Can Useless Information Actually Be Useful?

I am the king of useless knowledge.  Well, perhaps that is a bit of a stretch.  However, I do know a lot of unimportant information about topics that will never save my life or help me move ahead in the world.  I could talk for days about the grunge music scene from the late 1980s and 1990s.  I can name the band members from many of the influential bands from that movement in music.  Will knowing the lead singer of Mother Love Bone ever come in handy for me in life?  Of course not, but did learning it help prepare my brain to be more able to learn other fun facts about Mother Love Bone and the formation of Pearl Jam?  Yes.  Because I learned about Andrew Wood and Mother Love Bone, my brain was able to make connections from that information to many other knowledge nuggets that are linked to this fact.  So, while knowing that Andrew Wood’s untimely death led to the formation of Pearl Jam will never help me find a new job or buy a house, it does highlight the importance of helping students learn to make connections between information chunks they need to or want to store in their long term memory.

As I see the value in learning information that is interesting and engaging, I have tried to find ways to incorporate the teaching of this skill and strategy into my sixth grade classroom.  I begin most classes with what I refer to as a Brain Opener activity.  These activities allow the students to begin calibrating their brain for the class we are about to jump into.  They usually include some sort of critical thinking component as a way to help the boys begin to activate and work on forming their frontal lobe.  Some of them also include the teaching of useless information.

Today’s Brain Opener in Humanities class was Word of the Day.  The purpose of this activity, which I explained to the boys when we started it several months ago, is to help them begin to compile a mental inventory of English words that they may encounter on future standardized tests including the SSAT, which the majority of our students take in the ninth grade.  The words I choose come directly from a study list generated by the SSAT board.  I tell them each day we complete this activity, “Try to use this word in conversation with others and your writing over the next few days so that you will be able to add it to your long term memory in preparation for the SSAT.  Also, try to find a way to connect this word and its definition to past words you have learned or information you already have stored in your memory bank.”  I want the students to see the value in linking pieces of information and knowledge together in their brains, which we discussed during our unit on the brain that we completed at the start of the year in our study skills class.

For this activity, I read the word of the day, that is projected onto the board, aloud for the students.  I then explain which part of speech the word is before going over the definition.  I make sure to use student-friendly language for the definition so that all of my students, including my ELLs, are able to understand the word and its meaning.  I then provide the students some thinking time so that they can generate a grammatically correct sentence that accurately utilizes the new word.  I call on a few volunteers for this activity, clarifying any mistakes they make in using the word.  They have become quite good at this activity and create very effective and high-level sentences.

Other Brain Opener activities I utilize include Trivia Time and On This Day.  Trivia Time provides the students with a fun and engaging opportunity to learn useless knowledge regarding many different topics.  At the start of the year, I had the students create a theme song for this activity, which they sing at the start of Trivia Time each week.  This may be one of their favorite aspects of the entire activity.  Although, sadly, I do not feel as though I currently have any contenders for the next addition of American Idol.  Sometimes the singing of the theme song sounds like a cacophony of cats in an alley.  I then ask three questions to students, chosen at random using the popsicle stick method of name choosing.  The students are vying for a special prize if they correctly answer their question.  The boys really enjoy this competitive and friendly activity that teaches them information that will never save their lives, but, as I remind them almost weekly, may help them win the big prize if they are ever chosen to appear on the game show Jeopardy.  Again, this activity helps the students learn the importance of drawing connections between their prior knowledge and these new facts.  I make sure to help them determine how it might be connected to information they have previously learned, when applicable.  On This Day is another critical thinking activity that the boys enjoy.  It begins with a short video on events that occurred on that particular day in history.  As the video plays, I jot down the major events onto the whiteboard.  Following the video, I ask volunteers to help us determine which event is the most historically significant and why.  The students love delving into the history behind major events in time.  These discussions and conversations can go on for a bit if I notice that the students seem interested in a particular fact or happening.  This activity is also another great way to help the students practice how to connect new information to something they may already know.

Helping students to see useless information as vital and important allows me to help my students learn how to best utilize the plasticity of their brains.  Making connections between bits of information they need to store in their long term memory, makes the process of memory storage and future retrieval more effective.  Thanks to MTV and music magazines I read as a teenager, I am able to help my students see that all information being thrown at them on a daily basis can serve a purpose if stored and used correctly.  These Brain Opener activities, allow me to do just that in my classroom.

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Is Hand Drawing a Map Still a Useful Skill We Should Be Teaching our Students?

Many years ago, in schools around the world, students learned about how maps are made, various map parts, how to read a map, and how to draw maps.  Teachers spent weeks teaching their students all about cartography as they would need to one day learn how to navigate around the world using maps and atlases.  It was a vital skill once upon a time.  Then technology revolutionized maps and cartography and rendered paper maps and atlases almost obsolete.  People use their phones and GPS units to navigate the world.  If someone wants to find out how to travel from here to Boston, MA, they whip out their phone and an app tells them exactly what to do.  People rarely use paper maps anymore because of these technological changes.  So, I’m forced to wonder if teaching students about maps and mapping is necessary.  Should we spend time teaching students all about cartography or skip it?  Is cartography still an important life skill?

