Posted in Education, Humanities, Teaching, Writer's Workshop, Writing

Differentiating Between Revising and Editing

I was always taught to look over my writing before turning it into be graded or published.  It wasn’t about revising, editing, or proofreading.  It was about reviewing the written work.  While I looked for grammar, spelling, and punctuation issues mostly, I also trained my eye to spot issues with flow and organization.  Does the piece of writing work?  It was the final step in the writing process.  To this day, I review everything I write in the same way.  I read over each blog entry looking for misspelled words and clarity.  As my writing is representative of me, I want it to be my best possible work.

When teaching writing, though, I approach the review process in a slightly different manner.  Teaching students the importance of this aspect of the writing process is vital to their growth as writers.  They need to effectively understand how to improve upon their writing.  They need to see how to develop characters, plot, supporting evidence and examples, effective thesis statements, and so much more.  Being able to improve upon these big ideas in their writing will help them become better, more skilled writers.  However, they also need to be able to fix the little things such as grammar, spelling, punctuation, opening sentences, and more.  Even if a student’s report, essay, or story has a great beginning and excellent plot line, if it’s full of grammar mistakes and misspelled words, it will be hard for readers to see the student’s true ability as a writer.  So, being able to fix both the big and little parts of their writing are required for students to mature as writers.  To help make these skills tangible and concrete for the students, I break them up into two parts: Revising and Editing.  I teach each skill separately and have them then complete each step independent of the other.  I want them first to look at the overall flow and organization of their piece before they take a more microscopic look at their work.  Once they have a clear and sensical piece of writing, I have them edit it for the little things that can hinder the overall look and feel of the piece.    Breaking the skills into steps allows the students to see each part of the review process as equally important but separate.

Today in Humanities class, my co-teacher and I had the students revise and then edit the stories they’ve been working on since week one this year.  They crafted a story about climbing Cardigan Mountain at dawn to catch the sunrise.  It could be fictional or true as they all did climb the mountain two weeks ago at 5:00 a.m.  They spent the last several Writer’s Workshop blocks finishing the first draft.  Before we break them into writing groups for more specific feedback next week, we want them to review their work to be sure it is as polished as possible.  After our mini-lessons on revising and editing their written work, we had the students complete these two steps of the writing process on their own.  We stressed the importance of utilizing a growth mindset when approaching revision as we can sometimes be too married to our own work to see what really needs to be changed or addressed.  Many of them took this statement to heart and really tried to revamp and adjust their story so that it best showcased their skills as a writer.  I was impressed.

During today’s work period, some students spent the entire 45 minutes revising and editing their piece while others finished with time to spare and so peer reviewed their work with a partner.  Great discussions were heard throughout the room this morning.  The students provided each other with meaningful feedback regarding their work and asked insightful questions of my co-teacher and I to be sure they would be able to produce a slick second draft.  The boys rewrote openings, created new titles, better developed their characters, and added to their setting by using specific sensory details.  Wow!  It was awesome.  I felt like I was in the presence of true authors and writers.  They weren’t just working because they had too, they were growing as writers because they wanted to.  It was so much fun.  I didn’t feel like a teacher today.  Instead, I felt more like a fellow author discussing writing.

While I don’t think that differentiating between revising and editing produced the amazing results we saw in the classroom today, I do think it made a difference in how the students approached growing their writing.  They didn’t just go through the motions to say they were finished, they took the time to really look at their work from a new perspective.  Lumping editing and revising together may not have produced this same level of work.  I was very clear with the boys on how to complete each step of the review process and I do feel as though that helped them see what they needed to do on a very concrete level.  Instead of making a big list of everything they needed to do when reviewing their writing, I simply broke the list into smaller chunks.  And that made all the difference for my students in class today.

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Posted in Education, Teaching

My Professional Goals for the 2016-2017 Academic Year

As we are in the thick of yet another messy presidential election season, I find myself in a contemplative mood.  Why are the candidates attacking each other?  Why can’t everybody just get along?  Why is there such a divide in our country?  More than anything though, I wonder, regardless of which candidate becomes our next president, how many of the promises they make will come to fruition?  While they set lofty goals for their first term in office, I wonder how many of those goals will actually be met.  Do political candidates set themselves up for failure by over-promising and under-delivering?  As we know the answer to be yes, my question is why.  Why do they set goals that are almost unattainable?  Why not set Specific Measureable Attainable Realistic and Timely (SMART) goals instead?  If elected officials want American citizens to stay positive and believe in them, then they need to change the way they do business.  Political candidates need to set goals that are possible to meet, only promise something that they know they can deliver on, and be honest.  Unless political candidates change the way they campaign, then the political landscape that is changing from happy little trees to gray and dead logs will continue to devolve into something much worse.

As an American citizen and someone who cares a lot about the future of our country, I try to model the kind of behavior I feel all people of the world should exhibit: Compassion and Honesty.  I don’t make promises I can’t keep.  I speak the truth at every turn, and when the truth may hurt, I use empathy and compassion when sharing it.  I use kindness to spread the love of learning and spark the flame of curiosity.  And when it comes to goal setting, I set SMART goals.  If I want my students to go out into the global society to lead meaningful and responsible lives, then I need to be showing them how to do so at all times.

One way I can promote this positive sensibility is through goal setting.  As I want my students to constantly be challenging themselves to reflect, grow, fail, learn, and grow some more, I need to be modelling this same growth mindset in and out of the classroom.  While my students are working on setting academic goals this week, I feel that it is fitting that I do the same.  What are my goals for the 2016-2017 academic year?  How do I want to continue to grow and improve as an educator?  What kind of teacher do I want to be?  What kind of person do I want my students to see when they look at me?

