free to do as he pleased, free to be himself. The pebble was happy and grateful for the sacrifices that some of his friends made for him so that he could be in his new untethered home.


What does this story have to do with teaching? How is it connected to us as educators? Are we the pebbles or the rocks? What does it all mean? I’m so confused, and I wrote the story. It just sort of flowed out of me, pun intended, this morning as I sat down to reflect on my week. I thought of a polished pebble for some reason. That was the first image that came to my mind when I thought back on my week.

This week marked my first time of being remote with my fifth graders since the start of the school year. We were so fortunate and lucky to be able to be in-person for two months. I was able to lay a good foundation of knowledge, social and emotional skills, and community spirit for the students before we were forced to go remote due to the great increase of COVID-19 cases in our area. It was no longer safe for us to be in school together. So, we took our tiny village virtual. While I was sad to no longer be in-person with my amazing fifth grade superheroes, I knew that sacrifices needed to be made to keep our local and school communities safe. So, remote we went this week. Although I’m no professional when it comes to remote teaching, I do feel as if this past spring taught me a few hundred lessons.

I spent last weekend preparing for the big switch. I was nervous that the technology would fail or that the students wouldn’t know what to do. Luckily, the students were ready to go. Although they were not happy to be virtual, they were excited to not to have to be wearing masks when we spoke and interacted with each other online. I joked that I almost didn’t recognize my students without their masks on. In difficult times, laughter is truly the best vaccine of all.

Despite some minor tech issues and glitches, we had a great first week of virtual school. The students were engaged and learned a few things about paragraph writing, numerical properties, revising their work, and the power of togetherness. I asked the students, periodically throughout the week, how they felt things were going. What did they like and dislike?

Dislikes

  • My students did not like that we weren’t together in school. They would much prefer being in-person, which makes me incredibly happy that they love being together as a fifth grade family.

Likes

  • My students liked that they didn’t have to wear a face mask during school. While we did all get used to having to wear face coverings in school all day, it was still very difficult and uncomfortable. It was hard to hear each other at times and tough to not see all of their facial expressions.
  • They liked that we were together remotely, engaged in learning and doing. Many of the students shared with me that at their old schools from last year, remote learning was done very differently and they rarely had the opportunity to see or connect with their classmates or teachers during the week. One student shared that he only had synchronous sessions with his teacher and classmates twice during the entire spring trimester.
  • They liked that we kept a similar schedule to when we were in school. The students had gotten so used to the routine and liked knowing what was coming next, and so I tried to replicate that schedule virtually for them.
  • They liked learning how to craft narrative paragraphs and then being able to write their own. This year’s class loves to write. As we recently completed a unit on fiction writing, I knew that we had to cover non-fiction writing. So, I started a unit on paragraph writing with the students this past Tuesday. They loved learning about paragraphs, but they especially enjoyed being able to craft their own narrative paragraphs. They had so much fun digging into this task. Their paragraphs were brilliant.
  • They liked having time to peer review their work with their classmates on separate Google Meets. As this upcoming week is host to our Student-Led Conferences, this past week was spent fine-tuning and revising their ePortfolios that they will utilize as scripts to guide them through their conferences. They liked being able to meet with peers virtually and give and receive feedback on their work.
  • They liked that we didn’t just do group activities, but that we mixed in partnered work and independent work. I tried to vary my methods of instruction, as I did when we were in the classroom. They seemed to really enjoy that.
  • They liked that we started each Closing Circle with what I aptly called Dance-y Time, during which I played some upbeat music that we all danced to, virtually. On Friday, just to be sure that I wouldn’t forget to begin the meeting with the fun music and dancing, one of the students checked in with me during a break to offer a reminder. So cute! I love how they hold me accountable. FYI, I had not forgotten.
  • They loved that I showed them how to use the application Snap Camera. A few students had so much fun joining our Google Meet sessions as pickles or anime versions of themselves. While this was distracting for some at first, it did lighten the mood a bit and reminded us that in turbulent times, a little fun always makes things better.
  • They enjoyed that we ended each day with a silly joke before heading back into our own, individual lives.
  • They liked that we still meditated every afternoon, as we did in person. We gathered on a Google Meet and focused on our deep, belly breathing to allow our brains a chance to reset and do their processing of all the stuff floating through our minds. As I read once in a book, our brains are like snow globes being constantly shaken. Meditation allows us time for the snow to settle.
  • They liked being able to spend more time with their families. As they were home, they did see their families more and were able to enjoy the break times with them.
  • They liked being able to not have to wear fancy school clothes or be in dress code. One student wore a onesie one day. He was so happy, and focused. I told the students to wear clothes that are comfortable for them.

While the Likes list is clearly longer than the Dislikes list, it does beg the question, what happened to make things so great? I can’t tell you how many stories and articles I’ve read online since March about the horrors of teaching remotely. The teachers seem to hate it as much as the students and families. Then, why did my students seem to love it so much? I rarely had a student late to a Google Meet session. I even had fun teaching remotely. While it does create so much more work for me, I had fun in remote this past week, which I can’t say was the case back in the spring. What made our remote experience this week so positive?

  • I kept the expectations the same as if we were in-person. Body language and eye contact are emphasized in the classroom, as they were virtually. I made sure that the students were looking at the camera and sitting or lying in a position that would best help them focus. As our school mandates that students keep their cameras turned on throughout a Google Meet session, this was also not too big of an issue. I worked with one student who kept trying to turn his camera off, but by the end of the week it was no longer an issue. The students also needed to have their mics muted unless they were called on to participate or share. This helped avoid the chaos of free-for-all virtual sessions.
  • We were synchronous and together for part or all of every class lesson or activity from 8:30 AM to 3:15 PM each day. I think the routine and schedule also helped engage the students. The students love our schedule when we are in-person and so if I tried to change it too drastically for remote instruction, I worry that their engagement and excitement would decrease.
  • I had time to prepare myself and the students for this switch to remote school. The Friday before we went remote, I spent a good chunk of time going over the expectations for virtual school. I wanted to put their minds at ease and help them know what it would be like.
  • Or maybe it was something else entirely. Who knows what helped this first week of remote go so well for me and my students. I do know, however, that I am so happy that it went as great as it did. Oh Happy Day!

Oh, I get it. My story from the beginning now makes sense to me. In the spring, I perhaps got stuck in my thinking of how remote instruction should be structured and grew unhappy with myself and the whole experience of being virtual. When I changed my mindset and accepted and embraced the fact that we would be going remote again, I was able to switch things up, try new things, and view the whole experience through a more positive lens. I am the pebble in the story and my journey down the stream and into the river is a metaphor for my experience with remote instruction. Although I’d rather be in-person with the students, I am finding a way to make virtual school the next best thing for all of us. Wow, my brain was really firing on all cylinders this morning when I came up with that whole masterpiece. So, like the pebble, I’m going to keep on floating with the current of life and go with the flow of remote instruction. I’m feeling quite positive about it all this time around. I may actually even be getting better at implementing remote teaching. Who knew?

