What Makes an Effective Sixth Grade Program?

As the winter term winds to a close today at my wonderful school, I find myself reflecting and pondering grading, assessment, and our overall academic program.  What makes an effective academic program?  What allows a school to function in a meaningful and relevant manner?  This then led me to contemplate the sixth grade program that I’ve been working on developing over the past 11 years or so…

Introduction

Going through the adolescent stage of development is like being on a roller coaster without a seat belt.  When you flip upside down, you fall out of your seat unless you are holding on with everything you’ve got.  Each benchmark within adolescence brings new turns, curves, and loops.  Working with adolescent boys is like trying to dodge raindrops.  You can’t avoid the inevitable.  Craziness and chaos will ensue.  But heck, that’s why middle school teachers work with this age group.  We’re a little crazy too because we remember what it was like to be this age.

At Cardigan, we make it our mission to mold young boys into compassionate and mindful young men.  It’s a wild and sometimes frustrating journey, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  Boys who attend sixth grade at Cardigan begin this adventure earlier than most as it is the youngest and smallest grade at our school.  Because of this, we have created a very unique  program that will help our boys foster a family spirit and connection that they carry with them throughout their time at Cardigan; to help provide them with some safety features on the bumpy roller coaster of adolescence.

Rationale

Brain-based research on how learning really happens reveals that students learn best when they are engaged, motivated, feel safe, are challenged and supported.  The sixth grade program has greatly evolved over the years due to this research and, as sixth grade teachers, we are always trying to find new and innovative ways to inspire and effectively educate and prepare our boys for meaningful lives in a global society.

Our Philosophy: We’re a family, and families take care of each other

The first ten weeks of the academic year are focused on building a strong family atmosphere amongst the students.  One of our biggest goals in the sixth grade is to foster a sense of family within the boys.  We want the students to understand and be able to effectively coexist with one another in a way that celebrates their differences.  First, as teachers, we model the behavior we expect to see from the students.  Second, we spend time each week talking about what makes an effective community.  We have the students share personal information about themselves including interests, hobbies, sports, and social identifiers.  We help the boys examine all parts of their personality that remain hidden to most of the world.  In exploring this, the students begin to think deeply and critically about themselves and how they fit into the world.  They also have a chance to share this information with their peers.  While making them vulnerable, it helps the boys make deep connections with each other.  We provide the students with specific strategies on how to communicate with their peers effectively, how to solve problems amongst themselves, and how to work together as a team to accomplish tasks.  We utilize numerous team building activities as catalysts for these mini-lessons: The boys build spaghetti towers in small groups, create a scavenger hunt with a partner, and solve various tasks that provide opportunities to practice and learn how to be effective teammates.  We want the boys to understand what it takes to be Cardigan community member.  

During the first month of school, we take the boys on an overnight trip to our school’s CORE cabin to help build a sense of family and community within the boys.  While the location of the cabin is on our campus, it feels very like it could be miles away.  We build a fire together and then roast marshmallows.  We tell stories, play games, and interact as a family.  If problems arise, we take the time to help the students learn how to work together to solve them.  It’s an amazing experience that helps lay the groundwork for future whole-class experiences we will provide the boys with throughout our year together.

Mindfulness

During the first term of the academic year, we spend time helping the students learn how to be present and mindful in the moment.  We teach the students many different mindful practices and strategies including deep breathing, visualization, yoga, and meditation.  The boys learn how to self-soothe and calm themselves during moments of intense emotion so that they are able to get the most out of each learning experience in the sixth grade.  We revisit and review these strategies periodically throughout the year as well so that the boys don’t forget them and are able to see the power they hold in helping them stay focused and in the present moment during class.

Classroom Organization

In order to help foster a sense of engagement in the classroom and to allow our students to feel as though they can focus on the lesson or activity at hand, our classroom is organized in a very specific manner.  

We have a reading nook area for small group work, independent reading, and movie viewing when appropriate.  The boys can sit or lie on the carpet squares in any way that allows them to feel engaged and focused.  We also have a small group work table for those students who need to be sitting to work and stay focused.  The desk table area is towards the front of the classroom near our interactive board and projector.  We use whiteboard tables to allow the students the opportunity to take notes, brainstorm, solve math problems, or just doodle upon them while working or listening.  We also use rocking style chairs at the desk work area to allow those students who need to move and stay focused.  These chairs help create a sense of calm and focus in the classroom during full group instruction lessons.  While every student is rocking, they are able to pay attention and listen intently.

These classroom organizational choices are based on the neuroscience of learning.  Students are able to genuinely learn the concepts and skills covered when they feel safe, engaged, and motivated.  The classroom furniture we use and the spaces we’ve created help our students to learn in a meaningful way.

Curriculum

Our goal is for our boys to feel connected to and engaged with the curriculum we employ in the sixth grade.  We want the students to enjoy coming to classes because they are excited and interested in what is happening.  We are constantly revising and updating what we do and how we do it, and because of this, our curriculum is a living and breathing entity.

Humanities

In our humanities class, the students develop their critical thinking skills to become community-minded young men with an awareness of the world around them.  We begin the year with a unit on community so that they learn to accept and appreciate differences in others.  Through completing various activities during the first two weeks of the academic year, the students begin to understand how they fit into our sixth grade family as well as the greater Cardigan community.  The boys also learn much about their peers through this first unit.  Everything else we work on throughout the year in humanities class builds upon this foundation we create at the start of the year.  

The humanities class occupies a double block period that covers both the history and English curriculum for the sixth grade.  This integrated approach allows students to see how the big ideas in History and English go hand in hand.  We cover various communities and cultures from around the world so that we can provide the students with a macro view of the world in a micro manner.  Our goal is to help the students understand perspective and how it can change based on many different factors.  We utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction so that a love of reading and writing is fostered within the boys throughout the year.  

For Reader’s Workshop, the students choose just-right (engaging, grade-level and reading-level appropriate) books so that they are interested in what they are reading.  While at the start of the year, several students often seem uninterested in reading, they grow to become voracious and excited readers because the boys can choose books, novels, texts, and e-books that interest and engage them.  

For Writer’s Workshop, the students choose the topics about which they write within the confines of the genre requirements.  The vignette form of writing is the first genre covered in the sixth grade.  Rather than mandate that it be a personal narrative vignette, we allow the students to choose the topic.  This choice and freedom empowers the students.  “I can write a short story about anything?” we often hear our students exclaim.  For boys, writing is generally not something they enjoy doing.  They would much rather go outside and play or explore instead of writing.  We want our students to see writing as something that can be fun and hands-on.  If we allow our students to write about topics that engage them, a sense of excitement develops within them.