  1. I want to learn how to better help, support, and challenge the ESL students in my class.  Currently, I don’t feel as though I have all of the necessary tools in my resource belt to help the English language learners in my class.  I struggle to work with them in a meaningful manner.  I feel as though I am hindering the progress of the ESL students in my class and I don’t like feeling that way.  So, this year, I’m going on a learning journey.  I’m going to talk to colleagues about how they support and help their ESL students.  I’m going to read professional development texts on the topic.  And, I hope to attend a training session at some point this year as well.  I don’t like feeling helpless.  I want to feel empowered so that I can better support and challenge those struggling ESL students in my classroom.
  2. I want to follow-through on all of the new curriculum add-ons I started this year.  I don’t want things to fall by the wayside.  I want to see them through to the end of the year.  I want all of my students to be able to solve the Rubik’s Cube by the close of the year.  I want my students to see how the natural world changes over the course of a year.  I want my boys to learn how to speak the language of computer coding.  Each year, I feel as though I try new things and a few of them only make it about two to three weeks before they fade away.   I don’t want that to happen this year.  I want to stay with the plan I set over the summer.  Every Thursday is Rubik’s Cube time in STEM class.  Every Tuesday is Forest Plot day.  And every math work period begins with computer coding.  To keep me on track, perhaps I should make it a focus to reflect and blog about my progress in this area at least once every few weeks.  Maybe this will help keep me better focused on my end-goal.

As I don’t want to set too many goals that I can’t possibly attain like political candidates frequently do, two goals is what I can handle this year.  With only these two goals, I can really devote much time and energy to meeting them by the end of the academic year.  Rather than struggle to accomplish things throughout the year and feel defeated by June, I want to feel like I’m making progress.  I can do two goals.  I’m not under-promising, I’m being realistic.  I want my students to see the power in effective goal setting, not ineffective goal setting.  So, those are my goals for this year.  I’m hopeful and excited.  Working towards these two targets will help me become the best teacher possible for my students.

Posted in Boys, Education, Teaching

Are Single-Sex Schools Beneficial to Students?

I remember being a third grader at the local public school in the town in which I grew up as if it were yesterday.  Because I was different, I was constantly teased and picked on by both the girls and the boys.  I never really liked going to school back then because of it.  Then came middle school.  The students picked on me less, which was a welcomed relief.  I actually liked going to school in seventh and eighth grade because of that huge change.  As I was still trying to figure out who I was as a person, I was very shy and awkward back in middle school.  Some of my baby fat still hung around my face in seventh grade.  Those school pictures are horrendously scary.  Even though things started coming together for me in middle school, I still struggled a bit in my classes.  I felt as if I was constantly being compared to the girls in the class.  Why can’t you write an essay like Sally?  Why don’t you boys act more like the girls?  As a boy in the classroom, I was constantly being judged unfairly.  Due to this, I rarely participated in class discussions as did my male peers.  We were afraid of what the girls might say or do.  We didn’t want to get made fun of or ridiculed in front of an entire group of girls.  We were constantly labelled as troublemakers in the class.  While things got a bit better in high school, the same issues still applied.  The girls almost always knew the answer and raised their hands, which meant I did not.  The teachers seemed to favor the girls in the class over the boys.  I thought for sure that college would be different, and in most cases it was.  I did have some English courses that were just like middle school though.  The professors favored the girls.  They received the praise in the class.  They were the ones receiving the high grades.  As a male, I was constantly being compared to the females in those particular classes.  It was as if being born a male made me a bad person.  I felt like that through most of my years in school.  I’m not looking for anyone to throw me a pity party, though.  Yes, it was challenging, but I survived as did most of my male friends.  I do wish though, that I had attended an all-boys school.  The problems I encountered in academic settings with girls, prevented me, at times, from being the best possible student.  Had I not felt pressure from the girls and favoritism from the teachers, my school years would have been very different.  Imagine if I had felt comfortable enough to participate in class discussions more frequently.  What if I had been inspired to tackle the problem of world hunger and solved it by now?  The list of what ifs? could go on and on.  If only I had had the opportunity to attend a single-sex school, my years of schooling would have provided me with a far better experience than the one I did have.

I recently read an article that discussed the drawbacks of single-sex schools.  While some of the points do make a bit of sense, most of what the author mentions, I feel, is unfounded.  The author cites research and analyses conducted recently suggesting that there are no academic advantages to attending a single-sex educational facility.  Although I don’t want to argue with science and research, I do want to point out that I have had several families and students over my 13 years working at an all-boys school tell me how much better their son achieved academically at my school.  Their grades improved, their behavioral issues seemed to vanish, and their emotional state improved drastically.  This wasn’t just one family or student, this was the case for numerous students I’ve worked with over the years.  Their son achieved academic success at a single-sex school.  Reflecting back on my school experiences, I would have probably achieved academic success at a single-sex school too.  This article seems to be speaking some untruths.

The teachers at same-sex schools like the one I teach at are trained in helping boys.  We know how to educate and work with boys.  We have taken classes on the subject, read numerous professional texts about teaching boys, and have gone through much professional development on how to best support and challenge boys.  We know how to work with boys very well.  I often felt as though my middle school teachers and even some of my elementary school teachers did not know how to teach boys.  They taught to the girls in the class.  They didn’t know how to address our high energy.  They didn’t like that we wrote stories about guns and war.  They didn’t know how to work with boys.  They knew how to work with a generic, middle of the road student who most likely was female.  Many co-ed schools struggle to meet the needs of  all of their students because of the teacher training their teachers received.  Very few teachers at co-ed schools learn how to best help all students and learners.  So, how is it possible that there are no academic advantages to single-sex schools?  That just isn’t true.