Learning to Be Grateful as a Metaphorical Iceberg Slams into the Side of your Ship

One of my students asked me the other day if he could bring in his cello to play for the students as they enter the school and our classroom one morning. I, of course, responded with an excited, “We’d love to have you play for us.” Unfortunately, my mind immediately went to that scene in the Titanic where the quartet is playing music on the deck as the ship sinks into the icy, cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Although our school is not floating in water nor has it been struck by an actual iceberg, the imagery of keeping the calm amidst so much chaos does fit with our current reality: The number of COVID-19 cases in the state of NH has been drastically increasing over the past week, the recent presidential election has led to a flurry of controversy and uncertainty, and our school begins three weeks of remote instruction on Monday.

Yesterday, as our student musician welcomed the other students into the school and classroom with some delightful cello music, we all felt a sense of calm and peace, while the wild storms of 2020 continued to rage on right outside our doors. I’m grateful that our final day of in-person instruction until the third week of December began with a serene, musical prelude.

CLICK HERE to view a short video of my student playing his cello for us all to enjoy

In these turbulent times, it’s very easy to get caught up in all of the craziness and stress, while taking all of the wonderful and precious things in our lives for granted. So, as we enter this season of Thanksgiving, I felt it necessary to flip the script a bit in the fifth grade classroom this past week. Our weekly focus was on gratitude and being thankful for our classmates, our school, the amazing people in our lives, and all the little things this week. We watched a video that explained the science behind gratitude. Being thankful and grateful makes us happier, as we purposefully concentrate on those things that do make us happy.

Each day, our share during Closing Circle was all about having an attitude of gratitude. On the first day, the students wrote gratitude cards to their classmates for the kind things they had done to help each other throughout the day. The students thanked each for helping them in class or for playing tetherball with them at recess. While what they wrote on the cards was not deep or transformative, it was honest and sincere. I told my class the story of how I keep all of the kind Thank You cards I receive from people in my nightstand, and then during difficult days, I pull them out and reread them to remind myself that things won’t always be terrible or challenging. “Hold onto these cards for a rainy day when you might need a pick-me-up,” I told them.

The next day they shared about other people in their lives for whom they are grateful. The students shared about how they are thankful for their parents allowing them to attend our school or their siblings. Their words were very sweet and kind. Then, we switched things up and talked about how objects and experiences can bring us joy and happiness. That day, the students shared about something they are grateful for. The students shared about how they are thankful for our class being in-person for as long as we have been able to do so.

Then, yesterday, the final day of our academic week, I had the students focus on all of the little things in life that can bring us happiness, including trees, a sunset, a smile, laughter, and much more. That afternoon’s share was all about them sharing those little things they noticed throughout the day. One student shared about how she was thankful for a tree in the woods living and dying so that she could use the bark to weatherize her group’s shelter in the forest. Another student shared about how she was thankful that we were able to discuss big, important issues like gun control and race during our weekly current events discussions. One student shared how he was thankful for rainy days so that we can better appreciate the sunny ones. I almost began tearing up as the students shared the little things in their life that they stopped to notice yesterday that bring them joy and peace. “They are getting it. They are becoming grateful young people who stop and smell the music,” I thought to myself.

In this dark and wild year of anything-goes, it’s refreshing to know that we still have so much to be grateful for in our lives, from people to rainy days. As adults, we often times move from thing to thing or place to place without ever stopping to pause, reflect, and be grateful. My goal this week was to help my fifth graders learn to practice stopping, reflecting, and being grateful. We need more positivity in this world, more happiness. I’m grateful for my amazing fifth graders and how well they practiced the power of gratitude this past week. I’m grateful that I had one final week with my students in-person to be able to really dig into the benefits of being thankful. As my school moves into remote instruction next week, I am hopeful that the foundation we have worked so hard to lay in our classes will help make the transition more smoother than if we had been remote since September. I believe that my students are ready to take on the world and rock remote instruction starting on Monday. No metaphorical iceberg will slow them down or cause their ship to slowly sink. While we would all much rather be in-person, for the safety of our school community, we need to make the change to virtual Beech Hill School. We’ve got this. #WhereStudentsThrive

The Great, Remote, Fifth Grade Science Exposition

Driving recently, I noticed scattered pages from what appeared to be someone’s diary lining the street near where I live. How’d they get there? Is it just trash or litter? Who would spread their most personal and private thoughts out for the world to see? Was it an accident? Or did someone purposefully throw the pages into the road for all to see? Perhaps someone wanted to bare their soul for others, spread their heart open and let people in. I wonder if it was a cry for help. Or maybe someone just dropped it while moving or driving. As I drove by this display of strangeness, questions flooded my mind like a storm surge during a hurricane. I couldn’t help but wonder and hypothesize what led to someone’s diary ending up in tattered form on the side of a major road in Concord, NH. I was thinking like a scientist, as I often tell my fifth graders to do. “Think like a scientist and always ask why.”


To help my students learn to think like scientists in the fifth grade, I begin the year by teaching them all about the Scientific Method, or the way scientists DO science. The culminating assessment for this unit is a huge science project that each student completes on their own. For the past month, my fifth graders have been brainstorming and creating experiments, testing hypotheses, researching the science behind their results, writing lab reports, documenting their processes, and developing display boards to highlight the great work that they all completed. It’s been a whirlwind of excitement and wonder in our classroom. If you walked into my classroom during the past few weeks, you might have wondered what was going on. Students were sticking wires into potatoes, collecting water samples from our school’s beaver pond, playing music for plants, making elephant toothpaste, and attaching batteries to magnets. Everyone was doing something different. It was so cool! It felt like controlled chaos and I loved it because the students were engaged in the act of DOING science. They were having fun learning about alternating current, the bacterial composition of tap water, and if Skittles candy differ in taste or just appear to taste differently because of their colors.

Here is a list of the projects the students tackled:

  • Do different colored Skittles candy have a taste difference or is it just our minds playing tricks on us?
  • How does the chemical and bacterial composition of different water types compare or differ?
  • Can a potato be used to power a lightbulb?
  • Does light affect plant growth?
  • How is elephant toothpaste made?
  • Can a magnet store energy from a battery?
  • How do different battery types compare in regards to their actual voltage?
  • Does music affect plant growth?
  • Which type of paper airplane will fly the farthest?

