Posted in Education, Reflection, Teaching

The Power of Reflection Through Self-Assessment

My school is finally beginning a self-assessment program for teachers this year.  It will be used to help frame the review conversations we have with the assistant headmaster in December.  I’m super excited about the opportunity to reflect on my work thus far this year.  I feel as though this has been one of my best years, to date, as a teacher.  I’ve tried some new things, put a different spin on a few lessons, and have really tried to grow professionally.  Being self-aware of my learning and teaching makes me a better teacher.  Having the opportunity to reflect on my progress will be completely beneficial.  The same can be said for my students.  Reflection and self-assessment are two vital and valuable ways students can grow and develop in and out of the classroom.  When they take the time to pause and really think back on their work and progress in class, they will begin to see where they can improve for the future.

Today in STEM class, I piloted my new self-assessment reflection tool.  While my rationale for creating this self-assessment was all about trying to effectively close each class period, the benefits are certainly far reaching.  Not only does it serve as a nice Exit Ticket for the students and the class period, it is also a fine reflection tool and way for the students to constantly think about our school’s Habits of Learning and how they are practicing them in class.

With about 10 minutes left in class, the students completed the online Google Form.  My expectations were a bit low as this was the first time the students have completed this process in class.  I went over the instructions and details of the form.  The students then got right to work.

I was blown away by their responses.  The students were candid and honest.  Many of the students effectively captured their work in class.  They were descriptive and specific.  One student even said, “I deserve a low effort grade today because I didn’t do anything when I finished my math work, waiting for the teacher.”  Wow!  They are really taking to heart the power of reflection and self-awareness.  The students also set very realistic goals for the next work period.  I was amazed.  I thought that some students would just complete the form to get it done, but almost every student seemed to take it seriously.  One student wrote, “I need to not goof around as much during our next class.”  They totally understand themselves and their learning styles.

Why is this?  How were they able to so genuinely reflect on their work today in class?  Is it because we’ve been focusing on the Habits of Learning so much this year?  Have the ideas of self-awareness and ownership really started to sink in?  Did having them utilize the Student-Led Conference format allow them to really know themselves as learners and own their work and effort?  Since they know what they need to do, were they able to so honestly reflect because of it?  Or is it a combination of the two?  Could it be the students themselves?  Are they just more attuned to their learning?  Is that it?  Or, is it the presentation?  Am I introducing the idea of reflection and self-assessment in such a way that it inspires them to want to put forth their best effort in doing so?

I may never truly know for sure what is causing this awesome reflectiveness amongst my students.  Regardless though, I’m super happy and proud of them.  They are going to learn and grow so much over the course of this year because of the reflection that they will continue to do.  We’ve already seen many of the boys apply this reflection to their learning and behavior in the classroom.  Wow!

I’m so glad that I took the time to reflect on my professional goals and create this new form for the boys to use at the close of each STEM class.   The power of reflection is infinite and vast.  I’ve grown so much as a teacher over the past two years because of my reflective blog entries.  Taking a few moments at the end of each class day to ponder and reflect on my teaching practice has allowed me to find my weaknesses and transform them into strengths.  I couldn’t have done this without stopping to reflect daily.

Posted in Education, Teaching

When Students do the Inspiring

Several years ago, I was helping a friend of mine move to a new apartment.  I figured it would be an easy move.  Little did I know, he had a large screen television that weighed as much as the Tower of Pisa.  And, we had to move it up a flight of very narrow and steep stairs.  We got about halfway up and the stairs when we had to stop.  We just couldn’t do it.  But, we knew it needed to go into his new apartment.  So, rather than drop it down the stairs and kick it to the curb, we revisited our options.  After carefully bringing it down the stairs that we had just hauled it up, we went to a moving store to buy these ingenious moving straps.  Who knew that pieces of fabric tied together in such a way could make moving something as heavy as that monstrosity of a television, movable.  They were amazing.  We got the television up the stairs in no time with what seemed like very little effort.  We put our heads together to solve that problem.  If it were just me, I would have purchased a new, lighter weight television, but that would have been foolish.  Instead, my friend and I persevered through the hardship and solved the problem.  Sometimes, we just need a little inspiration.  In this case, it came in the form of my friend who had watched a late night television commercial on those moving straps.  In the classroom, inspiration comes in all forms.

