Goal Setting Based on Reflection

As the spring season will soon be upon us, according to the calendar, mentally I’ve already begun preparing.  Since I am not coaching during the spring season, I will have some free time each afternoon.  While I could devote that extra time to work or relaxation, I’ve decided to devote it to my family.  I realize that my eating and life habits are not going to put me on track for eternal life.  I love sweets and I’m not a fan of exercise; however, I do want to live a long and healthy life so that I can grow old with my wife and watch my son blossom into the beautiful orchid I know he will one day become.  His blooming process just takes a little longer than the average flower.  So, to prolong my life, I’ve decided to put my free time to good use this spring: I’m going to train for a 5K running race.  I know, running is horrible.  I truly dislike running in any form unless I’m being chased by an evil monster or the tax man; sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart though.  Since I haven’t done any actual exercise or running in years, I feel as though I need to manage my expectations.  I can’t expect to go out on day one and run three miles.  I’ll need to run a little each day, reflect on my progress weekly, and then set a new goal for the following week.  It’s got to be about the process and not the product.  Just like I tell my math students, “It’s the process that matters and not the answer.”

To help my students see the value in the process of reflection and goal setting in Humanities class, today my co-teacher and I spent several minutes conferencing with each student.  We reviewed the reading goal they set for themselves at the start of the winter term and reflected on their progress.  Did they meet their goal?  If not, why?  Did they exceed their goal?  If so, what did they do to make that happen?  Then, using this reflection, we had them set a realistic reading goal for the spring term.  We asked them questions depending on the goal they set.  Will you be able to achieve this by the close of the academic year?  What will you need to do to meet this goal?  Why are you setting your goal lower than the number of books you read during the previous term?  We wanted the students to genuinely reflect on their reading progress thus far in the year.  We provided them feedback on their goals and hopefully inspired them to work diligently to achieve them by June.

If we hadn’t conferenced with the students and just had them individually set reading goals for themselves, they would not have been able to reflect on their progress or receive feedback on their accomplishments.  Real learning comes about through meaningful reflection.  When students learn from their mistakes or growth, they can then truly apply this learning to further their growth and development as students.  Goal setting needs to come about through reflection on their learning process.  It’s all about the process and not the goal itself.  Metacognition is a crucial part of the learning process.

Making Math Relevant

When I was in school, math class was filled with teacher-directed instruction.  Rarely were there activities or projects.  Usually, we were assigned problems in a textbook or provided worksheets to complete.  This kind of work bored me and so I struggled to see how it applied to my life.  When am I ever going to need to learn how to find the measure of an angle in a stop sign?  Perhaps you frequently get stopped by police officers asking you to determine the angle in the stop sign, but I don’t.  It almost always seemed to me that I was learning useless skills in my math classes.  To this day, other than the basic math operations, I use none of what I was taught in math.  I don’t need it.  Maybe that’s not true.  Perhaps I am using those math skills I was taught, but because their relevance and meaning wasn’t highlighted in class, I never realized how and when I might actually need to find the cube root of the measure of an acute angle.  Then, in eighth grade, my math teacher dropped a bomb.  Not a real bomb mind you, that would have been horrible and atrocious.  No, she allowed me to see how the basic operations I learned in elementary school will be used later in my life.  We completed a unit on financial literacy.  We learned how to balance a checkbook, make a budget, and effectively manage money.  It was awesome.  Everything I had learned in math class started to make sense.  I realized why I needed to know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide numbers.  Everything became so clear to me.  I saw the relevance in the math skills.  I wish my other math teachers had made use of such relevant and meaningful activities and projects so that I might better appreciate and still be able to explain why the measure of each angle in a quadrilateral is equal to something and something.  Allowing me to see why I had learned math, changed my life.  It all made sense to me.

As a math teacher, I try with all of my power to make use of hands-on activities and meaningful projects that allow students to see the purpose in the math skills learned.  I want them to understand why they need to know how to find the percentage of a number or add fractions. I generally try to explain the relevance of every skill covered so that they see why they are having to do the work.  I don’t want them to grow up confused like I did.

