Education Is about Making and not Consuming

Hands-on projects and activities that involve doing or making something are the few educational memories I have from my elementary school days.  While my teachers didn’t utilize many projects of this type, occasionally I had to make a diorama or build something to show my learning.  Those were my favorite activities.  I had to apply my knowledge of a subject to complete the task.  I loved it.  I found it so much more valuable and meaningful than just listening to a teacher talk, take notes, and complete an exam. The neuroscience of education research being written about in recent years tell us that these kinds of projects are best for engaging students in the content, preparing them for life in a maker-world, and helping them practice their critical thinking and teamwork skills.

Today, during periods three through six, my sixth grade class ventured to one of the Maker Spaces in my school to build pinewood cars.  After days of preparation, today was the big dance.  They needed to transfer their thinking and idea to a block of wood.  They used power tools, encountered problems, solved problems, worked together, asked for help, and had fun constructing their pinewood cars.  It was so much fun to observe the boys turning their learning into doing.  The application of knowledge was on show in the classroom today.  They used their blueprint to guide them in creating their unique pinewood car.  While a few of the students ran into problems, they never gave up.  Instead, they found new ways to solve their problems.  One student cut his block of wood lengthwise right from the start, despite being told that the width between the axle holes needed to remain constant.  He didn’t get angry or frustrated, he used his extra wood to glue on extensions to allow the wheels to be wide enough apart so that the car will ride on our test track.  A few students struggled to attach their wheels and axles to the block of wood.  They either chipped some of the wood or couldn’t get the axles to fit into the groove just so.  They didn’t throw their car against the wall in anger.  They found glue and fixed the problem.  They didn’t need me to solve their problems as they did it all themselves.  It was so exciting to watch these empowered learners grow, develop, and solve problems as they DO the learning.

The big question is, would the students better retain the content of friction and aerodynamics if I had just lectured them about the concepts and had them take a test or write a report?  The data shows that students who make something unique on their own to show their learning are better able to make strong neurological connections and move that knowledge into their long term memory.  Making and doing is what needs to be happening in classrooms around the world.  Learning needs to address real-life issues and provide students opportunities to solve problems by making a product or solution.  Students who consume education learn to take tests well, but are rarely happy and struggle to solve problems on their own.  Consuming quickly makes people apathetic.  In order to help our students take care of their educational gardens, they need to be the ones finding the relevant and engaging information that will allow them to solve unique problems through doing or making stuff.  The future needs new ideas and problem solvers, not more consumers and test takers.

Making Learning Fun, on the Fly

While I tend to be very regimented in my life and crave routine, I also love trying to find ways to be spontaneous.  Instead of simply greeting someone with a “Good Morning” I’d rather run up to them, give them a high five, and wish them a Happy (whatever day it happens to be) Day.  For example, today is National Puzzle Day and so when students entered the dining hall this morning, I greeted them with a surprising, “Happy National Puzzle Day!”  They loved it.  It helped to wake them up and put a smile on their face.  Being spontaneous helps keep me young and allows me to spread joy throughout my school.  Spontaneity in the classroom is also very beneficial for my students as it will increase engagement and learning.  Although I try to plan spontaneity, I find that the best spontaneous activities or lessons happen in the moment.

Today in STEM class, the students worked on The Friction of Pinewood Cars activity.  Almost every student worked on their blueprint design and the report explaining the scientific concepts behind their design.  However, one student, who put forth much effort outside of class and in the classroom yesterday, completed the design and explaining phases by the start of class.  I wasn’t prepared for anyone to be done so quickly.  What do I do, I thought to myself.  I did not plan an Extend Your Learning opportunity for this unit.  Oh no, what will I have him do?  He likes to read, but this is STEM class, and so I feel the focus should be on problem solving.  So now what?

