It’s Goal Reflection Time!

Several years ago, right around this time of the year in fact, I decided to make a change.  I wanted to grow as an educator.  I didn’t want to stay stagnant any longer.  I wanted to better support, challenge, and help my students.  I no longer wanted to be okay with being just a good teacher.  I wanted to become a great teacher.  So, I started this very blog in hopes of learning something from myself.  Wait a minute, that sounds strange.  Shouldn’t I already have been learning from myself?  While one would hope, I clearly decided that I had not been effectively learning from myself.  I wanted to be more deliberate and purposeful about how I learn from myself and my teaching.  I wanted to take time every day to reflect on my teaching.  What went well?  What did I struggle with?  What was a struggle for my students?  How can I do better tomorrow?  That’s where the blog came in.  I decided to commit to spending 15-30 minutes every teaching day to reflecting, in writing on this blog, on my teaching practices.  Looking back on that time in my life, I am so thankful that I decided to bring about change within me.  This blog and my daily reflections have allowed me to grow as an educator exponentially over the past few years.  I am now, in my eyes at least, a great teacher because I take the time to learn from my mistakes or embrace the awesomeness each and every day.  I encourage all teachers, and people for that matter regardless of your profession, to take time out of your busy schedule to reflect, even if it’s not in writing, on how your day went.  It will make you a better teacher and person.  Because I’m always thinking about how to grow and improve my craft as a teacher, I find myself reflecting in the moment now.  How can I make the next second or minute of my teaching better than the previous one?  It’s almost like the Force from Star Wars, but this is more of a reflective force.  I can improve my teaching mentally, right then and there, because I’m always looking back on what just happened in order to make the next experience even better.  I’m sort of like Obi-Wan except with a way better outfit.

With mental lightsaber in hand, I tackle my next reflective moment: My professional Goals.  Earlier this year, I set two goals for myself as a teacher.  While I’ve kept them in the forefront of my mind since then, I haven’t formally reflected on my progress in working towards my goals.  How’s it going?  So, what better time than right before the holiday break to reflect on my progress in working towards meeting my goals.

My first goal was to learn how to better support and help the English Language Learners (ELL) in my class.  I felt as though I was lacking in this aspect of my teaching.  I’ve never had formal training on how to teach ESL students and so I felt at a bit of a loss earlier this year.  To help me work towards meeting this goal, I started reading a book all about how to best help ELLs in the classroom.  It seems like a great resource, but I have only read about the first 20 pages.  I need to devote much more time to reading this book in 2017.  I have also done some research online to find out how other teachers help their ESL students.  This approach hasn’t proved too fruitful yet.  What I have learned and realized on my own is that I need to be mindful about my oral and written instructions.  I need to simplify the English language used so that my ELLs can comprehend and understand what I’m saying or asking them to do.  This has helped.  I’ve been much more cognizant of the words I’m using when providing instructions for tasks or activities.  I also have all of my students, but especially my ESL students, take notes on the whiteboard tables with questions they have while I’m talking.  This has allowed them to more effectively ask for help or clarification.  As I’ve seen much progress from the ELLs in my class, it’s hard to tell if it is as a result of the changes I’ve made in my teaching or if it’s just them.  Exposure to the English language in the full immersion-style of my school has probably helped them learn a lot.  They feel much more comfortable speaking the language now than they once did because their vocabulary and confidence has grown.  Is this because of me or them?  It could be a mix of both, me and them.  Regardless, I do feel like I have a way to go to meet this goal.  I want to finish reading the professional resource I started months ago and I want to add some new strategies to my toolbelt so that I can better support the ELLs in my classroom starting ASAP.  I don’t like feeling lost or helpless.

My second goal was to follow through with every new idea or activity I started at the beginning of the school year.  I wanted to make sure that I continued having my students work on learning to solve the Rubik’s Cube, observe and learn from their assigned Forest Plot, and learn more about coding from the online website Codecombat.  So, far, I’ve met this goal.  Everything I started doing in September, I’m still doing.  Every other Tuesday, the students go out to the forest to observe their assigned plot of land.  They record their observations in their farm journals.  Every Saturday, the students work on solving the Rubik’s Cube.  Five of my 14 students have already learned how to solve it.  My goal is for everyone to learn how to solve it by the end of the year.  Fingers crossed.  My students still utilize the coding website Codecombat on a weekly basis.  Many of the students even work on it outside of class as they enjoy it so much.  This is excellent.  I love that I found a tool that engages and teaches.  I hope that I’m able to continue meeting this goal by the end of the academic year.  Being sure that I include these activities in my unit plans is one very helpful way to be sure I keep on using them in the classroom.

So, there you go.  I’m working towards one goal and meeting another.  At this point, I don’t feel like I need to put more on my plate since I want to really focus my effort on meeting my first goal by the start of the next academic year.  I need to keep on learning new strategies, trying new things, and reflecting on them.  Until next year, this is me reflecting and learning from myself.  Who knew that I was full of such good ideas or had so much to teach myself?  The power of reflection is amazing.