In my Humanities class, I still teach my students the importance of mapping and cartography.  I see it as more a lesson in perspective, hand-eye coordination, perseverance, and growth mindset, rather than just a defunct skill that students no longer need to learn about.  My students recreate three different maps over the course of the year, to practice the skill of hand drawing a map.  In class yesterday, my students worked on their tri-layered map of Africa.  They persevered through challenges and difficulties encountered as they created their hand drawn masterpieces.  A few of the students had to completely redo their maps because their proportions were off.  Now, I didn’t tell them to redo their maps, oh no.  You see, when they sought feedback from me on their maps, they realized, on their own, how inaccurate their maps truly were.  They then asked if they could redo their maps.  My response was, “That is one way to solve your problem.”  Other students learned to trust in their own abilities as they created their maps, improving upon their hand-eye coordination from their first map back in December.  A few students seemed to even be enjoying this activity of hand drawing a map.  They liked being able to recreate something just by looking at it.  For each student, this activity of hand drawing a map teaches so much more than just the act of recreating, by hand, a map.  Students are able to truly practice and apply a growth mindset through this activity, as it is equal parts effort and accuracy.

So, while students may no longer need to know how to read an atlas or locate a specific place on a map, they will always need to learn how to persevere through challenges, use a growth mindset when encountering new information or experiences, and use their hands to create or make something.  Learning about the art of cartography and mapping is merely the vehicle I use to help students learn how to be effective thinkers, problem solvers, and creators.

The Power in Responding to Students’ Questions with More Questions

I love questions.  I love asking them and I love trying to tackle them to find an answer or solution.  I tell my students every day how much I love when they ask questions.  Engaged students are always asking questions.  It’s a form of active learning.  We learn about the world around us by asking questions.  Our brain learns when we are engaged in the content.  By asking relevant questions in search of answers and knowledge, our brains are able to specifically and genuinely intake the information and answers and move it into our short-term memory.  Imagine if Thomas Edison hadn’t asked about lights or electricity?  We might very well be in the dark right now.  Imagine if the colonists hadn’t asked about why the British were still able to control them from across the Atlantic Ocean?  Asking questions moves the world forward.  Learning happens when we ask questions.

As a teacher, I want my students to become critical thinkers and creative problem solvers so that they can live meaningful lives in a global society once they leave the confines of my classroom.  To do this, I purposefully teach my students the power in asking questions.  I begin the year by introducing the skill of questioning in the classroom.  I explain how important it is for students to question the world around them.  I praise the boys when they ask questions early on in the year to be sure that the other students, who are not asking questions, see the value in doing so.  I model this skill for the boys by posing questions to them on a daily basis.  When they answer a question I pose, I follow it up with, “Why is that?” or something similar.  I respond to their questions with more questions.  Throughout the course of the year, I remind my students how important it is to question the world around them.  “Question everything, even me.  Don’t simply accept everything I tell you as fact.  Ask questions to determine the credibility of what I’m saying.”  I want my students to think like investigators or detectives, always looking for answers by asking just the right questions.  Later in the year, I help the students figure out how to ask effective questions in order to learn more meaningful information. Reinforcing the skill of questioning over the course of the year helps the boys develop into insightful thinkers and question-askers so that they can effectively learn about the world around them in meaningful ways.

Today in my Humanities class, I challenged the students to ask great questions and then empowered them to find their own solutions.  As the students continued working on creating their tri-layered maps of Africa for our unit on the continent, the students asked many fine questions: “Is my map accurate?  Do I need to include a key on my map?  How do I use color on my map?  What should my title be?  How do I draw Gambia on my map?  Do I need to include this country that isn’t on the list?”  Rather than providing them the answers to their questions, and thus, stealing their ability to think and problem solve on their own, I generally posed more questions or made broad suggestions: “That’s a great question, how can you check to verify the accuracy of your map?  What does the rubric say about a key?  How do you think you should use color on your map?  What kind of title do you think you should use?  How is Gambia included on the map in the atlas?  Do you think you should include that country on your map, and why?”  In most cases, the boys were able to answer or address their own questions.  I’ve found that spoon-feeding students information or answers prevents genuine learning and critical thinking from taking happening.  Answering students’ questions with more questions forces the students to think critically and solve their own problems.  It empowers them to be the teacher and allows them to see how much they really do know about an activity or topic.

My students were so much more engaged in the task at hand today because they were the ones doing the work and solving their problems.  I was merely the silent observer.  I watched them utilize a growth mindset to overcome difficulties faced.  I observed the students demonstrating ownership by choosing to redo work that they felt would not allow them to meet or exceed the graded objective.  I watched the students effectively coexist with their table partner while sharing one atlas.  I observed the application of problem solving and critical thinking skills as the students diligently worked to accomplish the task at hand.  Because I empowered my students to answer their own questions, they became the ones in charge in the classroom.  They had the knowledge, but they just needed a little nudge from me to remind them of this fact.  By posing questions to them when they asked me questions, they realized that they did actually know how to solve their own problems.  Sometimes, students just get so into the habit of relying on their teachers to tell them everything, that they forget how capable they truly are on their own.  While being able to ask effective questions is a crucial life skill, being able to answer one’s own questions is a skill that all people should be striving for.

