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Is it Work for the Sake of Work or Something Greater?

When I see some of the work or homework students have, I get a grumbly feeling in my belly.  I just don’t understand how worksheets and busy work helps students.  Repetition is one thing, but if a student understands a concept or skill, why does he need to continue doing more of the same work?  If we want students to like learning and care about our subject area, why are we making them do work, which they find boring and unnecessary?  When students are asked about how they learn best and the modalities that are most effective in teaching them, they almost always say the same thing.  Students like to be engaged with hands-on, collaborative work which is relevant to them as individuals.  Our students like to be challenged.  They like to create and try new things.  They like to solve problems.  They hate worksheets and mundane tasks.  They don’t see the value in most classwork and homework.  They see most busy work as work the teachers give them to waste their time.  So then this research begs the question, why do we keep boring our students?

Everything we do in our classroom has to have a purpose that is directly tied to the neuroscience of learning and the standards for the course.  We not only need the students to understand why we are asking them to do a particular task but we also need them to buy into the reason why.  We also need to provide the students with choice.  Work should never be given for the sake of giving it.  

Today in Science, my students were working on their mind map regarding the characteristics of Brook Trout.  When I introduced this Unit, I was very transparent with the students.  We are learning about Brook Trout because we are fortunate enough to be participating in the Trout in the Classroom program this year.  We will be raising and taking care of baby Brook Trout.  In order to be responsible parents, I told them, and to understand their needs.  This mind map activity has the students learning about the Brook Trout’s habitat, diet, reproductive cycle, and growth so that they can become responsible Brook Trout parents.  They know why they need to learn this information and see the value in it as they are excited to be raising fish in the classroom.  They are engaged with and find the relevance in what we are learning about in Science.  All of my students are doing their work because they see the value in it.  It is work to help them become more prepared global citizens.

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How Can I Help Students Get Out of the Fixed Mindset?

In the sixth grade, we teach our students all about the power of mindset using the Brainology program developed by Carol Dweck.  We teach the students how their brain works and the power of thinking you can rather than you can’t.  We incorporate the mindset vocabulary into all of our classes.  The students are constantly exposed to these ideas of thinking.  So, despite all of this talking, discussing, and teaching, why do we have a few students still stuck in the fixed mindset?  What can we do to help them get unstuck?  

One particular student in our class lives in the fixed mindset.  While he can occasionally take feedback and grow from it, he is generally closed off to the idea of help of any type.  He also refuses to process information that would allow him to make connections and inferences in class.  Yesterday we talked about how we need to be focused and serious while reading the play 12 Angry Men due to its subject matter and the way in which we are reading it as a class.  Today, I revisited this idea again before we started reading.  This one student then asked the question, “Why do we need to take this so seriously?”  Now, this student likes to test boundaries and find ways around the rules.  He also likes to stir the pot.  He does this with other students regularly.  However, all of this seems to stem from his fixed ideas about himself and the world.  Once he gets an idea in his head, nothing else matters.  Nothing seems to be able to change his mind.  He can sometimes fake things well, but his sentiments are not genuine.  What can I do to help him?  I’ve tried connecting with him on varying levels and this still doesn’t seem to be making a difference.  I want to help this student get out of his own way before it’s too late.

I will continue trying to connect with him and make him feel cared for and supported.  I will also try having a conversation with him about his mindset and the power of being open to new ideas.  Hopefully this will help.  I know I can’t reach every student, but I will not go down without a fight.  I want to at least be able to say that I gave it everything I had.

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How Do I Know How Well I Did?

Was today’s lesson effective?  Were my students engaged?  Did they learn anything?  Did I convey the information in a meaningful manner?  Did I ask enough questions?  Did I move through the material too fast?  How do I judge my performance in the classroom?