After a four-day break, we returned to our normal schedule of classes today.  I sometimes find it difficult to re-assimilate after breaks.  I can fake it real well, but I always feel like I’m navigating through a thick fog.  Today was one of those days.  My energy level felt low.  While I’m sure the students didn’t notice anything as my motto is, “Fake it ’til you make it,” I felt off.  I wasn’t conveying my ideas verbally very well and I felt like my messages lacked the gusto they usually have.  Perhaps it was because I spent my short break traveling around the state of NH visiting secondary schools with my son who is in the ninth grade.  Maybe I was just a bit tired.  Or, maybe, like my son, I was also coming down with the sickness that permeated most of our campus prior to Parents’ Weekend.  Maybe I am getting sick.  I hope not because I hate being sick.  Or perhaps it was because my co-teacher was out sick today and so I had to cover all six periods by myself, including a field trip off campus.  Maybe I was feeling stressed and a bit overwhelmed.  Who knows what the root of this feeling was.  I just felt a bit out of sync with the world today.

Then, I started looking at my students.  They were focused, working hard, and excited about learning.  They had just come off of a break as well.  They were probably all homesick too.  But they weren’t showing it.  They were all fired up to be back in school.  On the field trip, they were so excited to find broken bits of bottles and China that you would have thought they had found a million dollars.  In fact, one student began excitedly screaming out when he uncovered a buried shovel.  No, that was not a typo, he was screaming out for joy because he found a shovel that would allow him to more efficiently dig for broken tires and trash.  My students were on fire today, figuratively speaking of course, although it was unseasonably warm outside.

As the day continued on, my energy level began to rise.  I began to get excited about broken bits of old bottles and rusty car parts.  My students were inspiring me to be happy and enthusiastic.  Isn’t it usually the other way around?  Aren’t I, the teacher, supposed to be the one doing the inspiring?  Usually, but today, it was my students doing the inspiring.  They were making me so proud.  I was beginning to get super happy about returning from break.  I was getting my mojo back thanks to my students.  I often wonder who learns more on a daily basis, me or them.  Today, my students taught me how to look at other people’s trash as our treasure.  Amazing.  I am so lucky to be teaching such an amazing group of curious, talented, and positive young men.  It doesn’t take an adult or moment of greatness to bring about inspiration, sometimes it just takes a smile and some excitement coming from a sixth grade boy to change the world.

Posted in Education, Reflection, Teaching

Am I Working Towards my Professional Goal in the Classroom?

In school I never had to set goals for myself as a student.  While I certainly wish I had been afforded the opportunity, perhaps it does make me better appreciate the value of goal setting as an adult.  Having goals in mind, helps give me a purpose and a roadmap of sorts.  I know where I want to go professionally because of my goals.  I want to grow as a educator in particular avenues each year.  Setting goals allows me to do this.  But, setting the goals is only part one of the process.

Reflecting on the process throughout the year is as important if not more important than the actual goal itself.  Without a chance to periodically review my progress in working towards my goals, how will I know what I still need to do to achieve my goals by the close of the academic year?  Goal reflection is a crucial part of the goal setting process.  In the classroom, I have my students reflect on their goals throughout the year so that they know what they’ve done to work towards their goals and what they still need to do to achieve them.  So, in order to practice what I preach, I want to be sure I do the same.  Being a positive role model is an important part of who I am as an educator.

Individual Goal: Effectively close or wrap up each lesson.

In my Humanities class, I feel as though I am doing this rather well on a daily basis.  I ask the students which habits of learning they feel they worked on in class today.  I then have them elaborate on how they utilized the particular skill or habit.  This allows the students to practice using the new terminology that guides everything we do in the classroom as well as acting as an effective summary tool.  The students all need to think about what they did during the period in order to add to the discussion.  This method of closing Humanities class works well.  I make use of this practice at the end of almost every class period.  So, for Humanities, I am definitely working towards my goal.

In STEM class, I’m not as regularly successful in effectively closing my lessons.  While I do try to end each class period with a preview of the next day’s class, I don’t feel as though I am allowing the students to process what was covered or learned in class on that particular day.  I feel as though I need to find another way to close my STEM classes.

On group project work days, I do have the students reflect in writing on their work ethic and habits of learning as they pertain to group work.  This opportunity allows the students to deeply reflect on the class and set individual goals for the next group project work period.  This method of ending class does demonstrate my ability to meet the goal I set.  However, I only do this once a week.

So, what else can I do on a daily basis to close my STEM classes in a more effective and reflective manner?

