How to Break the Fixed Mindset Student

When a new hospital was built in my town, the owners decided to dynamite the old one in order to make new buildings for the local college.  It was quite a big event in my community.  They even filmed the implosion.  While I did not attend the big event as I was in college at the time, my whole family went to see the building being knocked down.  It never really made sense to me.  Why would you want to watch a building blow up?  It seems a bit sadistic.  Then again, I was never a big fan of destroying things when I was younger.  I liked building and studying but not destroying.  Perhaps if I had been more interested in breaking things down, watching the destruction of an old hospital building would have been more appealing to me.

The irony of it all is that as a teacher, my goal is to break things apart and solve the mysteries of my students.  Unboxing the motivation of students is something I do daily to help and support them in and out of the classroom.  When students seem frustrated, I find ways to break down their frustration and transform it into success and learning.  When students seem upset or in a bad mood, I try to find a way to dynamite their negativity and turn it into positivity.  I look at my role as a teacher in terms of being a job foreman on a construction site.  I need to demolish the old and defunct and usher in the new.  However, sometimes this proves to be a difficult task.  Some sites don’t seem to want to be wiped out.

Today in Humanities class, the students completed a Quick Write activity in which they had to write a creative story based on a picture prompt they were given.  The pictures were of various geographical and fictional locations.  The pictures were labeled with the name of the location.  Each student was provided with a different picture.  It seemed like an inspiring idea.  The students needed to use the image as a springboard into their story.  Most of the students loved this prompt and completed a vast amount of writing in 15 minutes.  However, one student seemed to struggle with this task.  He sat for the entire time having written nothing but the title of the picture.  He claimed that he couldn’t write anything based on a picture.  But, he never even tried.  So, how would he know that he couldn’t write anything about a picture if he never even tried?  Even when I reminded him that he is being graded on his effort to work and sustain his writing, he got nothing accomplished.  So, why did he refuse to put forth effort to try?   Why was he insistent on employing a fixed mindset throughout the activity?  Why did he not seem to care about his grade?  It’s not that he couldn’t do it.  He has written many stories and completed several Quick Writes throughout the year.  He can do it but chose not to today.  Why?

The better question I need to ask is, was there anything I could have done to help motivate him to write?  If I had offered to help write the first sentence for him, would he have been able to get started?  What if I offered to trade pictures with him?  Would that have helped?  What else could I have done to support him so that he felt like he could write?  Would anything have helped?  Could it have been possible to break him of his fixed mindset and help him to embrace a growth mindset?  How might that have worked?  What could I have said or done to help him?  How do I help my fixed mindset students utilize a growth mindset?  What might that journey entail?

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April Showers Will Hopefully Bring May Flowers and Sex Ed

Ahh, it’s that time of the year again.  The ground is beginning to solidify, trees are budding, the grass is photosynthesizing, and the temperature is increasing.  Spring has sprung once again, finally.  After a long and hard winter, I finally packed away my winter coat and boots and extracted my spring fleece from the closet this week.  Excitement abounds in and out of the classroom as well.

Spring also marks the beginning of our sexual education or health curriculum in the sixth grade.  Today ushered in the short unit with a discussion of puberty and the changes our boys are experiencing or will very shortly be going through.  This also began the always fun use of male reproductive part words.  While it is quite hilarious when someone says a double entendre, the boys love pushing the boundaries with potty language at this point in the year as well.

Following the discussion of puberty, the boys moved into Humanities class, during which time we completed a read-aloud.  We read aloud to the class from The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.  When we finished reading today, we asked the students to make a prediction about how they think Ivan will save Ruby.  One of the boys said, “He’s gonna punch Mac in the balls again.”  The boys erupted in laughter, of course.  Heck, it’s funny stuff.  Because the students are learning about the male reproductive system, I figured I would correct this student and give him the proper terminology to talk about that area of the body.  So, I said, “Let’s use the correct word for that area as you are learning about it in PEAKS class: Testicles.”  That caused even more of a raucous.  Then, one of the students said, “Did you say pesticles Mr. Holt?”  At which point, I broke out laughing.  What a funny name that would be.  Sometimes they may seem like pests, but no they are testicles.

