When the Road Forks, Allow the Students to Choose the Path

In high school, my friends and I made a game of asking just the right questions to cause our teachers to veer off track and digress into a rant on his or her favorite topic.  For my ninth grade history teacher, this was all too easy.  She was a young teacher right out of college, ready to take on the world.  She had tons of enthusiasm and energy.  She was passionate about US History and wasn’t afraid to show it.  She was a bit of a leftist when it came to politics and women’s rights.  So, to steer her into no man’s land, all we had to do was bring up the president or some current event about woman.  It was great.  She would get on her soapbox and away we went on a grand journey of discussion and philosophy.  Meanwhile, the curriculum or content she had intended to cover on that particular day fell to the wayside, which meant tomorrow’s big test was inevitably postponed.  Mission accomplished!  However, those off-topic discussions were generally some of my favorite class moments because we were talking about the history that mattered to us back then, the present.

Much like my ninth grade history teacher, there are certain topics or questions that will take me on amazing journeys in the classroom, and my students know this.  They love getting me fired up about current events or very cool science topics.  Now, as a teacher, I have two options when this happens:

  1. Redirect the discussion back on topic.
  2. Let the students’ questions drive the conversation where it will.

Now, option one is only possible if I am able to be aware of what is happening.  Sometimes, my students use stratagems or subterfuge to get me off track, and in those moments, I am not able to realize what is happening until I’m already lost in the conversation.  If option one is possible, I’m able to keep the class focused and on topic, which means that we’re able to cover the curriculum I had intended to cover.  As I informally and formatively assess the students on the skills and content covered throughout each unit, there is no danger in getting behind as I am not teaching to a test or a deadline.  Sure, I have a timeline for each unit, but it is very fluid and can easily be altered.  Flexibility exists.  Therefore, option one only makes things easier as I have tested the waters and know exactly how to navigate from point A to point B.

Option two means that I am headed into unchartered waters and who knows what lurks beneath the surface.  I’m never quite sure what questions the students will ask or where the conversation will go.  Things can get sticky.  I’ve had off-track conversations go awry quickly over the years.  The not knowing is what makes it challenging for me.  On the flip side, option two allows for student engagement and interest.  We’re able to discuss new ideas or dig into the content more deeply when we veer off course.  These new conversations and discussions usually generate some great teachable moments or unique experiences for the students.  That, I like.  It’s just the uncertainty that scares me a bit.  As a teacher, I prefer option one, but will not shy away when option two presents itself.  I usually assess the time, energy level of the students, and timeframe of the unit.  Can we spend this time talking about off-topic ideas or questions or do we need to stay the course?  I am generally very flexible.

Today in STEM class, we discussed geology and the layers of Earth.  I introduced the major layers of Earth and we talked about the composition of each layer.  The boys seemed engaged.  Then, as I was about to switch gears and model how to highlight and take margin notes on a geology packet, the students started asking questions about the possibility of digging into the mantle and core.  How far into Earth have scientists been able to dig?  What would happen if we reached the mantle?  This prompted me to introduce the concept of geothermal heating and so I explained how this process works with a model I drew on the board.  The students then asked even more questions.  What would happen if we drill lots of holes into Earth’s crust? Would that change Earth’s temperature or affect climate change in anyway?  Wow, I thought, they sure are asking great questions.  As I noticed that we were slowly drifting into unmapped territory, I needed to make a decision:  Stop and redirect the class back on track or continue discussing the questions the students are asking?  It felt right to go off track, but I also wanted to make sure the students felt comfortable in completing the homework.  I wanted to be sure they knew how to effectively highlight an academic text and then record margin notes on the big ideas learned.  Rather than make the decision myself, I empowered the students.

I asked them, “We could continue this amazing discussion about Earth and its various layers or we could move on and get into highlighting and margin notes.  I do worry that if we don’t move on, we might not have enough time to appropriately discuss how to highlight a text and record margin notes.”  So, I put it to a vote.  I asked them what they preferred.  It was of course no surprise when they voted to continue the discussion.  This choice lead us down some strange roads.  What would happen if we isolated the inner core and removed the pressure from the other layers?  Would it still be a solid or would it melt and float around like a space rock?  If we were able to dig into the mantle or core, how would that affect Earth?  Now, I didn’t pretend to know all of the answers and usually addressed their question with another question, but the boys seemed very intrigued.  They all seemed focused and engaged.  After the questions started to dwindle, I did redirect the class and we were able to get back on track.  While the students didn’t have a ton of time to begin the homework in class, I did feel as though they all understood how to highlight the main ideas and record margin notes.