While the article did seem very prejudiced against same-sex schools, the author did mention one point that makes sense to me.  The research conducted at various schools around the world states that students at single-sex schools develop more stereotyped views of other groups of people.  For example, boys may treat girls differently if they attended an all-boys school because of the lack of exposure to females.  So, although there is some sense behind this claim, I do feel that most same-sex schools do a fantastic job addressing these issues.  At my school, we talk a lot about gender roles, how to treat women, and how to be kind and compassionate towards all people.  We deliberately educate our students on how to be a great person and not just a great young man because we realize that our students will be a part of a global society that includes females.  We help our students to broaden their perspectives on numerous issues regarding gender and diversity.  While some same-sex schools may not take such an intense approach to addressing these issues and concerns, my school, and I’m sure many others, do.  We want our students to be good people, regardless of their sex or gender identification.

So, in closing, while I’m sure some single-sex schools don’t address issues regarding stereotypical behavior towards other groups of people and may not provide their students with any academic advantages, many same-sex educational institutions, such as my school, do.  I worry that people unfamiliar with single-sex schools might read this article and gain a negative perspective on same-sex schools.  There are so many benefits to a school such as mine.  Our boys receive a top-notch education from talented and well-trained teachers.  We know how to help and educate boys, and we do it very well.  Our students go onto become role models and leaders in their communities because of the teaching and training they received at my school.  To address the question I posed in my title, single-sex schools do help students in many ways.  The benefits are too numerous to list.  But don’t take my word for it, check out single-sex schools where you live.  Do some research.  Visit a same-sex school.  Sit in on a class or two and I’m sure that you will see the same benefits that I am fortunate enough to see on a daily basis.

Posted in Education, Reflection, Sixth Grade, Teaching, Testing

Reflecting in the Moment

This past weekend, I hosted a school-sponsored trip to go apple picking at a nearby orchard.  The weather was brilliant and the boys had a blast.  The apple picking wasn’t fantastic, but if you were patient, then the best apples had a way of finding you.  I walked around the orchard with two sixth graders from my class as they had never been apple picking before.  I wanted to show them the ropes.  We walked past several trees that didn’t seem to have any apples left.  Then we happened upon a tree that seemed quite full of red apples.  So, we started picking, and that’s when we realized that the tree was playing a nasty little trick on us.  From our angle, the apples looked perfect, but in fact were quite rotten or infested with various insects.  I explained to the boys, the art of apple picking.  You need to be choosy and picky.  You can’t pick every apple you see.  You must inspect the apple completely before pulling it from the tree to be sure it is not funky.  So, we continued walking about, looking for some pickable apples.  While we happened upon a few funky ones, we did manage to find plenty of great apples.  The key is in taking the time to look and observe before yanking.  While I’m not sure if these young men will ever have another chance to go apple picking as they come from a large city in China, they now know the ins and outs of apple picking.  It’s an art.  It’s all about stopping and thinking.

In the classroom, we refer to stopping and thinking as reflection: Taking the time to look back at what you did and learn from it.  While I usually do this after classes every day in this very blog, because I’ve gotten so into the habit of reflecting, I’m now always thinking in terms of reflection.  How did that lesson go?  Could it have been better?  Could my interaction with that student have been more effective?  I find myself mentally reflecting almost all of the time.  It’s great.

Today was the dreaded ERB Testing day at my school.  I hate standardized tests.  While gathering data for checkpoints can be beneficial, I also question the validity of filled-in bubbles.  What does they really tell us?  I’d much rather have a student respond in writing or orally to questions.  That way I really know if he knows his stuff or not.  I could guess on a standardized test and possibly score quite high on the scale.  Does that say anything about my aptitude or intelligence?  Not really.  Anyway, testing is yucky, but we administer them in the sixth grade because our school mandates it.  So, like a good teacher, I follow my orders.

The students did a great job.  They sat still, were generally focused, and seemed to really be putting forth excellent effort.  I was very impressed.  Very little policing needed to take place as they took the test in class today.  After the first few testing sessions, the students had a 15 minute break to get a snack, run around, or use the restroom.  They needed the time to recalibrate before completing the next section.  I reminded them that the ninth graders would be in classes and that other groups of students might be taking the test too.  They needed to be quiet and respectful when in the academic buildings.  I thought for sure that they could handle this.  I forget to take into account that they had been sitting, focusing on a challenging test for the past two hours.  How could they possibly be prepared to make smart decisions?

As the students began to filter back into the classroom, a colleague of mine came to report to me that some of the students had been running through the hallways, screaming as ninth graders were in class.  Holding the bar high, I sternly ended their break and had them return to their seats.  I expressed my disappointment in their choices and informed them that they would not get another break prior to lunch.  They struggled to follow our school’s core values and were disrespectful to their Cardigan brothers.  I moved right into the next testing session.

After I laid into my students, I started to wonder, Was I too hard on them?  No, they needed to be reminded of the rules and expectations.  If I didn’t mention it or make a big deal of it, they might think that they could act like that again.  We can’t have that.  Then, on my way to get a fresh cup of coffee, I chatted with a colleague.  He asked me how the testing was going for my students.  “Things are good.  The boys are doing well, but a teacher did tell me that some of the students were seen running in the building, shouting as they made their way back to the classroom.”  His feedback helped me to see the light.  “What did he expect?  They’re sixth grade boys who have just been cooped up in a classroom taking a test all morning.  Of course they had energy in need of escaping.”  I never thought about it like that.  Maybe I was not the only one who overreacted.  Perhaps my colleague had also overreacted by reporting the incident to me.  Sure, I want my students to be compassionate and respectful at all times, but on a day like today, we should be a bit more lenient.