More self-assessment?  What if I have the students complete a generic, yet effective self-assessment worksheet at the close of every other class period that is not a group project work period?  Perhaps having a worksheet prepared and ready to go might help guide them through the reflective self-assessment process in a methodical manner.  Ohh, I like this idea.  This could be short and simple like an Exit Ticket.  I could ask some Yes or No questions with a series of checkboxes.  I could also then include a summary question and a future goal question.  I want to generate something that would not be too taxing for the students but allow for some deeper reflection on the class period as it pertains to each student.  I could then use this data to more effectively organize my classes.  So cool.  But, is that it for ideas?

What about a check-in assessment on days when new content or topics are introduced?  That might be useful as a formative assessment tool as well.  It could include one or two content questions and an open-ended future type question like, What else do you want to learn?  Great idea!  I could use that on Science work period days.  It might be difficult to utilize something like that on a Math work period since the math instruction is so individualized.

So, on group project work days I will have the students reflect on the habits of learning they utilized and their individual work ethic.  On math work days, I will have the students complete a self-assessment form reflecting on their individual work ethic, work accomplished, and goals for the next work period.  Then, on science work period days, the students will complete a check-in assessment regarding the content or skills covered and/or practiced.  This sounds like a plan.  Go me!  Now I just need to create these forms.  I think I’ll use Google Forms for them.  This way I can save trees and easily collate the data.  Go me, again!  I’m on fire today.

Department Chair Goal: Create a document explaining and detailing the sixth grade curriculum and program at my school.

This is still a work in progress, and by that I mean, I’ve given it some thought but nothing has actually been written down or documented formally yet.  I may need to use a school vacation or break to accomplish this goal.  Piecemealing it together may not be the most effective way to meet this goal.  I have some ideas, I just need the time to put them altogether in writing.  I’ll keep working on this goal over the course of the year.

So, I’m making progress and I have a plan for how to move forward and make even more progress.  Nice!  Taking the time to reflect on my professional goals has allowed me to realize what I still need to focus on moving forward.  Had I not taken this opportunity to reflect, I may not have generated a plan to move forward.  Progress comes about through reflection and action.

Posted in Education, Teaching

The Art of Organizing a Unit

I am not an artist, in the art class sense of the term.  While I do enjoy drawing and coloring, I’m certainly no good at it.  My creative juices are released in other ways.  However, I do like sitting down and creating something from nothing.  Turning a lumpy piece of clay into a tippy, small bowl is almost therapeutic.  Bringing an empty piece of white paper to life with a pencil and markers has always brought me joy.  I guess I just like making things, which is why I love curriculum design so much.  Taking a bunch of standards, transforming them into objectives, and then creating a cohesive and engaging unit around those objectives has always been one of my favorite parts of teaching.  There’s something fun and exciting in trying something new, taking an old activity and putting a new spin on it, or trying a different type of lesson for the first time.  While there are many correct ways to build and design a unit, there are also many wrong ways to do it too.  Just like in art, if you don’t follow the proper proportions in drawing a human face, it will look more like a Picasso portrait than the Mona Lisa.

I’ve recently started creating my next STEM unit on Chemistry.  In doing so, I’ve realized some of the errors I made in building my first unit on Astronomy.

  1. I should not have mixed the two science portions together.  The Knowledge and Application Phases should have been completed before the Synthesis Group Project was started.  Instead, I had the students working on them concurrently.  It just seems confusing, in retrospect.  I think the students are even beginning to get confused.  Which project is the Application Phase again?  So, for my next unit on Chemistry, I’m going to have the Science Knowledge Phase be part one of the unit and then the Partner Project will be part two.  The boys will finish part one before starting part two.  This way, things, hopefully, won’t get confusing for the students.  Plus, I feel as though they need the knowledge foundation in place before they can design a house upon it.  The knowledge must come before the application of that knowledge.
  2. I’m rethinking my due dates and workload as well.  I feel as though I tried to cram too much into such a short unit.  I ended up making a bunch of extra credit activities because I over planned.  While generally over planning is not an issue, I feel that in this instance it is.  The Application Phase won’t really be finished unless the students complete the final extra credit part.  I don’t like that.  So, as I’m crafting my new unit, I’m thinking about the nucleus of chemistry.  What do they really need to be able to understand regarding the field of chemistry?  They’re going to see much of this material again in high school.  So, I’ve tried to really focus on the skills the students will need to attain to be successful students.  This way, I’m only crafting activities that pertain to those skills and that small body of content.  I’m also thinking about the due dates.  While I do want the focus of this new unit to be on Time Management, I also don’t want the students to rush through lessons or activities in order to meet deadlines.  I want the boys to dig deep into the content and assignments.  So, I need to keep due dates in mind as I plan this new unit.  It’s tricky.
  3. For the astronomy unit, I put way too much effort into explaining the directions on my Haiku unit page.  Most of the students just read what they needed to do and ignored all of the other details and instructions.  While the words I had written were important, in my mind, they were trivial to the boys and they just skipped over them.  So, rather than spend the extra time laboring over every atomic and finite detail and instruction, I’m just going to briefly outline the activity or assignment.  Why beat myself up over something that simply gets ignored by the boys?  Yes, following directions is an important life skill, but we will still have plenty of opportunities to do that over the course of the unit.  I just won’t verbosely explain the hows and whys of each task.