Switching to a Growth Mindset Can Be a Messy Process

I’ve read a few studies and research recently on how some teachers and parents are ineffectively applying Carol Dweck’s work and ideas on growth mindset.  They are focusing solely on the effort aspect of the concept.  Effort alone doesn’t lead to progress and growth.  Teachers need to spend much time in their classrooms to help their students see the idea of growth mindset from every perspective.  Growth mindset is more than just putting forth effort.  Helping students to develop a growth mindset involves specific and deliberate instruction.  Students need to understand how plastic their brains are to be able to see how possible something like growth mindset truly is.  Through the lense of neuroscience, students will begin to see the full magnitude of the concept of growth mindset and the benefits it provides those who utilize one.  Dweck’s work on growth mindset is not just another fly-by night catch phrase in education, it is a real and effective technique and approach we can help students learn to apply in the classroom.  Teaching growth mindset as a fun vocabulary term is ineffective and may prevent students from genuinely being able to learn the power that possessing a growth mindset can have on growing and learning, in and out of the classroom.

Dweck’s work states that people possess mixed mindsets throughout their lives.  While some people are more able to employ a growth mindset in the classroom, others use a growth mindset on the playing field during games and practices.  Those people who make use of a fixed mindset today regarding one aspect of their life, have the opportunity to change their mindset and utilize a growth mindset tomorrow.  As the brain is very plastic, change happens constantly.  It is very easy to turn a closed mind into an open one.

Over the course of the year in the sixth grade, my co-teacher and I have been helping the students learn how to make use of a growth mindset in and out of the classroom.  We want our students to see how effort, attitude, and reality all play a part in the equation that leads to their mindset.  If you put forth the effort to try to solve a challenging math problem, despite once thinking it was difficult, have a positive attitude about the process and how things might go, and then employ both great effort and a positive attitude when actually completing the task, greatness is bound to happen.  Even if you get the wrong answer, you will eventually learn how to find the correct answer because your mind is open to possibilities.  Because of this approach to learning, we’ve seen much progress from many of our students this year.  Boys who struggled with English, writing, reading, math, or science at the start of the year, are now demonstrating mastery in many of these areas because they know how to effectively employ a growth mindset.  Now, there is one interesting observation I’ve made throughout the course of this year regarding these changes in mindset.  It isn’t a beautiful and finished painting hanging in a museum.  Not all of the boys make use of a growth mindset right away at the start of every lesson, class, or activity.  It tends to be a process because of their mental processes.  Some students may begin working in class with a fixed mindset, but once they ask questions and think about what is being asked of them, they begin to change their mindset to one of possibility.  Observing this isn’t like watching a river meander.  It’s more like watching third and fourth graders learn to play basketball.  At the beginning of the season, they can barely run and dribble at the same time, but by the end of the season, they are working as a team and scoring baskets.  Watching the team develop over the course of the season is like watching my students develop their mindset over the course of a class or period.

Today in my Humanities class, I was able to observe this crazy mixture of mindsets in action.  The boys began working on creating their tri-layered map of Africa today in class.  I reviewed the requirements handout with the students while showing them an example of a finished product that one of my students completed last year.  I made sure they could see how different each layer of the map is.  I then fielded a few questions the students had before letting them get to work.  I purposely did not answer every question the students had as I wanted to let them utilize their critical thinking skills to solve problems they encountered, on their own.  I want to empower them to be their own problem solvers.  As they got to work, a mix of mindsets were being employed.  Some students got right to work, opening their atlas to the map of Africa and beginning to draw the outline of the continent on their blank paper.  Others seemed frozen in time, I believe, because they were processing what was being asked of them.  Those same students did eventually get to work effectively after a few minutes passed.  Then there were those students who seemed completely frustrated and confused.  They had questions that needed to be answered.  I let those students stew for a minute, hoping that they might be able to move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset on their own.  While for one or two of those students, that was the case, one student still seemed very confused after some minutes passed.  So, I fielded his questions, briefly.  Then, I let him sit and process the assignment.  He eventually got to work.  By the end of the period, everyone seemed to be using a growth mindset to work on the task at hand.  What started out as a cacophony of mindsets and confusion, quickly transformed into a growth mindset river, slowly meandering through a peaceful field of beautiful flowers and maps of Africa.

