Teachers Don’t Give Grades, Students Earn Them

In college, every paper I wrote, was returned to me with no more than a few words of feedback and a circled letter grade.  The many hours of hard work and effort I put into each essay I wrote was equivalent to a single letter and no more than a sentence of feedback.  That’s it?  What does a B- even mean?  On what criteria or objectives was my paper being assessed?  While I had no idea what the grade meant, I accepted it.  I never really understood how my teachers graded me back when I was in school.  Almost arbitrarily, it seemed, a grade appeared at the top of every assignment I had turned in.  No words or explanation, just a letter, circled.  What was the point of circling the letter?  Was I going to get confused by what I looked at?  There was only ever one red, scarlet letter at the top of my papers.  Why circle it?  The circling of the letter seemed to me to be as random as the grad I received for my work.

Despite all of these unknowns, my parents always reinforced the idea that grades are received and not given.  My work earned the strange circled letter I received.  Teachers don’t give grades, my mom used to say, you earn them.  Luckily, I learned this lesson at an early age.  I never blamed my teachers for giving me a grade I didn’t feel I earned.  I worked harder on the next assignment if I achieved a grade I didn’t feel as though I deserved.  I never complained.  Times were different twenty years ago when I was in school.

Currently, most students I teach seem entitled.  They feel as though they deserve a good grade despite  the quality of their work.  And I can’t tell you how many times I hear, “Why did you give me this grade?” in the classroom at the start of the year.  Many of our students come from schools that grade students like I was graded, randomly.  They feel as though they have the right to argue their way into a better grade.  This entitlement is ridiculous.  Perhaps it stems from the “Here’s your trophy for just showing up” attitude that our society has taken recently.  “Everybody is awesome!” seems to echo throughout public schools and athletic facilities across the world.  This has got to change or else the future of our world is in jeopardy.  Many students who I’ve taught over the years enter the sixth grade being unable to solve problems despite feeling as though they are the best people, thinkers, and athletes in the world.  If these students are our future leaders, we are in serious trouble.

This week, the parent of one of my students emailed my co-teacher and I wondering why his son was struggling so much in the sixth grade.  “In his last school, he only ever got As.”  This parent, seemed to imply that because his son had always gotten As, he should be given As again.  If I wanted to give things away I would have become a game show host.  I am a teacher because I want the future leaders of our world to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and team players.  I want the next generation of people to be better than the current generation.  My goal is to challenge and support students while equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to grow and develop into effective global citizens.  I don’t give them anything other than my time, energy, and care.  They have to work for everything in my classroom.  I will guide them to where they want to go, but they need to do the work.  Grades aren’t given, they are earned.  This parent, and many others like him, don’t seem to understand this nugget of truth.  It’s frustrating when the parents control how schools operate.

If this parent’s son put in the effort needed to complete work that demonstrated a mastery of the concepts and skills covered, he could be earning exceptional grades.  However, this student doesn’t ask for help, even when reminded and suggested or sometimes even provided without prompting.  He completes work which demonstrates his inability to meet the standards we have set as an institution.  He can turn in work that displays a strong understanding of the objectives, but he generally chooses not to.  He lacks effort and enthusiasm.  He doesn’t seem to care that his grades are low.  He is happy just being a student in our classroom.  This apathetic mindset is common amongst students in our world today.  They are content with being average.  However, their parents are not happy about the grades they receive.  They see their children as perfect in every way.  So, they feel as though their sons and daughters should be given high grades.  I’m not a merchant at a store.  I don’t sell grades.  Some parents need to manage their expectations while holding the bar higher for their children.

Grades should be a badge of honor.  If you put in the blood, sweat, and tears to master the skills and material covered, then you will earn the appropriate mark.  We need to treat school and grading like life.  If you just do the minimum to get by, you will most likely lose your job or not get a raise or promotion.  Our students need to learn the hard lessons in life early so that they don’t make the silly mistakes later on.  Life is an experience filled with challenges.  If you want the power up or extra life, you need to earn it.  There are no cheat codes in life, or the classroom.

The Challenges of Individualizing a Math Curriculum

When I was in school, math was my least favorite class.  Mostly, it was because I didn’t understand the concepts.  I’m much more of an abstract thinker and so solving a problem to find only one answer didn’t make sense to me.  I love reading and writing and the possibilities that exist within those realms.  So, to understand math, I needed a lot of one-on-one support or help from my peers.  My math classes never allowed for that to happen.  Every class was either lecture-based or filled with teacher-directed instruction.  The teacher would model how to complete various problems before having the students solve practice problems the teacher wrote on the board.  Every math class was like this.  I grew bored and stopped paying attention.  I didn’t learn that way.  I needed more support and scaffolding, which was not provided to me.  Because of this experience, as a teacher, I vow to treat each student as an individual and provide him the support and challenge he needs, with regards to math.