As I often remind my son when he’s having a bad day, “Fake it ’till you make it.”  I didn’t let this student know how nervous or unprepared I was.  When I met with him, I brought him to the science lab area of the classroom.  Scanning the room quickly for ideas, nothing seemed to come.  What do I have him do?  I want to challenge him to extend his learning of energy and physics but how can I do that?  Luckily, I happened to lay eyes on the large container of electronic gadgets and stuff I have collected over the years.  There are motors, wheels, batteries, and so much more inside this large plastic bin.  I’ve been wondering how I could use this in the classroom.  Ta-da.  Then it came to me, like a message from Socrates.  “Using only the materials in this box, you need to create a device that maximizes its kinetic energy or potential energy.”  I introduced some of the materials in the box to pique his interest.  He seemed excited.  So, I carried the box to the back table where he could work.  He spent the entire period trying to make a vehicle out of an empty flashlight container, a motor, springs, some batteries, and random wires he found in the box.  By the end of the class, he had gotten a motor to work and was setting up the spring inside of the flashlight container so that it would move up and down, causing the flashlight container to roll over and over.  He was so enthralled in this project that he asked if he could come back and work on it during his afternoon study hall.  This is a student who isn’t usually engaged by anything we do in the class.  He does great work and has a positive attitude, but he usually just completes work to get it done.  Rarely will he spend extra time working on something for STEM class outside of the confines of the classroom.  He is content getting his work done and being happy with that.  Therefore, I was psyched that he seemed to genuinely enjoy tinkering with random materials to make something new and unique.

What began as a bit of a nightmare for me as I didn’t have a plan for what students would do if they finished their work ahead of schedule, transformed into something magical.  I needed to find an activity for this student to do that extended his learning and engaged him.  Rather than have him play educational physics game on his iPad, I challenged myself to find something more for him.  The activity of building something that would accomplish the same task as the pinewood car he had designed, challenged him to think critically and creatively about the concepts covered for the unit.  He was able to extend his learning while doing something he enjoyed.  The engagement was totally there for him.  And to think it all happened accidentally on the fly.  I didn’t go into class thinking that this was what he was going to do.  Oh no, I went into class unprepared, but then was able to solve the problem using a growth mindset.  It’s nice to see things work out just right in the classroom.  I left class today feeling invigorated and excited.  It was awesome.

Helping Students Overcome Learning Challenges

In first and second grade, I received Title I support for reading.  I met with the reading specialist at my school with a small group of peers from my class two or three times a week.  I used to hate being pulled away from my class while they had “fun” doing stuff I wasn’t a part of.  It wasn’t until the sixth grade when I started to truly enjoy reading that I appreciated being given extra support as a developing reader.  I faced learning challenges as a young boy that I needed help in overcoming.  Luckily, I had supportive parents and an accommodating school that assisted me on my learning journey.  While I was able to overcome my challenges as a young student in early elementary school, not all students are as lucky.  It takes some students many more years and much more support and guidance to help them address their learning challenges.

As a teacher, I love teaming with my students as we go on learning adventures together in order to help them overcome their educational challenges.  Teaching sometimes feels like playing that always fun video game from my youth, Super Mario Brothers.  Some students need little help and support to grow, like my friends growing up.  They didn’t need the extra help I did.  They were also the same ones who finished Super Mario Brothers in one sitting without any cheat codes or extra lives.  A few students end up flying under the radar through school, never really learning much of anything.  Those are like the kids who beat Super Mario Brothers by using the cheat codes available in magazines or special books.  They took the easy way out so that very little work was involved in the process, just like some students I’ve worked with over the years.  They were able to make it to sixth grade barely knowing how to read or write.  Then there are those other students, like me, who keep trying and trying to learn, but just can’t defeat Bowser in the castle level of every round without extra support or help.  I usually just called my friends who walked me through the level over the phone.  I did it myself, but with extra help.  Those students are fun to work with as well because with some support, they can achieve much success.  While I never completely beat Super Mario Brothers, I never stopped trying.  Students like me, almost never give up.  They persevere through the challenges, but they will eventually stop trying without help and guidance.  My goal is to help give them the boost they need to reach for their potential before it’s too late.

Today in STEM class, the students worked on The Friction of Pinewood Cars activity.  A few of those accelerated students worked on the final stage of the project before building their car while the rest of the students still needed to finish the earlier phases of the project.  Those students were the ones who needed support to overcome their learning challenges.  Some of them, of course, needed more help than others.  A few of the students finished making their screencast video quite quickly once I answered a few of their questions or posed some questions to get them thinking.  A small group, though, needed much guidance and help to accomplish the task.  Two of those boys are ELL students and one is a domestic student who needs much scaffolding to process and understand concepts and ideas.  I worked with each of them, asking questions regarding the assignment and content covered, reteaching concepts they struggled with, and watched and rewatched their iterations of videos until they achieved the goal I set for them.  When the students figured out what they needed to learn to overcome their challenges, they were elated.  Each of those students shouted out in joy when they realized what they had accomplished.  The most amazing thing was that those students who struggled at first, ended up creating the most detailed and creative screencast videos.  Their understanding of the four forces of flight and aerodynamics was far superior to that of the accelerated students who constructed a video meeting the objectives the first time through.  It was so much fun watching their brilliant videos as they exclaimed in jubilation that they had achieved what they once thought was impossible: They had overcome their learning challenges.