As our students begin to learn more about their bodies and play with language, it’s important to remember our role as their teachers.  We need to educate and correct but also realize that the boys may need to play around with words like balls and penis to get comfortable with them.  We need to make sure that we don’t crack down and reprimand them everytime they say a male reproductive part.  We want them to be focused when it’s important and respectful of course, but we don’t want our students to be or feel embarrassed about who they are and what they have.  So, in that vain, always remember that “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

Creating Meaningful Learning Experiences Via Project Based Learning and a Tiny White Lie

Some years my students love projects.  They enjoy working together to solve problems.  They have the ability to think critically and create innovative final products.  Then, occasionally I will encounter a group that both don’t like projects and can’t handle them effectively for various reasons.  So, with those groups, I end up crafting a lot of independent work or solo projects.  While they are not able to gain the same collaborative skills that the project-loving groups do, the same content and objectives are covered.  It’s just a bit different.  Being a big fan of projects myself, I love watching the students figure out solutions, solve problems, work together, fail, revise, and think critically about the world around them.

Today in STEM class, I introduced the final math project for our unit on Brook Trout and Ecosystems.  The students, working in small groups, have to create a geometrically correct river in which Brook Trout will thrive.  They will create a proposal and blueprint for their river design based on what they previously learned about the Brook Trout’s habitat.  They will then build a scale model of their design.  They will also need to test their model using various geometric shapes and angles to test for water flow and speed.  To help give the project a little more clout and to make it more tangible for the students, I told them a bit of a white lie about it in class today.  I told them that NH Fish and Game is sponsoring a statewide competition for students in grades K-8 to design the perfect river for Brook Trout to thrive and generate sport fishing.  I said there will be prizes awarded for the winning design, which will then be built by the NH Fish and Game organization in the coming years.  This is not true, but it got the students really excited about the project.  While they weren’t focused on the competition aspect while working in class today, they were committed to working diligently.  So, I figure, a little white lie won’t hurt, right?  I’ll come clean eventually and will award prizes for the winning design, that I choose.  Having the students think that this project is part of something bigger than the classroom helped to motivate them to think creatively and innovatively.  Some of their discussions were quite amazing.  They were discussing how to make a river flow upstream, how to install underground chillers, and how to make the river system eco-friendly.  It was awesome to listen to their teamwork and conversations.  They were connecting previous knowledge and learning to this project.  It’s what a STEM unit is all about.

If I hadn’t made the project seem as relevant to the students, would today’s outcome have been different?   To create a meaningful learning experience for my students, bending the truth a bit doesn’t seem terribly horrible.  Plus, maybe I’ll have the students help me draft a proposal to send to NH Fish and Game, detailing our idea and project depending on how things play out.  Maybe something like that could come to fruition.  The more the boys worked on the project today in class, the more I realized what a brilliant idea this would actually be.  As the students apply the geometry skills they learned earlier in the unit to complete this project, relevant learning is happening.  The students are thinking critically about our nearby ecosystems to engineer a natural process in a new and innovative way.  Not only are the students learning how to work together, but they are also learning how to solve real-world problems in unique ways.  Isn’t that what Project Based Learning and the STEM approach are all about?  I think so.  These boys are going to be ready to take on the world next year due to all of the skills and experiences they have gained in the sixth grade.

How Can You Help a Student When You Don’t Know How to Help?

Helplessness is one of my least favorite feelings.  I do not like feeling as if there is nothing I can do.  No matter what the situation is, I usually find a way to solve the problem.  I persevere.  Sure, sometimes I need to take a break and revisit the issue later, but I almost always find some sort of solution.  However, every once in a while, I am faced with a problem so perplexing that it seems as if there really is no solution.  What do I do then?

