The Sixth Grade Program at Cardigan

After setting a goal at the start of the year to document the sixth grade program that I’ve created over the years, I finally completed a working draft of the piece.  I would love any and all feedback on the document below as I know it’s far from finished.  I do feel as though it encapsulates what we do in the sixth grade at my school.

Introduction

Going through the adolescent stage of development is like being on a roller coaster without a seat belt.  When you flip upside down, you will fall out of your seat unless you are holding on with everything you’ve got.  Each benchmark within adolescence brings new turns, curves, and flips.  Working with adolescent boys is like trying to dodge raindrops.  You can’t avoid the inevitable.  Craziness and chaos will ensue.  But heck, that’s why  middle school teachers work with this age group.  We’re a little crazy too because we remember what it was like to be a teenager or pre-teen.  

At Cardigan, we make it our mission to help mold young boys into compassionate and mindful young men.  It’s a wild and sometimes frustrating journey, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  Boys who attend sixth grade at Cardigan begin this adventure earlier than most as it is the youngest and smallest grade at our school.  Because of this, we have created a very unique  program that will help our boys foster a family spirit and connection that they can carry with them throughout their time at Cardigan to help provide them with some safety features on the bumpy roller coaster of adolescence.

Rationale

Brain-based research on how learning really happens reveals that students learn best when they are engaged, motivated, and feel safe, challenged, and supported.  The sixth grade program has greatly evolved over the years due to this research.  We are always trying to find new and innovative ways to inspire and effectively educate and prepare our boys for meaningful lives in a global society.

We’re a family, and families take care of each other

One of our biggest goals in the sixth grade is to foster a sense of community within the boys.  We want the students to understand and be able to effectively coexist with one another in a way that celebrates their differences.  The first ten weeks of the academic year are focused on building a strong family atmosphere amongst the students.  First, as teachers, we model the behavior we expect to see from the students.  Second, we spend time each week talking about what makes an effective community.  We provide the students with specific strategies on how to communicate with their peers effectively, how to solve problems amongst themselves, and how to work together as a team to accomplish tasks.  We utilize numerous different team building activities as catalysts for these mini-lessons.  The boys build spaghetti towers in small groups, create a scavenger hunt with a partner, and solve various tasks to provide the students with opportunities to practice and learn how to be effective teammates and community members.  We want the boys to understand what it takes to be Cardigan community member.  

During the first month of school, we take the boys on an overnight trip to a cabin to help build a sense of family and community within the boys.  While the location is on our campus, it feels very secluded.  We build a fire together as a community and then roast marshmallows.  We tell stories, play games, and interact together.  If problems arise, we take the time to help the students learn how to work together to solve them.  It’s an amazing experience that helps lay the groundwork for the future whole-class experiences we will provide the boys with throughout our year together.

Towards the end of the first term, we put our teamwork and family to the test with a longer field trip to an outdoor center in southern New Hampshire.  The focus of the trip is teamwork.  The students work together to solve problems, accomplish tasks, and have fun learning about how to survive in the wilderness.  It’s almost always one of the big highlights for our boys.  They will never forget how they overcame their fears and learned to help and support their classmates in new and fun ways.

Co-Teaching

While our class size fluctuates from one year to the next, in recent years we’ve had smaller sixth grade classes.  Although one teacher could easily run the sixth grade program, we’ve found that having a tight-knit team of two lead teachers is the most effective method for our program.  We plan, grade, and teach together.  Having another person to bounce ideas off of allows for more ideas to come to fruition.  As units are developed, we work together to generate engaging lessons.  With two people working together to complete this process, ideas can be built upon and added to.  Good ideas become great ideas.  Grading together allows for conversations about objectives and work.  How can we create objective objectives that don’t allow room for interpretation?  Having two teachers in the room for classes allows the students to be supported and challenged.  Those students who need one-on-one time have the opportunity to receive it with two teachers in the classroom.  We can conference with students more effectively during humanities class and the boys are able to safely conduct investigations in STEM class.  We constantly model effective teamwork skills for the boys so that they see what we expect them to show us.  Co-teaching has fostered a sense of compassion in the classroom.  In order to create a family atmosphere amongst the students, we need to be able to effectively care for them.  With two trained educators in the room, we can more effectively challenge, support, care for, and ensure the safety of each and every sixth grade student in our class.

Project-Based Learning

To prepare students for lives in the global society in which they will live and work, we teach our students how to effectively work in groups of varying sizes to solve open-ended problems with no right or wrong answer. Students need to know how to delegate tasks, lead groups of their peers, follow instructions, ask questions, and solve problems. Project Based Learning ties all of the aforementioned skills together with ribbons of the required curriculum. While the students are engaged with the content and hands-on aspects of the project, they are also learning crucial life skills that will help them persevere and learn to overcome adversity.

Curriculum

Our goal, year after year, is for our boys to feel connected to and engaged with the curriculum we employ in the sixth grade.  We want the students to enjoy coming to classes because they are excited and interested in what is happening.  Thus, we are constantly revising and updating what we do and how we do it in the sixth grade.  Our curriculum is a living and breathing entity because of that.

Humanities

In our humanities class, the students practice using and developing their critical thinking skills to become community-minded young men with an awareness of the world around them.  We begin the year with a unit on community so that the students learn to accept and appreciate differences in others.  Through completing various activities during the first two weeks of the academic year, the students begin to understand how they fit into our sixth grade family as well as the greater Cardigan community.  The boys also learn much about their peers through this first unit.  Once this foundation has been laid, everything else we work on throughout the year in humanities class builds upon this strong base we create at the start of the year.  

