Is There Just One Way to Teach Poetry?

In college, I took a course on poetry in which each class period was devoted to analyzing the works of one particular poet.  In theory, that sounds like a great idea and class.  Who wouldn’t like to talk about great poets and poetry?  That’s what I enjoy most about poetry; every reader sees something different when they view or read a poem.  I love comparing and contrasting my views with others.  The big problem with the class though was that if your view of the poems discussed didn’t agree with the teacher’s views, you were wrong.   The teacher took a very stifled approach to teaching poetry and would only accept one interpretation of a poem.  How is that embracing the creativity that is poetry?   While I used to thoroughly enjoy poetry prior to this course, because I refused to believe that the analysis provided by the teacher was the only way to interpret a poem, I almost failed the class and grew to dislike “famous” or “classic” poetry, which is a real shame.

As a teacher of the Humanities, one of my main goals is to allow for multiple interpretations and views of prose and poetry.  Just because some stuffy critic wrote a book analyzing the poems of Robert Frost in a particular manner doesn’t mean that you can’t see what you want to or need to see within his poems.  Poetry isn’t nor ever should be considered or taught as an objective course.  Poetry must always be open to self-interpretation through one’s own perspective.

Today in my Humanities class, I introduced the students to one of my favorite “classic” poems.  We read and discussed Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.  I began the lesson by asking the students to describe a Jabberwock.  What is it?  Of course, they had no idea what a Jabberwock is, but then had fun hypothesizing what one might be.  I then explained where the poem came from and who the author was.  I then read the poem aloud for the students, acting it out in my own unique way as I read.  I then engaged the students in a discussion on their noticings.  What did you notice in the poem?  How did it make you feel?  What might the author have been trying to tell us?  The boys added their varied insight to the conversation.  One student noted that it appeared to be about some creature or beast.  A few students seemed confused by it.  I then explained how the author used many made up words in the poem.  We analyzed a few of the made up words and what they might mean or represent.  This part of the discussion helped a few students more clearly see the piece for what it is.  While I pointed out the epic battle scene that I saw in the piece, I was also very clear with the boys that it’s okay if they didn’t see what I saw when they read the poem.  Poetry is about self-interpretation.  If you saw something else in the poem, that’s completely fine and acceptable, I said to them.  I didn’t want any of my students to feel the way I did in my college poetry class.  I want them to embrace and like poetry because it is open and flexible like a blank canvas or Twizzler.

Following our discussion of the piece, I had the boys create their own Jabberwocky-esque inspired poems.  Although I put parameters on the writing portion, I left them quite open.  They needed to write at least five stanzas of poetry with at least four lines in each.  They needed to include some sort of adventure story or scene, at least five self-created and made up words, at least one example of alliteration, and at least one simile or metaphor.  Other than that, there were no requirements.  I didn’t force them into a rhyme scheme or syllable count.  I didn’t give them any other confines aside from the tools in their poetry toolbelt, which we discussed in class on Wednesday.

I gave them plenty of time in class to get started on their piece as well.  To debrief the activity, I asked the students how many of them enjoyed crafting their own inspired Jabberwocky-esque poem.  Only a few hands went up.  I then asked how many of them found this activity to be challenging.  A few hands went up, including my own.  As I used the work period to begin crafting my own piece, I shared my trials and tribulations with the boys.  Being empathetic with my students allows them to see themselves in me and realize that they aren’t alone.  Learning can be a difficult journey, but knowing that someone is going through it or went through the same trouble as you, helps a lot.

I wrapped today’s class up with a little sharing.  I had the students share their poems with their table partner before allowing interested volunteers to share a stanza from their piece with the class.  The boys seemed to really get excited about each other’s poems and reading them aloud.  They were laughing and having fun, and hopefully doing a little learning along the way as well.

Teaching poetry isn’t just about analyzing and dissecting poetry already written, it’s about making poetry and inspiring students to see the simplicity or complex nature of poetry.  It can be whatever you want it to be.  Allowing students to use a mentor text through which poetry devices and tools can be highlighted before crafting their own unique poems fosters engagement within the students.  Providing the students with choice and options empowers them to take supported and safe risks while challenging themselves to grow and develop as learners.  Although many of my students began the unit on poetry thinking that every poem had to rhyme and be about something in nature and thus had a disdain for the genre, after today’s lesson, many of the boys seem to think that poetry is fun, inventive, creative, and full of action and adventure.  I mean, what boy doesn’t want to hold a vorpal sword and behead a scary beast?

Allowing Discussions to Grow and Develop Organically

My mind can sometimes seem to me like a wild and scary place.  One minute I’m thinking about the newest City and Colour album while in the next moment I’m contemplating the number of tiles on the floor in my classroom.  In this respect, I’m very much like my students.  I can’t sit still and I have trouble controlling my thoughts and how I share them.  Some people might label me an oversharer, but when a thought pops into my mind, I often feel compelled to reveal it to others.  I allow my life and thoughts to take me where they will like a meandering river.  I don’t feel tied down nor inflexible.  I like to have fun by bringing happiness and laughter to others.  It’s hard to stay serious or upset when the person next to you is talking about his belly button lint.  I go with the flow of my ideas.

