Thoughts on Summer Reading Part 2

Back to Questions from the Classroom.  The book seems to be pushing the research process in a specific and structured manner as a way to teach reading comprehension skills.  While I’m a fan of the research process, I feel that the I-Search Process is the better way to go.  Reflection and personal engagement with the topic is crutcial when devoting so much time to a project.  The students need to feel connected to what it is they are learning about, especially when it comes to research.  I won’t hold this negative aspect against the book, but I disagree with their proposal.

However, on a positive note, I did learn about three new activities that I feel would be useful in the classroom.

The first is a methodical way to teach the reading strategy of making predictions.  While I did teach that skill his past year, there was no rhyme or reason to it.  I just explained what a prediction is and how to make them with support from the text.  The students practiced it on several occasions before they were assessed on it.  The book explains a process referred to as Imagine, Elaborate, Predict, and Confirm (IEPC).  When reflecting on a text, the students should visualize what it is they’re reading so as to capture the moment and engage with the story or text.  Then, the students need to use these sensory imaginings as a way to connect with the text.  During the Elaborate phase, the students will ask lots of questions and try understand the story or novel on a high level.  The students will then make a prediction based on this prior knowledge and complete understanding of the story.  As they continue reading the book, they will then confirm their prediction.  A good follow-up activity would be to have the students reflect on the whole process in writing once they have found out if their prediction was accurate or not. This would allow for them to assess their understanding of the strategy and be able to “see” how effective  making  predictions can be to the entire reading process.  I can’t wait to try this activity in the class when teaching the strategy of making predictions this upcoming year.

Another cool idea the authors explained in the book is about focused reading.  They refer to it as a Reading Road Map.  This activity would be used with nonfiction texts in History, Math, or Science.  The teacher would create a Road Map Guide for the reading.  It would include headings and specific page numbers from the text.  For example: If you want the students to pay attention to graphs or maps in the reading, you would tell the students to follow the route the settlers took to venture west on page 48 by tracing it with their finger.  You might have a small image of the map on the worksheet as a way to focus and remind students of the task at hand.   As students generally skip images and diagrams in assigned readings, this road map guide would help the students pay attention to these ever important aspects of the text.  This would be a good activity to use in STEM or Humanities when the students are using a common text.  It makes the reading process more tangible and focused for the students.  It is also another opportunity for the students to practice utilizing their ever crucial reading comprehension skills.

A final fun activity that I want to try in my Astronomy STEM unit is called the Ten Important Words Plus activity.  The students will read a common text and pull out the ten most important words.  They would define each term in their own words in a sentence.  They would write the word and its definition on a sticky note that they would then stick to a board or poster in the classroom that would contain every student’s ten words.  Then, the students would begin a discussion about the words.  What words did the students have in common or different?  Why?  What do the words tell us about the text?  Then, the students would create a one-sentence summary of the text using the words they chose as important.  This would allow for the students to engage with the text and find the words they view as importamnt instead of only looking for the words that I as the teacher deem important.  This way they own their learning.  It is also a great way to assess a student’s ability to extract the main idea from a text.  Awesome idea.

I’m not even halfway through the book and I already feel as though I have gained much knowledge and many ideas from this text.  I can’t wait to see what I will learn next.

Thoughts on Summer Reading Part 1

As school ended for my students this past Thursday, my learning has just begun.  I’ve got the next three months to learn as much as I can in order to hone my craft as an educator.  I have several books lined up to read.  When compiling my list of books, I thought about the diversity of my classroom and the gaps I noticed in my teaching this year.  

The first book I’m tackling is a book I received from the AMLE Bookclub: Questions from the Classroom by Karen D. Wood and Lina B. Soares.  It’s all about integrating comprehension, vocabulary, and writing across the disciplines.  It’s in the form of a Q&A with lots of ideas and activities.  While most of the ideas are not unique or original, some I’ve never thought of before.  As I contemplate how I want to revise my STEM units for the upcoming academic year, this book has given me some cool ideas.  