The humanities class occupies a double block, daily that covers both the history and English curriculum for the sixth grade.  This integrated approach allows students to easily see how the big ideas in history and English go hand in hand.  We cover various communities and cultures from around the world so that we can provide the students with a macro view of the world in a micro manner.  Our goal is to help the students understand perspective and how it can change based on many different factors.  We utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction so that a love of reading and writing is fostered within the boys throughout the year.  For Reader’s Workshop, the students choose just-right (grade-level and reading-level appropriate and engaging) books so that they are interested in what they are reading.  While at the start of the year, several students often seem uninterested in reading, because the boys can choose books, novels, texts, and e-books that interest and engage them, they grow to become voracious and excited readers.  For Writer’s Workshop, the students choose the topics about which they write within the confines of the genre requirements.  The vignette form of writing is the first genre covered in the sixth grade.  Rather than mandate that it be a personal narrative vignette, we allow the students to choose the topic.  This choice and freedom empowers the students.  “I can write a short, short story about anything?” we often hear our students exclaim.  For boys, writing is generally not something they enjoy doing.  They would much rather go outside and play or explore instead of writing.  We want our students to learn to see writing as something that can be fun and hands-on.  If we allow our students to write about topics that engage them, a sense of excitement develops within them.

If an enjoyment of reading and writing can be manifested in the sixth grade, by the time they reach grades where they have to read particular or assigned texts and write essays about topics reminiscent of watching paint dry, they are equipped with the skills and strategies to tackle any type of book, work of literature, or form of writing.

STEM Class

One easy way to bring science to life for students is to create a Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) class that bridges the understanding gap for the students.  Students have difficulty seeing how the different math and science puzzle pieces fit together.  They also struggle with the math concepts when they aren’t applied in realistic ways that make sense to them. Helping the students build neurological connections between prior knowledge and what they learn in our classroom is one of the many ways we make our program meaningful for our students.

Our STEM class teaches students to be resilient and persevere.  They learn how to overcome adversity, think differently, see problems from numerous perspectives, communicate effectively, and be curious. We teach students what to do when faced with a new problem. Like Angela Lee Duckworth stated in her TED Talk, we need to teach our students how to be gritty. Our boys are provided with opportunities to explore, try new things, fail, try again, talk with their peers, sketch out new ideas, and then do it all over again.

Our STEM curriculum holds the bar high for our students. Rigor doesn’t mean that we require more work to be done for the sake of doing it, it means that the standards and objectives we are teaching are challenging, specific, and relevant. Our STEM units challenge students to think creatively and solve problems in innovative ways. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Common Core Math Standards (CCSS) are the foundation of our STEM curriculum. The standards promote rigor and problem solving in fun and engaging ways.

PEAKS Class

At Cardigan, while we weave study skills into every course that we teach, we have one class devoted to supplementing and supporting every other core course: Personalized Education for the Acquisition of Knowledge and Skills (PEAKS).  The true purpose of the course is to help the students understand how they best learn.  Through self-inventories and mini-lessons on learning styles and the multiple intelligences at the start of the year, the boys begin to become self-aware of their learning styles and preferences.  During the winter term, the students learn about brain plasticity and how their working memory functions as a way to build upon their self-awareness and genuinely own their learning.  The course supports and challenges each and every student where and when they need it.

Standards-Based Assessment

To help our students realize the importance of the learning skills necessary to grow and develop as critical thinkers and problem solvers, we use a standards-based system of grading. The focus is on the standard or objective being assessed. If our curriculum is set up according to the standards, why should we grade the students on anything other than what the curriculum asks? If we are teaching paragraph structure and the standard is, students will be able to craft an original, properly formatted, and complete paragraph, then we should only be grading student work on that one standard using a scale that aligns with the school’s grading criteria? Points must not be taken away for spelling, grammar, or other reasons unless the paragraph is being assessed regarding those standards as well. Rick Wormeli and other leading educational reform leaders have been talking about standards-based grading for years. It is the only way to accurately grade students on what is essential.

Conclusion

At Cardigan, we prepare students for an unknown future in a world that will inevitably be very different from its current state.  Because of this, in the sixth grade, we have devised over many years of data collection, research, and practice, a strong and creative academic and social program that engages students in an applicable curriculum that teaches problem solving, critical thinking, coexistence, and how to manifest and utilize a growth mindset.  Students who attend Cardigan Mountain School starting in the sixth grade and then graduating at the close of their ninth grade year, receive a meaningful and rich experience.  They grow together and in turn a family atmosphere and spirit is created within that group of four-year boys.  While it can be challenging, at times, to be a sixth grade student at Cardigan, especially when some of our students come from other countries, our inclusive program helps the boys feel safe and connected, like a family.

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How to Tactfully Say, “Oh no, You’re Wrong” to a Student

While as a dad, I tell it like it is to my son.  If he does or says something inappropriate or wrong, I call him on it right away.  I don’t worry about using tact because I want my son to always know what is right.  I praise him when he does or says the right thing, but I also come down hard on him when he makes poor choices.  I don’t yell at him or anything aggressive like that, but I will be stern and say something like, “You made a very bad choice.  Your words hurt another person.  That’s not okay.  You need to fix the situation.  What are you going to do?”  This usually sends him the message that what he did was wrong and that he needs to remedy the issue.

However, when it comes to my students, I feel as though I need to tactfully go about pointing at poor choices or words that could be misconstrued as negative or stereotypical.  While I can, I don’t feel as though I should just come out and say, “No, you are wrong” when a student makes a statement that could be viewed by others as inappropriate.  No, I’m not a fan of the politically correct world in which we live.  I hate that I feel as though I have to walk on broken styrofoam bottles when teaching in the classroom. But, unfortunately, that’s the current state of affairs in our world.  So, I succumb to the pressure and do what society tells me I should do.

