Gaming or Learning?

In recent years, researchers and educators alike have reminded us that our students are digital natives and thus, learn accordingly.  The big push is to create educational computer games and apps that teach content, skills, critical thinking, and creativity.  The thought is that children today have video game mindsets, which means that they crave immediate attention and instant gratification.  They need to be noticed and heard and desire constant feedback.  Our students want to constantly know their progress.  Are they learning or not?  So, companies and organizations are designing computer games that offer genuine learning opportunities in disguise.  Is this really the direction education is leaning towards?  Are our students so motivated by these games that their learning modes have changed?  While you could argue both sides of this debate and still lose, as teachers, we need to reflect on how we teach to be sure that it is best meeting the needs of our students.

To test out this theory of gaming as a way to engage the students in learning, I tried something new in my class today.  It being the final day of classes before our winter vacation, the boys were already in a state of excitement.  So, I scrapped my original plan of having them share their weather projects with their peers and decided to get the students primed for our next unit starting when we return from break.  As the students watched and discussed an interesting documentary on how the Earth formed, they needed to create a model of Earth and its layers.  One of the options for creating a model was to use the computer game Minecraft on their laptops.  Although I don’t fully understand the ins and outs of this program, I know the basics and also know that the students enjoy using it.  I’ve also begun to familiarize myself with the ways many teachers are using this program in their schools to teach various topics and skills.   I figured, why not try it out and see how it goes.  So I did.  Of course, the students had other choices available to use as a way of demonstrating their understanding of the content covered.  While many students did of course take advantage of using one of their favorite games as a teaching tool, a few students realized that it wasn’t the best way for them to learn.  In the sixth grade, we promote self-advocacy and self-awareness in terms of how the boys best learn.  We want them to own their learning and be responsible students.  As life will constantly throw multiple choices at them, they need to be equipped to make the best choice for themselves.  It was a very interesting experience.

Throughout the class, I meandered around to make sure they were indeed, appropriately using the educational program.  Everyone seem focused and made effective use of their time.  They were taking in the auditory and visual facts from the video and incorporating them into their Minecraft model of Earth and its various parts.  While they worked, I asked them to explain their model.  Most of the boys were very descriptive and used specific details and facts from the video when describing their model and its parts.  Many of those same boys were able to demonstrate a clear and thoughtful understanding of the material.  A few of the students even made connections to previous content.  They used the appropriate materials that matched Earth’s actual composition.  They explained how the layers formed and why they used particular materials to build their model the way they did.  It seemed that many of the boys had the opportunity to process the information delivered in the video in a way that helped solidify its meaning and grow into an understanding within their brain through the use of Minecraft.  Awesome!  Who knew it would have gone this well?  I was so proud of the boys and the way they took on something new and ran with it.

I left a few minutes at the end of class for interested volunteers to share and explain their models with the class.  They were captivated by the differences they noticed between models.  The boys did a fine job describing and explaining how they pictured Earth and its evolution.  Despite being hesitant about trying something new before a big vacation, I’m so glad I took the risk.  The boys seemed to thoroughly appreciate it.  I had one student comment at the end of class, “You are the only teacher to let us use Minecraft in the classroom as a way to learn.”  Clearly, the boys respected what I’m trying to do as I grow and develop as a teacher.  Although today’s activity wasn’t formally assessed, in viewing their models and having discussions with each of the boys, most of them seem to now have a basic understanding of the material we will dig into come January.  

While I still have much to learn about how to use Minecraft as a teaching tool, I now have data to support my claim that Minecraft is a valuable teaching vehicle.  My goal is to learn more about how to better use it as tool in the classroom, try using it again with the boys, and then craft a unit or lesson around the educational game.  Again, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help my students engage with the curriculum and make learning fun.  I want my students to be excited to come to class each and every day because of what we are learning about and how we are learning it.  Today marked another adventure in my quest to become the best teacher my students need.

The Wow Factor

I’ve come to realize in the past few weeks as I ponder my teaching and attempt to hone my craft, that reflection is a vital part of growing as an educator.  Great teachers often look back on their lessons and try to understand what went well and why or what did not go well and why.  Understanding the why is key.  So, as I reflect on today’s Humanities class, I am struggling to find the why and I really want to know what allowed today’s lesson to go so well.  My boys knocked it out of the park and I want to understand what it is that caused that to happen so that I can bottle it up and reuse it when things don’t go so well.