Today’s off-topic conversation seemed beneficial and didn’t lead us astray too much.  It did, in fact, help get the students super excited about our new geology unit.  That was a real plus.  So, instead of choosing to go off topic or not today, I passed the baton over to the students and allowed them to make the choice.  Did it matter?  Probably not, but at least I allowed them to voice their opinions and take ownership of their learning.  Things seemed to go much smoother with this off-topic discussion, and perhaps that was due in part to the fact that the students felt as though they were in control.  So, as difficult as it is sometimes to allow the students to run the show in the classroom, it may be one of the pieces of my teaching that has allowed me to become a more engaging and effective teacher.  Providing students with choices gives them ownership and responsibility for their learning and growth.

Sometimes, Even the Greatest Ideas Go Awry

As the sun reflected off of my balding head, I grew warm quite quickly in the hot summer heat.  Luckily though, I was at the beach, and so I ran into the ocean to cool off.  The icy cold waters of Maine instantly reminded me why I had endured the heat from the beach for so long.  The water was terribly cold.  My toes went numb right away, but I went in all of the way despite the pain and torture.  When my son joined me in the water, I thought it would be a great idea to seize the few moments that remained of his childhood.  So, we made jumping over the waves an awesome game.  We were laughing and having a blast.  In fact, I had stopped feeling the cold water against my skin because I was so zoned in on enjoying the time with my son.  In retrospect, I should have been more thoughtful before I went into the water, but, because I was so hot and in need of cooling down, my brain wasn’t functioning properly.  I failed to remove my glasses as I headed into the ocean.  This was all fine and dandy until the wave jumping fun began.  As the tide began to come in, the waves grew taller and bigger.  Eventually, they started to go over our heads.  Then, of course, the perfect storm of all waves came, washing the glasses right off of my face.  Sure, I tried to fumble for them at the bottom of the ocean, but as the water is constantly moving, I didn’t have high hopes of finding them.  While I had fun in the water and was able to cool off, my preparation was lacking, which lead to the poor consequence of losing my glasses.  Sometimes, even the best ideas go awry.

The same premise goes for teaching as well.  There are times when I plan, what I feel and believe to be, the greatest lesson, activity, or unit ever and it bombs miserably in execution for various reasons.  Today was a prime example of how despite preplanning, good ideas can still meander off course quickly.

My goal was to explain to the students how to create their I-Search presentation.  I wanted to do it in a way that made sense to the boys.  Instead of having my co-teacher or I explain the steps of the presentation process, I wanted to have the students describe what needs to happen.  As several students had already started their presentation prior to our March Break, I figured that at least one of them would have a strong enough understanding of the process that they could explain it to their peers using boy-friendly language.  This was what I had planned.  It felt like a brilliant idea.  I was ready to execute it as planned.  Then, of course, the unexpected occurred.

When I called on a student to explain the presentation process, he used such abstract and confusing language that even I had difficulty comprehending what his message was.  So, I clarified the process for the class, fearing that the other student volunteer would also have a vague response.  I rolled with it, like all great teachers do, but I felt a bit deflated.  I didn’t want to own the explanation, but I did want to ensure that all of the students fully understood the presentation expectations and requirements.  Fortunately, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

I held onto my original idea of allowing the students to run the show throughout my explanation.  After I had gone through the process and answered questions the students asked, I had a volunteer summarize the process involved.  This might work, I thought, and if it doesn’t, oh well.  They all still know what they need to do.  That’s when the magic happened.  This student briefly and succinctly described the process involved in creating the I-Search presentation.  He used student-friendly language, but the ideas were there throughout his explanation.  Yes!  It was all coming together.  It just took a bit longer than I had intended.

The moral of the story is that no matter how much preparation we as teachers put into lessons, activities, or projects, bumps and detours are bound to happen.  We need to be flexible and open to allowing the journey to unfold the way it will.  While I had wanted the students to be the ones explaining the process involved in creating the I-Search presentation, I was able to have a student summarize and review the steps after the fact.  Close enough.  I got the outcome I had wanted, just in a slightly different format.  Sometimes, what we think went wrong ends up being what we needed to have happen in that particular moment.