In STEM class on Saturday, to help my students see the value in accurately adding and subtracting decimals, I made one of my lifetime dreams a reality.  Ever since I was young, I wanted to own a sports card shop.  I love collecting baseball and other sports cards.  When I was in middle school, my friend and I even hosted our own card show in a nearby hotel.  We advertised and made tons of money.  It was awesome.  But, I was never able to do more than that.  Until Saturday.

Rather than just explain to students the real-world application of decimals, I wanted them to experience it first hand.  So, I brought in a bunch of my unopened baseball card packs and boxes and opened Mr. Holt’s Dugout Sports Card Shop in the classroom.  I provided each student with a gift certificate and a piece of graph paper.  They could use the gift certificate to buy as many cards as possible, as long as they accurately and properly completed the addition and subtraction of decimals needed to show how much money they would spend and have left.  It was so much fun.  The students loved opening the cards and finding some hall of famers.  The boys kept running up to me showing me their great finds.  “Look Mr. Holt, I got a Fred McGriff MVP card!”  I smiled and celebrated right along with them, not mentioning the fact that the card is worth less than the paper it was printed on.  They were seeing the relevance in adding and subtracting decimals in the form of money because they needed to effectively apply the skill in order to walk away with free cards.  Following the activity, I asked the students for feedback.  They loved the activity.  One student said, “How could you not love this activity.  We got free baseball cards.  Even if you don’t like baseball, you got free stuff.”  From the mouths of babes.

Yes, I might have enjoyed this activity a tiny bit more than my students as I felt like an entrepreneur, but I also made a math skill relevant to them.  Hopefully, they now all understand the importance of knowing how to add and subtract decimals.  They had so much fun doing math in class.  They were so excited when they found out that they had accurately completed a math problem because it meant they received more fun packs of old baseball cards.  How cool is that?  To me, great teaching is about helping students see the relevance and value in what they are learning.  If they can buy into the curriculum, they will be so much more engaged, thus, making genuine learning happen.

The Power of Student Driven Projects

Project Based Learning (PBL) has been an educational buzzword in the past several years.  Engage students in meaningful and relevant learning experiences through projects, the gurus say.  Sure, the idea behind PBL makes a lot of sense; students learn to solve real-world problems; however, the reality is that most projects assigned by teachers take ownership away from the students and are more focused on the content than any sort of actual problem.  “Research the causes of WWI and create a poster showcasing your learning.”  That’s not PBL, that’s just a hands on activity.  While some learning make take place in using these types of projects because they are hands-on, the result is generally a regurgitation of what was covered in class.  The engagement, choice, and real-world problem pieces are missing in projects like those.  As teachers, pretending that every activity or project the students complete constitutes PBL is like lying to our students.  We should not rob them of creativity and engagement.  If we want our students to learn to be meaningful global citizens, then they need to practice solving real-world problems that matter to them.

In STEM class today, my students worked on the Climate Change Project in preparation for the Climate Change Summit taking place in class next Friday.  The boys, working with their self-selected partners delved deeply into their creative and unique solutions to a self-chosen aspect of the Climate Change issue.  One group researched tax laws and how to go about creating a new tax law that would charge companies using fossil fuels 1% of their total profits.  Another group generated a very innovative way to design their solution: Melt down recycled plastic bottles.  Another group figured out how the Carbon tax affects companies and tried to brainstorm a way to create a similar tax that would send money into a fund devoted to climate change research.  One of the other groups worked on diagramming their natural greenhouse gas filter.  It was awesome.  They were so into their ideas and presentations.  Almost every student was focused for the entire one hour work period.  It was amazing.

Perhaps this focus and engagement came from the fact that they were able to choose how to solve the problem of climate change.  Because they owned their work, they felt more connected to the project.  Maybe they worked so diligently because I challenged them to stay committed to the task at hand for the entire work period so that they could earn a handful of marbles for the Marble Jar, a positive reinforcement tool used in my classroom.  Knowing that when the jar is full, they will be able to have an all-day party might have motivated them.  Or perhaps they worked so well today in class because they were engaged with the material.  As this issue of climate change will affect them all in their lifetime, they felt compelled to find viable solutions to the problem so that they would have a safe world in which to live in 50 years.  Or, maybe it was a combination of everything.  I do think, however, that creating a project which allowed for multiple choices to be made regarding an engaging topic pulled them right in like a giant magnet.  The fact that the final portion of the project involves making a presentation to a panel of judges helps as well.  Adding the element of competition to any assignment or task makes it instantly cooler and more engaging to students.

