Sometimes it’s all about Presentation

One of my many goals as a father is to help my son to not be judgmental in any way shape or form.  I don’t want him to judge books by their covers or people by what they look like.  I want him to be open minded and to see the world through several different lenses.  I don’t want his past to cloud his vision of the present and future.  I want him to approach every new task, idea, or person without any biases.  I want him to think deeply about the world and reflect on what it means to him and the greater community.  I don’t want him to be focused on what type of shoes he’s wearing or what kind of car we are driving.  It’s not about the exterior but the inside.  That’s of course, my utopian goal for my son.  It’s hard for this to come to fruition in the consumer-driven world in which we live, but I will keep helping him despite the obstacles.

In the classroom, I generally approach teaching in the same manner.  I ask lots of questions and help the students ask questions and inquire about the world around them with an open mind.  I like to give them both sides of every story so they can empathize with each perspective.  I don’t like to make my teaching about how it looks but about the meat of what the students should be learning.  However, every once in a while, teaching and motivating students involves some bias and fancy presentations.

Prior to the start of my second chunk of Humanities class time today I started thinking about how I could introduce the next phase of the I-Search Process in an engaging way.  They need to gather facts and research.  How can I make that fun?  It’s kind of like digging for gold.  So, I grabbed my cowboy hat prop and fish tank gravel spreading device and headed off to class.  I started class by putting on my hat and using my fish tank tool as if it were a pick ax.  “Today you will begin mining through your resources to pick out the gold nuggets and precious gems.”  I tried to get the students to think of researching their topic as if they were mining for gold.  Sometimes you’ll find some pretty stuff that seems like good information when in fact it is Pyrite or fool’s gold.  So, sift a little harder and dig a little deeper until you hit the jackpot.  You might need to try a new mine shaft if the one you start in seems void of useful information.  The students were giggling and seemed excited.  They even came up with a clever name for their document: Mine Cart.  After explaining the specific process I wanted them to embark upon, they all got right to work.  They were fired up to be mining for information.  Every time a student discovered a very cool fact, I had them share that nugget with the class.  They loved it!  They were sucked into this phase of the I-Search Process because they thought of themselves as prospectors and miners and not students looking up information.  They were mining for facts and knowledge.  They even shared some of their gold and diamonds with others to make connections between topics.  It was awesome.  One student left class stating, “This is my favorite project of the whole year.”  

What could have been a somewhat tedious or banal task for the students became an adventure.  They loved learning more because I helped them change their perspective on the process.  I used some fancy props and made today’s lesson about presentation to evoke excitement within my students.  While I don’t make a habit of it, occasionally, the way a topic or project is presented can change the way the students think about learning and the task at hand.  As a teacher, my goal is to make learning engaging, fun, relevant, and meaningful for my students.  Sometimes, this means I need to focus on what it looks like.  If I had just explained the process as researching facts and finding answers, would they have been as motivated and excited about this phase as they were?  Who knows?  Maybe they would have.  Perhaps my students just love learning for the sake of learning.  Either way, today’s activity of researching a topic became a mining expedition for my students.  And they all struck gold.

Let’s Get Students Talking about Books

As a reader, I love updating my Goodreads account with my progress and a quick remark on the book I’m currently reading.  When I finish a novel I can’t wait to post a review and summary of the book.  I love sharing my thoughts on books with others and I enjoy listening to what others have to say about books they’ve read.  I’ve read many books based on recommendations I’ve received from others.  Not only is talking about books a great way to be social and connect with others, it’s also a great way to learn about new books or authors.

As a teacher, I try to foster the same feelings and atmosphere in my Humanities classroom.  We encourage our students to chat with their peers about books they’ve read during Reader’s Workshop.  Many of our students share books with and recommend books to their friends.  It’s a great way to build a sense of community and brotherhood within the classroom.  Because the students feel so connected to some of the books they read, they are able to share that love with others and in turn pay it forward.  

