How to Make the Most of Halloween in the Classroom

I used to love getting all dressed up in costume and going to school on Halloween.  We would do a parade around the school and get lots of candy.  It was epic.  Of course, how focused was I really on Halloween?  Not very, but I loved being in costume, pretending to be someone else, my alter ego, will you.  Then, things changed.  Public schools began succumbing to the over-political correctness of our society and suddenly we couldn’t celebrate holidays or recognize them in any sort of meaningful manner.  It is quite sad really.  The young children of a colleague of mine came to breakfast looking very sad this morning.  I asked them where their costumes were.  They said, “We can’t wear costumes to school.”  They seemed so disappointed and melancholy.  It broke my heart a bit.  Luckily though, at the school I work at, we are allowed to wear costumes to classes and meals.  I love it.  Halloween is definitely one of my favorite holidays because I get to dress up.  I was Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and my co-teacher was the Wicked Witch of the West.img_0395

I had so much fun being someone I’m not.  My students had a blast as well.  Despite being in costume, they were very focused in class.  While this group of students tends to be more focused and dedicated than other groups I’ve worked with in the past, Halloween is Halloween and I wasn’t expecting the fine committment I saw from them in the classroom today.

Now, being an elementary teacher by training and in my heart, I love celebrating the festive holidays such as Halloween and Groundhog’s Day.  So, we mixed things up a bit in the sixth grade today to celebrate the day formally known as Samhain.  During Humanities class, the boys participated in the annual Halloween Writing Extravaganza.  It’s much like a round-robin writing activity.  Each student starts a different story based on a teacher-provided prompt for four minutes.  Then, the students pass their story to the person on their left.  They read what was previously read and then begin adding to it for four minutes.  This continues until everybody has added to each story.  As I have many students in my class this year, I broke them into two groups.  So, each group of seven worked on writing seven different stories.  I was impressed by their focus and dedication throughout the writing activity.  They wrote for the entire time, developing the stories.  Some students continued after the allotted time to make their story even better.  As they wrote, my co-teacher and I observed the boys.  They had smiles on their faces as they diligently wrote and added to the macabre masterpieces.  Even our most reluctant writers and workers scribbled away throughout the activity, crafting brilliantly horrific stories of ghosts and weirdness.  It was awesome.

Then, once each of the stories had been completed, I read them aloud to the class.  The students sat in awe, listening to their strange stories of gore and humor.  I’ve never heard more laughter from a class than I did today as I read their bizarre stories aloud to them.  It was so much fun.  When we ran out of time to read all of the stories, you would have thought I had stolen their cell phones.  They were so sad to hear me stop reading.  They wanted to hear each and every story they crafted.  I’m photocopying the stories for the boys to enjoy again and again on their own.  My students were so excited, happy, and engaged in Humanities class today, writing.  On other days, when we write in class, they aren’t nearly as enthusiastic or scary looking.  Perhaps not wearing costumes every day to class is a good thing.  Creating engaging and fun writing activities for the students helps them to realize that everyday skills can be fun and phenomenal when their perspective changes.  They were all writing in class, just about topics that interested them on this particular day.  I capitalized on the novelty of Halloween to engage my students.  Doing this kind of activity each and every day would not be beneficial.  The luster would fade after awhile.  Sometimes, utilizing novelty in the classroom is great, as long as it is not overused.

Here are two samples of their amazing work:

Story 1

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Story 2

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Clearly, my students had fun in Humanities class today as they crafted funny, creative, and slightly scary stories.  Mixing things up a bit on fun days like Halloween, engages the students and gets them excited.  Trying something new today brought out the writers in all of my students.  It was awesome.  Even though I was worried that my students would be over excited and unfocused in class today, because I made use of a new and fun activity, they were hooked.  I won their focus, effort, and attention today.  Yes!  Winner, winner, candy for dinner.  So, on fun days like Halloween, to help keep our students dedicated and focused on learning and growing, we try new and unique activities like a Halloween Writing Extravaganza or pumpkin dissections.  What boy wouldn’t want to write a creepy story or dissect a living organism that has innards the consistency of brains?

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What’s the Most Effective Way to Help Students Feel Prepared for an Assessment?

Ughhh, tests.  I hate them.  In fact, I hate everything about them.  I was never a good test-taker in school and so my grades were never perfect since I usually flopped on major tests and quizzes.  I felt like my teachers created test questions just to trick us, the students.  Why?  What purpose does that serve other than asserting one’s authority?  Students are not going to respect a teacher who purposefully creates difficult and tricky tests and quizzes.  And don’t even get me started on standardized testing.  A monkey could complete a standardized test and score better than me.  What does that prove?  That I’m dumber than monkey?  Although that may be true regarding some topics, it simply proves that any mammal with fingers can fill in a bubble.  Standardized tests do not showcase an individual’s knowledge of concepts or subjects, but rather are a waste of valuable time.  Just talking about testing makes me angry.  I detest everything about it.  However, I do also realize that my students are going to face the unnecessary pressure of testing throughout their academic futures, and so I must prepare them for what is to come.

