The Presidential Election that Really Matters, to My Sixth Graders

I remember being so excited to turn 18 because I would finally be old enough to buy scratch tickets.  Of course, I was also able to purchase adult periodicals and cigarettes and vote at that point too, but I was most excited about being able to buy scratch tickets and possibly win millions of dollars while supporting education in the great state of New Hampshire.  I was excited to be able to do something I had seen my dad do for many years.  I wanted to be old enough to win free money.  The funny part is that winning money costs money.  In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was so pumped to do something so trivial and really quite meaningless.  Now, out of all of the privileges that come with turning 18, the only one that can really make a difference in our world is the ability to vote in elections.  The other perks can cause serious mental and health conditions.  Luckily, voting in our country, for the time being, is pain free and can actually make life better for all citizens.

With all of the negative publicity and general apathy surrounding the most recent American presidential election, it’s easy to get disheartened about the whole process.  However, many countries around the world don’t have this same freedom and right.  Some countries prevent their citizens from voting or people might be unable to vote based on their ethnicity, race, sex, or other factors.  We, as Americans, are fortunate to have the right to vote once we turn 18 years of age.  We have the ability to choose who will help lead our country forward, or backwards in some cases.  This is an amazing honor.  Now, some might argue that the Electoral College process prevents each person’s vote from having an impact on the outcome of an election, but at least we still have open and public elections.  In trying times, I find it helpful to focus on the positive.

Speaking of positives, to help take our minds off of the recent presidential election, my class is preparing for the first annual Sixth Grade Presidential Debate.  As both recent major presidential candidates seemed flawed to many people, my students created their own, ideal, presidential candidates instead of taking on the persona of either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton.  In groups, they generated the candidate’s name, birthplace, home state, political affiliation, and stance on various issues.  They had a lot of fun with this part.  Then, they got to the real task at hand: Preparing for the Big Debate.  As each student was now an expert on one issue that they had previously researched and learned about, that student crafted an issue or platform stance report on that particular issue for his group’s candidate.  The students based their thoughts and ideas for their candidate’s stance on the issues on the discussion the groups had at the start of the project.

Today in class, the students revised and edited their reports based on feedback from their peers and teachers.  The boys worked with each other to be sure each member of their group had a detailed and winning report.  They provided each other with suggestions on how to improve their work.  It was amazing. I was incredibly impressed with what I read today.  The boys are taking opinions and stances on important issues.  Their reports were supported with examples and vignettes.  They read like actual debate speeches.  Aside from Mrs. Obama’s moving speech given a few weeks prior to the election, the reports I read today were far better than any of the political rhetoric heard throughout the recent presidential campaign.  It’s as if my students transformed their frustration with the presidential campaign and election into words they wished they had heard from the two major candidates.  Their reports were phenomenal.  I was blown away.  My ESL students crafted some of the most detailed and powerful speeches in the whole class.  Wow!  They were taking this project seriously.  Not only did they want to meet and exceed the assessed objectives, but they also want to be sure their candidate wins the election to be held in class on Saturday.

So while many Americans are still reeling from a crazy presidential election, what really matters is the sixth grade class election that will take place following the big debate on Saturday.  The boys have made posters promoting their candidate and have tag lines that they used in their speeches.  They can’t wait for Saturday.  The whole school has been invited to witness the best, most positive and productive debate seen in several years.  My students no longer care who won the American presidential election as they are focused on helping their made-up candidate win the big election coming up in a few short days.  As their teacher, I am so proud of my students.  They have put so much effort into this debate project.  For many of them, the report they recently completed is the best sample of writing I’ve seen from them all year.  They all stepped up their game for this project as they are engaged and motivated to win.  A little friendly competition never hurt.  It’s so nice to see too, that both groups are avoiding mudslinging and negative comments directed at the other candidate.  They are keeping the debate and election focused on the issues without me even having to make a statement about where the focus should be.  They are committed to this project because it is engaging, utilizes competition, and taps into their emotions.  I can’t wait to see which qualified candidate will win Saturday’s big event: James Fraser or Matthew W. Tucker?

Are Grades Motivators or Destructive Forces?

Ahh, grades.  Can I get an A?  Give me a B!  What does that spell?  Nothing, because grades are useless.  Right?  Well, as a teacher I’ve always been torn when it comes time to assess students.  Rather than “give” a student an A, B, C, D, or any other random letter grade, I’d rather have a conversation with the student about their progress in working towards, meeting, or exceeding the objectives being assessed through the assignment.  Jotting down a letter at the top of a student’s paper seems futile and destructive to me.  What does an A really mean?  Does it mean the student is awesome or awful?  Grading in the traditional sense seems confining and feeds our society’s need to clarify and classify everything.

“How is my son doing in school?” a parent might ask.

“Well, he’s got an A right now,” a teacher might respond.

“Oh great.  Thanks so much.  Now I know exactly how my son is doing in school and so I can be happy,” the parent might come back with.

“Well, no actually.  He’s quite the bully and not very nice to his classmates,” the teacher might add.

“But you said he’s got an A.  I don’t understand,” the parent might say.