Following today’s Humanities class, I was filled with questions.  While I covered all I needed to address in preparation for tomorrow’s lesson, I felt unsure of how the lesson went overall.  As we are beginning a mini-unit tomorrow on the class reading of the drama 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose, I needed to provide the students with some background information.  I introduced the play by reading the back of the book jacket to the students.  They asked a few probing questions.  I then gave the students a crash course in the American court system and jury trials.  I explained the two types of trials used throughout history prior to the introduction of a jury trial.  I asked a few questions at this point and answered the questions my students posed.  They seemed inquisitive.  We then discussed the three branches of the American Government and the amendments that gave citizens the right to a fair jury trial.  Again, the students asked questions.  While I wasn’t able to address all of their questions, I explained the big ideas behind the information they were searching for.  I then explained the process involved once an individual is accused of a crime.  I explained what a jury is, how they are created, and what they do.  I then asked the students to think about the benefits of a jury trial.  They then asked more questions about this process.  I wrapped up today’s lesson by handing out their jury summons notes that listed their roles in the play.  They seemed excited about their parts and the play.  At the midway point of the lesson I did conduct an informal check for understanding by asking comprehension questions based on the information already covered.  While most of the students were able to answer my questions, two students seemed confused.  They were more focused after this point.  While I don’t need the students to recall this information for some big test as we will review these ideas in class when reading the play, I do want to make sure the students add the knowledge shared to their data base for use in better understanding the context of the play.

Did I convey the concepts and big ideas in a way that allowed the students to learn the information?  How can I check myself?  How do I know if my lesson was effective?  I suppose as we move through the class reading of the play, I will know how well they comprehended the knowledge provided to them today in how critically they are able to think about what we read.  Is there any other way I can determine if how I taught today’s lesson was effective?  Perhaps beginning tomorrow’s lesson with a quick, informal knowledge quiz will help.  

As my students grow, I want to be able to grow along side them.  Although some lessons provide easy data for me to ponder as I assess my effectiveness as a teacher, lessons like today’s make it difficult.  While it was more teacher driven, it is hard to know if I presented the information in an engaging way.  I need to keep this in mind for future lessons of this magnitude so that I don’t have to guess at my effectiveness as an educator.  Food for thought always makes me hungry for more.  The power of reflection is great.

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What’s the Purpose of Homework?

Knowing what some of the older students have to do for homework on a nightly basis here at my school, I often ponder the purpose of homework.  Is homework assigned to give students something to do at night so that they don’t cause a ruckus?  Is homework to reinforce skills introduced in the classroom?  Is homework to try something new on one’s own?  Do teachers give homework to challenge and confuse students?  How do we know if the students are doing their homework independently?  How do we grade students on their homework?  If we don’t know that they completed it on their own, how can we grade them on it based on objectives or learning targets?  Shouldn’t homework be effort based only?

I could go on with the questions as I have many.  I’ve done much thinking, reflecting, and researching on homework over the past several years I’ve been teaching here.  At first, I assigned homework because I was told by the institution I had to.  It was often times busy work or work that was slightly related to what we were doing in class.  I graded the students on their homework based on its completion and accuracy.  It was a portion of the students’ overall grade for the class.  It negatively impacted most students.  They didn’t enjoy doing it, and in most cases dreaded homework.  Therefore, genuine learning was not taking place.  So, then I started rethinking how I assigned homework.  I realized that I didn’t know for sure how much of the homework my students were doing on their own.  Were they getting help from their parents?  Were they asking their roommate or a friend for help?  How could I assess my students on their ability to meet the objectives when I didn’t know for sure if they could actually meet the objectives on their own?  This is when I realized that homework should not be a separate entity.  Homework should be an extension of the class.  Homework should be directly related to the classwork.  If the students are working on a project in class, then their homework should be to continue working on the project.  If homework doesn’t seem relevant to the students, they won’t be connected to it and have difficulty doing it well and extracting any real learning from completing it.  