As a teacher, I try to incorporate this same mindset in the classroom.  While I generally have a plan for each period and class, I’m also open to letting conversations or activities grow and develop as they may.  Sometimes what I think will be a short discussion ends up turning into an insightful debate on a topic that lasts three times as long as I had thought.  And, that’s okay with me because allowing students to direct the learning and conversation fosters a strong sense of community and engagement within the classroom.

Today in Humanities class, my co-teacher and I lead a lesson on human migration and how it impacts the Middle East Region.  Following a word study pair-share, whole class discussion, and individual visualization activity, I lead the students in a culminating discussion regarding how the ideas of immigration, emigration, migration, and refugee impact the various countries of the Middle East Region.  While I had three guiding questions projected on the whiteboard, I allowed the discussion to grow and meander as the students’ interest changed and developed.  Some of the boys talked about how losing citizens as refugees can negatively and positively impact a country.  When Syria’s citizens fled the country en masse as refugees, the economy suffered as there were less people spending money; however, as one student pointed out, it also meant that there were more resources available for others.  Another student brought up the idea of oil and other natural resources the Middle East Region provides the world.  If people are emigrating in large numbers from that part of the world, how might it impact the availability of oil to the US and other countries?  This lead the conversation towards big ideas.  While my original intention for the discussion was to help the students understand the pros and cons of human migration in the Middle East Region, because I allowed the students to direct the discussion, we were able to delve into more complex ideas.  My closing thought for the students today at the close of the conversation was something like, “Our purpose for today’s lesson was for you to begin to see that the outcomes and impacts of human migration are much farther reaching than just numbers and populations.  Leaving or entering a country for any reason can greatly affect the world.”

Wow, I thought, after today’s discussion.  Something amazing happened because I gave up control and let things happen as they may.  I let the thoughts of my students flow and meander.  Awesome!  The boys seemed to really be engaged in the discussion and topic covered today.  Hopefully, they took away a few big ideas or nuggets of knowledge to help them broaden their perspective of the world and their role in it.  Had I tried to contain the class discussion and focus on the guiding questions alone, I worry that the final outcome might not have happened.  By allowing the students freedom in how we wrapped up today’s lesson and topic, they were able to think critically about human migration and its global impact.  They were making sense of the complex puzzle of our world: Everything is connected to everything else.

Sometimes, allowing my class to function like me, free-flowing and a little crazy, is a good thing with positive and amazing results.  Although not every class discussion gets as in-depth as today’s, by being open to new ideas and fostering a sense of critical thinking in the classroom, I truly believe that the students will feel challenged and encouraged to think outside the realm of “normal.”  The world’s greatest inventors and thinkers came about because they thought outside of what was possible.  If I want to help my students grow into effective global citizens that will make the world a better place for all people, I need to allow for freedom of thought and expression in the classroom.

How Can I Be Sure That Every Student Masters Every Concept Covered?

A better title for today’s entry might be, “Do I need to be sure that every student masters every concept covered?”  Is it necessary that each and every student comprehend every nugget of information thrown at him or be able to do every skill introduced and practiced?  Is it okay if some students don’t know the meaning of every vocabulary term or idea learned?  Will not knowing one or two things covered in a class be detrimental to the overall success of a student?  Do I need to hold every student accountable for every concept taught or covered?  While my answer to the first question I posed is, No, I do wonder if I’m doing a disservice to my students if I don’t ensure that learning is always happening for them.

Today in Humanities class, I introduced and explained, with examples, various poetic devices or tools used by poets.  To begin the lesson, I asked the students to explain what a carpenter is.  What does he or she do?  Do they need tools to do their job?  After a student responded, Yes, I then compared a carpenter to a poet.  Poets have tools they use when crafting poetry.  “Today, we are going to learn about some of the poetic tools or devices writers use when creating and crafting poetry.  We don’t expect you to use all of the tools covered every time you craft a poem nor do you need to memorize every concept covered, but knowing about tools good poets use will help you to become a stronger poet and author.”  My hope was to help the students see the concepts being covered in class today as more than just things they need to know because we’re telling them that they need to know them.  I want the boys to see the purpose in why we do what we do in the classroom.

First, I had the students discuss each of the vocabulary terms with their table partner, to stimulate thinking and the firing of neurons.  This then lead into a group discussion in which I explained the meaning and purpose of each word as it pertains to poetry.  I used examples to help clarify the meaning of each term.  After having explained four out of the eight terms, I went back and quickly reviewed the first four terms discussed by calling on random students to provide the class with a succinct definition of the poetic term.  This allowed me to help one student be sure he better understood the terms covered.  I then described and explained the final half of the list to the students before concluding with a review of why we are discussing these poetic devices.  The lesson seemed to go well and most of the students participated in the discussion at some point.