Today in Humanities class, we had a great discussion about the recent Paris attacks.  The class began with the students reading through a news article about the current event.  They had four guiding questions to discuss and answer as they read the article with their table partner.  I emphasized the importance of having a discussion and demonstrating effective coexistence.  This activity took about 10 minutes and went very well.  The boys delegated tasks and had some insightful discussions about what happened last week in Paris.  This then lead into a full group discussion on the topic.  We reviewed what happened, where it happened, and when it happened.  Then, we talked about why it happened.  This part was the most engaging for the boys as they had so much to say.  We talked about ISIS and what the acronym represents.  I then got into the motivation and intent of ISIS, which interested several of my students.  One of the boys said, “Members of ISIS are muslim and they are the ones who committed the acts of terrorism in Paris.”  Rather than allow the rest of my students to believe that all muslims are terrorists, I tactfully responded: “While it’s possible that some members of terrorists groups are muslim, it’s also possible that not every member is of that faith.  Not every muslim is a member of a terrorist group.  This line of thinking lead to what we saw in America following the 911 attacks.  People started attacking and killing every person who looked even slightly like he or she might be of Middle-Eastern descent.  We need to judge people by their actions and choices, not their appearance or religious beliefs.”  So, rather than just saying, “Oh no, you are really wrong,” I found a more meaningful way to convey the fact that some of what this student had said was inaccurate and could be viewed as stereotypical or biased.  Yes, I wanted to just call a spade a spade, but I also wanted to model the appropriate and compassionate behavior I expect from my students.  So, I took the high road on this one.  But, I didn’t really like how I worded it.  It felt verbose.  Did the students receive the message I was attempting to convey or because I said so much was my message lost?

Following the lesson, I had a chance to ask my co-teacher, “I really wanted to just say (to that student) you are wrong, but I didn’t think it would be the right thing to do.  That is one area I need to work on when guiding discussions.  How do I point out that what a student said is wrong or inaccurate without saying, ‘You are wrong?'”  She explained how this was handled at her last school.  “We talked to the students about perspective coming from prior knowledge, which comes from one’s family, beliefs, and what they might have heard from the media.  So if a student says something that is inaccurate, we explain how their perspective isn’t wrong, but that the knowledge used to inform their perspective may be inaccurate and so we want to provide them with accurate information on which to base their perspective.”  Oh, I like that.  That makes a lot of sense to me.  Every opinion or thought we have comes from somewhere to inform and create our perspective.  So, rather than point out that they are wrong, we can focus on the information or prior knowledge and point out how that is flawed or inaccurate.  That way, it’s not about the student, it’s about what they had learned.  This makes a lot of sense.  I really like that.  I think this will be my new default response when guiding discussions.  If a student says something inaccurate or inappropriate, I will focus on the behavior and not the student.  It’s like the Parts Language I use with my son.  He is not a bad person, but the bad language parts he sometimes uses are inappropriate.  I like it.  It’s a sensical and not overly PC way to say, “Oh no, you are wrong.”

The Close to Perfect STEM Class

While I often tell my students that nothing is perfect nor is anyone perfect, I sometimes misuse the word to describe something that was really well done.  Perfection is a state we all strive for but one that no one can really achieve.  So, why do we try so hard to do something that is impossible?  Because if we don’t go big, then we go home, and no one wants to go home.  If Thomas Edison hadn’t kept trying to create a working incandescent light bulb, we might be sitting in the dark right now.  We teach our students to persevere no matter the odds and so we do the same as educators and individuals.  We reach for perfection so that we can achieve amazing, close to perfect results.

Yesterday I experienced a close to perfect STEM class.  The lesson wasn’t anything crazy or new, but everything seemed to work out just right.  First, I had the students share the chemistry current event they had read the night before.  I emphasized the importance of having an academic discussion.  I explained what that meant and reminded them of the insightful discussions they had in Humanities class.  While their discussions weren’t perfect, they were pretty great.  They did a fine job asking each other probing questions about their topics and actually had conversations about chemistry and how it affects the world.  It was pretty cool to listen to their conversations.  So, at this point I felt as though we were off to a fine start.

Then, I shared a current event regarding chemistry that I had found.  I began my explanation with a quote about water.  “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.”  We discussed how much clean, drinking water there is no Earth.  This lead into a discussion about how it was World Toilet Day.  Then I quickly explained how many people in our world don’t have access to clean water or sanitary facilities.  They seemed intrigued by this fact.  Then, I asked the students how scientists are trying to solve this problem.  Some students had fun ideas for how to turn ocean water into drinkable water.  One student said, “Boil the water and let the salt separate out.”  Cool idea, which is sort of already used.  Then I showed them the diagram of a prototype being worked on at a university.  The boys had a lot to say about this: “If we change the ocean water from saltwater to freshwater, the animals that need saltwater to survive, will die” and “If we use this synthetic device, won’t it just pollute the ocean more with stuff?”  This then lead into a story about Cape Cod and how scientists tried to find a way to filter sewer water, but the filters used seeped into the ocean somehow and surfaced on beaches up and down the east coast.  They found this fact disgusting.  This was probably one of the most fruitful discussions we’ve had in STEM class all year.  So cool.

Then, I reviewed the STE- Project that the students were starting today in class.  I reminded them what is due by the end of the period and explained what they needed to do to get it done.  They asked a few questions and then got right to work.  The students worked diligently to accomplish the task at hand.  The groups brainstormed chemistry investigation ideas.  One group wanted to find out why stomach acid doesn’t burn through our stomach.  Another group wondered if the number of electrons in an atom affected the boiling point of the element while a different group was curious about boiling water and its effect on ice in a cold environment.  Wow, I was so impressed with their natural curiosity and scientific insight.  They were thinking like chemists.  It was amazing to listen to the discussions the groups were having about their topic.  They asked each other questions and researched their topics online.  Yet again, they shocked me with their level of critical thinking and problem solving.