In Science this year, I developed my units so that the only homework is to finish what they were unable to complete in class.  For example, yesterday we began the Brook Trout Unit and part of the first phase was to create hand-drawn diagrams of Brook Trout.  They began working on them yesterday in class.  They also spent 20 minutes last night during study hall working on them.  Today in class, they continued working on these diagrams.  If they are unable to complete them in class on Monday, they will need to finish them for homework.  They are being graded on their effort to complete the project effectively and appropriately.  Their ability to complete the work on time or for homework will not impact their objective grade for the assignment.  The grade needs to be directly tied to the learning and objectives and not ability to do work on time.  If they are focused and on task in class, this is an adequate amount of time to finish this assignment.  The goal would be for them to not have any homework.  After dinner the boys are out of energy, unfocused, and tired.  They need to relax, unwind, rest their brain, and sleep.  If I only gave them limited class time to work on these diagrams and expected the boys to complete the majority of the work on them outside of class, they would be overwhelmed.  Also, if they had questions, they might not be able to ask me and may then complete the homework incorrectly.  When they complete work in class, I can meet with them to provide feedback and push them in the right direction.  What’s the point of creating frustration, extra stress, and tired students?  No learning happens this way.  

In fact, I say we need to do away with homework altogether.  Classes should be structured in such a way that the work is completed in class.  Only work the students are unable to finish in class because they were unfocused or wanted to exceed the learning targets should be completed outside of class.  Homework should not be busy work, extra work, or new work.  Homework should be about rest, family time, and unwinding time.  If so many students are not completing their homework well and still struggling to understand the concepts covered in class, then the teacher is not structuring the class in a meaningful way.  Homework should not be extra work.  We, as global teachers, need to rethink homework and education.  It’s about learning and skill acquisition.  It’s about our students.  It’s not about mandates and assigning work for the sake of assigning work.  If something is not purposeful, what’s the purpose of doing it?

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Is there Value in Field Trips?

While most public schools avoid field trips due to all the red tape needed to make one happen and the lack of days to cover the arduous curriculum, some schools that are able to do field trips choose not to because they feel there is no value in them.  Some of my fondest school memories from growing up have to do with trips my class took.  In elementary school my class went to Old Fort Number Four in Charlestown, NH.  It’s a Revolutionary War era fort.  People dressed up in period costumes and had various stations set up throughout the fort like an old town from the period.  We got to pound metal like a blacksmith and play old-time children’s games.  It was a super fun experience and brought the curriculum of early America to life for me.  It allowed me, as a student, to make connections between what I was learning about in the classroom and what it was really like.  It was a very meaningful experience for me.  I had several others just like it that made the learning real and tangible.  I have difficulty remembering the names of my teachers, but I will never forget those field trip experiences.

Why don’t more teachers make these experiences available to their students?  Isn’t our goal as teachers to make the learning hands-on, relevant, and engaging for our students?  Field trips do just this.  Some great field trips are are free and located right in your school’s backyard.  Last year, my sixth grade class did a whole unit on the town of Canaan, NH.  We brought in community members, took short trips into town to do some looking, questioning and archeological work, and walked to a few spots close to the school to discuss our town’s heritage and history.  The boys loved it.  It was one of their highlights of the whole academic year.  We didn’t have to pay a cent for these opportunities.  They were all free minus about $2 in gas for transportation.  Sure, it took some time and creativity to plan these experiences out and execute them.  However, they were so valuable to our students.  They brought our small town to life for the boys.  

Today, we took our class on a field trip to the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College.  The only cost for the trip was fuel, which was minimal due to our school’s close proximity to the location.  We were given a tour of the machine shop and fluids lab.  The boys were able to play with a water table to see how hydropower and energy work, make plastic molds of their hands to see one way plastic parts can be produced, watch a laser cutting machine make tiny wooden plaques, and make a plastic vacuum mold.  Many of the students reported to us that this was the greatest field trip they had ever been on.  They loved it and learned so much about engineering and problem solving.  The tour guides were helpful and knowledgeable and the staff was so inviting and kind.  It was an incredibly beneficial experience for our students.  While it took a few teaching periods away from in-class time, this trip easily covered objectives in our curriculum.  It didn’t subtract from the learning experience in any way.  In fact, today’s adventure enhanced our curriculum and the experience the boys are receiving.  

