My Teacher Growth Plan for the Summer A.K.A. My Summer Goals

As today was the final academic day of the school year for the sixth grade at my school, I’m compelled to think ahead to next week and beyond.  While many amazing things happened throughout the year and I grew as a teacher quite a bit, I’m always looking to the future.  How can I improve?  What can I work on to grow as a teacher?  How can I better support and challenge my students?  So, it’s time to set some summer goals for myself as a teacher to stay motivated and engaged throughout the hot and humid months of summer vacation.

  • Read at least one Summer Reading Professional Development Book
    • While I’m unsure as to which text I will be assigned, I will have at least one novel to read this summer.  I want to tackle this task first so that the ideas will be fresh in my mind when I plan my STEM and Humanities Units.  Who knows, I may learn something new from this professional text that I will want to apply and utilize in crafting my units for the 2016-2017 academic year.  I will also try to blog throughout my reading experience so that I can process and reflect on what I’m learning and reading about.
  • Learn some new, engaging, and fun math games and activities
    • To help me better incorporate more number sense into my STEM curriculum for next year, I want to learn some new math games and activities that I can use in the classroom as bell ringer or closing activities.  The fun games and short activities I utilized throughout this year seemed to help engage the students in the math content.  Plus, they had a lot of fun playing them.  Now, I want to learn about more fun games.  Perhaps some probability games or activities.  I will try to find some online resources to investigate.
  • Rework Astronomy STEM Unit, incorporating some sort of technology education component
    • I’ve been wanting to enhance my STEM curriculum with more computer coding or technology skills for a while now.  This past March, I played around with an Arduino Board and a Little Bits gadgets kit.  After learning that the student laptops we will be using next year will not be compatible with the Arduino Boards, I shed some tears and decided to try out the new STEAM Little Bits Kit.  Although money is tight at my school, I’m hoping that I will be able to order at least a few of the Little Bits kits to use next year.  They will allow for some cool activities.  I was thinking that I would like to tweak the group project I used this year so that the students would have to design and build a moving rover that would complete a task of some sort.  This way they could learn more than just team building skills.  I think this type of activity would better engage and excite the boys as well.
  • Co-Plan first Humanities Unit with my new Co-Teacher
    • I’ve already been in contact with my new co-teacher for next year.  She recently graduated from college and will be working at a summer school not too far from my school.  We’ve already discussed getting together to do some planning this summer.  Perhaps we’ll use Google Drive if we can’t meet in person.  I’d like to adjust the Community Unit with which we began the year and I’m sure she has some interesting and creative ideas on how we can create a fantastic and engaging unit that the students will enjoy and find relevant.

Along with lots of family time, some running, and much relaxing, I’m sure that working towards my four professional summer goals will make for a phenomenal summer vacation.  Although I’m sad to say goodbye to my students, I’m also very excited to continue growing and developing as an educator to help support and challenge future generations of sixth graders.

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Teaching Students to Care About Our World

While I do recycle and try to think about the environment and how to better care for it, I don’t go as out of my way to help take care of our world as I would like.  I could reduce my water usage and carbon footprint.  I could think about the products I use and consume and be mindful of the natural resources that went into creating them.  I could choose to purchase products that more effectively utilize Earth’s resources.  I could make use of alternative energy resources.  I could be doing a lot more to take care of our fragile planet.  As the threat of climate change and the horrific consequences that we are being told come with it sooner rather than later, I feel compelled to do more than just recycle water bottles and cardboard.  So, what shall I do?

As a teacher, I have a huge advantage over many Earthlings as it pertains to making a difference on Earth and better caring for our planet.  Rather than just being able to make one tiny difference as one person, I can inspire many people to care and want to do something about the physical issues plaguing our planet.  I am able to help motivate the next generation of problem solvers, creative thinkers, and world leaders, as their teacher.  While this seems like a large burden, I view it as more of a wonderful challenge and task I need to accomplish.  I get to help students see the true state of affairs regarding Earth’s environment so that they will want to find new and unique ways to solve the problems their generation will be facing head on in a few years.

Today in STEM class, the boys spent one final period working on Cardigan’s Ecology Project.  They finalized their class presentations and finished applying their creative solution to a problem facing their assigned forest plot.  A few boys went outside to their plots to bring about positive change.  Some of the students picked up debris covering the soil of their plot while another student aerated his plot to allow for water to better penetrate the ground.  Another student buried two plastic water bottles, with holes on the bottom, on his plot; the idea being that water will better be dispersed to other layers of the soil.  Very cool solutions.  The students had to step outside their sometimes self-absorbed bubble to create solutions that will make a big difference to Earth.  While none of the solutions they created may change the entire world or bring about more biodiversity on Earth, they all realized the numerous problems facing our physical world.  Earth is in trouble and if we don’t all band together to do something, we may all be living in a very different place in 20-50 years.

One of the goals for this project is for the students to be able to identify problems in their world and then generate and bring about simple and creative solutions.  I want to empower my students to change the world for the better.  Although not every student will see the importance in taking care of Earth through the completion of this project, I know that at least a few of them are now inspired to do something about human-made problems.  I want my students to learn more than just content and ideas, I want them to learn how to care for our world.  As a teacher, I need to find as many ways as possible to make this happen in the classroom.  This final project  will hopefully send my students into summer vacation wanting to make their habitat and our world a better, safer, and more ecologically friendly place.

Building a Class Community Takes Time

Growing up, my family took many vacations.  We traveled throughout the New England area and up and down the east coast in our car.  There were moments of fun and moments of horror.  On our trip to Florida, my sister was ten and I was 16.  We shared the backseat.  I drew a dividing line down the middle of the empty seat to mark our territories.  Every five seconds, she reached over the line of demarcation and poked me.  Of course, I then poked her back.  The result: “Mom, Mark reached over the line and poked me.”  I got in trouble for her actions.  In what kind of crazy, messed up world do we live?  Many of our road trips were like awful repeats of our trip to Florida.  As each minute of every trip seemed to last an eternity, I was regularly confused by the passing of time and would often ask my dad, “Are we there yet?”  His response was always the same, “Be patient.  Rome wasn’t built in a day.”  What?  Who cares about Rome; I’m in a hot car with my baby sister.  It took many family trips and multiple decades for me to finally understand what my father meant.  Life takes time; be patient.