We then closed class with a reflection activity.  The students completed a survey I had created via Google Forms.  They answered some questions about how they worked with their partner in class.  Did you effectively coexist with your partner?  What Habits of Learning did you practice using?  What is your goal for the next work period?  They completed the reflection survey before heading to lunch.

As I reflect on this lesson, I wonder what happened?  Why did the class go so well?  How were the students able to lift the level of conversation so high?  How were they able to construct such unique and engaging chemistry experiment ideas?  What made today’s class so special and wonderful?  It wasn’t a fancy new lesson by any means.  We’ve discussed science-related current events in the past.  Perhaps the boys are excited to be going home and so they transferred that energy into focus and engagement.  I suppose anything is possible.  Well, despite the cause, the outcome and result were quite phenomenal.   It was a pretty close to perfect STEM class yesterday.

The Sixth Grade Program at Cardigan

One of my professional goals for this year is to document the sixth grade program I’ve created and developed over the past nine years.  I want to get it all written down to see if it makes sense.  Are we utilizing the most effective program possible for our sixth grade boys?  Are we missing anything?  Is our rationale sound or are we just crazy?  Scratch that last question, I know I’m crazy so there is no need to ponder that one.

I want to have a living document that details what we do in the sixth grade and why we do it.  This way, I can pass it around to other teachers and educators to receive feedback on our program.  What else could or should we be doing to help support and challenge our students in a safe and caring manner?

The following two paragraphs are the introduction and rationale portions of my work in progress.  I wrote them yesterday afternoon and wanted to let them sit overnight before I reflected on them and made any revisions or changes.  I welcome any and all feedback on these two paragraphs.

Introduction

The sixth grade program at Cardigan is unique to the other grades because of the grand developmental differences between middle school boys.  Students who attend Cardigan Mountain School starting in the sixth grade and then graduating at the close of their ninth grade year, receive a much more meaningful and rich experience.  They grow together and in turn a family atmosphere and spirit is created within that group of four-year boys.  It’s very challenging to be a sixth grade student at Cardigan, especially when some of our students come from other countries.  To successfully complete the sixth grade program at Cardigan is a badge of honor and rite of passage of sorts.

Rationale

Brain-based research on how learning really happens reveals that students learn best when they are engaged and motivated and feel safe, challenged, and supported.  The sixth grade program has greatly evolved over the years due to this research.  We are always trying to find new and innovative ways to inspire and effectively educate and prepare our boys for meaningful lives in a global society.

Reflection

I’m not sure how I feel about the introduction paragraph.  It seems a bit too focused on just how different the sixth grade is compared to the other grades.  While that is true, I want the focus to be on the program itself and why we do what we do.

Introduction 1.2

Going through the adolescent stage of development is like being on a roller coaster without a seat belt.  When you flip upside down, you will fall out of your seat unless you are holding on with everything you’ve got.  Each benchmark within adolescence brings new turns, curves, and flips.  Working with adolescent boys is like trying to dodge raindrops.  You can’t avoid the inevitable.  Craziness and chaos will ensue.  But heck, that’s why  middle school teachers work with this age group.  We’re a little crazy too because we remember what it was like to be a teenager or pre-teen.

At Cardigan, we make it our mission to help mold young boys into compassionate and mindful young men.  It’s a wild and sometimes frustrating journey, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  Boys who attend sixth grade at Cardigan begin this adventure earlier than most as it is the youngest and smallest grade at our school.  Because of this, we have created a very unique  program that will help our boys foster a family spirit and connection that they can carry with them throughout their time at Cardigan to help provide them with some safety features on the bumpy roller coaster of adolescence.

Reflection 1.2

Oh, I like that much better.  Wow, I’m so glad I took the time to reflect on this prior to adding more to my document.  This new opening will give my piece a more cohesive feel.

No, what about the rationale section?  I really like this paragraph because I feel as though I succinctly explain why we do what we do in the classroom.  We base every decision on data and what’s best for our boys.  To effectively educate our students we need to engage them in the content.  Understanding the neuroscience of learning is pivotal to what we do in the sixth grade.  After learning about the brain and how our students learn, the sixth grade program drastically changed.  We invited choice, engagement, and challenge into our curriculum.  This section says all of this in a much more simplistic manner.

Well, now that I have two very strong sections, I feel as though I can effectively organize and craft the rest of my piece around this foundation.  A house without some sort of foundation will begin to lilt and settle almost instantly.  Within a short period of time, other, more serious, structural damage will begin to take hold.  Without an effective opening to my document, I worried that the meat of my message would lack meaning and power.  Now I feel as though I have that.  Yah for reflection!

Sharing the Spotlight with a Co-Teacher

When I first started co-teaching a few years ago, it felt awkward and uncomfortable.  I didn’t really like it.  Sometimes I felt as though I needed to rehearse exactly what to say.  It was as if we were each doing one act of a two-act play.  There was no flow or consistency amongst the two of us.  While I enjoyed working with my previous co-teacher, it felt weird at first.  Like anything new, we just needed time to practice.  So, we did.  By the second year, we were pros.  Our parts fit together perfectly like a puzzle.  While one of us would lead a particular portion of the lesson, we would jump in or contribute when and if needed.  It worked brilliantly.

This year, I am working with a new co-teacher.  She’s trying to figure out her place in the classroom.  How do we do things in the sixth grade?  For the first unit on community, she took the back seat as she was unsure how this unit should come together having never taught it before.  So, I did run the show to be sure she understood how our sixth grade program functions.  It worked out just fine.  She added in her thoughts where necessary and asked lots of good questions throughout the unit.  She was getting the hang of it.  As we planned our next unit, we realized that we wanted to cover mapping and perspective.  As she has written and taught a unit on this topic in the past, I felt it best for her to take the lead on this unit.  Now, it’s my turn to watch and learn.