If you’re not providing field trip experiences for your students, you need to evaluate the reasons why and make them happen.  Bring learning to life for your students and give them memories they will cherish forever.

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Process vs. Product

As an adult, when I am completing a task or creating something, I focus on the final product.  I want my lesson plans, poster, website, etc. to be the best looking piece it can be.  As I am a perfectionist, this is difficult for me.  I often spend too much time working on one piece or task because I want it to look “just right.”  When I was a wee lad in school, my teachers graded me on my ability to complete neat, aesthetically pleasing work.   The focus was on what it looked like not what it demonstrated or the process involved.  I was never given a chance to reflect on how I completed my work, which is why the quality of my work rarely improved over my years of schooling.  Our goal as great teachers is to inspire and challenge our students to grow and change as learners, thinkers, workers, etc.  The only way to allow our students to develop as students is to give them time to reflect on their process.  How did it go?  How long did it take to finish this piece?  What problems did you encounter?  How did you solve these problems?  How did you demonstrate your understanding of the content while meeting the objectives covered?  What did you like or dislike about this project or activity?  What did you learn about yourself as a student in completing this project?  What did you learn about the content from completing this project?  What would you do differently next time when completing a similar task?  This reflection will allow for true learning and growth when coupled with feedback from the teacher.

So, why do most teachers focus on the big test or final project?  Is there any genuine learning being fostered within students when they are forced to memorize facts and information and regurgitate them on a test or report?  What about the process they went through to memorize the facts?  Are they effectively memorizing?  Do students know how to prepare for and take a test?  As teachers, we need to get away from this method of teaching and focus on the process more.

In Humanities, when our students completed work on their European art piece, they had to complete a process paragraph.  This paragraph asked them guiding questions, allowing them to reflect on the process they used to complete the task of creating a piece of art.  The art piece is not being graded, but the reflective paragraph is being graded on their ability to reflect.  Reflection is a crucial skill our students need.  In history class we teach about the mistakes made throughout history and what we learned from them.  So, why don’t we teach students how to learn from the mistakes they make as they work?

Our students have grown so much since the beginning of the year because we have purposefully structured our curriculum in a manner that allows the focus to be on the process of work and not just the work itself.  We can’t grow as humans if we don’t activate our brain and make connections.  So, take a look at your curriculum, does it provide opportunities for reflection?  If not, then you need to reflect on why?

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Does Art Have to Be Contained to Art Class?

Growing up, I felt as though my teachers would never let us “do art” in the classroom.  “That is what art class is for,” they’d say.  Occasionally we would create crafts in the classroom, but never true and creative art.  Why?  If we expect reading and writing to be taught across the subject areas, why can’t art be the same way?  With schools cutting out art programs, why can’t we add it into other areas?  Brain-based research tells us that true learning happens when students are able to make connections and see the relevance in what they are doing.  If we bring art into English, Math, or Science class, they will see the purpose of being creative and artistic.  I say, weave art across the curriculum.  Artistic activities allow those creative students to flourish.  If our goal is to try and reach all students, then we should employ every possible great teaching practice there is.  Incorporate art in the classroom.

Today in Humanities, the sixth grade students began working on creating a unique and original piece of art inspired by a particular piece, time period, or artistic style from European art.  This activity began with a discussion in class last Saturday about the characteristics of European art.  We viewed and discussed various pieces of art from several different time periods in European history.  We talked about what we noticed about the pieces, what the pieces made us think about, and how we knew they were European.  The goal of this discussion and today’s activity is for the boys to understand how history can be visual in nature.  We can learn a lot about a culture and place from studying its art.  Yesterday, the boys chose some great works to build upon and imitate.  Two of my students used me as inspiration for their version of the Mona Lisa, the Holta Lisa.  Today in class, they crafted some brilliant pieces.  Our students who struggle to write neatly and put great thought into their work were methodically painting or drawing their works of art like true artists.  Their creativity and attention to detail blew my mind in class today.  They took their time, sketching out their ideas before putting brush to paint for the final version.  It was mesmerizing and so much fun to watch them create, think, and craft.  I could smell the creativity and hard work in the air.