The Think-Tac-Toe activity suggested in the book is very similar to a menu project idea, which I used this year.  However, the ideas provided in the sample are much more specific and get at the heart of reading comprehension that is such an important skill for our sixth graders to practice and apply.  This activity would be used with a common text or set of texts.  I was thinking about it in terms of some online sources regarding astronomy.  I would choose three online articles or sites the students would visit to learn the basics about space and the solar system.  They would then choose three activities from a menu of options.  The activities might include the following:

  • Hand draw an accurate and scaled diagram of our solar system including all planets, major stars, major moons, and other important celestial bodies.  Include your scale at the bottom.
  • Develop a multimedia presentation explaining your unique idea on how to reduce the amount of space junk in our solar system.
  • Create a slideshow presentation explaining the interstellar dangers facing Earth.
  • Make an informative brochure of the major planets and celestial bodies in our solar system.
  • Make an accurately scaled model of our solay stem including all planets and major celestial bodies.
  • Write a persuasive report showcasing the benefits or drawbacks of space travel.
  • Write and deliver an informative speech about the history of space travel and how it has affected humans and our solar system.

While I’ve done similar projects, the ideas provided by this book inspired me to rethink how I teach this unit.  It needs to be more engaging and allow the students to practice pulling out main ideas from a text, which is a skill they will need to be successful throughout the rest of their academic careers.

Another interesting idea suggested in this book is about reading comprehension as well.  When the students finish reading a text, they would complete a worksheet which includes statements regarding the text.  The students would agree or disagree withg the statements and explain their reasoning using support from the text.  They refer to it as a Reaction Review Guide.  The students could work on this in pairs or individually.  This would allow for the teacher to assess the students’ understanding of the reading.  It would also be a great way to get students to practice using support from the text.  I like it.

The book also suggests a way to practice summarizing a text.  The teacher would start the activity by modelling the strategy with a text.  The students would then read a text and then work in small groups to summarize it together orally.  The students would then read another text and practice summarizing it with a partner.   The final component of this activity involves the students reading a text and then summarizing it independently in writing.  This would allow for summative and formative assessments regarding the skill of summarizing.  While we taught this strategy to our boys this year, this method seems more effective and engaghing.  The students get to practice it many times before actually being assessed on it.  Another sweet idea.

My summer learning has already begun and I’m excited, like my son in Foot Locker.  He loves his shoes.

Reflections on the Year: What my Students Taught Me

Great teachers are the best students.  We love to learn and acquire new knowledge.  It’s what makes effective teachers effective.  I love to read books my students are reading.  I get excited when a new issue of Middle Ground magazine comes out.  I look forward to the summer so that I can read new professional development texts.  Learning about new ways to teach and engage my students makes me happier than a kid at Disney World.  However, it’s not until times like these that I remember how much I learn from my own students every year.

As the end of the year is a mere three days away, I can’t help but reflect on everything I learned from my students this year:

  • Making a wind turbine is super fun, especially when my students figured out how to use the circuit board that I couldn’t even operate.
  • Stop reading books that are boring.  I hate to stop midstream.  But my students made me realize, “Why waste your reading time on a bad book?”  Point taken.
  • Don’t lean too far back in your chair or you’ll fall.  My students figured out just how far back they could lean in their chair without falling despite my many reminders to NOT LEAN IN YOUR CHAIR!
  • Hard work pays off.  Sometimes, it just takes a really long time for that hard work to get done.
  • Having a backpack is overrated when you can leave everything in the classroom.  At times I felt as though the cubby area was a landfill for academic materials.
  • Why explain a concept to the students when they can do it better?  My boys loved helping each other understand difficult concepts in STEM class.  They didn’t need to ask me when they had their peers to work with.
  • Farting is funny and really smelly.  As long as they say, “Excuse me,” I’m fine with a bit of tooting.  It’s natural.
  • Talking is fun even when you’re not supposed to.  This group of students loved to talk, sometimes just to hear the sound of their own voice.  However, it’s hard for me to go to a faculty meeting and not want to talk to the person sitting next to me.
  • Public speaking is scary but doable, especially when wearing a funny wig and hat.  My students worked really hard to prepare for several public speaking moments this year.  The best ones were when they were in costume.  For the faculty talent show a few months back I dressed up as Baby in Dirty Dancing for the final dance scene.  It was super fun and really hard to learn how to dance in a dress.  Oh, and don’t get too cocky going into that lift or you’ll fall off the stage.  That hurt.
  • Homework is yucky when it is busy work.  We don’t give pointless homework, and our students appreciated it throughout the year.  They said, “We hate worksheets.”
  • Pencil erasers are yummy.  For some strange reason this year, almost every pencil the students borrowed from us, came back with a completely broken-off eraser.  Where did they go?  Were they hungry?  We had a Morning Snack.
  • Why tuck in your shirt when you can irritate the teacher by having him tell you 500 times a day to tuck in your shirt.  Seriously, tuck in your shirt!
  • Making funny faces and noise is super fun and therapeutic.  Almost every morning, one of my sixth graders would come up to me and go, “BLLLLSSAGGHJGJGHLKAJDUPODIUHDHLKJDLKJDLKJDLKAJDKL!” while making a funny face.  So, I imitated him every time and did it back to him.  He loved it.  Plus, it was super fun to get on his level.
  • Being a teacher is hard work.  After having to teach the class a math lesson, one of my students said, “It’s hard work being a teacher Mr. Holt.  How do you put up with us?”  I just laughed.