When it’s all said and done and the project has finished, I’m hopeful that the students will take the power of knowledge with them.  Climate change is real and solutions need to come about in order for meaningful change to be generated.  In this PBL experience, the students will have learned the causes of climate change, the results of climate change, the ins and outs of the Paris Agreement, and the role Carbon plays in the whole shebang.  Rather than having me, as their teacher, explain all of this to them, they had to figure it all out for themselves.  When problems are solved and questions asked by the students, genuine learning opportunities are created.  Instead of making our students consumers of information, we need to help them understand how to be producers.  Those who can create, can bring about tangible changes compared to those who just know and do nothing about it.  Let’s teach our students to be the next makers of the 21st century.

When it Just Feels Right

I heard an interview with a surfer once and he said, “Sometimes, you can’t see the wave and so you just have to feel it.  When it feels like the right wave, you go for it even if you can’t see it.  You just know.”  I feel this message rings true for a lot of things in life.  Unfortunately I am not a mind reader nor can I predict the future accurately every time.  I base some of my decisions off of intuition.  Does it feel like the right thing to do?  Sure, most of the time you have to use data to support your decisions and choices, but on those few rare occasions where there are no hard facts, you just have to go with what feels right.  The same is true after the fact as well.  Sometimes you can’t put your finger on it, but you can feel as though what just happened was right.  It’s like our eighth sense.  We can’t explain it or detail it, but sometimes you just know when everything comes together in perfect harmony, like the heart formation.

My Humanities class today just felt right.  I felt like I was at the top of my game, introducing the agenda and setting the foundation for the work period.  It felt great.  I seemed to say the right words at the right time and my lead-in led to some focused and productive work in class by my students.  Now, that feeling could have also been skewed a bit by the fact that I only got about three hours of sleep last night.  You can’t say no to Coheed and Cambria live in Boston at the House of Blues.  It was totally worth it, but perhaps I was a bit tired and so maybe that feeling of awesome was my brain saying, “Yes, last night’s concert was amazing and you need sleep.”  Or maybe, it wasn’t like that at all.  Perhaps, my spidey sense was fully functioning and it really did feel right because it was right.  Yeah, I’m going with that.  Anywho.

After the students recorded tonight’s homework in their planbook, I reviewed today’s agenda for class.  Nothing special there.  I then explained today’s On this Day in History fact from History.com.  I didn’t do an especially phenomenal job describing this nugget of information either.  Both events just happened.  The magic came when I began to get into the specifics of what the students were to do in class.  I started off by explaining how reflection isn’t meaningful or helpful to students if they don’t actually learn something from their mistakes.  “The first thing you are going to do when you get started is to read your answers to yesterday’s reflection questions.  Review the challenges you faced yesterday and then come up with a game plan for today.  What do you want to accomplish or do differently today in class?”  I then quickly reviewed what the students needed to do after they read over their reflections from yesterday’s class.  Nothing too magical there, but I did try to be concise and careful with my word choice so that every student could comprehend the instructions in an appropriate and meaningful manner.  Then the boys got right to work.

Like Houdini escaping from a locked glass box full of water, magic filled the room as the students worked today.  They seemed more focused and dedicated to accomplishing a goal or task.  They asked insightful questions and really dug into their research sources, extracting relevant facts regarding their guiding questions.  I had some really cool conversations with some of the boys as they worked.  One student asked, “Why did they throw flowers at funerals?”  My response was a question, “Did you research the history of the tradition?”  So, together we looked it up.  What we found was baffling.  The tradition of using plants in funerals and burials didn’t start until the 15th century, yet he was researching ancient Egypt.  So, we reviewed the line in his source that made him think that the Egyptians used flowers in burial ceremonies.  It turned out that the phrase was “Cultural Flowering,” which has nothing to do with flowers.  We looked it up and found out that it was describing how the Egyptian culture began to grow and develop during this time period.  So much different than placing flowers in coffins.  I explained to him the importance of really examining words before trying to infer meaning from them.  I love teachable moments like this.