Dealing with Times of Tension Prior to a Big School Vacation

Prior to a school vacation, the excitement level is generally quite high in schools.  I remember how excited I was in the days leading up to a big break.  I couldn’t sit still, and heck, my teachers weren’t even focused on school as they showed us movies most of the time during the days leading up to a break.  At my school, the student body is full of energy.  They are excited and ready to leave campus and spend time with their friends and families for a few weeks.  However, this high energy and enthusiasm can quickly lead to poor choices, frustration that the end is near but not close enough, and anger with the fact that school is still in session.  Some students have trouble making good decisions during this time period because of that.  Disciplinary issues usually rise prior to a big vacation.  Tensions are generally quite high leading up to a big break, especially one such as the upcoming holiday break as many students are excited about the various family holidays and traditions that will take place in the coming weeks.  Students are on edge during this time period.  They are quick to anger and overreact.  As teachers, we need to be aware of this and be proactive during this time period.  We need to help our students alleviate stress and anxiety before it leads to a total meltdown.  We need to make this time period fun and focused for the students.  We need to be supportive and helpful for our boys during the week leading up to a big vacation.  We can’t be short tempered or quick to overreact.  We need to be strong and even-keeled despite how excited we all are for a break as well.  Striking this balance can be a real challenge.

In the classroom today, tensions were a bit high during STEM class.  The boys spent the period working on finishing the Astronomy Group Project.  They completed work on their space rovers and reflected on the entire project in writing.  While two groups did finish constructing their rover and had a chance to reflect on the project, two groups did not meet the goals they set for themselves at the start of class.  Although the project does not need to be completed until Thursday, today was their last day to work in class.  Because of this, the two groups that didn’t finish, definitely felt the pressure to finish.  This extra stress that they placed upon themselves made a few students quick to react in slightly negative ways.  One student started blaming another student for saying he had wrecked their rover while another student then shouted out in frustration, “Do you want me to dismantle our rover because I will dismantle our rover?”  While I admit that my first reaction was to chuckle when I heard this, I waited to hear what happened next.  Luckily, that was it and the group got back to work.  Another student was almost moved to tears when he realized that his group was not going to finish by the end of class.  Some of the boys felt the energy of the impending vacation more than others.  To combat this, I didn’t make a big deal of these issues.  I supported the groups and offered help when necessary.  I also didn’t overreact or immediately address the issues when they occurred.  I waited to see how they would play out before I stepped in.  In most cases, I needed to say nothing as the boys self-regulated eventually.  While nothing crazy happened today as result of the high energy in the air due to vacation being only two days away, these minor issues, I believe, were a result of the heightened excitement level of the students.

While I purposely structured my lessons and units for this time between Thanksgiving Break and the holiday break to be more engaging, hands-on, and project-based so that the students would better be able to handle the extra energy coursing through their veins, it is also these same, slightly unstructured, student-centered projects that tend to raise the anxiety levels and bring about excitement within the students.  It’s almost a catch-22.  You want to keep the students motivated for two and a half weeks, but you also want to keep them focused and calm.  While changing my curriculum and projects during this time period might have prevented the behavior I saw in the classroom today, it also would have lead to boredom and a lack of engagement within the students, which might have lead to more problems later as a result of frustration or having nothing fun to do.  I expect this kind of behavior during this time of year and so I make sure to be at the top of my game so that I can best address it and help keep students as calm and focused as possible prior to the upcoming break.  I’m hopeful that tomorrow and Thursday will be a bit better as the students had a chance today to release some of the tension that’s been building up within them for a few days now.

Expecting the Unexpected in the Classroom

When my wife and I met our son for the first time in Delaware, we were as happy as could be.  He was almost six years old and full of spunk.  As this was our first meeting with him and his foster family, we weren’t expecting to have him stay overnight with us in our hotel room, but he did.  We also weren’t expecting to have him come home with us that weekend either.  However, his social worker suggested we bring him home for Thanksgiving and she would come up to NH and pick him up later the next week.  Well, she never came to get him and said he could just stay with us as we were adopting him.  My wife and I certainly weren’t expecting him to come home with us after that first meeting, but he did.  We rolled with it because we knew that if it was happening, it was meant to be.  10 years later, it’s still meant to be and on a daily basis I expect the unexpected from my teenage son.  Each new day with our son is like a box of chocolates from Forrest Gump, “You never know what you’re gonna get,” and while it keeps us on our toes, we mostly love expecting the unexpected.

In a similar vein, my current sixth grade class never fails to surprise me.  In fact, it happened again today.  The students recently filled the positive reinforcement Marble Jar we use to help foster a sense of teamwork and focus within the class.  This means that they need to choose a party to have.  As we are so close to the big winter break, we had two options to offer them this morning.

  1. They could have a half-day Marble Party on the final day of classes before break.  It wouldn’t be a very long party though as we have cleaning and packing happening prior to this.
  2. We could have a full-day Marble Party on the day we return from the big break.