Each STEM unit is constructed in roughly the same manner.  There is a science component, a group project portion, and a math section.  The math skills covered usually align with the science and group project parts of the unit so that the students see the relevance of the math content covered.  At the start of each unit, the students complete a pre-test to assess their prior knowledge.  This way they are not learning material they have clearly already mastered nor are they learning material that is too far beyond their grasp.  Each student is then assigned an individualized track based on his ability level and performance on the placement exam.  Then, through mini-lessons that my co-teacher and I conduct, videos via the Khan Academy application on their iPad, and examples in the math textbook, the students learn the material at their own pace in order to complete the various problem sets or worksheets.  Once they complete a particular worksheet or set of problems, they meet with me to be assessed on the objective covered.  This way, I have a chance to clear up any confusion the students might have about a particular skill.  Once they have demonstrated a strong understanding of the content skill, they advance onto the next section or skill until they have finished the entire unit.  Each unit culminates in a final exam as a way to be sure the students have truly mastered the skills covered before moving onto the next unit.  If they are unable to meet the objectives covered on the exam, they must complete a rigorous test redo process to relearn and master the skills.  Each unit is formatted in this same manner.

In the past, this method of math instruction via the STEM approach has worked.  While some students struggle with some concepts, most everybody masters the bulk of the skills covered.  However, this time around, the data proved otherwise.

Today in STEM class, the students completed the end-of-unit math exam.  After grading each exam, I noticed that almost all of the students struggled with many of the concepts covered.  Why is that?  Did they not prepare well enough?  We talked about how to prepare for an exam in class yesterday and the students provided some great suggestions.  As I was on duty in evening study hall last night, I saw some great effort in the area of test preparation.  So, that wasn’t the issue.  Then, what was it?  We did change textbook series this year.  Perhaps this new math textbook is not appropriate for this type of instruction.  I like this new book series.  It offers three different ways to solve each problem.  It also includes many examples prior to the practice problems.  That doesn’t seem to be the problem.  So, what is it that caused this strange result?  Was it that this group of students needs more support and teacher-directed instruction to master the concepts covered?  Because we used a class of ninth grade algebra two students to help teach mini-lessons, did they not have a chance to really practice and master each of the skills covered?  I did meet with many of the students to clarify confusion and help them understand the skills covered.  They demonstrated mastery of the concepts when they practiced them.  So, what happened between then and today’s exam?  Yesterday, I felt as though the students were prepared.  I was confident that they had mastered the skills covered.  How was I wrong?  Was it because of the lack of repetition?  Because they didn’t complete 20 problems for each skill, perhaps they didn’t have a chance to really comprehend and understand the new skills.  I believe, many factors were at play today, which lead to the poor results we saw.  While it’s frustrating, it also allows me a chance to reassess the way we instruct the math portion of each STEM unit.

My co-teacher and I had a great chat this afternoon about how we will approach our next unit, to clarify confusion and better instruct the concepts covered.  We are going to offer only two individualized tracks instead of three and utilize more teacher-directed instruction.  We will also reteach many of the concepts the students didn’t master on today’s exam.  We’ll also cover the vital math skills they will need to have in order to be prepared for next year’s math class.  We’re hopeful that this new approach will better support and challenge our students.  Even our advanced students struggled on this unit exam.  While I don’t look to tests as the only assessment tool, today’s results provided a great opportunity to reassess our instructional methods.  Maybe there is a more effective way to help our students master the math concepts they need to be successful next year.  I’m open to new ideas.  Let’s do it.

On What Should the Reading Strategy of Visualization Focus?

No one ever taught me how to see pictures in my head based upon what I read.  It just happened.  It’s like breathing or urinating– innate tasks that just happen.  There was no training involved.  Once I learned how to read, pictures appeared in my head as if I was watching a movie.  It was so cool.  It was also in that moment that I began to enjoy reading.  Did it matter what the pictures were?  Did they have to be accurate?  No, I just needed to see pictures in order to find enjoyment in reading.