Towards the close of class today, we had the students stop and do some reflecting on their process and work ethic.  Before we discussed the reflection questions, I shared a noticing I made from two conversations I had with students about the importance of being sure you really understand words before drawing meaning from them.  The boys got a kick out of my stories.  Then, the students spent 10 minutes genuinely reflecting on how they worked today and what they learned about their topic.  Some of their responses were very insightful and honest.  It was awesome!

When class ended, I was left feeling like everything just went right.  It felt great.  I’m not trying to toot my own horn because I’m sure I misspoke several times and probably could have more effectively assisted a student, but I didn’t see those happenings.  I focused on the good.  Sometimes, we all need need to focus on the good and right in our lives, and today was one of those days for me.

Helping Students See the Reality of Climate Change

A few years ago, sadly enough, I still considered myself one of the non-believers when it came to Climate Change.  “It’s just the natural, cyclical process of Earth heating and cooling,” is what I preached to my colleagues and students.  I didn’t see the value in the evidence and nor did I trust the studies and research I did view.  I denied the reality of what was actually happening.  Recently, I have done much investigating and talked with many colleagues on this issue and now see the harsh truth.  Earth is getting hotter at an unbelievably fast pace due to human activity in the form of burning and using fossil fuels.  Because of this, weather patterns are shifting and the arctic ice is melting, causing ocean levels to rise.  The oceans are also becoming more acidic, changing the environment and organisms that live in it.  Climate Change is a serious and real issue and needs to be addressed now.  Yes, the world’s governments are trying to do something about it, but one always wonders how much of what we are told as citizens is actually truth versus politics.  As Bill Gates wrote in a recent letter posted online, the youth of the world will need to help fix this issue.  They are the ones who will be bearing the weight of this problem and so they are the ones who must work to help address it.

As a teacher, I make it my goal to inspire my students.  Since we’ve been studying Climate Change in my STEM class, I’ve been educating the students on the issue at hand through teacher-directed instruction and a partner project.  I’ve also reminded them how important of a topic this is and how this will soon become their problem as they are the future of our world.  At first they didn’t seem to understand this.  I asked one student, “As a citizen of your country, why is knowing about Climate Change and things like the Paris Agreement important?”  He had to really process the question before he was able to truly answer it.  At first he said, “I don’t know.”  After dwelling on it for a few moments as I reiterated the important parts of the issue, he seemed to understand and had a much more complex answer.

The Climate Change Project has the students find a problem being loosely addressed by the Paris Agreement and create a realistic and cost effective solution to the problem.  They have a budget of $1,000 to use when devising their solution.  They aren’t necessarily going to build or complete their solution, but they are going to think it through, explain their idea and the costs involved, and present their idea to a panel of judges.  They have begun to really enjoy this project so far.  They seem very engaged with it.  Perhaps it helped that I tried to inspire self-motivation a bit by suggesting that any extremely realistic and cost-effective idea could be proposed to President Obama and perhaps be implemented in the future.  They seem very focused on this aspect of the project as they are challenging themselves to generate unique and viable solutions to the problem of Climate Change.

I’m hoping that through more discussions like the ones we’ve already had in class and through the completion of the Climate Change Project the boys are currently working on, they will see how important an issue Climate Change is and want to bring about positive changes in the world.  As a great person once said, “If not you then who and if not now then when?”  Perhaps one of the students in my class will generate the next big idea to address the issue of Climate Change.  Because of the plasticity of the developing adolescent brain, they often offer very different perspectives from adults because they are utilizing different portions of their brain to solve problems.  It is highly possible that a student and not a fancy scientist will develop the next great solution to Climate Change.  Could it be one of your students?  Let’s inspire our students to take a stand and see the reality of Climate Change so that they can foster positive change to generate solutions instead of more problems.

Is My Math Instruction Effective?

In elementary and middle school, teacher-directed instruction never seemed to work for me.  I grew bored quickly and then promptly zoned out.  I’d either doodle on paper or mentally plan out my afternoon.  That kind of focused instruction didn’t work for me; however, when I was in school, direct-instruction led by the teacher was all I ever received.  To this day, there are holes in my knowledge base because of it.  My math skills are limited and my understanding of scientific concepts is fuzzy at best.  Yes, I know that 99% of the responsibility was with me, I do wish I had had more chances to really play with the math skills as I learned them in school.  While each new day brings with it opportunities to fill in those cracks and holes with knowledge caulk, I do wish I could spend more time building upon my foundation rather than solidifying what is already there.