Today in Humanities class, we provided our students with another opportunity to talk about the books they are reading.  We had the students participate in a Book Talk discussion circle.  The discussion is student centered, driven by the students and not the teacher.  It begins with each student sharing his thoughts on the book he is currently reading.  Over the course of the year we have tried to move the boys away from a simple plot summary to an explanation, author’s purpose, or recommendation.  They have gotten much better about critically discussing their books in an insightful manner over the past few months.  This opening process takes about a minuter or so per student.  Once each student has shared, the discussion becomes an open forum on reading and books.  The students take turns asking each other questions, answering questions, sharing thoughts, making connections, and discussing books.  Today’s discussion was very fruitful.  The boys recommended books to their peers and had a great discussion on history and how their books connected to each other due to their historical significance.  They were patient and thoughtful in their insight.  They enjoyed listening to each other and sharing their thoughts on what they were reading.  They talked about what they wanted to talk about and not what I told them to discuss.  They were engaged throughout the discussion because they were running the show.  I observed and took notes but never once added insight or redirected the groups.  This activity was all about them and their books.  This method of discussing books makes reading become a social activity and not an independent task.  They learn about books and their peers through socially interacting with them in a mature, academic setting.  Like adults who love participating in Book Clubs, our students love talking about books and themselves as readers.

Making Learning Relevant for our Students

In school, I often questioned why I had to read particular texts in English class but learned unrelated material in history class.  Why did I need to know the elements of the periodic table?  I seldom need to know how many electrons are in the outer ring of a hydrogen element on a daily basis.  The content that sticks out to me even now, several years later, is the stuff my teachers connected to other pieces of information previously learned or my other classes.  I remember learning about the stock market in history class when my teacher connected it to a novel we were reading in English and then had us participate in a mock stock market game.  Not only was the lesson engaging and fun but it was related to something else I was learning about.  

As a teacher, I try to help my students connect the dots and understand why certain skills or content are being covered.  I want my students to see the value and relevance in what is going on in all of their classes so that they buy into it and see the need to genuinely learn the information or skills and imprint it into their long term memory.  After providing them with the gift of information or a skill, I like to neatly wrap it up, smack a bow on top, and then show them where and how it fits into their giant bag of gifts.  It’s about presentation and helping the students connect one piece of information or one skill to something else previously learned.  When students know why they are learning about a topic or reading a novel, they are more apt to put forth great effort in learning it because they see how it fits into the big picture of their life and education.

Today in Science, as the students continued working on the Analysis Phase of our Biodiversity Unit, I reminded them why we are learning about our town’s ecosystem and its components.  Reason 1: The information covered this year is building the foundation needed to support the immaculate house they will assemble next year in the seventh grade Life Science class.  I need my students to have a basic understanding of the material they will be deeply delving into next year in Science class.  Reason 2: In Humanities class we are in the midst of learning about the culture, history, and people of our town.  In order to understand how Canaan came to be and why certain problems existed or didn’t, my students need to understand the land on which the town sits.  They need to know about the ecosystems of Canaan and how they helped or hindered early life in the town.  The first settlers in the town happened upon a giant wetland swamp area and decided it would be a great place to build a town.  Little did these first residents of the town know that the moist ground would make travel on the roads that would one day be paved very difficult at particular times during the year.  Had these first people known more about this type of wetland ecosystem, perhaps they would have settled farther north, west, or south of the current town.  This scientific data is important to know when learning about the place in which we live.  

I want my students to know why we cover certain units and introduce particular material in the sixth grade so that they can see how it relates to other content covered and will help them in becoming successful students and global citizens.  This brief explanation allowed my students to see the bigger picture and not just think they are doing busy work.  Everything we do in the sixth grade has a purpose and we need our students to see its relevance.  Being clear and concrete with our students helps us foster a sense of importance and value in the classroom.  Our students know why we do what we do and they appreciate how we map it out for them.  Sometimes we have them put the puzzle pieces together, but usually, we clearly state our expectations from the start so that they know why they need to learn about what they are learning about.  

As a teacher, it is my goal to make learning relevant for my students so that they want to learn more and add onto their giant academic life puzzle.

Is There Value in Reading Aloud to Students?

As a father, I wanted my son to value and appreciate reading and books.  So, I made it a point to read aloud to my son on an almost nightly basis.  It started out with picture books that he chose from our collection of books at home and then it progressed into novels as he aged.  He loved hearing my wife and I read aloud to him.  Sometimes we would even have him read to us.  Not only was it a connection point for us as a family, but it also helped him appreciate books and stories.  He now reads in bed on his own prior to falling asleep.  He almost always has a free reading book in his backpack and seems to enjoy reading.  For me, I am able to see the tangible effects of reading aloud to children first hand.  It helped my son develop positive and effective reading skills.

