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.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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