Like me, many of my students visualize what they read in their minds.  They watch a movie every time they read a book.  While I have conferenced with each of my students at least once over the course of the year thus far and know that they all have gained basic reading comprehension skills, I question their visualization abilities.  Can they all visualize what they read?  Equipped with this question and an excitement to know more about my students, I set off on a learning adventure.

Today in Humanities class, we began Reader’s Workshop with a mini-lesson on visualization.  We broke the students up into two small reading groups as we always do for mini-lessons.  This allows the students more opportunities to ask questions and contribute to the discussion.  We began the mini-lesson with a discussion of the reading strategy of visualization.  What is it?  What does the word visualization even mean?  I asked the students in my group some questions to begin the conversation.  The boys had some prior knowledge of this concept going into the lesson, which helped.  I built upon their prior knowledge a bit as I explained the purpose of visualizing the written word mentally.  Then, I gave them a task to complete while I read aloud a children’s storybook about a brave penguin from Africa.  The students needed to listen to the story and then choose a scene to illustrate on a piece of paper.  They were to begin their drawing using only a pencil while I read the story aloud.  Then, following the story, they would return to their desks and complete their visualization images using coloring utensils.  We talked about the important parts of a visualization drawing.  The boys mentioned accurate color, setting, and characters.  Then, I read the story aloud as they began crafting their mental image drawings.  Once each student had completed his drawing, I conferenced with them to provide them feedback on the crucial reading strategy.

While every student demonstrated his ability to visualize while reading, some were more effective than others at capturing the specifics of a scene.  One of the students colored the ocean water purple because he was too lazy to grab a blue colored pencil.  Many students only included characters or a foreground setting.  They left out the background or a more detailed setting.  It was as if they had only seen a tiny snapshot of the character in their heads while I read the story aloud.  Some of the students also included numerous scenes in their drawings, like a comic strip.  Although no one failed to see some accurate part of the story I read today in class, I wonder now, how much feedback I should have provided them.

Does it matter if their illustrations lack a background?  Does it really matter if they color objects or the setting in a unique way?  Do the colors really need to match.  If they see something in a slightly different way than I do, does it really matter?  As long as they see a penguin and not a lion, does it make a difference how big they draw their penguin?  Does their picture need to match the book exactly?  Why did I spend so much time reviewing the artwork the students had created?  If they can visualize the main idea, do the details really matter?  What should the objective focus on?  Drawing an accurate, scaled mental image of what they see in their minds or should it simply state, students can visualize a mental image while reading?  One is definitely more specific and challenging than the other.  Does it really matter which one we use?

Thinking about the English classes my students will see in their future, being able to accurately draw a mental image illustration of exactly what was happening in the book, doesn’t seem important.  As long as they visualize while reading, they will find success in their future English classes.  Reading is about engagement and joy.  Let’s leave the accuracy factor for math and science classes.  X=2, exactly and nothing else.  But, if I’m reading a book and the character is driving a car, in one scene, it doesn’t really matter what color I visualize the car being as long as I can visualize the character driving that car.  The big idea is what is at the heart of this reading strategy.  So, maybe I didn’t need to be so nitpicky with the feedback I provided my students today.  Visualization is just that, in the eye of the beholder.  What I see and what you see when we read the same novel may differ slightly due to our perspective.  And, that’s okay.

Should the Skill of Hand Drawing a Map Still Be in Our Curriculum?

When I was in school, geography was a major component of every history or social studies class I took.  We learned all about how to read maps and atlases and how identify the parts of a map.  We also were required to hand draw many maps over my years in school.  The act of translating something to paper without tracing seemed like an important skill to my teachers way back then.  Hand-eye coordination was focused on as was the memorization of various cities, towns, capitals, and countries.  With the availability of and instant access to information, memorization doesn’t seem to be such an important skill in our current society.  Plus, with apps like Google Maps, do we really need to know how to read and interpret maps anymore?  Do they still make atlases?  Is the skill of hand drawing a map important to our students anymore?  Should we be teaching mapping and cartography the way we used to?  Or should we adapt to the times?  Prior to requiring my sixth grade students to create a layered map of Africa, I was skeptical about the value and importance of teaching geography in the same manner with which I was taught.  Our students use technology almost all the time.  Do they really need to know how to look at a hard copy of a map?  I would have said no before yesterday, but then, I saw how incapable our students are at solving spatial problems.  That’s when my mind was changed.  The skill of hand drawing maps is a valuable one that should still be taught in history, social studies, and humanities classes around the world.