After my students finished completing the test section they were working on, I got a little discussion going.  I shared my thoughts with them.  “While it was not appropriate to run and scream inside an academic building, you are sixth graders who had been sitting, taking a test all morning.  Excess energy was bound to build up.  You just need to be more mindful of other students next time when you allow that energy to escape.”  I asked if any of the students would like to explain what happened and own their mistakes.  Several students raised their hands and took responsibility for their actions.  They had been running inside and shouting.  They then realized the error of their ways.  I was impressed with the courage it took to admit their mistakes.  I thanked the students for showing courage and honesty in sharing.  I reminded them once again of the expectations for the academic spaces before I provided them with a short break to show good faith in their ownership and bravery as a class.

Reflecting on my quick reaction to something a fellow teacher shared with me, allowed me the chance to best support and help my students.  I probably came down too hard on them.  Yes, I needed to explain what rules had been violated, but I also needed to be mindful of their emotional and mental states at that moment.  They were stressed and tired from taking a test all day.  Their brains weren’t functioning at full capacity because of it.  As their prefrontal cortex hasn’t even developed yet, they were making decisions using a different portion of their brain.  They were actually over thinking their choices.  The student shouting was shouting, “Hurry up guys, we’re going to be late for the next test.”  Is that a bad thing to shout?  No, he was looking out for his peers.  He was trying to help his classmates get back to the classroom on time.  He was being thoughtful by saying that.  However, he did not think about the other students in the nearby classrooms that were in the middle of class.  The shouting might have distracted them.  So, while what my students did was not the best choice for the time and place, their hearts were in the right place.  Because I reflected on what I said to them as they started their next test, I was able to fix the situation a bit and help continue to build community within the classroom.  I gave the students a chance to own their mistakes and take responsibility for their actions.  If I were not in the regular habit of mentally reflecting, I might not have been able to rectify the mistake I made by lecturing them instead of trying to get to the heart of what happened.  I wasn’t willing to listen to them at first.  Therefore, I wasn’t respecting them.

Reflection is huge.  It has definitely made me a better educator and person.  Several years ago, I never used to think back on something and learn from the experience.  Once something was in the past, it stayed there.  If I remembered something really bad or good that happened, I might incorporate it into the next year’s lesson, but that was it.  I never really got better at teaching back then.  I remained stagnant.  Then, I learned to see the ripples in my teaching that were always there, but because I never looked, I just assumed my body of water was unchanged.  Being a reflective teacher has made me a better teacher for my students, and isn’t that what it’s all about?

Posted in Education, Humanities, Teaching

Can There Be Too Much Student Talk?

When I was a young buck in school, the motto was, “Students should be seen and not heard.”  School was about receiving information from teachers and then regurgitating that same information on standardized tests.  That was it.  There was no play, no student talking, and no choices.  The teacher’s voice was the only one that should be heard.  When I first started teaching, I utilized this same model as this is what I knew.  Even though I learned more appropriate strategies for teaching in college, I fell back on my prior experiences.  The teacher was in control.  That only got me so far.  I’m not that interesting or engaging and I certainly don’t have all of the answers.  While the students respected me as a teacher and there were no battles between us, they were not engaged and probably learned very little.

And when I started to realize that very little learning was taking place in the classroom, I did some research and learning of my own.  How can I best engage students in my classroom?  How can I inspire my students to learn?  How do students learn best?  What is the best model for instruction in the classroom?  As I learned more and more about effective teaching, I became a different teacher.  I provided the students with options, allowed them to work together to solve problems, and created hands-on projects and activities.  I created a student-centered learning environment.  I was no longer in charge.  I put the learning in the hands of my students.  I empowered them, and it made all the difference.  Too bad it took me so long to get to this place, but at least I’m here now.

In my Humanities class, we utilize the Reader’s Workshop method of reading instruction so that the students can choose books to read that interest them.  This way, they grow as readers and thinkers.  Every Monday in Humanities class, we have a chance to meet with our students one-on-one to discuss their reading progress.  We find out what books they’re reading, ask comprehension questions, complete fluency checks, and be sure they are making progress.  It’s all about allowing the students to talk and run the show.

As today was Monday, we met with the students to discuss their reading.  The first student I met with is quite the talker.  I checked in with him first because he wanted to go to the library to choose a new book as he had recently finished his last novel.  So, I took notes on the books he read and asked comprehension questions to be sure he was reading with a purpose.  He then proceeded to tell me every detail about his book.  While I usually try to keep me student conferences to five minutes in length, this conference lasted almost 20 minutes.  He kept talking and talking about his book.  He clearly loves reading and his comprehension is quite amazing.  Normally, having students talk is a positive thing.  They become much more engaged in the learning process when they have ownership in it.  The problem today was that we had a shorter period in which to meet with the students and so I was unable to meet with every student because this conference lasted three times longer than a regular conference.  I didn’t want to cut him off as he spoke, but in my head I realized that I was missing opportunities to meet with all of my students.

Should I have cut him off?  Should I have asked him to stop talking so that I could meet with other students?  Should I have prevented him from sharing his engagement with the books he has read?  Would that have been appropriate or respectful?  Would he have understood?  Although I don’t have an answer to my questions, I do know that I can’t have a 20-minute conference with him on a weekly basis.  So, what do I do?  Do I use a timer to keep him within the allotted time?  Do I cut him off after five minutes?  I could always conference with him last so that I have limited time anyway.  He is a voracious reader and so I’m not worried about effectively supporting him as a reader.  Perhaps next week I will try meeting with him last so that I can meet with the other students first.  Maybe this will help.  Other than that, I have no clear-cut solution that I like.  I want my students to talk and be excited about reading, but I also want to be able to appropriately challenge and support all of my students.  Sometimes, cutting off a student who is talking too much or hogging the conversation may be beneficial for the group as a whole.

