Does Learning Take Place on Holidays?

One of my favorite days of the year growing up was Halloween.  I used to and still do love getting dressed up and pretending to be something I’m not just to get candy.  It was great.  Plus, I love candy.  I mean, who doesn’t love sugar and chocolate?  It’s delicious.  However, when I think back to my school days on Halloween, I don’t remember much other than the costume parades and parties.  Did I learn anything on those days?  Did we have math, language arts, and science on Halloween?  I don’t recall.  So, if I’m struggling to remember quality learning taking place on those days, can I expect that my students will be in the learning mindset on special days like Halloween?

As today was Halloween, we planned a special movie party for the final two periods of the class day.  However, this meant that we still had Humanities class, which was fine because Reader’s Workshop is a very choice-based and engaging activity.  They should have very little difficulty staying focused for 80 minutes of Reader’s Workshop, or so I thought.  While some students were able to keep it together and read silently or work on their mental image illustration, several students had trouble staying focused and making effective use of the various classroom spaces.  Several students were chatting and pushing in the Reading Nook, which is an area reserved for silent reading.  Some students working at their desks were chatting with their neighbors in an off-topic manner.  They struggled to read and/or draw for 80 minutes.  Was it because it was Halloween?  Was it because some of them were in costume and so the dress code impacted their focus?  Did the students have trouble staying on track because they had consumed too much candy?  Would it have been better to plan a more teacher-directed activity or class so as to keep the boys on track?  Was placing the choice in their court too much pressure on such a special and different day?  Whatever it was, some students did seem to be challenged by staying focused throughout the period.

So, is it worth having classes on special days like this?  Should we just cancel classes on Halloween?  Or should we plan special activities in class on those days?  Would the activities allow them to stay on track more?  Would anything have made a difference.  I do believe that Halloween is a very special and treasured day for our sixth graders.  They really enjoy this holiday and did consume a large amount of candy prior to coming to fourth period today.  While cancelling classes may not make a difference, thinking about what we plan on Halloween might greatly impact how the day goes for us in the classroom.  We need to have a teacher directed hands-on activity planned for days like this.  We need to keep the students engaged throughout the day.  Despite changing the way we plan for Halloween, the amount of genuine learning that happens will still be minimal due to the excitement level.  The students are thinking of everything but what is happening inside the classroom.  We as teachers need to realize this and not plan to cover anything new or difficult.  We certainly shouldn’t plan a test or assessment for days like this.  We need to remember the neuroscience behind teaching and learning: Learning happens when students are actively engaged.  If their minds are a million miles away, learning will certainly not take place.  Knowing this, we just need to be cognizant of what we plan and how we teach it.  We can’t expect the students to work in small groups or on individual work for long periods of time on Halloween.  We need to vary our teaching methods and allow for parties and fun stuff.  Our students are still kids and we need to be aware of what kids will remember.  They will remember the fun times, and learning about fractions may not be fun for them unless you do it with candy or a fun game.  Thoughtful planning on days like Halloween will allow for more success in the classroom.

How Can I Spread the Good Word Without Sounding like a Jerk?

In high school, I was known as a bit of a prude.  I refused to curse and would use silly sayings like “Chicken Foot” or “Banana Head” when I got frustrated or angry.  I didn’t really see the need to use expletives.  I also had a hard time telling people how I really felt.  I never wanted to upset my friends and so I generally kept negative feelings bottled up inside.  If I had a better way of doing something, no one ever knew because I kept it to myself.  I was always afraid of sounding like an egotistical snob.  I hated people like that and still do.  So, I had difficulty being up front and honest with people.  To this day, I struggle with conflict.  I ‘d rather say nothing at all or tell a little white lie than cause someone to be upset.  While I realize this is not the best strategy for coping with difficult situations, it’s my way and has served me well so far.  However, there are some issues that are so near and dear to my heart that I will not stand by quietly when I see them disrespected or undermined.

Teaching and educational pedagogy is one of those hot buttons for me.  Over the past several years, I have challenged myself to grow professionally as an educator.  I’ve gone to conferences, taken classes, blogged, Tweeted, read professional development texts, and talked with fellow teachers about the most effective teaching practices.  My craft as a teacher has evolved greatly because of this learning I’ve done.