Although this week was host to the annual Fifth Grade Science Exposition at my school, it was the first-ever live-streamed event. As we’re living in a pandemic, the protocol for school events has drastically changed. Family members are no longer allowed into the school or classrooms during the academic day, and so, I had to get creative about how the students would present their science projects to the school community and their families. I created a Google Meet that any family member could join and set up my computer’s camera to record the big event. Each student presented their science experiment to numerous family members and their classmates. While it was new and different, it seemed to go well. The parents were still able to ask questions and provide their children with positive feedback as in year’s past, but it just all happened remotely. The students seemed to enjoy presenting to a camera and did a fabulous job. I was quite impressed with their decorum and preparation. They were all so rehearsed and never once needed to look at their display boards to recall what to say next. It was like watching professionals discussing their science experiments. Despite all of the changes that needed to be made to this year’s Science Exposition, the students rocked the house and showed their families how amazing and fun science can truly be. It was a huge success.

CLICK HERE to view the Google Meet recording of this year’s Fifth Grade Science Exposition.


My Reflection

I was very happy with the entire Science unit on the Scientific Method as well as this project. I feel that this project went very well. It challenged the students to learn how to effectively DO science, think like a scientist, and then present their work for an audience. The students were engaged throughout the unit and seemed to have a ton of fun completing their projects and experiments. The students now all know how to complete a lab report and conduct a scientific investigation; however, the biggest takeaway for the students, in my opinion, is that they all know how to and were able to successfully present their project orally to a live audience. This was the most challenging part of the entire project. The students were very scared to present to their classmates and family members. They had four class days to prepare so that they felt more comfortable and ready to go yesterday. I talked to them about the importance of rehearsal and body language. They learned how to use cue cards instead of looking at and reading from their display boards. They learned how to use their hands to present instead of playing with them or keeping them in their pockets. They also learned the value of pausing instead of saying, “Um, like, or ah.” Public speaking is a huge life skill, and so I’m so glad that my students all had the chance to practice it this week.

Thinking ahead to next year, I would not change a thing about this unit. I feel that the order of lessons and activities went well and works for this unit. The students need to learn the Scientific Method and take notes on it before they can practice it as a class. Then, they need to show that they can apply the steps of the Scientific Method on their own. The flow of this unit works and I do not plan on changing anything for next year, at this point. Of course, I’m always thinking like a scientist and so I will be asking for feedback from my students to find out how they felt this project went. Perhaps they have ideas on things I should change for next year.

Having ‘Snow’ Much Fun in the Fifth Grade

Snow in October? Before Halloween? Is that even possible? Well, in NH it certainly is. Around this wild state we have a saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.” Yesterday that played out in normal fashion. On my drive to school, a few snow flurries started to fall, but nothing was sticking to the ground. Then, about a half-hour later, I peer outside of my classroom window and see what looks like a blizzard taking place. The ground is coated in white. The snow continued through to 11 a.m. yesterday morning and brought us about an inch of wet, cold, delicious, and wonderful snow. I was like a kid in a candy store. Before the students even arrived, I constructed a small snow-person near the front of the school. The students were excited as well and multiple snowball battles ensued until Morning Meeting began. The first snowfall of the season is always so magical and ushers in a festive season of wonder and awe, even if it happens before Halloween.


Much like the magic that comes with the first snow of the season, our fifth grade classroom was lit up this week with hard work, excellent effort, and extreme perseverance that felt quite magical as the students finished working on our first Social Studies project of the school year. After weeks of learning how to take organized notes in their own words as well as how to use the online tool Google Maps, the students finally finished the Expedition USA Group Project on Wednesday of this week. The project had the students plan a cross-country adventure before virtually embarking upon it. They researched multiple states and other parts of our great country that they wanted to visit. They then documented their wild adventures using Google Maps. Each group created a map that showcased their stops along the way with facts, details about their trip, and pictures. They also had to think about their modes of transportation. Would they drive, fly, or boat around the country, and how much would all of that cost? They were using gas calculators, researching airline flights, and figuring out real-world information like adults. On Thursday, each group presented their Google Maps project to the class and talked about their virtual adventures.

It was amazing! Each and every group worked so hard to solve problems encountered, as they communicated effectively, delegated responsibilities, thought like adults, and learned lots of useful academic and life skills. One group learned that there is a National Park in the middle of the ocean off the coast of Florida. Another group learned to be very careful when using Google Maps because their pins and multiple sentences of text vanished on a few occasions. While this was frustrating for them, they persevered through their struggles and accomplished the task at hand. They kept after it and showed Google Maps who’s really in charge. Other groups learned how to collaborate and communicate with a partner, as they had clearly not completed a lot of group projects at their past schools. One group sat in silence for the first two days, until I told them that they needed to discuss their itinerary with each other before I would approve it. By the end of the project, this same group could not stop talking to each other about every aspect of the trip. “What kind of car should we rent? Is this picture okay? Have you revised my markers yet?” I loved watching my students grow as people and thinkers and develop into effective teammates while overcoming challenges and solving problems.

Click on the links below to check out some of the Google Maps my students created to document their journey around our fine country.

As this was the first time I attempted a project like this in my fifth grade classroom, I was a bit nervous about how it would go. Would the students like it? How would the group aspect of it work in these pandemic times? Would Google Maps be too difficult for my students to utilize effectively? All of these thoughts weighed down upon me as the project started, but soon lifted as I realized how truly capable and talented my students are. They worked together to figure out how to use Google Maps, despite hitting some bumps along the way. The students were so excited to work on this project each day in Social Studies class. I rarely had to redirect students during their work periods, as they were so engaged in the project. Because this was a mostly virtual and digital project, the students could work in a socially distanced manner very effectively. My anxieties were assuaged once I let go of the fear and allowed my students to work their magic.

Here’s some of the feedback I received from my students regarding this project:

  • “I loved our Google Maps Project. A thing to make it better would be to actually go on the trip, but I do not think that we would be able to do that.”
  • “What made this project really fun is that we got to make stuff on Google Maps.”
  • “I think our Social Studies Project was amazing! I think we should do another project like it this year.”

The students seemed to enjoy the project, which is crucial for anything I do in the classroom. I want my students to be engaged and take away something from every experience. Would I do this project again next year? Oh yes. This project was a great way to introduce teamwork, collaboration, note-taking, and problem solving. It was engaging for the students and helped them learn more about our beautiful country. So, my plan to take a risk and try something different this year in Social Studies seemed to work. Was it the magic of the first snowfall? Perhaps it was because I introduced the project in such an amazing manner. Or, maybe it was because my students rock the house. It was probably a concoction involving all of the above that led to the very positive outcome. Much like how the factors need to be just so for snow to fall, everything needs to fall into the right place for a project to be effective.