Sometimes, it just takes a little extra support and help.  I do wonder though, is there anything I could do earlier in the learning process to help those students understand the concepts or skills earlier so that they didn’t have to struggle so much?  Would that make a difference?  Isn’t failure part of the process?  If I take away their process, then will the real learning every happen?  All great things to keep in mind as I continue overcoming the challenges I face in the classroom daily.

Helping Students See their Learning

If I was asked what I learned in school, my response would be, “Math, American History, Chemistry, Biology, Science, World History, Writing, Reading, and Parts of Speech.”  I would be hard-pressed to recall the specific details of each of those big ideas.  Nothing really stuck out for me.  Also, I didn’t truly learn the vital soft skills and study skills needed to be a successful student or citizen.  My classes were very teacher-directed.  I was told what to learn, study, write, read, and do.  I didn’t learn how to think for myself, solve problems, or work with others.  I wish I had.  Sure, I could have taken more ownership and done more learning on my own.  I just wasn’t motivated to do so.  As a teacher though, I am learning more and more important lessons and valuable nuggets on a daily basis because I want to.  I go out of my way to be the student now that I wish I had been then.  Better late than never.

Sometimes in the classroom, regardless of how specific my teaching and instruction might be at times, I find that my students sometimes feel like I did.  What am I learning?

Today in Humanities class, the students worked on recreating a self-selected piece of Egyptian art.  The students had to research the piece they chose and complete a written proposal before they could begin making their piece in class.  Most of the students had finished the proposal stage yesterday in class.  However, one student still needed to work on his proposal in class.  He seemed stuck.  He didn’t know what to do or how to do it.  While this particular student is one of our ELL learners, he also has difficulty processing information in even his native language.  He is often confused by directions and needs things restated or explained in numerous ways before he can process what is being asked of him.  Today was no exception.  He struggled to identify how he was going to recreate the wall painting he chose.  He didn’t know what materials he should use.  He also didn’t know how he was going to put his own spin on the piece.  I met with him a few times in class today to give him some guidance.  I didn’t do the work for him, but I posed insightful questions to help spark new ideas and understanding.  Eventually, the processing did happen and he began to work.  He needed to think critically about the task in order to solve the problem at hand.  It was so much fun to watch him have several A-Ha moments in class today.  Despite all the deep thinking this student had done today, I wondered if he was self-aware of it.

At the end of class, we debriefed today’s work period by having the students reflect on the Habits of Learning they utilized in class.  I called on a few students to share their ideas.  Then, I called on the particular student who struggled in class today to share his ideas.  He said, “Creativity.”  I asked him if he used any others.  He said, “No.”  I then reminded him of all the thinking he had done in class today.  “As this activity was difficult for you, you needed to think critically about the task in order to get started on your art piece.”  After I put his learning into words for him, he seemed to understand as he agreed with me.  Did he just agree with me for the sake of agreeing or did he really see that he used critical thinking skills today?  Perhaps, but either way, sometimes students just need to have things named for them.  Ownership is a challenging skill to develop.  It takes much effort to be able to explain what you have done or learned in many cases.  As teachers, we often times need to explain what skills are being learned or practiced in the classroom so that they can see their learning.

It’s All About Mindset

Each morning, I wake up to the peaceful sound of the local rock music station near my town.  I find the soothing sound of Disturbed’s newest song calming.  It helps me awaken with a renewed sense of sleepiness.  I want to go back to sleep as soon as I wake up.  Getting out of bed is the last thing I want to do, but I do it because I need to.  As a teacher, I need to be there for my students.  I want to support them and show them care and attention.  I can’t do that if I stay in bed all day.  So, I get up, put on a happy face, and, “Fake it ’till I make it.”  I enter my school’s dining hall for breakfast greeting students with a high-five, smile, and excited “Happy —day!”  The students rarely greet me in response as they are still sleeping, but in the upright position.  Every once in awhile, a boy will respond with, “How are you doing?”  Every time, no matter the day or my true feelings, I say, “Best day of my life.”  While I do feel lucky to be alive on a daily basis, I don’t always feel like every day is great, but if I have a positive outlook and mindset, I will eventually take on positive feelings and thoughts.  Attitude can be contagious, even internally.  Looking at the world through happy eyes allows me to spread cheer, joy, and happiness.  Plus, I do find that I am generally in a happy mood inside because I work so hard to fake it externally.  It’s all about mindset.

