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Rocks Rock: Getting Students Excited about Geology

Rocks are inanimate objects.  They don’t move without a little help from external influences. Rocks can’t surf the Internet.  Rocks can’t talk.  So, then why are my students excited about them?

Attitude is everything.  If we, as teachers, are excited, our students will be excited.  If we are blah, our students will be blah.  Attitude is contagious like a cold. To be sure my students don’t catch the “I don’t care cold,” I’ve got to be fired up about what it is I need the students to learn about.  

Today in Science, we began a new unit on Rocks and Minerals.  The students were so excited.  I had prefaced the unit yesterday and had them preview it after they completed the Earth’s Layers Unit Test.  They were excited coming to class because they knew what was to come.  We began class with an interactive game called Rocks vs. Minerals.  I chose students at random to decide if a particular sample was a rock or a mineral.  They had five seconds to decide.  Then I asked them why they thought what they did.  It was so much fun.  They were cheering each other on.  We kept score based on how many rocks vs how many minerals the students identified correctly.  This helped the students flip the switch in their brains.  They needed to think, rocks and minerals.  We then reviewed the online unit.  I explained why the phases were titled the way they were: Bloom’s Taxonomy.  I explained all about Bloom’s levels of learning and the purpose of starting at knowledge and working to evaluation.  They seemed to understand this.  The students then started working on the Knowledge and Comprehension Phase of the unit as they read the online textbook I crafted and generated flashcards using the online program Quizlet.  They were focused on their individual work.  At the close of the class, I asked volunteers to share what they learned about minerals.  They discussed facts they had read about regarding mineral identification.  I asked some follow-up questions before previewing tomorrow’s agenda.  They left energized and ready for more.  They were rockin’ about rocks.  I couldn’t have been more proud or excited.

Sometimes, loving the content used to teach the bigger skills students need to be successful is crucial to building student engagement.  If we love it, we find ways to make others love it too.  While rocks and minerals look like blobs to some, to me, a rock is a piece of history.  A rock is a puzzle piece, revealing Earth’s magnificent history.  A rock tells a story.  A rock is a part of us.  A rock is more than just a rock.  If I can get my students to see that, then I’ve helped them to make connections and genuinely learn.  When I think of my curriculum as a rock, I have no trouble brainstorming ways to make it relevant and fun for my students.  Rocks rock because I make them rock, and you can too.

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What’s the Value in Student Reflection?

As a teacher, I find that I grow most when I reflect upon my practices in the classroom.  Honing my craft comes about from thinking about what I did in the classroom and figuring out if it was effective or not.  Sometimes things go well and during other times, things don’t always go as planned.  My goal as a teacher is the same I have for my students and basketball team, to get a little better ever day.  One really easy way to do this, is to reflect upon what happened yesterday in order to make tomorrow even better.  

In the sixth grade, we have our students continually reflect on their learning and the processes involved with that learning.  Did they learn what they needed to learn?  How did they learn it?  What process did they use to learn it?  What will you do differently next time?  We start with goal setting and then have the students reflect on those academic goals every two weeks.  The students brainstorm active things they will do for the next two weeks to work toward their goals.  We also have the boys reflect in writing throughout the various content areas.  In Science, they reflect on their inquiry process and various units.  In Humanities, the boys reflect on themselves as readers and writers.  To grow, we must look at our mistakes or areas in need of improvement and then implement ways to solve the problems and refine our skill set.  

Today in Humanities, we had the students reflect on their research skills.  Are our students effective researchers?  Will they be prepared for their future academic career?  The boys spent several days this week and last researching the causes and effects of the economic crisis plaguing Greece.  They documented the process they utilized to locate information.  What did they type into the search engine to locate sources?  How did they determine which resources to use?  How did they determine the credibility of the resources they found?  How did they determine what information to extract from the sources they used?  Today, the students crafted a screencast video documenting the process they used.  They had specific questions to which they needed to respond.  They also needed to highlight the sources they used to explain their research process.  They needed to close their video with a reflection on what they learned about themselves as a researcher through completing this process.  This reflective opportunity allowed the students to think about how they research.  Are they good at researching?  