As a teacher, I feel exactly the same way.  Reading aloud to my students is a vital part of the Reader’s Workshop model.  Mini-Lessons and reading strategies can be introduced, modeled, and practiced using the class read aloud book as a shared text.  It can also be the bind that ties units together.  It also provides students a way practice their listening and comprehension skills in a safe and supportive environment without the stress of grades.  Reading aloud to students is a way to foster a sense of community and care in the classroom while also helping students develop and grow as readers and thinkers.

Today in Humanities, we started the class in the same manner we almost always do with a class read aloud from our current shared text The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.  The students were excited to revisit the story after being away on a field trip to Cape Cod for a week.  They quickly found comfortable and appropriate spots in the classroom to listen to and engage in the story.  Throughout the reading I posed questions and pointed out interesting choices made by the author or characters.  The students also asked insightful questions, demonstrating their ability to think critically about a text.  Although we did not have a mini-lesson to accompany the read aloud, the boys were engaged and listened actively throughout.  I called on a few students whose body language made me question their focus.  Lo and behold, they answered quickly and thoughtfully, showing their ability to focus despite my perception.  On days we don’t have a class read aloud for whatever reason, the students are disappointed.  They love hearing the story read aloud.  While most of the students would have read and engaged in the books we read aloud on their own, the way we use the shared text helps unite the class and makes reading a fun group activity.  It’s also one more way we can model, as teachers, good reading habits for our students.

If you don’t read aloud to your students, you should think about the reasons why.  There are great benefits from reading to children.  As teachers, we need to foster a love of critical and thoughtful reading in this technology age where most people struggle to think deeply about a text as their eyes are so accustomed to scanning a computer screen.

Teaching my School’s Town

Growing up in a small town, I knew a lot about it from living there; however, there was much I didn’t know.  In school I learned all about the state of NH but nothing about the town in which the school was located.  I wanted to learn more.  I wanted to know how my town came to be.  Why did the early settlers settle in Lebanon?  When was the train station built?  How many people traveled through my town?  What was Lebanon known for back in the day?  What was the old mill used for?  I had many unanswered questions.  Why didn’t I learn more about my town in school?

As my co-teacher and I planned our Humanities curriculum, we knew that we wanted our students to know about the tiny town in which our school is located.  We wanted our boys to appreciate the small town with a big past.  So, we created an entire unit to teach our town to the students.  We implemented the unit last year with much success.

Yesterday in Humanities we brought in a special guest speaker to talk to the boys about the geological history of the region in which our town is located.  Mike Fogarty is a geologist and geophysicist.  We brought him in last year to speak with our students.  He was great.  So, we invited him back in.  Luckily, he enjoyed working with our boys and returned this year.  He had a brilliant presentation to explain how the landforms on Earth came to be and more specifically how this area of New England came to be.  It was so interesting to learn about how the Appalachian Mountain Range was a part of the greater Caledonia Mountains that came to be when the European and North American plates were together.  The mountains in our area used to tower above what Mount Everest is today.  They were huge and helped shape our town.

During the presentation, the boys asked insightful questions.  They were engaged throughout his speech.  It helps that in Science they are working on an Ecoregional Survey of our town and need to address its geological history.  Many of the boys took notes throughout Mr. Fogarty’s presentation to aide them in creating their survey and field guide.  They also now know how the land on which the town was formed came to be.  We closed Saturday’s presentation with a discussion of the importance of knowing about the geology of a place in order to better understand how and why it came to be known as our town.

We want our students to understand the town in which we spend much time yearly.  We want our boys to know how Canaan came into existence.  We want our students to know why early settlers came to our small town and named it Canaan.  We want our boys to know more about the place many of us call home for months at a time.  We want to teach the town in which we live so that our students better appreciate the greater community all around our school.

Yesterday’s guest speaker helped us kick off a unit of epic proportions.  As the students put the puzzle pieces of our town together throughout the next several weeks, we look forward to watching them learn as the larger picture of Canaan is revealed to them.

How do you Foster Change in the Curriculum?

I am a creature of habit.  I park my car in the same place every day.  I brush my teeth in the same way and for the same amount of time each morning.  I even have a formula for showering.  I crave routine.  However, I’ve come to realize that change is inevitable.  I need to bring about change in my life if I want to grow and develop as a human, husband, father, and teacher.  