So, as I build and generate this new unit on Chemistry, I’m excited for what the future holds.  I’ve never tried a unit on Chemistry before and I’m hoping that the way in which it is deigned will allow the students to enjoy it and engage with the content and concepts covered.  There is a fine art to conceiving and organizing a unit and I’m feeling quite good about how this one is coming together.

Posted in Education, Teaching

How Do We Reach ALL of Our Students?

I used to have a poster hanging in my classroom that read, “Reach for the moon and even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.”  I like the message implied in the poster.  Effort will help you achieve goals, even if those goals aren’t necessarily the ones you set.  Hard work pays off.  Despite the inferences I was able to make from the poster, did all of my students understand what it meant?  Because of the figurative language and English idioms used, I wonder if the ELL students in my class fully comprehended what it meant.  Did they understand the message behind the words or were they just confused?  Is it possible to stretch one’s arm far enough to reach the moon?  That doesn’t make any sense.  To our English Language Learners, posters like the one I used to have in my classroom are probably much more confusing than inspirational.  So, what do we do about that?  Do we remove from our walls any posters that contain figurative language?  Do we simplify our spoken directions so that our ELL students can understand what’s going on?  But then what about our advanced students who need to be challenged?  How do we address them without leaving behind the struggling students?  Is it possible to meet every learner where they are and challenge them appropriately?

To help address the varied learning styles in our classroom, the focus of today’s Humanities class was Growth Mindset.  The students needed to revise their vignette one final time before they are graded and assessed on the following objectives:

  • The students will be able to write an appropriate vignette.
  • The students will be able to revise their writing based on feedback.

So, we began class by explaining the process they would go through to revise their piece:

  1. Open your vignette in Google Docs and read the feedback written by the teacher.
  2. Process that feedback using a growth mindset.
  3. Revise your piece based on the suggestions made by the teacher.
  4. Proofread and edit your piece one more time.
  5. Meet with a teacher to receive even more feedback.
  6. Make any final changes or revisions.
  7. Transition to Reader’s Workshop.

To help set the boys up for success, we then discussed growth mindset.  We explained to the students how vital this habit of learning is to their success as learners and students.  We highlighted this skill as it is crucial in the revision process.  However, we worry that some of our ELL students or non-auditory learners may not be grasping the ideas strongly enough when we only convey the information orally.  So, we then showed the students a video, which explained what a growth mindset is and how and why it’s an important life skill.  The video used words, pictures, and examples to make its point.  Following the video, we then quickly reviewed the steps of the revision process and allowed the students to begin working.

The boys then got right to work.  A few of the boys seemed to “finish” the revision process quickly.  So, I met with those students and provided them more concrete feedback on which to revise their piece.  This seemed to help them.  Some of the other students had questions about the feedback with which we provided them.  So, I addressed their questions.  This helped and they were able to jump right into revising their piece.  Some of the boys changed their pieces based on the feedback we gave them while a few of the students started from scratch as they were not happy with where their piece was headed based on our feedback.  One student seemed stuck.  He didn’t really understand how to revise his piece.  So, my co-teacher sat with him and walked him through the revision process.  This seemed to help him.  By the end of the class, every student had put forth great effort to revise and polish their piece so that it was even better than when they began at the start of the period.  One student came to me at the end of class and said, “The feedback you gave me helped me to rework my piece so that I’m having fun writing it now.”  Wow!