There was, however, one student who seemed to be disengaged during a good portion of the group discussion.  When I called on him to answer a question as a way of checking for understanding, he didn’t have a response.  Now, this student is an ELL student and so his grasp and comprehension of the language is weak at times.  So, I reviewed each poetry term using various methods.  I had students explain the words so that the definition was in student-friendly language.  Sometimes I worry that I use words that are above my ELL students’ level of comprehension and so having a student define the terms using more level-appropriate language made sense to me.  I also shared examples of each of the terms on the whiteboard.  Despite all of this differentiation, this one student still struggled to demonstrate even a basic comprehension of one or two of the terms covered.  Why?  Was it because he wasn’t genuinely paying attention or focused during the class discussion?  He was picking at his arm skin frequently during the discussion and so I did wonder if that was preventing him from actively learning the material covered.  Was he just being mentally lazy and not putting forth great ownership in learning the material because it is a challenge for him to process information in English?  He struggles to learn new ideas and concepts in English at first.  He needs much scaffolding to learn new knowledge.  Was he just not engaged because he doesn’t care about poetry?  If that’s the case, what else could I have done to further engage him?  He was able to craft a unique acrostic poem during our Exit Ticket activity and so he clearly understands some of the basic concepts of poetry.  He seemed to have fun writing his poem too.  Does he just not like class discussions because listening and comprehending in English is a challenge for him?  If he doesn’t display a solid comprehension regarding every term or word covered, is that a big deal?  Should I find other ways to assess this student on his understanding of the content covered?  I’m not objectively grading the other students on their comprehension of the terms covered in class today.  Today’s lesson was more of an introduction to poetry lesson during which we were giving them information using the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  So, do I need to spend more time being sure this student, and perhaps others, do really know every term introduced in class today?  If they don’t recall what alliteration means in seventh grade, will that negatively impact them as students?  Will they still be able to grow and develop as students if they need to review concepts only introduced in the sixth grade?  Should I be overly concerned with this one student’s understanding of the concepts covered?

My gassy gut tells me not to be concerned because he will see these words and concepts again in his future years of schooling.  However, am I do everything possible to help support my ELL students?  While I know they may see the stuff they are supposed to be learning this year again in seventh and eighth grade, am I appropriately and effectively helping the non-native English speakers in my classroom?  Is there anything else I should or could be doing to help inspire or engage them?  Perhaps I’ve found one of my next professional development goals, “Learn how to effectively support and help the ELL students in my class.”

The Value in Gender-Balanced Co-Teaching

Each and every one of my teachers from kindergarten to grade five was female.  Was that a bad thing?  At times I thought it was as most of my teachers had also been teaching for a very long time and didn’t seem to understand boys and how they learn best.  My male friends and I always seemed to be getting in trouble or yelled at for doing things that most male-learners do: Fidgeting in our seat, talking to each other during class, touching objects or things in the classroom, writing about war or other violent activities, or  drawing pictures depicting blood or other “disgusting” images.  My teachers just didn’t seem to understand me as a boy, and looking back on the whole situation now, I do wonder if part of the reason had to do with the fact that they were females and didn’t fully understand how to help support and challenge boys; therefore, I lived several very frustrating and challenging years as a result.  Then, in the sixth grade, I had my first male teacher.  Mr. Carr.  He was awesome.  He understood boys and how they learn and see the world.  I was allowed to move around the room, fidget while working, touch objects being studied, and talk to my friends in class.  Sixth grade was the first year that I actually felt cared for and supported as a student and a boy.  It was also the year that I started taking school seriously.  I wanted to do well and succeed because I was in a positive learning environment.  Sixth grade was definitely my transformative year that lead me onto a path of academic success.  I do wonder where I might be now if I had not been placed with a male teacher that year.  Would I have continued to struggle?  Not that I’ll ever now, but it does make me a bit curious.

As a teacher at an all-boys school, I am very conscious of the gender balance in the classroom and curriculum.  When we moved to the co-teaching model for our sixth grade program, I knew that I needed to be paired with a female teacher so that the students would get both a male and female perspective.  Having a motherly and fatherly figure in the classroom for these young boys, many of whom are very far from home, helps to foster a family atmosphere within the classroom.  The students talk to my female co-teacher about things they don’t feel comfortable sharing with me and vice versa.  It’s so important for the boys to see how males and females interact together in all settings.  My co-teacher and I are equals in the classroom and the boys see it on a daily basis.  I don’t run the show by myself and nor does my co-teacher.  We are a team, and that sort of gender balance is vital to the program we have created in the sixth grade.

This gender equity within the classroom also allows us to be sure we are effectively and appropriately educating our boys on all types of issues and information.  Today in Humanities class, my co-teacher lead a very meaningful and relevant activity regarding the role of women in the Middle East Region.  She began the lesson asking the students to share ideas they have regarding the role of women in general.  What kind of jobs do they have?  What do women do in our world do?  How are women treated?  This lead into an eye-opening discussion regarding how skewed our students’ perspective truly is.  Many of the boys hold stereotypical and inaccurate beliefs that the role of women in society is to cook, clean, take care of men, and look pretty.  Wow, how interesting, I thought.  My co-teacher tried to help the boys see the flipside of their perspective and realize that times have changed and so too have the gender roles in our world.  More women than ever before are in the workforce and not staying at home to raise children.  Men and women are sharing caregiving and household responsibilities.  Things have changed dramatically and it’s important that our students begin to see this.

Following the discussion, the boys then viewed various black and white pictures of women from the Middle East Region.  Using guiding questions posted on the whiteboard, the students, working with a partner, discussed the pictures and role of the women pictured.  For almost every picture, the boys seemed to think that the women depicted were mistreated or controlled by men or someone else.  The students thought the women were forced to wear their hijab.  After each pair had looked at all of the pictures and engaged in lively discussion regarding their thoughts on the role of the women depicted, my co-teacher shared the true stories of each of the women in the pictures.  When the boys learned that many of the women held powerful and controlling jobs in various parts of the Middle East Region and chose to wear a head covering, they seemed surprised and shocked.  This new information lead to a meaningful discussion on perspective and the role of women in our society.  Many of the boys seemed to be changing their perspective on the role women play in the world, a bit, throughout today’s lesson.