Due to this limited knowledge base, I find myself struggling at times to effectively introduce and discuss new math concepts in my STEM class.  Because I don’t fully understand the inner workings of integers, I find it challenging to explain the hows and whys of them to my students.  Why does subtracting a positive number from a negative number result in a smaller negative number?  I know that it does but I don’t understand it on a high enough level to be able to effectively explain it to students in a meaningful manner.  Why does subtracting a negative number from a positive number elicit a larger positive number?  I use a number line to demonstrate this to the students but I feel as though I could use more specific words or examples to clarify it for them even better.

Since I don’t fully grasp the concepts as a learner, I find it challenging to delve into them as a teacher.  Sure, I use fun activities at the start of my lessons to get the boys excited about the concepts, but is that enough?  Is excitement enough to motivate them to want to learn so that they ask the right question to allow them to fully understand the skills covered?  Of course I model the skill on the board and get the students engaged and involved in the various mathematical processes.  I do still wonder, though, is my method of instruction the most effective?  Is there a better, more meaningful way for me to instruct my students on the skills covered?  While I use the proper vocabulary terms, am I also properly labeling and describing the steps involved?  Last week, I introduced the concept of multiplying and dividing fractions.  After covering multiplication, I asked for volunteers to explain how to divide rational numbers.  One student raised his hand and said, “Butterfly wings.”  What is he talking about?  What do butterfly wings have to do with dividing fractions.  I had him come to the board and explain what he meant.  He circled the diagonal numbers and the intersecting circles sort of resembled butterfly wings.  So cool, I thought.  Yes, cross multiplication is one way to do it.  So, I clarified butterfly wings and gave him the term cross multiplication.  I’m trying to teach each process appropriately, but I still worry that I am not providing them the best, most effective instruction.  I feel as though there is more I could do to help them fully grasp and understand the concepts.

I know you’re probably thinking, “Are they meeting the objectives on assessments and homework?”  The short answer is, “Yes, for the most part.”  I work individually with those struggling students during class the following day.  I want to be sure they have a strong understanding of the skills before moving into seventh grade math.  Two students need much support, while the others are quite self sufficient and are able to think logically very easily.  I provide the struggling students with extra practice and modelling.  This seems to help with most of the skills practiced thus far.  I’m not worried about them being able to apply the skills on a basic level.  I am worried, however, about them being able to apply the skills to more abstract, higher-level math problems they will face next year.  Am I explaining each skill or objective in a way that will allow them to fully comprehend every aspect of the skill?  If not, what else should I be doing?

As this issue causes me to worry about how prepared my students will be next year, mathematically speaking, I want to devote some time over the upcoming March Break and summer vacation to really dig into the math concepts covered in the sixth grade.  How can I be sure I am effectively teaching the adding and subtracting of rational numbers?  I want to go online and find some reputable and helpful resources and also choose some quality professional texts to read to boost my confidence and foundational math knowledge.  I want to be sure I am the best teacher possible for my students so that I can support and challenge them appropriately.

The Choices We Make

A teacher’s day is filled with many choices.  Do I teach the lesson this way or that way?  Do I put coffee in my sugar or cream?  Do I email or call that parent?  Do I stay late to do work or go home early?  So many choices on a daily basis.  However, just imagine what life is like for our students.  Do I sit next to that student or that student?  Do I spend extra time on my homework?  Do I tell the truth?  Do I eat the jiggly gray stuff in the dining hall for lunch?  Despite these many options, there is one question that we assume all of our students would answer in exactly the same way: Do I stay late for extra help from the teacher or go home?  Almost always, we would assume that students would choose to go home and seek help from their parents or a family member.  Rarely do we think students would be excited to spend extra time with their teacher or in their classroom.

Today was one of those rare occasions in the sixth grade.  Following my basketball team’s practice, I walked to my classroom hoping to finish work that had begun to pile up.  I also wanted to be sure I had time to attend my son’s basketball game 30 minutes later.  I had a short window in which I could accomplish something.  So, I made sure to stay focused on the task at hand and not stop to dilly dally or talk to my colleagues.  I walked straight from the locker room to my classroom, and boy was I surprised when I reached my classroom.