Posted in Reflection, Sixth Grade, Teaching

Reflection Time

With two full weeks done and in the books for the 2016-2017 academic year at my school, it feels like the right time to look back and reflect a bit.  What went well?  What failed?  What did I learn?  How can I grow as a teacher?  While I reflect on this blog daily, I don’t often take the opportunity to look at the big picture.  I imagine myself flying a drone above my life, looking down on everything I do and say.  Would I like what I saw?  For the most part I would be pleased with what I saw on the remote control screen.  However, I’m sure I would notice and observe plenty of things that I could have done better.  That’s the power of reflection.  The key is to learn from those instances.

Although I am quite good at being realistic when I reflect on this blog, I worry that I am biased.  Perhaps seeing things from an alternative perspective will help me more effectively reflect and grow as an educator.  So, I put together a reflection survey for my students this past week.  Who better to give me honest feedback?  My students won’t sugar-coat the truth and they see things that I usually miss.  Today’s entry will detail the reflection survey and what it taught me.

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I certainly was not shocked by this result.  However, I did think it would be a bit more than 50%.  The boys love the new Farm Program we began this year.  Even though we’ve only had one session at the fiber farm, they thoroughly enjoyed it.  Going into this year, I figured that the students would really like going to the farm to learn about animals, farming, and fibers.  Perhaps the number of students who found it to be their favorite part will increase by the end of the year as we dig deeper into the curriculum we’ve created for it.

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Although I was not surprised by the results of this second question, it does make me wonder what their past school experiences were like.  Why were the expectations from their last schools so easy?  Why did they not have fun last year?  Why were some of the boys not challenged last year?  Why is it that school was not fun or enjoyable for them in their past schools?  School should be a challenging, supportive, caring, and fun place to be.  Students should be excited about school.  Genuine learning can not be had if students aren’t engaged or seeing the relevance in what is happening, neuroscience research proves.  So, why do many of our students feel as though their last schools were too easy or boring?  Are their past schools limited by a restrictive curriculum such as the Common Core?  Do they come from schools in other countries where the learning and structure is very different?  Now, the type of school they attended last year also plays a major role.  For those students who did not come from a boarding school, my school is very different.  We are with the boys all the time.  This makes a huge difference.  I know my students so very well because I’m able to be with them all day and night, all year.  I see them through their highs and lows, their times of hunger and frustration, and their times of sleep deprivation.  My relationship and connection with my students is so much greater and deeper than what most teachers in day schools experience.  This is a lifestyle and not just a school.  I’m teaching these boys so much more than what is covered in the classroom.  This factor probably has a lot to do with the results as well.  However, I do still wonder what it is about the other schools that made things not as fun or engaging as Cardigan.  This might be a great question to ask in a future survey.  What made your last school different from Cardigan?  What are you doing at Cardigan that you didn’t do last year?  I think the answers would be quite different and enlightening.

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The results to this question made me all warm and fuzzy inside.  I wasn’t really going for an ego-boost with this question, I promise.  I just wanted constructive feedback, but instead my co-teacher and I received several fantastic compliments.  We’re doing great stuff in the sixth grade and it shows.  They love the field experiences and seem to also like how we challenge and support them.  We have a rule in the sixth grade, You do the work.  We will guide you, but you have to be the one to solve the problems encountered.  Clearly, that works for this group of students.  After the difficult year I felt we had in the sixth grade last year due to multiple factors, I’m so happy that we’re off to a great start this year.  The boys feel safe and happy.  We couldn’t ask for much more than that.  Now we just need to keep on keepin’ on, as Joe Dirt said.

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This question was wide open on purpose.  I wanted the students to honestly think about our whole sixth grade program and how we could improve upon it.  The results were interesting.  While six of the students love everything about what we’re doing in the classroom, several students observed areas in need of improvement.  Now, some are counter intuitive to our philosophy in the sixth grade, but some of their feedback is very useful.  We need to have evening study hall as it is a part of our school’s program.  While we do think carefully about homework assignments so that they are relevant and meaningful, we also realize that we have to assign homework.  That issue is out of our hands as classroom teachers.  I’d love to see the sixth grade not have an evening study hall.  They should have free time to bond and grow as a family as it is my school’s smallest class year in and year out.  They also need to have an earlier bedtime.  Sixth graders grow tired faster than older students but also wake up earlier than the upperclassmen.  While changes could be made to this part of our day, it is not something that will be changing anytime soon.  My favorite response was the one about fidgeting with something.  Perhaps they did their research, but no matter what, they make a convincing case.  My co-teacher and I try to keep things out of our students’ hands during full class lessons or activities to help the boys stay more focused.  Brain research shows that multitasking is a myth and not possible.  How can our students focus on fidgeting and the lesson or task at hand?  One of the options will get less attention devoted to it from the brain.  We can’t have that.  Our classroom furniture already addresses this issue.  The students have rocking chairs to release excess energy during whole class instruction.  They can totally rock away while we’re talking.  We’re fine with that as we know it helps them focus, but can they really rock, fidget, and listen well?  I don’t think so, but I’m willing to give it a try.  So, I’m going to be more mindful of what I allow to happen during full-class instruction time.  Maybe this will have a positive impact for some students or maybe it will simply reaffirm what I already believe, that fidgeting is multitasking.

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This question also elicited a variety of responses.  I like what they’ve taken away so far.  They’re learning about the power of collaboration and ownership.  That’s awesome.  Being able to work effectively with others while owning their work and choices are very important skills our students need to learn to lead meaningful lives in a global society.  The fact that some of them have already started to see the value in those two skills is phenomenal.  We are very lucky in the sixth grade this year.  The chemistry of this group of boys just works so well.  They make a perfect solution.  It’s amazing.  That makes a huge difference.  While every student I’ve ever worked with or taught is amazing in their own ways, sometimes when they are in a group, they don’t always mix well with others.  This can in turn make learning difficult.  While being able to work with all different types of people is a crucial life skill, when many people in a group have a fixed mindset from the start, trying to help others grow and develop can be very tricky.   I’m very pleased with what our students have already begun to take away from our sixth grade program.  We have been much more intentional about things this year, on purpose, and it shows.