Math Class

As math tends to be a loathsome topic for many, we have made it our mission in the sixth grade, to help students see math as fun and meaningful.  We want our students to see how vital the skills they are learning in our math class are to their everyday lives.  While we do follow a book series, we supplement it with projects and activities that allow the students to see the relevance in what they are learning.  For example, to help the students understand the importance in learning how to solve basic computational problems, we complete a unit on the Stock Market, in which the students, working in small groups, invest in the stock market as they learn financial literacy skills.  In order to buy, trade, or sell stocks, bonds, or funds, they need to accurately calculate the costs associated with their particular transaction.  Through this project, the students learn the value of accuracy in solving various computational problems.  

We utilize the Math in Focus: Singapore Math series of books in our sixth grade math course.  We chose this particular math program because of the options it provides students when introducing new skills.  Students can choose one of three ways to solve problems using skills covered.  This versatility and choice leads to better engagement amongst the students as they pick the method that is most relevant to them.  As we often have a wide range of ability in terms of math skills in the sixth grade class each year, we have the flexibility to greatly differentiate our math instruction.  We challenge each student where they are at the start of the academic year.  We have the ability to help students work through a sixth grade, seventh grade, or eighth grade Singapore Math program based on their math capabilities.  This flexibility allows for the students to be actively engaged in the math curriculum as they are being appropriately challenged.

Science Class

Our science class teaches students to persevere.  They learn how to overcome adversity, think differently, see problems from numerous perspectives, communicate effectively, and be curious. We teach students what to do when faced with a new problem. As Angela Lee Duckworth stated in her well-received TED Talk, we need to teach our students how to be gritty. Our sixth graders are provided with opportunities to explore, try new things, fail, try again, talk with their peers, sketch out new ideas, and then do it all over again.

Our science curriculum holds the bar high for our students. Rigor doesn’t mean that we require more work to be done for the sake of doing it, it means that the standards and objectives we are teaching are challenging, specific, and relevant. Our science units challenge students to think creatively and solve problems in innovative ways. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are the foundation of our curriculum. These standards promote rigor and problem solving in fun and engaging ways.

In past years, we have completed units on astronomy, geology, Earth science, weather, ecology, and chemistry.  Every unit incorporates some sort of project or group activity that challenges the students to think critically to creatively solve problems by applying the content information learned.  For example, in our astronomy unit, we had the students work together to solve a problem facing Earth that originated outside of our planet’s atmosphere.  The students then created a space vehicle, using Little Bits, that allowed them to apply their unique solution to the problem.  Teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity are some of the skills learned and practiced throughout the completion of this project.

PEAKS Class

At Cardigan, while we weave study skills into every course that we teach, we have one class devoted to supplementing and supporting every other core subject: Personalized Education for the Acquisition of Knowledge and Skills (PEAKS).  The true purpose of the course is to help the students understand how they best learn, metacognition.  We begin the year with a unit on the brain and its amazing plasticity as a way to help the students learn to become self-aware and genuinely own their learning.  The students learn how to change their thinking in the classroom so that they can approach every new task with a growth mindset.  Throughout the rest of the year, the PEAKS class works to provide the students with the vital academic and study skills they need to be successful learners, thinkers, and problem solvers.  If the students are working on a research project in Humanities class, they will learn how to effectively take notes from their sources and practice doing it in PEAKS class.  This course supports and challenges each and every student where and when they need it.

Homework

Student engagement isn’t confined within the walls of the classroom.  What the students do or don’t do outside of the classroom can be equally important.  If students aren’t seeing the relevance or value in their homework assignments, then we’ve lost them.  In the sixth grade, we approach homework in the same manner we approach everything.  It’s all about choice and engagement.  We want the students to further practice the skills learned in the classroom in a captivating way that allows them to continue learning and growing as a student.  Homework is not graded and assessed purely for effort.  If we want our students to practice, fail, try again, and continue to practice, then we must not grade this practice work.  Plus, since the students are completing the work outside of the classroom, it is difficult to know who is doing the work and how it is being done.  Are the boys getting assistance from peers, teachers, or parents to complete the work?  While we promote this self-help approach, grading the individual students on work when we don’t know exactly how the work was completed.  Most of the homework assigned is a continuation of what was worked on in class.  

For example, in humanities class, we do much writing and reading.  So, a typical homework assignment is to read from their Reader’s Workshop book for 30 minutes.  As they choose their Reader’s Workshop books based on ability and interest level, the engagement is already there.  Plus, this practice allows them to increase their reading stamina so that they are prepared for the reading demands of seventh grade.  Homework assignments shouldn’t be separate, stand-alone tasks that overly challenge the students.  Developmentally, by the time the sixth graders get to evening study hall at 7:30 p.m. they are exhausted and unable to focus for a long period of time in order to effectively process information and solve problems.  You might say that our homework assignments complement the classroom curriculum the way a beautiful brooch can bring out the colors of a flowing dress.

Project-Based Learning

To prepare students for lives in the global society in which they will live and work, we teach our students how to effectively work in groups to solve open-ended problems with no right or wrong answer. Students need to know how to delegate tasks, lead groups of their peers, follow instructions, ask questions, and solve problems. Project Based Learning ties all of the aforementioned skills together with ribbons of the required curriculum. While the students are engaged with the content and hands-on aspects of the project, they are also learning crucial life skills that will help them persevere and learn to overcome adversity.

Standards-Based Assessment

To help our students adopt learning skills necessary to grow and develop as critical thinkers and problem solvers, we use a standards-based system of grading. The focus is on the standard or objective being assessed. If our curriculum is set up according to the standards, why should we grade the students on anything other than what the curriculum asks? If we are teaching paragraph structure and the standard is, students will be able to craft an original, properly formatted, and complete paragraph, then we should only be grading student work on that one standard using a scale that aligns with the school’s grading criteria? Points must not be taken away for spelling, grammar, or other reasons unless the paragraph is being assessed regarding those standards as well. Rick Wormeli and other leading educational reform leaders have been talking about standards-based grading for years. It is the only way to accurately grade students on what is essential.

In this vein, we also want the students to understand that learning is a process.  Education is like a living organism.  Our students will grow, change, regress, and evolve throughout the year.  As we expect and want our students to meet or exceed all of the objectives covered so that we know they will be fully prepared for seventh grade, we allow students to redo work that doesn’t meet the graded objectives.  The boys are allowed to redo all and any work for a unit until the unit has finished.  They can seek help from the teachers and utilize any feedback we provide to them in order to showcase their ability to meet or exceed the objectives.  This grading system is dynamic and can be changed to allow for the students to employ a growth mindset and truly own their learning.