With this success, I wonder why other teachers don’t utilize artistic opportunities in the classroom.  If our goal as teachers is to inspire, motivate, excite, and engage our students, then why not try something like this?  The art teacher at my school is so very grateful that we are bringing art into our curriculum.  He helped us gather supplies and materials.  If we are being thanked by the art teacher, then we must be doing something right.  Art must not be saved for the art room.  Art must and can be everywhere.  There is art in music as the colorful notes dance across the page.  There is art in math as numbers marry in harmony or discord like colors in a painting.  There is art in science as DaVinci taught us with his Vitruvian Man.  There is art in writing and reading in the form of visualizations and drawn renderings of stories and plays.  There is art in all that we do because life is beautiful as a stone statue is hard.

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Is Honesty Always the Best Policy?

My mom always told me, “Tell the truth or else.”  While I knew what the “or else” meant and certainly didn’t want to face the wrath of my father, I realized the importance of telling the truth.  As a father myself, I tell my son that the truth will bring about safety and less or no consequences.  Lying will lead to no good, is what I tell him.  As a parent, I want to instill the value of honesty within my son.  I want him to realize that the truth will set him free.

Is honesty always the best choice?  Sometimes in the classroom, I use reverse psychology or mind games on my students to help motivate them.  Is this ethical?  Is the complete truth always necessary?

In Science today, we began working on the final phase of our unit on Rocks and Minerals.  The students needed to evaluate their understanding of the knowledge they had acquired regarding the content of the unit.  I generated four critical thinking questions that will allow them to reflect on how the knowledge they gained regarding rocks and minerals fits into their life and the greater context of the world.  They are higher-order thinking questions.  While most of my students will be able to address these issues in written form, exceeding the objective for this assignment would be difficult for many students.  To emphasize the difficulty of this assignment based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, I informed the students that most of them will have difficulty meeting this objective.  I told the boys that this is a hard task.  Critical thinking is an abstract skill most sixth graders are still in the process of developing.  I didn’t want the boys to think this is a fluff assignment.  I wanted them to realize the value of the task at hand.  Do I think that most of my students can meet the objective for this assignment?  Yes.  Do I think many of my students will be able to exceed this objective?  No.  This is a difficult assignment.  I structured it that way.  I want my students to see the value in critical thinking and problem solving.  I want them to see the relevance in what we are doing in the classroom.  I want the boys to reflect on the purpose of learning science content.  I want my students to understand why they need to learn to think and act like a scientist in order to be an effective global citizen in our world.

So, did I lie to my students by telling them that many of them will have a difficult time meeting the learning target?  Yes.  Did I motivate them to put in extra effort to attempt to demonstrate their ability to meet or exceed the expectations for the assignment?  I hope so.  Sometimes, the line between truth and fiction needs to be blurred in order to inspire and motivate.  Challenging students to be and do their best at all times, is a difficult task.  I want my students to always expect the best from themselves no matter what.  If I had not described this assignment as difficult, would students put forth the same great effort I saw in and out of class today?  I don’t think so.  Presentation can be an important aspect of teaching.  As I begin to read through my students’ evaluation paragraphs, I will again reflect on my delivery of the assignment.  Did my tangling of the truth help motivate my students? 

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How Do I Best Deliver the Content Ideas?

I attempt to create a student-centered classroom.  I want the students to drive the bus inside the classroom.  Their questions and discussion deliver the curriculum.  However, when new content or ideas need to be shared, what’s the best way to go about doing this?  Do I have them learn about it on their own and then come together for a discussion?  Will asking them questions guide them to ask the questions that will deliver the curriculum to them?  I often struggle trying to foster a student-centered atmosphere in the classroom when new content is being covered.