One Fifth Grade Class in Two Stories

This is the tale of one class told in two stories. Sit back and relax, especially if you are a fellow educator, as I know you need a break right now, and enjoy this tiny snapshot of life in my fifth grade classroom.


Story 1: The Fifth Grade Puzzle Taking Shape

It all started in September, when my students first entered my classroom. Equipped with their expectations, hopes, and dreams, my nine new students sauntered into my classroom, properly masked and excited to begin a new school year. They brought their past experiences and personal challenges with them as well. They carried all of who they are and who they want to be with them on that rainy September morning. As each of my wonderful new students is special and unique in their own way, my role as their teacher is to guide them on this journey in the fifth grade, to help them see how they are all separate pieces of one amazing class puzzle. I have spent the first six weeks trying to determine how this puzzle will come together: Which pieces fit best next to each other, which pieces need some nudging and shoving to fit together, and what will the completed puzzle look like. I have no blueprint or picture of what it will all look like when it’s finished next June, but I’m beginning to see glimpses of what may be.

To help me start to unravel the mystery of our class puzzle, I asked the students a few weeks ago to think about what they want our fifth grade class family to be like and act like. How do they want to see our year progress in the fifth grade. They drew very symbolic and positive images representing their interpretation of their hopes and desires for our class. They hope that we grow into a kind and compassionate community that functions as a family while learning, solving problems, and having lots of fun together. The students all seemed to have the same goal in mind back then.

Then came the Storming Phase of community development. The students bickered with each other, argued with one another, and struggled to coexist effectively. Each day seemed to bring a new challenge or disaster with which to address. I started to wonder if our hopes for what our class family could be would ever come to fruition. That, however, was about three weeks ago. Fast forward to this week.

During our Closing Circle at the end of one particular day this week, I previewed the schedule for our next class day. I talked about what would happen on that day and what the students would need to bring to be prepared and ready to go for the day. I then addressed questions the students had. A student asked if the one student working alone to construct his forest shelter, as his partner is home doing remote learning, would be earning double bonus points if he finished his shelter on his own.

Quick side-bar, the student asking the question was someone who has struggled with fairness and equality. She would often debate about why one student is able to do that but she has to do this. She has been very focused on making sure that everything is even and that no one receives better treatment than anyone else. Now back to our regularly scheduled story.

So that student asked if another student would be able to earn more bonus points than everyone else for completing the same task as everyone else. And, she wasn’t asking it to be sure I would say, “No,” she was asking for my permission. She wanted to ensure that the student working alone would be doubly rewarded for his hard work and effort. As she asked the question aloud in front of the class, my heart began to swell with pride and joy. Did she just ask to help a classmate even though it might be viewed as unfair? I was so happy that I could cry. My students are getting it, they are coming together and forming the community that they had hoped to create. They are taking care of each other like a family. But wait, the awesomeness didn’t cease with that one monumental question. Oh no, the wonderfulness continued.

Quick pause… My answer to her question, by the way, was, “Yes,” with a caveat. I wanted to make sure that the rest of the class was on board with this idea. So, I had the students vote if they agreed with her suggestion. It was unanimous. They all wanted to give that student working alone extra points if he finished his shelter on Forest Friday. …Unpause.

Then, that student working alone asked if his partner, who is doing remote learning, could earn bonus points if he finished the shelter without him. He asked if his partner, who would not be helping him, could earn free bonus points just for being his partner. In the real world, adults would be like, “You snooze, you lose.” This student was treating this situation as an opportunity to be compassionate and show that we truly are a fifth grade family. My response was probably not the most compassionate, but it was realistic, “No.” Then, the student replied and said, “Well, I’ll just give him half of my points anyway.” Wow! He would be willing to share his points with his partner who is not even at school right now. He’d be giving up points that could help him earn special prizes and rewards. Tears welled up within me. My class was transforming into a family of kind and caring fifth graders. They are bringing their vision for a utopian fifth grade community to life through their actions. All of our hard work in discussing what we want our class community to be like, has paid off. The puzzle is really starting to come together. We are transforming into the fifth grade family that we all hoped to become at the start of the year. Each student is finding a way to make their piece more easily fit into our beautiful fifth grade puzzle.

Story 2: Discussing Political Issues in the Fifth Grade

It used to be that teachers were told to walk the middle line between sides when discussing politics. We were supposed to leave our biases at the door each morning. As teachers, we were trained to be neutral when addressing politicized issues. Some education gurus even suggested that we steer clear of talking about politics in the classroom, as it can polarize and incite the class. While I certainly don’t agree with that last tidbit of information, I had always tried to keep my bias out of the classroom when teaching. My goal has always been to provide students with information on both sides of an issue so that they can begin to form their own, educated opinions. I’ve always tried to walk the line of demarcation when talking about hot button issues in the classroom.

Recently though, in our current political landscape, I am reading more and more articles that suggest that teachers should take a stance and share their views with the students. We need to help them learn how to form opinions by sharing ours with them, many education scholars are saying. Is it possible to share our views on difficult topics with the class without imparting bias? I’m not sure I could do that. I feel that the minute I share my thought on an issue, my students are going to either take my side or argue why I’m wrong. It makes more sense to me to present both sides of the issue to students, as the neutral party, and then let them come to their own conclusions. So, this is how I discuss current events in my fifth grade classroom.

During the first five weeks of the school year, I discussed current events with my students through the vehicle of the New York Times Weekly News Quiz. I would have a student attempt to answer the question before we talked about the particular topic the question addressed. This allowed us much breadth, as we discussed at least 11 topics each week. However, I found that not all students were engaged in the weekly discussions when conducted in this manner. So, I decided to throw out breadth and focus on depth this week.

Yesterday during our current events discussion, we focused solely on the issue of Gun Control in our country. We talked about the issue itself as well the pros and cons of it. We watched two short videos that offered unbiased and factual information about the issue before we got into the discussion phase of the lesson. I wanted to be sure that the students had a strong foundation of knowledge regarding the topic before they began forming opinions and sharing their thoughts with the class.

Then came the discussion. The students asked very insightful questions including, “Should a person’s mental disease or condition have to be a part of a background check?” “If times have changed, why don’t we change the Constitution and alter or delete the second amendment?” We dug deep into the issue of gun control yesterday afternoon. We spent about 50 minutes discussing this topic as a class. The students shared their thoughts and views on guns and gun control. I played the Devil’s Advocate several times to offer alternative views or thoughts to be sure that I was providing equal coverage to both sides of the issue. Hunting, protection, murder, and all other topics regarding the issue of gun control were discussed and talked about. I never shared my thoughts on the issue with the students, as my goal was to have them form their own opinions based on the facts and information, and not my thoughts and feelings.