Conclusion

At Cardigan, we prepare students for an unknown future in a world that will inevitably be very different from its current state.  Because of this, in the sixth grade, we have devised over many years of data collection, research, and practice, to develop a strong and creative academic and social program that engages students in an applicable curriculum that teaches problem solving, critical thinking, coexistence, and how to manifest and utilize a growth mindset.  Students who attend Cardigan Mountain School starting in the sixth grade and then go onto graduate at the close of their ninth grade year receive a meaningful and rich experience.  They grow up together, and, in turn, a family atmosphere and spirit is created within that group of four-year boys.  While it can be challenging at times to be a sixth grade student at Cardigan, our inclusive program helps the boys feel safe and connected within a special family known as the sixth grade.

Advertisements

How Can We Help Students Learn How they Learn Best?

In college, I found myself constantly thinking, Why didn’t I learn this in middle school or high school?  During my Freshman year at Keene State College, I struggled quite a bit with some basic academic skills.  I didn’t know how to take meaningful and relevant notes from a class lecture.  After weeks of trying to write down every word the teacher uttered, I found a method that worked for me.  I also did not know how to effectively prepare for tests and quizzes, which is why I failed most of my assessments during my first semester at college.  It wasn’t until I talked to some of my friends and learned about how they prepared for tests that I found a system that worked for me.  I would have been much more successful during my Freshman year at KSC had I previously learned the crucial skills of note taking and test taking.  Why didn’t I learn those skills in high school?  It was very easy for me to blame my teachers during that first year away from home as I struggled to get through a challenging course load, but the only person who was responsible for not learning those vital academic skills was me.  These skills were taught in my middle school and high school; however, I failed to put forth the effort necessary to practice and genuinely learn them.  I didn’t attempt to learn how to be the best student possible.  While school always came easy to me in high school, I never figured out how I learn best because I was so focused on simply finishing tasks and assignments.  I never learned how to learn well or be an effective student, and that came back to haunt me in college.  Although I have very few regrets in life so far, I do wish that I had put more effort into focusing on how to be the best student possible.  I wish I had learned how to learn in a meaningful way.

As a teacher, I don’t want my students to have this same regret.  I want my students to truly know themselves as learners, thinkers, students, people, and problem solvers.  I want them to know what works well for them in school and into what areas they need to put forth more effort.  For every project, task, or assignment my sixth grade students complete, I make sure they know why they are completing this task and what skills they are learning and/or practicing.  I want them to see the purpose and relevance in everything we do in the classroom.  Once they see the value, for themselves, in what we are doing in the classroom, they will put forth effort to learn the vital academic skill being taught or practiced.  During these times, I make sure that each student finds what works best for them.  For example, if a student is learning how to utilize bullet-style notes to extract important details from an online source, I work with him to help him realize the most effective way for him to complete bullet-style notes.  For some students, they need to use complete sentences when taking this style of notes because it helps them make more sense of the material they are reading or learning about; however, for other students, they may find that pulling out key words or phrases is a more effective method of using this style of notes.  I want my students to find what works best for them.  As every student is different, each student needs to understand how he or she learns and works best.  I make it a priority to help my students learn how they learn best so that they don’t ever have to feel lost or confused like I did in college.

Today during Humanities class, as my students worked on the presentation for their Africa Projects, I was able to meander through the classroom like a magnificent stream running through a beautiful hardwood forest, observing my students.  I watched them work, answered questions they had about the process and requirements, helped them find materials requested, and provided them with feedback on their work.  One student chose a visual aide tool that I knew would be ineffective for him, and so I worked with him to help him realize this on his own.  I empowered him to find a visual aide vehicle that would be more suitable and engaging for him and his topic.  After much brainstorming and a few trials, he settled on creating a poster to highlight what he learned about the government of South Africa.  Another student seemed to be struggling to stay focused on the task at hand throughout the period.  While he wasn’t distracting his peers, he also wasn’t being productive.  I spoke with him about this during class, but saw no change in his work ethic throughout the period.  Emotionally, he seemed to be in a good place, and so I wondered what the problem was.  At first, I thought it was because he chose a presentation method that was not engaging or interesting him in any way.  Then, at lunch, I spoke with him about this, mentioning what I noticed and hypothesized.  He disagreed with me and revealed that he was distracted by a peer that was sitting near him.  While I never saw the distractions themselves, this student felt as though he did not choose the best spot in which to work.  So, he knows for tomorrow, that he needs to find a spot away from this other student in order to stay focused and be more productive and on-task during class.  Although he came to this conclusion on his own, I’ve spent much time during the last few months helping my students learn how they learn best.  They learned the power in choosing the right spot in the classroom for them.  This student clearly learned that and is planning to apply it in class tomorrow.  He knows how he learns best.

Much power exists for students when they learn how to learn.  My students are beginning to understand themselves as students and learners this year, and it has paid huge dividends.  They have made much progress since September due to the fact that they approach every new task or assignment with a growth mindset and much self-awareness.  When I tell my students to get to work, they silently set goals for themselves, find appropriate spots in which to work, spread the necessary materials out in front of them, and work in a focused manner.  When they encounter problems, they attempt to solve them on their own using critical thinking and self-awareness.  If they are unable to figure out their own problems, they quietly ask a peer or table partner to help before seeking help from me.  They know how to help themselves be the best students possible.  It’s quite amazing, and is sure to help them continue to grow and develop as they matriculate through the grades in school.  I’m hopeful, that this foundation I’m helping them to lay this year in the sixth grade will prevent them for being unprepared for their future years of education and schooling.  Knowing oneself as a learner, is vital to one’s future success in life.

Transforming Grampa Grammar Into Cool Uncle Cal

Grammar is like the prim and proper grandfather of the language family.  He wears a fancy sweater vest, which is made entirely of wool from sheep only found in Ireland, underneath his brown plaid blazer.  He has a copious vocabulary of large words, but doesn’t flaunt them often.  He’s quiet, but speaks when necessary.  The other members of the family are scared to ask speak with him as they are worried about the difficult questions he may pose.  What’s the difference between affect and effect?  Should you use lie or lay in the sentence?  He sits in the back of the room, usually in the middle of the couch.  Despite his quiet demeanor, he is the glue that holds the family together.  When trouble strikes, Grampa Grammar is there to save the day.  He adds conjunctions to run-on sentences to prevent them from running amok.  He throws periods and commas into oceans of text, saving many lives from drowning in chaos and confusion.  He is the quiet leader of the language family, despite his need for specificity and accuracy.