Yesterday in Humanities class, we began an activity on the mapping of Africa.  The students needed to create a hand-drawn, layered map of Africa.  They needed to hand draw, using a print atlas as a reference, a proportional and accurate map of the continent of Africa.  They needed to label the lines of longitude and latitude on their map.  Their map also needed to label the various countries, physical features, and regions of Africa.  Going into this task, we didn’t realize how challenging and difficult it would be.  My co-teacher and I were only viewing this assignment through our perspectives and so we hypothesized that it would be easy-peasey.  Well, we were wrong.

Many of our students had no idea how to use an atlas or draw a map.  A few of the boys mislabeled their lines of latitude and longitude and therefore, mislabeled the reference points as well.  Several students needed to start over more than once because of these mistakes.  Then, once they started connecting their reference points, they didn’t use the atlas as a guide and had an inaccurate and disproportionate map of Africa.  Many of the students had to redraw the outline of the continent a few times due to this mistake.  Several of the students struggled to then create an accurate and complete political map of the continent.  They either rushed through creating the boundary lines or failed to start because they were so overwhelmed with the task.  When the students were creating their map key and labelling the countries, many of the boys didn’t include every country, mislabeled them, or misspelled them.  They had access to all of this information in various sources as they worked and still they had trouble completing this task.  While they learned much about how to solve problems and follow directions, it was surprising to my co-teacher and I, how difficult this task was for our boys.

Why?  Have these students never drawn a map before?  Do they not understand how to access information to solve problems?  Do they not know how to look at an image and translate it onto paper by hand?  Our boys had much difficulty working on this task and we don’t fully understand why.  Why do the students not know how to look at a map and create a proportionate and accurate rendition of it?  While the task of creating a hand-drawn map is multi-faceted, it’s not impossible.  So, why did our students seem to struggle with it so much?  Why was this seemingly simple task so challenging for our students?

Wrestling with these questions, I realize now that this skill of hand drawing a map is crucial.  Not because they need to know how to read a map.  Technology rules the world in that regards, but they need to be able to solve a multistep problem that requires a close attention to detail.  They need to be self-aware of what they are looking at in order to create their version of the map.  They need to understand how to spatially arrange objects in space.  Our students seem to be lacking these “easy” skills.  While they know how to access and play games on an iPhone, they don’t know how to look at an object and redraw it accurately.  Perhaps that’s why this generation of young people are getting into so many accidents.  They don’t understand how to pay close attention to themselves in space compared to other objects.  So, as teachers, we need to go back to the basics.  Our students need to practice the skill of spatial awareness in order to be effective global citizens.

The Challenges of Incorporating Failure into the Curriculum

When I was in elementary school, failure was considered a bad thing.  If you did something wrong, you failed and were considered a failure.  My teachers made me feel as though I was incompetent if I made mistakes or got the wrong answer.  School for me was about always being right at any cost.  This culture of correctness fostered an atmosphere of cheating in and out of the classroom.  Students cheated off of my tests and occasionally, I would look at my friends’ worksheets to copy the answers.  School wasn’t about learning for me, it was about getting the right answer and finishing work.  I learned very little in school.  I’ve learned more since I’ve been teaching than I ever did as a student.  Funny how that works.

So, as a teacher, I make it my duty to make school about learning, exploring, failing, and retrying.  Genuine learning comes from understanding one’s mistakes and how to rectify them.  It’s about problem solving and new ideas.  Thomas Edison accidentally happened upon the phonograph when he was trying to make something else.  When he made mistakes, he realized he had created something else.  Mistakes and failure lead to new ideas and solutions.

However, the process of transitioning students to this model of learning can be difficult.  Most of our students come from public schools where failure isn’t usually an option.  Students are told to have the right answer the first time.  Generally, during the first half of the year, when students revise their work based on feedback, they start to see the benefit of improving upon their work much like an artist or athlete improves upon his or her craft.  Learning is a fluid process and not a destination.  However, when some students receive feedback and need to improve upon or clarify their work, they struggle to understand that learning isn’t about one and done.  We often see tears and frustration at first.  Some of the boys even become defiant when we have them alter their work.  They don’t realize that the learning process is dynamic.  While these issues usually dissipate by the spring, getting there can be quite a bumpy ride.

Today provided a snapshot of this challenging journey.  In STEM class, the students worked on their chemistry investigations as they prepared for Monday’s science fair.  The boys, working with their partner, worked on finishing their lab report and organizing their presentation board.  They practiced coexisting effectively while being self aware of the requirements.  Most of the groups worked very well and accomplished much.