This fatherly adage applies to more than just road trips.  Patience is a virtue that allows one to be happy and seek inner peace.  In theory, patience is fabulous.  Who wouldn’t want to be happy, daily?  It makes a ton of sense.  However, like Communism, patience is great in theory but not always as excellent in practice.  It’s hard to be patient all the time.  Sure, my philosophy of “fake it ’til you make it” helps, but let’s be honest, does anyone like waiting in a long line at the grocery store after a difficult day at work?  Patience has it’s benefits, but they can sometimes take much time to reap, especially in the classroom.

Since September, we’ve been working on helping our sixth grade class build a community within the classroom.  We’ve discussed and practiced social skills development as well as teamwork strategies.  We incorporated teamwork and problem solving skills into our curriculum in every way possible.  We explained the purpose and great value in working together as a family.  We took two field trips to allow them all types of different experiences to help the students figure out how to work together as a community.  The result: Nothing.  The boys still struggled to effectively communicate and coexist with one another.  Despite hours, days, weeks, and months of effort and planning, the boys never seemed to gel as a community.  It was frustrating to my co-teachers and I because there are only 10 students in the sixth grade.  How hard can it be to get along with nine other students?  When you use a fixed mindset and refuse to be compassionate, everything is impossible.  As a teacher, I felt defeated, like I didn’t really help my students.  Then, came today.

It began as an ordinary Thursday.  The students, dressed in their formal wear as it was Chapel Thursday, came to class somewhat prepared and energetic.  They greeted us warmly and Humanities class began.  They worked diligently, for the most part throughout the period on the final project of the year.  They were in the midst of crafting visual presentations regarding the Middle Eastern countries they had researched.  Some of the boys painted dioramas while others typed text or blueprinted their poster design.  It was a productive period for the students.  With about six minutes to go in the period prior to the end of class, we instructed the students to clean up, like always.  Nothing new or out of the ordinary happened, yet.

As the two-minute time limit lapsed, the students began to work more diligently to clean the classroom.  They ran around, some raised their voices, like always.  Others worked harder to accomplish the task.  Then, something magical happened.  All of the students began to work together to finish cleaning the room.  They communicated effectively and compassionately.  They took leadership and helped one another.  When I mentioned that one of the posters had been knocked off of the wall, a student quickly put it back up.  Almost every student was in the back library nook area cleaning, organizing, and working together.  It was amazing.  My co-teacher and I almost cried.  “Although it took until May for them to come together, at least they finally did,” my co-teacher noted.  Wow!  It was amazing.  Perhaps they were listening all year to our advice, strategies, and reminders.  It just took them some time to process everything and make sense of it.  Like my dad always said, “Be patient.”  And sure enough, today I reaped the rewards of all of our hard work.  Our sixth grade class came together as a family today.  Who cares that we only have a few class days left until the end of the year; at least they were able to put aside their differences and work together.  I couldn’t be more proud of my students.  They did it!

Reflections on MY Academic Year

With only three formal class days left until the end of the academic year at my school, I’m filled with excitement and a bit of sadness.  The group of boys I’ve had the great pleasure of working so closely with this year will be matriculating into the seventh grade come September.  I won’t be able to help guide them on their journey towards academic enlightenment any further.  However, I’m also very excited to have three months of summer vacation to plan for next year.  Plus, getting to know a new group of sixth graders is quite fun and enjoyable.  It’s bittersweet.

After watching yesterday’s senior slideshow filled with pictures from when my son’s class was in the sixth grade, I am also feeling very nostalgic.  A lot has happened in four years.  The boys were so small and childish looking when they were in sixth grade.  They now look like men.  It’s crazy!  My son is about to become a tenth grader.  Where did the time go?  I know it’s a cliche, but the older I get, the faster time seems to pass me by.  I wish life was like a recorded movie in our brains that we could watch over and over again so that I’ll never forget all of the memories.

So, as tears of joy and sadness well up within my eyeball areas, I want to reflect on the 2015-2016 academic year.