I no longer take off points when students turn in work late because it’s not about the work, it’s about the process and skills involved.  If a student is able to demonstrate his ability to meet the learning objective but had a prior commitment and was unable to complete the assignment on time, I’m not going to penalize him.  If he’s able to show his mastery of the skill, what’s the point of subtracting points unless the skill is turning work in on time?  I get so frustrated when I hear that teachers dock students 10%-20% for late work.  Why?  If a student processes information slowly, more time will allow him to more effectively showcase his ability.  If he rushes through the work to meet the deadline, it won’t allow him to show you his true potential.  Wouldn’t that be a shame?  If we’re here to help our students, are we really supporting them if we penalize them for lateness?  I understand the purpose in helping students realize the value in deadlines, but if you are not grading the students solely on the objective of being able to complete work on time, how is it fair to the students to lower their grade?  Isn’t it about skills and standards?

Another practice I’ve stopped doing is taking points off for grammar or mechanical errors in writing unless that is the graded objective.  If students lose points for every missed period or uncapitalized letter, are they learning to write effectively or just how to edit for little things?  With grammar and spell check built into word processing programs these days, are we fairly assessing our students if we detract points for something so mundane?  Shouldn’t the focus be on the writing and ideas?  If a student struggles with proofreading but has insightful and creative ideas, are we stifling them when we cover their beautiful white paper with blood red stains?  I found that marking every little mistake saddens the students and lowers their self esteem.  They then focus on the little things rather than the fact that their thesis was spot on or that they had a very unique way of describing the Renaissance.  Do we want our students to learn to become editors or writers with a keen sense of revision and creativity?

So, armed with this information, how do I help my colleagues realize that benefit and value in focusing on the skills and objectives rather than the details and minutia?  Are we here to fool our students and test their ability to find Waldo in a sea of red and white or is our purpose to educate and support our students so that they want to learn and grow as individuals?  How can I help my fellow teachers see the importance in Objective Grading?  I’ve lead a professional development session on Objectives-Based Grading in the past.  While it seemed to go over well, no one has changed.  Teachers are still marking up papers and circling tiny mistakes.  Students are losing points because they didn’t include a properly formatted heading at the top of their paper.  In the real world, no one is fired for not using Company Letterhead when sending a fax.  If I have a typo in my student comments, a proofreader will fix it or it will get missed.  I still have a job and my pay is not cut for making mistakes.  I learn from my mistakes and try to improve and grow.  So then, why do some educators insist on holding our students to standards they themselves are not held to?  What does it prove?  How can I help teachers see the importance of focusing on guiding and supporting students through differentiation and skills-based grading?  I want our students to be and feel successful and so helping their teachers see how students learn best makes sense to me.  So, how do I do this without sounding like a know-it-all?  I just want to share some wisdom I’ve gained over the years.  I’ve tried all different approaches and am usually just shrugged off with something like, “But you teach sixth grade.  It’s so much different than seventh, eighth, or ninth grade.”  Good teaching will always be good teaching and so the grade level doesn’t matter.  How do I get through to them?  How do I help the other teachers at my school see education as a process and not a giant test with no redoes?  If we held our teachers to the same standards some of them hold their students to, they wouldn’t have a job right now.  What can I do to help them see this?

Greatness Comes From Hard Work

In the fourth grade, I decided that I wanted to learn how to play the clarinet.  So, I signed up for lessons.  My parents even rented me a clarinet.  I was ready to go, until I found out that the lessons took place during recess and that I would have to practice at night.  I was a fourth grade boy and there was no way I missing recess with my friends.  Plus, the night time was Atari time not music class.  But, I promised my parents I would give it a try.  So, after one lesson and a tiny bit of practice, I decided that playing the clarinet was too difficult for me.  So, I gave up.  I didn’t persevere and learn something new.  I didn’t become a great clarinet player.  Sure, I was the king of Marbles, but that wasn’t really a skill of which to be proud.  To this day I kick myself for not sticking with the clarinet.  I wish I knew how to play a musical instrument.  Yes, it’s hard work, but I would love to pick up an instrument and be able to play it.  Sadly enough, that will never happen.