The videos the boys created were very reflective and insightful.  They seem to really understand themselves as researchers.  While some students need support in growing as researchers, most of the boys have learned to research online effectively.  Would they know this about themselves if they weren’t provided the opportunity to reflect?  Reflection is the key to growth as a student and person.  We can’t move forward unless we learn from our past.

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What’s the Most Effective Method for Lesson Planning?

Do I plan ahead far enough or too far out?  Are my lesson plans formatted properly?  Do I structure my lesson time effectively?  Should I just reuse last year’s lessons?  What’s the best way to plan out my daily lessons?

I often wonder how other teachers plan their weekly and daily lessons.  Some teachers “wing it” and spend no time preparing their lessons while other teachers recycle their lesson plans every year.  Some teachers spend hours planning their lessons alone, independently, while others team plan to coordinate their curriculum.  What’s the most effective way to plan out lessons?  For me, it’s all about my students.  I want to generate lessons that will allow my students to engage with the material and content I need them to learn.  

Over the years, I’ve utilized several different methods of lesson planning.  When I first started teaching, I was not required to complete lesson plans.  So, I didn’t.  Teaching second grade, my principal required lesson plans to be turned in weekly and he would meet with teachers frequently regarding their lessons to be sure the teachers were working towards the learning standards for the state.  This kept me honest and forced me to think and plan ahead.  My current school has undergone many administrative changes.  When I first started, lesson plans were not required, but because I was I was already in the habit of completing them, I did so anyway.  Later, our Director of Studies mandated that we complete lesson plans and turn them into the department chairs weekly.  While the department chair was supposed to meet with his or her department members regarding their lesson plans, that never occurred.  However, it did force teachers who didn’t plan ahead to start doing so.  I liked that.  Accountability is important.  Plus, even the greatest teachers need to think through their lesson before executing it to be sure it is the best vehicle for teaching the content and skills while also meeting the individual needs of the students.  Now, my school has gone away from mandating lesson plans.  I worry that this will cause some teachers to fall into bad habits.  Great teachers don’t and can’t wing it.  As President Obama mentioned in last night’s State of the Union Address, we need skilled teachers to effectively prepare our students to be positive contributing members in our global community.  Effective lesson planning is crucial to this process; however, looking at the scope and sequence chart of a textbook is not lesson planning.

My co-teacher and I plan our lessons together weekly.  We sometimes spend hours discussing our curriculum and how to best deliver it to our students.  Because we both offer different perspectives on teaching and learning, we balance each other out well.  We attempt to generate lessons that will help all of our students meet the required learning objectives.  While this process does take a lot of time each week, it is vital to our success in the classroom.  If we don’t communicate and bounce ideas off of one another, how can we be expected to create effective lessons?  We work to organize cross-curricular lessons and units as well.  Team planning is the most effective method for us to plan our lessons.  We’ve both grown so much as educators because of this process.  While I sometimes brainstorm some great ideas on my own, my co-teacher helps me to solidify them, and vice versa.  We need to be a well coordinated machine if we want to best reach and teach our students.  Planning alone makes teachers islands.  Although islands are great places to vacation for short periods of time, they are not ideal for successful civilizations.  I am a large country, land-locked and loving it.

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What’s the Purpose of Testing Students?

If we became teachers to help students and guide them to success, then why do so many teachers feel the need to inflict such great stress and agony upon their students?  Why do teachers test their students?  What’s the purpose of testing our students?  If we want our students to effectively learn, then why do we force them to cram and memorize information in preparation for some great test?  As great teachers individualize and differentiate their curriculum, there are numerous ways to assess a student’s understanding of the skills and material covered?  So, why do so many teachers give their students tests?  Why not have conversations with the students to find out what they know?  How about having the students complete a project to demonstrate their understanding of the concepts covered?  I say, let’s break free of the test and find out what our students really know.  

As my sixth graders will be moving on to seventh grade next year, it is my goal to prepare them.  Knowing that tests are given to the students regularly, I feel the need to prepare the students for this type of teaching style.  