While I’m sure my students learned one or two things from me this year, I learned way more from them.  I love being a student-teacher.

A Surprising Last Day of Classes

When I was in middle school, the last day of classes was always a bit of a joke.  We’d say our goodbyes, play games, watch a movie, sign each other’s yearbooks, and share our summer plans.  No work was ever accomplished nor did the teacher try to cover curriculum. So, as I went into today, I thought, I wonder how productive the boys will be as it is the last official day of classes for the academic year.  I wasn’t hoping for 100% focus.  My expectations were low for classes today.  I expected about 50% effort from my students.  So, imagine my surprise when today turned out to be one of the most focused class days of the whole year.

The last two weeks I’ve blogged about how my students surprised me by how focused they were and how hard they worked even at the end of the school year.  It seemed as if each consecutive day was even better than the previous one.  The growth we’ve been waiting for all year was finally being displayed.  They really were listening when I was talking about sustaining hard work and focus.  That’s crazy!  But, it’s true.  This week was filled with awesome days, and today was certainly no exception.

Today in STEM class, the students had one final opportunity to work on completing their Forest Field Guide.  Every single student stayed focused and worked hard for at least an hour during our 80 minute double block today.  They were researching the species they had identified and discovered in their plot, drawing detailed images of their samples, and creating useful field guides.  The only conversation was on topic and focused on the task at hand.  They asked each other for feedback and guidance as they researched the Eastern White Pine and types of Mosquitos.  Thier final products will definitely rival the fancy published guides we have in our classroom.  I was so impressed and amazed by the work ethic my students put forth today.  Despite it being the last “real” day of classes for the year as next week is Exam Week, the boys were engaged throughout the period.

How did they do it?  Were they motivated to finish their work because they know that if they have their Field Guide finished by Monday they will be able to have some free play time in class?  Was that the motivation?  Did they want to accomplish work which demonstrated their ability to exceed the objective covered?  Were they doing it for the grade?  Did they stay so focused today because they wanted to impress me and showcase their abilities?  Or, was today’s outcome due to the progress the boys have made throughout the year?  Is everything just starting to click now and so they are applying the strategies we drilled into them since day one?  Perhaps it was a combination of everything rolled into one.  Regardless of why and how it happened today, I was pleasantly surprised and incredibly amazed by their effort in STEM class.  In fact, before I dismissed the students for lunch today, I mentioned how this was their last real day as sixth graders.  I said, “I don’t want to make a big deal of this because I will probably start to cry, but I wanted to point out that after you pass in your Forest Field Guide and Recite your NH Wax Museum monologue on Monday, you will be seventh graders.”  I was almost on the verge of tears as I think some of the students were as well.

While each year provides me with different and unique experiences, this year’s group of sixth graders has been one of my favorites.  They really congealed as a group.  They worked together to get stuff done.  They were like cogs in a learning machine.  It was awesome and so very special.  Today was just one more example of what a fantastic group of sixth graders they are.  While I don’t usually like surprises as I am a control freak, today’s surprise was phenomenal.

Can a Distraction Be Motivating?

In elementary school, the slightest noise would cause me to look around the room for its origin.  Then, it took me forever to get back to work.  In this technology driven era, kids have even shorter attention spans.  With the ability to block ads, fast-forward commercials, and zone out while adults or teachers are talking using headphones, students are trained to not pay attention and stay focused on any one thing that is not entirely engaging for more than a minute.  This behavior is very evident in the classroom.  Students can generally only stay focused on one task for no more than 10-20 minutes at a time.  Switching things up and bringing novelty into the equation helps immensely.  However, every once in a while, a distraction can have a positive outcome.