Once students processed the information they were intaking regarding what I had asked of them, they were able to put the mental puzzle together.  This then led to action.  For some students, this process happens slowly and loudly, as they ask numerous questions and seem utterly lost and confused.  For other students, this process of understanding happens more quickly and quietly.  I was able to see examples of both types of students today in class.  Those quick processors, got right to work, while the slower processing students took their time before getting down to work.  Then there were the students who needed much time to process information.  But even that group of students got to work by the end of class today.  As Carol Dweck’s work on mindset tells us, moving to a growth mindset can be messy and tricky.  It’s not a neat process wrapped up with a bow and glittery wrapping paper.  It’s a mangled mess of tape, newspaper, and other types of paper barely covering the gift inside.  Remember that gift you gave your mom for her birthday when you were four years old?  Watching students work and move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset is much like looking back at how you wrapped that present.  It’s not pretty, but it’s what’s inside that mattered to your mom.  The final result is what we as teachers are looking at.  No matter how chaotic the process may be, if students are able to move towards using a growth mindset in the classroom, everything is awesome.

Making the Most of Grammar Mini-Lessons

I find that grammar tends to be one of those polarizing topics for English teachers around the country.  There’s the group of teachers who feel that grammar instruction must be a necessary and voluminous part of every English class.  Then, there’s the teachers who feel as though grammar should not be separately and formally taught in English classes, but instead worked on individually with students as needed.  Rarely do teachers fall in the middle of this debate.  As research on the neuroscience of education has become more widespread in recent years though, more and more teachers are moving away from implementing formal grammar instruction in their classes as it is counterintuitive to how students learn.  Students learn best when connections are made and they see the relevance in what they are learning.  Having students complete a worksheet on adverbs has no bearing on students as writers or readers; and therefore, little to no learning comes from this approach to the teaching of grammar.

Despite this existing polarity between teachers in regards to grammar instruction, I’m beginning to realize that there has to be some sort of middle ground.  A balance needs to be created so that our students are meaningfully learning how to craft grammatically complete sentences.  When I did not formally cover grammar in my Humanities class, I found that many of my students did not make great strides in their writing over the course of the year.  I also noticed that they struggled a bit when grammar was formally taught later in their time at my school.  They lacked the foundation of knowledge needed to be and feel successful.  So this year, I’ve made a point to more formally teach grammar.  I’m not using worksheets or textbooks.  Oh no.  I’ve made use of mini-lessons to cover the foundational grammar skills my students will need to become successful writers, readers, and English students.  I use novelty to help my students see the fun that can be had when learning about grammar.  I have the students participate in hands-on and engaging activities regarding the grammar concepts covered.  The lessons are short, taking no more than 10-15 minutes.  I feel as though I have discovered the best approach to grammar instruction, that works for my students.

Today I began the second phase of my grammar instruction.  Prior to the holiday break, I ran the students through a series of short mini-lessons on the major parts of speech.  I assessed them formatively and summatively on the terms to be sure they were building a solid grammar foundation.  In class today, I began what I’m calling Grammar Fix-Its, which will be short, weekly activities on grammar.  The students need to fix a sentence or two that contains numerous grammar and mechanical errors.  In my head, this activity seemed like a great idea.  In practice though, it’s not quite as elegant as I had hoped it would be.

For the pilot episode of the activity today, I created two sentences chock full of errors, thinking that the more errors I had, the more rich our discussion and activity would be.  Boy was I mistaken.  While the activity did prove to be fruitful and allowed for a discussion on grammar topics, because there were so many different types of grammar errors in the sentences, the conversation and activity took much longer than I had anticipated.  On top of it all, I had to limit some of our conversations on the different errors in the sentences so that we would be able to cover every error.  I quickly glazed over some topics that really deserved more of a conversation.  I also didn’t provide enough time for all of the students who wanted to get involved in the discussion, to do so.  I was trying to do too much in too short of a time span.

While this grammar activity could be a very effective tool in helping students genuinely learn about grammar and the many rules that apply to English grammar, I didn’t hit the bullseye today in class.  I need to make some tweaks before implementing this activity again next week.

  • I need to focus on one or two specific grammar skills so that I can provide ample time for the boys to really dig into them.  In this case, less is more.
  • I also need make use of only one sentence rather than two so that what should be a short short mini-lesson doesn’t transform into a full-blown grammar lesson.

Short, relevant snippets seem to be more effective in helping students get excited about and meaningfully learn grammar concepts.  Hopefully, these changes will make today’s cumbersome activity into something rich and relevant for the weeks to come.  I want my students to enjoy grammar and see it as something more than just boring words and rules.  I want them to see the power that words have when they are placed into a specific order.  I want my students to be able to examine their own sentences with a critical eye, fixing any mistakes that exist.  I want to empower my students to be the grammar police of their own work.  I need to make sure that I am effectively making use of my grammar mini-lessons in a way that engages students so that they are able to build a strong foundation of grammar knowledge.

Make Every Day About Education, Inclusion, and Equality

While most schools have celebrations and ceremonies to mark special times of the year including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Black History Month, and Women’s History Month, I often find myself wondering if teachers only talk about important issues around diversity, inclusion, and equality during those allotted times.  What about the rest of the year?  Do some schools or teachers take the one-and-done approach to covering important and serious issues?  Should we only talk about civil rights in early January to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday?  Should we only teach our students about great women who have had amazing impacts on history during the month of March?  Effective schools and teachers never stop educating their students on how to be kind, respectful, and knowledgeable global citizens.  Great teaching doesn’t take vacations or wait for holidays to cover certain topics.  Great teachers are always helping their students learn how to be open minded about various topics.  Great schools help their students see the world from many different perspectives, each and every day of the academic year.