Grammar has always struck me as that grandfather-like figure who corrects you when you mistakenly use myself or them in speaking with him.  While no one really likes Grampa Grammar, we need him to know how to properly speak and write in any language.  In high school, I used to despise grammar lessons, as they felt so forced and difficult.  Why do I really need to underline every adjective clause in the 20 sentences on this worksheet?  Is this knowledge every really going to save my life or come in handy in the future?  Pssst, I hate to be that guy, but I’ve never needed to know grammar specifics since graduating from college.  If I’m ever curious about word usage or parts of speech, I look them up online or in the grammar guide I used in college.  Now, just because I don’t find myself needing to identify what type of preposition is in this sentence, doesn’t mean that it’s not important and good to learn all about grammar and what makes language tick.  Grammar can be very fun and interesting.  Diagramming sentences can be a really great way to spend a Saturday night with some friends.  If you incorrectly identify the part of speech of any word, you must drink an entire can of Mt. Dew soda while reciting the alphabet backwards.  What could possibly be more fun than that?  In all seriousness though, grammar should be an essential part of every Humanities or language class; however, how it is taught makes the difference between allowing students to see grammar as the stuffy grampa in the back of the room or the cool uncle that lets you drive his new Camaro.

Over the years, how I have taught grammar in my Humanities class has evolved.  I used to teach it in a way that made my students dislike it as much as I did.  Then, after doing research on grammar instruction over the years, I’ve come to realize that in order for students to really appreciate and see the joy and importance in grammar, I need to teach the topic in a relevant and engaging manner.  Worksheets make grammar seem uncool.  So, I’ve moved towards mini-lessons and novelty instruction.  I’ve tried to find new and intriguing ways to help my students understand why our language works the way in which it does.

Yesterday, I helped my students understand the evils of run-on sentences and how to prevent them from happening in their writing.  I began the mini-lesson with a quick discussion on run-on sentences.  I asked the students to define the term. I explained to the students that run-on sentences are like wild animals running loose in the classroom.  If we’re not careful, they will take over the world.  We need to keep them contained and leashed at all times.  The boys found this image quite humorous, which allowed it to better stick in their minds for future reference.  I’m sure that very few of my students will forget run-on sentences and how to prevent them from happening in their writing any time soon.  I then had the boys, independently, correct two run-on sentences on paper so that they had a chance to individually demonstrate their ability and prior knowledge on the topic.  This short activity then led into a whole class discussion on run-on sentences and how to fix them.  I explained the different types of run-on sentences that they will often see in their writing or the writing of their peers.  I had volunteers correct the sentences they had practiced repairing on their own.  This then brought up many different points including conjunctions, commas, semicolons, and periods.  We laughed and had fun discussing grammar.  The boys seemed thoroughly engaged the entire time.  In about 15 minutes, I helped my students understand how to properly write grammatically correct sentences.  Awesome sauce!

Yesterday’s lesson helped me see the power of novelty and engagement.  I need to find creative and inventive ways to teach my students all about grammar.  Simply providing my students with information on the parts of speech will not help them genuinely learn and remember grammar and how to create grammatically correct sentences.  I need to make grammar sticky for them, mentally speaking, so that they will be able to remember and effectively recall this information at a later date and time.  Today during class, when we were discussing trivia questions and how noone in the class answered a question correctly, one of the students said, “It’s like the run-on sentences taking over the classroom.  Craziness and chaos ensue.”  Yes, I thought to myself.  They get it and remembered it.  Mission, accomplished.

As I reflected on what this student said to me, it made me realize that I need to make all of my grammar lessons memorable, just like that one.  So, my brain began percolating, and ideas started flowing like chocolate from a fountain…

I would start introducing grammar at the beginning of the year by having students interact and play with magnetic poetry words.  I’d have them create super long and interesting phrases and lines of words.  I would then provide them all with a plastic knife that would represent a scalpel and train them to be language doctors.  I wouldn’t even use the word grammar.  I would simply talk about the need for knowing how to fix their own writing and the writing of their classmates.  I would then build on these language doctor lessons throughout the first term using grammar concepts without ever uttering the often evil word “grammar.”

I love it.  My idea is based on how some teachers at a school with struggling math students created a new course for them that wasn’t called a math class and the word math was never mentioned until the very end of the academic year.  The students solved problems and learned complex math concepts without even realizing that they were learning math.  My approach to grammar instruction would do the same thing.  I can’t wait to try it next year.  In the meantime, I’m going to keep trying to make grammar fun and exciting for my students this year.  I might even pilot some of my language doctor ideas later in the year to see how they work out.  When grammar becomes boring like the old grampa in the room, students become disengaged.  As grammar is the glue that holds language together, we need to help our students see grammar concepts as vital and important.  We need to empower our students to become language fixers instead of language disaster makers.

Challenging Students Where they Are

As research on learning and the brain has proven over the years, direct instruction is not an effective method of teaching for every student, in every class.  Teacher directed learning engages such a small amount of the population in any given class, and usually leads to disengagement.  Not every student learns in the same exact way, and so treating the classroom as a factory floor does not work when educating the future of our world.  Genuine learning cannot be fostered when the teacher is doing all of the talking, thinking, asking, and active learning.  Teachers need to transform their classrooms into student-centered, hands-on, safe zones.  Students need to be driving the active learning, talking, and thinking in the classroom for tangible growth and development to take place.  It’s all about meeting the students where they are and challenging them from that point.

In the sixth grade, my co-teacher and I meet with each and every student at least once a day to discuss their learning or behavior.  We are constantly providing our students with feedback on how to grow and develop as students and people.  We push them to become the best version of themselves possible.  Conferencing with the students one-on-one allows us the opportunity to ask the boys probing questions while challenging them to think outside the box.  In a teacher-centered classroom, individual conferences are not possible as the teacher dictates what is learned and how that learning must happen.  If we want our students to enjoy the process of learning and truly understand themselves as learners, then we need to empower them to think critically and creatively about what is being learned and how they must show mastery of it.

Today in my Humanities class, the students continued working on their Africa Project.  Almost every student was working on a different phase of the project.  I love how individualized and independent activities like this allow the students to be.  Those students who process information swiftly, have the chance to move quickly through the beginning stages while those students who need more time to assess the content and material, will be provided the opportunity to work at their own pace.  This is student-centered learning in action.  As the boys worked in class today, I observed and provided them all with feedback.  It was so much fun to watch them grow and learn as thinkers, students, and problem solvers.

  • As one student worked on creating his slideshow presentation, I noticed that he had way too much text on each slide, in the tiniest font possible.  So, I suggested that he think about the main message behind the text he had on his slide and summarize it into five or fewer bullets.  As he found this feedback useful, he revised his slides and then created cue cards for what he wants to make sure he mentions during his presentation.
  • One student shared with me that he was going to type out his notes so that when people came to visit his presentation booth at our Learning Exposition, he could hand them his packet of notes to read.  I challenged him to think about how to create a more engaging presentation.  After some thinking and processing, he realized how boring his presentation format would be, and so he decided to create a website instead.  This new presentation vehicle inspired him to think creatively and solve lots of problems as he learned to navigate the Google Sites online application.
  • When one student overheard me mention the idea of adding a Kahoot quiz to another student’s presentation, he was inspired to create a quiz in his presentation; however, he challenged himself to create a different type of quiz that used Google Forms, a tool he is not at all familiar with.  I was so amazed by his ingenuity and problem-solving prowess.
  • As one student chose to create a poster as the visual aide for his presentation, I asked him to think about the layout.  He needed to make a blueprint of what his poster would look like before I provided him with a piece of posterboard.  Before providing him with the material he needed, I shared with him some samples of effective posters students had created last year.  I wanted him to see the caliber of work that he should be expected to hold himself to.  I also wanted to inspire him to make use of the skill of organization when it comes to presenting material learned to others.

