Purposefully Teaching Perseverance

Is teaching the same thing as purposeful teaching?  If I am teaching students, am I doing so purposefully?  Does every aspect of teaching have to be done with a purpose?  Does every piece of the teaching puzzle serve a purpose?  Do I need to have a purpose for everything I do in the classroom?  Does teaching focus on the day-to-day activities and structure of the classroom while purposeful teaching focuses on the skills and objectives assessed?  Is there a difference between the two?  Should there be?  Are great teachers also purposeful teachers?  Are the two titles interchangeable?

Wow, who knew I had so many questions about teaching versus purposeful teaching?  I do believe that great teachers are also purposeful in everything they do.  Effective teachers help their students see the purpose in everything they do in and out of the classroom.  Helping students find and see the relevance in what curriculum and content is covered is crucial to making the learning meaningful for the students.  If the students don’t see how a skill or nugget of information relates to them, they will tune it out almost instantly.  Being a great teacher, means being intentional and purposeful at all times.

While I do strive for excellence in the classroom as a teacher, I know that I struggle at times to be a purposeful teacher.  I do not always explain the purpose of everything we do in the classroom and I don’t always make a point to share the relevance of what we are doing with the students.  This is something I’m constantly working at.  I want my students to see why we are doing what we are doing in the classroom.

Today was one of those shining moments for me as a teacher in the classroom.  I actually made a point to explain the purpose of what we were doing in the classroom.  During Humanities class today, the students worked on recreating a self-chosen piece of Egyptian art.  They gathered their materials and started crafting their recreation of the piece while looking at the original on their computer screen.  For a few students, this was an easy task.  They got right to work, painting or sculpting their Egyptian art piece.  Two of those students finished working in class as they were so focused on the task at hand.  Those students are the go-getters.  They go and get an assignment done like it’s their duty.  Now, most of the students in my class are thinkers, tryers, and time takers.  They need lots of time to process an assignment and what it’s asking them to do.  They also like to try new things and take risks and this means they need more time.  And sometimes, those students are also perfectionists and have to make their work look exactly like they pictured it looking in their minds.  Those students need the most time.  They need time to work, try, fail, try again, and keep trying.  These same students usually struggle to complete their work because of the time it takes.  They sometimes get frustrated by this time commitment and have a tendency to give up when working.  To help those students learn and understand the importance of persevering and working through problems to find new solutions, I made sure to intentionally explain to the students why we are completing this art of Egypt activity at the close of class today.  “One of the reasons we are doing this activity is to help you learn how to persevere and work through your struggles.  What do you do when you mess up on a line or color?  Do you give up or do you persevere and try again?  Having a growth mindset and never giving up are crucial life skills.  We want you to have the opportunity to practice these skills of perseverance so that you can develop and grow into diligent, hard-working young men who laugh in the face of adversity.  By having to recreate a piece of art that is almost impossible to do so perfectly, you learn to make concessions and utilize your problem solving skills to accomplish the task.  We purposefully put these problems in front of you so that you would have a chance to practice using the strategies we’ve worked on all year in the classroom.”  The students seemed to understand what I told them as they applied these same strategies and skills to assignments they had to complete in STEM class later in the morning.

I wonder, if I had not specifically explained the purpose of the assignment to the students, would they understand why we are completing this art of Egypt activity?  Would it make sense to them?  Would they practice using the skills and strategies the same way?  It’s hard to tell, of course, but I do feel as though making the purpose of an activity or assignment known to the students helps them see its relevance.  They also see how the skills used to complete an activity are connected to other activities.  Helping students make mental connections, helps them build stronger neurological connections, thus, making the learning more meaningful and authentic.  Although everything in life serves some purpose, our students don’t always see that purpose.  Therefore, it is our responsibility to help students see the whys and hows of what we are doing in the classroom.  Understanding purpose is the key to unlocking learning for our students.  Let’s help all of our students unlock this learning for themselves.