One student, however, had difficulty seeing learning as a process.  As he completed his lab report, he did not review it with his partner, nor did he check it over against the project requirements listed on the Haiku STEM Class page.  Because of this, his explanation of his group’s results lacked a scientific explanation.  How does stomach acid work to break down food?  When I reminded him that he needed to answer this question, he guffawed a bit, but, he did eventually revise his lab report based on what he thought I had said.  Then, he had me review it again.  While he had added some information to the conclusion based on my feedback, it still lacked the scientific vocabulary to explain the process of digestion.  So, I praised him for adding to his conclusion but reminded him that he still needed to answer the question I previously asked.  He huffed and puffed a bit more and started to cry.  I feel for him and wanted to console him, but I also understand that this behavior is how he deals with frustration.  He had a hit a wall.  Once he works through it, which he will, he will learn so much.  He will learn about the power of perseverance and problem solving.  He will also learn that making mistakes and not being correct the first time are all a part of the learning process.  Yes, it’s difficult to watch while some of the students react to failure in different ways, but, by the end of the year, they will eventually understand the power of learning from one’s mistakes.  Teaching students to embrace failure as part of the learning process is crucial to helping our students grow into effective global citizens.

What Makes an Effective Unit Introduction?

Beginning a new unit can be tricky.  How do you best introduce it to the students in an engaging manner?  How do you get them excited or hooked on the content information?  How do you help assess the students’ prior knowledge?  Do you need to have an opening activity?  These questions often plague me as I plan a new unit.

My co-teacher and I recently planned a new unit on Africa for our Humanities class.  We wrestled with how to begin it.  After a mini-unit on perspective, how would we jump into a cultural study on Africa?  How would we get the boys excited about a place that is so foreign to many of our students?  We finally came up with some ideas that we liked.

Today, we began our new Unit on Africa in Humanities class.  We began the unit by sharing and discussing one of the guiding questions for the unit: How does your perspective guide you when learning about new cultures?  We dissected the question for the boys so that they understood what it was asking.  We defined some of the vocabulary terms for our ELL students.  We also told the boys that this question will act like the river cutting through our unit.  It will tie everything we do throughout the unit together.  

Then, we had the students complete an activity to assess their prior knowledge of Africa.  Before class had began this morning, I took down all of the world maps we had hanging on the walls.  We then gave the students a piece of paper and a clipboard on which they drew the outline of Africa based on their prior knowledge.  Inside the continent they were to list everything they already knew about Africa.  We discussed some possible topic ideas to use: Culture, People, Food, Traditions, etc.  We assigned each student a different part of the classroom so that they would not be able to see what their peers were doing.  While we encourage group work and peer tutoring, we wanted this pre-assessment to be all theirs.  The students silently created their maps and filled them with information.  While most students had a good idea of the basic shape of Africa, many of the boys knew every little about the continent.  Much of the information the boys had already learned was very biased and stereotypical.  They mentioned learning about animals, watering holes, jungles, and deserts.  This is great information for us as teachers to know so that we can be sure to educate them regarding the other side of Africa, the Africa that many people like to ignore: Child soldiers, starvation, lack of clean drinking water, and disparity of wealth.  Once they had each completed their list and map, we had the students share their map with their table partner to compare and contrast.  The boys had some great conversations with their peers.  We then showed an accurate map of Africa for the boys to see their inaccuracies.  Some of the students seemed a bit shocked.  I then explained what shape I saw in Africa as a way to imprint the shape of the continent into my long term memory by making connections.  Sideways, Africa looks like the skull of an animal.  I pointed out the ear and eye.  Then, I had the boys share what they saw in the shape.  They had some great ideas: An elephant’s ear, wolf, and the Patriots symbol.  This helped them better remember the shape of Africa for future reference.  

Then, we helped the boys put Africa into the context of the greater world.  We provided the students with a world map that had Africa blanked out.  They needed to draw an accurately placed and proportional Africa on the world map.  We then handed the students a larger sized version of the same world map with Africa clearly marked.  This lead into a discussion of what the students noticed about their drawing.  The students made some keen observations:  “The top part in my drawing was too far north, Mine was too far south, or Mine was too small.”  This activity helped the students understand where Africa is in the world.

Our final introductory activity was focused on helping the students understand how large Africa is.  We gave the students each a pair of scissors and had them cut out the other continents and see how many they could fit inside Africa.  They had fun cutting and arranging the countries in a unique way.  The average was three continents.  We then shared a visual aide with the boys that displayed how many different countries could fit into Africa.  It then compared the total land area of all of those countries to Africa.  It’s a lot larger in size than many people realize.  We then discussed how today’s activities helped broaden the students’ perspective of Africa.  Many of the boys didn’t realize how large Africa truly is.  They also didn’t fully grasp its location in the world.