See how confusing grades can be in a society driven to label everything.  Parents and students see grades as labels.  Don’t we already label our students enough?  Must we add grade labels too?  Can’t we document a student’s progress in class based on how they are working towards, meeting, or exceeding the objectives?  Wouldn’t that paint more of a complete picture of the student?  While I do write comments like this at each midterm, I also have to grade the students at the end of the term with a single letter.  I dislike that part of my job very much.  I feel as though grades alone show nothing more than a random letter that people have attached labels to over time.  I worry that grades make students anxious or nervous and cause them to complete work that is not authentic because they are worried about the grade they might receive.  Heck, I used to do that in school.  If I knew that a particular teacher gave me As when I wrote about a certain topic or in a specific voice, I would do that for every assignment.  I didn’t try to be honest with myself and grow as a student.  Instead, I worked for the grade.  I felt like a seal in a zoo working for a fish.  I don’t wish this for my students in the least.  I want them to be free thinkers, creators, engineers, designers, and fun makers.  How can I promote this while also “giving” students grades?  I wrestle with this on a daily basis.  Perhaps one day my school will change to objectives or standards based assessment and grades will become a thing of the past.  That day can’t come soon enough.

However, to play devil’s advocate, I do wonder, sometimes, in some situations, if grades motivate students.  Over the recent Thanksgiving Break, my school sent term grades to the students and their families.  I received a few emails from parents about the grades during this time.  Luckily, they were supportive and curious emails and not accusatory and punitive messages.  Clearly, some parents reviewed the grades with their sons over the vacation.  For many of my students, these messages seemed to have resonated with the boys as I saw a huge change from many of the students in class today.  Today was the first day of classes since break.  The students who seemed to struggle the most at the end of the fall term were the most attentive and focused in the classroom today.  They asked for help and put forth effort I hadn’t seen from them all year.  Now, I do realize that this is only day one following break and perhaps the honeymoon phase is once again upon us, but, I do like what I saw today in class.  The students seem ready to make more positive choices and put forth greater effort to show their true potential as students and thinkers.  I was impressed.  Prior to grades being released, these students didn’t show this same kind of effort despite the numerous conversations I had with them about their performance in and out of class.  Nothing seemed to motivate them.  So, did the grades light the fire underneath them that I saw today in the classroom?  Were they so moved by their perceived “low” grades that they decided to come back with a vengeance?  Did the grades really motivate the students or was it something else entirely?  Perhaps their parents bribed them over vacation to get better grades.  “If you get an A, we’ll buy you a Playstation 4.”  Could that be the cause that brought about the change I saw today?  Who knows.  What I do know, though, is that grades may not be all bad.  Perhaps grades can help motivate or convince students to put forth more effort in the classroom.  Wouldn’t it be nice if students could be intrinsically motivated rather than needing some sort of external motivation like grades?  In a perfect world, I would eliminate grades from schools and focus on progress, effort, and the objectives.  In the meantime, I might need to adjust my perspective on grades and the grading process.  Maybe grades aren’t all purely evil like I once thought.

The Benefits of a Silent Discussion

In early November, I attended the New Hampshire Council for the Social Studies annual conference in Manchester.  It was a wonderful day filled with useful workshops and great discussions with colleagues.  I learned a lot that day; however, one of the most valuable nuggets of knowledge I learned was the silent discussion.  What is a silent, discussion you ask?  How can a discussion be silent, you’re probably thinking to yourself?  A silent discussion is much like a round-robin writing activity.  The students respond, in writing, to a guiding question regarding a discussion topic.  They discuss the topic in writing for a given amount of time.  Then, the students pass their papers onto another student, read what the previous student read on this new paper, and then add to the current discussion started by the previous student.  It allows those quiet and shy students a better chance to get involved in the discussion and showcase their learning.  This idea seemed cool to me at the time.  I thought I might try it in my classroom.  Perhaps, I thought, it might allow some of my ESL students more processing time and thus, better allow them to demonstrate their ability to meet the class discussion objective.

So, this past Saturday, during our final Humanities class prior to Thanksgiving Break, I had my students participate in a silent discussion as a way to discuss a current event I introduced to the boys.  Usually, on Saturdays in class, we discuss a current event topic in small groups.  While this has been effective for most students, some of the boys haven’t been as involved as I feel their potential shows.  Perhaps they are nervous or shy or maybe they need time to think before sharing their ideas.  Why not try something new, I thought to myself?  Our topic was President-elect Donald Trump’s plan for education.  We read an article from Newsela together as a class.  I clarified a few points that I thought might be confusing for our ESL students, but did not allow for questions during this time as I wanted them to save their thoughts and ideas for the silent discussion.  Our guiding question was, Should President-Elect Donald Trump focus on School Choice and Vouchers or the Public School System in America when he takes office in January?  After handing out paper to each student, the boys got right to work.  Many of the students vigorously etched onto their paper for about two minutes while one or two students struggled to write more than a few words.  Perhaps they were taken by surprise with the short time limit and those students who wrote very little would write more following the first switch, I thought.  Then they passed their papers onto the next student, read what was there, and had two more minutes to add to the discussion.  Almost every student seemed more focused during this second chunk of writing time.  I was impressed.  Then, they switched one final time to add to one more discussion.  When time ended on the last writing period, the boys started switching their papers again as they wanted to keep going.  They seemed to like this silent discussion method, I thought.  Yah!

I wrapped up class by reading a few of the discussions aloud.  They were pretty darn good.  I was impressed.  The students used examples from the article and their own ideas to take a stance on the issue of education in our country.  Wow!  I shared these thoughts with the boys before I asked for their feedback on this method of discussing a topic.  What did you think of this way of discussing current events compared to a whole group or small group oral discussion?  Most of the boys seemed to like all three methods equally, but one or two students did like this method of a silent discussion better because they felt as though they had the opportunity to genuinely share their thoughts with others.  They did wish we had more time to switch with every student so that the discussions could have grown into something greater though.  No one seemed to think that the oral method of discussing a topic was better than the silent discussion strategy.  Nice!  I might use this again later in the year when there is more time to really dig into our discussion topic.