Today, a student who had struggled earlier in the year, began to show signs of that same struggle again.  Prior to our big vacation in March, he was working at grade level and showing fine effort.  After returning from break though, he has slipped back into his old habits quite a bit.  He is either refusing to or can’t complete work or meet our objectives.  He sat, staring at a blank card, which he needed to transform into a Mother’s Day card for his mom today.  He had spent 30 minutes on Saturday and accomplished nothing.  He apparently had finished the task over the weekend but then lost the card.  So, he needed to start over.  My co-teacher and I spent much time with him, providing him with ideas on what to write.  He still did nothing.  Can he do the work and is refusing not to or can he not think for himself?  Why was he able to complete similar tasks before March Break but now can’t?  Did something happen over March Break?  There have been several objectives he has not been able to meet since returning from vacation.  While he is not in danger of failing the sixth grade, I do worry that if this trend or behavior continues, he will not be able to demonstrate his ability to meet the objectives covered in the seventh grade.  So, do we hold him back and have him repeat sixth grade?  Earlier in the year, I exhausted my resources in trying to figure out how to help and support him.  At this point, I’m not sure what else to do.  Is he choosing not to do the work?  Did something happen over break that caused this lapse?  We had a battery of testing done on this student earlier in the year and it didn’t shed any light on the situation.  All of the suggestions and accommodations made from the testing were things we have already been doing in the classroom to support him.  So, now what?

I feel lost and helpless.  I want to support and help this student grow, but I don’t know what else to do.  I even had the Director of Studies have a chat with this student when he was struggling today.  He saw the same things I’ve seen.  He too was baffled.  Is there some sort of social/emotional issue at play?  What is causing this behavior?  Did he suffer some sort of trauma over break?  Is he worried about leaving sixth grade and the support system in place?  Does he not want to work anymore?  How can we best support this student?  I want him to feel success.  It’s not about the grades.  It’s about him being able to meet the objectives and feel successful.

Moving forward, I am going to try some new strategies with him to see if they help.  He is also going to see our school’s guidance counselor, who might be able to shed some light on the situation as well.  This student’s advisor is aware of what is happening and I met with him today to discuss the issues.  The lines of communication are open.  The parents are aware of what is happening as well.  Now, hopefully, with all of us working together, we will be able to help him grow and develop as a student.

What Happens After a Field Trip?

When I was in the fifth grade, my class spent three days at a local outdoor center.  We hiked, learned about the outdoors, and completed a ropes course.  It was super fun.  The day after the trip, we were all so tired that the class day was a wash.  We accomplished very little, which was fine because the teacher didn’t have much planned for us anyway.  It was a wasted day.  So, why have it?  Or, perhaps the better question to ask is, why did the teacher expect so little of us?  Why not hold the bar high to get us back into the routine?  Why was that day after the field trip a wash?

This past week, the sixth grade spent the week in Cape Cod, MA.  We learned about the geological and cultural history of the region through hikes, discussions, and fun activities.  We even went on a whale watch, during which we saw some right whales, one of the most endangered species on Earth.  The trip was super fun.  The boys had a blast.  We arrived back on campus yesterday afternoon.  The boys were tired, but motivated.  We reminded them that classes would be normal on Saturday and to come prepared to jump right back into the routine.  Now, of course, I was worried that fatigue might cause today to be a loss, but I held the bar high.  So, we continued with the curriculum and did not alter our plans.

The boys, while a bit tired, had an awesome day.  They were focused, worked diligently, and earned some marbles for their fantastic effort.  In humanities, they effectively participated in class discussions regarding the class read aloud and a current event.  Their body language showed dedication and focus.  In STEM class, they worked better than usual on the Brook Trout Ecosystem Diagram activity.  It was quite amazing.  They worked quietly and cooperatively.  They asked each other questions and made fine use of their time.  In fact, today was better than the average class day without having just gotten back from a lengthy field trip experience.  Why is that?  What caused today to be better than usual?  They were tired, yet focused.  Was it because they had spent all of their wiggly energy on the field trip?  Perhaps because they hadn’t done hardcore academic work for a week, they were excited to get back to the routine and rigor.  Maybe the field trip helped refocus them and reignite the diligent work ethic we saw from them during the start of the year.  Whatever the reason, it’s nice to know that this trip had numerous positive outcomes.