We ended class having the students examine why each student has a different perspective.  This then lead into how these altered perspectives can teach us a lot.  We can learn about different ways to view the world from our peers.  The students seemed excited about this discussion and today’s lesson.  Hopefully, this introduction into our unit on Africa inspired them to want to learn more.  While this was only one way to begin the unit, we hope that it was an effective and engaging way.  We’ll have to revisit this in a few days as we dig deeper into our study of Africa.

How Do You Help Students Broaden their Perspective?

Growing up in a predominantly caucasian small town in New Hampshire, my perspective was limited.  I didn’t know what it was like to live in a city.  I didn’t understand how different cultures functioned.  While I generally used a growth mindset when learning about new things, my scope of prior knowledge was very narrow.  As I age, like cheese and fine soda, my perspective continues to broaden and grow larger.  I’m learning new things and gaining a new perspective each day.

Teaching sixth grade, I’ve found that the students come to us with an incredibly small bank of prior knowledge, some of which is based on biases or stereotypes.  So, as we learn about new cultures and communities, it’s important that our students have an open and growth mindset in order to increase their flashlight beam of perspective and knowledge.  While we talk a lot about perspective and what it means, that’s not enough to help our students grow and develop.

We started our first cultural unit of study a few weeks ago with a unit on mapping to help the students be self-aware of how inaccurate flat maps are compared to globes.  This allowed us to introduce the idea of perspective as it relates to looking at maps of various places.  We branched this out a bit today with an activity to help the students see how their limited prior knowledge can sometimes lead to misconceptions about new chunks of information.  We shared some images with the students that showed people in different contexts.  We had the students make observations before we explained exactly what the pictures displayed.  Some of the boys had their minds blown by this activity.  They couldn’t believe that they were incorrect.  It’s not that they were wrong, it’s that they have such a small bank of knowledge from which to pull that their perspective is narrow.  A lot of their observations included stereotypes.  So, we talked about stereotypes and what they are.  We helped the students understand the importance of having an open mind when learning new information so that their perspective can grow.

We wanted the students to then take this new knowledge out for a test drive.  So, we had the students read an article about the Nacirema culture.  If you aren’t familiar with this article written several years ago by an anthropologist, you should check it out.  It’s very enlightening.   The students, working with a partner, read through the informational article and answered questions about the strange group of people.  We then had a whole group discussion about what they noticed and wondered regarding the Nacirema people.  Then, we pulled off the wool that was covering their eyes because of their limited perspective and explained to them how Nacirema is really just American spelled backwards.  They were shocked.  “What?  No way.  It doesn’t make sense,” were all things we heard the boys exclaim when we dropped this knowledge bomb on them.  They were mystified.  We then went through the article clarifying the strange habits of the people.  The boys were amazed.  It was pretty awesome.  We ended the class with a discussion about what this activity reminds us that we need to remember when learning about a new culture or group of people?  The students seemed to have a grasp of how important being flexible and open to new ideas is when learning new information.

Tomorrow we will jump into our Africa unit with an activity that will allow us to gather some prior knowledge from the boys based on what they think they know about Africa.  Then, we’ll begin the mapping component of our unit.  Hopefully, today’s various activities regarding perspective provided the students with the correct frame of mind for which to learn about new cultures and people.  We’ll see tomorrow.

Helping Students Learn to Solve Their Own Problems

A few years ago, I had a chat with the seventh grade teachers at my school regarding the skills they felt as though the incoming seventh graders matriculating from our sixth grade program lacked.  At the top of their list was problem solving skills.  They noted that the seventh graders we had in the sixth grade could not solve simple problems to complete tasks.  Rather than figure out how to do something, they immediately asked for help.  They couldn’t work with their peers to solve problems either.  They gave up or just went to the teacher with questions.  They didn’t know what to do when they encountered a problem.

So, two years ago, I created the STEM program in the sixth grade as a way to help the students learn to solve their own problems.  Recently, I learned that the same seventh grade team I spoke with a few years ago observed that this current group of students who came up from our sixth grade program, are much more capable of solving problems on their own.  They are effectively working with their peers to complete work and solve problems.  So, is this change as a result of the new STEM program we piloted just last year?  Perhaps.  Either way, the students seem more prepared for the rigors of seventh grade than in year’s past.  Therefore, we must be doing something right in the sixth grade.