Four of my students were anxiously waiting outside of the locked classroom.  Why?  Why were they not playing games in their rooms or doing extra work?  Why were they standing outside of our classroom?  So many choices.  I was befuddled.  Then, it all became clear.  Several weeks ago, I showed a few of my students a video about this very awesome coding contraption called the Makey Makey.  One student was so enthralled by the gadget that he purchased one online and it had finally arrived.  He was so excited to show me the device.  It was at this point that I realized that I too was faced with a choice.  Do I ask these students to leave so that I can accomplish my work or do I invite them inside so that we can play with the Makey Makey?

Knowing that one of my goals as a teacher is to inspire my students in any way possible, I of course put the work off until later in the day and helped the students hook up and play with this amazing tool.  We got it to work right out of the box.  The students were so amazed with how it worked.  They were beaming with joy and could hardly stand still.  I reminded the students to try some of the things we saw in the video.  So, one of the students got a piece of paper and with a pencil drew on arrow keys like on a keypad.  He then attached the alligator clips to the edge of the paper.  Amazement filled the room when we realized that the pencil-drawn arrow keys worked.  When you touched the paper on the arrows, the Pac-Man icon moved around the game board on the computer.  So cool!  The boys were mesmerized.  While they all had other places to be, we couldn’t play with the new toy long.  However, we had played with it long enough to be excited for the next opportunity.  I challenged the students to research how to make it play like a piano for the next time we met to work on it.  They seemed very excited about that.

Yes, I then needed to spend some of my free time completing the work I should have done earlier in the afternoon.  But, it was totally worth it.  We’re faced with many choices every day.  However, when a choice involves further inspiring our students, we must always choose our students.

Finding the Success in a Flop

As teachers, we crave those teachable moments; the times in the classroom where students do or say something that allows for a big idea or social concept to be discussed in a meaningful manner.  Those moments are amazing.  Who doesn’t love when magic happens unexpectedly?  It’s like that time when the Titanic missed the iceberg by centimeters, saving everyone.  Yes, I know that didn’t really happen.  But wouldn’t it have been so cool if it had.  Then we wouldn’t have had to sit through three hours of Leonardo diCaprio sweating and trying to be king of no one’s world.  I would have really liked it had the Titanic not sank.  But, it did and since the time machine is still being kept secret in Area 51, the Titanic will have to stay sunk, for now.  While I veered a bit off course, which is what the Titanic should have done when they saw the iceberg, my point is that when serendipitous, unexpected moments occur in the classroom, teachers enjoy seizing those moments and making the most of the opportunities presented.  But, what if, as the teacher, you didn’t even know the unexpected had happened in class?  What if you thought that what was actually amazing and wonderful was a failure?  What if you couldn’t see the forest from the trees?  Did it really happen?  Is it possible?

I proved that sometimes even the teacher can be unaware of greatness happening right before his or her very eyes.  Today in Humanities class, the students discussed current events, as we do every Saturday.  We began the period with some pair-sharing.  The students shared, what they had learned about regarding the current event read for homework, with their table partner.  They asked each other questions and had some interesting conversations.  I was impressed by the varying articles the students read.  Only one or two of the boys had chosen the same current event to read about.  How cool.  Then it was my time to introduce the class current event that the students would then discuss in small groups based on a guiding question.  Usually, we read, as a class, a current event together, discussing the big Ws: Who, what, when, where, and why.  This process only leaves about 8-10 minutes for small group discussions.  While the chats are filled with unique questions and poignant thoughts, they are not lengthy enough for the students to really delve into the guiding question in a meaningful way.  So, today I decided to switch things up a bit.  After handing out the current event article, instead of reading through it together as a class, I explained the main idea to the students before allowing them to ask any clarifying questions.  The boys asked a few questions that I quickly addressed.  Then, I introduced the guiding question and sent the students into their groups to discuss.  They had over 15 minutes to really get into the conversation.  Although the groups had interesting and insightful discussions filled with brilliant ideas about how to prevent future water crises like the one in Flint, Michigan from happening, I felt as though my introduction had flopped.  It felt flat.  Rather than allowing the students to ask questions and figure out the current event, I filled in the holes.  I did all of the thinking for them.  I stole their ability to solve problems from them and they didn’t even realize it.  I felt awful.  I did not like how it all went down.