To help remind my students of the power of mindset, in STEM class today, I shared with them a meeting I had with my school’s Science Department yesterday morning.  I explained how we discussed Growth Mindset and how it applies to our students.  I told them how valuable having a positive growth mindset can be on their overall learning and work ethic.  I said, “Today, I am going to meet with you all to assess your screencast videos.  Most of them will probably need to be revised.  This will make you mad, angry, and frustrated.  That’s understandable.  Who likes redoing work?  However, what’s important is what you do next.  Do you wallow in self-pity and say, ‘Woe is me,’ or do you encounter the challenge head on and say, ‘I can do this?’  If you utilize a growth mindset, you will find a new way to accomplish the task and solve the problem.  You will persevere and not give up.  While you may want to cry, scream, or yell at your peers today if you are faced with difficulties, try to see the experience as an opportunity to learn to overcome challenges.”  I didn’t say much, but I wanted my students to hear how crucial having a growth mindset is to learning.

Usually, when I offer students feedback on their work and have them revise it, they usually get frustrated, start yelling, cry, argue with their table partner, or become defiant.  Rarely will they try to overcome the problem and revise their work without much guffawing first.  However, today, was different.  All but one student needed to revise or finish their screencast video.  I provided them each with specific feedback on how they can grow their work.  They took this new knowledge back to their work space and worked at revising their video.  While only a few students were focused enough to accomplish the task in class, all of them put forth effort to work towards meeting the expectation.  There were no tears or angry words.  There were smiles, A-Ha moments, words of encouragement, and effort in the classroom today.

I was amazed and excited.  What fostered this change?  Was it the knowledge I provided them with regarding the power of a growth mindset?  Did that make the difference?  Did just hearing those words empower the students to work through their problems on their own?  Was that all I needed to do to help them?  Perhaps, or maybe they are finding their inner motivation.  Or, maybe, they just found my feedback so useful and valuable that they wanted to incorporate it into their work.  Yeah, that’s gotta be it.  Whatever the reason for today’s positive change in class, it does make me wonder, Is equipping students with the knowledge of the benefits of possessing a growth mindset, one way to help guide students towards success?

Global Society’s Infatuation with Grades

As the sun rose over Mount Cardigan this morning, my school’s Science Department met for its bimonthly department meeting.  A recent article about Carol Dweck’s work with Growth Mindset was the focus for our meeting.  As Growth Mindset is one of our school’s Habits of Learning, we wondered, how is what we are doing in the classroom, helping students develop and utilize a growth mindset?  Are we over-praising our students so much that they feel as though just doing an assignment or work is exceeding or meeting the objectives covered?  Are we negatively impacting how our students work in and out of the classroom?  What can we do to help our students effectively use a growth mindset when faced with a problem or challenge?

Our discussion got me thinking: Why does it seem as though society, and our students in general, seem so focused on grades?  Instead of asking, what is my grade, how do we help our students see that it’s about the learning and skill acquisition?  Is it possible to transition from a grade-driven educational system to one that is focused on objectives and skills?  If so, how?

Filled with many more questions than answers this morning, I entered the classroom, excited to try and change the global educational system, on a micro level.  In the sixth grade, our focus has always been on the objectives and skills.  While many of our students enter our class in September coming from a school where the focus was on grades, we retrain them over the course of the year.  By June, our students talk about objectives and scores out of four instead of percentages and letter grades.  It’s no easy task, and we have to constantly remind the students that it’s all about the process of learning and the skills needed to be successful.  The effort and work involved seems totally worth it to us in the sixth grade.  The benefits far outweigh everything else.  The students leave our classroom at the end of the academic year equipped with the skills needed to be successful global students.  They know how to think for themselves, read engaging books and tackle the text in meaningful ways, reflect on their work in order to learn and grow, solve problems using critical thinking skills, and effectively coexist with their peers.  But, then what?  If other grades and schools use the letter grading system and focus on grades as the goal of education, then this new outlook we have provided our students with becomes useless.  What do we do then?