I found this silent discussion method beneficial for almost every student.  Most of the ESL students in my class seemed to like this method better because they felt like they had time to collect their thoughts and write.  My weakest ESL student still struggled to convey any sort of coherent ideas or thoughts on this topic, much as he has done during previous small group oral discussions.  He doesn’t seem to be understanding the conversation or ideas on a level that makes sense to him or his peers.  The ideas he jotted down on paper were basic and just reiterating what was already discussed by the previous student.  I was hoping that this method of discussion would help him as he felt that he wasn’t able to jump into the small group discussions in the past weeks because he felt like everyone was hogging the conversation.  Despite having two solid minutes to add to the discussion in writing, he failed to showcase any sort of learning or understanding.  This student’s issues are much greater than just not being able to add his insight to a class discussion.  Overall though, this silent method of discussing a current event topic proved beneficial to my class.  I send a shout-out to the professor from Plymouth State University who shared this idea with me and others. Thanks for the idea and support.  #yahforteachersharing

Setting Students Up For Success

Last year, I threw my students into the fire on day one of our STEM class.  Instead of working up to a group project, I started the year with one.  I broke the students into groups and made them work together to complete a series of tasks in early September.  I didn’t explain how to work together as a group, nor had they been provided time to get to know and understand one another.  Let’s just say that the project was a giant disaster.  I did not set the students up for success by beginning the year with a challenging group project.  Teamwork skills and strategies take time to teach and learn.  This year, I got smart and waited until mid-November to begin a group project.  The students know each other well, understand how to function as a group or team, and know how to be kind, compassionate, and caring by then.  They also understand the value of hard work, effort, and meeting objectives.  Even though the groups have only met a few times since the start of the project, I’ve already seen a huge difference compared to last year’s group project.  The students are successfully delegating tasks, checking up on one another and holding each other accountable, working hard to exceed the objectives, and communicating effectively.  It’s pretty awesome.  Teaching students how to effectively work together as a group to complete a task is much more beneficial than just putting students into groups and expecting that they will know what to do to solve problems encountered.  As a teacher, I need to always set my students up for success.

Today in Humanities class, the students worked on the Big Debate portion of our American Presidential Election Unit.  The students met with their groups and revised and edited each other’s issue stance reports.  Now, I didn’t just tell them to get to work and they did what was expected.  I explained what they would be doing once they got into their groups.  “The leader of the group will assign each student in his group a partner to peer edit with.  You will then peer edit each other’s report, trying to make it better.  Leaders, be sure not to pair up ESL students as their reports are plagued with grammar mistakes and they will need specific guidance in how to fix their errors.”  My goal was to set my students up for success so that they knew exactly what to do and how to do it when they met with their group.  I didn’t want chaos or confusion to set in.  Now, I didn’t tell them how to peer edit or what to look for, as that is where the problem solving and effort comes in.  They learned how to peer edit a classmate’s written work earlier in the year.  They know how to do this.  They also know how important helping their peers craft a brilliant report is to their success as a group.  How they worked together to accomplish these two tasks was what I was interested in observing.  In order to appropriately assess each student’s ability to effectively peer edit a partner’s report and work to improve his own report based on student feedback, they need to be able to get right to work by understanding what to do and how to do it.  I’m not taking away problem solving opportunities by modelling the process of meeting with a group and assigning tasks, I’m helping the students be and feel successful.  Sometimes, more details and a specific explanation are needed to allow the students to work effectively in class.

Setting students up for success isn’t about taking away learning opportunities, but instead is about empowering students to own their work and learning process.  If students are bogged down by the minute details because no one in the group assigned partners and so they spent half of the class period being unproductive, then very little learning and practice takes place.  I’m all about maximizing time for my students as our academic day is already so short.  Helping students to feel as if they know and understand what is being asked of them is one of my goals as a teacher.  Of course, there is a fine line between setting students up for success and spoon-feeding them everything.  I certainly don’t want to steal their creativity or pigeonhole them into using one strategy or method to solve a problem.  I want them to struggle to complete the task, but not to get started working on it.  Had I told the students how to peer edit their partner’s issue stace report today in class, I would have not received the outcome I did.  The boys were communicating with each other effectively, asking insightful questions, and helping each other better their writing and reports.  It was amazing.  They were like tiny little teachers.  Some of them even utilized phrases and strategies my co-teacher and I use when conferencing with the students.  “I wonder if this is the best way to say this.”  So cool.  Success comes in many forms and is different for each student, but laying the foundation for success almost always uses the same blueprint: Be specific, explain how to start working, and briefly discuss what to do.

How do I Support the Unmotivated Student?

Each year, I have at least one student in my class who is capable of exceeding every objective covered but they lack the desire and motivation to succeed, and end up barely meeting the objectives.  I wrestle with how to help and support these students?  Is it a lack of motivation or something else?  Our curriculum is engaging, individualized, and hands-on, which makes it even harder for me to understand why they would not want to effectively work with a group to create a space rover using Little Bits.  Are they just not interested in school?  Could that be it?  Are there other, external factors preventing them from staying focused or on-task in class?  As their teacher, it’s important that I fully understand them as people and students.  Why are they acting like this in class?  What’s the cause or root of the behavior?  How can I then address that root issue?  Even after determining the cause of the problem, I sometimes wonder how to best address that issue for every student.  While most students who struggle with self-motivation at the start of the year usually make much progress over the course of the year in sixth grade, every once in awhile there is a student who doesn’t show signs of improvement.  It’s these boys that I worry about.  How can I best support and help those few students while they are in the sixth grade?