To be sure we are able to attempt to reach all of the different types of learners in our classroom, we need to vary our teaching styles.  We provided directions orally for those auditory learners, had directions listed on the whiteboard at the front of the room for our visual learners and forgetful students, used a video to explain the figurative idea of a growth mindset for our ELL and concrete learners, and provided one-on-one support for those in need of it.  Education is not a one-size-fits-all kind of program.  It’s about meeting students where they are and differentiating the learning accordingly.  If we hadn’t varied our methods in the classroom today, I wonder what result would have come about at the end of the period.  Would the boys have been as productive as they were?  If I take my car to a mechanical engineer to get it repaired, would he have the right tools and knowledge base to get the job done?  Perhaps, but do I really want to take that risk?  I certainly don’t want to assume that all of my students will be able to comprehend directions orally.  It’s not easy trying to reach all of our students, but we need to at least put forth the effort to try.

Posted in Education, Teaching, Writing

Amazing Things Our Students Do

After teaching for 13 years, I find myself forgetting which students were in which class.  I also have trouble remembering which class went on which field trip.  Did we read that book last year?  The years, classes, and activities tend to bleed together like food coloring in a bowl of soapy milk.  However, I will never lose sight of how amazing each new day in the classroom is.  I learn something new from my students and colleagues on a daily basis.

Working with my advanced math students in STEM class yesterday, I learned how to multiply and divide scientific notation equations.  Crazy, right?  I know.  I also find myself amazed each and every day by what my students are able to accomplish in the classroom.  It blows my mind.  While some days my amazement is tempered, on other days, I can’t stop celebrating the greatness of my students.  They truly are wonderful and amazing creatures, even though they sometimes make me a little crazy.

Today in Humanities class, the students spent the period typing and revising their Where I’m From Poems, which they began crafting at the start of the year.  After letting these poems sit and fester for several weeks, we felt it was time for the boys to revisit these pieces with a fresh perspective.  So, after reminding them of the purpose of the original assignment, we reviewed the poetic form and what makes a poem great and effective.  We also gave the students the option to revise their original piece or start from scratch.  The door to possibility-ville was wide open.  The boys then had a chance to ask any questions that crept into their minds as they pondered this new task.  They seemed to grasp what was being asked of them.  That’s when we dropped our arms and shot the starting gun.  Now, as this is a very different group of students compared to groups from past years, we didn’t really know what to expect.  We hoped that they would quickly get to work and type out their pieces.  However, we were truly amazed by what happened next.

So, the boys began typing their poems on their iPads.  The sound of clicking keys was all that could be heard as my co-teacher and I meandered throughout the classroom, observing the boys at work.  They were focused and diligently working.  As I began to look closely at their Google Documents, I noticed something peculiar.  Their new poems were almost completely different than their original pieces.  They weren’t just copying what was on the page, they were challenging themselves to create a better, stronger, more effective poetic representation of where each of them is from.  Wow!  And these new poems weren’t just haphazardly thrown together.  Oh no, these new pieces were brilliant and creative.  They were really showcasing their growth as writers in class today.  Was it something we said?  What is happening, I thought.  I was so excited.  They were pushing themselves to the next level of greatness as writers.  They were applying all of the feedback we’ve been providing them during Writer’s Workshop sessions over the past five weeks.  How is that possible?  It was amazing.  One ELL student, who has really been struggling to handle writing and reading in English, crafted an entirely new poem that contained a final stanza summarizing questions he posed at the end of each previous stanza.  Wow, amazing!  Each and every student displayed tremendous growth as a writer in crafting a new, revised Where I’m From Poem.

We were blown away by the effort, focus, and growth our students demonstrated in class today.  They were amazing.  While we’ve been very impressed with the way this group of students has been working and growing, some days are better than others.  Therefore, we didn’t really have any expectations for today’s lesson.  They did more than just shatter our hopes, they amazed us with their awesomeness.  While I’d love to think that what we saw today was because of our pre-teaching of the activity or the effective feedback we provided them, but we all know that the students did the work and not us.  They were typing these new masterpieces, not us.  They were the brilliant poets.  Wow!  After a class like that, it’s hard to do anything but smile and celebrate.  So, I’ll end my post here today so that I can go and do a happy dance.  Go sixth grade, go!

Posted in Education, Teaching

Growing and Learning Through Feedback

Growing up, I had many chores around the house.  I was in charge of vacuuming, doing the dishes, taking out the trash, and cleaning the bathroom every week.  What did that leave my sister, you ask?  Pretty much nothing.  Regardless, I had lots of tasks to complete.  The first few times I did them, my parents offered me much feedback.  While some of it was in the form of yelling, most of it was very constructive and helpful.  I improved a little bit each successive time.  I processed the feedback and applied it to the task.  To this day, I am very much a neat and clean freak because of the feedback my parents provided me when doing chores.  This is generally a really good quality to have because it means I keep my house and classroom very clean.  However, when I try to tell my wife, “Oh honey, you missed a spot,” I generally receive a very different kind of feedback which can’t be repeated online.  The moral of this story is that I learned to grow and develop due to the feedback I received from my parents, teachers, mentors, and peers.