That’s the billion dollar question.  How can we change the system?  President Obama’s new education directive, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), seems as if it will remove emphasis off of grades and content knowledge, but is that enough?  Is the idea of earning perfect grades already so ingrained within our society that change can never possibly come?  I’m a dreamer and so I think anything is possible with hard work, dedication, and collaboration.  Teachers at all levels around the globe need to unite and send a common message to their students: The Habits of Learning and skills involved are what truly matter.  A grade is just a letter or number that can be altered or deleted with the push of a button while the skill of problem solving can never be taken away.  This won’t be easy and it will take everybody working together towards a common goal.  I know that my idea is utopian in nature, but it’s better to dream big than to do nothing and complain about the issue, which is why I started working towards this goal in the classroom today.

I met with students today during Humanities class to review their recent work regarding the skill of participating in a Socratic Discussion.  As I met with each student, I explained what this skill truly enveloped.  “It’s more than just participating in a class discussion.  A Socratic Discussion is about support, facts, and connections.  You need to be able to understand the question and topic being discussed so that you can actively grow the conversation with your words.  You need to effectively prepare for a Socratic Discussion in order to demonstrate your ability to meet the objective.”  I then provided each student with feedback regarding their individual performance and offered suggestions for improvement.  The boys seemed to process what I was telling them.  I felt pretty good about the conversations I was having, until the final chat.  This one conversation allowed for a deep discussion regarding the sixth grade program and it’s purpose.

This particular student struggles to utilize a growth mindset.  He is very fixed in his thinking.  We’ve worked with him throughout the year on this very skill.  We’ve offered him strategies and feedback at every possible moment to help him understand how to be open to new ideas, challenges, problems, and feedback.  He’s made great progress but still has much work to do in this area.  When I met with him today, he didn’t seem to hear any of the feedback I was offering.  Instead, he focused on the grade.  He was so worried that a 2.5/4 would keep him off of Honor Roll that he couldn’t “listen” when I provided him suggestions on what to do to improve next time.  That’s when I stopped and reminded him of our focus in the sixth grade.  “We wish we could just tell you how you are progressing towards meeting the objectives needed to be successful global citizens, but our school mandates that we report grades to you and your parents.  While we do occasionally tell you your grade, we want you to focus on the skills and how you are working towards them.  For us in the sixth grade, it’s about empowering you to see beyond the grades.”

Although this student probably only really processed about 10% of what I said as he was so focused on the grade, I’m hopeful that if we continue having conversations like this with our students, we will eventually be able to break the cycle.  Let’s talk about skills, whether they are soft, social, or content specific, and let’s say, “Goodbye,” to grades and, “hello,” to what really matters.

Piecing Together a Coherent Educational Experience

One of my fondest memories from elementary school was when my third grade class traveled to Old Fort Number Four in Charlestown, NH.  We learned all about early colonial life in New England.  We got to pound metal like a blacksmith, turn wool into yarn, and play games that children from that time period would have played.  It was an amazing experience, and the only thing I remember about third grade.  I couldn’t tell you what I learned in math class, what books I read, or who my friends were back then, but I remember that awesome field trip.  Experiences like that field trip are the memories that get ingrained within one’s long term memory when in school.  Field trips are ways to experience school instead of simply consuming it.

As a teacher, I want to provide my students with experiences they will remember so that learning is engaging and real.  Instead of listening to me lecture all about alternative forms of energy, I have my students erect a wind turbine and solar panel, calculate the energy output of both, and then compare and contrast the two green energy forms.  This allows them to DO the learning as they become makers and producers instead of consumers.  My goal is to get students thinking, questioning, making, doing, and experiencing the world around them through collaborative opportunities with plenty of time for reflection.

In Humanities class, we are in the midst of a great unit about Africa.  Knowing that we would be completing a multi-day activity regarding the art and music of a particular country starting today, my co-teacher and I arranged a field trip to a local art museum that has a large exhibit on African Weaponry and Art.  Rather than just show them pictures of art on a projector in class today, we wanted to stimulate their brains and neurological pathways a few days prior to the start of the art activity.