While I love what I’m doing in the classroom, I know there are other, different, and perhaps better ways to teach and guide my students.  As a teacher, I go in search of change on a daily basis.  I’m always talking to my colleagues about what they are doing in the classroom, reading my Twitter feed, perusing educational books and resources, going to conferences, blogging, and writing articles.  I strive to be the best teacher my students need me to be, and that requires change.  I need to change the way I look at the world, the way I approach my curriculum, and the way I view my students.  I need to adapt and grow, always staying on the cutting edge in order to be the best teacher I can be.  

Today I met with our rising Science Department Chair to discuss my ideas for the sixth grade Science course in the coming years.  I talked with him about creating a double period STEM class with the math teacher and I facilitating.  We would combine the two courses and create a class which has an individualized and aligned Math and Science curriculum but weaves in group projects that meld the two subjects.  While the students learn about the concepts of astronomy and space travel as part of the Science curriculum, the students would be learning about geometry as part of the Math curriculum.  Throughout these coordinating units, we would also be working on a project involving the creation of a vehicle to travel to a habitable location in space.  The students would be applying the separate concepts learned in a meaningful, engaging, and social manner.  They would be problem solving, communicating, and working together.  Each Math and Science unit would fit together like puzzle pieces and include a different group project.  The students would work on the projects two days a week while the other three to four days would be spent working on the Science and Math units.  The Math teacher and I would work as guides in the classroom offering support and facilitation of this cohesive curriculum.  The new Department Chair loved the idea and was excited for what is hopefully to come.

Like the ocean, great teachers need to continue ebbing and flowing so that they can grow and develop in order to better meet the needs of their students.  My suggested changes were embraced by a peer.  Had I not challenged myself to think of new and innovative ways to teach Science, I would not have formulated this brilliant new idea.  Also, in speaking with the new Department Chair, I was provided with ideas and support.  He gave me some advice and offered his help.  While this change has not been officially approved by my school, I will continue to seek support and question the way we do things here.  As this STEM class would be a huge switch for the school, I know that some will question its purpose and authenticity.  I can’t let that hold me back.  I need to push forward and bring about change.  I know what is right and I have the research to support me.  I need to keep at it and overcome whatever adversity I may face.  My students always come first.  To be the best teacher I can be for them, I need to try new things even if it means tipping the scales a bit and creating a new course offering.  I want the sixth grade program at my school to be a model for others to follow.  I want my colleagues and other teachers to see the benefit in what we do in the sixth grade.  I want to shake things up a bit and allow my fellow educators to think about their teaching practices.  I want to challenge myself to try new things and take risks.  Some of the math ideas these new projects will incorporate are foreign to me.  I want to learn to speak the language of math.  I want to help my students see the world in a new way by solving problems and making connections.  

So, here goes everything.  Change is always a part of growth and it’s time to bloom.

Challenge by Choice

Throughout my middle and high school years I was not very motivated to go above and beyond.  School came easy to me.  I knew what had to be done and did it.  I got good grades and earned a spot on my school’s National Honor Society.  However, I didn’t spend extra time trying to exceed my teacher’s expectations.  I didn’t even really try to challenge myself academically.  I took the easy way through school.  In retrospect, I wish I had a do over because I am not proud of what I did back then.  I didn’t challenge myself.  I didn’t try to learn more for the sake of learning.  I wish I could go back and be the kind of student I challenge my students to be every day.  

Today in Science, my students began working on the Analysis Phase of the Biodiversity Unit.  I went over the details of the phase in class and addressed the many questions the students asked.  This portion of the Unit entails using the Biodiversity knowledge they learned and now understand to examine and investigate the ecosystem in which our school is located.  They need to create an ecoregional survey for the town of Canaan, documenting the life, geological history, and Biodiversity of the region.  The students have two ways to demonstrate their ability to understand how Biodiversity affects their lives.  They could address the 10 points I’m asking them to explore using a digital tool of their choosing or they could create a field guide for the town of Canaan.  The field guide is the more challenging task and will require a higher level of comprehension.  They will need to spend extra time delving into Canaan’s ecology to complete this task.  It will also earn them a higher grade if they effectively complete it.  While the ecoregional survey is no easy thing to complete, it will require less work and only a basic understanding of the content.  While I want my students to challenge themselves and display their true potential as students, I also don’t want to set up any of them to fail.  So, I was honest with them when explaining the two choices.  It is now up to them.  What challenge will they choose?  They are all equipped with the strategies needed to be successful as science students.  Will they take the easy way out or will they push themselves to analyze the content covered in a much more comprehensive and deeper manner?  