At the end of the activity, I asked the students where they stood on the issue. “Are you for or against gun control?” I asked them. One student then said that she agrees with pieces on both sides and asked if we could add a third category of Middle as a possible answer. I agreed and a few students are still torn on the issue, which is completely understandable, as this is a tricky issue that doesn’t have an easy or simple solution. My final words to them yesterday afternoon were, “Keep talking to others about this issue. Keep thinking about gun control and how you feel about it. Talk to your parents and family members this weekend about the issue of gun control. What do they think? Where do they stand? Try to gather as much information as possible on the topic because before you know it, you’ll be registering to vote and choosing candidates for governor, president, or congress, and so you’ll want to know where you stand so that you can make the best and most informed decision for yourself.”

It felt like a very effective and meaningful discussion. We talked about a serious issue in a very serious manner. The students were thoughtful, engaged, and intrigued. They asked excellent questions and brought up topics on both sides of the issue. Because we spent time during the start of the year talking about the art of discussing serious and sensitive issues, we were able to have a very fruitful and serious discussion in class yesterday regarding gun control. I felt as though I kept my bias entirely out of the discussion and tried to keep the students guessing as to where I stand. What we do in the classroom should never be about us, it should always be about the students. Discussing current events and political issues in an unbiased manner is crucial for students to learn as they develop and grow into informed, global citizens.

Time Traveling Through Transitions in the Fifth Grade

Time travel is possible, some physicists suggest. We, one day, may be able to travel backwards and forwards in time. Doc Brown was right all along in the Back to the Future movie series, time travel is real. Where in time would you go and what would you do? Would you go into the future to make money or back in time to save someone? Would it be possible to change things or affect the timeline? Could I bring a dinosaur back with me from the Jurassic Period? Oh wait, scratch that, I’ve seen the Jurassic Park movies. Things will go wrong. If we did change things, would that unravel the fabric of time or just lead to the future that follows? How long do we have to wait to be able to jump through time loops? 5 years? 10 years? Or is it already possible, which is why 2020 seems so strange and bizarre? Have people already begun manipulating time and space? Did someone from the future make me write this as a sign or message to time travelers everywhere? When will I be able to go back to the future? Or have I already done so?


Metaphorically, I do time travel on a daily basis. I call my time traveling machine reflection. When I reflect on my teaching day, I am able to visualize what I did and how it all occurred. While I can’t play with time and force it to bend to my will, I can imagine what might have played out had I done or said something differently. I can think about how a lesson or activity went and then tweak it the next time I make use of it. In essence, reflection is mental time travel. I can change the future because I reflect on my past.

Reflecting on this past week in my fifth grade classroom, I am a bit shocked and amazed by what happened. I am surprised that the week took place as it did. I am flabbergasted by how my students acted and behaved this past week. Did some strange chemical leach into our well water causing the events to unfold as they did? Or is time travel to blame? Did my students travel back in time to fill me with shock and awe? Oh, those jokesters.

After a week away from normal classes due to a special week of Electives that took place during the first full week of ‘R’october, I was curious to see how long it would take my students to get back on track. In fact, our weekly focus was “Getting Back on Track.” I wondered how many reminders of rules and protocol with which I would need to provide my students throughout this week. Would they remember to bring all of their school supplies with them to class each day, as they were away from the routine for over a week? What would this short week look like? I pondered on Monday evening, prior to the first day back in the fifth grade.

Well, let’s just say, my conjecture was unnecessary. I was blown away by how this week went. My students worked harder this week, than they had during the first month of school. They diligently completed their homework assignments, followed our class norms to a T, and made many of the changes I suggested to them in student conferences we had two weeks ago. It was as if that week away from class together never happened. Their writing skills improved. They listened better than ever. They followed directions as though they heard and processed what I was saying. They were kind and compassionate to one another despite differences experienced in the past. One student who had been very frustrated with a peer, helped that same student while playing a video game after school this week. She jumped right up and helped him understand how to play the game and even gifted him a special pet that he could use in the game. Things like that did not happen prior to this week.

So, what did lead to these wild and strange changes in my fifth grade classroom? Did my students suddenly transform into pod people? Are they robots who do what they are told? No, they definitely acted upon their free will, as they joked, created, and solved problems on their own. Robots can’t do things like that, yet. What was it then? A whole week had past since we were last together, yet they grew as students and came back showing maturity. How is that possible? I blame it on their brains. Being away from the class and their peers for a week, gave them the opportunity to reflect upon and process all things fifth grade. They thought about the mistakes they had made, the progress that had taken place, the awesome facts they’ve been learning, and all the cool things we did in the fifth grade during the first month of school. They thought about the changes they would need to make to continue to grow and develop as students. They made plans and set goals for themselves during that week away. And then, BAM! They came back as seemingly new and improved students, when in reality they were the same students who had simply undergone mental maturity and growth. If you love something set it free, right? Well, I did, and my stellar class returned with plenty of socially-distanced air hugs and air hi-fives. Distance really does make the heart grow fonder.

While I enjoyed my Makerspace Elective from the week prior, I did so miss my fifth graders. I missed their smiles, silly jokes about my balding head, great effort, and kind actions. I missed working with the fifth grade family, but not anymore because we are back in action. Team Five is ready to go. We had an awesome week of growth and hard work in the classroom this past week.

  • The students continued working on their Scientific Method Project in Science class, as they experimented with potatoes, paper air planes, batteries, magnets, water, plants, and candy. Two students even finished their Lab Report because they were so focused and dedicated to staying on task this week. Amazing!
  • The students all finished their 300-word stories in Language Arts as part of our blended instruction unit on Sentences and Stories. They all had so much fun crafting unique and original stories that many of them far exceeded the 300 word minimum. One story was over seven pages in length. Now that’s what I call effort and engagement.
  • The students finished the research phase of our Expedition USA Project in Social Studies, as they completed their final sets of notes this week. Prior to this week, the notes they had completed lacked organization and depth. This week, they crafted notes as though that was their sole purpose in life. Their bullet-style notes were detailed, organized, and chock full of great facts about the state or region they had researched. Awesome sauce!
  • In Math, the students made great progress in our first unit, as I set a testing day for the end of this month. They worked through the lessons with gusto and focus that were not present prior to the Electives week. Somebody get me some water because my class is on fire!
  • As part of our mindfulness curriculum this week, we talked about how to spread, amongst the rest of the school, the strong sense of community we have fostered in the fifth grade. How can we help share kindness and compassion with the rest of the school? The students suggested some epic ideas, and in the end voted on creating kindness cards for the students. So, Thursday morning, the students began the process of writing cards meant to inspire happiness to the students and faculty of our school. They wrote jokes and mentioned how happy they are to be a part of a community that includes so many wonderful people. Their goal was to spread some happiness throughout our school, and I believe that it worked.
  • The students made such great progress with their shelters during Forest Friday this week. They worked in their groups as though they were each cogs in a machine of awesomeness. Many of the groups have almost finished constructing their shelters and making them weatherproof for the upcoming winter season. While they worked hard during previous episodes of Forest Friday, they brought the Thunder and Lightning yesterday.
  • Friday afternoon, the students played with their vegetables as they carved pumpkins, gutted gourds, and crafted unique and festive pumpkin creations. They had so much fun cutting, painting, and creating. It was a pleasure observing them working, laughing, and living as a family of learners and people.