However, perseverance did a play a huge role in the success of today’s Humanities class.  The boys workshopped their Object Poems in Writing Groups.  While the students had already participated in Writing Groups once this year, they knew the protocol.  Despite that, we reviewed the standards and expectations for Writing Groups today because we wanted to challenge our boys to do more than just share a question about their peers’ writing.  We want our students to be able to have a discussion about writing so that the author receives specific and detailed feedback that will allow him to really grow his piece.  As one student mentioned during our discussion regarding the purpose of Writing Groups, we want our boys to “build community” through writing and sharing.  We asked the students to explain why we have the students participate in Writing Groups.  We wanted them to understand their purpose so that they are motivated to put forth their best effort as a way of showing compassion to their classmates.  We also had the students describe what we the teachers will hear and see while Writing Groups are being conducted in the classroom.  They were specific and listed exactly what we would hope to find.  We closed our discussion with a question on poetry and what makes an effective poem so that the students will know what to look for as they listen to the various poems.  Then we let them have at it and participate in Writing Groups.

Prior to the start of class, my co-teacher and I discussed the importance of walking about the four Writing Groups to be sure they were conducting them in an effective manner.  We stopped and clarified expectations for those groups that seemed to be struggling.  We also participated in some groups as a way to model appropriate behavior.  We redirected students that were unfocused or not participating.  We were stern with the students who seemed to be detracting for their group.  We were actively guiding the Writing Groups and teaching the students how to effectively help their classmates grow as writers.  It was hard work.  We bopped around from group to group, correcting behavior, reminding students of the goals, and offering feedback to the students so that they fully understood what was being asked of them.  While things weren’t perfect by any means, this Writing Groups session was far more productive than our first go-round many weeks ago.  The students put forth much greater effort and were trying to offer their peers specific ways to revise their writing.  Progress had been made.

Of course, there is always room for improvement and we saw that today.  We now know that if we want the students to talk about writing on a high level, we need to teach and direct that.  It is difficult for sixth graders to discuss writing and offer constructive feedback in a positive manner.  As we jumped up, sat down, fielded questions, focused groups, recorded groups, and helped guide students, we realized that if we want Writing Groups to continue to grow next time, we need to keep at it.  We need to continue to work with the boys in the manner we did today.  It’s hard work, but worth it.  The students need to be able to learn to be self-sufficient and do challenging things and it’s our job to prepare them for this.  If we just observed the Writing Groups today without offering any guidance, the students would not have grown in the way they did.  They need to know when they are making mistakes so that they can correct them.  Great students come about from hard work and perseverance.  Just like the old objects many of our students focused on in their Object Poems, quality takes a long time to achieve.

Sometimes It’s All About the Experience

Many years ago, I made it a goal of mine to focus on accruing new experiences.  It’s not about what I do, but that I do it.  Try new things.  Take risks.  Those were my goals.  I wanted to experience life to the fullest.  Since my life repurposing, my wife and I adopted our son, I went to an NHL hockey game despite not liking the sport in any way, I coached the JV baseball team at my school even though I know nothing about the sport, I presented at numerous educational conferences for teachers, I visited Australia, I flew to Canada, I got a passport, and I touched a shark.  The list is far from complete and certainly not finished, but it’s a start.  I want to experience new things so that I can model this behavior for my son.  I want him to try new things and experience life in a way that will open and expand his mind.  It’s not about the action, it’s about the experience.

Today, my class went on a field trip to the Indian River in Canaan.  The boys had the chance to go digging for historical artifacts from Canaan’s past.  Mr. Fogarty took us out to this great spot on the river that was once used as a dump for the local residents of the town.  Over time the river meandered and the stuff was buried.  Today was our chance to uncover the hidden treasure.  The boys found old bottles including one that once contained root beer extract.  The students found old machine parts and metal scraps.  Although nothing of real monetary value was unearthed, from the hooting and hollering the boys did you would have thought they found gold and silver.  They were so excited to be digging, playing, and exploring.  Sure, it was raining out and the river was very cold.  That didn’t bother many of the boys.  They just kept on digging and searching.  Even after a student cut himself on a bottle and was bandaged up, he kept looking for treasure.  The boys couldn’t get enough.  They were curious, asking insightful questions like, “I wonder what this was used for?” “How old is this?” and “What is this?”  It was awesome.