This kind of activity and lesson needs to be a required part of every school’s curriculum, and especially in boys’ schools.  As many of our students come from various parts of the world with different traditions and cultures, it’s important to provide them with information about other ideas and perspectives.  We’re not trying to inflict our ideas or beliefs upon our students.  We understand that different families and cultures have very different belief systems, which is one of the reasons why our school is so special.  We are merely trying to help our students see the world through a wider, more open lense and perspective.  Having a female teach a lesson or activity like this is also important.  Sure, as a male, I could have easily taught this lesson, but would it have been as valuable?  My co-teacher was able to use herself as an example throughout the discussion, which helped some of the students more tangibly see the points she was trying to make.

Gender equality isn’t just about the students or teachers in the room, it’s also about the content and curriculum covered.  As schools are finally starting to move away from teaching books written by dead white men, it’s also important for teachers to help their students see the world with their eyes and mind wide open.  Teaching boys and girls about the various roles women and men play in society and have throughout history, is an important concept our curriculum needs to cover to help prepare our students for meaningful lives in a very global and hopefully, gender-balanced society.

The Trials and Tribulations of Conveying Information to Students

When students approach me at any time of day, but especially in the morning, and ask me how my day is, my response is always the same, “Best day of my life, thanks for asking.”  The boys seem to get a kick out of it.  Most of the students just accept it for what it is, a positive outlook on life.  They know me as the happiest teacher on Earth and so it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for me to take an optimistic approach to life as well.  There are a few brave questioning and doubting students who wonder if I’m telling the truth.  Today, one of those students called me out.  He asked, “Mr. Holt, if today is the best day of your life, how can tomorrow be better than today?”  My response to him was, “Each new day is a gift because one day I won’t wake up or go to sleep and so each new day that I get to enjoy and experience is the best day of my life.”  This explanation seemed to satisfy the student and usually assuages those who doubt my integrity.  Of course, you’re probably thinking, “You’re crazy.  You can’t possibly believe that.  It must just be what you tell the students.”  And you’d be half-right.  Sure, some moments and days are more memorable than others, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t embrace each new experience with the same gusto as the last.  I know my time on top of Earth’s crust is limited and so I want to carpe diem as much as possible.  I’d rather employ a positive outlook on life than dwell on all of the negative and depressing things that could easily weigh me down.  Research shows that happy people live longer and have more fulfilling lives.  I want to be one of those lucky people.  Each new day is a gift and also a challenge.  Seeing the good in the world is not easy, but every day my heart beats, my mind’s eye looks for the positive and good in every situation, no matter how difficult or challenging it may appear.

This approach to life bleeds over into my teaching as well.  I try to approach each new class and student interaction with an open mind and positive attitude so that I can not only grow as an educator but also help support and challenge my students to grow and develop in their own ways as well.  Of course this isn’t always easy and I fumble from time to time.  I’m not perfect and I’m sure to point this out to my students regularly as I don’t expect perfection from them.  I do remind them that the best and most meaningful way to learn is to make mistakes and then learn from them.  Failure is part of the learning process.

Today in STEM class, I reviewed, with the whole class, the geological timelines the students had all created individually.  I pointed out the big happenings in Earth’s rich history and celebrated the learning and work my students had accomplished.  I asked students, at random, questions throughout this discussion to be sure they were taking in and processing the information being conveyed.  I didn’t expect that they would remember everything covered and I’m certainly not going to test them on the information discussed in class today; however, I did hope that the boys would be able to paint a picture for themselves, mentally, that showcases how big, full, and diverse Earth’s geological history is.  The students had the opportunity to ask questions throughout the activity and many high-level questions were posed and discussed.  The students seemed very interested and curious in how Earth evolved and changed over time.  While this portion of the class took about 45 minutes to complete, it wasn’t until the last few minutes that I noticed the body language of two of the students start to slip and display disinterest and boredom.  I was impressed.  Usually, I am only able to hold their focus and attention for 10-to-20-minute chunks.  I didn’t even realize how long the activity was taking until the last few minutes when I started to notice the change in those two students.  The boys mostly all seemed engaged and were asking great questions.  They seemed to be taking in the information being discussed.