Fostering Compassion in the Classroom

Several years ago, my son and I tried to build a makeshift bridge at the house we owned in Vermont.  Wa wanted to connect two sets of stairs together so that you didn’t have to walk down into a muddy area just to go back up another set of stairs.  It seemed like an easy enough idea.  I bought some posts, 2X8s, and screws.  In my head, it was a simple task.  I dug holes for the posts and put them into the ground.  Then, I screwed the flat pieces together and onto the supportive posts.  While it was a bit uneven, it seemed to work, at first.  After a rainstorm and some cold weather, the bridge became very uneven and started to fall apart.  Because I didn’t properly install and engineer the bridge to hold lots of weight and sustain storm damage, it ended up being a futile exercise.  A few years later, I had to take it apart as it was not usable.  If only I had created a strong foundation for the bridge, it might still be standing.  Creating a secure base when building a structure of any type is crucial to its success and livelihood.

Much like building an effective bridge, working to build a compassionate classroom takes the same effort.  As a teacher, I need to foster a sense of care and kindness in the classroom from day one.  I need to create rules and expectations for the students that allow them to be and feel successful and safe.  I also need to be a role model for my students in and out of the classroom.  I need to show them how to interact with their peers and deal with frustrations, setbacks, mistakes, and failure.  I need to address issues and conflicts when they arise in the classroom so that the students understand the expectations and see how their actions have consequences.  Doing all of this and so much more allows me to foster a sense of compassion within the classroom.  I need to build a foundation of support and positivity in the classroom before I can expect a strong sense of kindness and care to evolve.  It takes time and effort.

Over the weekend, a student in my class was in a terrible skiing accident and had to be airlifted to the hospital.  Fortunately, he is going to be alright and make a full recovery.  However, he is still in the hospital today and may not be discharged until tomorrow so that they can monitor his health for internal organ damage.  Since we are unable to visit him in the hospital as a class, I thought it would be nice to show this student how much we care about him and wish him a speedy recovery.  So, I had the boys create Get Well cards for the hospitalized student.  As I have done activities like this in the past when a student was sick for a long period of time, I expected the students to quickly craft a card with a picture or two and some words.  I didn’t expect it to be a lengthy activity.  However, because my co-teacher and I have been working so hard to foster a sense of compassion within the students, they all took their time to create thoughtful, meaningful, and beautiful cards that showed care, kindness, sympathy, and compassion.  They worked hard to create colorful and realistic images that they thought this injured student would appreciate and enjoy.  They wanted to help inspire this student to heal quickly so that he could make a speedy return to our sixth grade family.  I was impressed.  The cards the boys created in class today, were some of the neatest, most colorful, and artistic handmade cards I have seen from students in all of my years of teaching.  Because we have helped the students learn how to be empathetic and compassionate, they took their time to show this one student how they feel.  It was amazing.  I am so proud of the effort and care they put into crafting their cards today.  They clearly feel connected to this student as if he is a member of their family.  Creating a strong classroom community enables compassion to be fostered amongst the students, but it all has to start on day one of the new academic year.  A foundation of kindness is crucial to helping students learn to take care of each other like a family.  Unlike my unstable bridge, my students have grown to become a strong family in and out of the sixth grade classroom.

Processing Through Preparation

I tend to be much more of a kinesthetic learner.  I need to try something in order to learn it.  I can’t learn a new math skill by watching someone else do one on the board.  I need to actually do the problem myself in order to practice and master that new skill.  That’s just how my brain works.  Luckily, I know that about myself as a learner.  Unfortunately, some students and adults don’t always know or realize how they learn best.  I feel bad for those people as I feel empowered knowing how I learn best.  I know that I need to physically do something to learn a new skill.  As a teacher, I try to help my students realize how they learn best so that they can be and feel empowered as they mature and develop as students and learners.