These individual student conferences or check-ins allowed me the opportunity to ask my students questions to inspire high-level, critical thinking and creativity today in class.  If I want my students to live meaningful lives in a global society, they need to understand themselves as students and people.  They need to know which strategies work well for them and which do not help them at all.  They need to know how to solve problems encountered.  Student-centered learning with support and scaffolding provided by the teacher allows for exploration and engagement in the classroom.  Students choose how and what they learn while being challenged to step outside of their comfort zone.  Learning must be about our students and not about us as the teacher.  We are the guides from the side while our students are the magicians in the middle.

How Reader’s Workshop Transforms Non-Readers into Avid Readers

I love Reader’s Workshop and everything about it when it comes to reading instruction.  There is really no better, more engaging and effective way to teach reading than through the use of Reader’s Workshop.  Students learn to appreciate and love reading because they choose the books they read based on their ability and interest level.  Gone are the days of trying to find creative and interesting ways to get students excited about mundane books such as Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman or Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes.  While a small percentage of students may have enjoyed the class novels taught, most students either didn’t read the books or were so disengaged with them that no genuine learning took place.  Now, each student selects a book that suits their needs.  They are reading books that they want to read.  Through the completion of mini-lessons and class read-aloud novels, the students learn and practice how to use several important reading strategies that effective readers use.  Throughout the course of the year in my Humanities class, students grow into critical readers who are able to extract the main idea, infer meaning the author intended by citing sources and examples from the text, visualize what they’ve read as a way to understand what is happening in the text, ask insightful and thoughtful questions as a way to interact with the text and make predictions, and connect with the text through self-to-text and world-to-text connections.  While many sixth graders begin the year in my class not liking reading, they all finish their time in the sixth grade loving reading and excited to be able to read more books over the summer.  The Reader’s Workshop model of reading instruction instills a love of reading and thinking about reading within my students.  It’s amazing how transformational it is for my students.

Every Monday in my Humanities class is a Reader’s Workshop day, which the students look forward to on a weekly basis.  Many of my students will cheer when they enter the room on Monday and read what the agenda slide says our focus for class is: Reader’s Workshop.  Today’s Reader’s Workshop period began like any other.  I had a student share a book, which he had recently finished and thoroughly enjoyed, with the students in what I have dubbed a Book Talk.  The student explained the plot of the book and why he liked it so much.  He then read an excerpt from the novel for the students to get a whiff of the author’s writing style and voice.  The book didn’t even stay on the Book Talk shelf for five minutes before a student had grabbed it to read.  While I complete weekly Book Talks during the first term of the academic year as a way of exposing the students to various types of great books, I then empower the students to share Book Talks with the class later in the year.  This way, the students have a voice and are able to talk about books they have enjoyed this year during Reader’s Workshop.  I love building excitement around reading, and Book Talks do just that.

Following today’s Book Talk, the students gathered in our Reading Nook area in the back of our classroom for the class read-aloud.  Today’s mini-lesson focused on making connections.  Before I started reading from A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park this morning, I told the students that I want them to listen to the story today for how it connects to their life or something they have learned in the past.  After reading a few pages, I paused and shared a connection I had made with a part of the story I had just finished reading.  I then read several more pages aloud to the class, stopping to ask questions and discuss challenging parts.  Once I had finished a chapter, I stopped and asked the students to think about how what I had read today connects to them in some way.  I called on a few volunteers to share their connections.  The boys did a fantastic job connecting Nya’s and Salve’s narratives to their own lives.  One student shared a story about being at a summer camp that was infested with mosquitos much like the island was for Salve and the other members of his group as they traveled west.

After the class read-aloud activity, the students moved into independent reading time.  The boys each grabbed their own books and got right into silent reading.  Some read at their seats while others chose more comfortable spots in the classroom.  I love providing the students with choice when it comes to things like reading.  Some people enjoy reading more in a chair while others like to sit on the floor or near a wall.  As the students read, I conferenced with each student individually at the back table in my classroom.  I asked the students some questions about their current books in order to understand how they are progressing as readers.  For one student, I highlighted the growth he has shown since the first term.   During the fall term, he wasn’t able to read four books, but he has already finished his fifth book of the winter term with one week left to go.  I praised his effort and focus.  He seemed very proud.   Another student explained to me how much he has been reading recently.  He had read for over two hours during this past weekend.  Now, this is a student who started the year, adamantly expressing how much he does not like reading or books of any type.  He has grown into a voracious reader who can’t get enough.  These conferences allow me the opportunity to check in with the students on their reading and progress.

I closed today’s Reader’s Workshop block by asking the students to think of connections they made with what they had read in their individual books.  A few students shared fun stories about hardship and biting dogs.  I then asked the students why making connections between what you read and your life can help you become a more effective reader.  The boys all seemed to understand how making connections from what you are reading to your life allows you to better remember and recall what you have read.  Making actual connections allows for mental bridges to be built.

What an awesome Reader’s Workshop period!  The boys thought about reading, critically discussed reading, talked about reading, and read during today’s Humanities class.  It was amazing.  The positive energy in the room was very apparent.  The students love the books they are reading and it shows.  Despite having students begin the year almost despising the act of reading, all of my students have been transformed into avid readers who spend much of their free time reading now.  Wow!  The Reader’s Workshop model of reading instruction is more than just a way to teach reading to students, its a way to teach students how to love and enjoy reading.  As I know that my students will have to read challenging and often boring books in their future English classes, I want to make sure that they leave my Humanities class having a love of reading and are equipped with the proper skills needed to tackle any type of text.  Reading shouldn’t be something that you do because you have to; reading should be something you do because you want to learn more about King Arthur or Harry Potter.

The Power of Mindfulness with a Dash of Social and Emotional Learning

As the research proves, mindfulness is highly effective in helping students stay engaged and focused in the classroom.  Teaching students to be present in the moment allows them to address their emotional baggage appropriately so that they can be the best students possible inside the classroom.  Earlier this year, my co-teacher and I completed a unit on mindfulness with our sixth grade class.  The students learned how to use various mindfulness techniques to self-soothe and stay focused on the task at hand.  They learned how to experience life in the moment rather than watching it play out in a series of Instagram photographs or Snapchat videos.  Most of our students explained how beneficial this unit was in helping them become more effective and engaged students.  They learned how to calm themselves down when they became overly excited, which prevented them from making poor choices and missing out on learning in the classroom.  My co-teacher and I have observed a dramatic change in the attitudes of our students since completing this unit.  They seem more open to new ideas and changes and are able to better control themselves and their choices during the academic morning.  Teaching our students how to be mindful and why it’s vital to their success as students and people, has made all the difference in the classroom this year.