On Wednesday of this week, we traveled to the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College to see, first-hand, some authentic African art.  The boys had a blast learning about the various weapons used by different tribes throughout Africa.  They even had a shield used by one of the tribes mentioned in our class read-aloud novel A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park.  This connection happened accidentally.  I love when serendipity enters the garden of teaching.  We also had a chance to view some modern art from Africa.  The boys were enthralled by the metaphorical and unique works.  I engaged the students in a conversation about the artist’s message regarding a piece of modern African art.  They were very interested and curious about why a photographer had included a basketball in an image showing kids in Africa.  They used their critical thinking parts nicely throughout our field experience.  They loved it.

Fast forward to today.  In class today, we began the art of Egypt activity.  I showed the students several different pieces of art from Egypt.  We discussed each piece regarding observations and noticings the students made.  They were great detectives and picked up on intricate things I hadn’t even thought of or noticed.  They made insightful hypotheses regarding the purpose of the art work and the message the artists were attempting to make.  I was amazed.  While I had intended on finishing our discussion of the art pieces in the first of our two blocks today, I allowed the conversation to bubble over into the next block as well as they all had so much to add to the conversation and seemed genuinely engaged in what we were discussing.  It was awesome.  Perhaps Wednesday’s field experience and discussions paved the way for the high level of engagement and participation that occurred in the classroom today.  Or, maybe, they just love Egyptian art.

During the final ten minutes of class today, I introduced the activity portion of the lesson, which will take at least three more double-block periods to complete.  The students need to choose an engaging and inspirational piece of Egyptian art that they will then recreate in a similar manner to the original while putting their own spin on it.  How can they make the piece unique to them as individuals?  While the students didn’t have much time to choose a piece in class today, many of the students began searching online right away.  A few of the students began researching Egyptian weapons, perhaps because they were inspired by Wednesday’s art museum visit, while others looked into ancient Egyptian art pieces, perhaps because they were the focus of my lesson.  Regardless, they were excited to begin letting their creative juices spill out into our classroom.  One student asked if he could create a tomb painting on the wall of our classroom.  Without giving him carte blanche to do so in front of the entire class, I said, think big and I’ll have a conversation with you.  Yes, I thought, how cool would it be to turn our classroom into an Egyptian museum?

Our African unit has been filled with experiences and activities like the one we created this week.  The students are making connections between our field experiences, hands-on activities, and in-class discussions.  It’s been phenomenal.  While this is the first year I have taught a unit on Africa, my co-teacher and I are putting the pieces of the puzzle together in a very coherent and purposeful manner.  The students are seeing how everything is linked back to perspective and the way we each view the world through a different lense.  It’s been an amazing experience and today helped remind me just how engaged are students are regarding Africa and its rich and diverse culture.

Helping Students Broaden their Perspective

Growing up in a small town, I didn’t realize how big and diverse the world truly is.  I remember how shocked I was the first time I ventured into New York City as a teenager: Seeing homeless people on the streets begging for money, trash littering the sidewalks, and people everywhere.  I was overwhelmed.  As I’ve matured, I have definitely added diverse life experiences to my repertoire that have allowed my perspective to grow and broaden.  It’s these unique experiences that have made me realize how important knowledge truly is.  The way one looks at the world is vital to how he or she interacts with the world and others in it.  Global citizens are made through education.  Knowledge is power.  The more one knows, the more he or she can positively impact the world and be the change they wish to see in the world, as Ghandi instructed many years ago.

One of the goals I have for my students in Humanities class is that they will broaden their perspective and change the way they see the world by the end of the academic year.  I want them to be aware of the biases they all have due to their prior knowledge and be open to new ideas and knowledge as a way to shed light on the unknown or their version of a truth.  While this is challenging at times, my co-teacher and I try to encourage the students to approach each lesson, activity, and unit with an open and growth mindset.

Today in class, we introduced our next country of study within the African continent, Egypt.  We discussed Egypt’s geography and location in Europe so that the students have a foundation of knowledge upon which to build an understanding of the country.  The students then wrote and drew pictures depicting everything they know or think they know about Egypt.  This springboard activity led into a whole class discussion regarding how what they know about Egypt stems from a very narrow perspective on the country.  I asked the boys, “How did you learn what you know about Egypt?”  We then discussed how this skewed prior knowledge leads to ignorance regarding all aspects of the country.   The boys had drawn pictures of ancient Egypt, pyramids, pharaohs, and the Egypt of old.  None of the students seemed to realize how rich and diverse the country currently is or the turmoil it has undergone in recent years.  They knew what teachers had taught them and what textbooks had explained to them.  They knew what the world wanted them to know about Egypt.  What about everything else?  We spent time viewing various pictures of modern Egypt with the students.  The boys then shared what they noticed in each image.  They seemed surprised that the images of pyramids depicted very old and eroded objects.  They didn’t realize how modern parts of Egypt are.  They seemed shocked by what they were learning.  At the close of the lesson, we had the students share how their perspective regarding how Egypt had changed.  Almost every student expressed how much they learned about Egypt from today’s lesson.  They were so surprised by how different Egypt is compared to what they thought they knew about the country.