In the classroom, I try to foster this same community of learning.  It’s all about learning from one’s mistakes in order to grow as a student.  So, my co-teacher and I provide our students with plenty of constructive feedback.  We also try to instill this same skill within our students.  We want the boys to appropriately offer each other feedback throughout the learning process.  After a discussion on the importance of having a growth mindset in order to effectively grow and develop as a student and individual, most of the students have started to embrace feedback and ask their peers for it now.  It’s quite amazing.

Recently, my co-teacher and I noticed that many of our students are unable to effectively meet the objective of writing about their reading through their updates on the website Goodreads.  So, we decided to plan a mini-lesson on how to craft an effective update.

Today in Humanities class, we began the mini-lesson by explaining its purpose.  “We noticed that some of you have been struggling to create effective updates on Goodreads.  So, to help you better understand the objectives, we are going to review the formula used in crafting an update, share some models, give you a chance to practice writing an update based on our class read-aloud, and then receive feedback on your ability to write about your reading.  By the end of today’s mini-lesson, you should all know exactly how to create an update which meets or exceeds the objective of being able to write about your reading.”  We find that explaining the purpose of each lesson or activity helps the students to understand the importance of what we are doing in class.  Then, we reviewed the formula for crafting an effective update, with the boys.  I clarified each aspect of the update and offered them a chance to ask questions about any of the parts.  They had a few questions, but not too many.  Then, I shared some sample updates I created.  We discussed each and I pointed out the parts of the update we had reviewed.  I gave the students a chance to provide me feedback on the sample updates I had crafted.  They didn’t have much to say because I really stuck to the formula.  Then, came the practice part of the mini-lesson.  The students listened to a vignette from our class read-aloud novel Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman.  Then, they crafted an update in their Writer’s Notebook regarding the main character in the short chapter.  This brought us to the most important part of the lesson– The Feedback.

After the boys completed their update, I met with each of them to review what they had written and provide them feedback on it.  I read their update aloud and pointed out areas of strength and areas in need of improvement.  While most every student had plenty of room for improvement, only one student had crafted an appropriate update on the first go-round.  The other students needed to take the feedback I provided to them and revise their update.  At the end of the lesson, I had met with each student in my reading group and saw that they were able to meet the objective of being able to write about their reading.  I had given them all lots of feedback about the formula used in crafting an update about characters, how to punctuate a book title, and how to effectively use support from the text.  Each student seemed to really understand the expectations.  I’m hopeful that this understanding will be applied when they have to craft another update regarding their Reader’s Workshop book later in the week.  Being sixth graders though, they will need many more reminders, much more practice, and lots of feedback to be able to consistently meet this objective.  While being able to apply feedback to their work every time is a skill we would love to see them have now, we know that they will need much practice over the course of the year.  Our students are like hardwood that is in the process of being whittled down to create a beautiful candlestick.  However, their roots are still firmly planted in the ground.  Our goal is to help them to see the benefit in being cut down and transformed into something beautiful and useful.

Posted in Education, Teaching

Helping Students Develop Their Working Memory

I read part of an article in Independent School magazine recently entitled Putting Memory to Work by Andrew C. Watson, Michael Wirtz, and Lynette Sumpter.  In the portion of the article I read, the authors explained the different types of memory we all have access to in our brains.  They focused on working memory as it is the most used in school by our students.  Because it can only hold so much information for so long, it’s important to teach students how to use it effectively so that connections and bridges can be made to move information from the working memory into the short term and long term memory.  That totally makes sense to me.  I’m all about teaching students about their brain and how to best utilize it to learn and grow as students and individuals.

So, yesterday in STEM class, I offered the students a chance to practice utilizing their working memory.  Every Saturday in class, we view a science video that teaches content and ideas related to our unit of study.  Yesterday’s video focused on the constellations and how they came to be.  It was about three and a half minutes in length.  Usually, I give the students a task to do while watching the video so that they are actively engaged in what they are learning.  In the past, they’ve taken notes on their whiteboard tables regarding questions they have and facts they are learning.  This task has allowed some great discussions to be fostered.  However, what I’ve found is that as they take notes, they put the ideas out of their minds.  They don’t actually learn what they record on their tables.  So, while this task keeps them focused on the video, they retain none of the information.  Therefore, I decided to try something different to allow the students to, hopefully, genuinely learn what they focus on in the video.