Successes

  • I feel as though this was my best year of teaching to date.  I focused a lot on unit and class introductions and closings, which made a huge difference.  Students seemed more engaged than in years past.  My classes seemed to have both a top and bottom bun, which is always a good thing so that one’s hands don’t get all greasy and nasty.  I opened classes well and closed them with reflections, games, review, or previews.  As one of my professional goals for the year was to be more deliberate with how I ended classes, I feel as though I put forth much thought, reflection, and effort into making it come to fruition this year.  Each class period felt like it was complete because I was able to wrap things up in meaningful ways for the students.
  • Working with my new co-teacher for this year helped me to grow and develop as an educator.  I learned lots of new ideas and approaches to teaching Humanities and world geography from her.  My favorite new lesson was definitely the one on mapping and perspective.  The students seemed to really understand how one’s perspective plays a role in how one views the world physically and/or figuratively.  Plus, the boys had a blast making their globes turn into flat maps and realized how inaccurate flat maps truly are.
  • Helping students grow and develop throughout the year.  Several students began the year with very low English skills or many other academic or social skill deficiencies but closed the year having made much progress.  Some of our ELL students have grown to become some of the hardest working students in the class because they realized that hard work reaps great benefits and rewards.  Their English proficiency has increased exponentially because of their excellent effort.  A few students who struggled to put forth great effort at the start of the year, finished the year by using much of their free time to meet and exceed the graded objectives.  I am so proud of the progress each and every one of my students made throughout the year.
  • Creating a detailed document that highlights and specifically outlines and describes the sixth grade program at my school that I have worked at creating over my many years teaching sixth grade.  Not only is it a useful document for the school to use to showcase our sixth grade program and its purpose and intended outcomes, but it will also be a great tool to mark our progress in the sixth grade moving forward.  How else can we change and improve to best help and support the students?
  • Whiteboard Tables and Rocking Chairs.  The whiteboard tables are amazing.  The boys used them throughout the year to document their writing and planning process, solve math problems, ask questions, spell words, or help their peers better understand a concept.  The addition of these whiteboard tables is one of my big highlights for the year.  It made the learning and teaching experience so much more rich and meaningful for the students.  They were owning their learning and more engaged in class because of the tables and the access they had to taking notes and staying focused.  The rocking chairs also made the overall learning experience for the students more enjoyable.  Instead of tipping back in a regular classroom chair and falling backwards, the students were able to gently rock back and forth to channel their energy into focusing and paying attention.  Awesome!
  • A Long Walk to Water  by Linda Sue Park was the read-aloud text we used to compliment our unit on Africa.  Having not read the novel prior to this year, I was surprised by how amazing it is.  Not only did it help us model and practice various reading strategies in Humanities class, but it also helped the students broaden their perspective of Africa and the people from that part of the world.  It was a fine new addition to our class.
  • Field trip to the Hood Museum in Hanover, NH.  The boys thoroughly enjoyed this trip to a local art museum.  They loved learning about the history of African weapons and art from the great continent of Africa.  Our docent was knowledgeable and kept the boys engaged throughout the trip.  It was a free experience that helped bring the classroom learning to life for our students.
  • Making concepts and topics in STEM class more relevant and meaningful for the students.  Instead of just teaching the boys about weather and how it forms on Earth, I had the students generate problems caused by climate change and create simple solutions that could easily be implemented.  Not only did this allow the students to think critically about the world around us and how it is changing, but it also helped the students to see how big of a problem climate change really is.  I want the students to realize and understand that their generation is going to have to seriously address and deal with this huge issue to prevent major changes and destruction from occurring sooner rather than later.

Challenges

  • iPads.  Despite the vast number of schools utilizing iPads in the classroom and the great results reported, the 1-to-1 iPad program did not work in the sixth grade this year.  Perhaps the failure stems from the fact that the iPads we used were very early models and did not have the processing capabilities needed to effectively run the applications we were using in the classroom.  The iPads were slow and glitched quite frequently.  The students didn’t like using them either.  Since the rest of the students were provided laptop computers, our boys felt different and did not like the “unfair” treatment.  Despite explaining the reason and rationale for the change in technology this year, the students still struggled with why we used them.  Needless to say, we’re going back to laptops for the sixth grade next year.
  • Not supporting or challenging a particular student in math.  This one student came into the sixth grade with accelerated math skills.  Because we don’t have another math course for him in the sixth grade and couldn’t make one work in our schedule, we tried to best support him with a flipped classroom approach, but it didn’t really work for him.  He was frustrated and his enjoyment with math began to dwindle.  We have a plan in place going forward if we have another student with such high math abilities, but I feel awful that we did not help this one student in math in any way.
  • Helping parents understand the approach we take to education in the sixth grade.  As we utilize objectives-based grading, a Humanities approach to teaching English and history, and the STEM model for teaching math and science, this is new for many of our families.  A few families struggled to understand the whys and hows of our approach despite letters sent home and explanations provided.  Those families had difficulty understanding our grading system or our problem based learning approach to teaching math.  Perhaps it was just those particular families as we didn’t have any challenges with this issue last year and we used the same approaches.  However, I will be very mindful of this when crafting the parent letter we will send out over the summer.  Perhaps I just need to be more specific and explanatory.
  • My two co-teachers are leaving at the close of this academic year.  While I’ve only worked with one for this year, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working with the other for three years now.  I’m going to miss them both dearly.  I’ve grown so much in the time we’ve worked together.  I know that everything will be alright next year and I’m excited about my new co-teacher who was recently hired, but I’m also a bit sad to say goodbye to more close friends.

I thought long and hard about the year in creating this list.  I know it seems lopsided, but that’s how the year went.  I experienced far more successes than challenges.  Sure, I love a good challenge because that’s where the genuine learning and growth happens, but I feel as though our sixth grade program is really starting to solidify nicely.  It was an awesome year.  I’m, overall, very pleased with the result.  I feel as though our boys are prepared for the seventh grade and are sure to find much success as they continue to grow and develop next year and beyond.  It’s hard to believe another year has come and almost passed us by, but that’s what happens when one is unable to find life’s pause switch.  Where is it again?

Finding Unique Ways to Introduce a New Project

Teaching, at times, can feel a lot like being in advertising.  I am, in essence, selling my ideas, knowledge, and skills to the students.  I need to find engaging ways to hook them so that they want to pay attention and purchase the products I’m peddling.  I could take the low road and do what the web hosting company Go Daddy! did a few years ago when they used a scantily clad lady to get viewers’ attention.  Did the company increase its revenue that year?  Perhaps, but at what cost to society?  I never feel the need to purposefully trick or bate my students in order to engage them.  I’d much rather go the Apple way with their line of Mac commercials exposing how much better their computers are compared to other brands.  It was simple and elegant, yet it got the point across.  The advertising campaign used hard evidence to convince viewers that their product is better than their competitors’.  I provide students specific facts and details and explain the purpose behind the lesson or activity in a simplistic way so that they will understand why they need to learn the content or skill being covered.  I don’t need to lie to or trick my students to get them to learn something.

However, sometimes, finding the right hook or introduction can be crucial.  It’s like the opening seconds of a television advertisement when viewers have to decide, Do I sit and watch the commercials or go to the bathroom?  How can I get my students excited about a new activity or project?  How can I best engage them?  Do I tell a joke?  Should I start with a story?  Or do I just jump right into explaining the project?  Is one way more effective than another?  After reading Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers this summer, I was reminded that there are easy ways to make new ideas or learning memorable: Keep the ideas or information Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, and Emotional by using Stories.  Some of the best advertising campaigns of all time utilize this same method.  If it works to sell stuff to people, why not use it in the classroom.  So, I do.  I try to keep everything simple and interesting by using strange stories with facts to support my claims.  Just Do It!  Wow, Nike was really onto something there.  What a clever idea that we will never forget.