Mission accomplished.  We were able to help the students see more of the world for how it truly is today.  We have equipped our students with power that they will hopefully use to make the world a better place for all citizens.  It was so interesting and fun watching the students change their view of Egypt in class today.  Helping students think critically about the world around them is one easy way we can help students grow, develop, and more effectively engage with the world in a transformative manner.

Empowering Students with Knowledge

To celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights pioneers from around the world, my school cancelled classes yesterday and in their place arranged powerful presentations and insightful discussion sessions for the students.  Our goal for this special day was to help the students broaden their perspective and see all of the injustices happening around the world.  Our hope is that by opening their eyes to child soldiers, sex trafficking, racial profiling, religious persecution, and many other social crimes against people, they will be moved to make a difference and bring about change in the world.  Knowledge is power.

I led a session for ninth graders on the issue of child soldiers.  As I began my lesson, I realized how challenging teaching ninth grade is.  They sat in their chairs like bumps on a log.  Getting the students to participate in the discussion was like trying to cut my dog’s nails.  He hates it.  I was jumping around the room, changing the tone of my voice, showing emotion, and calling them by name.  And still I got nothing from them.  I don’t know how high school teachers do it.  I could not teach high school.  Give me energetic and excited elementary students any day of the week over those kids who seem to be too cool for school.  However, there were a few students in each group that got involved in the discussion.  They answered some difficult questions and a few boys shared how outraged and shocked they were by some of the statistics.  It was something.

I began my session having the students discuss some basic questions regarding their prior knowledge on the topic.  Where are child soldiers being used?  How does being a child soldier impact young people?  What do you know about child soldiers?  I had them participate in a quick pair-share to get them talking and thinking about the topic.  They had some good conversations while I walked around and observed.  Some of the boys seemed to think that the problem was easily solvable.  “The government can stop the groups from employing child soldiers.”  If only it were that easy.  While I applaud their willingness to solve the problem, their perspective on the issue is quite narrow.  I then had the groups share out big ideas discussed.  This then led into a definition of child soldiers and some statistics.  I showed them a map that highlighted the many areas worldwide where child soldiers are used in conflicts.  They seemed a bit shocked by this.  They also seemed a bit horrified when I told them that four out of every 10 child soldiers is female.  The looks on their faces when they heard this was powerful.  Some of the boys in the group have younger sisters.  That must have been difficult to process.  I then showed them some videos of how child soldiers are used in various places around the world.  After each video I provided them the opportunity to reflect in writing on their emotions, thoughts, and questions.  A few of the boys wanted to share what they had written.  They were processing the information learned while still trying to rationalize how this issue is possible.  A few of the students were angry and upset.  My response, “Good.  If you’re not angry, then you are not paying attention.  My hope today is to make you so mad and angry about what is going on around the world that you want to do something about it, bring about change and make the world a safer place for children everywhere.”  I closed the session talking about how the students can help make a difference.  I talked about Red Hand Day that is celebrated in some European countries.  I mentioned how we in America don’t recognize it, but perhaps we should.  I wanted to get them thinking about what they could do to bring about change in the world.  I then emphasized the importance of awareness and education.  The more we know about a problem, the more knowledge we have when trying to brainstorm solutions.  I told the boys to further educate themselves on this topic so that they can find a way to help prevent two million more children from killed because they are child soldiers.  The students left my session equipped with knowledge and power.  While the topic discussed was very serious in nature, they seemed to understand it.  I’m hopeful that it struck a nerve in some of the boys so that they will spread the message and find a way to bring about change and make a difference in the world.

Empowering students with knowledge is our goal as educators.  We want our students to feel like they can tackle any problem and make the world a better place.  Sometimes, to do this, it means that we must discuss sensitive topics and issues.  While these aren’t easy conversations to have, they are necessary.  Change doesn’t happen through ignorance.