Today in STEM class, the students continued working on the Explore the Forest Project.  The boys went outside and made more observations regarding their self-chosen forest plot.  They identified flora and fauna samples, created a map of their plots, and made sketches of what they found.  Things were great for about five minutes until the pesky flying insects proved to be a great distraction.  While the weather was sunny and warm, the black flies that have recently spawned in the forest areas were flying around our heads like gulls at a beach picnic.  While I was able to ignore them and focus on helping my students identify various flora and fauna samples, my students could not harness the focus to ignore the winged insects hanging in the air.  While the students had work to do, they rushed through it so that they could go inside to finish working.  Instead of taking the time to enjoy nature and the woods around us, they hurried through their work so that they could escape the flies.  They were so distracted by the natural world that they couldn’t enjoy themselves and get the most out of this experience.  But, is that a bad thing?

Perhaps the better question to ponder is, What caused this distraction to begin with?  Was it that the flies were overly irritating?  Sure, who really likes insects, except for maybe entomologists?  They are aggravating and frustrating, the flies, not the entomologists.  They make being outside in the spring and summer, sometimes, very unbearable.  Maybe that was the cause of what happened today.  Or maybe it was that my students are so easily distracted by the slightest noise or movement that they just couldn’t stay focused.  They are sixth graders and have trouble sitting still even when something is completely enthralling.  Yeah, that could have caused the great fly distraction of 2015.  Or perhaps, maybe they weren’t distracted but instead were effectively utilizing their time.  They knew that if they stayed outside too much longer, they would get off track and work ineffectively.  Maybe they had actually learned how they learn best this year.  Perhaps my magical teaching had actually transformed them into perfect students.  Wow, who knew I was a magician?  Although I know that I do have special talents as a teacher, that most likely wasn’t the cause of what happened today.  No, it was just the flies.  They are irritating.  However, what if this great distraction actually led to something amazing?

When my students returned to the classroom, I was sure that they would carry this flying roadblock inside with them.  I thought, they are going to go back into the classroom and talk about how annoying the flies were and not accomplish anything for the rest of the period.  However, once again my boys surprised me.  Back in the classroom, they worked incredibly effectively and accomplished much work on their forest field guides.  They researched the flora and fauna they had found in their plots and began creating their final field guides.  They created hand drawn images and were documenting the life they had identified outside.  And of course, the black flies were one of the five fauna samples used by almost every student.  This distraction actually led to more focused work.  They were more productive inside the classroom than they were in the novelty of the forest.  Even though I thought for sure that going outside and exploring the forest would be a sixth grader’s dream come true, I forgot to take the flies into account when planning this project.  Middle school boys hate insects and flies.  I’m pretty sure that it’s in their DNA.  But, by taking them outside and getting them to see that what they thought they wanted wasn’t actually what they wanted at all, helped them realize the power of hard work in the classroom.  Sometimes, it just comes down to them needing to try things out.  By providing our students with opportunities to test out their theories or ideas, they feel empowered and in charge.  Trust is built up and the students are able to figure out what they really want and need as learners.  Who knew that one negative distraction could actually lead to a positive outcome?  The moral of this story is that sometimes a distraction can actually be motivation.

Which Came First: Inspiration or Hard Work?

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  Hard work pays off.  The early bird gets the worm.”  While old adages may sound fun and inspiring, they lack relevant meaning in our current society.  Although running ten miles in the rain may not kill you immediately, it certainly won’t make you stronger.  In fact, it will weaken your knees and could possibly cause pneumonia.  Spending twelve hours working on a project may pay off because you accomplish the task; however,  research shows that working while tired and exhausted causes your brain to function at a lower level, thus, the work you do later in the day or while tired will be done less effectively.  While getting in line at Target 10 days before their big Black Friday sale will get you in the store first, you may end up being killed in a riot while waiting.  Clearly, what once worked for people no longer applies.