I thought for sure that the students would choose to have the Marble Party this Thursday, but they surprised me and unanimously voted to have it on the day we return from vacation.  Wow!  Perhaps I am the only one who needs instant gratification.  I’m a sucker for speedy delivery despite the great costs associated with it.  My boys wanted to wait in order to have an epic and lengthy Marble Party.  I was impressed.  They really are such a kind and thoughtful bunch of young men, and the surprises didn’t end there either.  Oh no.

Then, I solicited ideas for the Marble Party from the students.  In years past, this has been a 30-minute process as everyone as an idea.  The problem is, most of the ideas are repeats of what was already discussed and written on the whiteboard.  This year, the students listen to one another and don’t repeat ideas.  They go after what they want.  There were only four ideas suggested by the 13 students.  Wow, again they amazed me.  The whole process of selecting a Marble Party only took about 15 minutes, which is less than half of what it normally takes to complete this process.  They were so focused and attentive today that we were able to complete a somewhat difficult process in almost no time at all.  Again, they blew me away.

At this point in the year, I try not to have any expectations for this group of students as they continue to surprise me on a daily basis.  I’m trying really hard not to compare them to other groups and say, “Oh man, this is going to take a long time because it did last year” or “Oh, this is going to be a challenging project because it was two years ago.”  I’m trying to just go with the flow and let this group continue to amaze me with their kindness, care, focus, attention, and great effort.  They are phenomenal critical thinkers who love solving problems and completing quality work which exceeds my objectives.  I’m learning to let this excellent group of students write their own story this year, separate from any other group’s story.  This class is in a class all their own and so, just like each new day with my son is a blessing, each new day with this class is a gift.  Who knows what tomorrow will bring.  Anything’s possible with this class.

Teaching Students to Set High Standards For Themselves

We tend to be our own harshest critic.  No one sees our flaws better than we do.  I am very critical of everything I do.  “I could have done better,” are words I usually think after reflecting on something I accomplished.  I see things in me that no one else sees because only I know the truth.  Today, for example, I had my mid-year review with my school’s Dean of Faculty.  He went on and on about all the great things I’m doing.  Internally, I’m thinking, “That wasn’t even my best effort.”  He also asked me about things I need to improve upon regarding my teaching.  I discussed one of the professional goals I set for myself this year.  The Dean seemed shocked by my response as though I already work well with ESL students.  Perhaps to others or outsiders, I may be doing great things, but I feel like I could be doing more.  I hold myself to high standards so that I can grow and develop as a husband, father, teacher, and person.

In the classroom, I try to model this same behavior for my students.  I want my students to see the benefit in holding themselves to high standards.  I want them to see how pushing oneself to complete quality work is the only way to grow and develop as a student.  I want my students to take pride in what they do and only turn in work that they truly know displays their best effort.  I want them to be their own harshest critic so that they can effectively grow as students in order to, as my school’s mission states, “live meaningful lives in a global society.”  I teach this concept of holding oneself to high standards in a deliberate way throughout the year.  I discuss the importance of reviewing and checking over your work prior to turning it in so that you can verify that you did actually display your best effort.  I explain how to seek feedback from others prior to revising your own work so that you can showcase your full potential as a student.  There are also several opportunities for students to share their work with the public.  I want them to understand the importance of only showing the best possible work when it is being displayed for others to see.  Through practice and deliberate teaching, the students learn the importance of holding themselves to high standards.

I was fortunate enough today to see this mindset of holding oneself to high expectations in action from many of my students during Humanities class.  The boys worked on the Globe to Flat Map Project as they began carefully transcribing a map of the world onto a rubber ball, using a globe as a reference.  The only reference points they had as guides were the equator and prime meridian and the 0, 90E, 90W and 180 degree markers they drew on their balls yesterday.  They needed to analyze the globes while situating their ball accordingly to accurately and proportionately draw all seven continents onto their ball.  This is no easy task and requires much teamwork.  The boys, working with their table partner, had to make a plan for how they were going to accomplish the task, communicate effectively, and work together to complete the task.

While four of the groups took their time, made a game plan, and then began drawing the world map onto their ball, three of the groups jumped right into drawing their map without carefully analyzing their ball and the markers they had drawn on the previous day.  Because of this, those three groups, noticed that as they began drawing some of the continents onto their ball, they had drawn them in the wrong place on the ball.  As the students began noticing this, they began to think about how to solve their problem.  As they were using permanent marker to draw on their balls, there was no easy way to erase their lines and start again.  They also only have one ball to use.  Two of the three groups were not happy or willing to settle for turning in an inaccurate globe of the world.  They wanted to start over and do it correctly.  But how?  So, I suggested they research online how to erase permanent marker from a rubber ball.  The two groups quickly learned that rubbing alcohol might work.  So, they tried it to no avail.  It did not work as suggested.  So now what, they thought.  They didn’t give up though.  They persevered to find another solution as they were not willing to complete messy and inaccurate work that did not at least meet the graded objectives.  Towards the end of the class, they had found other possible solutions which we did not have the materials for in class.  However, I told the groups that I would bring the materials to class on Monday so that they could try solving their problem.  This gave them hope.  The students, while frustrated that they had not started completing quality work to the highest standard possible, never became angry or upset.  They simply worked to find solutions to their problems.  They were not ready to accept failure.  They were holding themselves to high expectations.  I was impressed with their effort and positive, problem-solving attitude.  I was amazed by their desire to not give up and turn in sloppy or inaccurate work.