What happened in the classroom today, does beg the question, if we hadn’t held the bar high and prepared them for the rigors of reentry into the academic setting, would things have gone as smoothly?  Were they so focused because we set them up for success?  If we had allowed for a change to the schedule and routine today, would they have just fallen into that rut?  While scaffolding and support are important techniques to utilize in the classroom, if we don’t hold our students accountable and challenge them to be the best version of themselves as possible, aren’t we hurting them in the long run?  With so few teaching days in our schedule, we can’t afford to take a break, and today, it seemed that this approach worked miracles for our students.  Rather than plan for the worst, why not plan for the best and have a back-up plan in your back pocket?

Trying Something New

I’m not generally one for change, but I do like to mix things up every once in a while with controlled risks.  Although I’d never get in the middle of a mosh pit, I do like to stand on the outskirts and enjoy the view while listening to some great music.  In the classroom, I try to create opportunities for the students to take safe risks.  I also try to keep things interesting.  While routine is important for students, I feel that novelty has its benefits.

Normally, during a class read aloud, I read the story aloud to a small group of students as we discuss and analyze the book.  We talk about the author’s purpose, character motivation, and other literary features.  I ask the students questions and allow the conversation to flow in between reading.  While I do manage to read a few pages, we tend to discuss more than we read.  However, recently, because we’ve had such lively conversations, my group is falling a bit behind the other group.  So, I needed to fix that.

Today, during our class read aloud, I told the students that our group was getting a bit behind and while we usually discuss the book as we read, today I was just going to read.  Now, there will be points that might breed conversation and it will be hard to resist, but I will keep reading.  During those points, I told the boys, I will hold up a finger and shake it.  That way you will read my mind and know what I’m thinking so that no discussion is necessary.  The students laughed a bit.

I modeled it on a student.  “What am I thinking?” I asked a sixth grader as I waved a finger above my head.

He said, “The book?”

“No, I’m thinking about mustard on my burger at lunch today because your shirt is yellow,” I replied.  The students chuckled.  So, they understood.

I started reading.  We were covering some pretty serious territory in the story today and so parts were tough to read.  During the really heavy parts, I waved that finger and looked at the boys.  They knew.  During one part though, I was so emotionally moved that I had to speak.  When Stella dies, they throw her body into a garbage truck.  I was outraged.  I said, “She was a living organism just like us and they threw her body into the trash.  No one seemed to care.  What if a human died and we threw his or her dead body into the trash.  People would be outraged.  We’d be in serious trouble.  Why is it okay for them to do that to an elephant?  She was alive.”  The boys understood the message I was conveying.  Their eyes were glued to me.  I held their attention.  They felt the power.  I then moved on and continued reading without any further discussion.  When time was up, the boys seemed disappointed that I had to stop reading.  They wanted to hear more about Ivan, but we had run out of time in the class.

Were the students so enthralled during today’s read aloud because the story was growing more emotional?  Or was it because we didn’t talk a lot and they could just visualize the story while I read?  Or, perhaps, they were so engaged because I tried a new technique on them.  Maybe they thought the waving finger was funny.  Or maybe this trick caused them to pay attention because they knew I wouldn’t be recapping the story.  Whatever the reason, the students were far more engaged with today’s read aloud than normal.  Usually, they fidget because they can’t sit still, make faces at each other, and have side conversations.  Today was completely different.  Maybe trying something new really did bring about positive change.

Concrete vs. Abstract Thinking

In the young adult novel The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, Ivan, a silverback gorilla struggles to draw anything but what he sees.  He can’t visualize or draw imaginable scenes.  He draws what’s right in front of him.  He is a concrete thinker.  I on the other hand tend to have difficulty seeing the concrete.  I’m all about the creative and abstract.  I’d much rather write a fiction story than a personal narrative.  I think big rather than realistically.  I’m an abstract thinker.  While Ivan and I are polar opposites when it comes to thinking, we both feel that, sometimes, you just need to throw a me-ball.