The students have known since the beginning of the layers of Earth unit that a test would be the final phase of the unit.  Today, we discussed how to prepare for the test.  I started the conversation by asking the students to name the purpose of testing in the classroom.  Many of the students said, “To see if the students know the material.”  However, a few reached the next level and said, “For the teacher to find out if he or she taught the material properly.”  So, I ran with that for a while and had a conversation about the true purpose of testing.  We talked about why great teachers might utilize tests in their classroom.  I then explained to them that the purpose of our science test is to provide the students a chance to practice preparing for a test to ready themselves for next year.  They seemed to get this.  

I then meticulously outlined the test itself.  I went over every question.  I showed them the actual test.  I read each question and had students provide sample answers.  The boys asked great questions to fully grasp what they needed to understand for and do on Thursday’s test.  I had the students take notes so that they would be creating their own study guide along the way.  I even offered extra credit effort for effective note taking during today’s lesson to emphasize the importance of taking notes during class.  We then discussed how to prepare for a test.  The students already have some great strategies under their belts.  I then blew their minds and revealed to them that all of their test preparation strategies will be futile unless they can find a way to connect what they are being tested on to something else in their brain.  They need to find a way to get the information to stick.  If the students can’t engage with the information or find it useful in some way, they will never be able to transfer the knowledge to their long term memory.  I related this to what they are learning in their study skills class about the brain and the neuroscience of learning.  I wanted them to understand that if their teacher doesn’t make the learning or content engaging and fun, then it is their job to make it stick.  Cramming and studying is useless unless the boys find a way to make the material relevant to themselves.

So, I then asked the students to think about how they would prepare for Thursday’s science test knowing that the key to learning material is to connect with it in some manner.  They brainstormed some interesting strategies including pneumonic devices and peer studying.  They seemed to grasp what I was trying to get them to realize.  While I view testing as an unnecessary component of the assessment process, my students will face many tests in their academic future, and I need to be sure they feel prepared for how to approach these monsters.

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Who’s the Teacher?

In a student-centered classroom, sometimes it’s hard to tell who the real teacher is.  Am I the teacher or are the students the teachers?  Some days it’s both.  The focus is almost always on the students though.  They need to learn how to solve problems and teach themselves.  I’m the guide, the safety monitor, but the students run the show.  

Today was certainly no exception.  In fact, today’s Science class was a prime example of the value of this method of instruction.  After putting the finishing touches on games, websites, and other extension projects the students have been working on for almost two weeks regarding the Earth’s Layers Unit, the students paired up and shared their work.  They played each other’s Minecraft games and asked questions about each other’s websites and slideshows.  It was awesome.  I merely, enjoyed the show.  They offered each other feedback on how to improve upon their work that is due Thursday.  They complimented each other while having lots of fun.  However, the focus on learning was never lost.  Several students shared that they now understand a particular concept that proved difficult for them to grasp while we worked on the Unit.  From playing games their peers had created, they learned the concepts I couldn’t get through to them.  The students were the learning vehicle for their peers today.  Every student found today’s experience valuable and enriching.  They mastered tricky concepts, shared their perspective on various Earth science topics, and provided feedback for their peers.  They were learning from each other without my involvement.  My students were their teachers today while I basked in the awesomeness taking place.  I couldn’t have asked for any greater result.

Sometimes, the best teachers are our peers.  If we teach our students how to teach, guide, and help each other, we are giving them one of the most valuable skills available.  Not only are my students able to help each other, but they are equipped to go out into this global society and make a difference because they are compassionate team players.  Does it really matter who the teacher is if real learning is taking place?

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How Do I Get my Students Excited about Content?

Am I asking enough questions?  Am I presenting the material in an interesting manner?  Is the content engaging?  Am I talking too much?  Is there anything else I could do to motivate the students to engage with the content more?

Today in Humanities, we talked about the economic crisis Greece is just now beginning to come out of.  I started our discussion by explaining to the students why we are talking about Greece.  I reminded them of our unit topic, Europe, and explained to them that with the winter olympics upon us in the near future, it is valuable to learn from where this tradition came.  I reminded them of the idea of backwards history and starting with the now before learning about how it all came to be.  I probably could have asked more questions during this introduction.  I could have probed the students more.  My goal was to make sure the students understood why we were learning about Greece and their economic woes.  Then I asked the students some questions about the composition of economy.  They didn’t have much to say.  I had to call on people at points.  Were the boys tired and lethargic as it was Saturday?  Did they not care?  Could I have made them care more about what we were learning about?