After not knowing quite what to expect for this week in the fifth grade due to our time away, I was thoroughly impressed, surprised, and excited for the outcome. I am such a lucky and fortunate educator to be working at a safe, small school that embraces creativity, diversity, and risk-taking. I love all of my fifth grade students, past and present. They are wonderful and unique individuals blossoming into amazing young adults. I can’t wait to find out what happens next week in the on-going saga of As the Fifth Grade World Turns in a Pandemic. Well, I could cheat and jump into my DeLorean and time travel to next week to find out. Or, I could just live in the moment and wait for the future to come to me. Hmmm, so many choices. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

Letting Go of the Fear Has Made Me a Better Teacher

Imagine this… It’s a sunny day in your classroom and you are modeling how to execute a computer code using Code.org or another coding website for your students. However, things get a little weird when you press the RUN button. Suddenly, all of the students in your classroom start doing exactly what you want them to do at the same time, as if they are robots programmed with your code. When the students finish running their code, you notice that you start doing something that seems completely unlike you, as if you are being controlled by someone or something. Something fishy is definitely afoot. So, you try another code, hoping that this one will yield different results. When you press the RUN key, the students do exactly what you hoped they would do, sit quietly and wait. It’s like you are programming the students. This causes you a bit of trepidation, as you don’t want to have this much control over your students, or any human for that matter. So, you do what you always do when you wonder what is best for your students, you ask them and open a discussion. One of the students wants to test this theory out on you, and so you agree. After the student runs the program, you begin writing “No Homework” on the whiteboard without even trying. The student jumps out of his seat and yells, “It works!”

Interesting, right? Programming computers is very different from working with actual people who have free will, but what if they didn’t. What if computer coding turned them all into robots? I wonder if it’s dystopian scenarios like this one that keep some teachers from trying computer coding with their students. Perhaps they are afraid that it will transform their students into puppet masters or teenage zombie gamers. Fear is a powerful emotion that can cause people to do bizarre things, as if we are being controlled by some greater and stronger force than ourselves. Fear is much like the computer code in my story, as it forces us to do things that we would not normally do. Imagine what would happen if people learn to give up control and refuse to let fear drive them. We would allow free will to do its thing and work its magic on us. We could go with the flow and make choices based in reality that are best for us. What a wonderful world that would be.

I used to live in fear and tried to control every aspect of my life. When I first started teaching, I thought that students should be seen and not heard. I attempted to create a culture of silence in my classroom. I did most of the talking in my classroom during my first few years in education. I was an ineffective teacher that didn’t engage students because I was too afraid of what might happen if I allowed students to talk or make choices. Then, slowly, as I became more confident and started to see that fear wasn’t the only emotion one could experience, I started to change. I began fostering a sense of community and equality within my classes. I learned that giving students a voice and a choice, leads to engagement and genuine learning. When I gave up being afraid, I started to become a better, more effective teacher.


This past week marked Electives Week at my school. Each teacher hosted a week-long course regarding a passion or interest that they hold. Some of the offerings included Drama, Art, LEGO Robotics, and Outdoor Adventure. It was a welcomed change of pace in these very strange times in which we are living. The students seemed to enjoy themselves and the faculty members loved trying something different for the week.

I hosted the Makerspace Elective this past week and had a blast doing so. In years past, I never would have dreamed of trying something so free-range, so chaotic and out of control. Each student was working on a different project at the same time. Some students were using a jigsaw to cut wood while others were screwing materials together. The new-teacher version of me would have had an anxiety attack throughout the week; however, the wise, more experienced teacher version of me loved allowing students to choose their challenge and persevere through problems encountered while working at their own pace. It was so much fun observing the students work, take risks, try new things, learn from their mistakes, and create something entirely on their own. To view pictures of the students working throughout the week, CLICK HERE.

The agenda for the week:

  • The students spent the entire day on Monday learning to speak the language of computers and machines. I chose to begin the week this way so that the students would have to train themselves to think logically instead of creatively. Changing their mindset and being flexible is a vital lifeskill. While both logic and creativity are needed to be a successful maker, most students focus their energy on the creative side of problem solving instead of the logical side. I wanted the students to see that following a protocol in a logical manner can lead to success as well. They began the day by working through a course I assigned them using Code.org. They practiced coding and the keys to successfully programming computers to get them to do what they would like. The afternoon was spent playing with Edison Robots or Makey Makey devices.
    • While most of the students enjoyed learning how to code, it was challenging for some and pushed them out of their comfort zone a bit. The students were focused and seemed to have fun coding games and making cool things happen on the screen.
  • The rest of the week was spent working through the Engineering Design Process, as they brainstormed problems in their world and constructed working solutions. They devised cool and interesting solutions to problems they face in their day-to-day lives. They built, tested, revised, retested, and revised throughout Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Thursday afternoon, they presented their ideas to the rest of the group in the form of a commercial or advertisement, similar to the television show Shark Tank.
    • The students had a blast working with their hands and creating something while using all sorts of powerful tools. To outsiders peering in, it would have seemed like pure chaos had been unleashed with sawdust flying everywhere, loud sounds emitting from power tools, and devious smiles plastered upon the faces of the students. To those experienced in letting go of the fear, the classroom was actually full of students learning to use power tools, solve problems, learn from their mistakes, and make something of their own creation. The room was buzzing with creativity, logic, and excitement. The students were so happy to be DOING. It was awesome!