B-wait for it-UT, I can definitely make the testing experience for my students much better than my past horror stories.  I don’t have to create difficult tests.  I don’t have to try to fool my students.  I don’t have to foster unending pressure within my students regarding testing.  I can actually make the testing experience for my students enjoyable and non-threatening.  It starts with the actual name: Test.  I do not test my students as if they are rats in a cage.  This is not Salem and I do not need to find out if my students are witches.  I do assess my students.  How are they progressing towards meeting and/or exceeding the objectives?  What else can I do to help support them on their journey of learning and understanding?  I don’t test my students, I assess them.  The “tests” I give them are called assessments.  An effective assessment should allow students to demonstrate their knowledge of a topic, skill, or concept in a simple, straightforward manner.  They are also not the end-all-be-all of the learning process.  Students can be assessed multiple times in multiple different ways.  If a student does not do well on a written assessment, I will assess him orally to determine his understanding of the content.  I want my students to be successful and so I will do whatever it takes to help them be and feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in the learning process.  I also allow redos on written assessments for those interested students.  While the redo process is cumbersome and challenging, it truly showcases a student’s learning and allows me to know if they have mastered the concept or not.  It also helps teach the students the valuable lesson of preparation: Redos are not necessary if you are prepared going into a written assessment.  Assessing students is a process and not a singular event.  I want my students to see learning as a journey and not a destination.

Today in STEM class, I helped my students prepare for their first written math chapter assessment that will take place in class on Tuesday.  I met with each of my two math groups in class and discussed the assessment.  I shared the document they will see on Tuesday with them.  I went through the format and problems involved.  I answered questions they had and made sure they felt completely ready and prepared.  I don’t want them to be nervous between now and Tuesday.  I want them knowing exactly what the test will look and feel like.  There should be no surprises.  During the remainder of class, the students worked on completing the chapter review exercises in their textbook.  They worked with their peers when questions arose and I helped guide those struggling students to a place of comfort and understanding.  It was great.  I feel very confident in my students.  I feel as though they are prepared and ready to go for Tuesday’s assessment.  Throughout the unit, my co-teacher and I have formatively assessed the students on the objectives we will be summatively assessing them on in Tuesday’s chapter assessment.  We have both worked with those students in our group who struggled to display their ability to meet one or more of the objectives.  Through the reteaching and reassessment process, they demonstrated their ability to master the skills they once were challenged by.  Now, I wait until Tuesday to find out how they do.  Do they really know their stuff?  Have they genuinely learned the math content?  Can they still meet and exceed the objectives covered?  After Tuesday’s assessment, I will have a much better idea if the process my co-teacher and I used to help prepare our students for this first chapter assessment was effective or not.  If not, we will discuss how we can change the preparation process to better, more effectively prepare our students for the next chapter assessment in STEM class.

The Benefits of a Farm Program, From the Perspective of Our Students

Taking care of and raising bunnies, using fiber from animals to spin yarn that is used to craft original projects, and learning how farms function and their benefits to society were just some of the ideas a colleague at my school and I discussed this past summer as we created a Farm Program for the sixth grade.  Our goal was and still is to make learning real and hands-on for the students.  Instead of explaining the lifecycle of organisms through diagrams and lectures, why not have them experience it first hand with angora rabbits.  Rather than simply teaching students to knit, we could have the boys collect fiber from animals, clean it, spin it on a wheel, and transform it into yarn they use when learning how to knit or crochet.  Wouldn’t that be more relevant and engaging for the students?  The Farm Program we created for the sixth grade is about getting the students excited to learn and DO.  A classroom setting is fine for teaching basic skills, but if we want our students to see the relevance in the vital life skills we are trying to teach them, we need to journey outside of the white walls of our large classroom.  We need to get dirty and experience life through a different lense.  Our Farm Program helps students to broaden their perspectives on many different facets of life.

Today’s visit to the farm included harvesting brussel sprouts, an introduction to crocheting, and a chance to observe the bunnies.  The boys had a blast and learned much.  They took copious notes in their Farm Journals as they observed, weighed, and measured their bunnies.  They asked insightful questions and worked hard throughout our two hours on the farm today.  While this is what I saw and noticed, what was really happening from the perspective of our students?  What are they learning during our visits to the farm?  Are they getting anything from these experiences or is it a waste of our precious STEM class time?  So, to find out what was really happening behind the green curtain, I had the students reflect a bit today following our visit to the farm.

I asked them three questions:

  • Why is the Farm Program so important for the sixth grade?
  • What important skills are you learning?
  • Why should we continue the Farm Program on Fridays?