Providing Students with Responsibility

Parenting is one of the most difficult yet rewarding challenges I’ve ever faced in my short life.  When my son was under the age of ten, it was easy to parent him.  I told him what to do and he did it or he had a consequence.  Things were so simple back then.  I tended to be very controlling but did not see the dangers in that style of parenting back then.  He is now 15 years old and trying to control him is like trying to paint a picture without any paint.  So, over the past few years, my parenting style has changed as I’ve adapted to the times.  If I try to control my son, parenting becomes a battle for power.  Instead, I offer options and chances for him to prove himself and take responsibility for his actions.  This puts the control back in his hands.  He responds to this manner of parenting much better.  So, for now, shifting the responsibility and illusion of control to him seems to be working.  Who knows what next week might hold.  Raising a teenager is unpredictable as I often feel like I’m blindly swimming in the shark-infested Pacific Ocean.  Will he bite off a limb or leave me alone?  Only time will tell.

Sometimes, the challenges I face in the classroom leave me wondering in the same way parenting my son leaves me feeling frustrated and perplexed at times.  Is my solution the most effective one for the students?  Could I have approached the situation differently?  While I don’t like to second guess my decisions, it is vital to reflect upon them so as to be prepared for the future.

Prior to my school’s March Break, our sixth grade class struggled to meet the expectations placed upon them by various school administrators during transition times and Morning Break.  The students had lost the privilege of being inside an academic space during the 15-minute long Morning Break because they were being loud and a bit physical with one another.  At that point, they had to spend the break period outside.  The problem with this solution was that to a boy, snow means one thing and one thing only, snowballs.  So, they began throwing snowballs at each other.  As this violated our school’s policy on snowball throwing, they were then mandated to wait in the stairwell near our classroom during the Morning Break time.  This also caused problems.  When you cram 10 sixth grade boys into a space the size of a small closet, physicality and frustration are sure to come about.  At this point, March Break arrived, thank goodness.

Over the long vacation, my co-teachers and I had much time to allow new ideas and solutions to this problem to percolate.  Do we confine the boys to the classroom during Morning Break?  That way they can be monitored while also having the chance to interact and be social with one another.  But, they are young boys and they need to run around and be active.  So, do we make them stay outside to run around?  What about those introverts in the class whole need some alone time to recalibrate between classes?  Spending more time with their peers could be detrimental to their well-being.  So, then what?  What if we pose this same question to the students?  What if we pass the baton of control over to the boys and give them some responsibility in all of this?

As all great teachers know, empowering students by providing them with options and choices allows for much more engagement and buy-in in the classroom.  So, this morning, prior to Morning Break, we asked the boys for their suggestions on where they could go during that free time.  Most of the boys agreed that they should be allowed to choose what they do and where they go during that chunk of free time in the morning.  If they want to go back to their dorm room, they can.  If they want to stay in an academic space, mindful of the rules and expectations, they should be allowed to do so.  Making the students responsible for how they use this time will help prepare them for the freedom they will face in the seventh grade next year.  So, we decided to give their idea a trial run this week.

Today was day one and things went swimmingly.  Perhaps tomorrow will showcase something different, but we need to trust that the students will do what is best for them.  We need to support and help our students rise to the occasion and demonstrate their ability to be thoughtful, kind, and compassionate.  If we never allow them opportunities to practice being a good and safe friend, will they ever truly learn?

Part of the Problem

One of my wife’s favorite musicians Ani DiFranco once wrote, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”  She also said, “The media is not fooling me.”  She was onto something then and now.

In a previous blog post I mentioned how the defunct public school system is in need of a major overhaul.  Our country’s perspective on teachers needs to change for progress to be made in the area of public education.  Teachers are viewed as public servants whose job it is to take care of kids or make them smart.  The problem is, those ideas are not accurate nor true, but it is what many people in America seem to think about teachers.