Some of the projects the students created:

A play area for our class hamster
A money sorting box to keep things organized
A vast, safe, open area for our class hamster to enjoy.
A portable, outdoor chair for all-school meetings
An inexpensive way to make a modeling kit
An arcade setup for a laptop using a Makey Makey controller

Here is some of the feedback I received from the students via a Course Evaluation they all completed:

  • 75% of the students enjoyed completing the coding and programming activities.
  • 100% of the students saw the value in learning about the Engineering Design Process.
  • The students learned valuable skills including…
    • “The jigsaw has some kickback.”
    • “I learned how to use a jigsaw, sander, and a drill, really all things I’ve always never wanted to use but now realize that all I want to use are those tools.”
    • “I learned how I can use the engineering and design process in almost everything I do.”
  • Every student encountered at least one problem throughout the week and found a way to solve it…
    • “I figured out that my chair wasn’t portable, and so I had to fix it by redesigning it.”
    • “When I was building my structure, the door was very hard to make and I got help from Mr. Holt and it helped a lot!”
  • 100% of the students were happy with the product they created and proud of what they had accomplished.
  • When asked what they would change, the students responded…
    • “I would probably do more coding because I think it is a big part of almost all jobs.”
    • “Nothing, because I enjoyed it!”
    • “Maybe spend a little less time on the test. We devoted AN ENTIRE DAY to the verification of our ability to use tools. Still keep it in there though, it is still very important to the elective.”
    • “Only spend half a day on coding to give us more time on project.”
    • “Maybe let us work without power tools outside during breaks and lunch because I felt like I could have finished quicker if I had more time.”
  • Open feedback regarding the Elective provided by the students…
    • “It was the best week of school ever!!!!!”
    • “I loved it!”
    • “I loved every second of it. Thank you for providing this enriching experience!”
    • “It was awesome.”

I felt as though the week was super fun and successful. The only change I would make, if I were to offer this Elective again, would be to cut down on the coding time. Perhaps a whole day of coding was a bit much. I would provide students with a choice for the morning and then transition into the Tool Training in the afternoon. I would also find an easier to use programmable robot for the students to use, as the Edison Robots were very complicated for the students to figure out on their own. Other than that, I would keep the agenda the same. The students had a blast. In creating a student-centered approach to education, I have allowed myself to grow and mature as a teacher, and I am finding new and innovative ways to engage and inspire students. Letting go of the fear has made all the difference in the world.

Progress Made in the Fifth Grade Fish Tank

While the upcoming holiday of Halloween will probably end up being the strangest, most different Halloween we’ve ever experienced, the spirit of the day will most certainly remain. People will always enjoy watching scary movies, playing tricks on their friends, and eating lots of tasty candy. All will not be lost during this pandemic, as Halloween will always be Halloween.

With the festive Halloween season upon us, during our outdoor snack and mask breaks in the fifth grade, I’ve been sharing some slightly scary stories with students who ask to hear one. I start every story the same way, “This is a true story that happened to a friend of mine growing up.” The scare factor goes way up if people think that the story you are weaving is true. It’s more believable that way. Now, of course, being a compassionate teacher, I do not want to terrify my students and give them nightmares for weeks, and so I do share with them, at the end of each story, that it was completely fabricated and not real. I don’t want to lie to my students, but there is an art to telling a great story. People have to believe that it could have happened, that it’s realistic, especially when it comes to scary stories.

What I’m about to tell you is a true story that happened to me in my dreams last night. It’s difficult for me to even reflect back on it now, a few hours later, but I believe it will serve as a warning for others. It all began with a fish tank. I was in a house that wasn’t mine, trying to fill a fish tank with water. As I filled it with water, fish and other fish tank creatures started to appear. It was all quite magical. Then, for some reason, an unknown person collected some fish from the tank and put them into a small plastic cup. As the person attempted to hold the cup of fish and water, it slipped from their grasp and fell to the floor. As the fish flopped on the ground, I ran to pick them up and carefully transported them back into the fish tank. As I did so, the tank had lost water and more things appeared in the tank. What was happening, I thought to myself in my dream. The fish seemed to be okay and swam away as I put them back into the tank. However, the unknown, strange person who had caused the fish accident in the first place disappeared from my dream. What happened to them? Who was that ominous person, and why did they spill the fish? Will they return and spill more fish? Perhaps we’ll never know, because then, I woke up. The takeaway from this creepy story is to never trust unknown people in your dreams to collect and hold onto your fish.

The most bizarre part of the whole dream was that I don’t own or have ever owned a fish tank. Why fish? I haven’t recently eaten fish or gone fishing. What does it all mean? Will I fall into owning a fish tank soon? Is the fish tank a metaphor for something in my life? Should I not have eaten chocolate so soon before going to bed last night? So many questions with no answers.


As my fifth grade class was heading into the Storming phase of community formation at the close of last week, I wondered what this week would bring in the classroom. Rather than be a bystander and hold on for dear life as my class attempts to guide us through this epic storm, I decided to take the wheel and captain the ship this week.

From the beginning of this past week, I was very transparent and open with my class about what I have been noticing. I talked with them about the three phases of community formation: Forming, Storming, and Norming. I told them that at the end of last week, we shifted into the Storming phase, which is a good sign because it means that we are feeling more comfortable with each other. However, I shared, it also means that disagreements are going to take place, as we try to understand what kind of class community and family we want to create in the fifth grade this year.

The focus for our week was, “How do you want to remember our year in the fifth grade?” We delved into this question all week. We talked about what kind of friend, person, and student they want to be. We discussed what it means to be a great friend, student, and person in the fifth grade. I had two conferences with every student this week regarding their social and academic progress in the fifth grade. I shared progress reports with them and talked with each student about what they need to focus on in order to continue to grow and develop as a fifth grader.

We closed out the week with two different, yet important reflection activities:

The first activity had the students craft letters to themselves that they will read at the end of the school year. In the letter, they addressed how they want to remember their year in the fifth grade.

  • How do you want to remember our year together in the fifth grade? 
  • What kind of friend do you want to be this year? 
  • What kind of person do you want to be remembered as? 
  • What kind of student do you want to be this year? 
  • What kind of grades do you want to earn this year? 
  • What do you need to do to achieve your goals?

The students wrote amazing, lengthy, and honest letters to themselves. I was blown away by their openness and willingness to put their best effort into this task. They seemed to really understand how important their attitude and effort is to the success of our year together in the fifth grade. They see that they are all vital parts of this intricate machine, and in order for this fifth grade machine to operate properly, they need to do their job to the best of their ability. They need to be empathetic friends, compassionate people, and hard working students able to persevere through every challenge thrown their way. They totally get it!

Here are some excerpts from their letters:

  • “I want to remember my year in the fifth grade as a year where everyone was united, and though I know there will be problems, at the end of the day, we’re friends and a family.”
  • “Last thing, I want to remember fifth grade as a fun year with marble parties and a time when I learned lots of stuff about all of the subjects and outdoors stuff.”
  • “I hope you remember your year as a fun and active one.”
  • “I want others to remember you as a kind and thoughtful friend.”
  • “I want to remember fifth grade as a fun year and a good time making forts in the forest.”
  • “I want to be remembered as a nice, kind, and caring friend.”
  • “I want to remember the year in fifth grade as a warm and loving place.”
  • “I want the other students to remember me, and to know me as a kind, empathetic, helpful, and a truly trying person.”