Today in Humanities class, I introduced the students to our final, culminating project of the year.  Not only is it the closing project for our unit on the Middle East Region, but it is also the final opportunity students will have to showcase everything they’ve learned throughout the year in the sixth grade.  They will need to demonstrate their ability to choose reputable online resources, paraphrase research effectively, record notes using the bullet-style format, properly cite all resources used in the MLA format, synthesize information learned in a cohesive and meaningful manner, present information learned in a relevant and organized way, and reflect on their learning in a detailed manner.  It’s like one giant Humanities class assessment rolled into a project.  The students will research a country in the Middle East Region and present their findings via a self-selected visual method.  Perhaps they’ll create a poster, mobile, diorama, tri fold display, or other non-digital option.  It’s an intense project, but one that will allow us as their teachers to determine if they effectively learned the skills we spent all year working towards.  How am I going to sell them on this? I thought.

This close to the end of the academic year, focus is an issue for many students.  Our boys are starting to get restless.  They are ready for seventh grade.  How can we keep them motivated and engaged for one final week?  They certainly won’t want to complete this project?  They’ll balk at it as if I’m telling them to clean their room or organize their plan book binder.  How can I make this project more appealing?  How can I introduce this new project in a way that might hook more students?  How can I sell them on this new idea?

Taking from the Heath Brothers principles of SUCCESs, I found a new and unique way to introduce our final Humanities project.  Rather than just jump right into the project, I used an unexpected but interesting story.  I talked about the British Empire and their method of warfare.  They would head to an open field and battle the opposing army.  The side that had the most casualties lost and the other side won.  Things were easy.  Then came American colonization.  Europeans made their way to America and learned how to survive in the wild forests.  They had to learn how to hunt while animals hid behind trees.  They had to learn how to navigate around large forests in order to find their way around the countryside.  Things were very different for the colonists.  So, when the Revolutionary War occurred, the British Army came over to the New Land to fight the traitorous colonists.  They headed to open fields for battle and were stunned when they found no one from the other side.  Then, suddenly, bullets flew from the forests and trees, killing the British.  As the colonists had adapted to a new way of living in America, they had found a new kind of warfare.  They hid and snuck up on the British, unexpectedly.  As I told this story, the boys seemed enthralled and hooked.  However, they didn’t know where I was going with this fun story.  How was this story leading into a project on the Middle East.  Even my co-teacher revealed to me after the lesson that she had no idea where my story was leading, but she was engaged.

After the story, I linked it to our class.  “All year, you’ve been broadening your perspective and learning new skills in Humanities class.  You’ve learned how to take notes, paraphrase research, document sources, and present information.  Now is your time to prove that you have changed.  Can you defeat the British with subterfuge?  Can you showcase your learning through completing this final project?”  From there, I went onto explain the phases of the project.  The boys seemed excited and got right to work.  They grabbed lined paper and put the appropriate heading at the top of the page.  They started searching for reputable online resources.  I even heard a student say, “I don’t think this is a reputable resource because it doesn’t have a copyright date.  I’m going to find a better one.”  Wow, I thought.  They are doing it.  They are defeating the British.  How cool is that?  They are displaying the skills they’ve acquired this year through the completion of our final project.  Awesome!

Now, were they working so well and diligently because they were excited by my introductory story or were they so focused because they wanted to improve upon their grade in the class?  Or maybe they wanted to show my co-teacher and I all that they learned this year?  No matter what the reason for today’s result, I’ll take it.  They were on fire in the classroom and we weren’t even violating any fire codes.  Go sixth grade!  I do think that my story helped inspire them to get excited and pumped up about the Middle East Region.  Who doesn’t want to research about the role of women in Iran?

While finding new and unique ways to introduce projects, lessons, or activities can be tricky and make one feel like an advertising executive, it makes all the difference.  If that one person hadn’t thrown out the tagline “I’m lovin’ it” for McDonald’s, would we still be devouring Big Macs?  As teachers, we need to be innovative and creative in order to engage and excite our students when it comes to learning and growing.  Using fun stories, hands-on projects and activities, or games to open a new lesson or unit can sometimes make all the difference between engagement and boredom.

For the Love of Co-Teaching

Have you ever met one of those people who just seem to rub you the wrong way or flat out irritate you for some strange reason unbeknownst to you?  You know the type of person I’m talking about.  They may be nice and helpful, but spending time with them is challenging and awkward.  Or even worst, what about those people who are just plain not nice.  Have you ever had to work with someone like that?  For as much as we might try to “fake it ’til we make it,” some people can be very difficult to work with and make our lives very uncomfortable.  What do you do in situations like that?  How do you cope?  What if you have to work very closely with them every day, all day?  Then what?  Do you quit?  Give up?

Although some of us might choose to change jobs, I’m all about compromise and compassion.  I’ve dealt with some very challenging personalities in my many 15 years of teaching, and not once did I give up.  Sure, there were times when I wanted to find a new job, but I didn’t.  I stuck it out.  I found ways to appropriately and effectively interact with those difficult people, and because of that, those people eventually changed departments or roles or left the school on their own accord.  Then, as a result of my patience, new people entered my life and filled those vacant positions.  Have you ever worked with someone who makes you excited to get up and go to work in the morning?  You know, the kind of person who helps you grow and develop as a teacher and/or individual?  Working with people like that make life and time in and out of the classroom way more amazing.  While we all hope and wish all of our co-workers were like the latter type I mentioned, we have to be able to work with all types of people if we want to grow and develop as educators and best support and challenge our students.