Here are some of the written responses we received:

  • “It helps us understand the importance of farms in our community.  It shows us that in order to live, we need farms.”
  • “It teaches us how to take care of animals and how to take care of plants.”
  • “It can help us learn more skills that we might need after we grow up, like fixing clothes.”
  • “Because we are tired because of the 5-full study days, but when we go to the farm, it is relaxing and healing.”
  • “The Farm Program helps us learn how to work together.”
  • “It helps us learn to be healthy.”
  • “We can learn more and interesting knowledge.”
  • “We can learn and have some fun at the same time.”
  • “The Farm Program is important to the sixth grade by giving us many life skills.”
  • “A skill we are learning is communication, what we use to talk to each other in an inclusive language.”
  • “Writing in the Farm Journal helps us to improve our writing.”
  • “We are learning to care for something with the bunnies.”
  • “I would say I am improving my listening skills by listening to Mrs. Ledoux.”
  • “We have to use math to change ounces to grams.”
  • “We should continue this program to help broaden our perspectives on why we need farms.”
  • “We should continue this program because it helps us to come more together as a community.”
  • “We should continue the Farm Program because we need to learn how to take care of our seventh grade animals.”
  • “We look and learn some things that are made with science and we can use critical thinking.”
  • “We should continue this program because it can help us to learn more and let us know more about life.”
  • “We should continue because it helps us bond as a class and helps us learn to help the other fella.”
  • “We should continue the program because it makes us relax and have fun.”
  • “We should continue because we are having fun while we learn.”

Clearly, the students see the value in our Farm Program and are thoroughly enjoying it.  They are learning so much more than we had even intended.  It’s so exciting!  I do love when things just come together and work out just like you had imagined they would.  If only every aspect of life worked that way.  Wouldn’t that be grand?

Can there Be Critical Thinking in Math Class?

A colleague of mine neatly explained the symbiosis of math and science to me once by saying: “Math is the language of science.”  Taken at face value, it doesn’t make much sense as science is about specific concepts and ideas, whereas math is all about accurate numbers.  How can a number be used to explain the law of perpetual motion?  When examined on a metaphorical level though, it means so much more.  Math is used to express scientific answers and information in a simplistic and specific manner.  I can’t explain how fast a car is going without using complex math equations.  Scientists need math to quantify the concepts and ideas.  Just as certain bacteria utilize each other with positive benefits for both organisms, the world of science needs the world of math in order to make sense of the big ideas and specific concepts.

Just as a seemingly simple phrase such as the aforementioned example can be analyzed in multiple ways to extract abstract and figurative meaning, many mathematical problems and concepts require much critical thinking to solve and comprehend.  While most basic mathematical computations seem very concrete as there is only one correct answer to the problem most often, more advanced levels of math require complex problem solving skills.  However, sometimes, even basic concepts such as identifying significant digits in numbers that seem concrete and simplistic, can foster a sense of wonder and curiosity within students.

Today in STEM class, I worked with the advanced group of math students in the sixth grade to help them understand the concept of identifying significant digits in various numbers.  I started off by explaining the difference between approximation and precision.  I used some real-world examples of when you might need to express every digit of a number and times when an approximation will suffice.  The students seemed baffled when I explained to them that sometimes the number four-hundred and seventy eight can be written as 478 while on other, certain occasions, it might need to be expressed as 478.00.  Why is that? my students asked.  Aren’t they the same number?  Why would I ever need to express them differently.  I then referred back to our opening discussion of precision vs approximation.  If I’m a chemist measuring a substance and need exactly 478.00 grams of it for a solution I’m creating, I can’t just round and say 478.05 is close enough.  My mixture would be inaccurate and the cure I’m trying to manifest would not come to be.  I can’t simply use an approximate number when specificity is required.  Knowing the difference between when an estimate is acceptable and when a precise number is needed is a crucial skill for all facets of our STEM class.

What I really enjoyed about this discussion was the wonderment the students displayed.  When I started explaining the various rules to adhere by when identifying the significant digits of a number, one of the students asked, “But how do we know this rule is correct?  Since the mathematicians made up the rules for math, why can’t we make up our own rules?  Why do we have to identify the significant digits of a number based on a set of random rules created by old guys many years ago?”  I really liked this thought and sentiment.  I validated the student and we got into an interesting little discussion as a class about the rules of math and how sometimes we just need to accept and apply them when solving problems.  But, and I made sure to emphasize that this was a big but, “I want you to keep questioning everything you learn.  Don’t accept anything as is.  If it doesn’t make sense, ask for clarification.”  I want the students to understand that being curious and thinking critically about concepts regardless of the subject area are important skills to grow and develop as a thinker, learner, student, and problem solver.  Don’t just be okay with the status quo, question everything and always ask why.  Rules are important, but understanding the hows and whys of rules are just as important as the rules themselves.

Clearly, critical thinking and problem solving is everywhere in the realm of math and science.  However, we usually think of these skills as being utilized when completing math and science work or problems and not during class discussions.  I love that my students are curious and think critically about topics and concepts covered.  They want to know why something is the way it is, which is excellent.  This group of students is definitely headed for greatness.  I could easily see one of my current students becoming president, a revolutionary engineer, or a creative doctor or chemist who creates a landmark solution to a problem humanity thought was impossible to solve.  I just hope this spark of curiosity and wonder stays with them as they continue to grow and develop as students and people.  My goal this year, is to help continue to foster their sense of creative problem solving and curiosity.  I want them to find unique solutions to problems and keep asking questions.  Hopefully, helping my students see the world through various different lenses and perspectives, will help them broaden the way they look at the world, moving forward.