The catchphrases of today include grammatically inaccurate sayings such as “Braahh, Doh! Reeelaaaxxx, and OMG.”  Those aren’t even words let alone phrases or quotes.  Our society has gotten so sloppy and lazy that most people do not write or spell correctly anymore.  Texting has slayed English grammar and speaking.  It’s so sad to read an email from an eighth grade student that has almost every word mispelled or abbreviated.  I say, take the extra three seconds to spell out LOL, for Laughing Out Loud.  However, with this in mind, every once in a while my students work as though they stepped into a time machine and landed in the 1950s.

All year in Humanities class we’ve modelled, practiced, discussed, and reviewed what to do to prepare for a presentation or assessment.  During work periods, many of the students would generally work for about 20 minutes before getting distracted or side-tracked.  We saw this happen early in the year and so we provided the students with strategies to overcome these struggles.  This didn’t seem to make much of a difference.  Then we talked about sustaining a focused work stamina.  That still didn’t foster a change in their work habits in the classroom.  So, now what?  What can I do to help my students see the importance in hard work and dedication?  I was at a loss.  I was worried that my students won’t be prepared for seventh grade because they don’t know how to stay focused and work for long periods of time.  The workload increases in the seventh grade and so being able to stay on-task for more time is a necessity.  I was very concerned that my students would be unable to meet the high demands of seventh grade because they can’t make effective use of their time during work periods.  Then, my mind was blown and everything worked out just the way it was supposed to and my faith in humanity was restored.

Today in Humanities class, the students had two periods to prepare for Monday’s Wax Museum presentation.  The students needed to finish and revise their self-created monologues based on research regarding a historical figure or landmark native to New Hampshire.  They then needed to work on memorizing their monologues based on a plan they created using strategies introduced in their study skills class.  In the past, the work period would have looked like this: 20 minutes of focused work memorizing monologues followed by 20 minutes of talking with a peer about yesterday’s lacrosse game.  Today, however, was a different beast altogether.  Today’s work period looked like this: 40 minutes of focused work including students partnering with each other to practice memorizing their monologues, students finishing and revising their monologues based on feedback provided by the teacher, students reciting their monologues aloud to practice memorizing them, and students utilizing various strategies to memorize their monologues.  In fact, by the end of the period, many of the students had a good chunk of their monologue memorized because they were making such good use of their time.  99% of the students were able to sustain their mental stamina for the entire work period.  While I prefaced the work time with a reminder of their goal– To effectively memorize their monologue for Monday’s Wax Museum– I didn’t review work strategies or the idea of stamina.  They did it all on their own.  After months of practice and review, they finally got it.  They now realize the importance of using their work time effectively.  While things could have gone very differently today, perhaps the boys realized that they are almost seventh graders and need to start acting like such.  Or maybe, everything that we’ve spent all year working on finally clicked today.  Perhaps they figured out that when they have time to work on perfecting a skill or mastering an objective, they need to do it.  Maybe they’ve started to realize that in order to grow as students, they need to put forth the necessary effort.  Whatever the reason or reasons for the awesome transformation that took place in the classroom today, the students are growing and learning.  They are beginning to see the value in hard work and how it pays off.

Now, for the million dollar question, were my students inspired to effectively utilize their time in class today or did they see the benefits that come from hard work?  What caused the outcome?  Which came first, the inspiration or the idea?  In our society today, people are driven by immediate gratification and generally not long term effects.  The students want to be prepared for Monday’s Wax Museum presentation so that they can get a good grade.  The idea of working hard to get there is not the motivation.  They are motivated by the grade and so the inspiration to do well makes them work hard.  As one of my students said in Saturday’s Socratic discussion regarding the state of education in our country, doing well comes down to motivation.  Students need to want to do well in order to be successful.  However, motivation can be fostered through inspiration.  If we can figure out how to inspire our students to want to do well, then they will do well and eventually realize that working hard allows them to be successful.  At the end of the day, a student needs inspiration to work hard for him to see the value in hard work.

Using the World as Our Classroom

Talking about insects and ecosystems in the classroom can certainly be fun and engaging, but if we want to meaningfully engage our students in learning that is tangible, we need to get them outside exploring ecosystems and identifying organisms.  Think back on your time as a student, when did you learn the most?  For me, it was when I was doing something hands on or engaged with my topic.  I don’t remember much from my sixth grade science class other than when we went outside to build our own garden.  We cultivated the soil, chose what to plant, planted everything, and tended the garden ourselves, as a class.  It was awesome.  I was so excited about that experience that I wrote a letter to the local newspaper describing what we had done and thanking the local businesses that had supported us.  I’ll never forget that real-world experience.  If we want our students to have these same lasting memories and opportunities, then we need to throw textbooks out the window, close computers, and go outside.