Was every student involved in the digging and looking for artifacts?  Of course not.  Not every student likes getting dirty and wet.  However, today’s field trip was not about treasure hunting, it was about the experience of exploring our town’s history in a unique way.  We wanted history to come alive for our students.  Some students just walked in the woods or waded into the river while one student just walked in the grass and avoided the river and digging altogether.  Each student had their own experience while participating in the group’s experience.  When asked about the day’s highlight, every student said, “The Dig.”  So, while not everyone was digging, everyone was there sharing in the new experience.  Being a part of a community means taking part in things that you may not really like to do but that are new and enjoyable by some.  Sometimes, it’s just about being there for the experience.

Why Are All Schools Not Using a STEM Approach to Math and Science?

As a student, I never really enjoyed Science.  While the content and concepts were understandable, my Science classes were just boring.  We didn’t DO Science.  We read about Science, talked about Science, researched Science, but we rarely ever did Science.  Most of my Science classes went something like this… “Today we’re going to learn about Osmosis.  Everybody take out their Science Book and turn to page 325.  Let’s read all about Osmosis together.”  How is that exciting, engaging, or differentiated?  That’s the problem, it wasn’t.  So, ever since I took over teaching the sixth grade Science course, it has been my goal to enliven the curriculum and make Science a class our students will love and not soon forget.

In creating the STEM class that we have in place this year in the sixth grade, our hope was to bridge the understanding gap for the students.  In the past, Math and Science classes were separate and so the students never saw how the two pieces fit together.  They also struggled with the math concepts because they weren’t applied in realistic ways that made sense to the students.  Our STEM offering is all about that.  Through projects, group work, partner activities, problem solving, and perseverance, the students will engage with the concepts and curriculum in a meaningful way.  We’ve already seen that happen swimmingly in our first unit on Astronomy.  The boys had a blast learning about scale models and rational numbers as a way to design and build a spacecraft.  It made sense to them and they saw how the math skills applied to the science content.

Today in STEM class, the students began working on the first project for our new unit on Energy.  The boys, working with a partner, have to design and build a marble track using only foam pieces and tape.  The track has to have at least one rise and one fall.  The track is only considered successful if the marble never leaves the foam track from start to finish.  The students then need to calculate and record data regarding speed and kinetic energy using Microsoft Excel.  So, in one project that will take about 3 double-blocks, the boys will learn how to solve a design engineering problem, use a spreadsheet program, calculate data using equations, and work together with a peer.  Awesome!

The boys had so much fun working together, designing, building and testing their track.  One group even attempted to record their test run and found that because the marble moved so swiftly, they couldn’t even see it in the video.  The boys were asking each other questions, comparing tracks, solving problems, failing, rebuilding, and working together like well-oiled machines.  They didn’t need help for the teachers because they had each other.  They were focused and engaged, and so redirection was also not needed throughout the 70-minute work period.  It was amazing.  They were using the vocabulary they had just learned to explain what was happening and what needed to be fixed.  They were DOING Science and Math.  It came alive for them and made sense.  They got it.  They left class talking with their partner about new ideas and changes they could make to their track on Thursday.  Wow!

Clearly, this STEM model is successfully working for us in the sixth grade.  So, why is every grade or school not doing this?  I’ve spoken to my school’s Science Department Chair and Director of Studies about this and how well it is going.  I suggested that every grade should be doing this.  I’ve even invited other teachers in to observe the greatness taking place.  I don’t know what else to do.  How can we get the word out more effectively?  How do we help our Science and Math teachers see the value in our interdisciplinary approach to these subjects?  Why are they not hearing us?  Our Communications Department even wrote a thorough article on our sixth grade STEM class for the entire School community.  The word is out there, but noone seems to be listening.  Do they not care?  Do they not want to try new things?  Are they afraid of taking risks?  What else can we as the teachers do to help our School and other schools to see the benfit in a STEM approach to Math and Science?  While I don’t want to shove my philosophy on teaching down people’s throats, I do want them to look at our data.  Our students are engaged, not having disciplinary issues, and working at a high-level throughout the double block period on a daily basis.  They are learning the concepts because they are applying them to projects and engaging activities.  They are learning new skills and working together.  Our School’s Mission includes a line about how we are preparing these boys for lives in a Global Society.  That’s what this class is all about.  Our boys need to learn to work together to solve problems by communicating effectively.  Our world is all about Globalization and teamwork.  Our students need to know how to work together while also independently solving problems.  I hope that all schools want to prepare their students for the future.  So, I propose that to do this, we need to show students how math and science applies to their everyday lives.  We need to STEMify our schools so that students aren’t bored.  The research shows us that genuine learning happens through doing.  So, lets do STEM, everywhere.