There is an international student in my class this year who is capable of being on the Honor Roll.  He is so intelligent and scores well on standardized tests.  He is generally a kind and compassionate young man.  He struggles with social interactions at times, but overall, manages to interact with his peers on an acceptable level.  The issue is that he is content with simply meeting the objectives and completing the smallest amount of work possible to demonstrate his ability to meet the objectives covered.  Despite pointing out how intelligent I believe he is and how much potential lives inside of him, he is not putting forth the effort to showcase his true academic abilities.  Compound this with his emotional challenges, and therein lies the whole problem.  He has problems dealing with anger.  When he gets frustrated or angry, he verbally lashes out at his peers and the teachers.  While he is working with our school’s counselor on anger management strategies, we have yet to see any positive changes or progress from him regarding this issue.  Currently, in the classroom, we address the emotional issues by having him take a mental break outside of the classroom.  We have him take a seat on the couch near the administrative offices so that he can be observed during this time.  Our number one priority is always the safety of our boys.  When he returns from these breaks, his attitude and demeanor is much more positive and calm.  However, he usually struggles to refocus and return to the task at hand.  So now what?

I have been trying to put together the big picture of this student since these issues began rearing their ugly head in late September.  What is causing him to not put forth effort?  I’ve seen him work with great determination and focus at times and so I know it’s possible.  Yes, he struggles with attention and focus, but don’t we all at some point regarding some aspect of our lives?  Brain-based research proves that we all have attention issues of some sort.  ADD is not an excuse or a crutch.  I’ve worked with focused, hard-working students who had been diagnosed as having ADD.  I can’t accept this as a reason for a student not to try to work to his full potential.  As he is an international student, he is accustomed to a different way of learning in school.  That I understand.  He is used to lecture-based classes where tests were given and rote memorization was the key to his success.  Now he is being asked to think creatively, solve problems in unique ways, and work with a group to accomplish a task.  This could be an issue as well.  Perhaps he’s never had to put forth great effort because he’s very good at memorizing information and pretending to listen.  Maybe he doesn’t know how to try harder.  I realized this early on in the year and met with him on several occasions to specifically spell out for him what he needs to do to exceed the objectives and work hard.  This didn’t foster any change within him.  So, clearly that wasn’t the main issue.  What about cultural differences?  His English proficiency is excellent, but perhaps being in a different country with different foods and habits is difficult for him.  Maybe that is causing the lack of effort and focus in class.  He has had much experience in the US during his life and that doesn’t seem to be an issue here.  He adjusted to life here very quickly.  So then what is causing this weak effort?  Perhaps it is connected to his emotional issues.  Maybe as the year progresses and he works with our counselor more, he will learn how to overcome the emotional problems plaguing him and be able to put forth greater effort.

Until then though, how do I best support him in the classroom?  I want him to grow and develop as a student and individual this year in the sixth grade.  So, what do I do to help him?  How can I help motivate him to want to try harder, to want to live up to his fullest potential?  I feel slightly helpless here.  I’ve tried every trick in my small bag and nothing seems to work consistently.  Some days are better than others.  It depends on his mood.  I’ve tried positive praise and reinforcement and that works sometimes, but not all the time.  I’ve even taken away the distraction of his laptop, and that doesn’t seem to make a difference.  He just doesn’t seem to want to do the work or put forth the effort.  He is happy just barely getting by.  I want to help him want to care, but is that possible?  Will he figure that out in time?  I’m certainly not going to give up on this student, but I clearly need to try other strategies.  Any ideas?

Transforming a Class Debate Into So Much More

When Hurricane Sandy formed in the Atlantic Ocean several years ago, few people predicted that it would turn into a superstorm of epic proportions.  It was like the perfect storm of hurricanes.  Just as it was forming and moved northward, it collided with another system, creating the monster hurricane-storm that ravaged much of the northeast coast.  Starting out as just a tiny hurricane that few people watched closely as it formed, Hurricane Sandy transformed into something unbelievable.  Scientists and meteorologists alike were baffled by the unlikely and coincidental transformation.  While it provided much data on superstorms to scientists and was interesting to follow as someone who didn’t live in the storm’s direct path, it was also a very devastating occurrence that caused much damage and loss to millions of people.  It’s always crazy to me how something so normal and natural can transform into something beastly.

Today in Humanities class, the students began working on the debate portion of our American Presidential Election Unit.  I explained the project parts and requirements, fielded questions the students asked, provided the students with their groups, and had them get right to work.  They seemed quite excited about this project.  I think the idea of a little friendly competition helped to foster the fun and excitement that was felt in the classroom when the boys began working this morning.  My co-teacher and I observed the boys as they worked.  Things were going well.  The students got into their assigned groups, discussed the project, and then began brainstorming the perfect presidential candidate.  They discussed how where he was from might impact how he is perceived by the debate judges.  They coexisted effectively, shared responsibilities, and worked well together in their small groups.  They were mostly focused on the topic at hand.  I was impressed.