So, I of course, sought feedback from my co-teacher.  What did you think about my introduction to the current event?  I was completely surprised by her response.  “While I like the way we have done the current event introduction in the past by reading and discussing the article together as a class, it takes such a long time that the boys don’t have enough time to get into conversations in their small groups.  Plus, they usually have trouble synthesizing the information in the article in order to critically think about the guiding question.  Because you gave them the main idea and allowed them to clarify their knowledge of the topic, they were able to have much more involved and meaningful conversations.  I thought it was great.”  What?  Were we in the same classroom?  Was she observing what actually happened or had she fallen asleep during my chat with the class?  How is it that our perceptions of what happened were completely different?  I felt as though I took away from the students by explaining the main ideas to them, but she thought it helped them have deeper discussions.  I guess that makes sense, but it still felt stale to me.  I didn’t like how I had explained the event to the boys.  It felt rough and awkward.  I didn’t ask them any questions.  Were they really engaged?  They seemed to understand the topic and did ask insightful, clarifying questions, but that didn’t matter to me.

The question that still remains for me is, whose perception was the reality?  Was my current event introduction really a flop or was my co-teacher right and my lesson was actually effective?  And, how would I know if I was right or wrong?  Was my flop really a success?  Sometimes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or so I’ve heard.  In this case, who was the true beholder?  Was my lesson a flop or a success?

Inciting Engagement through Excitement

While I don’t remember much from my ninth grade biology class, I will forever remember all about tapeworms and international travel.  It was a warm autumn day in early October when I learned everything I would never want to know about parasites.  I had Biology class right before lunch, which was usually never an issue.  Yes, we dissected worms and such, but that was fun and not disgusting.  This particular day was different.  About ten minutes prior to the end of class, my teacher decided to tell us a story about the time she got tapeworms.  She went into elaborate detail about her trip to South America and how she tried to avoid all of the water and foods that might make her ill.  She didn’t think lettuce or salad would be a problem.  Unfortunately, she was wrong.  When she arrived back home in the US, she started to notice problems with her digestive system.  She was constantly hungry.  It all became very clear to her what the issue was early one morning.  As she slowly began to awaken from her slumber, she remained lying down for a while.  That’s when she felt the tickle in her throat.  Soon after the tickle, a tapeworm crawled out of her mouth.  YUCK!  Then, the bell rang and we were on our way to lunch.  While I was a bit grossed out, the fear and excitement I felt within were enough to make me overly cautious about where I travel and what I eat.  To date, I have felt no tickle in my throat or worms wiggle out of my body.  Yah for me!  Clearly, my teacher used the fear and excitement of her story to inspire us to want to learn more about parasites and how they affect living organisms.  Because of her story, I was engaged throughout that short unit.  I wanted to learn all about those creepy crawlies.

To help inspire my students to want to learn or become engaged with an activity or unit covered in class, I attempt similar subterfuge.  When students are excited or a bit scared, they become curious and motivated.  I decided to put that to good use today in STEM class as we began the Climate Change portion of our Weather Unit.

I began class by sharing my excitement for what we were about to begin learning and working on today in class.  “We are beginning a brand spanking new project never completed by any group of sixth graders in the history of Cardigan.  You are the first class to ever be completing this project.  I’m so excited to see what great ideas you brainstorm to help save our planet.”  At this point, a few sets of eyes that were not directed my way began to move in that direction.  Yes, I was beginning to hook them, I thought.  Then, came the slam dunk.