Today in Humanities we discussed art in Europe throughout history.  We started the lesson with two discussion questions: What do you know about art from Europe? and What are the characteristics of European art?  The boys have a strong knowledge base on these concepts and knew some basic features of European art.  I then shared several pieces of art from Europe with the students.  After I showed the boys each piece, named it, discussed the time period and artist, I had the students share their thoughts on the piece.  I had them focus their comments and insight on the characteristics of the piece, wonderings they had about the piece, and any connections they could make to the piece.  This seemed to help drive the conversation well.  Sometimes, after the students spoke, I clarified or extended their thoughts to be sure accurate historical facts were being shared.  While the students did most of the sharing and discussing, I probably said too much.  Did I have to add onto their thoughts?  Should I have waited to clarify any information until the discussion for the particular piece had ended?  Would it have made a difference?  Did I need to introduce each piece by explaining its link to the previous piece?  Does this take the thinking away from the students?  Should I have asked them questions instead?  What’s the best method to cover new topics or content?

Upon reflecting on today’s lesson, I realize that I did probably say more than I needed to.  Did that negatively impact my students?  The boys seemed very engaged in class and did not need more than one reminder to stay focused.  They all seemed interested in listening to the discussion and talking about European art.  I do want to be more deliberate in what I do say the next time I introduce new content so that I allow the students to do the thinking.  Rather than tell how one piece links to something else, I could ask them to explain how two pieces are or are not connected or related.  Instead of giving them facts and backstory, I could direct them to question on their own.  Research shows that asking questions and answering critical-thinking questions is when real learning takes place.  

Today’s lesson taught me how to hone my craft.  While I certainly did not fail my students, there was plenty of room for improvement.  As I always remind my students, mistakes are crucial in the learning process only if you learn from them and don’t make the same mistake twice.


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What do our Students Teach Us?

On most days, I feel as if I learned more from my students than they did from me.  While they are the students, technically speaking, they school me on a regular basis.  And that is one of the main reasons why I still love teaching after 14 years.  My grandmother always said, “You learn something new everyday.”  Indeed, my students teach me many new things on a daily basis.  I’ve always been of the mindset that a great teacher must be an inquisitive student.  So, it’s fitting that my students and I learn together like one big, happy family.

Today in Humanities, the students revised a piece of writing they chose to polish and receive feedback on.  I first explained how the feedback I provided to them was different from the feedback they had received earlier in the year.  Instead of wondering and wishing, I was more blunt and specific; I asked questions and told them areas in need of repair.  This change in feedback format was due to the feedback the students gave me.  They seemed confused by the wonderings and wishes I had given them regarding their last writing piece.  They didn’t know if that meant I thought their piece was good or bad.  They wanted more clear-cut feedback.  So, I gave it to them.  The students then read through the feedback I had provided them at the end of the piece and spent the period working on growing their piece based on this feedback.  They were engaged in the process of writing throughout the period.  It was exciting to meander through the river of stories and watch them ebb and flow.  Some of the students asked questions about the feedback I had provided, while others simply continued working on their piece or changed parts to make them stronger.

At the end of the period, I asked the students how the feedback provided to them this time around compared to the feedback I provided to them earlier in the year.  They all seemed to like this style of feedback much more.  “It was easier to understand.”  I knew exactly what I needed to fix.”  “I wasn’t confused by what I needed to do.”  These were just some of the responses I received.  They like specificity more than open-endedness.  Not knowing scares them.  While I was surprised by how much they preferred this type of feedback, I was excited that they felt it was much more beneficial to them as writers.  Had I not asked them about this a few weeks ago, I never would have changed the manner in which I provide feedback to the students.  I learned how they learn best and adapted the way I teach due to it.  Growth happens when effective feedback is provided.  I am just like my students.  It’s funny how cyclical teaching can be.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell who the “real” teacher is.