Now, here comes the BUT and questions.  Was it the most effective way to wrap up this activity and project on Earth’s geological history?  They had worked on these timelines for over a week in and out of class.  I wanted them to share their brilliance and knowledge with their peers.  I wanted to celebrate their fine work.  But, was every student genuinely engaged or were they just faking it like I sometimes do?  Were they really processing information and taking in knowledge or thinking about their afternoon sports practice or whether or not they have lint in their belly button?  While I wasn’t grading or assessing the students on a particular objective for this overview discussion of Earth’s geological history, I did hope that some big ideas were conveyed to the boys.  I wanted them to understand how long Earth’s geological history truly is.  I also wanted them to realize how long it took major geological changes and developments to occur.  I hoped they learned this.  Do I know for certain if they did or not?  I did have the students complete an Exit Ticket check-in assessment on which they wrote one big idea they learned from today’s discussion on Earth’s geological history.  Almost every student was able to share one important, overarching theme I had hoped they would extract from today’s discussion.  Two students had difficulty completing this task on their own, but with scaffolding, even they were able to demonstrate their understanding of big ideas they had learned today.  I was impressed.  So maybe I was able to accomplish my goal.  Even so, I wonder if the discussion was the most effective and appropriate way to convey information to them.  Could I have tried another technique that might have been more beneficial to them?  What if they shared their outlines with each other in a rotating pair-share activity?  Would that have worked better?  This might have reduced the amount of time spent on the activity as well.  Without specific instruction and questions from me, would the learning have been as tangible and meaningful to them?  What if I had printed out their timelines, put them together in packets for the students, and had them review them as a homework assignment, taking margin notes along the way?  Would this have been a more appropriate way to accomplish the same task?

Who knows what might have happened if I had taken an alternate route to today’s destination.  I do know that conveying information or knowledge to students can be a challenge.  How do I do it in an engaging manner?  I don’t want to lecture at my sixth graders or have them take copious notes as I drone on and on about Earth’s geology.  Their brains need to develop a bit further for them to be capable of successfully accomplishing a task like that.  I struggle with knowing how to provide information and content to my students in an effective manner.  I doubt myself frequently.  Isn’t that a good thing though?  It means that I am always trying to grow and become a better, more effective educator by reflecting on my practice.  Yeah, I think that’s exactly what it means.  Go me!

Celebrating Student Growth

After having just returned from a week-long class trip to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I did not have high expectations for classes today.  I figured the students would be exhausted and unable to focus and concentrate.  While I did want to jump right back into the routine for the sake of the students, I also realized that they may not be as productive today in class as they have been in the past, since we had spent the last five days outside learning about the geology and ecology of the Cape Cod region.  And so, because of this, I wasn’t expecting amazing effort or quality work to be completed in class today.  I tempered my expectations or as my headmaster likes to say, “Manage your expectations.”  So, I did just that.  I went into classes today thinking that things would just be, and nothing more than that.  Well, let’s just say, I was quite surprised by what did actually happen in the sixth grade classroom today.

The students were focused and prepared to work diligently on whatever task was thrown their way.  They asked great questions to be sure they understood what was being asked of them.  They worked well independently and were able to stay on task, for the most part, when working with a peer.  I was impressed.  How was this possible?  We spent the week walking, hiking, climbing, talking, and working hard, and yet, they were still able to come to class on Saturday, of all days, and complete great work with fine effort.  Perhaps because my expectations were low, I was amazed by what did take place in class today.  Maybe I should have expected greatness as they are quite the talented group of young men.  Either way, I was tickled tan today by what I observed.

In Humanities class, my co-teacher and I had the students reflect on our trip to Cape Cod.  We generated insightful questions that allowed them to think critically about their experiences on the trip and the learning that took place.  As I had heard that some of our students already reflected on their journey during the previous class, I was sure to differentiate between the more storyboarding reflection that they had already done and the critical thinking reflection we expected them to complete in our class as I explained the activity.  Perhaps this helped motivate them to work harder and in a more focused manner.  Who knows.  All I do know is that their work and reflections were quite phenomenal.  Several of our ELL students who in the past struggled greatly with writing more than a few sentences, crafted two pages of written reflection on our trip and they still weren’t done by the end of class.  They were operating like writing and reflecting machines.  It was pretty awesome.  They cited examples from our adventure and detailed the learning that they experienced.  Maybe they are just getting better at reflecting because we do so much of it in the sixth grade.  Perhaps that’s what caused today’s outcome.  Maybe, but I still wasn’t expecting this level of work after a week away from the classroom.  It was a bit odd yet still very exciting.  Maybe, they are learning and growing like students should.  Perhaps what we saw was all part of the learning process.  Maybe they just needed a week away to allow for the synthesis of our teaching.  Perhaps our trip to Cape Cod allowed the students the opportunity to put together all of the puzzle pieces with which we have been providing them all year.  Maybe that’s what happened.  Yes, I’m sure that’s exactly what happened, he said with sarcasm dripping from his lower lip like autumn leaves falling from trees.  No matter what lead to today’s awesomeness in the classroom, I knew that it needed to be mentioned and celebrated.

So, towards the end of Humanities class, I did take the time to reflect orally on what my co-teacher and I had seen in class today.  We were impressed by how much they had written and how focused they were on the task at hand.  Many of them had accomplished more work in the short time we were together today than they had all year.  They applied the Habits of Learning we had been discussing and practicing all year in their written reflections.  They were taking ownership of their learning, and learning from mistakes made.  Wow!  It was phenomenal.  As I shared my reflection on today’s work period, smiles swayed through the classroom like the wave at a sporting event.  Hopefully, the boys understood how proud we are of them and their progress this year in the sixth grade.  It’s important to celebrate victories of any size so that our students can truly reflect upon their learning and growth.