For the past few days, the students have been preparing for a class debate regarding forms of government.  Each group of two students was assigned a form of government used in Europe at one point in European history.  They needed to research that form of government to understand how it operates.  The debate provided the boys the chance to argue why the form of government they were assigned would allow a country to be the best.  Today marked the debate.  As they got into their positions in the classroom with their partner, nerves were high.  One of the groups misplaced its speech and couldn’t find it for a few minutes.  They finally did pull it out of a backpack, but panic did start to build within that group.  Another group was forced to fly solo because one of the students went home ill.  Luckily, that group had prepared well yesterday and so that one student was ready to go.  Stress levels were high throughout the classroom.  A little stress is good, according to the neuroscience research.   I was a little giddy and excited at this point.  The boys had spent a good 40 minutes preparing for today’s debate yesterday.  I was ready to see the execution of their hard work.  I just had no idea, the debate would go so well.

Each group presented their 2-minute speech to the class as the other groups took copious notes to use when they prepared their rebuttal.  It was amazing.  I didn’t have to remind the students to stay on task and respect their peers.  They just did it.  I was able to listen and take notes on what the groups were arguing.  It was awesome.  They used specific facts from their research, made connections to modern societies using these various forms of government, and related the government type to real-world situations the students could understand.  I was blown away.  They were arguing as if they were at an actual debate.  During the 3-minute rebuttal preparation time, the groups were rapidly preparing their speeches, discussing their notes, and working together.  I didn’t have to re-cue any group during this time.  Their 1-minute rebuttals were also strongly developed with specific support, explanation, and questions for the other groups.  They clearly listened to each other’s opening arguments because they were using that information to counter the particular forms of government.  Wow, echoed through my head as I watched this whole process unfold.  What just happened?  My sixth grade students completed a debate as though they were on a high school debate team.  How were they able to do this?

That’s when I started to reflect on what happened.  How were my students able to present such a fine debate with only about 65 minutes to prepare?  I did not give them time at the start of class to prepare.  We got right into the debate as soon as I had finished discussing the daily agenda and the homework.  How were they able to work through their nerves and worries?  How were they able to craft such rehearsed speeches full of facts and inferences?  This is the first debate we have done all year.  We hadn’t even talked about debates in class.  We didn’t watch any debates prior to completing our own.  So, what allowed them to shine like superstars today?  Was it that I tried to make it seem like a professional debate and held the standards high?  Was it because they were being graded on their argument?  I just don’t know.  

However, am I too closely connected to what happened today that my perspective is warped?  Did they really hit a grand slam or was it just done well?  Am I biased, as I mentioned to my students today as we talked about the forms of government following the debate?  Perhaps I had a fixed mindset about how well they were going to do that all I was saw the greatness of it all.  Again, unsure of an answer here.

While I do want to learn why today’s debate went so well, just knowing that the students were engaged, had fun, and learned a lot about the various forms of government from Europe is enough for me.  Sometimes, an answer isn’t needed, just the question.  The quest is greater than the reward, in this case.

Teaching History: Backwards or Forward?

Is one way of teaching history better than another?  Will students better understand history if it is taught within a modern context?  Is cause and effect important when teaching history concepts?

As my teaching partner and I sat down to map out our lesson plans for the start of 2014, my mind was floating in a sea of ideas.  How do we teach an abbreviated history of Europe?  Is it important to cover everything?  Since we only have about three weeks as our window of opportunity, we clearly can’t teach everything.  So, what’s important?  As there are many books published on this particular topic, there is no right or wrong answer here.  What do we deem as vital in the whole scheme of European history?  What do we want our students to take away from this section of our unit on Europe?  We pondered these questions for several minutes before we decided on a path.  As we want to incorporate the writing of myths into the curriculum, we decided on using Greek history as a starting point.  Problem solved.  Lesson planning is D for done, right?