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This final question was more of a self-reflection for the boys.  We’ve introduced and discussed our school’s Habits of Learning quite a bit since the start of the academic year.  We want the boys to see how valuable each of the habits really is to growing and learning.  Having an open mind to new ideas and feedback is one of the main building blocks of learning.  Clearly, our students have already started to grasp some of these challenging skills.  Helping the students to develop these habits throughout the year will be a constant focus for us in the sixth grade.

I was very happy with the overall result of the Week One Survey.  The students are feeling good about the start of the year and seem to really love what we’re doing.  I hope this trend continues.  We will have the boys reflect and provide us with feedback throughout the year.  The big takeaway for me from this experience is that reflection is crucial for growth to come about.  Had I not been already thinking about how I wanted to change things for this year, last year, I doubt that we would be off to such a great start.  I was very deliberate in my planning this year so that the students feel more engaged and are learning crucial skills to make all subject areas fun and exciting.  The more I stop and think about what went well or what didn’t go well on a daily basis, the more I will continue to grow as a teacher.  My number one goal has always been and always will be to help support and challenge my students in exactly the ways they need to be supported and challenged.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Learning, Mistakes, STEM, Students, Teaching

Did I Over-Teach my Lesson Today?

When my son was younger, he struggled to follow directions.  I would always have to repeat the directions or chunk them if there were multiple steps for him to follow.  This worked until he grew a bit older.  Then he hated when I would tell him something more than once.  “Dad, you already told me that,” he would say.  So, I tried to give him the directions only once.  Sometimes that worked and other times it failed miserably.  Then I got into the habit of writing things down for him.  I made him cool little checklists to follow when he was doing his chores at home.  This worked very well for him.  He could easily follow the directions at his speed.  It only took about ten years for me to figure out how best to provide my son with directions.  I either said too much or not enough.

There’s a fine line to providing directions to others, especially when they are children.  You don’t want to spoon feed them everything, but you want them to feel supported and safe.  As a teacher, I often struggle with this issue.  Am I saying too much or not enough?  Will they be able to effectively utilize the new skill if they don’t practice first?  It’s challenging to know or figure out what works best for the group of students in the classroom.

Today in STEM class, I introduced the final two sections of the Lab Report: Results and Conclusion.  During our last class, the students began an experiment regarding gummy bears.  What will happen when a gummy bear is placed in water for 24 hours?  We had completed the Problem, Hypothesis, Materials, and Procedure sections together as a class and they conducted the investigation by the close of the last STEM period.  Today, they needed to observe the outcome and record their noticings in the Results section.  This didn’t take too long.  I provided them simple written directions and explained them orally before they got to work.  I gave them 10 minutes to complete this phase.  Things went well here.  The boys were mostly all engaged.  One student was ill during the last class and was unable to complete the investigation.  He was a bit distracted, but I had him work with his table partner to record observations in his Results section for practice.  I then explained the results and why they occurred.  I provided them with the scientific knowledge behind the experiment.  I drew diagrams and everything.  They seemed to understand this well.  Then came time to write the Conclusion together.  I wanted to model how to do it as they were doing theirs so that they had a basic understanding of the expectations.  This is where things went off-track a bit.

As I drafted the first several sentences of the Conclusion section on the board, the boys copied what I had onto their Lab Report.  However, some students process information at different rates and so while most of the students were able to keep up, three students wrote very slowly.  Instead of moving on as I had intended after five minutes of waiting for them to copy what was on the board, I had to pause even longer.  The students seemed restless.  Those who needed more time worked hard while those students who had finished, were distracting others.  Finally, I was able to move on and continue working on the Conclusion section of the Lab Report.  I added a few more sentences, but then needed room on the board for the rest.  So, I erased what I had already typed.  This made it difficult for those methodical students as they were still writing what I had erased.  Some of them started to stress out immediately.  I quickly came to their aide and provided them with a strategy to solve their problem.  This helped, but it took away from the rest of the class.  I wasn’t able to move on and challenge those quick workers as soon as I would have liked to.  They continued to be distracted and distracting as they waited.  A few of the boys made a wise choice while they waited and read quietly, but many others did not.  I praised the students who were making good choices to try and inspire others to follow suit.  It worked a bit.  Then, as we were finishing the final few sentences, two students who had gone to the hospital earlier in the day arrived back and were very lost.  They then distracted their peers instead of figuring out what was going on and following along.  I then had to redirect them and guide them to the correct choice.  After settling everybody down, I then started collecting finished lab reports.  Those students who had finished, could make a quiet choice at their seat.  However, other students started doing the same even though they weren’t finished the task at hand.  I then had to take myself away from helping those students who wanted help to redirect those students who were struggling to follow directions.  This continued for several more minutes.  Finally, I collected the final lab report and had everybody’s attention.  I closed class reviewing why we utilize lab reports and the scientific method in the sixth grade.  I wanted to be sure they understood the purpose behind what we were doing.  I then highlighted some of what I saw in the classroom.  “Some of you struggled to keep up and got frustrated when I had erased work you still needed to copy down.  However, you persevered and solved your problem.  Failure and frustration can lead to genuine learning that will be remembered in the long term memory portion of the brain.  Making mistakes and learning from them is a crucial part of the learning process.”