The Importance of Following Directions

As a kid, I never really liked playing with Lego blocks.  I found the directions and instructions to be so restrictive and limiting.  I’m not a fan of following directions and I find doing so to be quite a challenge.  I liked toys that were more open-ended and creative.  As a dad, I had to learn to like Legos as my son was enthralled by them.  However, he, like me, didn’t like following the directions to build the sets, and so, I needed to work with him to assemble these large contraptions made of tiny blocks.  While I tried to hide my frustrations, this activity was the bane of my existence.  I hated it.  I didn’t like following the directions, but my least favorite part of the whole experience were the decals and stickers.  Just because you had a sticker on something doesn’t mean it suddenly became more realistic.  It’s just a sticker.  I never saw the need for them.  Luckily, I was able to convince my son to see the right side of this debate.  Despite all of this though, I still helped him construct his Lego sets and forced myself to follow directions, gritting my teeth the entire time.  To this day, the sight of a Lego set makes me wince and cringe a bit.

While I don’t personally enjoy following directions, I do understand the value of directions, which is why, as a teacher, I help students see that reading and appropriately following directions when working is a crucial life skill.  They need to be able to meet expectations and do what is asked of them, and this usually comes in the form of directions, whether they are written or oral.  To help students acquire and practice this skill, when introducing or discussing any new activity, project, or assignment I always spend time explaining the directions and modelling how to follow them.  This time allows for students to ask questions regarding the expectations or guidelines.  This purposeful teaching of the skill of following directions helps the students see how to complete a task and why they are being asked to complete it.  Despite this time spent reviewing the directions though, there are always a couple of boys who fail to effectively follow or read the directions for an assignment, and thus, turn in work which doesn’t meet the graded objectives.  What can be done then?  How can I help all of my students see the value in following directions and be able to apply the skill when working?

Today in STEM class, I witnessed this same strange phenomena at play.  The students, in pairs, worked on designing and building a bridge from balsa wood.  All of the students began the work period working on their bridge blueprint.  They needed to draw, to scale, their bridge design using drawing tools available in the classroom.  They needed to have both the side and bottom views on their blueprint.  They also needed to label and name each of the angles in their design.  While all of these instructions were carefully and specifically explained in the project outline available on our class Haiku website, many of the students failed to effectively review these directions prior to turning in their work.  The first group done with their blueprint hadn’t made their bridge large enough according to the required dimensions.  They also were using too much balsa wood.  Another group hadn’t included both views in their blueprint.  One student had gotten so frustrated that his blueprint hadn’t been approved that he started to argue with my co-teacher and I.  “I’ve done everything you asked.”  He didn’t fully review the directions before having his work checked.  Had these students more carefully looked at the directions and checked their work against them before turning their blueprint into be assessed, they may not have had to revise their diagram so many times.

Is there anything I could have done to prevent these issues from happening?  I had the assignment directions projected on the whiteboard and reviewed them prior to the boys beginning to work in class today.  I even asked for questions to be sure they understood what was being asked of them.  Still, they attempted to hand in work that did not properly follow the directions.  Why?  Do they not care?  Did they just do the work to be done with it?  Were they just jumping through the hoops to get to the engaging engineering and building aspect of the project?  The students coexisted effectively with their partners and were properly using the drawing tools to create their bridge blueprints.  They were even completing complex math problems to determine the amount of balsa wood needed to build their bridge.  It was quite awesome to see them applying the math skills learned this year in sixth grade to this project.  Hopefully, they were seeing the relevance in our math curriculum through completing this phase of the project.  So, if they were so focused and engaged in the task at hand, why did they struggle with following directions so much?  Everything was spelled out for them, step-by-step.  Perhaps if I had put the specific requirements regarding their blueprint diagram into a bulleted list using concise and simplistic language, they would have been more apt to follow the instructions.  Maybe I could try that next time.  Is there anything else I could have done to help my students be more successful?

To hopefully remind my students of the importance of following directions, I closed class with a short discussion regarding the feedback I’ve received from seventh grade teachers.  “They tell me that many of the seventh graders turn in work that doesn’t meet the requirements.  The students seem confused when the teachers hand back work for the boys to redo.  Following directions is a vital life skill that we are trying to help you learn this year so that you can be successful in seventh grade next year.”  Maybe these clarifying words helped the students see the value in checking over their work against the directions before turning it into be graded or assessed.  Hopefully this discussion had an impact on them.  I guess we’ll find out when we begin our next activity or project.

Learning Through Reflection and Research

Learning is a never ending process, much like that song entitled The Song that Never Ends…  There’s always more to do, review, try…  As a student in school, I struggled to see this process.  To me, back then, learning was a one and done experience.  I tried it once and whatever the outcome, that was my learning.  I did no more work than what was expected.  I didn’t try to see the value or benefit in learning.  I just wanted to get through school with as few scars as possible.  It wasn’t until I became a teacher that I was able to see the importance in the learning process.  If I tried something and failed, I didn’t give up; I found a new way to solve my problem.  In the process of learning, genuine growth and development are generated.

In my last blog post, I detailed the challenges I faced in trying to teach my students about the major religions of the Middle East Region.  My students were plagued by their prior knowledge and perspectives, some of which were inaccurate.  It was kind of a mess.  Prior to today’s follow-up lesson on religion, I wanted to be and feel better prepared to help my students see why we are talking about religion in the classroom.  So, I did a little reading.