Now, I shouldn’t have been amazed by their great effort today in class because that’s just how this group is.  They persevere and solve problems.  They complete quality work at every turn.  However, last year when my class completed this project, most every group crafted an inaccurate and sloppy map on their ball.  When they or I noticed the huge inaccuracies in their maps, they didn’t try to redo their work.  They were happy turning in work that did not meet the graded objectives.  They were content with completing sloppy and low quality work.  I was appalled by this attitude last year, but remembered it keenly as I began this project yesterday with this new class.  I remembered how my students were fine turning in sloppy work.  They never tried to redo their maps or fix their mistakes.  So, yes, I was a bit surprised when my students today asked me if they could find a way to fix or redo their maps.  They care about completing quality work.  Perhaps this new attitude my class this year possesses is due in part to how I have been teaching them this year.  I made sure to specifically and deliberately teach them how and why to care about completing quality work all of the time.  Not until today, did I fully realize the power of the changes I’ve made in my instruction this year.  Teaching students how to hold themselves to high standards is a vital life skill needed by my students to be successful in every aspect of school and life.

Teaching Perseverance and Problem Solving

As a student, I continually struggled to learn new material and concepts and overcome challenges I faced.  I usually just gave up or asked the teacher for help.  Rarely did I try to solve my own problems, since I knew my teachers would help me or give me the answer I needed to solve the problem.  I needed to do very little thinking on my own when I was in school and I feel like that is something that hindered me from successfully growing and developing as a student.  Even in college, I found myself asking for help instead of trying to solve my own problems.  If something didn’t make sense, I didn’t review the material, I didn’t ask a peer for clarification, I didn’t do further research to understand the heart of my question and lack of understanding, instead, I immediately asked the teacher, either in class or during office hours.  I didn’t genuinely learn to persevere and think for myself until I became a teacher and needed to solve my own problems as I now was the person students relied upon to know the answer  I wish I had learned how to solve problems I encountered in the classroom and with the academic material on my own when I was in school, but unfortunately I did not.

So, as a teacher, I make it a priority to be sure I empower my students to think for themselves, question the world around them, and solve their own problems.  I provide my students with strategies, tips, techniques, and ideas on how to solve problems facing them.  I also have a rule in my classroom about asking questions: You must ask two before me.  The students need to ask at least two classmates for assistance or clarification prior to asking me for help.  This fosters a sense of teamwork and community within the class.  They become peer teachers for each other.  Many of my students become very great teachers by the end of the year.  I don’t want to be the Master in the Middle, I want to be the Guide from the Side in the classroom.  I want my students to struggle and learn to solve their own problems.  While I often provide feedback and suggestions when necessary, I rarely provide students with answers.  I usually ask the boys questions to ponder when they ask for help.  “Have you asked two of your peers for help?  Did you research your question using reputable resources?  Did you spell the word correctly before typing it into Google?”  The most effective and real learning comes from the struggle the students face.  When they hit a mental wall in the classroom, they learn to utilize a growth mindset to overcome the wall facing them.  When they think about other solutions and possibilities, they are able to overcome the challenges facing them.  In order for those “A-ha” moments to occur though, the students need to struggle a bit first.  Then, comes the learning.

Today in my STEM class, using Little Bits, the students worked on constructing scaled-down versions of the space rover they designed in their small groups.  They figured out how to utilize the Little Bits pieces to create their working rover.  They communicated effectively with their teammates to delegate responsibilities, set a goal for the work period, and build their vehicle.  They coexisted very well in class today.   I was impressed.  Every group was able to meet the goal they set at the start of the class.  While it was fantastic to see the boys utilize the Habits of Learning we’ve been working on all year with them, my favorite part of the class was how the students showcased their ability to solve their own problems and persevere.

At the start of the class year, my students struggled to solve their own problems.  They clearly relied on their teachers for help and the answer, in the past.  They didn’t know how to ask their peers for help or how to see the problem in a new perspective.  They usually stopped working or gave up when they faced a challenge or difficulty.  I spent the first three months of the year teaching the boys strategies on what to do when they are stuck: Ask a classmate for assistance, try different solutions, research the problem online, or take a break and revisit the problem later.  I have the students practice these strategies during the first two units in both Humanities and STEM class.  I provide the boys with feedback on the strategies they’ve used and tried so that they can see what worked and what needs to be improved.  This takes much time and energy but is so important in teaching the students to own their learning, persevere, and solve their own problems.  I want then to see that they don’t need to immediately ask a teacher for help when they encounter a problem.  I want them to see themselves as resources and experts in what we are learning about.