Then, I went to the restroom and had an epiphany.  To this day, I’m not quite sure what it is about bathrooms, but I do some of my best thinking when I am in a bathroom.  Perhaps it’s the quiet nature of the space or maybe it’s got something to do with the healing properties of water.  Regardless, while I went to the restroom this morning, an idea came to me.  What if we turn this simple, formulaic debate into something greater?  What if we have the two groups debate each other in a townhall-style debate, much like what the presidential candidates did a few weeks ago?  My co-teacher and I could be the moderators and have the students share their stance on the seven different issues.  We could also invite the student body and faculty members to come listen to the debate and then vote.  We could then work as a class to calculate the popular vote and the electoral college outcome to help the students see the difference in how the two systems of tabulating results work.  Wow, I thought.  What a fabulous idea.  I ran it by my co-teacher as the students diligently continued working, unaware of the awesome change about to come.  She loved the idea and so prior to the break in our double-block class, I gathered the student to tell them about the change.  I tried to put a fun spin on the reveal: “Local newspapers picked up the story of your two presidential candidates.  They are so excited.  Then the New York Times and the Boston Globe got word of the story.  So, to help open our debate to the media and the large crowd expected to attend, the format of the debate is changing to a townhall-style debate in which Ms. Murray and I will be the moderators.”  They were so excited about the change.  I also told them that they will need to create a campaign slogan and posters to help promote their candidate.  This announcement received shouts of Yes! from the crowd of students.  They were so pumped.

Following the morning break, the students got right back to work, creating a campaign slogan, campaign posters, and a biographical picture of their candidate.  Where is he or she from?  What made him or her want to run for president?  Why should Americans vote for him or her?  They were focused and on task for the entire time.  It was absolutely amazing.  They were so engaged with the project that they didn’t even realize how hard they were working and how much they were learning.  The students utilized almost every Habit of Learning we try to foster here at Cardigan.  Wow!  When class ended, they couldn’t stop talking about their great ideas and what they are going to work on tomorrow in preparation for the big debate in early December.

So, what began as a simple enough project regarding our unit on the American Presidential Election, ended up transforming  into this vast masterpiece of amazement.  And, this all happened, because I had to go to the bathroom.  Imagine how class might have gone had my bladder not been full of coffee.  The students probably still would have worked well, but perhaps not as well.  They probably wouldn’t have been as invested in the project as they were.  Just like Optimus Prime, today’s activity transformed into something unbelievable and excellent.  Student learning and engagement were heightened because we made the project more life-like.  A Townhall-style debate is much more realistic than a plain, ordinary class debate with noone in attendance.  Making a project more meaningful and memorable helps make the student learning much more tangible and genuine.  It’s so nice when things work out in strange and bizarre ways just as Superstorm Sandy did a few years ago.

Desperately Seeking Student Feedback

In retrospect, a more fitting title for today’s entry might be: What’s the Most Effective Way to Seek Feedback from Students?  In the sixth grade, we ask for and receive feedback from our students on a regular basis.  We’re always having the students complete Google Forms to provide us, the teachers, with feedback on units, field trips, and our teaching styles.  We engage the students in discussions almost weekly about what is going well and what could be improved upon.  We crave suggestions and ideas from our students because we want to grow as teachers and make our sixth grade program one of the best sixth grade programs in the country.  To do this, we need to create a partnership with our students.  We need our students to feel safe and comfortable in providing us with honest feedback, and we need to be open to their ideas and suggestions.  Some of the best changes we have made to our sixth grade program over the years came out of ideas with which our students provided us.  We also cite how we are using the feedback we receive from them.  Prior to starting our Astronomy Unit in STEM class, I asked the students for ideas and suggestions on topics and concepts they would like to see covered in the unit.  They provided us with very specific and detailed responses, which we have incorporated into the unit.  We made sure to point this out the students so that they see how much we value their input.  It’s all about creating a culture of caring and support in the classroom.  It’s not Us vs. Them, it’s all of us working together towards a common goal of academic and social growth and development.  Seeking feedback from our students is the most effective way to ensure our success and the success of our students in the sixth grade year in and year out.

However, I do often wonder if our method of seeking feedback is the most effective.  Are we receiving shorter, more vague feedback from the students when they have to write or type their responses or feedback?  Would we receive more meaningful feedback from our students if we had them provide their responses orally through individual interviews or as a class discussion?  Is it easier for the students to say their ideas and suggestions aloud, which means that we will receive more honest and detailed responses?  Are we getting a truly accurate picture of how the students feel about our teaching, units, and other questions when they have to type out or write their responses to questions?  Should we vary the way we ask for feedback as we do now?  Not only do I wonder about methods of collecting feedback from students, but I also wonder if the questions we pose to the students are eliciting the kinds of responses and ideas we are looking for.  Is one way of asking a question going to provide us with more honest and candid responses than other methods?  If we ask too many questions, will the students answer or address all of them with the same effort?

In order to be sure we are receiving the most meaningful feedback from students, we need to determine what works best for us and our students.  So far, we’ve used Google Forms, class discussions, and written responses to collect feedback from our students.  No vehicle seems to elicit better, more effective data.  They all have their plusses and minuses.  During class discussions, our more introverted students hesitate when adding their feedback to the group because they are afraid of how it will be perceived.  They are shy or anxious.  However, some students feel more comfortable sharing detailed responses and specific feedback orally.  For some students, this method of providing us meaningful feedback is the most effective.  Google Forms and written responses allow our shy or anxious students to provide us with specific feedback.  These methods also allow our ESL students a chance to collect their thoughts and process information before providing us with information, suggestions, or ideas.  For a few students, typing or writing is laborious and we wonder about the level of feedback we are receiving from them.  For some students, writing or typing responses is the most effective way to provide us with feedback.  Varying the ways we collect information from our students seems to be the most effective way to gather data regarding how the students feel about their overall classroom experience.  So, we feel great about this.  But, are we missing a method or way of collecting data that might be even more effective?  Is there something we are overlooking?