Today marked the beginning of our new unit in Humanities class.  My co-teacher did a fine job running the show.  While I noticed some places and spots for improvement, overall it went swimmingly.  The boys seemed mostly engaged throughout and the discussions were fruitful and insightful.  Following the lesson I provided her with some feedback as she asked me how I thought it went:

  • I wonder if there is a way to incorporate map parts and a partner activity into the unit.  This may better engage the students as we dig deeper into maps and what they show.  She loved this idea so much that we are going to utilize it in tomorrow’s class.  Sweet!
  • I wonder if the students did too much sitting today in class.  Were they all engaged the entire time?  She did notice this too but thought the discussions were going so well that she didn’t want to cut them short.   The discussion portion of the lesson was only supposed to last 10 minutes, she said.  While I agree that the discussions were quite good, I do wonder if everyone was engaged throughout.  I find it hard to sit and focus for long periods of time and so I imagine our students feel the same way.  I think she will consider this point  moving forward.

My co-teacher seemed open to the feedback I provided her and excited about how well today’s lesson went.  I learned a lot about different types of maps and perspective myself as I watched and observed.  It’s fun to share the spotlight and not always be the leading voice in the classroom.  It’s also good for the students to get used to multiple perspectives in a class.  I can’t wait to see what I learn tomorrow as we get into a more in-depth map study and discuss latitude and longitude.

Peer Mentors as Math Instructors

Learning new math concepts in school was like learning a new language, foreign and challenging.  I struggled to understand what it all meant.  How can a letter represent a number?  Why are there so many different ways to write numbers?  Let’s just keep it simple.  I was baffled by fractions and decimals in school.  Not until I started teaching math did it all start to come together for me.  Why was that?  Why didn’t I understand math better in school?  Why was it so difficult to grasp new math concepts?  Perhaps it was how the teachers taught the material.  Maybe my teachers weren’t engaging or didn’t teach the new material in a way that made sense to me.  Whatever the reason, I do often wonder how things might have been had a peer or friend explained the material to me in a more student-friendly manner.  Would that have made a difference?  I guess I’ll never know.

However, the current math unit that we began today in STEM class, will definitely shed some light on the topic for me.  About a month ago, as I was planning my unit on Chemistry for STEM class, I was talking to a ninth grade math teacher about how he covered particular topics.  I was curious to learn how other teachers instruct math concepts.  I could always learn a thing or two.  That’s when this colleague told me about his Algebra 2 class.  They are high-functioning students tackling very challenging math concepts.  On went the epiphany light bulb in my head.  I had an idea.  I said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if your ninth grade class prepared and taught mini-lessons on the topics my sixth graders will be covering?  Your students could be the teachers for my boys.  What do you think?”  He of course loved the idea.  So, over the past month, this collaborative math unit has been growing and developing.  Today was the big test.  How would it go?  Would the sixth graders find it helpful and engaging?  Would the ninth graders be able to handle teaching sixth graders?  These questions and more filled my head, but I remained positive.

So, I introduced the math unit, reviewed the requirements and expectations before the ninth graders came into work with my students.  I split the students up into their three tracks and assigned each group a separate area in the classroom.  The sixth graders quickly got to their spaces as the ninth graders got to work being the teachers.  Many of the ninth graders had mini-lessons prepared and jumped right into them.  The boys listened intently.  Then, the mentors noticed that some of the students were functioning at different levels despite being in the same group.  So, they differentiated their instruction.  The ninth graders split the sixth graders in each group apart to provide the most effective instruction to each student.  In the track two group, the ninth graders noticed that some students needed direct instruction to learn the material while some of the other boys needed more guided practice with manipulatives.  So, the students provided the best math experience to each student based on their ability and comfort level.  Some of my students were completing their math packet with the aide of the ninth graders, while other students were working closely to comprehend new math concepts.  It was amazing, watching the ninth graders take over my class.  They were explaining the math concepts in more boy-friendly language than I ever could.  One student used colored building blocks to explain how to combine like terms for one student who seemed to struggle with this skill.  At one point, I heard that struggling student say, “Oh, I get it now.”  Wow!  I meandered throughout the classroom during the period, in total amazement at how well this partnership between the ninth grade and the sixth grade was going.  My students were comprehending the material in new and engaging ways.  They were enthralled.

So, maybe having students work together as peer teachers can really be effective.  Clearly, the data I collected in my class today proved this point without a doubt.  Why?  Was it the novelty of this new approach for my boys?  Did that make a difference?  Was it because of the different language the students used to introduce and discuss new concepts?  Did that make the difference?  Lots of questions with no real answers right now.  As this unit goes until the holiday break in December, I will continue to collect data and make noticings and observations about how my students are learning and engaged when working with the ninth graders.  Right now though, I’m just happy with today’s result.

Why is there Never Enough Time?

I often wish each day came with an extra two to three hours so that I could get everything on my list accomplished.  I’d love to be able to go home each night with an empty To Do List, but that rarely happens.  I usually have something else to do because I just run out of time.  If only I had an extra hour in the day, I’d get everything done.  However, the odds are that that new time would be chewed up by something else and I still wouldn’t have enough time in a day to get done what I need to accomplish.

A few weeks ago when I planned my new Chemistry Unit for STEM class, I penciled in a few lab experiments to introduce the scientific method, experimentation, and lab safety protocol.  In my mind, it would only take about half of the class period or less to accomplish the investigation, which means that there would be time to work on the partner portion of the project.  It made sense to me in the planning stage of the unit.