Today, I was able to see the students apply many of these strategies as they worked.  They ran into numerous problems: How to connect the Little Bits together, how to make their rover go over a larger obstacle, how to prevent the front of their rover from dragging, and how to utilize the USB connection.  Instead of asking me for help, they worked together to solve their problems.  They worked together in their small groups of three to four students to find new solutions to the challenges they faced.  One group attached two other wheels they had found in our collection of Lego blocks to prevent the front of their rover from dragging on the ground.  Another group taped the Little Bits pieces to the mounting board to prevent them from falling off.  As I saw groups encounter problems, I watched and observed what they did next.  In one group, the leader said, “Okay guys, what do we do now?  How should we solve this problem?”  Then his group members started generating possible solutions.  After trying a few, they found one that worked. In another group, one of the members researched their problem online.   Every once in a while, a student did come to me, asking for help.  In most cases, by the time I had gotten to their group, they had solved their own problem.  It was awesome.  I didn’t need to provide answers to my students as they provided their own solutions.  I have empowered them to be their own teachers.  Isn’t that what we hope for as teachers?  For our students to persevere and become problem solvers?

While teaching students how to persevere and solve their own problems is challenging and takes much time in the classroom, it is crucial to creating and fostering a sense of community and learning inside the classroom.  Teaching the strategies students need to solve problems, persevere, and overcome adversity facing them requires a deliberate approach.  We need to give students specific strategies to use when they encounter a problem.  What do they do?  We then need to have them practice using these strategies in various activities and classroom projects.  We also must observe how they use these strategies and give them feedback on how they can improve using the strategies to solve problems they encounter.  We then have to move into giving them more control and autonomy as the year progresses.  We, of course, support the students when necessary, but want to give them plenty of opportunities to practice using the various strategies we’ve taught them.  Teaching students how to solve problems they face is a vital life skill they will need to have in their repertoire of tools in order to live meaningful lives in a global society.

Should We Still Be Teaching Cartography to our Students?

Many years ago, in schools around the world, students learned about how maps are made, various map parts, how to read a map, and how to draw maps.  Teachers spent weeks teaching their students all about cartography as they would need to one day learn how to navigate around the world using maps and atlases.  It was a vital skill once upon a time.  Then technology revolutionized maps and cartography and rendered paper maps and atlases almost absolute.  People use their phones and GPS units to navigate the world.  If someone wants to find out how to travel from here to Boston, MA, they whip out their phone and an app tells them exactly what to do.  People rarely use paper maps anymore because of these technological changes.  So, I’m forced to wonder if teaching students about maps and mapping is necessary.  Should we spend time teaching students all about cartography or skip it?  Is cartography still an important life skill?

In the sixth grade Humanities class, we teach a short unit on mapping and cartography under the guise of teaching students about the idea of perspective.  While we focus on how inaccurate flat maps are, we do cover map parts and atlas use.  We want the students to understand how GPS systems work and how they locate specific places on Earth.  To do this, we teach the students about lines of latitude and longitude and map projections.  However, our main focus is on helping students learn to interpret the world around them.  We want the students to understand the idea of perspective, how their perspective is greatly influenced by their prior knowledge, and how sometimes, what they learned about a topic may be inaccurate.  We want to help our students broaden their perspective about the world around them.  We want to squash stereotypical views our students have about various topics or parts of the world.  We want to challenge our students to utilize a growth mindset when learning new material or a different way of looking at something they already know.  Teaching students how inaccurate flat maps are, is one easy way to introduce the concept of perspective before we dig into our first culture and region study.  Although we know that students will most likely never use maps or atlases again in their lives, they will need to be aware of their perspective and how it can skew how they learn new material or view the world.  Mapping and cartography is the vehicle we use to teach our students about perspective.  So, while many students no longer learn about maps and cartography in school anymore, our sixth grade students learn all about maps as they pertain to perspective.  It puts the idea of how they view the world on a level they can understand, using maps as a tangible symbol.

Is there another way we could teach our students about the idea of perspective and how important it is to be aware of how their perspective forms and changes?  Do we still need to teach students about atlases and map parts or should we stick to just teaching students about how inaccurate flat maps are?  What really matters to our students?  What will help them live meaningful lives in a global society?  Mapping, being able to read a map, and understanding cartography will probably not help our students live more effective lives after school.  So, do we drop the mapping portion of our perspective unit or keep it for next year?  What makes the most sense?

David Walbert, author of many articles on helping teachers learn how to teach various historical concepts, tells us that being able to effectively read maps is a crucial step in helping students develop their visual literacy skills.  Students need to learn how to “read” and interpret pictures, diagrams, and images they are constantly bombarded with.  Much learning comes from pictures, and so, if students don’t know how to properly intake information visually, they will miss a lot of learning opportunities facing them daily.  Teaching students how to interpret, read, and analyze maps is the first step in helping students develop their visual literacy skills.  So, while it may no longer be necessary to teach a full, lengthy unit on mapping and cartography, teaching the basics of map reading is still needed to help our students learn and grow.