Before the video began, I talked to the students about working memory.  I explained what it is and how important it is to practice using it effectively.  I explained how vital making connections between new information in the working memory and prior knowledge in the short and long term memory is to getting that new information to stick.  I told them, “Instead of taking notes on your whiteboard table or paper, I want you to practice using your working memory.  As you learn new facts or have insightful questions about what you are learning, connect it to prior knowledge.”

After the video, I had interested students share something they learned and how it connected to their prior knowledge.  The students were very detailed when they shared how what they learned connected to their prior knowledge.  It was like watching neurological bridges be made right then and there.  They were processing the new information and comparing it to what they had previously learned.   It was so cool.

While today’s activity seemed to go well, did it make a difference for the students?  Did telling them about their working memory and providing them a strategy for using it effectively help them to gain more knowledge from yesterday’s science video?  Can the students really comprehend the idea of working memory in the sixth grade?  Did I just waste their class time?  What about the ELL students in the classroom?  Did this strategy help them in any way?  As I’m hoping to provide my students with more opportunities to practice using their working memory effectively throughout the academic year, are there other strategies I should introduce regarding working memory?  Are there other activities I could use to help my boys better utilize their working memory?

Trying something new, I find, always brings more questions than answers.  However, growth and development can’t possibly be fostered through repetition alone.  I need to try new ways to engage and inspire my students.  Perhaps giving my students strategies to effectively utilize their brain will help them.

Posted in Education, Reflection, Teaching

Author’s Note: Reflecting on Your Writing

I wish I had understood the power of reflection when I was a student in school.  I would have grown so much more because of it.  I was an average student in school, but I could have been even better had my teachers had me reflect on my learning and the processes involved.  Reflection is such an important life skill for our students.  They need to be able to reflect on their learning and life choices in order to learn and grow.  The only way true growth can happen is through reflection.  Providing our students with opportunities to reflect in the classroom are so important for them as learners and individuals.  I can only imagine what I might be capable of doing had I been given the opportunity to reflect on my learning in elementary school.

Today in Humanities class, we gave the students another chance to reflect on their learning and work.  As they have been taking their vignette through the writing process over the past several weeks, we felt it was time for the boys to stop and look back on their writing process.

In the past, this reflection process took the students about 10-15 minutes.  They addressed the questions and moved on.  They looked at it as a checklist assignment and not an opportunity for growth.  So, this year, we approached this task differently.  First, I explained the four guiding questions we wanted them to focus on in their reflection:

  • Explain what you liked about your piece and why.
  • Explain the successes and challenges of taking your piece through the writing process.
  • What do you still need to work on to make your piece even better?
  • What would you like the teachers to provide you feedback on in your piece?

Then, I shared my model with the students.  I read it aloud.  I crafted it as if I was having a conversation with myself about writing.  I didn’t just answer or address the questions.  I told the story of my story.  I then explained this idea to the students.  “You’re not just completing this activity to get it done.  You are using this opportunity to reflect on your process as a writer so that you can grow and develop.”  I fielded some interesting questions the students asked about writing and the purpose of an Author’s Note.  Then, they got to work.

Right away, my co-teacher and I noticed something interesting.  The students were being honest and taking their time.  They explained and described the various processes they had gone through to write their vignette.  Their Author’s Notes were super long and thorough.  They weren’t just doing this assignment.  They were digging deep into the writing process.  They were genuinely reflecting on how and why they crafted the piece they did.  It was phenomenal.  I was blown away by their detail and candid answers.  They weren’t just giving us answers they thought we wanted to read.  Oh no, they were pouring their heart into these notes.  Wow!  I was blown away.

So, what was the difference?  How was it that this group of 10 students was able to craft truly reflective Author’s Notes?  Why weren’t they able to get to this high level in years past?  Is it because this group is able to be more naturally reflective?  Are they able to think more critically about their work?  They certainly aren’t more self-aware than any group we’ve had.  Was it because I shared a very different kind of model compared to last year?  Did this model allow them to better visualize the task at hand?  Was it because of how I explained the process involved in crafting the Author’s Note?  Did this make the difference?  Because I described it as a conversation and not just a series of questions, were they better able to understand what they were being asked to do?  Perhaps it was a combination of all of the above.  Whatever the reason, the students seemed to be able to really reflect on their writing today in class.  My hope is that they will take what they learned about themselves as writers today and apply it to future writing pieces.  This will be the true test.  Can they effectively utilize reflection to grow and develop as learners?  My fingers are crossed.