Co-teaching, more than any other role in a school, requires close and constant contact between both parties.  The teachers need to work very closely together in and out of the classroom if the teaching model is to work effectively.  Teachers who or schools that utilize the co-teaching model in the classroom need to be flexible, open-minded, patient, and kind.  Well, actually, wouldn’t it be nice if all teachers and people were like that?  But, more than anything, if you are to use the co-teaching model in your classroom, you need to be adept at dealing with all types of people because you may not always have the luxury of choosing your co-teacher.  In the past several years, I’ve been very fortunate to have wonderful co-teachers with whom to work.  However, I had a not so good experience several years ago too.  Like the theme song from that television show taught us though, “You take the good.  You take the bad.  You take them both, and there you have the facts of life.”

One of the keys to a successful co-teaching experience is the relationship between the two educators.  While you don’t have to become best buddies, you do need to think of your co-teacher as a friend and ally.  Because you spend so much time with this person, being able to laugh, have fun, and share life experiences together will make the relationship that much stronger.  Even if the choice of your co-teacher is out of your hands, finding a way to connect with that person is crucial to the success of the partnership.  In order to create a strong-knit community in the classroom, you need to have a positive bond with your co-teacher.  Effective co-teaching starts with the strong connection and positive relationship between the two educators.  Once that’s in place, the rest will fit together like an easy 10-piece puzzle for young children.

The next piece of the co-teaching pie comes directly as a result of having a strong relationship and great communication.  You will need to talk to your co-teacher about pedagogy and co-teaching models.  There are so many different ways to co-teach.

  • One person teaches while the other observes the classroom and helps guide the students to understanding.
  • One person teaches a lesson or class while the other takes a break, goes to the restroom, or plans future lessons.
  • Both teachers share the stage like tag team wrestling.  You might start the class and then your co-teacher might get the main lesson going.
  • Etc.

My favorites are definitely the first and third options.  Striking a good balance between the models is key and will take time, but, you must begin your co-teaching relationship by discussing how you want the partnership to work in the classroom.  Flexibility is also important here as the model or models used will ebb and flow throughout the year.  If you reflect upon each lesson or class and keep talking about what works best and what doesn’t, you will find the co-teaching model that best supports and challenges your students.  After several years of co-teaching with the same partner, we could build upon each other’s ideas, finish each other’s sentences, and ask each other the right questions while teaching or leading a lesson.  We flowed together like a river, but that took about four years to manifest.  Once you become comfortable and work out the kinks in co-teaching, you’ll figure out what works best for you.

Once the relationship between you and your co-teacher starts to take root and bud and you have talked about the co-teaching model that feels right for you both, the rest will just happen because you will utilize best teaching practices.  Plan units together, grade together, organize field experiences and trips together, and talk about the students together regularly.  Try to align your professional development as well.  If you get in the habit of doing everything together, the relationship you’ll have with your co-teacher will grow stronger and stronger like an oak tree.  Yes, your tree will get diseases and insects will try to eat their way through your relationship tree, but if you communicate openly and share compassionately, you’ll work through problems and overcome any challenges with which you are faced.  Compromise and empathize.  Try to see things through the eyes of your co-teacher when issues arise.  Why is he or she upset?  What might I be doing to instigate the situation?  What is going on?  Think things through before reacting.  Just like any relationship, bumps in the road will inevitably happen.  If you have a strong relationship with your co-teacher, everything will work out just as it is supposed to.

My co-teacher and I plan every Humanities lesson and unit together.  We bounce ideas off of one another and challenge each other.  Why should we teach this content this way?  How will it help the students meet the objective?  What’s our focus?  Why are we doing this?  It’s great.  I’ve grown so much as a teacher because of the co-teaching experiences I’ve had.  Working alone, I always assumed that my ideas, lessons, and grading methods were fine.  I never knew anything else.  Sure, I talked to other colleagues and learned new tricks along the way, but the foundation of my teaching really never developed much prior to co-teaching.  Having someone to bounce ideas around with has made all of the difference.  We grade together and debate objectives as we assess student work.  We reflect together and choose new topics together.  Effective co-teaching is all about the togetherness.  While two of the co-teachers I’ve had the great pleasure of working with over the past several years were not my good friends or best buds at the start of our relationship, after a year or two of co-teaching, we became great friends.

One of the most effective ways to help support and challenge students to think critically and grow academically and socially is to utilize the co-teaching model of instruction in the classroom.  Two skilled and gifted teachers working together for a common goal benefits the students exponentially in numerous ways.  Co-teaching allows for the literacy workshop model of reading and writing instruction to be effectively implemented.  It is challenging to conference with every student while also being sure every other student is on task and focused.  Two teachers provide students with opportunities and options.  Co-teaching allows for more Project Based Learning to occur.  Monitoring and overseeing projects in STEM class as one person can create safety hazards.  Two teachers helping guide students allows for more freedom and engagement.  If you or your school is thinking about utilizing the co-teaching model, get excited because it is a life-changing experience when done well.  Not only will you grow and develop as an educator when you co-teach, but you will gain a new friend and better support and help your students succeed in and out of the classroom.

Rethinking The Structure of Writing Groups

One of my favorite courses in college was Poetry Workshop.  The class was structured like a big writer’s conference or writer’s workshop session.  Each Wednesday evening, we would meet for three hours and share and discuss our work.  Each student would read his or her poem aloud and then receive feedback from the group.  I loved the discussions best of all because they were a chance to talk about writing and figure out how to improve or change a piece to make it more effective.  The conversations were dialogues, not each person saying, “I liked how you used the word flagrant in your piece.  It was cool.”  Oh no.  The students asked each other questions and discussed word choice and line breaks.  Everything was a give-and-take.  We provided each other with constructive feedback so that everybody in the group could grow and develop as a writer and poet.  I learned more about writing in that four-month class than I ever did in all of my years of elementary school.

As a teacher, I want to inspire my students in the same way.  I want them to like writing and the process of writing as much as I did back then.  I want them to see the value in revision and want to talk about writing for the sake of honing their craft.  While we utilize the writer’s workshop model for literacy instruction in the sixth grade, I do wonder if we are effectively implementing every aspect of it.