The struggle for me as a teacher is to help my sixth graders bridge the gap from the concrete to the abstract.  How do I help them see what isn’t there? How do I help bring them from the elementary level to the middle?  I’ve tried many things already to help prepare them for the big ideas they will see in the seventh grade.  We’ve transitioned our current events discussions so that the focus is on more mature, serious news stories that will greatly impact our students and the world in which they live.  This was a challenge for some of them.  They felt like these ideas were too adult.  We’ve also started to switch the focus in our reading groups so that we are talking more about the author’s purpose and the motivation of the characters.  This is a difficult task for a few students as they are still so focused on plot and characters still.  However, they need to step it up to be ready to make inferences, draw conclusions, make connections, and see what isn’t there.

Today in Humanities class, the students worked on researching a self-chosen tribe that once called NH home.  The boys needed to find information to answer a set of guiding questions.  They were limited to three sources: Print books from our school library, EBSCO Host, and World Book Online.  They know how to access and use all three source types.  Most of the information they found was very basic and broad whereas the questions were asking for more specific answers.  Some of the students struggled to understand how to use the information we provided to them in an introductory lessons on Wednesday as a springboard to further research in order to answer the guiding questions.  Instead of recalling the fact that most Abenaki tribes lived in wigwams that were made of birch bark and trees, they continued looking for what natural resources the tribes used.  Had they the ability to think abstractly, they would have had an easy example without much researching at all.  We needed to spoon feed this information to some of our concrete thinkers.  Now, here’s the real perplexer, these are the same students that can solve complicated math problems and equations.  Riddle me that Batman.  How is that possible?  If they can think abstractly when it applies to math, why are they not able to think creatively with regards to research and history?  How do we help our students learn to see beyond themselves?  Could I be doing anything differently to help my students think more abstractly?  Is it developmental?  Will they be fine next year in the seventh grade because their brains will evolve over the summer?  Am I best supporting my students to move from the concrete to the abstract?

Tech Free Fun in the Classroom

While technology seems to rule our world in numerous ways, yesterday’s digital detox day was a welcome change from 24/7 screen time.  Although I kept reaching into my pocket for my phone and desperately wanted to check my email to find out what I was missing, it felt good to have more face-to-face conversations and to not be bound by the many screens that fill our world.  The boys seemed to do okay as well.  No one fell off the face of the planet and there were no occurrences of spontaneous combustion, that I know of.  Perhaps we need to try this more frequently as an institution.

Having known about this tech free day for a while, I planned my classes accordingly.  I wanted to vary the types of activities to keep the students engaged.  Humanities class can really be done without technology regularly, and so there were not any big changes there.  The boys wrote in their Writer’s Notebooks instead of on their laptops during our Quick Write activity.  That was the only difference.  In STEM class, we reviewed the anatomy of Trout using a Pin the Part on the Trout poster game I created.  I used this as a sort of whole-class assessment.  The boys seemed to love working together to solve a task.  They only mislabeled two parts out of 22.  That’s pretty darn good considering memorizing them was not an objective.  Then, to reinforce the idea of abiotic vs biotic factors in an ecosystem, we explored Cardigan’s many ecosystems through a jaunt around campus.  The boys took copious notes regarding their observations so that they were prepared to create a hand drawn and labeled diagram of one of Cardigan’s ecosystems when we returned to the classroom.  The diagram was their exit ticket.  The boys did a stellar job displaying their learning.  They seemed engaged throughout the day.  Varying the means and ways instruction is provided, kept things flowing well today.  If we had tried to keep our routine mostly the same minus technology, I worry that it wouldn’t have been as successful a day.

It’s reaffirming to know that technology is not required for fun to happen.  It’s all about preparation and effective teaching.  If we remember the recipe for good teaching and plan ahead, life will always be awesome with or without technology.

Is Teacher Directed Instruction Necessary?

When I was a student, the only way teachers taught was through direct instruction.  My teachers didn’t seem to trust us as students and so everything was spoon fed to us as though we were just pods in the factory.  Thanks to them, I had a lot to learn later in life.  If only my teachers had taken a risk and allowed me to think for myself and solve problems in creative and innovative ways, I might have blossomed into a doctor who found a cure to a communicable disease.  Sure, I learned something from my teachers, but most of that was what my textbook already told me.  I do wonder though, would I have benefited more from a mixture of student-centered and teacher directed instruction?