The Art of Calling on Students

I used to sit in the back of the classroom when I was in high school because I didn’t want my teachers to call on me.  It worked for almost every class.  Luckily, I had a teacher or two who made sure to call on ALL of the students in the class, and so where you sat in the classroom made no difference.  I also had one teacher who arranged the desks in a giant circle and so there was no back of the room.  These teachers forced me to pay attention and stay focused.  While back then, I didn’t like it at first, those teachers became some of my favorite because I knew they cared about me.  They didn’t want me to slip through the cracks.  They made sure I was paying attention.

As a teacher, one easy way to show my students I care is to make sure I’m holding them all accountable for understanding the material and paying attention during class.  I can do this by calling on all of my students, not just the ones who raise their hand, during a lesson.  Also, my classroom is organized in an inclusive manner that makes every student feel like a part of the classroom family.  This way, the students feel like they are a part of something greater than just being in school because they have to be according to truancy laws in our country.  They want to be engaged and learn to be a part of the classroom community.  By trying to call on each student during a class period when there are class discussions or teacher-directed learning taking place, I am able to formatively assess my students.  Do they understand the material?  Are my ESL students understanding how I am explaining a topic or concept?  Are my slow processing students able to take in everything I’m saying to make predictions or draw conclusions?  I usually try to make sure that I call on students not raising their hand during class discussions as a way to redirect unfocused students and check for understanding in my introverted students.

Yesterday during Humanities class as I was recording myself teaching, I felt a bit off and did not call on every student.  In fact, I called mostly on students raising their hand.  This prevented me from being sure all of my students understood the new ideas being introduced.  So, today, I made a concerted effort to call on every student during the discussion parts of the lesson.  This was challenging to do, but I made sure that I tried.  I called on students who didn’t seem to be paying attention as a way to redirect their focus or check their attention.  I also made sure to be call on my ESL students to check for comprehension.  I wanted to ensure that they were understanding the ideas of latitude and longitude introduced in class today.  When I was reading questions from the whiteboard aloud, it was difficult to remember which students I needed to call on to answer the question.  But, rather than guess which student I still needed to call on, I waited to call on a student until I was able to look out at the class to be sure I called on the student I needed to call on.  I didn’t want to keep calling on the same students.  Sometimes it’s a struggle to not call on those students closest to us, which is one of the reasons why I walk around the horseshoe desk formation to be sure that I am close to all of the students.  Today I felt as though I did call on every student at least once during our class discussions.  I made sure my ESL students understood the material and refocused those students who I felt needed to be redirected. At the end of today’s lesson, I felt as though every student had participated in class at least once.  I like that.  It helps to foster a sense of community within the students.

Often times, calling on students in class does seem like an art form.  I want to be sure I don’t keep calling on the same students, make sure I call on all of the students, check-in with my struggling learners, and keep all of my students focused.  This is hard to do in class while also trying to be engaging, stay on track with the lesson, and manage any behavioral issues that arise.  I’ve gotten much better at this over my years of teaching, but I still try to be very cognizant of how I call on students so that I meet my goal of including everyone in class discussions, somehow, on a daily basis.

Scariest Moment Ever: Digitally Recording Oneself Teaching

Once when I was out tubing down the White River in Vermont with some friends, I had a near death experience.  After a long afternoon of paddling and having fun in the river, it was time to get out.  All seemed good at first, until I got to a section of the river about six feet from the shore that was very far over my head.  As I was tired and out of energy, I started sinking.  I didn’t think I was going to make it.  My short life flashed before my eyes in an instant.  Then, my friend came and rescued me, saving my life.  That was a scary moment for me.  Equally terrifying, though, are moments or instances that induce anxiety: Having to take a big test, interviews, meeting new people, and going to the doctor’s office.  These moments create stress and anxiety within me that are almost as terrifying as a near death experience.  Today featured one of those moments.

My co-teacher and I have been talking about ways we can create our own, free professional development opportunities in-house.  I stupidly suggested recording ourselves teaching as a way to provide each other with feedback on our teaching practices while also becoming aware of things we do unconsciously in the classroom.  Unfortunately, my co-teacher loved the idea.  As soon as she said, “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea,” my stomach began to growl.  Oh no, I thought, that means I really have to do it now.  While I actually am really excited about the prospect of reflecting on my teaching in this way, being observed by others makes me super uncomfortable.  I clam up, forget what I’m going to say, and usually mess up the lesson I had planned.  It’s horrible.  Being recorded, I felt, would make me feel the same way; however, I want to challenge myself to step outside my comfort zone, much like what my wife does on a daily basis.  I want to do something scary, but I still felt very nervous and anxious.