Little did we know, there are several vehicles for the instruction of this material.  Do we choose a current event in modern Greece and trace its roots back through time to determine cause and effect?  Do we start at the beginning and work towards modern day Greece?  Or do we pick and choose random aspects of Greek history to discuss?  Is one way better than the others?

Does history need to be taught sequentially?  Should we start with the three main civilizations in Greece and move forward or start with the now and move backwards?  This seems to be a question for which there may be no answer.  So, we reflect on our students and think about how we can best meet their needs in order to cover the content in a meaningful manner.  They seem to enjoy the ideas of early civilizations and ancient history.  So, starting from the beginning and working forward may better build a sense of engagement within our boys.  We decide to leave the idea of teaching history backwards for another concept in our Europe unit.  While we want to try out this method of teaching history at some point in the year, we feel that it will not best convey the material with which we want our students to engage, now.  So, we will teach history forward this time.

Perhaps we made the wrong selection.  It’s hard to know.  However, we didn’t blindly come to this decision.  We put our curriculum into context and tried to empathize with our students, which is all we can do.  As we dig into ancient Greece, we will of course pause and reflect on the method in which we teach the content to determine if one way may be better than another.  Who knows, maybe we’ll mix things up the next time we teach this unit because of what we learn when we cover it this time around.  As least we know we didn’t close our eyes and throw our lesson planning dart at choices scribbled on the wall.  However, this may not be a bad idea the next time we plan a unit.  Yeah, and after that we’ll go to Vegas and gamble it all on number 17.

The Art of Teaching in a Block Schedule

Like the Mona Lisa painting and that famous picture of a guy without an ear, greatness takes time and patience.  Perfection is not something that happens overnight.  It takes 36 years.  I know, because I’m 36 and perfect.  Just kidding, I’m actually 36 years and 5 months old.  

Today we piloted a block schedule at my school.  It was everything I thought and hoped it would be.  It was like that Christmas when I snuck into my parents room when they weren’t home and peeked at all the presents I was going to get.  While Christmas wasn’t a surprise that year, it was still filled with excitement, much like today.  

3, 85-minute blocks.  It  was great.  In Humanities, we chunked the time into 3 blocks.  We started the class with a read-aloud from our class novel for about 10 minutes.  Then we transitioned into Reader’s Workshop for 30 minutes.  This allowed time for the boys to read independently, conference with me regarding reading strategies, or update their reading log.  It was very productive.  The students enjoyed the time to read.  Then we fluidly moved into preparing for the class debate we will be having in class on Wednesday.  We discussed debate protocol before I outlined what they needed to do to prepare.  They spent about 15 minutes working after I answered their questions.  They were focused and worked well together throughout that last chunk.  Time flew right by.  Before I knew it, class was over.  Wow!  

Now, had we not broken up the class into sections and prepared the students last week for what was to come on Monday and Tuesday of this week, we might not have had the same success we saw today.  But we did.  That pretty much rocks.  While most teachers I spoke to today seemed to really like it, a few struggled with how to use the time.  It’s all about preparation.  You can’t go into a classroom cold regardless of how much time you have.  Planning, lesson plans, pre-thinking, and review are all essential to good teaching.  No matter how amazing you are at public speaking or schmoozing, if you can’t plan and find a way to make the curriculum engaging and relevant for the students, you might as well call in unwell.

In order to prepare our students for the next level and to be responsible global citizens in the 21st century, we need to be sure we are giving them everything they need while they are with us.  This means, we need to plan ahead.  We need to model the types of behaviors and skills we want our students to possess.  If they see us as unprepared and disorganized, we might as well send them an email that states: Be disorganized and unprepared to be successful.  Let’s not ill-prepare our students for the future.  Instead, let’s devote at least 2-3 hours a week to planning meaningful lessons that will catapult the curriculum, skills, and content into their brains and long-term memory.  Not only will this help our students, but it will help us become better teachers because we will have time to reflect on what worked, what didn’t work, what we still need to cover, what we need to recover, and what we will do next.  Teaching is a living process.  Let’s not microwave last year’s lesson and redo it the same way.