I was impressed to see several students choose to challenge themselves and create a field guide for the town of Canaan.  Not only are they going to be able to showcase their understanding of biodiversity and how it impacts their world on a high level, they will be creating a relevant tool that could be used by future generations of students to learn about our ecosystem.  Relevant and engaging curriculum is what we are all about in the sixth grade.  The boys were excited and a bit nervous as they began tackling this project today in class.  One boy was heard saying, “I love Science class,” before class even began.  He was pumped up and ready to go after reading the agenda for the period, which was projected on the interactive whiteboard for the students to see as they entered the classroom.  

Providing the students with hard things to do while still giving them choice and freedom is vital when planning curriculum.  The students need flexibility and support.  With the individualized way in which I organize my Science class, the students have the chance to dig into the material, do Science, and challenge themselves while seeking support when needed.  I get to have 1-on-1 conversations with the students to assess their understanding of the material and clarify any confusion.  It’s all about connections.  Being a good teacher is about helping, guiding, and challenging our students as they prepare for successful lives in a global society.

The Power of Body Language

Having a son, I know the power of body language all too well.  Slouched shoulders, throwing one’s hands up in the air, kicking the ground, stomping, leaning, and lack of eye contact are all examples of what I’ve seen from my 13 year old son over the years.  When he’s angry, upset, happy, or sad, I, as a parent, know how he’s feeling by watching his body language.  I once heard someone say, “75% of what you communicate is done with your body and not your words.”  Clearly, how we carry our physical self is important.  However, is the same true in the classroom?

Today during Humanities class, while most of the students were sitting up straight, demonstrating focus and dedication to the task at hand, two students were leaning their head on the table and slouching in their chairs.  My immediate thought was, “They are so not paying attention.”  So, I put them on the spot and asked them each a question about the topic we were discussing.  They both had appropriate answers.  I was wrong.  Okay, then what is going on?  Why are they leaning?  I was taking it personally.  Are they bored?  Am I a boring teacher?  Is this content boring?  What’s the issue?  

The bigger question is, does it matter?  Should how they are sitting influence me in any way?  Should I force them to sit up straight?  If they are paying attention and on task, what’s the issue in them leaning on the table?  Am I just trying to control the situation?  Is their body language sending me a message?  Perhaps they were bored with the content or topic being discussed.  Is that a problem?  Do I need to change the way I am teaching the material?  It was only two students leaning.  So, is it an effort thing?  The two students in question earn average grades and generally complete work to get it done without challenging themselves.  Is their leaning just due to them not caring?  When I remind them of the proper class decorum they quickly revert back to the leaning position.  I’ve spoken to these two boys about their effort and what message their body language is sending to others.  Still, they lean.  While I don’t want to let it affect me, I also want to help them engage in the learning process.  So, what do I do?  How can I help them?  Should I just let them lean and check-in with them periodically to be sure they are focused on the topic being discussed?  Should I redirect them every time I see them lean?  Is asking them to take a break and return to the classroom when they are ready to show focus an option?  If the students are able to be focused without showing focus, does it matter?  Does their body language in the classroom matter?  Some teachers would say yes.  My take is that it shouldn’t matter.  I want them to focus and be engaged with what we are discussing or working on.  If leaning helps them focus, then go for it.  I shouldn’t take their leaning language as a slight against me.  Everybody learns in different ways and it’s my job as a teacher to extract that from each of my students as use it to help them all be successful.

Is Memorizing really Learning?

I still remember having to memorize lists of spelling words, state and capitals, and elements on the periodic table throughout my years in grade school and beyond.  I would spend hours making flash cards, quizzing myself, and having my parents test me.  Sometimes minutes after the assessment in school, I would forget everything I learned.  I found no relevance in it.  I knew that if I wanted to correctly spell a word I could use a dictionary, or if I wanted to know the capital of Alaska I knew that I could look at a map in an atlas.  I had figured out solutions to my problems without needing the memorized words and content I had wasted hours of my life studying.  