Posted in Education, STEM, Teaching

Reaping the Benefits from Trying Something New

I love it when things go well.  Especially when those things are new.  Trying new things can be very scary.  I remember the first time a student of mine gave me a piece of Mexican candy to try.  I love candy and so I thought, “Hey, this should be tasty.”  Oh no, it was spicy.  Candy should never be spicy.  Needless to say, I haven’t eaten another piece of candy from Mexico since.  Who thought mixing spicy with sweet was a good idea?  Yucky, I say, yucky.

Sometimes, however, trying new things can be amazing and eye-opening.  While I generally don’t like mellow acoustic music, I took a chance on City and Colour because Dallas Green is a member of one of my favorite bands Alexisonfire.  So, I took a listen.  Wow, was just about all I could say.  His voice is amazing in Alexisonfire, but alone it is even better.  It’s like listening to a beautiful lullaby about death and real-life situations that aren’t always so beautiful.  Amazing.  So, trying new things is clearly risky.  But, if we don’t go for it, how will we ever know what’s possible?

Each week in STEM class, I like to highlight current events in the world pertaining to our unit of study.  As we are currently learning about astronomy, we’ve been discussing various current events about Pluto, Mars, Space travel, and the likes.  It’s been pretty great.  But, what I’ve noticed recently is that some students seem unfocused while their peers are sharing about their current event.  While there were no big distractions, some of the boys were not fully engaged in the conversation.  I worried that they weren’t getting the most out of the activity.  What could I do to better engage all of my students in the discussion?  I tried sharing just one pertinent current event with the students last week in hopes that they would be more engaged if I was leading the discussion.  Nope.  There were still some students fidgeting, looking around the room, and not participating in the discussion.  So, now what, I thought.  What else can I try?  The students seemed to really enjoy when they were running the show.  But, what about student engagement?  If not everyone is feeling the love, is it really an effective lesson?  Should I try something different?

Then, I had an epiphany.  What if I create a note taking worksheet for the boys to complete while each student is sharing his current event?  Might that help?  What would the worksheet look like?  What kinds of questions would I ask?  Would it work or just be busy work for the students?  Since I had tried everything else in my arsenal, I decided to give this new idea a go.

So, I generated a notes worksheet with three questions for every presenter:

  1. What is the main idea of this student’s current event?  Answer in one sentence.
  2. How is this student’s current event related to astronomy?
  3. What questions could you as this student about his current event?

That was it.  Three higher-level thinking questions.  I wanted the students to be able to practice several Habits of Learning all at once.  This worksheet incorporated the skills of communication, critical thinking, self-awareness, and ownership.  Awesome!

So, today in STEM class, I took this new worksheet for a test drive.  I prefaced handing out the worksheet with my rationale for creating it.  “I’ve noticed that some of you have had difficulty staying focused during our current events discussions over the past few weeks.  To help you all stay focused and allow you another opportunity to positively impact your grade in STEM class, you will be completing this worksheet while each student shares his current event with the class.”  I then handed out the worksheet without explaining the questions.  I wanted the students to follow directions and preview the worksheet on their own.  After they had a chance to peruse this new worksheet, I addressed any questions the boys had.  There were only one or two minor questions.  They seemed to understand it and its purpose.

So, then the discussion began.  The boys took copious notes and asked insightful questions.  There was no fidgeting or looking around the room.  The students were focused on the speaker and answering questions on the worksheet.  They asked clarifying questions and high-level ones too.  It was phenomenal.  They were all doing it.  In fact, most of the students were displaying their ability to exceed the objective of effectively participating in a whole-class discussion.  Every student in the class asked at least one question while most of the boys asked more than one.  I was even inspired to ask questions.  Amazing!

The students seemed to gain much from today’s current event discussion.  Was it because of the worksheet?  Did this new novelty help to keep them focused?  Or was it that the students chose such interesting and unique current events regarding astronomy?  Some of the topics today were so engaging.  One student shared about a study being done to test the effects of the lack of up and down orientation in space.  So cool!

Well, regardless of what lead to today’s fruitful current events discussion, it was fun to reap the benefits of trying something new.