Block scheduling will work for most everyone if it is done well.  Wait a minute, I feel like I’m onto something here…  So, life will be successful for us all if we just live it well?  Is that what I’m saying?  If we give everything we do 110%, imagine what will happen to our students.  It will be like the first time I saw the live action Transformers movie.  I almost wet my pants when I saw Optimus Prime transform from a truck into a robot.  My wildest dreams had just come true.  This can happen to our students if we give it our all, without wetting our pants in the process.

What’s the Best Schedule?

As my school is in the year-long process of trying to figure out how to best change our whole schedule for next year, I am giddy with excitement about the endless amount of possibilities that exist.  What will next year’s schedule look like?  Will we have block scheduling?  Will I have more time with my students?  Will we still have Saturday classes?  It’s hard to tell if I am so thrilled because the holidays are upon us or because we are piloting a few schedule change possibilities this week.   Either way, it’s hard to contain my enthusiasm for what is to come.

In the 11 years I have worked at this institution, the schedule has undergone many changes.  We used to have different schedules for each of the three seasons.  In the spring and fall, classes were 40 minutes in length and most days were the same.  In the winter schedule, classes were 37 minutes in length and Thursday offered a sleep-in for the boys with a later start to the day and longer classes.  It was so hard to follow.  Just when you thought you had it memorized, the next season and term began.  It wasn’t helpful for the students and did not promote a sense of learning and togetherness.  It went against what most of the brain-based research tells us about how to educate middle-school aged boys.  

So, we changed the schedule.  We found a way for the schedule to stay the same throughout the whole year.  We had 40 minute classes all year.  We finished all classes prior to lunch.  Three days a week, after lunch, we had an advisory period for advisors to meet with their advisees.  We also offered a conference period for students to receive extra help from their teachers.  It is very similar to office hours in college.  Things seemed to work well for several years.  However, 40 minutes is just not enough time to really educate and prepare our boys for meaningful lives in a global society.  

Back to the drawing board we go.  This is where we are currently.  We are trying to figure out, what we can do to make our schedule best serve the needs of our students.  We know they need more sleep and more free time.  So, let’s start and end our day later.  But, our sixth graders need to go to bed earlier.  Let’s make the schedule for each grade different.  We can organize the dorms according to grade and assign their team of teachers to work with them.  This way, we can provide our sixth graders with the unique experience they need without impacting the ninth graders.  The sixth graders need a shortened and early study hall.  The evening, following dinner, needs to be used for group building activities and free time.  They need the opportunity to be boys and have some fun.  If each grade had the flexibility to design their own schedule based on what the scientific research tells us about how to best educate that grade-level, we could become an even more outstanding institution.  

As of now, windows and doors of possibility are wide open.  I’m throwing in my ideas regularly in hopes of creating a schedule which will best meet the needs our all of our students, but especially our sixth graders.  The time for change has come once again.  Let’s move and redesign.

Are Current Events Part of Our History?

Are schools and educators discussing and teaching about current events that take place?  Are our students aware of what’s going on in the world around them?  Do our students know how to process history that happens now?

Every Friday in the sixth grade, we devote first period to discussing current events.  As we are part of our local newspaper’s Newspapers in Education program, we receive a free copy of the local newspaper for every student, every day.  This is such a valuable program for our schools and our local newspapers.  It allows the students to feel connected with what is going on in our local communities as well as the greater world.  My school’s mission, like many schools’ I would imagine, is to prepare our students for meaningful lives in a global society.  What better way to do that than to open their eyes to the history being made right outside our doors.  It also creates a springboard for discussion.  It is great for the newspaper companies as well because it helps popularize the newspaper and educate our students to the importance of print media.  It also fosters a sense of unity amongst the citizens of the surrounding towns.  If schools aren’t aware of this program, they should contact their local newspaper and find out how to get involved.

So, we begin our current events session by providing the students with a chance to peruse and read the various articles and stories lining the news print.  While some of our students jump right to the comics or sports sections, most start with the front page and make their way through the newspaper.  They read about what is going on in our world today.  Even those students who jump to the sections of interest, they are still reading and learning about current events.  The value of this experience for our students is priceless.  