On special days like today where schools do host special programs for their students, much like what my school did today, it’s very easy to see how some teachers could mistake them for excuses as to why they don’t need to delve into the heavy and serious topics in their own classrooms during other times of the year.  While days like today provide us with great opportunities to foster a sense of discourse within our schools around big issues of race, gender, and sexuality, they are also great reminders of how this important work can’t start or stop on these special days.  We need to challenge our students to think about these topics and issues each and every day.  We should be teaching novels that touch upon women’s issues and race in our English classes, while also helping students to see that men aren’t the only ones who can be great scientists in our science classes.  We can’t contain discussions of diversity, inclusion, and equality to one or two days a year.  If we want to help broaden the perspectives of our students, we need to get them talking about issues that matter to all people every day so that they can find ways to make our world better and more accepting and open to differences.

While my school did indeed commemorate Dr. King’s birthday today with special programming, I know that it isn’t the only time we, as a school, are educating our students on these issues that matter.  I know that these timely and vital topics get discussed in our classes throughout the year.  Our students learn about cultural differences, equality, and inclusion in many of their course throughout the year.  In the sixth grade, we begin the year in my Humanities class discussing the concept of perspective.  Everything we do in this class, I tell my students, is to help you broaden your perspective of the world.  I want my boys to see the world through multiple lenses and a growth mindset.  To do this, we talk about issues that matter on an almost daily basis.  Each Saturday, we discuss current events in our world so that the students understand and know what is going on in the world around them.  We look at each topic covered from varying perspectives.  Prior to the holiday break, we completed a unit on mapping and perspective so that the students would begin to see the inaccuracies that surround them on a daily basis.  Flat maps do not tell the whole story of our world, just as most news stories or history books don’t either.  I challenge my students to question everything and look for much information on a topic before forming opinions or thoughts.  Last week, we began a new unit on the continent of Africa, and I helped my students see how easy it is to get sucked into employing stereotypes when learning about countries or regions of the world for which we know very little.  It’s much easier to use blanket, untruth statements then to find out the truth.  I challenge my students to do the hard work to be sure that they will grow into knowledgeable global citizens.  This is just one class at my school, and I know that many other teachers also dig into these big ideas in their classrooms as well.

We can’t allow days like today be the only time we are talking about inclusion, diversity, and equality.  We need to empower our students to think about difficult and serious issues on a daily basis.  The world is far from perfect, and until it is, we need to help our students see the challenges that face us each and every day.  Although special programs like the one my school held today are great opportunities, to as a whole school, discuss these topics, they should never be the only chance our students have to really understand the problems that have existed in our world since the dawn of time.  Every day should be a celebration and opportunity for our students to learn about equality, inclusion, and diversity.

Fostering Meaningful and Appropriate Discourse in the Classroom

I was educated in a school that believed in the mantra “children should be seen and not heard.”  Class discussions did not happen in many of my classes.  Students were not encouraged to ask questions as they detracted from the teacher’s lecture.  We were not allowed to engage in or interact with the class lesson or curriculum in any way.  We were passive consumers of our education, which turned me off from learning quite a bit.  Luckily, I had an amazing English teacher in my senior year of high school who challenged me to help others and give back to my community.  This experience made me realize that teaching should be active and fun.  It should be hands-on so that students are doing rather than watching and observing.

As a teacher, I have seen first-hand the power of active teaching.  Engaging students in the content and curriculum in meaningful and relevant ways is how genuine learning takes place.  Great teachers don’t lecture the students.  Great teachers pose questions for their students to discuss and debate.  Great teachers pose problems for their students to solve.  Great teachers make learning fun.  As I strive to be a great teacher every day, I make sure that each lesson is filled with lots of doing, asking, and thinking.

While today’s introductory lesson on Africa could have easily been structured as a boring and unfun lecture, I made sure to set it up in such a way that the students were interacting with the material in new and unique ways.  One of my goals for the period was to be sure that my students understand stereotypes, how they form, and how we can prevent them from spreading.  After a quick review of Wednesday’s introduction on stereotypes, I had the students draw an outline map of Africa with their table partner.  Inside the map, they wrote everything they both already know about the great continent of Africa.  They could draw pictures or use words.  The boys did a fantastic job coexisting and communicating throughout this short activity.  Following this activity, I had each student share one fact they already know about Africa.  I jotted their facts down onto the whiteboard at the front of our classroom.  I didn’t respond to their facts in anyway other than to thank them for their contributions.  I didn’t point out the accuracy in what they said.  I made sure not to bias the discussion in any way.