As we were going to be starting a new unit today in Humanities class, I felt like it would be a great opportunity to record myself teaching.  I was a wreck all morning, mentally preparing for this monet.  It was so nerve wracking.  I started the class by explaining to the students what I was doing and why I was doing it.  I wanted to be sure they understood why there was a video recorder in the room as well as understanding the importance of self-reflection.  Being a role model for my students is so important.  I’m hopeful that some of the good habits my co-teacher and I model for our students will rub off on them by the end of the academic year.  I then had my co-teacher set up the camera in the back of the classroom.  I was so scared.  As the camera started recording, I said aloud, “I’m so nervous.”  Yes, that is a great way to start this video, I thought.  Then I jumped into the lesson.  I was so anxious and nervous inside that I messed up several times.  I didn’t say what I had planned to say and my transitions were icky.  It felt awful.  Then came the break in between our double-block of Humanities.  My co-teacher approached me and said, “The camera just shut off when I touched it.  I don’t know what happened.  I checked it a few times and it seemed to be working.  I don’t know if it even recorded anything.”  I checked the camera, and sure enough it had only recorded the first two minutes of my lesson.  Oh know, I thought, all that hard work for nothing.  Then, I became very giddy.  “Great.  I felt really bad about that lesson anyway.  Now I have one more chance to redeem myself,” I said to my co-teacher.

So then came take two.  I set up the camera prior to starting the second part of my lesson and hoped for the best.  Things are going well, I thought.  I felt good about what I was saying and the pace at which I was setting.  I called on lots of students during the discussion, moved around the room well, and mixed up my instruction a bit.  It felt good.  Luckily, this video had successfully recorded on my camera.  While I haven’t viewed it yet, I feel good about how the lesson went.  It felt much better than the first part of the class.  I’m excited and quite nervous to watch myself teaching.  I want to be sure I am best helping, supporting, challenging, and guiding my students in the classroom.  Am I calling on one student more than another?  Am I talking too fast or too softly?  Am I talking too much?  Do I make sense?  These are all things I hope to learn from watching the video of my lesson.  I also want to try doing this again and again, so that hopefully I will become more comfortable with observations and being recorded.  I also want to show this video to my science department as a way to inspire other teachers to try recording themselves teaching.  It is a great way to reflect and grow as a teacher.  I’m hoping that by being the guinea pig, others will not feel quite so afraid to try it.

While this adventure of recording myself teaching started out as a scary moment, it seems to be transforming into something positive and wonderful.  Now, I say this without having watched it.  Perhaps I’ll realize what an awful teacher I am and take my singing ninja idea to the next level.  However, I am hopeful that much good will come from taking a risk and trying something terrifying.  At least this moment was scary in a safe way, unlike almost drowning.

Knowing When to Give Up

Perhaps my title is a little misleading.  I’m not at all implying that you should ever give up on your students.  Every student can be reached somehow at some time.  Our goal as educators is to find that time, connection, moment, etc to connect with our students and show them we care.  These little connections go a long way in the classroom.  When students feel connected, they want to do well and work hard.  Sometimes, however, as teachers, we need to know when to pass the baton onto another teacher or level.  Despite how connected we may be with students, not all students are able to work or perform at the same level.  No matter how much we want to see a student be successful where he or she is, that student may not be ready for the level we want them to be at.  They may need more practice, extra support, or something else entirely.  We need to know when we have pushed, challenged, and supported enough to know that the student needs something we are unable to provide them in the section they are in, at the level they are at, or in the group the have been placed.  It’s not giving up on the student, it’s about best supporting and helping that student where he or she is and not where we think or would like them to be.  Yes, it’s hard to admit that maybe our original thoughts on a student were wrong and that he or she needs to be working at a slower pace.  When we admit that, though, we are only helping the student grow.

Recently, in my STEM class, I have noticed that one of the students in my mid-level math section has been struggling to comprehend the skills covered at the fast pace the group moves.  As he has gaps in his past math learning, he is unable to process the more complicated content and skills I throw his way.  He can’t add, subtract, multiply, or divide positive and negative rational numbers when he never learned how to add fractions.  While I’ve been providing him with lots of extra, out of class help to review the basic concepts, it isn’t enough.  He’s feeling very overwhelmed, and today was the tipping point.  He did not demonstrate his ability to meet any of the objectives covered in the past lesson on operations with integers during today’s check-in assessment.  He felt lost and confused.  His body language showed me that he was feeling uncomfortable and in over his head.  Then, when I introduced today’s concept of operations with rational positive and negative numbers, he was unable to even begin the practice problems.  He was so overwhelmed with everything that he couldn’t process any new information.  He was even unable to ask questions for clarity as he had no idea what was going on.  I felt bad for him, but I didn’t want to give up.  I wanted to be able to see him be successful in this mid-level group.  I wanted to support and challenge him no matter what, but I also wanted him to feel successful, and he wasn’t.  So, as of tomorrow, he will be working in the supportive math section that has less students in it and covers the material at a much slower pace.  This is exactly what he will need; however, I hadn’t been ready to admit that to myself until today.  No teacher wants to feel like they’ve failed a student; and sometimes, when we place expectations upon students, we become too married to their success or inability to succeed.  Sometimes, we need to change our thinking and perspective.  We are teachers so that we can help students grow and succeed.  Therefore, everything we do needs to be about them.  It’s never about us.  Sometimes, a teaching method or level isn’t the most appropriate fit for a student, and that’s okay.  We need to admit that and make a change to help that student grow and feel successful.