We watched and discussed a short video explaining climate change and its causes and outcomes.  I had the students take copious notes on the big ideas mentioned in the video.  After every main idea, I paused the video to allow students a chance to take notes on the important vocabulary terms and facts.  This break also allowed them the opportunity to ask questions regarding the content and their comprehension of it.  I reviewed the facts shared in the video before we continued watching it each time.  At the close of the video, we reviewed the big ideas regarding global warming and climate change.  I closed our discussion with some powerful thoughts: “If we don’t find a way to stop increasing global warming at such a rapid pace, the world will suffer dramatic changes, causing much death and destruction.”  Like dogs, their ears perked up at this point.  Some of them had shocked looks on their faces.  Yes, they are listening and engaged now.  That’s when I introduced the Climate Change Project.  The crux of the project is, working with a partner, to create a unique solution to an aspect of the recent Paris Agreement.  They were fired up about it.  They seemed motivated and excited to be problem solvers.  I even suggested that perhaps one group in our class could generate such an innovative and realistic solution that we will find a way to fund the creation of it through grants.  This excited them.

The students were so focused and productive in class today.  Perhaps it was because of my motivating words.  Or maybe they are just very interested in climate change.  Maybe they were empowered when I reminded them all that they are the future of our world.  They are the ones who will be responsible for bringing about major changes regarding climate change.  Perhaps my excitement was contagious and got them excited.  Or perhaps it was a little bit of everything, much like the seasoning my wife uses when she grills chicken, that produced the results I witnessed today in class.  The students were excited to learn about how the world is changing due to human activity.  They were focused on generating ways to solve the problem of climate change.  I couldn’t have been more proud.  My biology teacher had it all figured out way back then.  Inciting a little bit of fear and much excitement within students motivates them to want to learn more and accomplish the task at hand.

Providing Students with Assessment Options

We live in a world filled with options for everything from what we eat to what we wear.  Do you want McDonalds, Burger King, or Wendy’s?  Should I buy a Subaru or a Toyota?  Do I want this job or that job?  So many choices, but how do we know which one is best for us?  Do we know?  Which paint brand will be best for the walls in your house?  Does it matter?  Is one brand or type of something better than another?  Are there too many options?  Wouldn’t it be easier if there was only one of everything?  Then we wouldn’t have to worry about choosing the right one.

As our students are faced with this same barrage of options on a daily basis, how can we help them determine which choices are best for them.  How can we support our students as they grow and develop as learners, thinkers, and makers?  Is there a way to teach our students how to effectively differentiate between the good and bad choices facing them every day?

What if we find a meaningful way to incorporate choice into the classroom?  As our students are so used to having options, the freedom to choose will better engage and empower our students.  Utilizing options in the classroom when it comes to instruction and assessment is an effective method for helping students genuinely learn the content and skills covered.  Brain science tells us that providing students with options, allows them to better engage with the material, thus creating meaningful learning opportunities.

In STEM class this week, the first phase of our weather unit will come to a close.  The boys have learned all about how air masses form and create weather on Earth.  Now, to be sure they gained the relevant knowledge and skills associated with the content, I need to assess them.  How should I do that, I thought.  What is the best way to assess students?  Could I create a whole-class assessment using Plickers?  Would that be an effective way to assess all students?  How would I know if each individual student fully mastered the skills and content if I assessed the group as a whole?  Then I contemplated a written assessment.  Would that be the best way to assess students?  If so, how?  What kind of written assessment?  A standard test or quiz?  Short answers?  Diagram?  Then it hit me, what about making use of the choices our students seem to enjoy?  Perhaps providing students with a limited number of options would allow for engagement with the task while also creating an opportunity to educate students on to how to effectively choose the best option for them.

So, I created a test of sorts to assess students on their understanding of the two objectives covered this week.  They will have three options for which to choose from in order to showcase their learning.

  • Option 1: Create a diagram showing the causes of weather on Earth.
  • Option 2: Write a paragraph explaining the causes of weather on Earth.
  • Option 3: Complete a standard quiz with Fill in the Blanks questions as well as one Short Answer question.

I’m hopeful that this assessment will allow all students a meaningful way to demonstrate their mastery of the content and skills.  We will begin the class discussing how to make the best choice for them.  Do they see the concepts better visually?  If so, the diagram would be the best choice.  Those students who learned the material by reading lots of facts and information might be better served by the paragraph response choice.  Those students who learned just the key vocabulary words and their meanings might find success with the standard quiz option.  So, I feel as though this assessment will meet the needs of all of my students so that they can easily demonstrate their understanding of the skills and knowledge covered this week in class.  While I wonder if all of the options and choices we are faced with regularly are really beneficial, I do think that making use of options in the classroom capitalizes on how are students learn best.