I found an issue of Education Week magazine from a few months ago that contained an article all about how to appropriately and effectively teach religion in context.  The article explained the importance of understanding religion as it pertains to the world and its people.  When teaching about the world, current events, or a historical time period, it’s important to explore the religion or religions practiced.  How did they impact the event, place, or culture?  Rather than teaching religion in a vacuum, students need to explore it in context.  Understanding the whys and hows of history includes knowing about the role of religion.  This makes so much sense.  So rather than having the students research individual religions, we should discuss the role the religions play in the Middle East Region.

Instead of devoting much more class time to having the students research their assigned religion, I wanted to provide the boys with ample opportunity to explore and examine religion as a concept and lense through which we study history and its people and places.  Today in Humanities class, the students had only ten minutes to continue researching their religion.  While this seemed short, I prefaced this activity period with an explanation.  “I know you probably won’t finish researching your religion and that’s okay.  For us today, the focus will be on discussing how religion impacts a culture and place.”  After they completed the research phase, each pair of students presented their religion to the class.  These presentations then lead into a conversation on how world religions are connected.  What shared commonalities did the religions you learned about today have?  How were they connected?  While I didn’t tell the students that we would be discussing this aspect of the religions before they listened to their classmates share about various religions, I was impressed by the list they generated.  They extracted much information from the presentations.  Rather than focus on how the religions of the Middle East Region were different, I wanted the boys to see how they are similar.  Making connections and thinking positively allows students to stay focused on the power of religion and not the sometimes false perspectives they take away from current events or news stories online.

The discussion then shifted away from various religions to the idea of religion as a topic or idea.  I asked the students, “What is the purpose of religion?  Why do people practice religion?  Why did civilizations create religions?”  The students started to understand how religion impacts a place and its people.  They shared thoughts like, “It ties communities together, religion gives people a way to live their lives, and provides people with a belief system.”  I was impressed.  They were understanding the big idea of religion.  As they were so focused on the unifying characteristics of religion, I also wanted them to see how religion can divide people and communities.  Religion can causes wars and death.  It is a powerful idea.  I then explained the value in understanding the religion of a place in order to fully understand its history and culture.  The students seemed to grasp this.

Wow, I thought, how or why did today’s lesson go so much more smoothly than Wednesday’s introduction to religion?  Did they just need time to process everything and two days was enough for that?  Or was it because I changed my approach due to the reflection I wrote on Wednesday and the reading I did to change my perspective?  The students seemed so much more receptive and open to taking in new ideas regarding religion as a concept instead of focusing on individual religions.  Also, I didn’t allow for the students to ask many questions following the group presentations.  I didn’t want them trying to poke holes in other religions or being confused by false information.  I think this probably helped make things go more smoothly as well.

Learning from one’s mistakes and then applying new knowledge to solve similar problems differently is what being a great teacher is all about.  Had I continued teaching the lesson in the same, misinformed manner I used on Wednesday, the students would not have been able to effectively comprehend the ideas discussed.  I realized, after class on Wednesday, that things did not go well in Humanities class.  It was a bit of a train wreck and so I worked at altering my perspective and teaching approach.  Clearly it paid off today in the classroom as we had an amazing discussion regarding the value in understanding the religion of a place being studied to fully appreciate and comprehend its history and culture.

Broadening the Perspectives of our Students Can Be Challenging

When I was a teenager, I thought I knew it all and was right about everything.  When I had an opinion, I took it as fact.  As I learned more about the world and was able to broaden my perspective, I started to realize that I actually knew very little, and a lot of what I knew was slightly inaccurate.  It took me years to come to this conclusion.  My brain wasn’t ready to accept that the information it was inputting could be wrong when I was in middle and high school.  It took time for me to broaden my perspective.

Sometimes, as a teacher, I forget what my experiences were like at their age and struggle to understand why my students have difficulty being open-minded and flexible in their thinking.  I need to be more empathetic towards them and realize that learning new information is difficult at their age.  It can be frustrating and a bit scary to think that what you previously learned might be incorrect.  Nobody likes being wrong.

In planning today’s Humanities lesson on religion and some of the major religions of the Middle East Region, my co-teacher and I did not take into account that many of our students could have very strong religious beliefs.  We didn’t think that some of our boys would have a closed mindset when learning about world religions they didn’t already know about.  Despite purposefully choosing to teach a lesson on religion within our Middle East Unit because it tends to be a very controversial subject within the region, we did not think that it would be a challenging topic for our students to dig into.  We assumed that our students would approach the activity with a growth mindset.  Following today’s lesson, I am recalling why one shouldn’t make assumptions.

The lesson hook involved having the students, with their table partner, discuss four guiding questions regarding religion and how the students view the concept of religion.  It was a five-minute Pair-Share activity to switch up the form of instruction a bit.  As my co-teacher and I observed the groups we noticed that several of the students had strong convictions regarding religion and their own religious beliefs.   A few of the students were very confused why religion even exists.  They didn’t understand why someone would believe that a “God” could have created Earth and everything on it.  This idea baffled them and caused their perspective to be skewed in that way.  Some other students focused so much on sharing about their own religion that they didn’t dig into the overarching concept of religion and how it impacts the world.  This very closed-mindset manner of discussing and thinking about religion seemed odd to my co-teacher and I.  Why were they unable to more openly discuss religion?  Why did it seem that many of the students were so stuck in their thinking?