Be a Risk Taker and Try New Things in the Classroom

In college, I was definitely a risk taker.  I did things back then that I wouldn’t even dream of doing now.  One time my buddy and I went driving around late at night in the summer and thought it would be a good idea to light firecrackers and throw them out the window.  Sure, it sounds like fun, as long as the window is open when you go to throw them out.  The sound of a firecracker going off between your legs inside of a car is not an experience or memory you will ever be able to forget.  While most people would call experiences like this one pure stupidity, I call it risk taking.  No, it wasn’t smart, but it was risky.  I blame it on neuroscience.  I was still myelinating when I was in college and therefore didn’t have strong enough neurological connections to be able to make careful and rational decisions.

As an adult, I am much more cautious.  You might say that I’ve eaten the apple and see the world for what it truly is, a scary place.  I don’t take risks like I once did.  I have a family that I need to protect and take care of.  If I die doing something risky, who will teach my son how to drive or take care of my wife if she gets sick?  Therefore, I now take calculated risks in my personal life.  However, as an educator, when it comes to trying new things, I say, bring on the risks.  More than 75% of the new things I’ve tried in the classroom have worked out for the best and elicited positive results.  Trying new things as a teacher is the right thing to do.  While I can be careful in my personal life, the more risks I take in the classroom, the better.

Earlier this week, when I taught a mini-lesson on the stock market, I felt as though I didn’t do it justice.  I felt like I was just going through the motions.  The students weren’t super engaged in the discussions and they seemed to just complete the worksheet to get it done.  I feel as though I failed them as their teacher.  That afternoon, several students came to me for help because they were confused by the directions on the worksheet packet I had assigned for homework.  Had I better explained the worksheet packet in my mini-lesson, the students would have been better prepared for the homework assignment.  I was a bit disappointed by the whole experience.  So, I vowed that today’s mini-lesson on the stock market would kick butt and leave my students excited and engaged.

Today in STEM class, I taught a lesson on diversified risk as it pertains to investments and the stock market.  I began the lesson with a guiding question: What is the difference between risk and diversification?  We then viewed a short video that nicely explained what each term meant and the importance of having a diversified investment portfolio.  I debriefed the video by reviewing the guiding question.  They all seemed to understand the big differences.  We then discussed the three types of risks related to companies traded on the stock market.  This lead into a partner activity in which they had to decide which company had the most risk and which was the most reliable one to invest in.  We wrapped up this conversation with a full group discussion.  The students seemed engaged and interested in what we were doing.  They asked insightful questions and worked diligently.  The boys then completed another partner activity before moving into a full group discussion.  I tried to vary the types of instructional methods used so that the students would be focused and engaged.  This seemed to work out well for me.

My favorite part of the lesson, was when I deviated from my original plan.  After the students finished the final partner project, in which they had to document the companies they had invested in to examine how diversified their portfolio is, I had intended on having them move into independent work on the remainder of the worksheet packet that they needed to finish for homework.  I had done that during the last mini-lesson with poor results.  So, as the students finished working on the partner activity, I met with each group and gave them another task to complete based on my discussions.  One group felt as though their investment portfolio was not diversified at all and they wanted to fix it.  So, rather than have them move onto the worksheet packet, I had them update their stock portfolio.  They seemed excited to have the opportunity to do so.  They were super engaged and got right to work.  Another group felt good about their portfolio and so I had them work together on the worksheet packet so that they could assist and support one another.  They did a great job working together to examine how diversified or risky certain stock portfolios were.  I assigned the other groups similar assignments based on the conversations I had with them.  Rather than just move onto a different activity, I wanted to take the pulse of each partnership first.  This seemed to make a huge difference.  The students felt heard and respected.  They spent the final part of class working very well with their partner because of it.

Being flexible and open to trying new things and taking risks in the classroom allows for student engagement, choice, care, and respect.  Fostering strong relationships with the students in the classroom allows for genuine learning to happen on a daily basis.  I want my students to feel as though I amend my lessons and activities according to their level of engagement and excitement.  What do my students need to be challenged and appropriately supported?  Do they need more work, more practice, new activities, or something else entirely?  Assessing the atmosphere and environment in the classroom on a daily basis allows for the important choices to be made.  Do I repeat the same yucky lesson I did on Tuesday or do I take a risk and try something different?  Taking professional risks in the classroom helps foster a culture of caring, engagement, and excitement.  I want my students to enjoy coming to school and trying new things that will better engage the students makes this happen.