Today provided me the opportunity to help my students see how important preparation is to learning something new.  Having time to process information or a new skill is crucial to all learning styles.  As many of my students do not seem to understand this concept, I wanted to try and help them realize it on their own.  So, to prepare for today’s current event discussion, I provided the students with the article that served as the basis for our discussion in class today.  For homework last night, they needed to read and annotate the article.  At the start of class today, I allowed the students to ask any clarifying questions they had about the facts of the current event.  I was surprised that there were not more questions.  The students seemed to understand the topic and concepts addressed in the article.  Usually, my students ask many questions about the current events we are discussing, but today they had none.  I wonder if this was because the students had a chance to process the information and annotate it last evening for homework.  Perhaps this extra time allowed them to fully comprehend the messages contained within the news article. I then broke the students up into two groups so that they could discuss this article using the guiding question as the foundation on which to build the conversation.  I was so impressed with the group I observed.  They were adding their insight to the discussion in appropriate ways, using examples from the article, and building upon each other’s contributions to the discussion.  It was awesome.  They were also truly compassionate and kind throughout the conversation.  They made sure everyone had a chance to add their thoughts to the discussion at least twice.  They executed an effective and purposeful plan to be sure that everyone’s voice was heard in a timely manner.  I was overly impressed with how they handled themselves as well as the level of discussion.  They analyzed the details of the article, showcasing their ability to draw conclusions regarding a written text.  They were discussing the guiding question using great critical thinking.  Amazing.  This was by far, the best current events discussion we’ve had all year.

Following the discussion I asked the students for feedback on this new method of preparing for a current events discussion.  Did they like or dislike having the article the day before the discussion?  Did this help them feel or be more prepared for the discussion?  The feedback they shared was overwhelmingly positive.  Every student who shared his insight felt that having the time to prepare for the discussion, understand the content, process the concepts covered, and take notes on the topic was beneficial and helpful to them.  They all felt that having the chance to prepare for the discussion helped them feel and be more successful today in class.  They loved it.

While I don’t like to brag, it does feel good being right.  I knew that my students needed time to prepare for the discussions we’ve been having in class, but they clearly didn’t realize this fact on their own.  Allowing them to see how much more productive and prepared they can be when they have the opportunity to process new information, helped them to see the value in preparation.  Well, at least I hope it did.  Many of the students seemed in much better spirits than normal following today’s discussion.  Perhaps that was because they felt prepared and successful.  While we won’t always structure our current events discussion in this manner because we want the students to drive the discussion based on news topics they find engaging and interesting, we will revisit this method of preparing for a discussion later in the academic year.  We want the boys to see how important preparation is to learning something new.  It is key.  Even though some people and students learn differently and at different paces, everyone needs time to process and think about new information and how it fits into their perspective or mindset.  What does it mean to me?  We must ponder this question when learning something new and having the allotted time to do so makes the learning more genuine and meaningful.  Preparation leads to processing and processing leads to learning.  Therefore, preparation leads to learning.

What do I Believe?

I don’t fancy myself a religious person, but I do have faith.  I have faith in my family, science, and humanity.  I believe that everything will work out just the way it is supposed to.  While I do sometimes question why things happen the way they do, I know that it is all part of the process of life.  Life is like one giant puzzle and every experience makes up one piece of that puzzle.  Sure, some pieces are not fun to add to the puzzle and can cause much discomfort and sadness.  Have you ever tried to put a puzzle together that contained pieces that were mostly one color?  It’s beyond frustrating.  But then there are also the exciting pieces that are full of fun and enjoyment.  Now we all know that I’m talking about the border pieces.  Those are super easy to locate and add to a puzzle.  In the end though, we need both the good and bad pieces to make the puzzle complete.  I have faith in this process.  I also have faith in karma.  What goes around definitely comes back around to either give you a big hug or a slap in the face.  How we live our lives dictates what comes next.  I believe in this idea because it helps remind me of the power my choices hold.  If I make a poor choice, it will impact my life later on.  Now, that later on could be in five minutes or five years, but it will happen.  Just like science tells us, every action has an opposite and equal reaction.  If I walk by a piece of trash and not pick it up, a dog might come by later on and eat that trash.  Then, later that evening, that dog could get very sick.  Do I want that kind of consequence to come about all because I was feeling lazy and uncaring?  No, I want to show compassion and kindness to all living creatures.  So, I pick up the trash, believing that it will help to make the world  better place.  Karma works and so I have faith in it.  I also believe in a similar concept of fate.  I believe that everything in life happens for a reason.  Back in 1997, I didn’t leave that concert at Keene State College because I was bored, I left that concert because I was supposed to go back to my room and meet my future wife.  Had I not left that concert, who knows what my life might look like right now.  It was fate that I went back to my room and logged onto the school intranet.  So, while I don’t play for any one religious team, I have faith in life and all that it offers.