All of the teachers I know, myself included, don’t look at our jobs as jobs.  Being an educator is a lifestyle.  To be a great teacher, one must be a great student, always longing for more information and new ideas.  This takes time and effort.  I spend most of my unscheduled time during the academic day and during my “off” time reading, researching, writing, planning, and talking about teaching and how to better support and challenge my students.  Great teachers care about their students and their “job” very much.  However, in recent years in our country, many American citizens don’t see this.  When things go wrong with their children or society, they blame schools and teachers.  Of course, there are bad teachers and failing schools in this country, but the same can be said about almost any country in the world regarding any profession.  Why generalize and past grand judgment on all teachers?  Why not celebrate the great teachers and profession of teaching so that more young people will want to pursue a career and life in education.  Now it seems as though no one wants to become a teacher because of all the bad publicity.  Retiring great teachers are even advocating that young people thinking about going into education should change their life path.  Why is the field of education and the profession of teaching being so lambasted?

The media is partly to blame for this.  When one bad person makes a horrific mistake, everyone under the umbrella suffers.  This bad press and poor coverage makes teachers and schools look bad, as if they are failing our country.  Then, people start to question teachers, and the respect paid to educators drops.  In many other countries, teachers are highly paid and respected by society.  Becoming a teacher in some countries, is one of the greatest honors.  In America, it seems as though becoming a teacher is a laughable offense.  With movies like Bad Teacher and television shows in the vain of Those Who Can’t, the teaching profession becomes a scapegoat for failure in our country.  Society has lost respect for us and what we do.  With that loss of respect comes broken relationships and partnerships.  Families and communities stop trusting schools and teachers.  We’ve seen it happen over the past 20 years in our country.  The number of families choosing to homeschool their children has increased exponentially.  This trend of disdain and distrust for teachers and the public school system in our country needs to stop.

If change is to be made in the education sector, then the way the media perpetuates teachers and schools needs to change.  We don’t need more shows or movies about bad teachers.  We need more coverage that shows the great things teachers and schools around the country are doing.  Let’s stop focusing on how other countries and teachers are doing great things and start looking at all of the wonderful things happening in our country.  Then, perhaps, schools will improve, and teachers will gain respect.  This transformation, will then, of course, be evident in the future as our students will go onto to do great things like creating peace and finding solutions to problems throughout the world.

So, it’s time to get angry and do something about the way American society views teachers and the educational world.  The media has fooled us long enough.  It’s time to take back what is ours: Respect.

What’s the Real Problem?

While many people I know view Walmart as one of America’s worst criminals, I’ve never had a problem with the giant chain.  My father is currently employed by the company and enjoys his job immensely.  Plus, they have everything you could ever need or want at the cheapest prices in town.  With the economy in the state of great fluctuation in which it is currently, I find myself needing to pinch pennies.  If I can save $1.00 on a loaf of bread every week, that adds up.  My family can use that money for far more important things than a loaf of bread.  To me, Walmart is a solution and not the problem.

However, a recent article published in The Washington Post takes a different stand on Walmart.  The author cites how the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic organization behind the Walmart chain, donates millions of dollars annually to education.  This is a problem, the author suggests, because the money goes to charter schools in towns and cities and not the public school system in our country.  So, while charter and independent schools continue to grow in numbers, public schools are forced to shut down, consolidate, or operate ineffectively.  Yes, forcing schools to shut down or ineffectively educate students is a very bad thing; however, it may just be the wake-up call our country needs.

The public school system in our country is defunct and it seems as though no one wants to make the hard decisions to address the problems.  Sure, President Obama’s new education reform might help if it is implemented properly across the states.  The problem is, the way American society views schools and teachers.  Schools are either looked at as the places children go to learn how to do everything and function properly as citizens or the places children go while their parents are at their jobs during the day.  The perspective needs to change before any major and essential overhauls can take place.

One of the biggest problems facing our country’s public schools is the curriculum and lack of flexibility within it.  I was chatting with a former colleague of mine recently.  She is currently employed by a local public high school and teaches science.  She told me a story about students in her class, “They just don’t know how to think.  Today, for example, the students were completing a lab regarding Newton’s second law.  I asked the students to record their hypothesis for the experiment.  What do you think will happen in the lab?  One student asked, ‘What if I don’t know what’s going to happen?  What do you want me to write?’  This is a common question I’m faced with in the classroom.  The students don’t know how to think for themselves.”  She then went on to explain how she also finds it challenging to make much of the content she is forced to cover interesting and engaging.  Why should she have to try?

