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New Name, Same Great Idea

While on school vacation I’ve had a chance to catch up on Twitter feeds I’ve been missing for months.  I thought for sure I had missed a ton of great, new ideas regarding teaching and education.  What I realized is that the current catch phrase seems to be “grit.”  Call me crazy but isn’t grit something we’ve been trying to instill within our students for many years?  It’s what separates the motivated from the unmotivated.  The successful individuals in this world know how to persevere and never give up.  They keep at something until they get it to work.  They are our problem solvers, our engineers, our dreamers, our politicians.  People with grit know how to get a job done.  We’ve known this for years.  Those without grit struggle and often have trouble in life.  While there are always going to be new strategies suggested for how to teach our students how to be gritty, the basic idea remains the same.  We need to provide our students with opportunities, problems to be solved, frustrating situations, and time.  We need to teach our students about mindset and the value of having a growth mindset.  We need to talk to our students about the different types of people in this world and what separates them from one another.  We need to talk to our students about grit and its value in our society.  Again, these are not new ideas.  These are all good teaching practices.

Sometimes I feel like edspeak is becoming like Hollywood, filled with remakes, sequels, and recycled ideas.  If we repackage it, give it a new name and new faces, and talk about it differently then it’s something new.  People will buy it, want to see it, and want to discuss it.  Then people can write new books about it, hold conferences to discuss it, and find ways to get it into our culture, again.  Why can’t we just talk about what good teaching looks like?  Why can’t we talk about great ideas and ways to motivate our students?  Why do we need to label things or give them names?  Why can’t old ideas be accepted and celebrated?  Just because it’s been done before, doesn’t mean it is wrong or in need of change.  My old black and white iPod plays music just as well as the new fancy iPod Touch.  Why do I need to replace it?  Because the media tells me I need to.  We can’t succumb to the pressure of what we hear, read, or see.  Don’t let some new fancy idea or term fool you into thinking it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.  Investigate and question before we accept and embrace anything new.  While new and original ideas do come about, they are rare.  So, whip out those old references on how to teach and reach students and revisit them again because a lot of the ideas in those books are totally applicable now.

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How Can School Vacation be Reimagined?

During Summer Vacation we require our students to read and write and sometimes take refresher courses to stay on top of their academics.  At my school we have a very long, 3-week March Break.  What about the learning lost in that 3-week period.  We don’t require our students to do any work during this time.

Why not?  Well, while we do want, scratch that, need our students to take a break and relax, we also don’t want them to become brain slugs or empty sponges when they return to school.  So, what can we do?  How can we make our longer vacations be a brain break without losing the momentum from the classroom?  What about blogging?  We require our students to log onto our Summer Reading Blog several times throughout the summer to read what their peers have written and to comment on the books they’ve read.  Why can’t we continue that or begin a new blog for this purpose?  What about requiring all students to participate in some sort of community service or service learning project that they then write about during March Break?  What about free reading or problem solving?  What if we provide our students with a prompt around which they need to create a problem and then solve it?  What if the students read and update their Reading Log?  Is that enough?  What about math?  What if we provide the students some brain break, critical thinking questions the students need to answer?  Is this too much?

If we want our students to grow and develop as individuals and learners, is a short break without any classroom-related academics detrimental to them?  Aren’t they still learning if they are on vacation, playing games, interacting with peers, and visiting new and exotic locales?  Should I be concerned about learning loss during March Break or  let it go?

What about changing vacations altogether?  What about creating a school calendar that works for our families?  What about a modified flipped classroom approach?  Are there other ways to change school vacations for the better?  Do we need to?

As a teacher, I always want what is best for my students.  Is a 3-week break best for my students?  Sometimes it takes a day or two to get back into the groove of school and learning following a break.  Is that a problem?  Isn’t review a vital part of the learning process?