I then shared some background knowledge with the students about the situation in Greece.  We watched and discussed a video to better understand the issues in Greece.  While some of he students took notes, most just watched.  The students did not have many questions and didn’t have much to say when I asked them questions.  Was it because they understood the material covered?  I then explained why we were about to embark upon a research project regarding the economic problems in Greece.  I explained the importance of being an effective researcher.  The boys will need to know how to appropriately research various topics online next year in the seventh grade.  This project is a way to assess their research capabilities and offer help and support where needed.  I explained what they were to do in class today to document their research process.  They didn’t have much to say and seemed very disengaged.  Was it me?  Was it the content?  Was I not finding a way to make it relevant to my students?  What went wrong?

When I spoke to my co-teacher about how her class went, she was very pleased with how involved the boys were in the discussion.  They had a lot to say.  While she did ask more questions of the students than did I, the students also asked more questions than my group.  They seemed more interested.  Why?  Was it the mixture of students?  Was it the way the material was presented?  Why was her group more engaged and talkative?  What could I have done differently?

While I’m a bit frustrated by this, I feel as though, other than asking more questions, I was clear in my presentation and explanation of the material and expectations.  Perhaps it was just the group of students I had.  Maybe this collection of students doesn’t care much about the economy.  I wonder if the group I had processes things at a slower rate.  Maybe that is why they weren’t involved in the discussion.  I’m not sure what exactly led to the result I received, but it seemed like my students were not excited about the content.  So, now I need to figure out what to do next time I am discussing a content-driven idea.  Food for thought is always good as I’m starving.

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Why Did we Become Teachers?

The purpose of education is to teach and guide, in hopes of preparing future generations to live responsible lives in a global society.  So then, how is this process accomplished?  Teachers of all types guide and mentor all types of learners.  Sometimes this happens in schools and sometimes it doesn’t.  Some teachers are adults and some are not.  The manner in which the guiding happens varies.  There is not one way to teach.  There is no simple solution to that puzzle, which is the beauty of the puzzle that is teaching and the reason why I became a teacher.  I wanted to find engaging and relevant ways to guide and teach students of all types.  I wanted to challenge myself to look at each student as an individual.  My students are what it’s all about.  I am here for them.  Everything I do in and out of the classroom to grow and develop as a teacher is about them.  It must be or else I will fail and I will not settle for failure.  I must reach and teach my students.  I may not reach them all, but I must strive to try.  I teach because of my students.

Today, we had an admissions’ candidate in our classroom.  He was visiting from another school, looking to apply and attend for his sixth grade year.  He is currently in the fifth grade.  During Humanities, we did some quick writing, during which the students wrote for 10 minutes about a particular prompt.  Today’s prompt involved using three random words in a story of some sort.  I provided our guest with a writing utensil and some paper.  He completed the activity right along with the other students.  Then we had some volunteers share their writing with the class.  The boys crafted some very inventive and creative pieces.  One boy even put me in his story.  I was flattered of course.  After this activity, the boys participated in Writer’s Workshop, working on their writing.  During this point, I meandered around the classroom.  

Our visitor then came to me and said, ” I was so surprised when I listened to the boys sharing their writing because my teacher would never let us write such creative stories.”  I was astounded by his comment and a little saddened.  This boy clearly had some creative thoughts, which he wanted to let out but was unable to at his current school.  My response to him was, “Here in the sixth grade we want to foster a sense of creativity within our students and so if you don’t like what you are writing about, what’s the point of writing.  You should be writing about what interests you.”  He seemed to like my response.  I could tell this was a student who would benefit greatly from what we offer in the sixth grade here.