Learning From Mistakes

While it’s hard for many to believe, genuine learning happens through failure.  When innovative and problem-solving people try to do something and fail, they look adversity face on and say, “Na na nah boo boo.”  They brainstorm a new way to solve their problem.  They assess the situation to figure out what went wrong and why it went wrong.  Then, they generate an alternative way to solve their problem that addresses the failure and mistakes made previously.  Some people learn through not succeeding.  As we often tell our students, the best learning opportunities come about when we assess our mistakes and understand what happened to cause them.

Today, I had the chance to practice this.  During our Morning Break time between periods three and four, our sixth graders decided it would be wise to run, jump, scream, yell, push, and shove each other upstairs outside of our classroom.  Quick back story: Yesterday, they were doing the same thing on the other side of the hallway and were banned from using the bench side of the hall.  They were reminded of this prior to Morning Break as well.  This didn’t make a difference.  Another teacher had to come out and reprimand the boys for making poor choices.  I was livid.  I just talked to them about this yesterday.  What was so difficult about doing the right thing?  We have Core Values to guide our thinking and yet they make poor choices.  They disrespected us as their teachers.  These thoughts and more went through my head as we led the boys back into the classroom.  I was mad.  So, I laid into them.  I didn’t yell, but I raised my voice.  I asked them how they could do such a thing.  I lectured them on how it makes the sixth grade look.  I said, “Some students and teachers thing of the sixth graders as little kids who do silly things.  We don’t look at you this way, but you just proved them right.  Why?”  I was on a roll.  Then, I overstepped.  I said, “And our student senators, they need to step in.”  I mentioned them by name and continued.  I explained how they need to step up and be leaders.  They need to regulate situations like this.  Then in my head as I noticed the body language of our two senators, I realized I messed up.  We hadn’t prepared our senators to be leaders like that.  So, how could we expect them to take care of situations like the one that had happened in the hall?  We can’t.

Luckily, my co-teacher picked up the pieces a bit after I finished.  She was good cop and I was clearly the bad cop.  She reminded the class that everyone needs to be a leader and step in to regulate bad situations.  That helped.  The boys knew we were upset.  That period they were awesome.  We had a great discussion and they were focused.  They learned from their mistakes and fixed the situation.  I praised them for this and asked them to take what made this class so good and apply it to times when teachers aren’t around.  I have faith in them.  They can do it.

So, if my students were able to learn from their mistakes, then I need to do the same as their role model.  So, after class, I spoke with our two senators in the hall.  I apologized for calling them out in front of the class.  We hadn’t prepared them to stop things like this.  It’s not their job to fix situations.  So, I apologized.  I wanted them to know that I realized I made a mistake.  I wanted them to see that when I made a mistake, I fixed the situation.  I wanted to model good behavior for my students.  I wanted my students to know that adults make mistakes too and that they can also learn from them like we want our students to.  I fixed the situation because I made a mistake.  Even though I was disappointed in my students, I had enough clarity to realize that I had spoken incorrectly.  Learning from my mistakes makes me more aware.  Next time, instead of talking to my students right away, I’ll wait until I’m prepared to be compassionate and understanding.  I’ll stop, take a deep breath, and then think before I speak.