The second activity had the students reflect on the goals they set for themselves at the end of last week. They wrote about their progress in working towards their goals, as well as what they need to work on to meet any goals they have yet to meet. For every goal they met, they set a new goal for the coming weeks. What do they want to work on or improve upon? How do they want to challenge themselves to grow as fifth graders?

They did a stellar job reflecting on their goals and working to set new ones. They thought about their progress and were honest with themselves. They seem to understand the value of goal setting as a way to improve and grow. I was impressed with their metacognition.

Here are some excerpts from their goal reflections:

  • “The reason I did not finish my 3rd goal is because reading and math club are both on things to do when done and there is not that much time when I get to things to do when done. The reason I finished my math club goal is that I used all of my time on things to do when done. The reason I finished my goal to not fidget with objects is because I put lots of my mental work into that. The reason I formed lots of opinions about politics is that I payed attention to Fridays when we talk about them. The reason why I finished is my 300 word story is because I got right to work and banged it out.”
  • “I didn’t finish my 300 word story by October 2 because we only had our sentences and stories unit 2 this week. The first time we had it I started my story and the second time I sharpened the story making the beginning better. How I am going to finish this goal is to work constantly on it. The reason I didn’t get to Level Five on Math Club was because I was only able to squeeze it in twice during the week. But I am on Level Four, so only one more level. How I’m going to fix it is going to do it on Monday in two weeks during Math Club Monday. But I also want to work on it more during the week. But not next week because next week will be electives week.”
  • “I haven’t met my first goal because I didn’t do enough reading, what I will do to get towards that goal is finish my book by 2.5.20. I haven’t met my third goal because I haven’t done meditation a lot at home, what I will do to get towards that goal is to practice whenever it comes to my head. What I did to meet my second goal was to look around the room every once in a while to see if people were following directions, and reminded them when Mr. Holt wasn’t talking. My next goal is to finish my homework more.”

Because I put a specific plan in action for how to combat the end of the Honeymoon period that led us into the Storming phase, I was able to captain my class through the rough waters a bit. While we still have much work to do together, much progress was made this week in the classroom. We worked through some social issues regarding interactions amongst peers, talked about how to challenge ourselves to put forth more effort and focus in class, and had a lot of fun together along the way. I am pleased with how things turned out this week regarding my awesome fifth grade class. We are sure to have a great year together. After one month filled with lots of challenges and progress, I can’t wait to see what month number two has in store for us. Perhaps I’ll also be able to figure out why I had a dream about a fish tank.

It’s Not You, it’s Us: How the Honeymoon Phase Ended in my Class

It was fun while it lasted, but the honeymoon phase has finally ended in my fifth grade classroom. Gone are the days of students following the rules because they are too afraid not to. No more calming breaks for me, as students are bringing various conflicts to my attention. The students are beginning to reveal their true selves: They are pushing the limits of our class expectations and struggling to coexist peacefully. While this feels uncomfortable for me as the teacher, as I’m constantly bombarded with situations to address in the classroom, it is, however, good news, because it means that the students are feeling comfortable and safe with me and their peers; they are letting their guard down. They are opening up to me and starting to form friendships in the class. This is awesome and all part of the process of building class and team communities. While I may pine, for a fleeting moment, for the time when things seemed more like an Enya video in my classroom, I also know that the important work can now begin because of this transformation.

It begins with Forming, which happens during the first two to three weeks of school. Things seem amazing and the students are starting to feel things out. Almost every plan and lesson seems to go right during this time, as the students haven’t let their guard down yet. They are following directions to the letter and behaving like model students. Then comes the Storming phase, which is when they test boundaries, expectations, and relationships. They grumble and argue quite a bit during this stage of community development, as they are trying to figure out what type of family they want to create. After several weeks, or perhaps months, comes the Norming phase, which is when things start to feel really good. Relationships are strong, trust is fostered, and the community begins to really come together during this final stage of community formation.

I’m hopeful that the Storming phase won’t last too long in my class this year, however, it does provide me the opportunity to dig into some real meat and issues with the students. I have devised a plan to, hopefully, help the students learn how to better self-regulate themselves, address issues with each other in meaningful ways, and notice that their actions have lasting consequences. Here’s how I intend to put this plan into motion next week. Wait, first I feel like this plan needs a special name of some sort like Operation Storming the Fifth Grade or Mission Delta Blade Alpha. Okay, think, what would be an epic, yet appropriate name for this mission? Hmmm… Oh, I’ve got it. I will call this mission, Operation Duty Knife, because, sometimes you just need to cut the poop to get it to correctly flush down the toilet.

  • I will begin our Morning Meeting on Tuesday, our first day of school for the upcoming week as we have no school on Monday due to the Jewish high holiday Yom Kippur, introducing the focus for our week: How do you want to remember our year in the fifth grade? I’m hopeful that this focal point will elicit a conversation amongst the students about the experience they want to have in class this year. What kind of year do they want to have? One filled with bickering and no fun or one filled with lots of memorable and magical experiences because we figured out how to successfully coexist together?
  • I will then rearrange our daily schedule on Tuesday so that I can meet with each student individually, following Morning Meeting. We will begin our day with Reader’s Workshop so that I have the opportunity to conference with each student. In these meetings I will review the goals that they set for themselves this past week and share my thoughts on what they need to focus on in order to continue to grow and develop as students.
  • Throughout the week during Morning Meeting, Mindfulness, and Closing Circle, we will discuss what it means to be a good friend, student, and person. We will discuss character and what it means to develop good, positive character.
  • At the end of next week, I will have the students each write a letter to themselves that they will read again at the end of the school year. In the letter, they will write about how they hope they will be able to reflect back on their year in the fifth grade. They will share their hopes and wishes for our fifth grade year. I will hold onto these letters for the year and reference them when things are going great or when our road gets a bit bumpy along the way.
  • I will incorporate some sort of Yoga or whole-body movement into each Morning Meeting. If they have the chance to move and be mindful, I’m hopeful that they will begin their day in a serene manner.
  • Each Closing Circle will also provide the students the opportunity to share an Appreciation, Apology, or A-Ha moment from the day. Reflection packs much power, and allowing students to think back on their day in an insightful and positive manner might help them go out into the rest of their day feeling more energized.

While the beginning of the Storming phase in my fifth grade class was inevitable, I do feel that I need to step up my teacher game a bit to better support and help my students grow and form into the best possible class community. I can do better, and I now have a plan of action to foster the change I am looking for. I’m excited for next week to arrive so that I can try out my new plan and implement Operation Duty Knife; however, I’m also looking forward to taking a little break this weekend and spending time with the new kitty my wife and I just adopted. Penny is an eight-month old fur ball of love and affection. To quote one of the great bands from the 1990s Presidents of the United States of America, “Kitty at my foot and I wanna touch it.”