As critical thinking and problem solving skills are vital to our students being effective and meaningful global citizens, our sixth grade program provides students ample opportunity to practice using and applying the keys to problem solving.  In STEM class, the students need to ask two peers before asking the teacher for assistance.  This way, they learn to use their peers as teachers to solve their problems.  So that our STEM program can be individualized to meet the students where they are, the math portion of each unit requires the students to learn the concepts with help from their peers and the teachers.  But, it has to start with the students.  They need to review the concept in the math book or with videos using the Khan Academy app on their iPad.  As most of our students come from schools where information was force fed to them and very little thinking and problem solving was needed, learning to solve their own problems and using their peers as resources are new concepts.  They don’t know how to utilize these skills.  So, it often takes the entire year for many of our boys to rely on their peers for help and to think critically in order to solve their own problems.  Today’s STEM class offered a snapshot of this transition from teacher-reliance to self-reliance.

One of the boys struggled to understand how to solve algebraic equations.  Instead of using the textbook as a resource or viewing tutorial videos on his iPad first, before asking for help from his peers, he went right to a peer for help.  Now, while this friend did offer effective help, because the particular student didn’t genuinely understand the concept being explained to him, he was very confused and put up a wall.  This fixed mindset prevented him from learning this new concept.  Despite talking to him about the importance of advocating for himself and doing the learning on his own over the past several weeks, he chose to ignore the expectations and ended up bringing about tears of frustration within himself.  So, after trying to remind him again in class today about the expectations to no avail, I had him meet me in the classroom during afternoon study hall for extra help.

This proved to be very beneficial.  After the separation from class and time to process what happened, he came to the extra help session with a more open, growth mindset.  I reviewed the expectations of the math packet with him.  He’s not expected to know or have learned all of the concepts covered in the math packet.  When he encounters a new concept that he doesn’t understand, he needs to look at examples in the textbook and watch videos on the Khan Academy app on his iPad.  He seemed to understand this.  Then, I reviewed the steps of solving various algebraic equations with him.  He then applied this skill learned to solve a few sample problems on his own.  He clearly demonstrated his ability to meet the graded objective that he struggled to showcase in class today.

What was it that caused this strange behavior?  Why was he unable to tackle the learning on his own in class?  Why did he operate with such a fixed mindset?  What then caused the change I saw within him when he came to afternoon study hall for extra help?  Why did he seem so open to learning the concept and then easily displayed his ability to meet the objective?  What was different between class and the extra help session?  Was it that he just needed process time?  Was he overwhelmed in class because all of the students were there working diligently and he seemed confused?  Did he just need time to process the concept in order to master it?  Whatever happened, it reminded me of how important instilling the problem solving process within our students is.  They need to learn how to be self-aware in order to solve their own problems.  So, each year, I need to be sure I focus on helping the students learn the skills of an effective problem solver.

Inadvertently Teaching Problem Solving

The best things in life generally aren’t planned.  They happen without intention.  I met my wife in college accidentally.  I left a concert early and ended up checking my email, which lead to me receiving an instant message from her.  The rest is history.  I wasn’t even looking for a girlfriend at that point in my life.  However, the fates had aligned that Saturday evening in November of 1997, accidentally.

The same can be said about the classroom.  The best laid plans don’t always produce the best results.  Sometimes, the genuine learning happens through teachable moments that weren’t planned.  My STEM class is organized in such a way that I force teachable moments to happen.  The students need to solve their own problems and discover answers  independently.  They foster their own A-Ha moments with my guidance.  Ownership allows true learning to happen.  When the students own their learning, engagement follows.

Today in STEM class, the students worked on their  self-created chemistry investigations.  Some of the boys were working on their lab reports while others were conducting their experiments.  The sixth grade classroom was alive with chemistry and excitement this morning.  The boys worked with their partners to solve problems, complete experiments, and record observations.  Some of the groups turned their observations into movies using their iPads while other groups worked at revising their lab reports.  One group wasn’t able to safely conduct their investigation in the classroom and so they needed to figure out what to do.  Do they revise their lab report and change their investigation or create a new investigation altogether?  With some input from my co-teacher, they decided to slightly alter their investigation.  Instead of boiling oil, they wanted to heat oil by placing a metal container of the oil into a bucket of hot water.  Then they would pour it onto the ice cubes to explore what happens.  So, they did this.  They didn’t feel as though the water was hot enough, but they conducted the investigation anyway.  Then, as they were unable to observe any obvious changes in the ice, they wanted to challenge themselves one step further.  Instead of heating the oil, what happens when they freeze the oil after it is poured onto the ice?  Will the oil separate before freezing?  Will the oil freeze in the ice?