My biggest concern though is the way we ask students questions or probe them for feedback.  Are we asking them for feedback in the most effective manner?  This morning, I created together a Google Form I had students complete during first period to collect feedback on our recent trip to the Sargent Center.  I wrestled with how to word the questions.  While I wanted them to reflect on their experience a bit, I also wanted to know their thoughts and opinions on the trip.  Did they like it?

I asked the following questions:

  • On a scale of 1-4, four being the greatest field trip ever and one being the worst field trip ever, please rate your overall satisfaction with the Sargent Center Field Trip.
  • What did you learn about YOURSELF on this field trip?  Please be specific.
  • What did you learn about others or the world around us on this field trip?
  • What would you change about this field trip for next year if you were in charge and why?  Please be sure to explain your answer.
  • What did you like about our field trip to the Sargent Center and why?

Could I have made these questions more specific or less specific?  Did I ask the “right” questions?  Was the wording effective?  Did I receive the most meaningful feedback from my students because of the questions I asked?

Here are some of the the responses we received:

  • I learned to be a leader.
  • I learned that we can do a lot of things if we are together.
  • I will not change anything.
  • I liked the food and I learned about the 4 Cs.
  • I was a little afraid of heights during the ropes course.
  • Survival skills and nature.
  • We should bring shoes that we can wear inside the cabin.
  • The ropes course really challenged me a lot.
  • I learned that my brother is the most important person in the world to me.
  • I learned that a lot of good food is wasted every day.
  • I would change the amount of days we went to four days.
  • I liked how everyone worked together to help encourage others on the ropes course.
  • I learned a lot of cool things about nature and science.
  • I love blacksmithing.
  • Pioneers live a hard life because they need to make everything themselves.
  • I want two more days at the Sargent Center with a half day at Pioneer Village and a half day at the ropes course because we only got to the the ropes course once.
  • I learned how to respect the instructors because I learned show five.
  • We learned how to take care of each other so that when we are tired maybe we will feel better.
  • I learned how to use courage to complete something difficult.
  • I learned that other people around the world don’t get to go to a place like the Sargent Center.

Reflecting on all of this feedback, I am torn.  Although we received some quality and meaningful responses that will helps us to grow and develop this field trip experience for future sixth grade groups, we also received some confusing and short responses that told us nothing.  However, would those short responses have changed if we reworded the questions?  Would that really have made a huge difference in the feedback we collected?  Some students are short and don’t provide specific support.  All in all, the students really seemed to enjoy this experience and now we have some specific ideas on how to make it an even better trip for next year.  So, while we might have gotten more effective responses if we added, subtracted, or altered some of our questions, I feel as though we received some very beneficial information on how the students perceived this trip.  Isn’t that what feedback is all about?  We got some and that is what is important.  Perhaps prior to having our students complete the next feedback survey, I will spend more time crafting the questions and seeking feedback from my colleagues on how to improve the questions so that I am even more sure that we will be receiving the most meaningful feedback possible.  Check twice, execute once.  I like it.

Being a Supportive Co-Teacher

“Kindness and compassion will get you far in life,” said some person once, somewhere, about something.  Sure, being kind and compassionate will open doors for you, but not every door and it certainly won’t allow you to meet each and every goal you set for yourself.  Sometimes, being too kind or compassionate can be a fault that prevents one from being able to move ahead.  After two amazing years of wedded bliss, my wife and I decided to move to the school I currently work at so that we could save money and begin to plan for our future.  It made sense; however, I was very happy at the school I worked at then.  I didn’t really want to leave.  I loved teaching second grade.  I knew that the right decision was to leave, but it didn’t feel good at the time.  I wanted to stay, but I never told my wife how I felt.  I bottled my emotions up and buried them in the subcockle of my heart and soul.  She was happy and so I figured that I could fake being happy.  I didn’t want to upset her.  On the last day of school at my old school, I packed up my belongings and headed west to my new home and school where my wife was waiting for me.   I was very sad and upset.  I didn’t want to leave my old school.  By the time I arrived at my new school, I was filled with anger and remorse.  That’s when I unloaded on my wife and told her how unhappy I truly was.  I didn’t want to be where we were.  She had no idea because I was too kind and had lied to her.  Had I been more truthful, we might still be living in Maine.  Now, I’m very happy at my current school and am so blessed that we did move here.  We might not have been able to adopt our amazing son if we had stayed in Maine.  All the amazing things that have happened to us over the past 13 years would not have come to fruition had we stayed, but of course, at the time, I didn’t see that.  I needed to be honest with my wife, and I wasn’t, right away.  This caused friction between us for awhile.  I was afraid of being honest because I was worried that it would make her unhappy.  I didn’t want to be unkind, but honesty is always the best policy regardless of the outcome.