While we completed this unit during the fall term, we haven’t spent much time revisiting the mindful techniques learned since early November.  Although we haven’t noticed much of a change in their overall demeanor and behavior in the classroom, we were beginning to worry that they may forget some of these useful strategies in the near future.  And then I did some reading, that made it very evident that we need to bring back mindfulness in the classroom.

After reading about how schools in Nashville, Tennessee effectively integrated social and emotional learning into their academic day and curriculum, I was curious.  Could I make a version of this model work in my classroom?  As it incorporates mindfulness practices into helping students learn to be kind and compassionate, I felt as though adding components of social and emotional learning to our class day might help all of our students feel more cared for, able to focus, and engaged in the process of learning in the classroom.  Recently, my co-teacher and I have noticed that a few of our students seem unable to leave their emotional baggage at the door when they enter the classroom, which makes it difficult for them to stay focused on the task at hand.  They often struggle to stay on task in class.  We thought that adding a piece of the SEL curriculum that some Nashville schools use might make a difference for at least those few students who are challenged by the daily expectations of our class.  So, this morning, my co-teacher and I revisited mindfulness while adding in some social and emotional learning skills.

We began by explaining why we were doing this activity at the start of class, as we always want our students to understand the purpose behind what we are doing and asking of them in the classroom.  Then, as the students took three mindful breaths, we had them think about all of the distracting, worrisome, exciting, and other thoughts that seemed to be clouding their brains.  Having them focus on these mental clotting factors, allowed them to be mindful of what they were really thinking about.  The students then shared these thoughts with their table partner, focusing on releasing them as they spoke them aloud.  We concluded this first part of our activity by having the boys take two more mindful breaths, focusing on being in the present moment.  We asked them to pay attention to the sounds they heard, sights they saw, and things they felt as they took their two breaths.  We had volunteers share their observations after completing the final mindful breathing exercise.  For phase two of our SEL activity, we had the students focus on appreciations.  What have their sixth grade Cardigan brothers done to help them recently?  How have their peers supported them in or out of the classroom?  What have their classmates done to help them?  We had several students share their noticings.  The boys had very nice, complimentary words to say about their fellow sixth graders.  It was amazing to listen to their kind and caring words as they spread happiness and joy throughout the sixth grade classroom.  We closed the activity, by reminding them to stay self-aware and present in this joy and mindfulness throughout the remainder of the period.

The results of today’s mindfulness and social and emotional learning activity were numerous:

  • The students were much more focused and on-task while working on their Africa Project today than we’ve seen since the start of the project.  They were engaged in what they were doing and learning about.
  • One student who frequently struggles to hear and accept feedback from the teachers, almost immediately changed his mindset and began making the changes suggested to him.  I was thoroughly impressed by how quickly this change took place.  He seemed to understand why he needed to make the change and did so of his own free will.
  • The students were far less distracting than they were yesterday, as they were committed to completing the task at hand.
  • There seemed to be a peaceful atmosphere about the classroom during the work period.  The boys seemed happy and content living in the present moment.  It was very cool.
  • Later in the morning, I asked the students to provide me with some feedback on the SEL activity we completed during first period.  Every student who shared with the class, noted how this activity seemed to help them be more focused and better utilize a growth mindset while working.

The moral of this story is short and sweet, teaching students how to be mindful in the classroom holds much power.  It literally changes their mindset and helps them focus on the learning and not all of the other distractions filling their minds.  So, if you are not incorporating mindfulness techniques into your classroom or curriculum, I highly suggest you give them a try with your students.  A huge plus in all of this is that I have found myself being more mindful and self-aware than in past years.  When I’ve felt overwhelmed in the past few months, I’ve tried some of the breathing techniques I taught my students, and found that I was able to calm myself down and focus on the present moment.  Not only can mindfulness help your students, but it can also help you grow and develop as a teacher and person.

Why Does Teaching Sometimes Feel Like Car Maintenance?

Sometimes, teaching feels like an art form: A tiny swath of direct instruction layered upon mostly student-centered learning.  Lesson execution is open to interpretation like great paintings of old, and there are incorrect ways to manage the behavior of students in a classroom, much like there is only one way to play a particular chord on a piano.  I love this type of teaching as it takes much practice to constantly be present and mindful in the moment to allow for changes or transitions to take place as needed.  On most days, as a teacher, I feel like an artist, sculpting great statues of intelligence and critical thinking.  Then, there are those days when teaching feels more like car maintenance.  Just when you think you’ve fixed the problem, something else goes wrong or stops working.  While those days are challenging, difficult, and usually require much perseverance, they are what make teachers great.  When I’m able to reflect on a lesson or class and learn from my mistakes, I grow and develop as an educator.  Sure, when teaching feels like finger painting on a blank canvas, we’re as happy as could be, but not much forward progress happens on those days.  We need the challenging days, like those of old car owners, constantly repairing their vehicles, to make us better teachers.  Great rewards and benefits require much hard work and effort.

Earlier this week, I noticed that my students were very dependent on me, their teacher, for help.  They struggled to answer their own questions using critical thinking and self-awareness.  After taking the time to reflect on what happened in class that day, I made some changes, and then saw a dramatic change in the work ethic of my students.  They transformed into independent students, answering their own questions.  I assessed the situation, made the necessary repairs, and had a fully functioning automobile of learning.  It was quite amazing.

Today, while the students were able to work much more independently than earlier in the week, I noticed another faulty part on my classroom vehicle.  The students seemed disengaged at times, distracted by their peers and distracting to others.  While this lack of focus and dedication was not consistent throughout the period, I did notice it happening quite frequently throughout today’s longer work period.  Although they love their topics and seem to thoroughly enjoy learning more about Africa, the boys seemed to have difficulty staying on task the entire period.  So, what was going on?  What caused this change in their behavior and work ethic?  Why weren’t they able to stay committed to working hard throughout this morning’s Humanities class?

After some reflection, I realized what was causing this leak in learning: I wasn’t chunking the work period for them.  I was expecting them to stay on task, researching their topic, without a break of any type for 30 minutes.  Sixth grade boys need to be active and moving.  They need to be able to stretch and move around.  Learning needs to be active and not stationary.  I wasn’t allowing them the time to move.  So, back to the shop I go with my car of learning.

My plan of repair for tomorrow is simple, break the work period into smaller chunks.  After ten minutes, have the students share their work with their table partner.  After another ten minutes, have the students walk around the room and stretch a bit before getting back to work.  Hopefully, these transitions will be just what the students need to stay focused and on task during those ten-minute chunks.