The Benefits of the Student Led Conference Format

As a student, I was never privy to what went on behind the closed doors of my classroom.  Back then, students were not allowed to attend their teacher conferences.  In fact, they were aptly named Parent-Teacher Conferences to imply that they were reserved for the parents and teachers only.  But what about me?  Why didn’t I get a say in the conferences?  Why wasn’t I able to explain my learning or talk about what I was planning to do to improve?  Might I have cared more about school and my learning back then if I owned it?  Imagine if I was able to explain to my parents what I was learning in school, how I was progressing towards the expectations and objectives, and what I needed to do to improve?  I would have really owned my learning and understood what was going on.  I would have paid better attention in class so that I could grow and develop as a student since I suddenly started caring about school and learning.  If only I had a time machine…

Although I can’t change my past school experiences, as an educator, I can help support and empower my students.  I can help them care about their progress and own their learning.  I can challenge them to grow and develop.  All of this can be facilitated and fostered through the use of the Student Led Conference format to replace the outdated and unuseful Parent-Teacher Conference format for teacher conferences.

This process of ownership and reflection begins at the start of the year when we introduce and discuss our school’s Habits of Learning.  We want the students to understand why we do what we do in the sixth grade.  Every skill taught or activity covered is explained using our Habits of Learning.  We need the students to understand the purpose of what we do in the sixth grade.  Why do we teach our students to take notes in a particular manner?   Why do we want our students to read from a variety of genres?   As we explain every new skill, we are sure to cover the purpose and Habit of Learning used to foster that skill.  Once the students see the relevance in what they are learning and being asked to do, they are much more engaged in the classroom and genuine learning then takes place within them.  The next step in laying the foundation for the Student Led Conference format is reflection.  After every major assessment and unit, we have the students reflect in writing on their learning.  What went well?  What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?  The students then begin to see what is working for them and what they still need to work on to improve.  Purpose + Reflection = Ownership of the Learning Process, which is showcased through the creation of an eportfolio.

After the first five weeks of learning, reflecting, and growing as students, we then prepare them for their first formal Student Led Conferences with their families.  We explain the process used and then allow the boys to highlight their learning, challenges, and areas in need of improvement.  The students utilize their ePortfolio to guide their Student Led Conference.  They explain their class goals and what they are doing to work towards them.  They also display artifacts demonstrating their learning and growth as students.  They also, honestly, share challenges facing them in the classroom and what they are doing to overcome them.  The conference concludes with the parents asking the students questions regarding their learning and progress thus far in the academic year.  As the boys do such a thorough job owning their learning and explaining their progress, the parents generally have very few questions for their sons.  We do allow the parents, at the close of the conference, to ask us, the teachers, any questions they may have.  They sometimes have one or two intriguing questions about classes or their son’s progress; however, since the students provide such a clear picture of their academic prowess to date, the questions are usually about school life in general.  What is the next unit being covered in STEM class?  Will the number of students in my son’s class change as they matriculate through the grades at Cardigan?  I’m always so curious about the questions parents ask in the conferences.  They seem to be thinking so critically about their son’s academic future.  It’s quite amazing.

Here is just a sample of the feedback we received from parents through an online survey they completed following our most recent Parents’ Weekend:

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Through these Student Led Conferences, the students own their learning, share their progress, and create a game plan for how to move forward in a productive manner.  Following these conferences, we usually see changes in the classroom.  The students seem more motivated and excited to learn.  They will more frequently ask for help and try to exceed the graded objectives.  While the students were aware of their learning prior to their conferences, actually verbalizing it has a huge impact on them.  Hearing themselves say what they need to do to improve, truly motivates them; it makes a big difference in the classroom for the boys.  Their learning becomes a puzzle that they can now easily complete since they have found the missing pieces.  Although these missing pieces were there all along prior to the boys completing their Student Led Conferences, the students were unable to see them since they hadn’t verbalized their location.  Telling their parents about their academic progress in the sixth grade helps to shine a beam of light on the missing puzzle pieces: Asking for help, better utilizing their free time to complete work outside of class, and staying more focused in class.

Utilizing the Student Led Conference format in the classroom is not easy and requires a restructuring of the class and the way in which the curriculum is taught.  The students need to see the purpose of their learning and its relevance to them and have opportunities to reflect and think about what they would do differently next time so that they can add new tools to their academic toolbelt.  This requires fostering a student-centered classroom where the students are able to own their learning, choose their challenge, and solve problems encountered.  This can be a lot for teachers as it means giving up control, a bit.  But, which outcome do you wish for your students, 1 or 2?