I then asked the students to point out any stereotypes that were listed on the board.  One student said, “Hunters is a stereotype because hunting is not allowed in Africa now.  You have to smuggle out animals if you want to keep or kill them.  That’s a not true fact of Africa.”  I then allowed the student who added Hunters to the list to defend his addition.  He said that he was referring to those who hunt for food and survival, not sport.  The other student then had an A-ha moment and responded to what the student said, “Oh, that makes sense.  I thought you meant hunting for sport.  Yes, there are hunters in Africa.”  Because I foster a sense of community and care within the classroom, the students feel completely comfortable appropriately arguing and disagreeing with what their peers say.  It’s about creating discourse while engaging the students in the lesson.  I want the students to think critically and listen intently to what their classmates say so that they can challenge each other to think even more deeply about the big ideas being discussed.

Creating a classroom culture that fosters an appropriate level of openness and honesty helps students grow and develop into global citizens who will positively impact our world in the near future.  I want students to be active listeners while others are talking.  I want students to question the world around them as a way to more effectively understand it.  Allowing students opportunities to challenge each other and discuss big ideas brought up in class, creates a true classroom community.  Students learn to respect each other and take care of one another as they all learn together.  Allowing students to ask each other questions about their contributions to the class discussion, helps them to develop their critical thinking, communication, and growth mindset skills.  A classroom in which students are driving the content and curriculum is one in which students are actively learning.  I don’t want my students to feel like I did in school.  I want them to enjoy coming to school and learning.  I want them to hunger for knowledge.  Empowering students to debate and discuss big ideas in school will hopefully help them grow into adults who will make powerful differences in their communities.

The Beauty in Teaching

As the bright and beautiful orange-hued sun slowly seemed to disappear behind the horizon just outside my window, I was reminded of how absolutely amazing our world truly is.  Despite all of the conflict and horror stories in the form of news that seem to fill our screens on a daily basis, there is much beauty in the world: Sunsets, ocean waves, snow-covered mountains, my wife, and UGG boots are but a few of these daily reminders.  It is so very easy to get caught up in the daily rigamarole of life.  Between raising a teenager, preparing for classes, reading the news, and grading student work, it makes sense that my stress level is almost always at defcon 1.  Recently, I’ve been trying to live in the moment and focus on all of the positive and happy things in my life, as a way to reduce the production of cortisol in my brain.  And let’s just say that it’s a work in progress.  What really helps is when I can simply stop and enjoy the little things in life, such as watching the sun set outside my window or rubbing my wife’s cute little feet.  In those moments, all of the challenges constantly bombarding my life seem to magically fade away for a brief moment as a sense of calm overcomes me.  Life truly is wonderful and beautiful in every way, and these moments allow me to see things more clearly.  The difficulties and stress-inducing moments facing me on a daily basis are what allow me to more genuinely appreciate all of the sublime and magnificent experiences life has to offer.

Teaching is one of those wonderfully marvelous experiences that remind me just how lucky I am to be alive.  No matter what happens in the classroom, good or bad, teaching fills me with a sense of peace and excitement.  I’m excited watching my students grow and develop and am overcome with peace while in the midst of an engaging activity in the classroom.  Today provided me with yet another spectacular, metaphorical sunset in the classroom.  Not only were my students engaged in the lesson, but I was in the zone while teaching.  I took a basic discussion on stereotypes and perspective and transformed it into an empowering talk about how to prevent the use and creation of stereotypes when learning new information.

We began our new unit on Africa today in my Humanities class.  I began class by having the students review the big ideas learned in the Globe to Flat Map Project we completed before the holiday vacation.  I posed two questions to the students that helped focus their thoughts on the power of perspective when learning about new information or a new region of the world.  The boys seemed to understand how one’s perspective shapes how new information is learned.  I wanted to get them thinking about how the way we view the world impacts how we learn about it as well.  I then had the students read about the Nacirema culture of people.  If you’ve never learned about this unique tribe of people, I highly suggest checking it out HERE.  The boys worked with their table partner to read the article and discuss a few guiding questions.  I observed them as they worked and chuckled internally as looks of shock and awe filled their faces while they processed the article and Nacirema culture.  They found it so weird that the people visited medicine men and had mouth rituals.  After the students finished the activity, I brought the students together for a short debriefing discussion.  I asked them a few questions about this strange group of people to be sure that the big reveal would have much power.  I then explained to them that this article is a different perspective on the American people.  They looked surprised and stunned by this revelation until they started to really dissect what the article had stated.  They realized that the author simply found a unique way to describe everything that we as Americans do on a daily basis.  Because we have only one perspective of the world, it’s easy to forget that there are infinite ways to interpret and see the world around us.

This then led into a discussion of stereotypes and how they form.  The students discussed a few questions altogether as a group while learning what stereotypes are and how we can prevent them from spreading.  When learning about new information, it’s important to utilize our perspective to view and analyze this information, but we also need to use a growth mindset and take in this new information through many different lenses.  I want my students to know that they should never accept something they learn at face value.  I want them to ask questions and find out more about something before they create and formulate their own thoughts or opinions on a topic.  Education leads to an open mind, which allows for stereotypes to be squashed instead of utilized and multiplied.