While I did wallow in self-pity for a short period after class today, I quickly realized the learning opportunity at my disposal.  I could look at today’s class as a failure after putting in such hard work earlier in the week, or, I could change my perspective and learn from the error of my ways and make tomorrow’s class even better than the last one.  When I treat my old Subaru with love and care, keeping on top of the preventative maintenance schedule suggested by my mechanic, it continues to purr like a kitten; however, if I fail to take care of it like I should, then it will certainly fall apart.  Effective teaching is the same way.  If I learn from my mistakes in the classroom and fix things for the next period or class, then I will be able to grow and develop into the best teacher possible.

Helping Students Realize that they May Already Know the Answers to their Questions

One of my favorite movies growing up was The Neverending Story.  I mean, who wouldn’t want a flying luck dragon?  Falcor was so cool.  Plus, a band even named themselves after one of the main characters from the movie, Atreyu.  If that’s not a sign of how amazing the film is, than I don’t know what is.  One of my favorite parts of the whole film came towards the end when the princess is shouting at Sebastien to say her name.  Then he’s like, Lady, I don’t know your name.  Why are you asking me?  Then she says, You already know my name, you just need to say it.  And he’s like, What?  Then he shouts something inaudible into the storm, and so the audience never actually figures out what name he gives the princess.  I love the mystery of it all.  Years later, I did some digging online and found out that he named her after his mother.  What really got me is when the princess tells Sebastian that he already knows her name, but until that moment when she reminded him that he did in fact have the answer she was in need of, he had no idea that he did actually know her name.  I feel like that most of the time when my wife asks me, “Did you remember to get the thingy at the store like I asked?”  Well, of course I did remember it, I just needed a friendly reminder to pull it out of my short term memory.

Middle school boys are very similar to Sebastian and I in this way.  They often need friendly reminders about what they already know in order to recall it from their memory.  Once they are are made aware of what they should know, they will usually have an aha moment.  Ohhh, yeah, I remember that? they’d say in response.  Prompting is a very useful educational strategy to help students extract information from their brains.  It’s also a great way to help students link new information to prior knowledge.  Sometimes, we all could benefit from some helpful hints on knowing what we should know.

Today during my study skills class, the students continued working on the Africa Project.  Before allowing them to get to work on creating a bibliography regarding their sources this morning, I explained to them what I noticed in class yesterday.  “While I enjoyed helping many of you in class yesterday, I wonder if I needed to answer all of the questions you posed.  Could you have addressed your own questions?” I said to them in class today.  I then told them what I would like to see them try today so as to empower them with the ability to solve their own problems.  “When you feel like asking me a question, take a deep, mindful breath and ask yourself, using critical thinking, if you really need to ask the question or if you already know the answer.  If after 20 seconds, you feel like you don’t have an answer, please feel free to turn your stop and go card to ask for help,” I said.  I want the students to value their talents and abilities.  They know more than they realize.  They just sometimes need to be reminded of that fact.

During the work period in both the study skills class and my Humanities class, they asked very few questions as they solved their own problems.  They transformed themselves into great, independent workers once they realized of what they were capable.  When a student did ask a question, I asked him if there was anyway he could locate the answer on his own.  In many cases, he was able to determine the answer to his own question without my support.  Instead of answering basic questions that the boys could easily answer on their own, I was able to have meaningful discussions with the students regarding the information they were learning about their topics.  One student was baffled by how the British and German forces used Africans as the frontline of their defense in attacks during WWII battles that took place on African soil.  He had no idea that Africans were involved in WWII prior to researching his topic.  He was enthralled and disturbed by this fact.  I was also able to help a student realize that when one switches their mindset, great things can happen.  He was struggling to find a third resource for this topic, but seemed fixated on only the ten items that first appeared on Google.  He did not understand that he could narrow or broaden his search to include other aspects of his topic.  Once he took some time to process what I told him, he was easily able to find another reputable online source.  If I had to spend all of my time answering comprehension or recall level questions, I would never have been able to engage the students in these fruitful conversations.

At the close of the period, I explained what I observed in class and praised the students for demonstrating great self-awareness, ownership, and critical thinking during class today.  I was amazed and impressed at the change that occurred in due to the one little reminder with which I provided them.  Sometimes all it takes a little nudge for someone to realize of what they are truly capable.  The students know how to answer their own questions, but they just rely on the teacher to do the thinking for them sometimes.  By reminding them of the expectations I have for them in class, I empowered them to solve their own problems, and what a huge difference that made.

How Can I Help Empower Students to Work Through their Struggles and Move On While Working Independently?

Thinking back to my days in middle school, I struggled to work independently.  While I could easily stay focused on the task at hand in class, I had very low self-esteem, and constantly doubted myself and my work.  Was I doing the assignment right?  What do I do next?  So, I found myself asking my teachers for much help and support during independent work periods in class.  When I finished an assignment, I needed to have my teacher check it over to ensure that it was done well.  I was not self-aware as a student and struggled to demonstrate ownership over my work.  Because of these struggles, I was not able to move through an assignment, project, or task without asking the teacher numerous questions. This proved problematic for me, my classmates, and my teachers.  Because I asked so many questions during work periods, my teachers were unable to provide fair and equal support to the rest of the students.  I wish my teachers would have helped me to understand how to be more self-aware and solve my own problems as I worked, so that I didn’t need to ask as many questions, taking away from what I was able to accomplish in class.  As I have yet to find a working time machine, I can’t change my past and correct my mistakes, but I can help my students learn how to solve their own problems in order to work independently in a productive manner.

Today in my Humanities class, the students worked on an independent research project regarding our unit of study on Africa.  The boys gathered reputable online sources, appropriately cited their sources, and extracted notes from their various sources.  Every student seemed to be at a different stage of the project.  It was very cool to see the students work at their own pace as they learned about self-chosen topics.  While most of the students were engaged and on task during today’s work period, a few of the boys were distracting their table partner or distracted by the process itself.  As the students worked, I observed their work ethic and habits, assessed their ability to meet the graded objectives, provided feedback to them on their work so that they could revise it before it is turned into be graded, and answered questions the students had.  This kept me quite busy throughout the entire period, as I bopped around from student to student, offering assistance.  While it felt good to provide the boys with meaningful feedback and support throughout the period, I noticed that some of the boys, while waiting to ask me questions, were sitting at their desk completely unproductive.  A few of the students literally did nothing for 10-20 minutes while they patiently waited for my assistance.  Although many of the students waiting did not misbehave or distract their peers, they were also not on-task during some of the class.  This was frustrating to me as I don’t want to see them waste their time.  I also feel bad that I couldn’t help all of them, all of the time.  While I reminded the class that I am only one person and want to be equitable and respectful to everyone, I feel as though that wasn’t enough.  If I want to empower my students to learn how to solve their own problems and move on while working independently, then I need to restructure future work periods so that they are able to practice self-awareness.