  1. Your students memorize many facts and take copious notes while you talk at them, complete lots of homework, take many tests, and achieve good grades.
  2. Your students are excited to come to class each and every day because they want to learn, grow, and solve problems on their own.

I hope, you like me, want to bring about the second outcome in your classroom.  Relevance, purpose, ownership, and reflection are the key ingredients to making a delicious classroom filled with curious and thriving students.  Allow them to showcase their recipes and delightful treats through the Student Led Conference process.  Trust me when I say, you will never want to go back to the traditional model of Parent-Teacher conferences again.

Ever Feel Like Less than Your Best?

One of my least favorite things in life is being sick.  I just feel helpless when I’m so sick that I can’t go to school.  I feel as though I’m letting my students down.  I don’t like it one iota.  I know it happens as it’s a part of life, but I’m no fan of being sick when school is in session.  Luckily for me, this year I’ve managed to stay healthy, so far.  Of course now I’ve just jinxed myself and am sure to get sick early next week.  Good thing I knocked on wood.

Have you ever had one of those moments, classes, or days where you just feel a bit off?  Not like sick off, but just not quite at the top of your game?  Perhaps you’re preoccupied with things in your personal life or some difficult situation with a student threw you for a loop.  Whatever the reason, you just feel as though things aren’t going well.  Maybe the lesson doesn’t go as planned or perhaps the students don’t perform as well as you thought they would on an assessment.  Those are the types of moments I’m talking about.  Ever have one of those?  Well, that’s a silly question as I’m sure we all have times like those in our educational careers.  They are a part of teaching, growing, and life.  Feeling a bit off is to be expected every once in awhile; it’s like being sick.  Sometimes things don’t work out the way you had hoped.  That happens.  However, it still doesn’t feel good.  I don’t like not feeling like I’m doing my best for my students.  I feel helpless and like a bad educator.  I know life happens and all, but I always aim for my best at all times and so I tend to be very hard on myself when I don’t feel like an effective educator.

Yesterday, was the start of Parents’ Weekend at my school.  Parents attended classes and we had our student led conferences over the course of yesterday and today.  The boys did a fabulous job owning their learning and explaining to their parents how they will work to improve and grow as a student moving forward.  That part was pretty awesome.  During STEM class yesterday, the students amazed and wowed their parents and other faculty members at my school during our class Science Fair.  The boys were so knowledgeable on their topics and had created such brilliant presentations that it felt like I was walking around a college science fair.  Amazing!  I couldn’t have been more proud of my students.  They kicked some major science butt yesterday.  By all accounts, it seemed like yesterday and today were phenomenal for my students and me.

However, I felt a bit off during the first half of our Humanities class yesterday.  I felt as though I didn’t say the right things to set up and explain our Poetry Slam.  After getting very little sleep and mentally preparing for what I was going to say to introduce and explain the Poetry Slam in class, I felt ready.  But then in class, I totally forgot what I was going to say and said stupid things instead.  I also forgot to fully introduce every student.  For the first few poets, I mentioned the town or place from which they hail, but I forgot to do this for the last few students.  This frustrated me.  I wanted to make them all feel equally supported and cared for.  I just felt like I wasn’t giving my students and their parents my best.  I expressed this concern to my co-teacher and she said it didn’t seem noticeable.  She thought I did a great job, but I felt off.  I didn’t like not setting the scene for our poetry slam well.  It made me uncomfortable.  Sure, I’ve felt like this before, but it’s been awhile since I’ve felt really off.  Following Morning Break, I did feel much better about my performance during the final chunk of Humanities class.  I said what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it.  I just felt like I didn’t give my all to my class during third period and it made me feel helpless.  I hate feeling like that.  Luckily, I got my groove back later that morning and felt like I knocked STEM class out of the park.

So, what was it that caused me to feel a bit off during the start of Humanities class today?  Was it that parents were watching?  Did I feel nervous or self-conscious?  Maybe, as I was worried about how I would be perceived by the parents, which is one of the reasons why I had trouble getting to sleep Thursday night.  I always have difficulty dealing with visitors in my classroom.  I get very nervous and usually mess up what I try to say.  Perhaps that’s why I had a rocky start, because things got better once I dangled my feet in the water of teaching with parents observing.  However, I’ve never had a Parents’ Weekend class feel this bad before.  So, what was different?  Maybe I was worried about not being a good role model for my new co-teacher?  Or perhaps I was so focused on what I wanted to say to introduce the Poetry Slam that I got tongue-tied when I forgot exactly what I wanted to say.

Regardless of the reasons why, I now want to brainstorm a game plan for next time.  What can I do in February when parents come back to campus and observe classes?  How can I be sure I don’t feel less than my best?  Should I write down what I want to say and then read from it like a script?  Might that help?  Maybe, but I don’t like feeling bound to a page or written words.  What if I try to get out of my head and realize that I’m a great teacher who knows how to be effective in the classroom?  Maybe some positive self-talk might help.  As it gets closer to my school’s next Parents’ Weekend, I’ll try some new strategies to try and prevent what happened yesterday from happening again.