I closed the lesson with a quick picture activity in which I showed the students two different pictures, one of Kenya and one of Detroit, Michigan.  I asked the students to observe the pictures and speculate as to what type of people might live there.  I also asked them to hypothesize as to where in the world the pictures were taken.  Many of the students utilized their slightly biased and stereotypical prior knowledge when interpreting the pictures, as I expected.  When I shared with them what the pictures actually showed, they were a bit surprised.  I then reminded them of the importance of keeping an open mind when learning about new things.  Take in much information in order to effectively broaden your perspective on the world, I told them.  Several students stayed behind after class to share some interesting information and thoughts with me on today’s topic.  They were curious and engaged in what we learned.  They are excited to learn more about this special and unique part of our world.

As my goal is to prepare my students for meaningful lives in a global society, I need to be sure they know how to analyze and interpret all of the information with which they will be faced.  Helping them to see how their perspective plays a role in how they view and learn about the world, is crucial.  My hope is that they will now be able to go into our unit on Africa with a growth mindset, asking lots of questions and wanting for more knowledge on the various topics we’ll be discussing.

Following an amazing lesson like the one I had today in my classroom, I am reminded just how much beauty exists right in front of me.  I don’t need to travel to exotic places to see amazing things.  I need only to stop and observe my students as they grow and develop into critical thinkers and creative problem solvers.  Listening to my students discuss a new culture and new information as they wrestled with their own biases and stereotypical thoughts, filled me with such joy and reminded me why I became a teacher in the first place.  Educating others while spreading happiness and kindness is what it’s all about.  While it took a sunset for me to stop and see the beautiful things right in front of me today, at least I was provided the opportunity to reflect and recall what really matters in life.

The New Year’s Cairn

“Should I lose weight, stop eating junk food, stop that nasty habit, start exercising, or something else?” many people around the world were thinking last week as we ushered in a new year.  It’s 2018 and many people are working at forming and keeping New Year’s resolutions.  This time of year is a chance for people to start over and hit the reset button on their lives.  The number of people going to fitness centers or gyms during the first few weeks of January is typically quite high as people are putting a renewed energy and effort into making themselves the person they’d like to be.  January tends to be a big month for many people.  For teachers, though, it’s just another month.  While many classes do begin new units of study in January following the holiday vacation, it’s still business as usual in schools around the world.  This time of year is not a beginning for students and teachers, it’s merely another marker along our journey forward.  For us, this time of year isn’t about starting over, it’s about making progress.  We’re continuing to challenge and support our students to help them grow and develop into mature, responsible, kind, and caring global citizens.

A cairn is a trail marker usually formed by stacking rocks in a pile.  They alert hikers to the location of the trail on bald portions of mountains.  Without these cairns, hikers might not be able to safely and easily reach the top of their mountain hike.  Cairns help hikers know where to go as they mark the trail.  They are guideposts for people as they work towards reaching the apex of the mountain.  For teachers, the beginning of a new calendar year is much like a cairn.  It doesn’t signify a beginning or a middle; it merely shows us that we are on the right track and making forward progress.

Today was the cairn signifying the restart of classes since our holiday break.  While this day can be one filled with lots of emotion or lack of energy, my experience proved to sway from the norm a bit.  As I was excited to get back into the classroom and interact with my students, I brought much positive energy into the classroom this morning.  I welcomed my students back with caring words and a big smile.  I made sure to check-in with each of them about their vacation during the first few periods of the day.  The boys seem mostly happy to be back at school, despite having had wonderful vacations filled with fun and family time.  My positive energy seemed to be contagious as the boys all seemed to be in a stellar mood.  Attitude can sometimes mean everything.

Rather than jump into our new unit on assessing the credibility of websites in my study skills class today, I decided to provide the students with a chance to review the academic goals they set for themselves back in November, when we began the winter term.  I wanted them to be reminded of the goals they are working towards.  I also wanted to provide them with the opportunity to reflect on their goals.  How are they working towards meeting or exceeding their goals?  What else could they do to ensure that they meet their goals by the close of the winter term?  The students spent most of the period reflecting on their goals to make sure that they are using this first day of classes in 2018 as a useful cairn that will help them make forward progress on their educational journey.  I was impressed by how much effort the students put into this reflective task.  They were focused and attentive throughout the period.  Some students even asked for feedback on their written reflections, which they then applied when revising their goal updates.  Wow!  They really have made such great progress since September.  I ended class, pointing out this greatness that my co-teacher and I witnessed in the classroom today.  Amazing!

I was pleasantly surprised by the focus, dedication, and positive attitudes I witnessed today in my sixth grade classroom.  While this first day back from a lengthy vacation can be a tumultuous one for many teachers and students, it proved to be a wonderful experience for me and my students.  Perhaps my perspective on what today signifies for teachers and students, led to the positive result I received.  Having a positive and open mindset can make a difference in how others react or perceive experiences.  If I had been a bit downtrodden or lethargic today in the classroom, perhaps the students would have followed suit.  Or maybe today’s outcome was due to the fact that I didn’t just jump right into new curriculum, but rather allowed the students to reflect on their progress thus far.  Perhaps this mindful reflection allowed the students to recalibrate their emotions and focus so that they looked at today as an opportunity to move forward.  Regardless of the reason, things went very well in the sixth grade today as we restarted class following the holiday break.  Like a cairn atop Mount Cardigan, today marked just another step in the academic journey our students are on.