I don’t know about you, but rarely do I find myself needing to explain or apply any of Newton’s laws to my life.  Not recalling trivial facts from my past science or history classes has not negatively impacted me one bit.  The only thing I truly remember from my past public school experience is being bored and unengaged.  This has to change.  If teachers are expected to cover a large breadth of material and content, how are they able to allow their students the opportunity to practice critical thinking and problem solving?  There’s no time to do that and assess the students on the dates for every major world conflict.  The curriculum for each class and grade needs to best support and challenge the students where they are.  It needs to allow for depth and not breadth.  Teachers need to have the flexibility to spend more time on a unit to allow students to gain crucial life and study skills students will need to live meaningful lives in a global society.

Until the perception of schools and teachers changes and flexibility is offered to teachers regarding the curriculum covered, charter and independent schools will continue to grow in numbers.  Why give money to something that has been broken for years and does not seem to be moving in any positive directions?  Wouldn’t you rather support institutions that are making a difference in the world?  Effective independent and charter schools help students learn how to think critically about the world around them in order to creatively solve problems they will face in the future.  Public schools could easily do this too, if major reforms happen.  Maybe, if more public schools close, then our country will start to see that big changes need to come about in order for all schools to effectively help students grow and develop.  I just hope the message is conveyed to people sooner rather than later because the only ones who suffer are the students, and no one wants that.

My Short-Lived Arduino Journey

Having just viewed the movie trailer for the theatrical version of Roald Dahl’s masterpiece The BFG, I’m harkened back to Sophie’s magical world of London and the giants playground.  That was an epic journey.  I can’t wait for the film to be released in July.  With Steven Spielberg at the helm, I’m sure it will be fantastic, especially the whizzpoppers.  I wish all journeys could be as rewarding and phenomenal as the world Dahl wove for his readers.  However, sometimes, we need bad experiences and failures to make the other journeys more special and memorable.  Perhaps that’s why my fun with Arduino Boards lasted for but a brief moment in time.

During my my school’s long March Break, I had big plans to play with some of the fun new tech gadgets my amazing Science Department Chair had ordered for me in February.  I couldn’t wait to dig into my Arduino Board and figure out how it all worked.  Prior to break, I attempted to install the Arduino drivers onto my school-issued laptop to no avail.  So, at the start of my awesome vacation, I met with my school’s technology support office for some help.  After hours of tinkering, reading blogs, and trying lots of different solutions, they were unable to effectively install the software onto my computer.  In fact, the technology officer found through his research that the Arduino software doesn’t work well with the Mac OS, which is what my school currently uses.  There seems to be some sort of issue with Java.  As of right now, I will not be able to use the Arduino Boards in the classroom next year.  That’s super frustrating because the seventh graders are using them this year; however, because the student laptops can’t get updated during the academic year, the Arduino software still works with the old version of Java.  Until Arduino fixes the issue on their end or my school switches platforms, there will be no fun with Arduino Boards for my students and I.  My short-lived journey with Arduino Boards seemed to have come to an abrupt and sad ending.

Despite this road block, I didn’t allow myself to stop thinking of ways to bring technology, coding, and circuitry into the classroom.  Luckily, I had a Plan B.  I had also ordered a kit of the Little Bits circuits to play with as well.  These things are super cool.  They use magnets to connect circuits together to make all sorts of innovative things.  The possibilities are endless.  After playing with them for a while and figuring out how they work, I realized that if I gave a set of these Little Bits to each group of students, they could create some really cool solutions to various problems.  While I haven’t solidified which unit I want to use them with next year, I am excited about the possibilities.

So, while it seemed at first that God had given me a lemon with the Arduino Board, I turned the experience into some sweet Little Bits lemonade.  So, in retrospect, my journey never really ended, it just veered off course a bit, or should I say, a Little Bit.

Are Classroom Control and Discipline Vital to Student Success?

I’m a big proponent of the need to build a classroom community with rules, procedures, and routine in place before any deep learning can take place.  I spend the first several weeks of school developing the culture of my classroom.  My expectations are high but allow for the students to feel safe and cared while also allowing for genuine learning to take place.