So, today marked the first investigation of the unit.  Over the weekend I prepared the materials and found some fun and engaging videos to introduce and review the major concepts covered.  I created slides to project on the whiteboard that would detail the lab protocol.  I had everything planned just right.  I figured we would have at least 30 minutes remaining when we finished so that the students could begin working on the Science Fair project.  It was sure to work, or so I thought.  Sometimes all the planning in the world can’t prepare you for reality.

When the time for STEM class arrived, I was so excited.  I prepared the materials on the back table before I started class.  I was pumped.  Today we were making Oobleck!  I started class as I usually did.  I reviewed the homework, signed planbooks, and reviewed the day’s agenda.  Nothing new there.  We were on schedule at that point.  Then I handed out the math worksheet packets so that the students could begin the homework.  I said very little about the packets as everything they needed to know was written on the front page or detailed on their Haiku page.  That took about two minutes.  Then I shared the Chemistry Question of the Day with the class.  I didn’t even have volunteers share their hypotheses on the question.  I briefly explained what the question was asking and shared a short video with the students.  The video detailed the differences between physical and chemical changes.  It was filled with visual explanations for the ELL students but had lots of information conveyed verbally as well.  It was a perfect supplement to the question.  Following the video, I asked a few students the question again to be sure they had gleaned the appropriate information from the video.  One of the students who I asked seemed a bit confused by the ideas in the video and so I spent about three minutes reviewing the major differences between physical and chemical changes.  I even detailed notes on the whiteboard.  I had volunteers share their thoughts and ideas until we had specific and understandable definitions for each type of change.  This helped make the ideas in the video tangible for all.

Then we got into the lab.  At this point, about 20 minutes were gone in the double block, which meant there were only 60 minutes remaining.  I wasn’t worried at that point.  I figured conducting the lab would only take about 10 minutes anyway.  Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.  So, I quickly went over safety rules when conducting a science lab.  I called on volunteers for ideas and made a list on the board.  We reviewed the important tips to remember when conducting an investigation.  I stressed the importance of following the rules so that our safety is always being honored and respected.  This took about seven minutes.  Not bad, I thought.  Then I quickly shared the slide detailing the steps for conducting the investigation.  I handed out the Observation Record worksheet I made to help guide the students through the scientific method.  I then took all of the questions the students had regarding the expectations for conducting the investigation.  This whole process took about six minutes.  Nice.  Still on schedule, I thought.  Yah for me.

Then I assigned the students their partner and allowed them to begin.  They all got set up quite quickly.  Still no worries.  The boys got to work, slowly.  Some of the students asked me what to do.  How do we make Oobleck?  I reminded them to look at the protocol on the board.  I said no more than this when they asked me what to do or how to do it.  I wanted them to use their critical thinking and problem solving skills to get the job done.  That has been my focus all year in STEM.  I want them to engineer solutions to their problems.  They need to learn to self-advocate for themselves.  After about four minutes, many of the partnerships had solved their problems and had created Oobleck.  Then they started observing and playing with it.  This is where the real learning happened.  They started playing with the ratios of water to cornstarch to make even more Oobleck.  It was quite awesome to watch the boys learn and explore.  They were solving problems and thinking like scientists.  However, this play time meant more time had elapsed than I had mentally allotted.  All of a sudden, 10 minutes had turned into 15 minutes and they hadn’t even begun to clean up or complete their Observation Record worksheet.  So, I had them all clean up, which took a lot longer than I had anticipated.  The whole lab and clean up process took almost 23 minutes.  That was more than double what I had planned for and they still had to complete the worksheet.  That took another seven minutes.

Then we reviewed the big ideas from the investigation.  What kind of change took place?  What phase of matter is Oobleck?  What happened to the water and cornstarch when they were mixed?  This discussion brought about some insightful ideas and great conversation.  It was so interesting how the students thought that a chemical change had taken place.  It was like an a-ha moment for the students when I revealed what really had happened.  This part took a while but was totally worth it.

Then we watched and discussed a video about the difference in mixture types.  The students had to figure out which type of mixture the Oobleck represented.  This was the easy part.  It was at this point in the class when only five minutes remained.  Rather than get into the next part of the lesson that I had planned, I reviewed the major chemistry concepts covered in class.  This was a great way to wrap things up for the period as I will begin class on Thursday with an assessment on the concepts covered to be sure the students comprehended what we learned in class today.

Sure, today’s lesson was a hit.  The students were engaged and curious throughout.  They loved making Oobleck and learning about the chemistry of it.  They asked effective questions and solved problems in an appropriate manner.  However, I had not planned on the activity taking over the entire double block.  I wanted to leave time for the students to begin the Science Fair, but we ran out of time.  Will the students have enough time to complete the Science Fair project?  While over-planning is always better than under-planning, I am constantly frustrated with my inability to plan effectively.  Although today’s activity accomplished many objectives and concepts, did it cover too much in not enough detail?  Or did I beat a dead horse?

Perhaps though, it was just right.  Maybe everything worked out just the way it was supposed to have.  Maybe the students would not have had enough time to really dig into the Science Fair project regardless of when the activity had ended.  Maybe fate worked in my favor today.  Well, whatever happened, I’m still frustrated by my lack of effective planning.  Yes, I know the activity itself was a homerun.  The students learned a lot and had fun.  Many of the boys cited it as one of their highlights of the class day.  So, clearly it was worthwhile and amazing.  I guess I’m just being hard on myself.  Today’s STEM class did go very well, I just wish I had planned on the activity taking the whole period so that I don’t feel so bad about having over-planned.  Sometimes being a perfectionist is quite challenging, especially when there’s not enough time in the day to get everything just right.

Being Open to New Ideas

While I am a creature of habit, I do like trying new things, occasionally.  I like to read new books from genres I don’t usually try.  I enjoy learning about new and different teaching practices.  I love learning about different educational systems in places around the globe.  Those kinds of new things I love.  I don’t like trying new foods from strange places.  I don’t like taking on something I know nothing about.  Generally though, I’m open to giving new things a chance.