Today in Humanities class, the students participated in writing groups as a way to receive feedback from their peers on how to improve upon their poem to make it even stronger.  The goal of writing groups, which we share with the students every time, “is to help your peers improve their piece so that they are able to meet and/or exceed every graded objective.”  We reviewed the protocol with the boys today at the start of class since it has been a while since we’ve had writing groups.  “Each student will share his piece aloud with the group while the other two or three members will take copious notes on noticings and wonderings based on the type of feedback the reader said he is looking for.  Then, the writer will physically remove himself from the group while the other members discuss the author’s piece.  While the writer is listening and taking notes on the feedback provided, he does not participate in the discussion.  He doesn’t ask questions and accepts or declines the suggestions and feedback offered.  The other students will ask each other questions and make suggestions about how the author could improve the piece.”  Although some of these discussions were quite strong today, most of the conversations were more of a “do it to get it done kind of thing” than an actual task and opportunity that is taken seriously.  The writers listened for feedback they liked and ignored the rest while the other students discussing the piece just shared noticings and wonderings and weren’t able to have a genuine conversation about the piece and what the author can do to make it stronger and better.

So then, why do we do it this way?  Why do we structure the writing groups so that the students can’t be involved in the discussion?  My co-teacher from a few years ago took several courses through the National Writing Project and they use this same format for writing groups.  She loved it and so we’ve done it ever since despite noticing how much the students have struggled with the process.  They aren’t mature enough to handle having high-level conversations regarding much critical thinking at the sixth grade level.  The writers want to ask their peers discussing the piece questions about the feedback.  They want to speak for themselves and take ownership of their writing.  They can’t just sit and listen.  But, that’s how we structure it.  And after today’s writing groups experience, I’ve realized that this format needs to change for next year.  It’s not beneficial to all students.  Sure, some students receive helpful feedback, but most are not provided with the kind of feedback that allows them to grow and develop as writers.  Most sixth graders are not able to notice the figurative language and how it builds the scene or foreshadows future happenings.  They get stuck on how their peers read the piece aloud.  “He read it very slowly without emotion.”  How is that specific tidbit of feedback going to help the writer improve his piece?  It’s not.  What if we allowed the writers to engage in the conversation and speak for their piece?  What if we allowed them to explain and discuss the questions raised by the other members of the group?  Wouldn’t that elicit higher-level thinking and discussion?  Wouldn’t that allow the writer to be provided with more valuable feedback?

Instead, today, a few of the students felt frustrated and as though they didn’t receive any sort of helpful feedback.  Of course, one of those students utilized a fixed mindset going into writing groups and wouldn’t have liked any feedback he received unless it was positive and praised his poem.  But, a few of the students felt like they didn’t receive the sort of suggestions they were hoping for.  The ideas for revision some of the boys received lacked depth and were more like editing marks than deep revision suggestions.  Plus, many of the authors wanted to address the questions brought up by their peers, but because we structure the writing groups in a specific manner, they are not allowed to get involved in the discussions.  This proved frustrating to some of our boys.  So, why not change the format?  Why keep something in the curriculum that is clearly broken?

So, next year, when we introduce and utilize writing groups, they will be structured more like conversations and dialogues.  We want the students to own their work and feel as they though can explain their choices and work.  We want the boys to analyze writing and dig into it instead of just scratching the surface.  Next year, writing groups in the sixth grade will look more like the writing groups I experienced in my college course.  We want to bring the fun and engagement back into writing.  No more staying with the status quo.  It’s time to admit defeat and overhaul the format.  Why keep repeating something that the students clearly don’t enjoy and that doesn’t seem to help them grow as writers in any way?  “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  No more shame will be had in the sixth grade.

How to Best Provide Feedback to our Students

Going away to college was a big shock for me on many levels.  I had never been away from home for more than a few nights in a row.  How would I ever survive on my own?  How do I wash my clothes?  Who will take out my trash?  I was scared and nervous for the first week or so until I became acclimated.  Then, things quickly got better and I started to enjoy myself.  I can handle this college thing, I thought.  After a few weeks of classes, I had to write my first essay.  Easy-peasy, lemon-squeasy. I wrote numerous essays in high school.  This will be a piece of chocolate cake, with vanilla frosting.  I spent hours at my word processor.  Yes, I typed that accurately.  My parents couldn’t afford a computer for me during my freshman year at Keene State College and so I had to type all of my work on a word processor.  It wasn’t too bad.  At least I could never be distracted by the simple machine.  I completed my paper and handed it in with a smile on my face.  I am awesome at college.  I can do anything.  Maybe I’ll run for president…  Then, came the reality check.  When I received back the essay that I poured all of my heart and soul into, all that I saw was the big red C- circled at the top.  That was it.  No comments other than some proofreading marks scattered about.  No explanation of the grade, no rubric, nothing but the red C-.  What does that even mean?  I didn’t know what the teacher had expected.  I did what was asked.  How do I grow and develop as a writer? I thought.  I had nothing to go on.  Now, while I did eventually figure out what the professor expected of me, it took much energy and many more red C- grades.

As a teacher, I never want my students to question where their grades come from nor how to grow as a writer.  As we utilize the Writer’s Workshop model of writing instruction in the sixth grade, it’s very easy to meet with our students regularly to provide them with feedback on their written work.  We conference with our boys throughout the writing process.  We also allow them to seek out feedback from their peers on their writing as well.  We utilize writing groups and author’s notes to allow the students to showcase their growth and learning as writers.  We celebrate writing in the sixth grade.  Students will routinely share their work aloud with the class or a peer.  For us in the sixth grade, writing is about the process and not the final piece.  We have students draft and redraft as many times as it takes for them to demonstrate their ability to meet the graded objectives.  We want our students to know exactly where they stand as writers, while having a lot of fun.