Before class begins, the lights are turned off and soft music is playing.  I want the students to have a chance to regroup and get recalibrated before we dig into learning.  During this time, the students can chat with each other in the hallway and take care of restroom and other needs.  They can also speak to me in the classroom about anything at all.  The only thing they can’t do is talk to their peers inside the classroom.  The classroom space is devoted to mindfulness during class transitions.  I begin class by winding up an old air raid siren used during WWII that my grandfather gave me.  It’s not a loud noise, but it is a cue for the boys to get ready for class.  I then give the students five seconds to have their planbook binders out and open and coats removed.  At this point, I turn on the lights and greet the students.  They then respond back and class officially starts.  This routine allows for class to begin without distractions or disruptions.  It also gives the students a chance to transition mentally and physically for the next class.  While some teachers might find this routine strict and unnecessary, I rarely have discipline issues in my class.  The students know the expectations and feel supported and cared for.  I’ve worked with three other co-teachers over the year who at first seemed skeptical of my “strict” practices but once they experienced them in action realized how necessary they are in fostering a sense of community and learning in the classroom.

I read a recent article in the Wall Street Journal regarding this very issue of Orderliness in School.  Those opposed to charter and independent schools in our country seem to think that creating a positive and orderly culture in the classroom is too “strict.”  Despite the data that supports these types of schools and the encouraging feedback we’ve received from parents over the years, some educational leaders disagree with the need to control or discipline students.  If we don’t create a culture of care and support in the classroom, can effective learning really take place?  If the students don’t have a routine to follow, anxiety is sure to settle in.  Students who live in the limbic system part of their brain during class are unable to learn and effectively take in information or ideas.  We can’t have this.  We need the students to feel safe and relaxed if we want them to learn.  This means having a set of rules and expectations in place.  Sure, some rules enforced by some teachers may be unnecessary, but stringent rules are better than none at all.  The teachers that I’ve seen struggle and fail in the classroom over the 13 years I’ve been at my current school are usually those who have no control over the students or those who don’t try to build positive relationships with the students.  This tells me that teachers need to be “strict” in order to create a successful classroom of engaged students.

What are your thoughts on the subject?  Is being”strict” in the classroom necessary?  Is there another way to foster care and learning in the classroom?  How do you develop a sense of community in the classroom?  Are rules and procedures needed?  Are classroom control and discipline vital to student success?

March Break Mindfulness

While I miss being in the classroom and working with my students, I do so enjoy the respite offered by my school’s March Break.  We have three weeks to rest, relax, read, travel, reflect, and etc.  It’s quite awesome.  Last year during this break, my family took a vacation to Florida to visit Universal Studios.  The Harry Potter worlds were phenomenal.  It felt like we were in the movies.  Amazing!  As funds are tight this year, there will be no travelling for me during March Break, which I’m not upset about.  Sometimes I feel like I need a break from my vacation.  Travelling can be very exhausting, especially when it involves air travel.  I’m excited to stay home and do nothing this year.  Well, actually, nothing isn’t quite accurate.  Since my school’s schedule is demanding and rich and full as our headmaster likes to say, my son and I have very little time to see the doctor and do those routine things like visit the dentist and get new glasses.  So, this week has been filled with appointments.  It’s good to get outside of the compound we call school though.  Plus, I’ve had plenty of time to enjoy some great shows on Netflix and movies from the local video rental store.  Yes, it’s hard to believe for many I’m sure, but my town still has a thriving video rental shop.  It’s nice and handy.  In between movies, appointments, and family time, I’ve also had much time to reflect and think about my teaching.

While I do feel as though this has been my best year of teaching yet, I am always looking for ways to improve.  My kind and talented Science Department Chair purchased me some coding gadgets to play with to find out how I might be able to incorporate them into my STEM curriculum for next year.  I can’t wait to dig into my Arduino Board.  I need to work with my school’s tech department to get the right servers installed on my laptop first though.  That’s on my agenda for next week.  This week though, I’ve been feeling contemplative.  Maybe because I’ve had a lot to think about.  My son is going through the roller coaster ride known as the secondary school choice process.  Yesterday was the big reveal day.  Did he get accepted?  Did we get enough financial aid?  It was an emotional day in our household.  There was frustration, confusion, and excitement all within a few hours of each other.  Crazy.  Now, my family needs to begin thinking about what the next chapter of our lives will look like.  Do we stay rooted at my current school and find the best school for my son to attend or do we rip out our stakes and find a new place to call home?  Will I find a job?  Will my wife find a job?  What might that look like?  Can we really move?  Would it work?  So many questions.