And this afternoon proved to me, yet again, that I might actually believe in something that is true and real.  Fate and karma aren’t just some hocus pocus ideas.  Oh no.  Fate and karma bring people together and cause them to fall apart.  Karma can cause wars while fate paints the portrait of that war and its outcome.  Fate is much more retrospective, whereas karma affects the here and now.  However, sometimes, fate can rear its beautiful head in the moment to remind us of its great power.  In those moments, we able to see how karma has affected us and changed the path of our lives.  Those moments are pretty sweet.  They can be transformational or like watching your life flash before your eyes.  Either way, when we are able to see the true power of life and all that it is, it’s hard not to have faith in the beauty that it possesses.

My plan this afternoon, after my team’s basketball practice, was to quickly swing by my classroom, enter some academic updates into our school’s database system, and then head home to see my son who came home from boarding school today for a long weekend.  I was so excited to see him.  That was my plan.  That was what I thought the end of my afternoon was going to consist of.  Of course, I had ignored the plan fate already had in store for me.  I didn’t want to think that anything would prevent me from getting home to see my wife and son.

Sweating from a gruelling workout my school’s strength and conditioning coach put my team through, I slowly sauntered back to the locker room to change and be sure my players got ready without incident.  Everything was going as planned.  I then made my way back to my classroom, stopping for my usual afternoon coffee in the dining commons.  Nothing seemed to be getting in the way of my plan, yet.  As I neared the stairs by my classroom, a student who had left his laptop in the classroom followed me upstairs to retrieve his computer.  He grabbed his computer and then started chatting me up.  Wanting to engage him and form a meaningful relationship with him, I listened to his stories and questions, and responded positively.  After a few minutes, he left the classroom to prepare for his dinner out with his advisor.  So, I started working so that I could get home to see my son.  As I proofread an email I had drafted, that student who had just left the classroom came back in as he heard me talking.  He thought I was talking to someone.  I of course then had to explain how when I proofread my writing, I talk out loud to myself to catch any mistakes.  At this point, he then went to sit down and continued talking to me.  While I tried to do work in between his questions, I realized that he clearly wanted my attention.  So, I asked him about his homework.  He only has one assignment due tomorrow and so I wanted to be sure he had a plan to complete it as he was going out to dinner and would, therefore, miss a good chunk of study hall time.  At that point, he said, “I don’t really get the homework.  What do we have to do?”  Red lights began flashing in my mind.  Oh no, this is one of those turning points.  It’s like I’ve come to a fork in the road.  Which path do I choose?  Do I quickly fill him in on what to do and then leave to get home to my family or do I take the time to work with him to be sure he fully understands the assignment?  While I haven’t seen my son in almost two weeks, I realized that he would be home for a few days and that I would be able to see him later this evening.  So, I stopped doing my work and cracked some joke about offering to help him.  “Well, I bet if Mr. Holt were here right now, he would probably offer to walk you through the homework and help you with the first few paragraphs.  If only I knew where he was.  Have you seen Mr. Holt?”  He found this quite humorous.  He then grabbed the current event article that he had to read and annotate for homework and sat down next to me.  I then spent the next thirty minutes helping him understand what he needed to do.  We worked through the first few paragraphs together before I let him fly solo on the last two pages.  I wanted to be sure he could meet the objective on his own, without help and support.  Sure enough, he was able to effectively annotate the text after I modeled the process for him.  Once he finished his homework and I signed his planbook, he packed up his stuff and got ready for his advisory dinner.  At that point, I quickly finished the work I needed to do in my classroom and made a mad dash for home.  While I still had a good chunk of work to do once I got home, I wanted to be able to see my son.  Unfortunately, when I arrived home, he had already left to visit a friend.  Well, at least I’ll be able to see him when we pick him up tonight, I thought.