Today during Humanities class, my co-teacher introduced a new current event topic in a different manner than I’ve ever done before.  Usually, when I introduce a new current event topic to the students that I want them to delve into via their small group discussions, I share just the main ideas of the topic through a short article and video.  I don’t address questions at that point because I want the students to field each other’s questions in the small discussions.  This normally takes about 15 minutes, which leaves about 10-15 minutes for a discussion prior to a short break in the double block period.  This way, we still have the whole second half of class to cover a new topic or activity.  While I’ve tried different iterations regarding current event discussions, I try to keep them contained to one period.  Why, I don’t know, but I’ve always done it that way.  Perhaps it’s because I don’t know any other way.

So, when my co-teacher kept talking, fielding questions, explaining and detailing the current event she introduced, I worried that the students would have nothing left to discuss in their small groups.  Plus, she took the entire first block just to cover the new topic.  She had the students read the article aloud as a group and dissect each paragraph, asking students to extract the main idea.  She recorded notes on the who, what, when, where, how, and why of the article as she discussed it.  She also answered all of the questions the students asked.  She then showed a short video, further analyzing the topic.  It took the entire first half of class, which meant the students would have less time to work on their Canaan Writing Piece that is due on Tuesday.  Would they be able to finish on time?  Why did she talk for so long and beat the current event horse to a bloody pulp?  I worried that providing the students with so much information regarding the topic would prevent them from having fruitful conversations.  Would they have enough to talk about in the small groups?  Did she need to dig into the topic as deeply as she did?  Did it make a difference?  Yes, I know I said I am usually open to new ideas, but it takes a while for me to warm up to them if they challenge my current line of thinking.  My hypothesis was that the conversations would be no more insightful or deeper than our past discussions.  Boy, was I wrong.

Because the students had built up such a strong foundation of knowledge on the topic, they were able to discuss the current event and guiding question in a very critical and insightful manner.  They analyzed how the influx of Asian immigrants will affect America in the coming years.  They used examples and started to think about how it will change the culture in our country.  The students also discussed how it would affect the Asian countries.  Wow!  Who thought that their small group discussions could have gotten any more effective?  Not me.  I thought they were brilliant before but today’s discussion proved that there was still plenty of room for improvement.  Almost every student got involved in the conversation in an effective and appropriate manner.  Even one of the students who rarely contributed to the discussions participated well today.  Was it because he better understood the material?  Did the extra processing time allow him to digest the facts and knowledge more effectively?

Even though the introduction of the current event topic ate up double the normal time allotted, it seemed to make a huge difference in the level of conversations the students were able to have.  Rather than just offering the students surface-level information, giving the boys the real meat and potatoes of the topic made for deeper comprehension and analysis.  Isn’t that what we want as teachers?  Clearly, the deep-dive for this sort of activity works best.  So, I was wrong.  My co-teacher’s new method of discussing a current event was way more useful than what I had done in the past, despite taking extra time.  While some of the students could have used the extra time to work on their writing piece, they will have class time on Monday if need be.

While at first I was skeptical of this new method of introducing a topic to the students, I did eventually come around.  I need to work on coming around faster and being more open to new ideas rather than shutting them out from the start.  I was so upset and worried that her discussion had taken so long that I couldn’t even begin to appreciate what was happening in the classroom.  Much like my students, I need to have a growth mindset when learning new things or receiving feedback.  Being open to new ideas is the easiest way to grow and develop as an individual.

Writing Conferences with Students Rock!

I’m a writer by design.  I have brilliant (well, I think they’re pretty awesome but by most people’s standards they are probably just good) ideas inside my tiny cranium and writing is the only way I know how to effectively convey them to the world.  I can’t carry a note to save my life despite my love of music and singing.  I can’t dance in a way that others find amazing.  I’m not a very good public speaker.  So, writing is the only vehicle I have to carry my ideas from my brain to the world.

Because I am a writer, I love to write.  Because I’m a writing teacher, I love receiving feedback on my writing.  While I am not involved in any writing groups, I do love putting my writing out there in search of feedback.  While I think my writing is well done, how do others view it?  In order to grow and develop as a writer and teacher, I need feedback from my peers.  Due to my chaotic schedule, I rarely have time to meet with others about writing or share my work with my colleagues.  Recently, I shared a reflective narrative piece I wrote regarding some of the big ideas discussed in my class’ unit on community with my co-teacher.  It felt good to receive feedback and ideas for improvement.  Plus, I learned that she had crafted a similar piece.  I never would have realized that had I not put myself out there.

So, to inspire our students to feel the same way about feedback and the writing process, we had the students workshop one of their recent writing pieces regarding our community unit.  Today in Humanities class, the boys chose the piece they found most interesting or engaging and continued working on it.  Those students who felt their piece was done, moved onto the revising and editing stages.  (We try to avoid using the word finished when discussing writing in the classroom because writing is never truly finished.  You can have a piece that meets the requirements and is done, but that doesn’t mean it’s finished.  It just means that it has a beginning, middle, and end and is developed.)  The students proofread, revised, and edited their piece individually before completing the process with a peer.  If time permitted, those students then conferenced with a teacher.  The other students continued working on writing their piece.

I had the chance to conference with two students.  It wasn’t just a chance to meet with the students and provide them with feedback on their piece, it was a conversation and a discussion.  I asked each boy what kind of feedback they wanted.  Do you want me to give you feedback orally, in writing at the bottom of your piece, or as comments in your document?  The first student wanted me to insert comments with feedback while the other student wanted a list of my feedback suggestions at the end of the piece.  I then asked each student what they would like me to look for as I read over their piece.  What do you want me to notice or look for?  After they gave my specific instructions, the fun began.