But there is a greater problem in his response to me.  His teacher is not engaging him.  He wants to write about creative topics, but is not being allowed to do so.  Now, I could hypothesis until my face turned yellow with purple polka dots as to the reasoning behind why his teacher does what he or she does.  However, I wonder if it has anything to do with the implementation of the Common Core Standards.  It seems that the big push is on expository writing.  What about creativity?  What about choice?  What about what the students want?  We teach because of the students, and so, shouldn’t they have a say in what we do?  Why not let our students help develop our curriculum?  If students are feeling stifled and bored, then something is wrong.  Our current education system is clearly flawed and needs to be fixed.  I want students to love learning, to embrace creativity and choice, and to be excited to come to school.  We have that in our classroom, but that’s not enough.  We need all students everywhere to be excited in school.  It needs to start with us, the teachers.  If the Common Core is not allowing us to engage our students, then perhaps we need to try something else.  

I became a teacher because of students.  I teach because of my students.  I teach to reach my students.  I teach to challenge my students.  I teach to engage my students.  I teach because I have to.

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How Much Time is Just Right?

Did I spend too long covering that topic?  Did I ask too many questions?  Did I not discuss this topic enough?  What’s the magic amount of time to spend on a particular topic?  How do I know if I covered the material well enough?

After debriefing part of today’s Humanities lesson with my co-teacher, I started to ask myself many questions.  I wondered why she was able to cover more ground and start the second part of the lesson in one period while I had barely finished the first part of the lesson in one period.  What was I doing that she wasn’t?  So, we talked and tried to figure out what was going on.  Did she go too fast?  As we chatted, we started to note the differences.  She asked less questions during the class read-aloud.  I stopped a few times, asking probing questions.  We both read the same amount of text though.  Did I ask too many questions?  Would it have been better for my students if I had kept reading without stopping?  Did my questions help them grasp the story in a more meaningful way?  So, there were a few minutes accounted for.  Then we discussed how we conducted our mini-lesson on making predictions while reading.  My co-teacher asked one question and only had a volunteer or two address it.  I asked my students three guiding questions and allowed at least three volunteers to share their insight.  Did that waste time?  Was it beneficial to my students for me to offer multiple perspectives on the reasons and ways to make predictions?  Was my co-teacher able to better capture the essence of the strategy in a more succinct manner?  Did her students get more out of the lesson than mine?  Is one way better than another?

So, the time discrepancy mystery was solved.  Now, we had to figure out which method of covering the lesson was more effective.  So, we talked and tried to dissect the mini-lesson to determine if less or more made a difference.  We finally came to the conclusion that varying individual teaching styles are good for the students to be exposed to.  In their academic future they will be faced with a plethora of teaching methods.  Some teachers will ask lots of questions, some teachers will lecture more, some teachers will have more project based work, and some teachers will find a balance.  The students need to be prepared to be successful in all different arenas.  The goal is to reach our students in relevant and engaging ways.  While asking questions or not asking questions may not matter to our students, it’s always beneficial to ponder the effectiveness of the questions and the manner in which they were discussed.  Five minutes here and five minutes there doesn’t really make a big difference on a daily basis, but it adds up over time.  So, if less is more or more is better then it would be good to know.  

Our solution to the dilemma is simple: Poll our students at the end of the year and ask them which teaching styles best helped them learn and grow as students over the course of the year.  We could pose several different questions and allow the students to explain their answers.  This would provide us with some hard data that may help us solve this problem.  However, it might also create more problems.  At the end of the day, doing something is better than being stagnate like a pond.  Good teachers aren’t made of pond scum.

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How do we Teach Students to Incorporate Feedback into the Writing Process?

How do we help students realize the value of feedback, whether it’s from peers or teachers?  How do we help students figure out how to address and utilize the feedback they’re provided?  What is the best way to provide feedback to our students?