Following our school’s Morning Break, we returned back to the religion discussion.  We had a few volunteers share out the big ideas they discussed with their partner.  The first student I called on said the following when asked what religion is, “It’s what a group of people do who believe something.  Sometimes they shoot or kill people.”  What?  This student seemed so swayed by his prior knowledge and bias of religion that he explained a very skewed perspective to the class.  I quickly clarified his statement with a dictionary-esque definition for religion.  Then, I explained the research project the students would be spending the remainder of our time together working on in class.  The students, working with an assigned partner, will research, using reputable online resources, an assigned major religion practiced in the Middle East Region.  The students needed to address six guiding questions and record their findings in an agreed upon format.  They then need to teach their researched religion to the class.  After describing the activity to the students, I answered questions the students had about the requirements.  One student asked, “So, my partner and I need to explain why terrorists are good?”  What is going on?  Where did we go wrong?  Despite having a discussion on how the media sways our perspective of the world and current events, the students are still utilizing a closed mindset when learning new information.  I quickly jumped on this question after several students started giggling.  Perhaps my response was a bit of an over reaction as I felt the need to remind the students why it is important to not accept everything we read or hear as fact until we do some verifying.  I explained the importance of having an open mind when learning about new ideas.

As the students worked on this research activity, my co-teacher and I observed the students.  Some of the groups were really digging into their religion and seemed interested in what they were learning.  They were open to new ideas and shared what they learned with us.  That was so cool.  Two groups accomplished very little in class today because they were so focused on finding a shared digital application to record their research on that they didn’t even start researching their religion.  One student in the group was so married to his own personal religion that he struggled to research his assigned religion with an open mind.  This frustrated his partner.  My co-teacher tried to help this group coexist effectively, but it was a challenge.

At the close of class today, we had interested students share facts they had learned about their assigned religion.  The students seemed engaged and curious about the religions their classmates were researching.  One student even explained how his perspective on his assigned religion changed because he had learned about a new form of religion that he didn’t know existed before today.  That is so awesome.  While the activity began as a bit of a bust, it ended on a much more positive note.  The boys will have one more class period to work and present their findings to the class.  I’m hopeful that the students will approach this next work period with a more open mindset and be able to take in new information about religion to help broaden their perspective.  While this will be a challenging directive for all of my students, I do think it is doable.

Today’s lesson on religion reminded me the value in having a growth mindset when approaching the teaching of a new concept or possibly controversial topic.  I need to be empathetic and understand that some of the students will bring prior knowledge to the table, and regardless of its validity, I need to acknowledge and validate their thoughts and opinions.  Helping students broaden their perspectives is a real challenge, but so important in helping them grow and develop into effective global citizens.

Impromptu Fun in the Classroom

Some of my favorite memories in and out of the classroom stem from last minute changes in the routine or plan.  Several years ago, when I first took the sixth grade class to Cape Cod for a week to learn about the geology and ecology of the region, the group running the program asked my co-teacher and I, late one afternoon, if we wanted to take the boys for ice cream following dinner.  We didn’t have money in the budget but thought it would be a fun activity.  So, we made it happen last minute and have continued with this tradition every year since.  The boys love it.  It was a slight change that happened quickly but made all the difference.  While I am a creature of habit and do struggle with change, because I was flexible in my thinking that afternoon, a fun, impromptu activity was manifested.  Sometimes, going with the flow can pay off.

Today, directly prior to the start of Humanities class, my co-teacher and I chatted about the lesson we had planned.  She expressed her concern that she didn’t want the class discussion to take too much time because she was worried that the students might then grow bored or unengaged.  As I started the class, I thought about how I could vary my instruction to make it more engaging and less focused on one mode of teaching.  Following a short discussion on how the geography of the Middle East region impacts the people, culture, and place, I decided to shake things up a bit.  While I’m not a sporty kind of guy, I am aware of some sports metaphors that sound pretty cool.  For example, in football, when something that I don’t know about happens in football, it’s called an audible.  Today in class, I called an audible that seemed to have a really awesome outcome.  Yah for me!

I had the students, with their table partner, discuss where in the Middle East region would be the best place to start a civilization and why.  They had a blast identifying just the right spot to call home.  They talked about the importance of access to water for planting and travelling and close proximity to mountains for protection.  It was great.  Then, I had each pair share their ideas with the group.  After the first group identified their spot, I threw a curveball into the activity.  I put a sticky note on the map covering the spot that the first group had claimed as their own and said, “No other group may choose this spot as the first group has already claimed it.”  The other groups all had similar locations and so this threw them for a bit of a loop, but they persevered through it and solved the problem.  Each successive group chose a different spot that also seemed quite appropriate for a civilization to form, but they had to think on their feet in order to change their spot quickly.  Some groups mumbled amongst themselves to choose a new spot while others took it upon themselves to make the change when they arrived at the map.

At the close of the activity, the students moved into a break period and couldn’t stop talking about the activity.  They were fired up about it.  Some students talked about taking over the other civilizations through force or war while other students looked for alternative locations to build a civilization.   While I came up with this activity at the last minute, it proved to be engaging and inspiring for the boys.  They really got into it.  It also allowed us to vary our method of instruction so that the students stayed focused and engaged throughout the period.  What began as a problem of how to keep the students engaged during class, turned into a fun opportunity for learning.