In my STEM class, we began the final project of the year yesterday, the Explore the Forest Project.  The students need to create a forest field guide regarding a self-chosen plot of land in the nearby forest.  They need to create a plot map, labeling the species they identified.  They also need to create pages for all of the flora and fauna samples they identify.  While some of this work will be done in the classroom, most of it will be done out in the field.  Like Charles Darwin when he created his first field guides, the students will take notes, make observations, and sketch what they see.  The boys chose their plots yesterday and started crafting their maps while outside.  They were engaged in doing science and engineering their own learning.  I didn’t tell them what to identify or find.  They needed to choose what is interesting to them.  The boys were having a blast in the woods yesterday.  On the walk back to the classroom at the end of the period, one student said, “This project is the best.  It’s so much fun!”  It doesn’t get better than that.  The students are independently learning about what they find engaging.  They are exploring the natural world and thinking like scientists.  It’s phenomenal.  The STEM approach brings the learning to life for our boys.  Talking about and researching a topic only accomplishes so much.  Actually exploring the place or touching the topic makes the learning tangible and real for our students.  I’m sure that many of the boys will carry this experience with them for years to come.  As educators, we can’t be bound by the walls of our classroom.  We need to break free from the confines of our curriculum and textbooks so that our students get excited about learning and school.  Sometimes, we just need to take a risk and try something new.  So, let’s go outside, play, and get down and dirty with learning.

What Can We Learn from the Shakers?

After booking a field trip many months ago when snow still blanketed our campus, I had forgotten all about it until I started planning the month of May in late April.  As the time drew nearer, I realized that I need to start preparing my students for this field experience.  Then it dawned on me, I don’t know much about the Shakers as a people.  Who are they?  What do they stand for?  What are their beliefs?  Why are they no longer a sustainable religion or way of life?  All I knew is that there is an old Shaker Village in Enfield, NH.  Other than that, my Shaker knowledge was quite shaky.  So, like any good student, I went on a quest.

Who are the Shakers?  Is there a good video introduction on Youtube that I could watch and then show my students in preparation for our field trip to the Shaker Museum in Enfield?  I looked and looked until I found just the right one.  Ken Burns created an episode of the America series all about the Shakers.  Perfect, I thought.  Oh no, it’s only available for purchase.  Not perfect.  But, I’m a fighter and so I persevered and kept looking.  iTunes to the rescue.  I purchased the episode on iTunes and then previewed it.  Will it work for my class?  Will my students gain a basic understanding of the Shaker people through watching this?  It was at that point that I had my Shaker revelation.

As I pondered my guiding questions while watching the documentary all about the Shakers, I started to realize that the Shakers had a lot of brilliant ideas: Equality, Material Freedom, Love, Kindness, Compassion, and Amazing Furniture.  They loved everyone equally regardless of sex, age, race, or creed.  Everyone deserves a home and care, they preached.  They lived simply.  They weren’t bound by technology or the media.  They worked, hard, prayed, and danced.  While I’m not the actively religious type, I love to dance and work hard.  However, I’m no furniture making man, but I’m open to trying and learning.  They had it all figured out.  Shakers rock, I thought.  But, they sort of shot themselves in the figurative foot with the whole celibacy thing.  Because of that, they literally died out.  Other than that minor detail, the Shakers were pretty awesome people.