Following this time of reading the newspaper, which is dubbed Newspaper Nook time in our classroom, we then open the floor to discussion.  We give the students a different news focus each week as they read the paper.  This helps to guide our conversation.  Today the students were looking for relevant world news happenings.  The first story one of our students talked about was the impending execution of the uncle of the current leader of North Korea.  The students were intrigued by this story.  One of the boys asked why there was not an investigation into this situation.  Other students then connected this story to yesterday’s discussion in Humanities about forms of government.  We then started discussing the form of government utilized in North Korea and compared it to some of the forms the boys learned about.  They had such insightful and thought provoking comments and questions.  It was thrilling to listen to our students drive the conversation like loggers probing cut trees as they sail downriver.  Clearly, exposing students to these types of current issues helps engage them in the content of the class.  It also allows them to make connections and bridge mental gaps.  Discussing current events is pivotal in helping prepare our boys to live responsibly in the 21st century.

Following our newspaper discussion, we then introduce and discuss one other interesting or engaging current event as a class.  This week we focused on the naming of winter storms as a big storm is headed our way this weekend.  We asked the students to think about the kinds of storms that are named and the importance of naming storms.  We then probed the students to hypothesize why the Weather Channel, and only the Weather Channel, names winter storms.  The students were pretty spot on in their examination of this topic.  They understood that a good portion of our world is all about the Benjamins.  They saw that this was a way for the company to become popular and make more money.  They got it.  As digital natives, they see the world differently.  Their lens is focused on the use of technology, where as, we as adults and teachers remember a time when mobile phones were carried in bags and personal computers were a luxury item.  Providing our students the chance to flex this part of their brain and explore what they already know is crucial to their understanding of the world around them.

The students love participating in these weekly discussions that usually continue into their next class and beyond.  Sometimes, we wish we had more time to continue examining current events as we generally run out of time to allow all of our students to contribute to the discussion.  However, the fact that we have the chance to dig into history taking place now is pretty righteous.  

We need to incorporate the regular discussion and teaching of current events into all of our classrooms.  When we help the students to see connections between history, math, science, and the world around them, they can begin to make their own connections.  When they start to think for themselves, the magic is unleashed.  

While we in the sixth grade at our small school are fortunate to have a whole period devoted to the instruction and discussion of current events, it doesn’t need to encompass a whole period.  Finding a way to connect your curriculum to the current world, is all it takes.  So, I say, current events are not just a part of our history, they are a part of our science, math, and language worlds as well.  Because of our busy and chaotic schedules, it can be difficult to find the time to stop and ponder the world around us.  Therefore, let’s challenge ourselves as teachers to help our students stop and smell the world turning right outside our doorsteps.

Is My Way the Only Way?

In conversing with my sixth grade counterpart today, I started to wonder…

Is the manner in which I cover material in the classroom the most effective?  Is another way better?  Am I spending too much time on one aspect of the class while skipping over or quickly covering another?  What’s the best way to instruct particular topics and content?

Today in my Humanities class, our agenda read: Class Read-Aloud, Discuss Forms of Government in Europe, and Work on Forms of Government Research Activity.  Simple enough.  I had projector slide prepared.  My goal was to use the slides as a springboard for our forms of government throughout time in Europe discussion.  Bring it on, I thought.

The read-aloud portion of the class was only supposed to take 10 minutes.  However, we are at a pivotal part in the story in which the character is trying to figure out who he can trust and how he can escape from the factory.  The author uses very descriptive and figurative language which dances in my head like gumdrops.  So, of course, while I was reading, I needed to stop and point out these amazements.  We discussed some of them and I asked some probing questions to be sure the students were actively engaged in the story.  This lead to a 20-minute read-aloud.  10 minutes I had intended to give to my students to work on researching their assigned form of government was now gone.  Was the discussion and questioning worth the loss of work time?