Things certainly didn’t go as planned today and I felt a bit helpless.  I needed the boys to understand how to properly create a lab report, but was having them all practice together necessary?  Could I have structured the lesson differently?  Was there another way to get the job done?  Could I have allowed those students who felt comfortable to go at their own pace, following the details on our class Haiku Website, while I helped those struggling students?  Would that have been a more viable option?  What if the students who felt like they knew what they were doing didn’t actually know what they were doing?  Then they would have created an incorrect lab report and would have had to start all over again.  But wouldn’t they have then learned from their mistake and never again think they know more than they do?  What about having those students who finished early support those boys who needed help?  That would have made my role in the classroom a bit less cumbersome today.  There are clearly many other ways to accomplish the same goal I set out to do today in class.  I need to be more mindful of this when trying to do something similar in the near future.  I could have better differentiated my instruction to help all of the learners in my class.  While today’s lesson felt like a failure, it was actually a great learning experience for me and one that I can use to grow from.  I now know how not to teach the skill of lab reporting in the future.  So, today’s bomb of a lesson wasn’t all for not.  At least I learned something from class today.

Posted in Education, Humanities, Teaching

The Power of Feedback

What do Picasso, Mozart, and Dan Brown all have in common?  They are all great artists who developed their craft through feedback.  Picasso didn’t just wake up one day and paint his masterpieces, oh no.  He needed to be trained and taught.  He needed to practice, receive feedback, and try again.  I’m sure many of his early works were quite different from his most famous pieces.  The same goes for Mozart and Dan Brown.  Great artists, authors, musicians, and even teachers need feedback in order to grow.  If it weren’t for my co-teachers over the past several years, I would not be the teacher I am today.  I utilized the feedback I received from them to grow my craft.  Their feedback offered me a different perspective on what I was doing in the classroom.  It was useful and constructive.  The only way we can grow and mature as people is to receive feedback from others.  How am I doing?  What can I do to improve?  How can I become a better football player?  Feedback is a crucial part of the learning process.

To help my students begin to see the power of feedback, I tried something new in Humanities class today.  Instead of having the students peer review with a table partner and revise their Goodreads Update from yesterday based on one person’s feedback, I had the students receive feedback from five different students in the class.  I called it Popcorn Peer Review.  Each student began the process with their assigned table partner.  They had five minutes to read over their partner’s update, complete a checklist with feedback and suggestions, and have a conversation about how they can revise their piece.  Then, they switched partners and did it all over again.  This process continued for a total of five times.  I wanted the students to receive lots of feedback before they began revising their update.  For a few of the students, the feedback was the same, but for most of the boys, they received different feedback from each of the students.  This allowed them much fodder for revising their piece.

At the start of the activity, I explained why we were completing the peer review process this way.  “In order to effectively revise your writing, you need lots of feedback.  Instead of just receiving feedback from one person, you will be receiving feedback from many people.  The more feedback you receive, the easier time you will have in revising your update.”  The students seemed to get it as they were committed to putting forth great effort during the Popcorn Peer Review process.  They provided their partners with specific feedback and ways to improve their update.  They then utilized this feedback to revise their writing and create a more final version.  By the time my co-teacher and I saw their updates, they were almost all quite strong and needed little improvement.  Because they received lots of feedback, they were able to effectively revise their update.  I was impressed.

As I had never done peer review in this manner, I was excited by the outcome.  The students made great use of the experience to provide their partners with specific feedback.  They also then made use of the feedback to improve their writing.  Because we want our students to see the benefit in feedback and how it can help them to grow and develop as learners, we reminded them of its power at the end of class.  “You all did a great job helping provide your partners with feedback that will help them revise their writing in order to receive a 4/4 on the graded objective of writing about your reading.  Great work today!”  As the year progresses, we will continue to help our students see how important receiving feedback is to the learning process.

Posted in Education, Sixth Grade, STEM, Teaching

Helping Students to be Curious, Naturally

I remember playing with these simple and fun toys when I was a kid.  I think they were called Construx.  They were long, grey blocks with blue connectors.  You could build all sorts of things with them.  I used to make vehicles and buildings with them.  They kept me busy for hours.  I loved exploring and trying new possibilities.  What I loved most about them was the freedom of choice.  Legos blocks came as a kit with directions and so there was no room to improvise.  Construx blocks allowed for endless possibilities as there were no instructions, or maybe there were instructions and I just lost them.  I loved being able to build whatever I could dream up.  I allowed my curiosity to take me places.

While I did enjoy playing with the many fun toys my parents provided me with as a child, I do wish I had been forced to get outside more.  I wish I had been able to be more curious in the natural world.  I wish I had played outside more as a young child.  I wish I had spent more time digging in the dirt and building forts in the woods.  I wish I had better understood nature back in my youth.  Sure, being curious inside was fun, but I feel like I missed so much by not spending more time outside as a child.  It’s not like I was a prisoner and couldn’t go outside.  I just didn’t want to and my parents didn’t force me to as much as I wish they had.  I got to choose where I played and I usually played inside.  I wish I had made a different choice back then.  Who knows, maybe I might have grown up to be a world famous botanist had I explored in the outdoors more as a child.  Wait a minute, can a botanist really be world famous?  Perhaps, but I guess I’ll never know now.

So that I don’t take away another world famous botanist from the world, as a teacher, I try to help my students explore and appreciate the natural world right outside our windows and doors.  I want them to see nature for all of its wonder and glory instead of just a bunch of dirt and trees.  I want my students to be able to identify trees, plants, and animals in the wild.  I want the students to be able to understand why the topography of the land is the way it is.  I want the students to question and be curious regarding nature.  Why is one tree taller than another tree?  I want to help my students access their inner naturalist so that they grow to be scientifically informed and curious men.

To help my students be naturally curious, in STEM class for the past several years, we have completed a unit on ecology.  We go outside to identify the living things in our backyard.  They question the world around them and create a field guide documenting their findings.  It’s a fun unit, but it only spans about two weeks.  How are students supposed to genuinely appreciate nature and be curious about the natural world in just two weeks?  They can’t, and so to solve this problem, I expanded my ecology unit this year.