The same rule applies in all facets of life.  My co-teacher asked me to review some recent unit plans she had created the other day.  She wanted feedback on the objectives she had crafted prior to using them to grade student work.  So, I took a look at her work last evening.  As this is her first year teaching, let alone working at a crazy place like our school where free time is a hot commodity we all crave, I was impressed with her unit plans.  They were very clear and specific.  Her explanation of how the Habits of Learning will be incorporated into the unit was excellent.  Her objectives were a bit unclear and not specific.  I worried that they would be difficult to use when objectively assessing student work.  They seemed too broad without any sort of student outcome.  She’s admitted to me in the past that she is challenged by writing objectives.  She is working on this skill, but finds it difficult.  Since I knew this going in, I wasn’t surprised that her objectives were a bit awkward.  I made some comments on her Google Drive documents and then sent her an email explaining that I would help her revise her objectives during our free period this morning.  In my comments and email, I tried to be kind and supportive as I didn’t want her to think she was horrible at crafting unit plans.  I wanted her to know that I would be there to support her along the way.  After sending the email and crafting the comments, I was a bit concerned that I was too honest.  Would she take the comments the wrong way?  I didn’t want her to think I hated her teaching or anything like that.  Did I convey my point in the email and comments or was she angry and confused?

So, this morning, when we met to discuss her objectives, I started off by letting her know that I think she’s doing a great job and that I want to help her learn how to create more effective objectives.  She seemed to understand this, but like me, she is very hard on herself.  I made sure to point out the positive things I noticed in her unit plans before helping her see how to revise her objectives to make them more effective.  This approach seemed to work.  She started to see how to create clear and assessable objectives.  Her confidence seemed to grow as well.  Although my honesty was difficult for her to hear at first because she is always striving for excellence in the classroom, by supporting her and working with her to see how to craft specific objectives, she was able to move on and grow.  Positive things came from this interaction.  I compassionately explained the situation to her and helped her to understand how to create more effective academic objectives.  While my intention was to help her grow and develop as an educator, I did wonder if I did so in a manner that would be interpreted as kind by her.  Could I have approached this situation differently?  Should I have waited to provide her feedback in person instead of using digital comments and an email?  Would this have prevented her from feeling nervous and anxious prior to our meeting this morning?

Sometimes, in order to help others, kindness and compassion aren’t the only character traits needed.  Candid honesty is important in all types of relationships, but especially when working with a co-teacher.  If we are to challenge each other to grow and develop as educators, I need to be honest with my co-teacher and she needs to feel as though she can be honest with me.  This isn’t easy and takes practice, but is necessary for a positive and collaborative relationship to be fostered.  I can’t sugarcoat feedback I provide her with just so that she doesn’t construe my words as unkind or negative.  I need to be open and honest in a kind and compassionate way with my co-teacher so that my feelings and thoughts don’t get buried deep inside.  Open and honest communication is the key to any great relationship, as my wife continues to teach me each and every day.

The Calming Power of Animals

When my son was younger, I noticed that whenever he played with our dogs or snuggled up to them on the couch, his anxiety level decreased dramatically.  Petting or rubbing our dogs was almost soothing to him.  Even now as a teenager, he loves cuddling with our dog Beckett.  It’s comforting to him.  Research studies have proved that animals and pets can help people heal, better deal with emotional problems, and feel less anxious and nervous.  Dogs are used to address PTSD in soldiers returning from conflict.  Dogs, cats, and many other types of animals have soothing and healing properties in the way they interact with humans.  It’s amazing really.

My co-teacher and I had a chance to witness this phenomena on a larger scale today when our class went to the farm for our weekly Farm Fun Friday visit.  The first part of our visit focused on the baby bunnies.  The boys were able to choose their own bunny to name, observe, and take care of for the year on the farm.  They had so much fun interacting with their bunny.  Then we transitioned to the second part of our visit, which focused on crocheting.  Prior to switching activities, the younger bunnies needed to go back to their mothers, but the older, more mature bunnies could remain with the boys for the rest of our time on the farm.  I was a bit nervous that the bunnies would serve as a distraction for the students while they crocheted, but I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

As the students began crocheting, the bunnies sat in their laps or near them on the furniture.  The boys would pet the bunnies every once in awhile but remained focused on their crochet project throughout the activity.  Despite the level of difficulty crocheting provided many of our boys, they persevered throughout our time on the farm today.  They asked for help when needed but were able to solve most of their problems on their own or by asking a nearby peer who had figured out how to crochet already.  They spent almost a whole hour crocheting, which is no easy feat for sixth grade boys.  So, what was it that allowed this outcome?  How were the boys able to stay focused and on task for such a long period of time?  While crocheting is fun and can be engaging, it’s no video game or submarine building activity.  So, what was it then?

I believe that the boys remained as focused as they did regarding their crocheting today because of the soothing power of the bunnies.  Having the bunnies around with the boys provided them a security blanket of sorts.  The warmth of the bunnies near them helped to remind the boys that anything is possible.  During our last visit, when the students learned how to crochet for the first time, the bunnies were not out for the boys to play with, and chaos ensued quickly.  Several of the students were loud, disengaged, and grew frustrated quickly when they couldn’t do what was being asked of them.   They needed the soothing bunnies to help calm them.  Today while the students crocheted with the bunnies out and about, they were much quieter, more focused, and when they struggled, they asked for help kindly and respectfully.  They didn’t shout out and they were engaged in their crochet projects for almost an hour.  The only difference between our last visit and this visit was the fact that the bunnies were out for the boys to interact with this week.  My scientific inquiry skills tell me that this must be the reason for today’s result.  Animals help keep students calm, focused, and able to persevere in the face of adversity.  The angora bunnies helped keep our boys relaxed and able to crochet amazing chains of yarn.  Some of the boys worked on creating blankets for their bunnies.  It was so much fun to watch them work and snuggle with the bunnies.  It’s hard to believe how much having animals around our students positively impacted them today.  Much like my dog does for my son, the bunnies helped soothe our students today as they tackled the difficult task of crocheting.