I then had 15 minutes to discuss and explain six main forms of government used by various places in Europe.  This portion of the class was mostly teacher-directed.  After providing a dictionary-like definition for each of the government forms, I explained it using sixth grade terminology and lingo.  I used the laptop as a point of reference.  In a country ruled by a Constitutional Monarchy, each citizen would be provided a laptop.  The rules for laptop use would be governed by the constitution; however, the king can decide to change a rule at any time, without a reason.  The boys seemed to better understand each form of government when this scenario was described.  While the students asked some questions, they were mostly processing this new information.  My class is filled with critical thinking introverts who like to ponder new ideas in order to grasp them at a level which makes sense to them.  With about three minutes of class remaining before a 25 minute break, I explained what the students would do once we returned to class and why we were doing it.  They asked a few more questions before I dismissed them from the room.  I left the classroom excited.  They seemed intrigued by the various forms of government we discussed, and they seemed to understand each form.  Class was a success, or so I thought until I debriefed the lesson with another sixth grade teacher who had just taught the same lesson.

She had 10 minutes before the class ended to allow the students to begin researching their assigned form of government.  How?  Did she skip parts?  Did she not elaborate?  Did the students not ask questions?  What happened?  She described what occurred in her classroom.  She had not spent as long on the read-aloud and did not elaborate upon the forms of government.  Her students did ask plenty of questions, she noted.  She’s also much more efficient at reading aloud.  Did I spend too much time describing the various forms of government?  Did my supporting details cloud their minds?  Did she not provide her students with enough of a solid foundation?  Then she reminded me that like an art form, there are many different ways to approach a piece or lesson.  While her approach allowed for more work time for the students, my method may have helped my students solidify their ideas regarding the forms of government covered.  Or maybe not too.  Who knows?  Also, did I take too long to read aloud?  

There are almost limitless possibilities when instructing content or skills.  While there are numerous wrong ways to teach, there are also many ways to teach the content and concepts that will provide the students with opportunities to engage in, explore, and practice understanding the material.  Is one way better?  Each student is different and so it is hard to really know.  Different is different and not better or worse.  Next week we will switch groups and so I will have the chance to explore what her students know about the forms of government and vice versa.  I am curious to find out what they know.  

Now, the only way I came to question my teaching methods was because I discussed my teaching with another teacher.  If I had not debriefed the lesson, I may not have ever thought about another vehicle in which to instruct the material.  The moral of the story is, talk to your colleagues.  Ask them what they do in their class and how they do it.  Share with your peers what you do in the classroom.  Open a dialogue within your school.  Get people talking about teaching.  We can’t grow unless we are watered.  So, go find some water, drink, and explore the possibilities that exist outside your classroom.

What’s the Question?

As my beard turns from rusty red to silver and grey, I realize my physical form is not the only part of my being that is changing as I age.  As a teacher, my ideas and routines are constantly evolving like a great oak tree sitting in a hardwood forest amongst other lofty trees.  

I used to be from the school of thought that believed we need to spoon feed our students everything.  So, my classes were once teacher-directed.  The students did very little talking.  I just thought that the students needed to have everything given to them so that they could comprehend the concepts or content being taught.  I looked at myself as a UPS worker.  I needed to personally deliver the packages of information to my students.  Then, I needed to have them sign for the packages to be sure they received them.  This, for me, came in the form of standardized tests or quizzes.

Clearly, this was not an effective method of instruction or even slightly sound pedagogical approach to teaching.  Even auditory learners did not really benefit from this method of teaching.  I didn’t come to this realization until I did some probing, thinking, and learning.

I realized that this way of teaching did not allow my students the opportunity to think about, engage in, process, or practice exploring the content.  No genuine thinking was involved.  After learning about the neuroscience research completed in the educational realm, I realized that I needed to provide my students with the chance to “play” with the content before I should ever expect them to “get” it.  Students need to see the content as relevant and find it interesting or engaging in order for it to be learned and imprinted in the long-term memory bank.  

How do I do this?  Do I provide the students with projects?  Do I give them group work assignments?  Do I have them discuss it?  What can I do to better meet the needs of my students?

I struggled for a long time.  I wanted to be in control of my classroom.  If I tried independent work or group projects, I would lose control.  The students would be in control.  I can’t handle that, I thought.  Then it hit me.  I needed to rethink my role as teacher.  I am more like a mountain guide, aiding a group of climbers through a treacherous mountain range.  I show them the way, make sure they get there safely, and help them when they need it.  They do the climbing for themselves.  They solve their own little problems in order to keep up.  I needed to know that the classroom should be student-centered.