Deliberate Instruction Pays Off

This past week, I blogged about having a specific and purposeful game plan for teaching my students how to craft an organized science fair display board.  After several years of less than great trifold displays during our class science fair, which was usually attended by several parents, I realized the importance in being more deliberate about teaching this particular portion of the project.  Creating an organized display board is a skill and not an art or just something someone does to get it done, which is how I had approached it for many years.  I made sure to provide the students with plenty of time to conduct their experiments and draft their lab reports, but I gave them very little class time and direction regarding their display boards.  So, I changed things up this year and devoted an entire class period of about 40 minutes to the process of crafting a neatly organized display board.  I created an example board and found digital images of other brilliantly organized display boards.  I even had the students follow step-by-step instructions on how to complete their board.  I wanted to be sure they knew how to craft an effective display board and felt like they had enough time to accomplish the task.  I was deliberate and purposeful in my instruction, in hopes that my students would learn a vital academic skill.

After four days of hard work, I’m pleased to see that each and every group in my class created a beautifully organized display board, showcasing their learning.  I was blown away today when I saw their finished products.  They are amazing, and far better than my example board.  They clearly devoted much time and effort to making organized display boards that showed their learning and careful attention to detail.  They spent even more time in class today, refining their boards to make them better, which I didn’t think was possible.  My students seem to fully understand the importance in creating a detailed, organized, and well done finished product, especially when it will be on display for others to see.  It’s like creating work for publication.  We don’t allow the students to post updates to the Goodreads website unless they have been proofread and are free of grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes.  I want my students to understand the importance in being proud of everything they complete.  Clearly, this message was received by all of the students loudly and clearly.  Their display boards are, by far, the best I’ve seen from students in many years.  Below are some examples:

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The moral of the story here is that being reflective and recalling the outcome of certain lessons from past years, allows one to be more deliberate and purposeful in how they plan for a similar lesson or activity in the future.  Because I remembered the difficulties my students faced in years past when crafting organized display boards, I was able to create a specific and detailed lesson this year on the topic to help my students better understand how to create amazing display boards that will wow their viewers.  I can’t wait to see how well my students do tomorrow during our science fair as they are so excited and prepared to impress their parents and faculty members.  I am so proud of my students and the hard work, effort, coexistence, and fine communication they utilized to complete such amazing display boards for tomorrow’s big event.

Why I Teach

Being a teacher was never my life’s goal when I was younger.  First, I wanted to be a police officer catching bad guys.  Then, I wanted to be like my dad and become a respiratory therapist.  It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that my life’s calling came to me. I even questioned my decision back then.  “Really, teaching.  How’s the saying go, ‘Those who can’t do teach.’  Do I really want to be a teacher?”  Then, I got to college and things changed.  I knew I wanted to be a teacher after I volunteered at a special school for students who got kicked out of their local public schools.  These students had no one that really seemed to care about them.  They felt lost and confused.  They were angry, and rightfully so.  Their past teachers never took a chance on them, never connected with them, which is why they were in this special school.  On one of my bi-weekly visits, a student got so angry because he couldn’t pronounce a word in a book he was reading aloud to me that he started lashing out.  He ended up picking up his chair-desk combo and throwing it against the wall.  He wasn’t aiming for me, but he was mad and didn’t know how to channel his anger.  Through the whole situation, I remained calm.  Yes I was scared.  Heck, I almost peed my pants, but I tried not to show it.

It was then that I knew what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing: Helping students realize that they matter.  I want all the students I work with to feel cared for and supported.  I will do whatever it takes to help each and every student with whom I work.  I want to be the one person in the lives of those students who don’t seem to have anyone else, to show them love and care.  I want them to feel heard and respected.  All students and people can succeed, not just all in the same way or at the same time.  I teach because I want to help all students feel success in some way.  I want to challenge students to push themselves beyond their limitations.  I want students to see the potential within themselves that I see on a daily basis.  I teach because I care and want to make a difference.  I teach because I can and I want to do it well.  I wake up each and every day with one main goal in mind, to be a better teacher than I was yesterday.  That’s why I’m a teacher.  What about you?  Why did you become a teacher?

Today in Humanities class, the students worked at revising a poem they began during the first week of school.  They crafted a “Where I’m From” poem to help us create a class “Where We’re From” poem during our Academic Orientation time.  Our goal was to help the students get to know their classmates so that we could begin to build a strong community within the class.  Our class poem came out very well.  I was impressed.  I had collected their individual poems and told them, “We’ll be getting back to these later in the term.”  Well, today was that day.