Rather than transforming school vacation for my students, perhaps I need to change my thinking about school vacation.  I need a break as much as my students do.  Our schedule is quite intense.  However, I’m still learning and growing as an educator and person while on break.  Isn’t that what school vacation is all about?  Shouldn’t we not take away, from our students, the utopian ideal of school vacation?  Shouldn’t all students be able to dream about school vacation and all the possibilities that exist?

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How to be a Role Model for our Students

If we expect our students to learn and be engaged in what we are doing and talking about in the classroom, we need to be learners ourselves.  Our students need to see us as we see them, like sponges waiting to be filled with water.

While my students are enjoying their time away from school, I am taking this opportunity to grow my brain and learn something new.  I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the guitar.  After a bad experience while taking guitar lessons in middle school, I had given up the possibility of ever learning how to play.  Then, a friend gave me an acoustic guitar she no longer needed.  I once again was bitten by the guitar bug.

So I whipped out my guitar and started tuning it, like a pro.  And then I broke a string.  I had it only a few hours before busting it.  Perhaps, I am destined to never learn how to play the guitar.  I didn’t give up though.  I went to the guitar store the next day and had the string replaced and the guitar tuned.  I now know how to tune my guitar and replace the strings because I know my luck with things– I break them, a lot.

Then, I watched some videos and started learning.  It is clearly going to be a long process for me as I tend to be a slow learner, but I am vowing to persevere and keep at it no matter what.  If I want to help my students foster a sense of grit, then I must be gritty myself.

I’ve learned two chords so far, A and E.  They sound pretty good.  I just need to work on the transition between chords now.  So, my goal is to practice and play a little every day during my vacation.  Who knows, maybe I’ll be able to play Mary Had a Little Lamb on the guitar for my students when they return from break.  The possibilities are endless.  I want to learn to better help my students know how to learn, and for that I need to be a role model for them.

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It Takes Passion

I’m sitting here on school vacation happy to have a chance to relax after a busy week preparing for vacation, but I’m also a little sad.  I read an article in the newspaper yesterday about a recent study that proved that some individuals can’t feel music.  They have no emotional response when listening to any type of music.  They may or may not enjoy listening to music, but they don’t feel it.  They didn’t get excited when Yellow Ledbetter came on the radio even though it was a rare b-side Pearl Jam didn’t make easily accessible to its fans right away.  They didn’t wait up until midnight the day Smashing Pumpkins released their amazing double-disc album.  They didn’t get chills when they heard Coheed and Cambria’s second album for the very first time.  They didn’t dance with emotion while watching Guster perform on stage.  While they may have heard the music, seen concerts, and danced, some people never felt it.  They didn’t cry listening to Natalie Merchant’s Beloved Wife.  Music never helped them through difficult times because they couldn’t feel it.  I feel for those people.  Without music, I would not be sitting where I am today blogging about this topic.  Without music, I wouldn’t have met my best friend in college.  Without music, I never would have gone back to my dormroom to listen to a free disc I had gotten at a concert on my college’s campus.  And if that hadn’t happened, I may never have met the love of my life, my wife.  Music is who I am and why I do what I do.  Music makes the world go ’round for me.  Music makes me passionate.  Passion gives me life.  I teach with passion because of music.  I can’t imagine my life without music.  In my head, the world is a neverending musical.  I’m always singing or humming some song.  I teach with songs.  I listen to music in my free time.  Music is the glue that holds me together.  I live because I feel music.  I’m passionate because music allowed me to feel the world around me.  I teach with passion, I love with passion, and I live with passion.  Music = passion.  My goal now, is to spread passion.  I want people to realize how much power music holds.  I want the world to see passion in everything.  I want people to feel the music and just start to dance because it moves them.  I want people to walk around singing about their day.  I want to hear the music in life and feel the passion floating about in the air as music makes the world a better place.

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How Can You Tell School Vacation Is Coming?