This bombardment of questions got me thinking.  Which came first, questions or answers?  Did early humans start tinkering with the natural world and then ask questions or did they ask questions immediately, before playing with rocks and trees?  Did the first question come from an answer or curiosity?  Can answers and solutions come without questions?  Do I need to ponder and reflect in a questioning manner in order to reach a conclusion?  Can I find the answer by trying new things and taking risks or is it human nature to wonder?  When did that come into existence?  Have humans always been curious?   This then lead me to wonder, what’s more important: Questions or answers?  Can I learn more by asking questions that lead to more questions or must I have knowledge and information to grow and develop my line of thinking?

In the classroom, questioning is a higher order thinking skill.  In order to think critically about something, my students need to be able to question and wonder.  They can easily locate answers online, but will that allow them to fully comprehend a topic or idea?  They need to be able to dissect that answer, make connections, and wonder what else they can learn from it.  They need to extend their thinking by asking more questions.  This is true for my students, which is why I constantly push them further.  Ask more questions.  And when they ask more questions, I pose even more questions.  What does that mean?  How are those two ideas connected?  Now what?  They are challenged to think critically about the world around them in order to grow and develop into meaningful global citizens.

With two weeks of March Break left, I can’t wait to see what grandeur is in store for me.  Who knows?  Maybe all the answers my family is searching for will be revealed?  Wouldn’t that be nice.  Regardless, I still have plenty of time to reflect and relax.  Go me!

Persevering Through Life’s Challenges

My advice to newlyweds is as follows, “If you can make it through your first year of marriage, you can survive anything.”  While this feedback may not apply to everyone, the nucleus of my message is perseverance.  In the first two weeks of being married, my wife and I had to address and overcome the following life events: Enroute to Prince Edward Island for our honeymoon, the transmission in our car failed; the water hose connected to our washing machine slipped out in the middle of a load of laundry and shot water all over the floor of the apartment we just moved into; my wife’s grandfather suffered a heart attack; I almost died trying to install our new DVD player that I ended up breaking in the end; and, I had to aggressively look for a teaching job with no interviews on the horizon.  And that was just in the first two weeks that were supposed to be spent in Canada on our honeymoon.  However, when faced with each challenge, we persevered and found ways to overcome the lemons life tossed, I mean chucked, at us.  Sure, there were times when we wanted to give up, but we knew that in order to get through to the next day, we needed to solve the problems confronting us.  It wasn’t an easy time, but we made it through.

In the classroom, I try to instill this same kind of problem-solving mindset within my students.  I want them to understand the value of perseverance and overcoming challenges.  The best things in life can often be the most challenging to acquire.  Today in STEM class, the sixth grade hosted the very first Climate Change Summit.  The students, working in pairs, chose an aspect of Climate Change and the Paris Agreement to address, created a solution to the problem, and then constructed a digital presentation to convey their idea to a panel of faculty judges.  The boys spent the past two weeks developing their presentations in preparation for the big event today.  Two minutes prior to the start of today’s event, life threw the boys a curve ball: The projector for the whiteboard stopped working, which meant they couldn’t display the digital presentations they had worked so diligently to complete.  They needed to share their idea and information with the two faculty judges using nothing but what they had memorized or had on their iPad.  While the students could have easily given up and just not presented, they all found a way to convey their information to the judges.  They used the whiteboard, on which they drew diagrams and made notes, and their notecards to recall what they had intended to say.  There were no tears and no screams.  Yes, they were frustrated, but they didn’t show it in inappropriate ways.  While they certainly didn’t seem rehearsed because they were expecting to be able to use their digital slideshow to guide their presentation, they all conveyed their ideas to the judges in a meaningful manner.  It was quite impressive.  They encountered a roadblock and found a completely new way to arrive at their intended destination.

How?  What allowed them to overcome this challenge so easily today in class?  Was it that we have provided them several opportunities to overcome challenges this year in the sixth grade?  Did all that practice finally pay off?  Or, did they just know their presentations so well because they have been working on them for two weeks that they could have recited them while asleep?  Was that it?  Preparation can be the key to success.  Maybe that was what lead to today’s awesomeness.  Whatever the reason for the outcome in today’s STEM class, I was impressed with how the students dealt with the adversity they faced.  They overcome a great and unexpected challenge.  We debriefed the issue at the end of class and I praised the boys for how well they persevered.  It was quite the amazing spectacle.