I began class with an overview of the process we would use to finish, revise, and complete a final draft of their “Where I’m From” poem.  I provided each of the students with a handout that listed the requirements for their final draft.  I had the steps they would use to produce a final poem listed on the interactive whiteboard.  As a class, we discussed what makes a great poem so that they would be thinking poetically as they worked to create their revised poem.  I wanted to help them get into the right frame of mind to complete this activity.  I finished our discussion by reading one of my favorite poems aloud to the class: Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.  Before they got to work, I reviewed the process they would use, answered questions the students still wondered about, and then passed back their sloppy copy to them.  They got right to work.  At one point, it was so quiet because the students were hyper focused on the task at hand that I tested out the age-old saying “It was so quiet that I could hear a pin drop.”  So, I dropped a pin on the floor and sure enough, I heard it.  My co-teacher thought I was crazy as I hastily searched the floor for the pin I dropped.  I couldn’t find it and I certainly didn’t want my students stepping on it.  Luckily, with her help, I located the pin and prevented horrible tragedies from occurring within my classroom this morning.

It was an awesome and productive work period.  The boys crafted brilliant poems, showcasing their growth as writers in a mere five weeks.  They revised and edited their own work, tried new things, took risks, looked up synonyms for boring words, and tried to create their best possible work.  My co-teacher and I were blown away.  While today’s class was not too different than any other class in the sixth grade, something truly magical happened at the end of the first chunk of class before the students went to Morning Break.

A student, who struggled a bit, academically, at the start of the year, came to me with a look of disgust on his face.  Luckily, I knew he was about to say something sarcastic and funny or else I might have been scared.  He said, “Mr. Holt, how could you?”  I took the bait and responded, “What do you mean?  How could I what?”  Then it happened.  Angels began to sing from above.  This one student then said, with a smile on his face, “How could you make me like poetry?  I used to hate it but now I’m liking it.  Ughhh!”  My day was complete right there.  The sun could have set at that very moment and I would have been okay with it.  I wouldn’t have questioned anything.  I helped one student learn to like one of the most hated forms of writing.  The thing is though, I didn’t do anything.  He did the work.  In fact, I hadn’t even conferenced with this student during the first half of class.  He was working all on his own.  He made himself learn to like poetry.  I just happened to be in the room.  Now, I’ll take the compliment and run with it, but I can’t take full credit for it.  He put in the effort to make the transformation all on his own.  I remember when this student crafted the first draft of his poem back in early September.  It was a struggle.  After 30 minutes, he had written only one line.  He seemed unable to write anything.  While he did write a few more lines later during that activity, he was unable to finish the task.  As I’ve seen this student make so much progress over the past five weeks, I was excited to read his final poem.  Oh man, it was amazing.  It flowed like a river.  In fact, I don’t even think he included anything from his first poem in this new one.  It was phenomenal because he put in the effort to grow, be open to new ideas, and take risks in the classroom.  He made himself learn to like poetry.  I didn’t do that.

I love days like today when I’m reminded why I teach.  I mean, I don’t need reminders because I love it for so many reasons, but when students say and do things like this one particular student did and said today, I’m filled with a renewed sense of vigor.  I teach to help students realize things about themselves that they just haven’t realized yet.  I know what they’re capable of, but they tend to be blind to the magic that lives within them.  I teach to help my students extract that magic from within so that they can see what I’ve known all along.  Yes, it’s hard and yes, it’s challenging, but the rewards are so great because of it.  So again, I ask you to ponder this question for yourself.  Why do you teach?  What are your goals in life?

Challenge by Choice: Providing Students with Choices to Promote Learning

I was one of those students in school who would do just enough to get by.  I rarely tried to go above and beyond, and yet I still earned honor roll marks and was a member of my school’s National Honor Society.  School came easy to me.  I did most of my homework during my classes and I never really challenged myself.  Occasionally though, a teacher would get tricky and confuse me so that I tried to do well and complete quality work that exceeded the objectives.  Those teachers were tricky players.  They would say something like, “If you want to take the easy way out, complete this version of the assignment, but if you want to try for an A and learn something, then you should do this version of the assignment.”  While I did usually take the easy way out in school, I didn’t want my teachers to think I did and so I would always opt for the more difficult task.  I chose my challenge thanks to some subterfuge caused by my teachers, but I did it anyway.  I challenged myself to complete the more difficult task when choices were offered to me.  However, choices were rarely provided to me in the classroom.  I wonder what my grades might have been had my teachers more frequently offered me choices in how I completed my work.  It does make me wonder.

Today in Humanities class, our students worked on the skill of note taking.  The boys practiced transferring highlights they made regarding an academic text into bullet-style notes.  After working through the first two paragraphs together and checking-in with them to be sure they understood how to properly complete bullet-style notes from highlights made at a prior time, they completed the final four paragraphs on their own as my co-teacher and I observed and offered feedback and guidance when necessary.  While most of the students had the skill down very well, a few of the students needed guidance and support from us.  Those accelerated students who picked up new skills quickly, finished prior to the end of class.  They then got to work on the note taking assessment.