Today in Humanities class, we watched that documentary to prepare the students for Friday’s field trip to the Shaker Museum in Enfield.  I want them to have a solid background on the Shakers so that they can learn even more about this phenomenal group of people.  As we watched the video in class today, I started to think about how the Shaker beliefs apply to us in the classroom.  We need to work hard and diligently to succeed academically.  We also need to refrain from bad choices that will distract us from our goal.  No computer games or technology while working.  As a boys school, we are already segregated by sex.  Problem solved there.  Not only did the Shakers invent the clothespin, but they also helped people see the good in the world.  No need to decorate clothes or buildings, just being is enough.  Make everything simple yet elegant and perfect.  While we do tend to promote failure and learning from mistakes, the goal is always growth towards perfection.  This is sort of like the Shakers.  Anyway, my very long winded point is that I realized that the Shakers aren’t just a crazy religious sect that died out years ago, they represent a belief system and way of life.  Live simply, do everything well, and be compassionate.  Don’t ask, do.  Be the best version of yourself possible.  As a teacher, I try to promote this way of life in and out of the classroom.  So, while I didn’t realize this epiphany until today, this field trip may serve as more than just an educational opportunity.  Perhaps, we as the sixth grade family, can spread these ideas of compassion and hard work to the rest of our school community.  We can be the revolutionaries and crazy ones.  Wait a minute, everyone already thinks the sixth grade team is crazy.  Point for us then.  While the Shakers are no longer the active group they once were, their legacy lives on and inspires many to put forth great effort and live life with a selfless purpose.  So, let’s get our dance on and Shaker up our lives a little bit.

The State of Global Education

For years now, I’ve seen how the public school system in our country is failing our students.  The teachers aren’t respected or cared for and are generally over worked.  The principals and superintendents do not support their schools.  In essence, the parents and school board are running the show.  And let’s be honest, they know very little to nothing about education.  The public school system in America is broken and in need or repair.  A study released last week about the education systems in more than 70 countries shows Asian countries at the top of the list as the education in the country correlates to economic growth and development.  America is 29th on that list.  What does that say about how we fare globally?  We are not properly preparing our students for the next step.  Now, this study only looked at the public school system in each country.  As a teacher at a private school, I see things through a very different lense: I am not strictly bound by an unrealistic curriculum or under qualified administrators.  I am part of a school that cares about providing its students with the best education possible.  If my tiny cross section of the world’s population of students is any indication, I would argue that the study is inaccurate.  My students are poised to take over the world in about 10 years.

Yesterday during my Humanities class, the students participated in their final Socratic discussion of the academic year.  Our topic was that global study about education.  The guiding question was: What do these results mean?  In my class I have three students from China, one student from Korea, one student born in Nepal, and a mixture of domestic students.  I do find it interesting that one of my students from China and my student from Korea are the highest functioning students in the group.  They exceed almost every objective.  Their writing and thinking skills are quite strong as well.  So, the study seems to be right on.  Then, we had our discussion and my ideas were tipped upside down.

I want to start by mentioning that following our class discussion yesterday, I realized that if I want to have a mature discussion about the state of education in our world, I will simply talk to my sixth graders.  I was so impressed with the level of critical thinking that they utilized to extract the big ideas and make statements supported by facts.  At one point, I almost wept because I was so proud and amazed by my students, all of them.  So, the discussion started the same as always.  One student spoke and asked a question.  Then, some other students answered his question.  The students began by talking about how these results came to be.  What are some countries doing that others are failing to do regarding education?  They cited motivation and lack of support from home.  A student from New York City made a comment about his friends from home who attend the local public schools.  He said, they don’t seem to care about school.  They are goofy and make uneducated decisions.  A student from China chimed in and said, “In China we are assigned a lot of work and expected to do it quickly and correctly.”  Another student brought up the idea that support from the families of these students is crucial.  If a student’s parents make a big deal out of education and schooling, then the student will want to succeed and do well.  Then, this lead into the students talking about how the Asian countries must really support their children.  A different student from China added this, “One of the big reasons why Asian countries are so high up on the list is due to the fact that the students are forced to go to another school once their regular school is finished.  They spend another three to four hours at a study school almost daily.”  A domestic student from Maryland responded with this, “That’s great that they are getting the support from home and that their parents are looking out for their best interests.”  The student from China then countered with, “We don’t go to these schools because we want to.  Our parents force us to.  They aren’t looking out for what’s best for us.”  Wow!  That is so insightful and a bit sad.  I’ve always known that our students from Asian countries are pushed by their parents, but I just never realized to what extent and at what mental costs.