As a teacher, I find the skill of memorization important to teach and practice; however, actually memorizing a bunch of words or terms seems futile to me.  My goal is to teach my students skills they will need to use in order to be successful global citizens in the future.  If they know how to locate answers to their questions and solve problems, then they will never need to make use of words memorized.  While the skill of memorization can be vital in some fields and areas, using it as a way to assess a student’s understanding of content covered makes no sense, as they will most likely forget the memorized information once they have completed the test.  As teachers, we need to help students make connections, see the relevance, and be engaged with what they need to learn.

This week in Science we’ve been discussing classification, focusing on the Linnaean classification system.  As I introduced the taxonomic scale, the students asked, “Will we need to memorize this?”  I was astonished that they thought I would ask them to memorize something they could access on their laptops in a matter of seconds.  I informed them that they would most certainly not need to memorize the system but be aware of it and how to utilize it when classifying living organisms.  So, today in class I had them use this system to classify the paper birch tree.  They made use of various online and print resources available to decipher the kingdom, phylum, class, and etc. of the species.  We then closed the activity with a discussion on its usefulness as a way to classify and organize living things.  They found it very easy to use and liked its specificity.  There were no gray areas in this system and they liked that.  Should I have had them memorize the Linnaean classification system? Would it help them understand its usefulness?  Would knowing such information help them become better global citizens?  I would argue, no.  The students need to know how systems like this one work and the purpose of classification in scientific terms.  Being able to regurgitate a bunch of words or dates doesn’t demonstrate one’s ability to understand how the information fits into the greater context of the world around us.  Memorization is a skill and not how genuine learning happens.  Real learning happens through practice, understanding, doing, playing, exploring, reviewing…

How do you Foster the Motivation of Choice?

When provided the choice to either work on lesson plans or watch television, I would choose the selection that is most engaging to me.  I would watch television because I find it interesting and relevant.  I would not choose to work on my lesson plans if I had the choice.  While crafting lesson plans can be enjoyable, it can also be a laborious and tedious task.  Sure, I should work on my lesson plans, but I have plenty of time before I need to have them completed.  I wouldn’t choose to work on my lesson plans because I felt as though it was what someone wanted me to do or the “right” thing to do.  Therefore, I would choose to watch my favorite television show.  When I have the choice, I almost always go with what will make me happy.  How did I learn to make a decision based on what I want and not what someone else wants?  Practice, I guess.  Other than that, I don’t really know how I learned to make selective choices.  Then, my question is, how do I teach my students to make a choice that is the “right” one for them?  How do I get my students to do what they want to do and not what they feel as though they should do?  How do I foster a sense of freedom and choice within my classroom?

Today during Humanities class, the boys participated in Reader’s Workshop.  They read quietly, updated their Reading Logs, and chatted about their books.  A few of the students conferenced with me.  As I met with some of the students and watched them choose books, I was mystified.  They seemed to be choosing books they felt I would want them to choose.  Reader’s Workshop is all about choice and engagement.  Why would my students choose books that were not interesting to them?  I asked those students who seemed to be choosing books for the “wrong” reasons why they picked the books they did.  Their response was, It looks good.  Now, some of the boys simply grabbed the first book they found on the shelf.  That’s an easy problem to solve and one that is explainable.  But what about those students who searched for a good long time and still chose a book that they will eventually find boring.  How do I help them?  Of course, I want to challenge my students to step outside their comfort zone when reading.  However, if what they are reading is not intriguing to them, why should they read it?  How can I help my students realize that I want them to choose the book they want to read?  I’ve flat out told a few students that very thing, “Choose a book you want to read.”  For some, that hasn’t helped.  So, what’s the answer?  How do I help my students see that there are times when they need to do what they want to do for themselves and not others?  Maybe it’s peer pressure in a weird sort of way.  Perhaps the students don’t know what to choose.  I’ve helped many students who seemed lost when choosing a book by making recommendations.  Most students enjoy what I suggest.  But what about those students who refuse to change their book even when I know they aren’t engaged in it?  Perhaps the answer will come to me as I conference with more students and ask more questions, hoping to gain more insight.  I just want my students to enjoy reading because they are reading what they want to read.