Does Student Feedback Help Teachers?

During my first year of teaching, no colleague or administrator ever came to observe me.  I never received feedback from anyone at my school regarding my teaching practices.  While I knew that I struggled with many pieces of the teaching puzzle that year, no one ever reached out to me to let me know how I could tweak my teaching and grow as an educator.  During my two years teaching second grade at a Catholic school in Maine, my principal and mentor teacher observed me in the classroom on numerous occasions.  Following these visits, they both provided me with much feedback, which I used to grow and develop as a teacher.  They noticed how I seemed to call on particular students more than others, amongst other things.  So, I put a plan into action to make sure that I rectified these issues.  In the two years I taught at that school, much growth and development took place within me because of the feedback I received from my colleagues.  At my current school, I rarely get observed.  This year was the first year I was formally observed in about eight years.  While working with a co-teacher has allowed me to receive feedback on my teaching, I do wonder how much more I would have grown over the years had my school’s administrators observed me and provided me with feedback.

Since I haven’t received much meaningful feedback from other faculty members over my 15 years of employment at my current school, I’ve taken it upon myself in recent years to seek out feedback from the people who matter most to me– my students.  They are the ones who see me day after day.  They are the ones who know me best as a teacher.  While their frontal lobes aren’t completely formed, which means that they lack the means to think critically and insightfully about the world around them, they are the people who see me teach the most.  I teach because of my students, and so, seeking feedback from them just seemed to make sense to me.

A few years ago, I created a Google Form for my students to complete that included many different questions on my teaching style, likes and dislikes regarding the whole sixth grade program, and areas in need of improvement in the sixth grade.  The feedback I received from my students was more meaningful than any piece of feedback I’ve ever received from my bosses in all of my years of teaching, which makes sense as my students do know me best.  Some of the best and biggest changes that I’ve made to the sixth grade program over the years came about due to the feedback I received from my students.

As the end of the calendar year draws to a close, it seemed fitting to seek feedback from my students once again.  A few weeks ago, my co-teacher and I crafted a survey via Google Forms that the students completed in class today.  We tried to limit the number of questions we asked, but we made sure to include questions that would help us understand how we are doing in the eyes of our students.  Prior to the students completing the survey, I explained how vital their feedback is to our growth as teachers.  I reminded them to be honest but appropriate in their feedback.  The students then completed the survey in class today.  Many of them seemed to put great effort into their responses.  Some of the boys took much time to thoughtfully answer the questions so that they could provide us with the best feedback possible.  I praised those students for their time and energy.  The more relevant and meaningful feedback my co-teacher and I receive, the more we are able to self-assess our teaching practices and grow as educators.

At first glance, the feedback our students provided us with today is very positive.  They all seem to like the sixth grade program that we have created.  That’s great news.  Some of the big takeaways for me from the feedback we did receive:

  • A few students noted that I don’t always explain concepts clearly in the classroom.  This is not surprising to me because I have felt as though I could be doing a better job with this aspect of my teaching this year.  There have been times where I’ve felt a bit “off” in the classroom when I was teaching a new concept or covering new content.  I need to work on this moving forward.
  • Most of my students noted how their interest in the area of Humanities has increased this year since being in my class.  This was a bit surprising to me since most of the concepts we’ve been covering this year have been a bit banal and dense.  Who really wants to dig into the American legal system or the different types of flat maps?  It’s nice to know that the teaching methods I’ve been using to engage my students have paid huge dividends.
  • All but one student seems to feel as though I show concern and respect for them in the classroom.  While this means that I’m connecting with my students in powerful and meaningful ways, I do worry about that one student who noted that he doesn’t feel as though I’m showing respect towards him.  As this question was multiple choice, it’s possible that the student accidentally clicked the wrong answer, didn’t read the choices properly, or rushed through the form.  If he did purposefully choose that answer, then I should be concerned.  As the form was anonymous, I can’t go back and double-check.  What I can do, though, is make sure that when the students return from break in 2018, I continue to connect with each and every student on a daily basis.
  • My students feel comfortable enough to joke around with me in appropriate ways.  On the Additional Feedback section, one student wrote, “Mr.Holt should get a sweatshirt with a train on it and it should say ‘I Like Trains.'”  As I was fairly certain I knew who wrote that, I approached him at a quiet and private moment in the classroom to ask him if he did indeed write that.  He smiled a big, wide smile as he said, “Yes I did.”  He then started laughing.  I think he liked that I took the time to read the feedback and then talk to him about it.  It shows that I truly know my students.  That made me feel real good inside.

The moral of today’s blog entry is simple, Seeking feedback from your students will help you grow and develop as a person and teacher.  It’s simple and easy to do, and takes the stress out of administrative observations, that can often feel like interrogations.  I’ve become a better teacher because of the feedback I’ve received from my students.  If you’re looking to improve as an educator, ask your students for advice.