So then, this result and data leads me to wonder how much of a difference having animals in the classroom might make.  Would having a class bunny or dog help our students to stay more focused and on task?  Would they be too distracted by the class animal or would it have a soothing effect like the bunnies did for our students today?   Could we have a class dog or bunny in the classroom?  Would it meet fire and safety codes?  I am now very curious and am going to look into the possibility of having an animal in the classroom.  I’m not talking about rodents or hamsters as I’ve tried them before and the results were very different.  I want an animal that could be out and about while the students worked, not cooped up in a cage.  I wonder what might be possible.

The Anatomy of a Slightly Difficult Day

So, perhaps the title is a bit misleading.  I have an amazing, talented, kind, and hard-working group of students in my class this year.  Day in and day out they cease to wow me with their insightful thoughts, curious questions, and high quality work.  On a daily basis, they work hard in class, bringing their great effort into the room.  Today, however, things were a bit off.  While phenomenal things did happen in the classroom today, some less than good things also occurred.  Their effort and focus, at times, was off.  I had to remind the boys on several occasions during the last period of the day to remain quiet during an assessment.  They were shouting out while their peers were still completing a math assessment.  This is unlike them.  It was a bit disappointing, but not surprising.  For you see, today was a slightly different sort of day in the sixth grade.

The morning began with a free period, like each and every Monday.  But, this period was not so free for the students.  This morning, as the students entered the classroom, my co-teacher and I checked their packed bags for tomorrow’s big field trip.  We’re leaving campus to spend a few days at the Sargent Center in Hancock, NH where we will be building upon the community spirit we’ve been fostering since September.  The students will work in groups to solve problems and take risks.  They will complete a ropes course and have a ton of fun.  The boys have been looking forward to this trip for weeks.  After we checked their bags to be sure they had packed all of the required materials from the packing list, we then provided them with a bunch of information regarding tonight’s study hall and our departure for tomorrow’s big adventure.  The boys seemed focused at this point.  They asked some great questions and seemed to be taking everything in.  All seemed well, to an outsider.  But, to those in the know, this was the beginning of the downward spiral into unfocused-ville and over-excitement town.

What we couldn’t see on the outside, was what was going on in their brains: “OMG, I can’t wait for tomorrow’s big trip.  It is going to be so much fun.  I get to try a ropes course and hang out with my friends for three days straight.  No school, no classes.  AWESOME!  But, I won’t be at home with my parents.  What about them?  What will they do without me?  I won’t be able to check my email or my Instagram feed for three days.  What if I miss a picture.  OMG, I don’t want to go anymore.  I want to stay home.”  And that was just a taste of what they were probably thinking about and how they were most likely feeling after we reviewed the expectations for tomorrow’s trip.  Their focus waned very quickly.  A few of the boys barely even made it through periods three and four with effort and focus.  Distractions began as soon as Humanities class commenced during third period.  A few of the students couldn’t sit still during our read aloud and were blurting out much more than the average Monday.  They were clearly preoccupied.  Many of them, were however, able to hold it together through period four.  Then came STEM class.  This is when the wheels of the bus started to really come off.  Several of the students struggled to stay focused during our math mini lessons.  They were chatting with their classmates and not taking notes as we discussed the commutative property of addition.  However, one third of the class was still holding it altogether during this time.  The true chaos did not begin until the final 20 minutes of class.  That’s when things really got crazy.

While some the students worked diligently to finish their assigned homework so that they wouldn’t have any work to do tonight outside of class, a few of the students sat at their tables doing almost no work.  Even those students who were doing work, were making simple mistakes because they were so mentally distracted.  They were forgetting to show their work, circle their answers, or write the problems out.  These are all things they generally do without much reminding on a “normal” day.  But, there was very little that was normal about today.  Then came the final activity of the academic morning.  They completed a timed math assessment on basic computation skills.  Many of them could not work silently.  They were blurting out and unable to sit still.  They were so focused on the excitement and anxiety of our big field trip that they couldn’t even complete basic tasks like sitting still and not speaking out.  I had to speak sternly to a few students about their distracting behavior during a quiet assessment period.  They of course apologized and realized the error of their ways, but couldn’t seem to help themselves.  They were mentally blocked as all of their brain power was going into thinking about our big trip to a fun outdoor center.  I closed class by debriefing what my co-teacher and I saw from them in class today.  They were distracted, distracting, and unfocused.  While I didn’t directly attribute it to the excitement of tomorrow’s trip, I didn’t harp on them too much.  I know that if I were in their shoes, I would have struggled to stay focused in class as well.  Now, they weren’t super out of control or negative in any way.  They were just unfocused and preoccupied, rightfully so.

However, I wonder if anything could have been done differently to prevent today’s outcome.  What if I had reviewed the expectations for our trip at the end of the academic morning instead of the beginning?  Would that have made a difference?  What if I had empathized with them more when I saw the focus begin to end early on in the morning?  Would that have helped?  I could play this “what if game” all night long and still never really have a concrete answer.  Perhaps something might have helped, but maybe not.  Maybe what happened in the classroom today was inevitable because of tomorrow’s field trip.  Today’s result did leave me pondering how to handle preparing for our next big field trip in April.  I shall prepare them for that differently to see if the outcome changes.  Anything’s possible.