Progress Takes Time

In the second grade, I was labelled behind grade level in reading.  I couldn’t read fast enough or something like that.  My teacher wasn’t very clear with me and I didn’t really understand it all.  All I knew was that I had to be removed from the classroom during our reading block to work in the Resource Room on my specialized reading program.  I’m not sure if they referred to it as Title I Reading back then but that was what I was in.  I couldn’t tell you if it helped or if I just needed more time to develop and mature as a reader.  In the sixth grade, my skills as a reader grew immensely.  I loved reading.  It took me some time to find my place and get into the groove, but when I did it became a passion.  To this day, I still love to read.  Was it because I received extra support due to my label or was it just time?  Whatever it was, I made the progress needed to become a stellar reader.

Today during Humanities class, I had the chance to conference with a student I referenced in an earlier post about how we as his teachers struggled to get through to him.  The last time I conferenced with him, I had seen progress but it was miniscule. He read aloud and was able to answer some simple comprehension questions.  We knew at that point that his reading was not as low as we once thought, but we still had concerns.  Today, I didn’t need to conference with too many students and so I told the boys that if they wanted to conference with me, they just needed to sign up on the whiteboard.  A few students did that and I met with them.  Then I noticed a really small name on the board still and just as I was about to get closer to the board to decipher the fine print, that student appeared at the back table.  He said, “I’m ready to conference.”  He set up his laptop with his Reading Log ready to go.  he plopped down his current Reader’s Workshop book and got all set up.  I joked with him about the small writing and how I was just about to get closer to decipher the name when he approached the table.  He smiled.  Then I asked him what he wanted to chat about.  He wanted me to look over his most recent Reading Log entry.  I read it aloud and was amazed.  It was detailed and specific.  He asked a question that he had while reading and then tried to answer his question while making predictions.  He cited support from the text and everything.  While it was short at just five sentences, it did what he was asked to do.  He clearly demonstrated his ability to effectively write about his reading.  I praised him for such a great entry.  He smiled again.  Then I asked him about his book.  Do you still like it?  He said, “Yes.”  He seemed very aware and receptive to feedback.  It was awesome.

As I looked at his book, I was a bit worried.  This was his first book of the year and he had only read 240 pages.  Would he finish it by the end of the term?  Our expectation is that he would read four books in a term and the term ends in about three weeks.  He’s only read one book.  So, suddenly it hit me.  Let’s make it clear to him in order to start a dialogue.  So I said, “Hey, let’s figure out your average pages per minute rate for this book.”  He seemed open and so I started calculating things aloud so that he knew what I was doing.  I figured out that he was reading about six pages a day.  I told him that that number is a bit low for his reading level.  “What can we do about it?  Do you want to set a goal for the next time we meet?  What would be a good goal for you?” I asked him.  He said, “Eight.”  Alright then.  He wants to shoot for eight pages a minute.  That would help him finish the book at a faster pace and also help him grow as a reader.  Then I asked him to name a specific strategy or task he will do to try and meet that goal.  He suggested using his free time and study hall time to read.  Awesomesauce.  I praised him for setting a goal and having a plan to meet it.  I then reminded him of how amazing his Reading Log entry was.

He left the conference confident and proud.  He did it because he wanted to.  I didn’t ask to conference with this shy and reserved student.  He came to me.  He wanted to show me how far he had come.  He wanted me to see his progress.  This was one of those moments where you say, “This is why I teach.”  He’s getting it.  His self esteem is growing and he’s gaining confidence.  He’s starting to push himself and grow as a reader, writer, and thinker.  I’m sure this is only the beginning of the greatness we are sure to see from him this year.  While most students began the year strongly, a few guys just needed a bit more time to blossom and bloom.

History = Excitement

In high school, I found history class to be very boring.  Sure, I was enthralled by the idea of history, learning about battles, and how our world has changed over time, but the classes themselves were boring because they were lecture-based.  My teacher talked at us for 40 minutes each day and I never had the chance to do history or learn about really cool history that interested me.  The older I got, the more excited I have become about history.  Ancient civilizations, secret wars, the founding of countries, and great inventions are all a part of the history that I love.  I love learning about how America was founded by less than nice individuals.  Learning from the world’s mistakes is so engaging to me.  History is awesome now because I am my own teacher.  My hope is that I can inspire my students to feel the way I now feel about history.  I try not to bore my students with lectures or useless information.  I focus on the exciting parts of history.