Today in Humanities class, the students worked on finishing, revising, and editing one of their favorite poems which they worked on during our unit on poetry.  The students spent much time being sure they chose their best piece.  Then, they labored over every word, syllable, image, and rhyme in their poem.  It was so much fun watching the boys count syllables on their fingers, play with words, try new similes and metaphors, and craft creative titles for their pieces.  As students finished with this first phase of the revision process, I had a chance to conference with a few of the boys regarding their poem.  This is one of my favorite parts of the writing process because I’m able to have candid conversations with the students about their writing and the process involved.  I ask many questions as I provide them with feedback.

One of the first questions I asked the boys today was, “How would you like me to provide you feedback?  Shall I write it on paper, jot it down on the whiteboard table, give it to you orally, or comment on your Google Document?  What would work best for you?”  Each of the three students I conferenced with wanted their feedback differently.  One student wanted me to write it on his whiteboard table while another student wanted it written on paper.  The third student wanted his orally.  Then, I went through their piece, line by line, asking probing questions along the way.  Why did you choose this word?  Why did you use punctuation there but not here?  What does this line mean?  What message are you trying to send the reader?  Every time I provided them with ways to improve their piece, I posed it as a question and not a command.  I want the students to make the choices and own their learning and writing.  I wonder why you used this word?  Do you need punctuation in the middle of this line?  For every question I asked, I made sure to tell them, “I’m not saying yes or no, I merely want you to think about it as you revise your piece.  How can you make your poem even better?”  I want the students to see that they have options and not demands being placed upon them.  The process of revision is part of the process of writing.  It’s not a box to be checked off on the writing list.  It’s about growth and development.  I want the students to see how they can improve upon their writing by making them think about their words, punctuation marks, thoughts, and ideas.

To promote this process of writing and revision, rather than give the students a grade on their final piece, we assess the students on a few specific objectives for each written assignment.  When we introduce a new writing piece that will be graded and formally assessed, we introduce and explain the objectives on which the students will be graded so that they are aware of the task at hand.  As we work with the students to revise and grow their work, we provide focused feedback to the students.  While some of the feedback is directly related to helping them better meet or exceed the graded objectives, some of our feedback is focused on helping the students grow as writers.  Over the years that we have utlized this model of writing instruction in the sixth grade, we have seen improvement from the students in not only their writing abilities but also their engagement with the tasks and assignments.  Although some of the students begin the year disliking writing, because of the way we teach writing in the classroom, the students grow to enjoy writing.  Some students even work on their writing pieces during their free time.  It’s crazy!  We’ve seen the students gain more skills as writers and matriculate into the seventh grade more talented than students we’ve taught prior to utilizing the Writer’s Workshop model.  Because our model of writing instruction focuses on the process of writing and not the product of writing, the students feel safe and comfortable taking risks and trying new things as writers.  The vast amount of progress we see from many of the students throughout each year is phenomenal.  Our boys grow into poets and authors by the end of the academic year.

Perhaps this transformation comes about because we provide the students choice and freedom in their writing topics.  Or maybe it’s because we provide them feedback in a more open and safe manner that allows the students to own their changes and revisions.  Or perhaps the students develop so much as writers in one year in our classroom because of the way we celebrate writing and get the students excited about it.  My co-teacher and I model good writing habits as well.  We write right along with the boys and they hear us share our pieces aloud throughout the year.  We put ourselves out there because we expect our students to do the same.  Empathy is important for them.  Maybe that’s why we’ve had such success in the sixth grade with writing.  I think the real reason is much more complex, just like the process of writing.  It’s about the journey and not the destination.

What’s the Best Sex Ed Curriculum for Sixth Grade?

Shocked, surprised, and a bit grossed out described the feelings I felt when my parents talked to me about sex.  I was in the sixth grade at the time.  Because of the strong emotions I associated with the moment, I remember the conversation quite vividly.  It wasn’t so much a conversation as it was a quick chat with pleasantries exchanged.

Knock-Knock on my bedroom door.

“Yeah, come in,” was my response.  My mom and dad walked in, together, holding a book.  Nice, I thought, I love books.  Not this book though, little did I know.

“So, Mark, as you know, you’re body is going through changes.  Your dad and I got you this book to explain everything.  Let us know if you have any questions,” my mom nervously said before plopping the book down upon my bed and leaving the room as though it was filled with the smell of farts.

Where Babies Come From was the title of this book I had received as a gift from my parents.  I perused the pages filled with cartoon drawings of people.  Two people with hearts around their heads.  They were holding hands.  There was even a picture of the two of them kissing.  It seemed so innocent and cute, until I turned the page.

There, in a bathtub, facing each other was the couple, naked.  They were smiling.  Then, on the next page was the couple, holding a baby.  Is that it?  Is that how babies are made? I thought.  For several years following this emotionally traumatic event, I thought for sure that’s how babies were made.  When you take a bath with someone of the opposite sex, the magical water makes a baby.  It’s chemistry.  My first nocturnal emission came from dreaming about taking a bath with a girl.  I thought for sure that’s how babies came about.  It started with a bath.  From that day forward, I never took another bath for fear of making a baby.

Luckily, later on in my life, my inaccurate prior knowledge was corrected.  However, for many years, I thought babies came from bath water.  It seemed so fairy-tale-like.  It made a little bit of sense to me back then.  Sixth grade me was much more accepting and naive than older me.  Plus, I figured my parents would only tell me the truth about sex and babies.  Why would they lie to me?  While they didn’t come right out and tell me untruths, they didn’t try to tell me the whole truth either.  They were so scared of having a conversation with me about sex that I never learned the truth until much later in life.

Current research studies conducted reveal similar horror stories about what young people learned about sex from school and their families.  Some people like me, were provided fantasy stories about sex and where babies come from while others were told too much or nothing at all.  In middle school, I had a health class that covered sex ed for about three days.  We learned very little.  Some schools today are utilizing this same curriculum from the 1980s.  It’s time for a change as our society is changing.  Many people go into sexual relationships or adulthood knowing very little or completely inaccurate information about sex.  This needs to change.  Our students need to be equipped with accurate knowledge regarding sex and relationships.