For the note taking assessment, we’re offering students some options and choices.  For those students who struggle with the English language, such as our ESL students, and for those students who struggle to process information quickly, we have a short article for them to use in order to showcase their understanding of the note taking process.  As this text is written at a fifth grade reading level and doesn’t include many paragraphs, those students who choose to use this article to complete the assessment will only be able to earn a 3/4 on the two graded objectives for the assessment.  The piece is not long enough or challenging enough for the students to be able to demonstrate their ability to exceed the objectives being assessed.  For those students looking to try to exceed the graded objectives or for those students looking for a challenge, we have three other article options.  One article is longer and written at a sixth grade level, another article from Wikipedia is longer and written at a seventh grade reading level, and the third option is five pages long and written at an eighth grade reading level.  We’re not mandating the students make any specific choice.  While we will suggest to our ESL students to choose the easier article, we don’t want to prevent them from rising to the challenge of a more difficult text.  We explained to the students, when they were choosing their assessment article, the various choices and possibilities that exist for them.  They then made the decision on their own.  For some students, this was an easy choice.  They chose the easiest of the more challenging articles so that they could try to exceed the graded objectives but not have to spend too much extra time completing the assessment.  For one student, it proved quite the dilemma.  He went back and forth between two of the articles for about two minutes before he made his choice.  When I told one student that he had choices, he seemed excited.  “Really, choices.  Yes!” he said as he came to the front of the classroom to choose his article.

It was quite fun to observe the students as they made their choices today in class.  While not every student completed the practice phase of the activity, those who did seemed to like having options and the ability to challenge themselves or not.  Will offering these options help the students better own their learning?  I don’t know.  It will be interesting to see their final assessment and how they perform.  Will they be better able to showcase their true abilities regarding this particular skill being assessed because they were able to choose their challenge?  I do believe that choices help students feel engaged and allow them to better connect with the curriculum.  It would be interesting to try giving half the class one assessment with no choices while allowing the other half of the class to choose their assessment.  Would the results be any different?  While I would obviously hypothesize that the results would be different and that the group allowed to choose their assessment would more effectively be able to demonstrate their ability to meet the graded objectives, it does cause me to pause and wonder.  Perhaps I’ll try such an experiment in the future just to see what happens, as I am curious.

The Importance of Connecting With Our Students

I had very few teachers who ever tried to connect with me as a student.  Even when I struggled in the fourth grade and almost failed, my teacher did not try to figure out what was going on or try to help me in any way.  I wonder what my year in fourth grade might have looked like if I had had a teacher who took an interest in me or tried to connect with me on some level.  Maybe I wouldn’t have struggled so much or perhaps I would have been happier.

As teachers, it is our duty to help our students by any means necessary.  Most of the time, this means connecting with students.  We need to build safe and caring relationships with each and every one of our students.  While we do try to focus on connecting with the difficult students in our classes, it’s important to form connections with every member of every class we teach.  Yes, this is challenging and can be a daunting task; however, it’s a crucial step in educating our students.  We need them to feel like they have at least one person in their life who cares for them.

A real easy way to be sure we’re connecting with all of our students regularly is to hold conferences with them.  Since we in the sixth grade utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction, we have the opportunity to meet with each and every one of our students weekly under the guise of Reader’s Workshop.  Yes, we do ask them questions about their reading, but that is after we ask them about everything else in their lives first.  How’s life?  How was your weekend?  Did you do anything fun?  What are you excited about this week?  If we notice that a student seems to be a bit off or distant, we probe further.  How are things going at home?  What’s bothering you?  What can I do to help?  As we’re always checking-in with our students anyway, these conferences don’t generally elicit too much information that we didn’t already know.  However, every once in awhile, these 1-on-1 conferences do help us to better understand and help our students.  They are yet one more way we can connect to our students so that we can really get to know them over the course of the year in our class.

Today was our weekly Reader’s Workshop block in Humanities class, and so we conferenced with each of our students.  It was great to connect with the boys in my reading group while my co-teacher met with the students in her group.  While most conversations were short, some were longer on purpose.  If I’m wondering about how a student is doing emotionally or academically, I might add in a few more questions to open a dialogue between the student and I.  One student in my reading group has been struggling academically, as English is not his native language.  We’ve been offering him much support over the past five weeks, and I wanted to see how he was progressing.  So, I asked him some follow-up questions regarding his reading book to check on his comprehension.  He was excited to tell me all about what was going on in his book, but also shared with me that he had trouble understanding American history concepts in English.  Since his book was about westward expansion in America, I clarified and described what that period in our history was all about.  This seemed to really help him understand his story better.  If I did not have a chance to conference with my students weekly, I might have missed this opportunity to help this one student better comprehend the text he was reading.  This lack of comprehension could have led to other areas of confusion and frustration that might have been manifested in different ways.

Being proactive and connecting with our students regularly, helps prevent issues from arising and allows our students to feel safe and supported.  Genuine learning can only come about when students feel safe and cared for.  Therefore, connecting with our students is one of our most important responsibilities as teachers.  We can’t allow even just one student to slip through the cracks, because while I was lucky and did have a sixth grade teacher who formed a strong and positive relationship with me, some students have no one who connects with them, and this can lead to some very serious repercussions for them in the future.