As a teacher of writing committed to excellence each and every day, I often become frustrated when my students disregard or ignore the feedback I provide to them.  If only they had thought about this aspect of their piece or that character they could have really grown their piece, I often think.  Even more frustrating is when the students don’t seem to understand why they were unable to meet the objective of revising and editing their writing.  It seems like such a simple answer to me: You didn’t revise or edit your piece.  Of course, they then argue that they did fix a run-on sentence here and add a word there.  So, baffled, they stand there, waiting for me to suddenly say, “Oh my goodness.  You are so right.  I am so sorry.  I totally missed that.  You have an A now.”  Usually, it takes me sitting down with the student and going through the revision history of the piece on Google Drive for them to see that they didn’t effectively revise their piece based on the feedback I provided to them.  So, this all begs the question, why?  Why did they not revise the piece?  I sometimes spend at least 30 minutes reading over their pieces and crafting a response to the students that includes questions, highlights, and specific areas in need of improvement or change.  I’m giving them the answer to the test.  Why can’t they seem to translate that into their writing?  What am I not doing?  What could I do differently?

I’ve modeled how to use feedback in the revision process and usually have a chance to meet with almost every student to review the feedback I provided and explain what they need to do to improve their writing.  What else can I do?

Now, I should preface this with, most of my students are very capable of utilizing feedback and revising their writing.  This inability to effectively revise writing really only applies to one or two students.  Why?  Do they not care?  Can I make them care?  Oddly enough, it’s usually those students I spend the most time conferencing with during the revision process so that I know they understand what they need to do.  Could I be doing something wrong?  Is it lack of effort on their part?

Today in Humanities, the boys revised their myths they have been working on for the past week or so.  I had them read through the feedback I provided each of them at the end of their Google Document before beginning to revise their piece.  I even had them underline in their myth where they made changes based on my feedback.  For one student, he was finished in about 15 minutes.  Now, time isn’t the issue here of course.  When I met with him, he had only made minor changes and edits.  He didn’t address the larger issues in his piece and still had many editing errors in his myth.  I asked him some guiding questions and suggested he review my comments and re-edit his piece.  Again, he went back and made some cosmetic changes, but ignored the big issues in his piece.  Did he not see the issues?  Should I have more directly pointed out to him the areas he needed to change?  What can I do to motivate him to want to succeed and grow as a writer?  

Teaching students how to revise their writing based on feedback is a difficult process, but a vital one.  Through modeling, discussion, one-on-one support, and practice, the students will learn this important skill.  Trying new strategies and approaches is helpful as well.  Using mentor texts and our own writing can be very beneficial too.  What we can’t do is give up.  We need to persevere and help our students understand the value of becoming a great writer through reflection.  So, I’m going to “keep on keepin’ on” as Joe Dirt said because something I haven’t tried yet might just light the spark needed to ignite the writing and revision fire.  Growth comes in spurts, and so, I’ll wait.  In the meantime, I’ll have fun teaching.

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Is there Value in Reading Aloud to Students?

Should we read aloud to our students in English or Humanities class?  Is there any benefit in this or does it just waste time?  Do students like it?  What’s the purpose of reading aloud?

With the lack of time we have with our students and the increased curriculum we have to accomplish, I wonder if some teachers feel the need to trim the “extras.”  Is reading aloud to students an extra task?  Is it something we could cut from our day if need be?  The current research on reading and neuroscience tells us that most students become engaged in the “right” read aloud books.  Reading aloud to our students also supports the attachment theory and the creation of a culture of caring.  Many of our students come from homes where there is little care and attention provided.  So, it is our job to show them we care about them.  Engagement and caring are certainly not the end of the line for reading aloud.  Reading to our students is also a way to deliver a mini-lesson on various reading and writing strategies.  It can also be a way to deliver content or current events.  We can use a read aloud to explain a topic or deliver a message.  We  can also read aloud to our students as a way of creating a calm atmosphere in the class.  When I taught second grade many years ago, I would read aloud to my students following lunch and recess.  This gave them time to decompress and prepare for what was to come.  The benefits of reading aloud are almost endless.  We must read aloud to our students and be sure not to cut it from the curriculum.  We need our students to see the value in reading so that they can foster an enjoyment of it in the future.

Today in class, we began a new read aloud novel The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.  Not only was it enjoyable to read aloud, the boys seemed to already be interested in it.  They love listening to books and stories being read aloud.  It is soothing for some and gives us all a shared experience.  While we don’t read aloud every day in Humanities class, we make it a regular happening.  We value reading and will continue to read aloud to our students.  We hope that all of you who don’t read aloud to your students will start because you see the value of it and understand its benefits.