I read each of their pieces aloud.  The first author wanted me to notice his word choice.  Did he use the most effective words for the piece?  So, I went through each line very carefully and talked to him about effective word choice.  We also got off-topic a few times talking about different ways to tell a story.  How might you tell this same story if it were a mystery?  I noticed in his piece that he liked to end paragraphs with a bit of intrigue.  What happens next?  So, we talked about that and why he uses that motif.  He likes leaving readers with a sense of wonder.  However, his ending wasn’t much of an ending.  It left too many gaps and questions. This lead into a discussion on leaving a story’s ending open versus not effectively closing a story.  He understood the difference and asked what he should do next.  I said, “You’re the author.  You tell me.  What should you do now?  How should you end your story?”  He seemed a bit frustrated by my response, but he also seemed to know what he wanted to do.  So, we parted ways and I let him get on with the writing process.

The second student wanted me to provide him feedback regarding the flow of his story.  Did it make sense?  As this student wanted my feedback at the end of his piece, I read his story straight through without stopping before I gave him feedback.  The end baffled me a bit.  It seemed as though his whole story was played out in blocks by a young boy, but it wasn’t entirely clear.  So, I asked him about this.  Indeed, that was his intention.  So, I talked to him about making it a bit more clear.  I then explained to him the difference between showing and telling a story.  Rather than listing out what happened in the story, a good author will explain and detail what happened.  I used an example that I came up with to model this.  This seemed to help him understand what he needed to do.  Our conversation continued on a bit longer before he got back to work.

Writing conferences aren’t just a time to proofread a student’s story or piece and then have them work on it.  Effective writing conferences are conversations about writing.  You get to understand a student’s writing voice and help them to develop it.  You don’t go through their piece with a fine toothed comb and correct every little mistake.  You discuss writing techniques and tricks that will help them make the piece stronger and more effective.  Each of the students I conferenced today left the conference feeling good about themselves and their piece.  A good conference is about positivity and improvement.  While it’s easy to focus on what needs to be fixed in our students’ writing, that can be difficult for our students to swallow.  They may leave the conference feeling like they failed.  We need to help our students see writing as an adventure.  There are challenges encountered but numerous ways to defeat the evil monster.  For me, writing conferences are a time to help my students learn to see writing for more than just a task they need to complete.  Writing conferences with students rock!

The Aftermath of a Test

Usually, the day following a test, my teachers would provide me with some down time before jumping into another unit.  My physics teacher used to show us a movie the day after a test.  It was always Back to the Future.  He loved that movie.  Heck, I love that movie.  My math teachers would give us the day to do corrections or ask questions.  When I was in school, we never just continued on with the learning.

While we only have so many teaching days in our schedule, giving the students a day to get recalibrated before beginning a new unit seems to make a lot of sense.  The students need time to process what was learned and to reflect on the entire unit.  I like to take time to get feedback from the students.  Did you like the unit or not?  What did you like about it?  What did you not enjoy about it?  What would you  change if you were the teacher?  What did you learn about Astronomy from this unit?  Just the basic questions.  I find that I change and adjust my units and teaching based on the feedback I receive from the students each year.  They know better than anyone what works for them.  So, the day after a test is not just another teaching day for me either.

Today in STEM class, I explained the thinking I did over the weekend as I graded and assessed their math exams.  I explained how I realized how challenging and tricky some of the questions were.  I validated their thoughts and feelings.  I then told the students: “Instead of jumping right into the Test Redos process, I want to give you one more chance to showcase you learning in a different way.  If you still show signs of not being able to demonstrate your ability to meet the objectives, then I will have you go through the redo process for homework.  I want to give you all one more chance.  This is my first time using this new math series and I’m trying to figure it all out too.  Let’s see how this goes.”  Then I met with each student individually to go over his test and the skills he needs to work on.  They all then worked, diligently, on this part two of the test in class.  Most of the students, who put forth great effort during the math unit to master the skills, did very well on the new test and did not need to go through the rigorous Test Redo process.  I met with some of the boys who showed progress and an ability to meet the objectives and pointed out where they went wrong with the little details like setting up a decimal problem or writing neatly.  My focus, all year in STEM class, is about the process.  The answer is only a tiny part of the work.  If you can set up the work correctly but just made a tiny mistake, then you don’t need to redo the work a bunch of times.  You just need to see where your mistakes are so that you don’t repeat them again.  This seemed to help those boys I spoke with.  They had some A-Ha moments as I reviewed some of the problems with them.  Awesome.

The students that did need to complete the Test Redo process for homework were the students who didn’t put forth much effort throughout the unit.  They just went through the motions and usually took a long time to complete each section.  They also didn’t ask for much help along the way and didn’t seem to really care about learning the content during the unit.  These students were unable to master the concepts due to a lack of effort.  They could have easily showed proficiency in all skills covered, but they didn’t review appropriately along the way.  I’m hopeful, for that small group of students, that this rigorous redo process will be a wake-up call for them to buckle down and better prepare for the next exam.  I also hope that it provides them the opportunity to ask lots of questions and stay focused throughout the math portion of our next unit.  I suppose only time will tell.

So, overall, I was pleased with the results.  I wasn’t surprised by the students who still need to complete the Test Redo process but I was pleasantly surprised by how well the students processed the information I provided them about the entire testing process.  Most of the boys worked very well in class to showcase their learning.  It was so much fun to watch them all blossom into mathematicians.  While it was a busy period correcting work, pointing out problems and mistakes, and helping support and challenge students, it was totally worth it.  I’m so glad I did some serious thinking about the testing process this past weekend to enact this new part two of the test today in class.  It seemed to be just what my students needed.  Yah for reflection!