After many anxiety attacks because I was worried about giving up the reigns to my classroom, I started to switch my mindset.  I needed to have a growth mindset as Carol Dweck suggests.  I did more research and investigating about how to make my classroom more student-oriented.  

One easy switch was to ask questions and allow the students opportunities to ask questions.  Instead of providing all of the answers to my students, I needed to allow them the chance to process information and formulate their own responses and answers.  If they were thinking about what we were learning in order to answer a question or participate in a class discussion, their brains would fire neurons and make connections like nobody’s business.  While this was difficult for me as I was so used to saying it all, it proved to be very beneficial for my students.  They started thinking and processing the concepts and content.  They had to make decisions about what was important, valuable, and necessary.  This forced them to be actively engaged in the class and material covered.  I was no longer in charge.  The students were running the show.  I started implementing Socratic Circles as a way of discussing and contemplating the material.  The boys asked questions, made connections to prior knowledge, and summarized what their peers said.  They were really learning.  I also allowed them the chance to ask questions and create inquiry questions that they would research further.  It was an amazing transformation.  “Why?” is now the most frequently heard word in my classroom.  Thinking = Learning.

Although I do wish I had come to this realization earlier in my career so that I could have helped more students, being able to now teach this way has made me a better teacher.  So, now what?

Last Minute Idea Turns Golden

I often wonder if by planning too far in advance, I don’t create opportunities for teachable moments or spontaneous happenings.  Am I choking the creativity out of my teaching this way?  I don’t want to be one of those fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants kind of teachers.  I am no good at “winging” it.  Plus, I feel my students deserve and need better than that.  I need to give them lessons which include hours of preparation and research.  While I plan my lessons and activities well ahead of time, I’m always reviewing my daily agenda the day before and hours prior to class to be sure it meets my expectations and will allow me to do what my students need me to do for them to be successful that day.  This is what I consider to be quality teaching.  Although it may not work for everyone, it works for me.  So, I do it.

As I pondered my science lesson for today, I realized that I wanted a little more structure to the work period.  The students are in the midst of an epic science project, which will solidify their understanding of the major weather concepts we’ve been covering for the past few weeks.  While some were working ahead of schedule, most students will have at least one week to complete the project.  In class, the next week, I’ve given them time to work on the project, get extra help from me on the project, and exceed the Learning Targets regarding this phase of the weather unit.  It’s an individual task and so each student is working at his own pace.  However, I noticed that yesterday, some students struggled to manage their time.  Was it because I didn’t structure the agenda accordingly or was it because they weren’t focused?  To help me differentiate between effort and lack of structure in the class period, I devised a plan.  

Sitting on the couch in my school’s main office, an epiphany came to me like holes in Swiss Cheese.  I would have them each set a goal for the class period and base their daily effort grade on how well they worked towards meeting or exceeding their goal.  It was brilliant and yet so simple.  Why hadn’t I thought of it sooner?  Giving the daily work period more structure helps the students better understand their expectations for the class.  If they know specifically what they need to do to meet the daily standard/objective, they will have a destination.  So, I decided to give them the chance to chart their course towards arriving at their destination by the close of the class period.  I had each student generate a goal at the start of class.  Then, during the first five minutes of class, I met with each student to discuss his goal and document it for record keeping purposes.  Towards the end of the period, I met with each student again to debrief the period and discuss the progress he made towards meeting his goal.  Almost every student at least met his goal for the class period.  It was awesome!  Most students left the classroom feeling like they accomplished a task.  It felt good to know that my students felt good about what happened in science class today.  

Clearly, goal setting is vital to helping the students be engaged in class.  It also helps propel them to the next level of learning.  During my next science class, I will have the students write their goal on a sticky note, which I will collect at the start of the period.  This way I won’t spend as much time recording their individual goals and will have more time to work with the boys to troubleshoot problems, understand the material, and challenge themselves.  

While I am a creature of habit when it comes to everything, I realized today that spontaneity can have its positive side.  Perhaps I will try to switch things up a bit more in my classes as it seems to benefit the students greatly.  While some new ideas will work, others will fail.  Just like great inventors, I need to make many prototypes before the final product comes into being.  So, practice and explore, I will do.