Sometimes our school feels like a small island.  We see the same people day in and day out.  Because our school is located in a remote part of the world, it’s often not possible to leave campus frequently.  Little issues that could be resolved with distance and time away aren’t possible in a community like ours.  On top of all of this, the polar vortex is directly over our region of the US, thus making it difficult to spend long periods of time outside, away from others.  Therefore, our students are trapped inside their dorms or academic buildings with the same students they’ve been together with for the past 3 weeks.  They are tired, sick, frustrated, and ready to go on vacation, which begins in two days.  Tensions have already built and are beginning to bubble over as we speak.  So, now what?  What can we do to help our students feel and be safe and kind for the next two days?

In the sixth grade, we watched the movie version of the play we just finished reading, 12 Angry Men.  Many of the boys were unable to watch the movie without touching their peers inappropriately, yelling, arguing, or debating the class rules.  Chaos ensued in the classroom.  My co-teacher and I spent most of the period pulling students out of the classroom to talk with them, help them solve problems, lead peer mediation, or bring them to the Dean of Students.  I felt as if I was on recess duty for kindergarten students.  Clearly, focusing on a movie for many of the students was difficult as their minds were anywhere but in the classroom today.  However, Science class seemed to go very well today as the boys played each other’s board games and read each other’s plays, poems, and stories they crafted for our unit on Brook Trout.  It was super fun.  They had a blast reviewing Brook Trout knowledge in preparation for tomorrow’s field trip to the fish hatchery to retrieve our Brook Trout eggs.  They were engaged and acted appropriately throughout the period.  It was awesome.  So, what was the difference?  It all comes down to engagement.  The movie was static and required nothing of them.  Those that were not interested in the movie, were not mentally engaged.  This lead to boredom and poor choices.  As this behavior was to be expected, compounded with vacation looming, their poor choices quickly escalated into really bad choices.  Clearly, today’s result witnessed during Humanities class supports the theory that student engagement is crucial to learning and preventing student disciplinary issues.  Students need to be interested in what they are doing and learning about for success to come about.

So, to make it through to March Break, we need to keep our students focused and engaged.  Perhaps, showing a movie the day before break, despite its relevance and connection to the curriculum, is not the best option.  Keep the expectations tight and the agenda full and rich.  And, remember, everything we do is about the students.

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Why I Love Being an Educator: Reason 762

As I peer out the window, I’m reminded that it is still very much winter outside on our campus.  However, inside my classroom, you would think it was the middle of May.  The boys were all smiles, thinking critically as we read and discussed the play 12 Angry Men.  They loved it.  They all had great insight with which to provide the group.  It was awesome.  We felt goosebumps together as the eighth juror convinced the other jurors that the boy was not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  They read their lines with enthusiasm and excitement.  They were in character, screaming when they needed to scream and moving when they needed to move.  It was like watching ice dancing in the Winter Olympics, awe-inspiring and heart-pounding.  We discussed the motivation of the various jury members as their characters developed throughout the play.  We talked about the symbolism of the rain and the eighth juror.  The boys asked great questions like, “If the boy didn’t do it, who did kill the man?”  They wanted answers.  We talked about why the playwright crafted the play in the way he did.  We compared the ending to that of The Giver.  We then related that feeling of frustration about wanting to know who to the Gestalt theory of brain interpretation.  We allowed the conversation to flow like our ideas, a sort of controlled chaos.  We all left the classroom feeling inspired, excited, and engaged.  We could have spent another hour talking about writing, history, and reading.

So, how does this happen on an almost daily basis?  It’s about engaging the students, allowing them to see the relevance of what they are learning.  It’s about excitement.  When the teacher is excited, the students feed off of it like trout on flies.  It’s also about connections.  The students need to feel supported, cared for, and safe.  When this happens, amazing things are possible.  Today was just another example of why I love coming to the classroom.  It’s all about the boys.