My school has a specific curriculum we’ve developed over the years to teach about sex, relationships, safety, and health.  It’s a four-year progression.  In sixth grade, our boys learn about puberty and the changes their bodies are or will be going through.  We introduce them to the male and female reproductive systems and field any questions they may have.  In the seventh grade, they talk more directly about sex and sexuality.  In the eighth grade, they learn about sex as it pertains to relationships.  In the ninth grade, they review the big ideas learned in the previous years and then fill in any gaps the students have.  They focus on healthy and safe sexual relationships and try to squash inaccurate understandings the students have about sex.  It seems to be working for my school, but we don’t have any hard evidence or data to support it.  We just seem to like what we have in place.  Is it really working?  Are our students being provided the right information at the right time?  Should we be doing more to help support our students as they grow and develop?

Today, I was fortunate enough to begin our unit on puberty in the sixth grade.  I started out by giving each student sticky notes, which they could use to jot down any personal questions they had during our discussion that they were too embarrassed to ask in front of the whole class.  I then accessed the prior knowledge the students have of puberty.  What is it?  What do you already know about puberty?  I corrected any untruths and clarified some of their insight.  Then, we discussed the scientific definition of puberty before I went into detail on how their body will change during puberty.  Because they had so many questions and were so curious, that was all we had time for today.  I closed the lesson, addressing the two sticky-note- questions the boys had.  “Does it (puberty) hurt?” and “How do girls pee?”  Both great questions, which I answered for the students.  Several chuckles filled the room throughout the period, which was to be expected.  It can be funny to talk about testicles, armpit hair, and strange thoughts.  The students seemed engaged throughout the period though.  They were curious.  But, did they learn anything?  Was it enough?  Of course, this was only day one of a two-week unit, but did I give them the information needed in today’s lesson?  Was it enough?  Was it too much?  What kind of sex ed curriculum is best for sixth grade boys?

Doing Hard Things is Hard Work

A few months ago, a silly idea popped into my head like that tiny little red and white pop-up thermometer in turkeys; I should spend my afternoon free time, following the academic day, running.  Yes, that’s it, I’ll train for a 5K.  Back in February, that sounded like a brilliant idea.  I had been wanting to get back into shape after years of neglecting my body and health.  No more wasting time sitting around growing old.  I want to seize life and make the most of it.  So, I decided to start running.  I began training back in mid-March.  I’ve been using the C25K app on my iPhone as a guide.  It started out nice and easy.  The first month and a half included sessions of both walking and running.  While it was hard work, I made it through.  Running and walking together is my jam, I realized.  Then, a few weeks ago, it began to get very challenging and unfun.  My runs included just running.  There is no more walking.  It’s hard work and I hate it.  Each day, when I am about three fourths of a mile away from home, I feel like giving up.  My shins hurt, my lungs burn, and sweat drips from my overly warm body like honey in a bee’s nest.  It’s absolutely horrible.  I’m at the point in my training now where I just hate every moment of running.  It’s awful.  Sure, I feel better afterwards and have been noticing how much my body seems to be taking on a shape other than just a big blob.  Plus, I’m losing weight and I’m not nearly as winded as I once was walking up the stairs to my classroom each day.  I’ve noticed the numerous benefits of running and am kind of digging them.  Running’s not so bad, I think to myself each day, prior to going for a run.  Then, when I’m running I realize that I have been lying to myself for weeks.  Running is hard work, but the benefits for me, so far, seem to far outweigh the effort and challenge involved.  Sometimes, the best things in life require hard work and sacrifice.

In STEM class, my students are working on a lengthy project in which they are applying the scientific, problem solving skills they’ve been learning and practicing all year.  They are creating a field guide documenting all of the flora and fauna samples found in their self-chosen forest plot.  It’s an extensive project that requires much hard work, critical thinking, effort, and time.

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Today was the final class period in which the students could gather data and observe their forest plot outside.  The final in-class work period on Thursday will be spent in the classroom finalizing their field guide.

Earlier in the year, students approached similar STEM projects with very little thought.  They jumped right in and did the work.  They didn’t budget their time or review the requirements.  They didn’t try to exceed the graded objectives either.  And they didn’t make use of their time effectively outside of class.  They just did the work to get it done.  Thus, they earned grades that they didn’t like.  However, that didn’t seem to matter to them back then.  Now is a different story.  Perhaps they are motivated now to earn high grades.  Or maybe they want to be sure they really are ready for the seventh grade.  Can they handle the rigorous work and assignments that come along with matriculation?  Maybe doing well on this major STEM assignment will allow them to prove to themselves that they really are ready for next year.  Or maybe, it just took the students the whole year to figure out their true potential and how to put forth their best effort to exceed the teacher’s expectations.

Today in STEM class, the students worked like we’ve never seen before.  They were focused, quietly attuned to the task at hand.  They were carefully hand drawing images of the flora and fauna they observed in their forest plot.  They were utilizing the data gathered outside to carefully identify the living organisms they had found.  They were asking each other for help when they encountered challenges.  They were using stencils to be sure their handwriting was impeccable.  I was amazed.  They weren’t just doing the work for the sake of getting it done.  They were rising to the occasion and working at exceeding the graded objectives.  The field guides they were creating were better than I’ve seen any class create in the many years I’ve done a version of this project.  Wow!

The students are realizing that greatness requires hard work and strong effort.  If they want to exceed the objectives and earn high marks for the close of the academic year in STEM class, they have realized that they need to showcase their best work to date.  And that’s exactly what I’ve seen from my students so far.  They are kicking it in.  I hope they are able to carry the skills they’ve learned this year with them as they move forward on their journey towards academic enlightenment.  I hope my students are able to see that with hard work comes great rewards, as it will help them next year in the seventh grade and beyond.