The students were curious.  They didn’t want to give up on their investigation.  So, rather than create a new experiment, they changed their investigation.  Then, when they didn’t receive the result they wanted, they brainstormed other solutions and ideas.  They solved a problem that they didn’t know they would have.  They thought for sure that they would be able to heat oil in the dining hall kitchen in order to conduct their investigation.  When they learned today that they couldn’t, they didn’t give up.  They persevered and solved their problem.  They didn’t know what direction to go in until they tried, failed, reflected, thought about it, and tried something else.  It’s all a part of the process of problem solving.  I love it.  This is why I created a STEM course in the sixth grade.  The boys need to learn these valuable life skills now rather than waiting until high school.

Happy accidents in life and in the classroom help keep things interesting and allow the learning and growing to increase exponentially.  Without any sort of direct instruction or much guidance today, my students utilized the problem solving process to grow and learn as scientists.  Wow!  That’s what it’s all about.

What’s the Most Effective Way to Begin a New Unit?

One aspect of teaching I’ve been working on over the past few years is how to ask the best, most effective questions in lessons and projects.  How do I ask questions that promote critical thinking and creativity?  How do I inspire my students to delve into the content deeply by using the skills covered in the unit?  I feel as though the questions I usually ask are too broad or too specific.  They lack the wow factor that I’m working towards.

This year, I feel as though I have been generating pretty quality questions that help challenge my students to think about the topics covered in a creative and unique way.  However, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Yesterday, I had a meeting with my co-teacher and another colleague to discuss ideas my co-teacher could work on as part of her professional development program this year.  She originally wanted to focus on how to differentiate her teaching to meet the needs of the ELL students in the class.  She realized recently that she was no longer inspired by this topic and so she wanted to switch her focus.  I noticed that, like me, she struggled to ask effective questions.  So, I suggested that topic to her.  She seemed to like that.  Then as the discussion progressed yesterday, she realized that she wanted to focus on questions as they pertain to unit introductions.  How do you open a unit in a manner that hooks students but also assesses their prior knowledge?  What sorts of questions should she ask?  She really liked this idea, but she wants to do some thinking and research around this topic before making the final decision.  That makes sense.  Think and reflect before moving forward.

During our chat yesterday, I realized that I struggle with this same thing.  I don’t always know how to best open or introduce a new unit or topic.  How do I inspire students to want to learn more while also accessing their prior knowledge?  What kinds of questions would allow me to do this?  Thinking about the unit on Africa we will be starting next week in Humanities class, how can we best introduce it to the students?  They already know that we are going to be covering a unit on Africa and so the surprise factor need not apply here.  So, how do we hook them?  We’re going to be reading and discussing an article on the Nacirema Culture and people next Tuesday as a way of getting the boys to think about perspectives and biases that they bring to the table.  How can they appropriately inform their perspectives?  This will allow us to then remind the boys the importance of going into this unit, and to approach anything new or different, with an open and growth mindset.

Then what though?  We have a How Big is Africa lesson planned to help the students understand the vast size of Africa.  But is that really a hook?  Will that help the students get excited about our unit?  Perhaps, but is there something else we could do that would better introduce the unit?

What if we ask the the students to draw an outline map of Africa based on what they know?  Then, inside the map they could write everything they already know about Africa.  Then, they could share their map and and list with their table partner before we start the whole class discussion.  This seems like it would work.  The boys would have a chance to explore what they know.  It would also allow us to squash any great biases they have right away.  It gets them doing something and working with a partner.  Is there anything else?

What about starting our read aloud then?  Would that work?  We’re going to use Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water about two children living in Africa.  Perhaps that could be our hook.  The novel starts off quite strongly and so maybe that would be the way to go.

What about making a puzzle of Africa out of poster board and then having them put it together as a class.  We would leave out some pivotal pieces so that when they finish, we could ask them, “What’s missing?  Is the puzzle complete?”  Of course it isn’t complete.  They would still need to learn about African cultures and the physical geography of the continent, which they will gain from us.  Would that be a good introductory lesson?

I feel as though we need some sort of engaging hook that will allow for the students to share their knowledge of Africa with us as well.  Perhaps more ideas will come to us before we begin our unit next week.  No matter what, we will focus on asking effective questions and getting the boys excited about Africa.