Some ideas I will try tomorrow, in hopes of helping empower my students to be more productive, independent workers:

  • I will describe what I witnessed in class to the boys, explaining how this is unproductive behavior.  Pointing out the problem will hopefully bring the issue to light for the students.
  • I will then elicit ideas and solutions from the students.  What do they think they should do if they are waiting for help or have a question?
  • I will then remind them of what they should do when they are waiting to meet with me to be sure that they understand the expectations.
  • During the work period, I will only meet with those students who are effectively showing self-awareness.  I hope that this strategy will be a good reminder as to what they should do instead of sitting and waiting unproductively.
  • I will then debrief the work period at the end of class, pointing out what went well and what struggles the students had practicing the skill of self-awareness and ownership.

I’m hopeful that these tweaks and strategies will help empower my students to be more productive and self-aware during class tomorrow.  As I don’t want my students to be like me in middle school, I need to change things up a bit from today.  I can’t wait to see what happens in the classroom tomorrow.

The Evolution of the Faculty Room

The Teachers’ Room, Faculty Room, Faculty Lounge, or Teachers’ Lounge.  Regardless of its name, shouldn’t the space where teachers gather during free periods or unscheduled time be a safe, positive space in which educators can discuss effective teaching practices and how to grow as teachers?  Teachers need a place where they can ask their fellow colleagues for help or support regrading a challenging student or issue in the classroom.  The Teachers’ Room should be place where educators collect to discuss the art of teaching.  While I know that these spaces have evolved over time from places to make photocopies of worksheets and to grab a cold cup of coffee into smaller spaces to grab a warm cup of coffee and sit for a few moments between classes, it seems as though the pendulum has swung too far in one direction.

When I worked at a small Catholic school in Maine many years ago, the Teachers’ Room was a small space with a bathroom, refrigerator, and microwave.  Teachers did not gather in this space during their free periods due to its limited size.  Instead, teachers sat in their own classrooms and did work or meandered the halls in search of other teachers who were free and wanting to discuss teaching.  I often found myself sharing lesson plan ideas with my colleagues during these free periods or asking for help regarding certain students.  I attempted to effectively utilize these short snippets of time so that I could have very little work to do outside of school.  I also enjoyed learning from more experienced educators, and found myself asking for their suggestions and feedback on situations that occurred in my classroom.   While the traditional Faculty Room was not utilized the way in which it should have been at that school, teachers found spaces to discuss teaching and to grow as educators.

At my current school, the Faculty Lounge as evolved greatly in my 15-year tenure.  It used to be a large space where teachers would gather to grade papers, plan lessons, check their email, and talk to other teachers about students or lesson ideas.  It was a sweet place to hang out and grow as a teacher.  After a few relocations over the years, our current Faculty Room is a very small space where very few teachers can collect.  It’s often hotter than most saunas in that room and I’ve found that many educators find other, cooler spaces in which to collect and talk about teaching and students.  Perhaps due to the extreme temperature of our current Faculty Room, it has transformed into a negative space where teachers come to complain about our school, their classes, their responsibilities, and students.  It’s no longer the welcoming and open place that it once was.  It’s now a place that I try to avoid so that I don’t get sucked into the negative drama happening behind the scenes at my school.  I’m more of a glass half-full kind of guy and I find it difficult to hear so much negativity in one tiny space.  In fact, I rarely visit the Faculty Room anymore despite the fact that it provides easy access to coffee.  I’d rather take the extra steps needed to walk to our dining commons to grab a cup of tasty coffee than wade through more negative comments.  As negativity breeds more negativity, the Faculty Lounge has grown into this black hole of despair.  If I wanted to wallow in bad news, I’d simply click over to CNN.com and read about the state of affairs around the world. So, to make a short story even longer, I do not even use the room in my school that is devoted to teachers.

A Faculty Room should be a place where educators come to learn, grow, and relax during the academic day.  It should be a safe space in which teachers share effective lessons or ask for help with challenging lessons.  The Teachers’ Room should be a place where people want to flock to, not away from.  Sadly, the Faculty Lounge at my school has turned into a stinky landfill full of negative trash.  Why is that, you ask.  I have no idea.  Maybe it’s because faculty members feel overworked or unsupported.  Perhaps these negative comments stem from the great discord that is felt at the school.  Maybe some of the faculty members don’t really want to be teachers and so they are apathetic toward the entire field of education.  Who knows exactly what caused this horrible transformation to take place, but it has, and the Faculty Room at my school is now a Complaining Room.

But, it doesn’t need to stay that way.  Like we empower our students on a daily basis, can’t just one person make a difference?  Can’t I try to foster change at my school?  Couldn’t I try to change the atmosphere of the Faculty Room and bring it back to what it once was and now should become?  Well, the short answer is, Yes, I should.  But, you know me, I’m not one for brevity.  So, here’s the full story…

Today, after quickly ducking into the Faculty Room to add some cold water to my coffee to cool it down a bit, I was filled with a sense of gloom and sadness.  Why do people feel the need to talk so negatively all the time?  Why can’t we spread joy instead of anger and frustration?  After making the long trek back to my classroom, I shared my frustration with my co-teacher.  “Why is the Faculty Room such a negative space?  Why can’t it be a place for teachers to gather and discuss teaching?” I asked her.  She then shared her disdain for the Faculty Lounge.  “I just don’t get it,” she said.  As we talked about this problem facing our school, we both started to realize that we were complaining just like the teachers in the Faculty Room.  And that’s when it hit us, the answer to our problem that is.  We can try to bring about positive change within our Faculty Room.  So, my co-teacher and I designed a little social experiment that we are going to try out tomorrow.  During our free period tomorrow, we are going to visit the Faculty Room and start talking about teaching or some great lesson that we have recently done in class.  We’re hoping that this conversation sparks more talking and sharing amongst the other teachers in the small room, which will then lead to more positive discussions taking place, transforming the space back into a productive and meaningful place where teachers can gather to grow and learn.  Maybe we’re too optimistic, but we feel as though it might work.  But, even if it fails, at least we can say that we tried.  Now, we know that trying this one time will not provide us with the benefits we’re hoping for, and so our plan is to keep at it from now until the start of our March Break.  Hopefully, we are able to create a small wave of positive teacher talk that will eventually build into a tsunami of awesomeness.  Who knows what might happen, but we need to try something because we are both sick and tired of having a Faculty Room that breeds negative thoughts and emotions.  We want to work at a school that helps and supports it teachers by creating a culture of change and development.  Perhaps our social experiment will do just that for our Faculty Lounge.