I’m hopeful that this math level change will help this particular student be and feel more successful as he grows as a math student.  I’ll still be supporting and helping him throughout his journey; he’ll just be in a different group working at a more fitting pace for him.  He seemed to really understand this today when I broached the subject with him.  He knows that he has gaps in his math learning.  He never learned how to do long division or complete any sort of operations with fractions.  I explained the switch in a positive way that made it seem like the best option for him.  I want to see him feel success in math and so far he hasn’t had much of that.  This change will be really good for him.

Our Hidden Curriculum

When I was in elementary school, looking back on it now, rarely did I feel that my teachers were trying to teach more than just the lesson.  Everything was very compartmentalized.  Social skills were taught by the guidance counselor, social studies was taught in social studies class, and reading was taught in language arts class.  There was no blending or integration of topics or subjects at the schools I attended.  There was no hidden curriculum, hence I was frequently bullied and made fun of.  Teachers taught content and left it at that.  I wish now that my teachers had been more versed in teaching cross-curricularly.  I wish my teachers had better addressed the social issues happening in my classes.  I wish my teachers had cared enough about me and my classmates to genuinely help us all grow and develop as students and people.  If only I had found my mom’s magic lamp back then.

As a teacher, I make it a priority to get to know and care for my students.  I don’t look at myself as a teacher of content and standards.  I teach my students how to be kind, curious, caring, questioning, and creative people.  Knowing when a battle took place or what the stuff inside a cell is called is useless if you don’t know how to communicate with others, ask for help, or solve problems on you own.  I teach my students to be great people.

So, when I teach a unit or lesson, it’s not just about the skills or content, oh no.  It’s about everything else too.  Sure, I want my students to learn lots of valuable knowledge nuggets, but I also want them to learn how to be a good friend or teammate.  There is much hidden curriculum to every unit I teach in the sixth grade.  For example, in my current STEM unit on Astronomy, my students aren’t just learning about the solar system.  They are also learning how to coexist with their peers to solve problems, think creatively and critically about problems encountered, struggle and utilize a growth mindset, and produce professional-grade work.  Now, my students may not always see this hidden curriculum right away, but we do discuss it and are deliberate in how we ensure the students learn these ungraded life skills.  On Thursday in STEM class, as the students worked on the Astronomy Group Project, one group was very confused about the task they needed to complete.  They struggled to accomplish the assignment accurately until I provided them some guidance.  I didn’t give them the answer, I merely clarified the instructions.  I expected them to put the pieces of the puzzle together, mentally, as a group to then complete the task correctly; and sure enough, they did.  They incorporated my ideas into their discussion and were open to the idea that perhaps their original interpretation of the instructions was inaccurate.  They used a growth mindset to see the assignment instructions in a new light.  At the end of class that day, I mentioned this a-ha moment and named it as such: What began as a struggle for one group, led to task completion thanks to their Growth Mindset.

Following today’s amazing class debate, my co-teacher and I debriefed the entire American Presidential Election Process unit with the students.  We asked the students the following questions via a class discussion:

  • What did you learn throughout this unit?
  • What did you enjoy about this unit?
  • What do you wish you could have changed about this unit?

I was blown away by their responses to the first question: What did you learn?  They of course mentioned the big ideas that we had hoped they would extract from this unit, but they also mentioned some of the hidden curriculum in the unit.  They talked about learning how to collaborate and coexist in a group and how to effectively listen to their peers.  I was surprised that they had gleaned all of this from our unit on such a high level that they were able to verbalize it.  I was impressed.  I shared my excitement with the students as well.  “While these ideas weren’t the focus of our unit, they are probably even more important than learning about the electoral college and how the president is elected.  Teachers call this the hidden curriculum.  We don’t always tell you that we’re trying to teach you these life skills, but they are embedded into the instruction.  You guys figured it out.  Great work!”  This group of young men never ceases to amaze us.  They are so bright and talented.  We are very lucky educators.  However, my favorite part of our reflection discussion was hearing what the students enjoyed about the unit.  I certainly wasn’t expecting some of what the boys shared:

  • They enjoyed the Big Debate Project.
  • They liked learning about the presidential candidates.
  • They enjoyed learning about the way leaders are elected in other countries.
  • They liked how much of the unit was student-centered and not led by the teachers.
  • They enjoyed the group work aspects of the unit.
  • They liked learning how to speak in front of a group.
  • They enjoyed using coexistence and critical thinking skills to accomplish various tasks.
  • They liked learning about the issues important to people in our country.

I was amazed.  They really seemed to like this unit for more than just the final debate project.  They liked learning about content that is not usually covered in schools today.  It was so great that they noticed how student-focused we tried to make this unit.  I was floored that they were able to pick that out of everything.  Again, this goes back to the hidden curriculum.  My students are learning to think for themselves and answer their own questions without the help of a teacher.

Lessons and units in school need to do more than just convey knowledge to students; they need to teach students how to be effective students and good people.  One easy and sometimes tricky way to do this is by imbuing it into the curriculum covered in the classroom.  While the students are learning about the battle of Gettysburg, they are also learning how to work with a partner to create a map of the battlefield using various materials.  Integrating vital life skills with the content is crucial in helping to prepare our students for meaningful lives in a global society.