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How to Talk About the Elephant in the Room

After midnight on a Saturday in July while I was driving home from my job at Friendly’s Restaurant, I drove too close to the sidewalk, puncturing a tire.  So, I pulled over and called my dad for help as I had never replaced a flat tire before.  My dad came as quickly as possible and helped me fix my flat tire.  I needed help, and so I asked for it.  Then, I got the help I needed and was on my way.  We can’t resolve our problems unless we admit we have them.  We need to own our behaviors and actions, even when they are negative and inappropriate.  We, as adults, know this.  Our students, however, sometimes struggle with this concept.  So, it is our duty as their guide and role model, to help them understand the importance of accepting responsibility for their actions.

We’ve noticed that the temperature of the sixth grade class has been growing hotter and hotter over the past few weeks.  The boys are picking away at each other behind our backs, calling one another names, being physically inappropriate with each other, and using disrespectful language.  We knew that we had to nip this in the bud before it got anymore out of control.  We couldn’t let our class thermometer bust.  

This afternoon for our Service Learning time, we took the opportunity to service our class.  After explaining the goal of the session, we broke into two groups.  One group stayed in the classroom, discussing empathy and how to read body language in order to be a thoughtful and empathetic friend.  The other group went into the hallway to participate in a Native American talking circle.  I prefaced the talking circle with a little background and history.  I explained the different aspects of the circle and our purpose.  We wanted our boys to have a chance to share their thoughts and feelings with each other in a safe environment.  Each student had the opportunity to share how he was feeling about our class and his place in it.  The boys were very honesty and forthcoming.  Many of the students felt like some of their peers were saying mean things and committing unkind actions.  The boys, as we already had figured, were upset.  They noticed the climate in our classroom was shifting.  It seemed global warming was affecting us even in the dead of winter.  

After our talking circles, we brought the whole class together for a final activity.  To promote the spreading of positivity and kindness within our students, we had each of them jot down one positive noticing about each of their classmates.  They then delivered these notes to bags for each of the students.  The boys then read their kind notes.  They were filled with a sense of joy and warmth.  As the students left the classroom today, hugs and high fives were in high supply.  The students felt cared for and supported.  It was amazing.  

Having seen the baby elephant develop in our class for the past month, we realized that before the negative elephant was old enough to reproduce, we needed to talk about it and get rid of it.  Our classroom isn’t big enough for a large elephant.  Plus, after awhile, they start to stink.  We needed our students to realize the harm their negativity was doing to the community and help them generate a way to breed kindness and compassion.  While we know that our students are sixth grade boys and they will make mistakes, today was a step in the right direction.  Hopefully, our help session today allowed our students the chance to see how their disrespect and poor choices were impacting their classmates.  Hopefully, the winds of change are blowing and the students will think about how their actions will affect their friends and kindness will fill the classroom.

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Great Teachers Must be Great Students

As teachers, we must practice what we preach in order to set a fine example for our students.  If we expect our students to hand in their homework on time, then we must pass back their graded work in a timely manner as well.  If we ask our students to seek help from their peers, then we must, as teachers, make use of our peers when growing and developing as educators.

A few years ago, our school hired one of the best math teachers I’ve had the pleasure of working with.  He utilizes the flipped classroom approach and holds the bar high for his students.  He is amazing.  While his class is difficult, the students learn to know, understand, and appreciate, math.  He aligns his units to Bloom’s Taxonomy so that each level of learning requires more from the boys.  His individualized approach to teaching and learning is refreshing.  A few years ago, I had the fortune of listening to him explain his teaching model.  Brilliance emanated from his tongue like gold from the hands of King Midas himself.  It just made sense.

So, as I began to reinvent my science units this year, I sought him out for help and guidance.  He helped me realize that without even knowing it, I was creating my units in a similar way to his.  My work was aligned with Bloom’s Taxonomy.  He also gave me some great food for thought.  So, over the past few months as I’ve revised and created new units, I’ve used the ideas and wisdom learned from him to generate units that allow the students to learn the basic knowledge, show they understand the knowledge, apply the knowledge in unique and creative ways, analyze what the knowledge means, synthesize their understanding of the knowledge into a new and innovative form that makes sense to them and others, and evaluate how this knowledge learned fits into the bigger picture of life, learning, and the world itself.  I’ve explained Bloom’s Taxonomy to my students and use the language with them.  They understand it.  They realize that each level of the unit is progressively more difficult because of the demands placed on their thinking and problem solving capabilities.