Once a week, all year, the students will be going outside to their assigned forest plot making observations, conducting experiments, asking questions, and being curious about the outdoors.  They will document their findings and observations in their Forest Plot Journal.  Each week when we go outside, there will be a focus.  For example, one week the students might have to draw a map of their plot labelling the different species.  Having this project span the entire year will allow the students to see the seasonal changes that happen in nature.  They will hopefully begin to draw conclusions and make connections to prior knowledge and to what we are learning in the classroom.  They will also learn to get in touch with their natural side.

Today marked the beginning of this year long forest project.  After explaining the project and why we are completing it, we ventured outside.  I assigned each student a specific plot in the forest and had them make observations and take notes in their journal for about 10 minutes.  They walked around in their plots, looked at all of the living organisms growing and changing, listened to all of the noises heard, and record everything in their Forest Plot Journals.  It was awesome!

When it was time to return to the classroom, the students were so excited to share their observations with the class.  One student saw a snake hiss and move towards him while another student was shocked to see such a tiny plant have such a large root system.  I of course reminded that one student that we don’t pick living plants from the ground, but I was impressed with his observation anyway.  The boys can’t wait to return to their plots again next week to see how they have changed.

In this high-tech world of laptops and portable devices, many students rarely have time to explore and appreciate the natural world lurking right under their noses.  As a sixth grade teacher, I want to change that.  I want my students to be curious everywhere they go.  I want them to see the beauty of a tree at fall as well as the interconnectedness of the natural world.  The forest plot project that we started in class today will help to inspire my students to appreciate nature and question the world around them.  Sure, being curious is important, but understanding the fragility and intricacy of the world in which we live is just as important.

Posted in Education, STEM, Trying Something New

Modeling a Growth Mindset When Things Go Wrong in the Classroom

In college, I had a very old and very slow PC desktop computer.  I’m pretty sure it was one of the first computers ever made.  When I clicked on the Internet browser, I’d have to wait five minutes for it to load up before I could even use it.  It was ridiculous.  The worst part of the whole machine, though, was printing.  When I clicked on the Print button, it would literally take 10 minutes to process the file and send it to the printer before it even printed anything.  Most of my time in college was spent waiting because of this decrepit technology.  Despite the speed, it was a relatively reliable computer.  It rarely froze or shut down, which was very good as it took about five minutes to reboot.  However one night, it decided to go rogue.

I had stayed up all night typing an English essay due the next morning.  I labored over it for hours.  Finally, at 1 a.m. I finished.  As I went to save and print, something horrible happened and my machine crashed, causing me to lose my essay.  It was one in the morning and I was exhausted.  At this point, I started cursing and yelling, but knew what needed to happen.  I needed to start over and redo the essay.  So, after I let off a little steam from being so frustrated, I got back to work and retyped the essay from scratch.  At about 4 a.m. I was able to print the paper and go to bed.  Yes, I was angry and mad, but I didn’t let it stop me from getting the assignment done.  I persevered, even as images of my computer flying through my dorm room window flashed before my eyes.  I kept on typing, and saving every 10 seconds.  I utilized a growth mindset to accomplish the task.  I didn’t allow my frustration to get the best of me.

As a teacher, I try to instill this same growth mindset into my students.  While it can be challenging at times, I persevere.  I take advantage of teachable moments whenever they arise to remind the students of the importance of having a growth mindset.  We talk about this habit of learning on an almost daily basis.  By the end of the year in sixth grade, my students clearly understand the value in using a growth mindset in and out of the classroom.

Today marked an unexpected teachable moment in the sixth grade classroom.  As I jubilantly explained the awesome coding website Code Combat that we were supposed to begin using in the classroom today, I was completely unaware that there could possibly be an issue with the students accessing the website.  So, after explaining the login procedure, I was shocked as the students all reported that the website was blocked.  Oh no, I thought.  What shall I do?  Do I have time to run to my school’s technology office to have the IT guys unblock the website?  No silly, I don’t.  Then what?  So, I called an audible and had the students shut their laptops.  I explained to them that I had forgotten to check with the Technology Office to be sure the website was unblocked.  I didn’t think I needed to do that, but clearly I did.  I wanted the students to see how I reacted in a difficult situation when things didn’t go as planned.  “I’m using a growth mindset right now as a way to model how to deal with things when they don’t go the way you were hoping.  Sure I’m frustrated and mad that the website didn’t work because I was very excited for you all to try it.  However, I’m not going to let that stop me from teaching you.  I’m going to check with the Tech Guys this afternoon and hopefully get it unblocked for later in the week.  For now, we’ll move on and get into our Math Groups.  This way, you’ll have more time to get started on the homework.  So, it’s really a lose-win situation.  We lost by not being able to enjoy the Code Combat website, but we won because we’ll have more time for homework to be done in class.”  This explanation seemed to help the students transition onto the next part of class.  I hope that my behavior and words also showed them how to act when things don’t go according to plan.  There’s no need to shut down or give up, you just need to find an alternative solution to the problem.

While today’s activity on the Code Combat website didn’t go the way I had intended, learning was still had from the whole experience.  I learned to check with the tech guys before using any new website and the students learned to persevere and not give up when life throws them a curveball.  I want my students to see the power in using a growth mindset.  Being angry and frustrated is all part of the process, it’s what you do with that anger and frustration that will make the difference.  Do you allow the frustration to overwhelm you and prevent you from moving past the issue or do you use the anger to help you formulate a new way to solve the problem?  My hope is that the students will grow to see the latter as the only viable option in a situation like that.  Oh, and I did most certainly picture myself throwing my laptop and the school’s firewall right out the window as I explained how to overcome the problem to my students today.  Who hasn’t really, right?