The discussion then came back to America and what caused us to be so low on this international list.  A student from New Hampshire said, “In the US, the schools use worksheets and treat everyone the same.  We have textbooks and the same work as everyone else.  A country’s education system is like a mouthguard.  They all come one size fits all until you put them into boiling water and mold them to your mouth.  America’s education system is like a mouthguard that hasn’t been molded to fit its students.”  This was the point at which I almost cried.  How brilliant was that analogy, right?  Amazing.  Then other students built upon this and agreed with him.  This then took us back to school in China.  One of my students from China said, “Our teachers give us so much work.  Some of my friends have so much work that they don’t get enough sleep.  Then, when they have to do some work, they run out of time and copy or cheat.  The teachers don’t seem to care about it.”  This then brought up the idea of plagiarism and motivation again.  Then, some of our domestic students talked about how it comes down to the teacher.  If the teacher cares and is motivating, then the students will want to and will do well.  We need to attract better teachers to schools around the globe, they said.  The discussion continued at this caliber until the end of the period.

So, if the students in my class are this insightful and able to think so critically about such a relevant topic, is the study really telling the truth?  Because too many public school districts in our nation are broken, it paints a very bleak picture of our future as a country.  This isn’t fair to teachers or students.  Five out of the three students in my discussion group are from the US.  They are able to solve problems and think critically about the world around them.  They are qualified and ready to run the world.  As there are numerous other great schools around the country helping students grow and develop in similar ways, why are we so low on the list?  Yes, most public schools do use the factory model of education which is clearly no longer working.  Our students even noticed this.  Like with any problem or issue in the classroom, If you’re not part of the solution you are part of the problem.  Perhaps that’s all it is.  The Asian countries that have less people and more money are able to more widely and effectively educate their children.  In America, because there is such an economic gap between various parts of the country, things are unequal by default.  Can this be fixed?  Well, if I posed this question to my sixth grade students, I’m sure within twenty minutes that they would have a unique and amazing solution.  Maybe that’s what we need to do.  Let’s get rid of the UN and allow the top students in our collective countries come together and save us all.  I have faith that our students would do a far better job than the adults in those roles are currently doing.

Challenging Students to Grow

As a teacher, I put forth great effort in and out of the classroom each and every day to grow and develop.  I reflect and blog about my teaching day, I read professional development articles and books, and I engage my colleagues in meaningful discussions about what they are doing in the classroom.  My goal is to learn and try something new as a teacher every day.  I learn from my mistakes and then try to make new ones.  If I’m not developing daily, I feel as though I’m not effectively helping and supporting my students.

In the classroom, I try to challenge my students to do the same thing.  I want them to learn and grow as students, thinkers, and problem solvers.  I want them to fail and try again.  I want my students to make their work better than it is when they turn it in the first time.  I want to see progress from them regularly.  While this tends to be difficult for the boys, as they struggle to have a growth mindset in the sixth grade, I make it my goal to push them to be the best version of themselves each and every day.

Today in Humanities, the students worked on crafting a monologue based on the research they completed regarding a famous NH citizen.  We began the class with a mini-lesson on monologue writing.  I showed them a written monologue from a play and then we watched a video showing a monologue from a movie.  This lead into a discussion on monologues.  Following this lesson, they got right to work.  While many of the students began the work period finishing up their research notes, a few students began crafting their monologue right away.  In the mini-lesson, I tried to focus on how these speeches were interesting and creative.  As the students began writing their original monologues, I noticed they all started the same way: “My name is blah blah blah and I was born in NH on blah blah.”  BORING!  I reminded the boys of one of the key elements to crafting an effective monologue: It must be interesting and engaging.  Most students were able to push themselves to the next level.  They rewrote their openings to make them more fun and engaging.  They attempted to capture the essence of their historical figure in writing.  Those revised monologues were much more enjoyable to read.

The students challenged themselves to change the way they think about writing in order to grow as a writer.  When they realized how much better their work flowed when they made it engaging and interesting, they realized the power of what I was trying to do.  They realized that these revisions made their monologues so much stronger and more effective.  They were developing as writers before their very beings.  It was pretty cool to watch.  While it was a difficult task for them as they were stuck in the “what I know” realm, most of them were able to see beyond and take risks.

Sure, I could have said nothing and let them craft monologues which got the job done and met the objective, but I wanted more for them.  I wanted my students to grow as writers.  I know they all have the potential to do more than what they have been doing and I wanted to bring that out in them today.  As they begin to make the transition into seventh grade, it’s important to push them out of their comfort zone.  They need to get ready for the ante to be upped.  Challenging my students to make their writing more exciting and fun to read and write helps prepare them for the many hurdles they will need to overcome in the coming years.  I watered their mental seeds today to allow for growth to breakthrough out of the soil and into the sun of the classroom.