If I had not tried to be a great student, I never would have learned how to become a better teacher.  If we expect our students to do something, we must do it as well or better to model proper expected behaviors.  Students have a difficult time learning from and trusting adults who say one thing and then do something different.  In this world of mixed messages, we need to send our students a strong and clear message about how to be great students.  It starts with us.  So, go talk to a fellow teacher and learn something new.

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What Do Grades Really Mean?

Growing up, my parents would pay me for getting good grades.  I would get $10 for a B and $20 for an A.  I would get nothing for anything under a B.  My effort grades were not factored into this formula.  It was all about the grades for me in Middle School and High School.  I was focused on getting good grades to earn money.  It wasn’t about the work or learning for me; it was all about the grades because grades meant money.  

When I became a teacher, at first, I continued thinking it was all about grades.  I needed my students to earn good grades or I would be viewed as a bad teacher.  So, I inflated grades or pulled grades out of thin air.  I had no record of grades or the work my students were doing.  

It was then that I realized my idea of grades and grading was flawed and in need of repair.  So, I started thinking about what school and being a teacher really meant.  What was my goal as a teacher?  Was I supposed to give students grades?  As I did more learning myself, I realized that being a great teacher is about guiding students to the learning.  There is a set of objectives and skills I need my students to be able to master by the end of the school year.  School is about the journey our students go on to learn and grow as individuals.  School is not about grades.  Our culture and administrations tells us we as teachers need to grade our students.  Grades are road blocks or speed bumps for many students.  As many students get lost in the battle for high grades, the learning sometimes gets lost or forgotten.  As teachers, we don’t want to or like to grade our students.  We would much rather assess our students, have conversations with each of our students about their learning trajectory, and work with them to feel and be successful in their learning journey.  We want our students to see the value in learning and not the grades.

However, in our society and in many places around the world, the focus of school is on grades.  Students need to get high grades to get into the best colleges and universities in order to get high paying jobs and live good lives.  Students focus so much on getting grades that school becomes a place where kids hang out for several hours a day.  School should be a haven for learning and engagement.  

Our system of evaluating what our students know is broken.  Our students should be fighting to learn more and gain new skills rather than debating a teacher regarding a B- he or she received an an assignment.  We want all of our students to come to school hungry to learn and have fun doing so.  We want our students to evaluate themselves on their ability to learn and grow as global citizens.  We want our students to know that learning is a never-ending process that allows redoes.  We want our students to forget about grades and value the feedback teachers provide them.

In the sixth grade, we try to foster a love of learning and reflection.  While it’s hard to break many of our students of the bad habits they’ve picked up over their years of schooling, we put tremendous effort into trying to get our students to view learning and education through a different lens.  We focus on the purpose of learning and the importance of knowing how to complete a task the proper way.  We discuss mindset and goal setting throughout the curriculum.  We have the students reflect on their work and learning process frequently throughout the year.  We provide our students with effective feedback to help them grow as learners.  We grade students because our school tells us we need to; however, we’ve changed our system so that the focus is on meeting and exceeding learning targets and objectives.  At this point in the year, many of our students have been able to change their thinking and focus on learning and growing.  By the end of the year, we hope all of our students are able to see the importance of learning for the sake of growing and developing.  

While we in the sixth grade are a small minority that see how broken our system of grading has became world-wide, we will not stop fighting for what we know is right.  We will continue to help our students see school as a path and journey to the enlightenment of learning.  We will give grades because we have to, but focus on skills and learning.  One day, we hope the world will see through the red tape and grading propaganda and reinvent student assessment to focus on the process of learning.