I feel confident that these students have learned how to address and deal with problems facing them.  They find alternative solutions and get the job done.  They are able to, for the most part, appropriately contain their frustrations while working through the challenges facing them.  They are ready to take on the world and tackle any problem thrown their way.  The whole situation is actually a bit ironic because their presentations were all about finding solutions to the problem of climate change.  If they can overcome little problems, then I am sure they will be able to delve into the larger problems that they will be left to face once they transform into adults.  To solve big problems, we need more problem solvers like the boys in my sixth grade class.  I feel fortunate to have helped guide these students towards the light of perseverance and problem solving.  I’m not as worried about growing old and leaving Earth’s problems to this next generation as I once was.  I feel as though innovative solutions will be fostered and manifested as problems are faced.

What I Learned from Being the Student

In school, I wasn’t the greatest, most engaged student.  I just went through the motions.  I paid close attention to the things I liked and zoned out when the teacher spoke about topics of which I cared little about.  I was an average student.  Learning felt like work that I didn’t care to partake in on most days.  It wasn’t until college or maybe not even until I became a teacher that I valued being a student.  I didn’t understand how important or engaging it can be to learn new things.  Sure, I could blame this on my teachers for not making the learning engaging, but at the end of the day, I need to own my choices.  I just didn’t invest the time and energy into school the way I wish I had.  However, I’m now trying to undo the wrongs I committed when I was in school by always working towards being an engaged and interested student.

Today in my Humanities class, I had several chances to play the part of the student.  The boys spent the double-block working on their research projects.  They were extracting information from their sources and reflecting on the entire I-Search Process.  Most every student was focused and on task for almost the entire class.  It was awesome.  This positive work environment allowed me the chance to meet with students to provide them feedback on their I-Search Documents.  I also had the opportunity to just chat with some of my students about their topic and process.

These conversations provided me with rich fodder on topics I did not learn about or retain when I was in school.  I learned that the Egyptian Sphinx was built because a pharaoh supposedly fell asleep in the desert and had a dream that if he built the Sphinx statue, he would be crowned king.  So, he made his people build the Sphinx, and sure enough, his dream came true.  While this story may not be entirely true, it did spark my interest.  Plus, the particular student who told me the story seemed very excited to share this intel with me.  Isn’t that what really matters?  He was engaging with the content covered and genuinely learning about his guiding question.  Another student taught me all about the history of the Egyptian pyramids and how they were built.  It turns out that it wasn’t slaves who were the main builders involved in constructing the pyramids, one student said, it was the expert builders who knew how to build structures like the pyramids.  They were the ones who did much of the work behind the scenes.  They knew how to reduce friction and used water to allow the huge blocks to more easily be dragged through the desert.  How cool is that?  I had no idea that this was the case.  He learned that from his interview source.  Prior to working with my students on this I-Search Process, I was not very interested in ancient Egyptian history; however, I now feel compelled to learn more about it.  They were quite a unique civilization.

My students inspired me to be the student today.  At the end of class, I thanked those particular students who taught me something today.  “I don’t know who learns more on a daily basis, you guys or me.  Today I felt like the student and so I thank you for teaching me something.”  The boys seemed proud of this fact.  Today’s experience made me realize the benefit in creating a culture of caring and unity in the classroom.  It’s not the teacher vs. the students; it’s about us all working together towards a common goal.  If we try to create a separation between us and the students, we remove ourselves from the equation.  We no longer have the chance to be the students if we focus solely on instructing and controlling the students.  We need to be open to new ideas, new teaching methods, and the possibility that we may be wrong or not always know everything sometimes.  Today’s Humanities class helped me come to this realization.  Creating a classroom community does so much more than set up a system of rules.  It’s about trust, care, and empathy.  Knowing how challenging it can be to learn new things helps me be aware of how difficult it must be for my students, who are still working with a very developing brain, to learn new content information.  I need to be flexible with my teaching and allow for questions and processing time, and I never would have had this epiphany had I not allowed myself to be the student today in class.  I’m not sure which is more fun for me, being the teacher or the student?