As part of our Humanities unit on Community, we visited a local historical site in the town of Canaan today.  We ventured out in the rain to the Rand Estate.  The current owner gave us a tour and shared lots of interesting tidbits about the house and its long history with us.  The boys even had a chance to explore the house and its many secret and old features.  They easily found the secret stairwells, but were too scared to venture down them.  They noticed features unique to a house built in the 1800s.  They loved seeing the safe that was built into the wall of the first floor stairwell.  When we had to depart the house, they were disappointed.  They wanted more time to explore and learn about its vast past.  The boys talked about how cool the experience was the entire bus ride back to campus.  They referred to the rooms in the house as their own.  They even asked if we could have a sleepover at the Rand House.  They loved the creepiness of the old house and its very unique history.  They were excited to learn more and begged us to take them back very soon.

We whet their appetite regarding the history of Canaan by choosing a very interesting and exciting place within the town.  We didn’t just tell them about the Rand House, we took them there so that they could live history and explore it.  While Mr. Fogarty did share many fun stories about the house, there was never a real lecture.  The students were engaged for the hour we were they.  They asked insightful questions and were genuinely enthusiastic about the whole experience.  History came alive for our students today.  Sure, they learned about the history of Canaan but in a way that made them not even realize that they were learning.

History can be fun and exhilarating or boring and mundane.  If we want our students to be engaged and want to learn more about history, we need to make history exciting.  We need to bring history to life for our students.  Throughout our unit on Community, we’ve kept these ideas in mind and allowed our students to explore and investigate the history of our community.

To Grow as Teachers We Must Listen to Our Students

In school, I never had the chance to tell my teachers what I thought of their teaching.  They never asked me what I would do differently if I were the teacher.  My teachers never asked for my input or feedback on their performance in the classroom.  Perhaps they didn’t care.  I went to school in the 80s and 90s and things were different back then.  Teachers did what they wanted and not what was always in the best interest of their students.  I get that, but I would have jumped at the opportunity to assess my teachers and the content they were teaching.  Most of what I learned in school was content-based and included facts.  I learned very few skills.  I wish I had learned more about how to be a better student.  I wish I had had more hands-on activities.  I wish my teachers hadn’t lectured at me for 40 minutes straight.  I wish I had the chance to tell my teachers what I thought and learned in their class, but I didn’t.  So, as a teacher, it is my goal to be sure I am always seeking feedback from my students.  The big changes I’ve made in the classroom have come directly from insight the students provided me with.  I want to be sure my students are engaged and having fun while learning.  One easy way to do that is to listen to what the students have to say.

Today during our Parents’ Weekend, the students participated in student-led conferences.  For the past several weeks, the boys have been compiling an e-portfolio of their work and reflections, which they used to guide their conferences.  They ran the show.  The conference was about the students taking responsibility for their learning.  They need to know how they are doing and what they need to do to improve.  If they don’t understand their progress, then growth will not follow.  So, our students had a conversation with their parents about what they’ve done so far and what they can work on to improve.  The parents asked lots of insightful questions and were impressed by how well spoken and prepared their sons were for the conference.  They went so well.  We are so proud of our students for the great effort and preparation they put into the conferences.

Throughout the conferences, the students reflected on the STEM class and what they would do to change it if they were the teacher.  While most everybody said nothing and that they loved the class, a few brave souls provided us with some tangible feedback.  Two students informed us that they would like to see the science portion of the STEM units have pretests like the math courses do.  This way, if they’ve learned the material before, they don’t have to redo it.  That makes sense.  I get that.  No sense in feeding a stuffed gorilla.  We can totally do that.  D for done there.  Another student informed us that he didn’t like math and so the math portion of the STEM class is boring to him.  It’s not that he isn’t challenged, he just doesn’t like math.  What to do we to address this?  Well, in our next unit, most of the math skills are embedded into the projects.  The students will be making use of formulas to calculate the kinetic energy of a moving object.  This way, the separate math course will contain a lot less parts.  This should help him not be as bored as the math is part of the projects, which he loved.  Another student suggested more projects or extra credit work in the STEM units.  Okay, we can do that.