Yesterday, in my Humanities class, we decided to tryout some teacher directed instruction, as we know that our students will face classes like that in their future years as students.  We explained what we were doing and the purpose for doing so.  We introduced our new unit on Native Americans through short, teacher directed lessons on three of the tribes that at one time had inhabited the state of NH.  My tribe was the Androscoggin Tribe.  I had a short slideshow presentation with some arrowhead artifacts.  I explained the key attributes of the tribe while the students took notes.  I asked for a few student volunteers and called on some students to keep the conversation moving.  The boys seemed engaged and asked some insightful questions.  I kept my lesson to about eight minutes in length.  Even though the students seemed to enjoy the content of Native American tribes, would it have been more effective to allow the students to drive the conversation and research?  I never asked the students what they wanted to know about the tribe.  Would they have been more engaged with the content had I done so?  What if we had forgone the teacher directed lessons and gone right into the student-centered research project?  While we used this lesson as an opportunity to discuss how to take notes from and effectively sit through teacher directed instruction, was our content lesson necessary?  Couldn’t we just have explained how to stay focused and take notes from teacher directed lessons without the modeling?  Did this take away from what we were doing?  Is teacher directed instruction necessary?  Brain-based learning and research tells us, no.  Students need to be engaged with and find the relevance in the content.  If we tell our students what and how to think, will they be able to make connections and want to learn more?

Following the lesson, my co-teachers and I talked about how uncomfortable teacher directed instruction felt.  We don’t like talking that much.  Although the students seemed interested, we were not necessarily feeling that same way.  We would have rather introduced the research project in a more fun and engaging manner.  Did we need to do it through teacher directed instruction?  Is it necessary for our students?  If we want our students to learn and love doing so, we need to do away with teacher directed instruction and move towards creating a student-centered learning environment.

Planning For a No Technology Day

As my school is a 1-1 laptop school, we use technology 24/7.  Teachers are required to carry smart phones with them at all times.  Students are expected to be checking their email and using their laptop for classes and work.  We are a very wired school.  While this brings with it many advantages and learning opportunities for the students, it also means that our boys are looking at screens almost constantly.  The research shows that this can be detrimental to the overall development and well being of humans.   So, to address this issue and teach our students about the effect technology has on them, we are going completely technology free on Thursday of this week.  No computers, phones, projectors, or anything of that nature.  We’ll use lights in a limited capacity.  As a teacher, I am excited for this opportunity but also a bit scared about how to plan for a day without the use of technology.

In STEM Class the students are learning about ecosystems and Brook Trout.  So, I thought to myself, why not have the boys explore Cardigan’s ecosystem.  Then they can create and label a diagram of all the abiotic and biotic factors in our ecosystem.  This way they can apply the information they are learning about to an engaging task.  It will bring Science to life for them.  We’ll begin class with a review of the anatomy and physiology of Brook Trout through a fun activity.  I created a large, poster size drawing of a Brook Trout with all of the parts the boys will review.  I labeled each part on a piece of paper with Velcro material stuck to the back so that the students can then place them on the poster in the correct place.  I will randomly select students by pulling popsicle sticks.  The student chosen will have a choice to either place a new label in its correct home or change an incorrectly labeled part.  Once all of the parts have been labeled, the students, as a group, will have the opportunity to make any final changes before we assess their work.  This active review will hopefully engage them and allow them to further explore the workings of Brook Trout as we raise them in the classroom.  If time permits following the exploration of our ecosystem, there is a very cool current event regarding ecology that I want to share and discuss with the boys.  It’s all about how the army is going to try and use the camouflage gene the squid possesses to create an invisibility tag.  My students love anything that has to do with war and technology.  Plus, it connects directly to our unit on ecosystems and ecology.  I’m hoping that we will be able to cover everything, but I understand that teaching is like a living organism and can be unpredictable.

So, while this task of planning a day with no technology seemed unfathomable, it has allowed for some hands-on investigation of our topic of study.  Perhaps it will help the students make the ideas learned more tangible and engaging.  Maybe I’ll even realize that I don’t need technology as much as I think–  Hold on, I feel my phone vibrating….