So, over the next couple of days, I’m going to revise our next STEM Unit so that it includes a pretest and extra credit options.  This way the students will know that we are listening to them and taking their feedback seriously.  We want our students to feel respected and heard.  Tweaking assignments and projects based on feedback is one simple way to show our students that we hear them.  We care about their input and we are altering our teaching to incorporate their feedback.  In the end, it’s all about our students.

Reflecting on my teaching from only one perspective, prevents me from seeing the whole picture.  My students are the best barometer of my performance in the classroom.  If they don’t like what is going on, then what’s the point.  A huge part of learning is engagement.  If the boys aren’t engaged, then their brain will not be properly activated.  Listening to what my students have to say is a really quick and easy way for me to assess myself and the skills covered.  Sure, my daily reflections allow me to ponder what went well or didn’t go well, but that’s only one tiny part of the whole.  Our students have a lot of good stuff to say.  We just need to be open to hearing them.

Is There Learning in Procrastination?

In elementary school I used to wait until my parents forced me to do my homework.  I rarely took it upon myself to finish my academic work prior to the due date.  Playing outside was always more important to me.  In high school, I got a bit better at using my time effectively.  Generally, I would do my work while the teacher was talking.  Most of my high school teachers lectured from the front of the room and usually did not walk around.  Therefore, I was safe to do my homework in class.  It wasn’t until college that I started to realize the value in working ahead and managing my time properly.  With so much work due at all the same time, I needed to budget my time accordingly.  Rarely did I wait until the last minute to accomplish what needed to be done.  Why put something off until tomorrow when it could be done today.  I learned that lesson well in college and practice it to this day as a classroom teacher.  My goal now is to help my students learn this sage time management strategy.

Today during STEM class, the boys had a work period to complete the Science and Math portions of the Astronomy Unit while also finishing their Group Project and reflecting on the entire STEM Unit.  It was controlled chaos.  The students were working well, for the most part.  One or two boys needed to be redirected occasionally, but most everyone else was focused and working well.  The students put the finishing touches on their scaled solar system models and egg drop space vehicles.  It was pretty interesting to watch the students work to complete the various tasks.  While most everybody had something to finish, a large percentage of the students finished working early into the STEM Block as they had been keeping up with the due dates and managed their time effectively.   However, there was a small handful of students who left most of the work for today.  Apparently they thought they could finish their Science work, Science Project, and Group Project in 80 minutes.  Two or three students failed to finish their solar system model prior to the close of class and one group was unable to finish their Project.  Had they made better use of their time over the last six weeks to work ahead and stay on schedule, perhaps they wouldn’t have been in the pickle they found themselves today.

It’s all about time management.  The students who finished, clearly made effective use of their time throughout the unit while those few students who were unable to complete their work, procrastinated.  They waited until the bitter end.  Why?  Is it learned behavior?  Is this just how they operate?  Were they hopeful they would finish in the short time we had?  Have they procrastinated before and had a positive outcome?  What is it that caused just a few students to not make good use of their time over the past several weeks.  The students that were behind a few weeks ago were given time over the weekend to complete work to stay on schedule.  Those students weren’t the ones that didn’t finish.  So, what is it then?  How can I help those procrastinators to understand the benefit in effectively managing their time?  The group that didn’t complete the project completely is unable to meet the objective for the activity and so their grade will be negatively impacted by their procrastination.  Is that enough?  Will this teach them the importance of time management?  If not, then what?  What else can I do?  The students write down their homework nightly, which usually involves working on long term projects.  They know the due dates and are reminded of them regularly.  So, what else can I do as their teacher to help them?

Perhaps this experience will teach those six students that procrastination will get you nowhere.  While I believe in teachable moments like this, I am also aware that for some students these kind of experiences are ignored and overlooked.  Some students don’t see the value in learning from their mistakes.  However, I guess I really won’t know if those students learned a lesson until we have another project or activity due.  Until then, I’m going to keep on reminding students of due dates, posting due dates in the classroom, online, and in their planbooks, providing time management strategies to students, and highlighting the value in using one’s time wisely when completing work.  Who knows, maybe a combination of everything will make the difference next time.