As I sit here, pondering what might have been if I hadn’t gone back to my classroom this afternoon or if I had not helped that student complete his homework, I can’t help but wonder how fate intervened in my life today.  When did my life veer onto an alternate track?  Was it when I stopped to get coffee?  Probably not as I do typically do that regardless of what I have on my agenda.  Was it the path I took back to my classroom?  No, that couldn’t possibly be it as I walked the same way back to my classroom as I usually do.  Oh, I got it.  I now know when it happened.  It’s like that movie Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow.  I can see the moment when my life changed.  It wasn’t the coffee, but it was what I did with the coffee that lead to my transformation.  I stopped by the Faculty Room on the way back to my classroom to add some water to my coffee to cool it down.  As I did so, two of my sixth graders shouted at me from outside.  As I was waving at them, I realized that I needed to talk to one of the students about something that had happened at basketball practice.  So, I gestured him to meet me at the door.  We talked and then he asked me if I had seen his backpack in the classroom.  I told him he was welcome to come on up to the classroom as I was heading that way.  He followed me up to grab his bag.  That was it.  Those extra two minutes that it took for me to have that conversation made all the difference.  Because of that timing, I happened to be walking up to my classroom just as that other student was walking by.  This then lead to him remembering that he had left his computer in the classroom.  Had I not talked to that student I had seen through the windows of the Faculty Room, I might not have walked past the other student and he may never have told me about his homework issue.  This then would have lead to problems tomorrow when his homework was either incomplete or done incorrectly.  So that’s it.  That was my Sliding Doors moment, except it was a window for me.  Wow, fate is crazy like that.

Teaching History Through Art

In college, one of my favorite courses was Art History.  While the professor did help to make the class super engaging with his “Nude or Naked” rants, I found the content incredibly interesting.  I loved learning about the history of the world through its art.  I find it so fascinating how the female form that is most socially acceptable and considered most beautiful has changed so much throughout time.  To think that the stone carved statue of the Venus of Willendorf was once thought to be the epitome of beauty.  The larger a women was, the more beautiful she was considered.  Back in those times, the ability for a woman to bear children was of the utmost importance.  Therefore, the larger a woman was, the more likely she was to be fertile and able to bear her mate children.  Then, as time progressed, the petite female form was considered most beautiful.  This ideal continued to change throughout time.  Even today, the image of beauty is evolving. And through it all, it was art that conveyed this message to the world.  Art is so much more than just pretty colors and abstract images.  Works of art tell stories that would fill numerous pages in a book.  They convey the history of a place, traditions of a culture, and the social norms of the time.  Pieces of art are so much more than just beautiful things to look at.  They reveal secrets of bygone times and tell viewers what life was like when the pieces were created.

As a teacher, I want my students to see the power that art holds.  I want them to realize that history isn’t just printed on screens and in books, it’s told through magnificent paintings, sculpted stone, ornate buildings, and so many other types of art.  History isn’t just about the facts.  The history of a place is about the people who lived it.  What was life like back then?  What religion did the people follow?  What traditions and ideas were important to the culture of people who lived this history?  Studying the art of a place and group of people can teach us so much more that what is written in the history books.  While being aware of the facts of a historical time period is important when learning about a new place or group of people, utilizing alternative primary sources, including the art and music of a place, to tell the lesser known side of history is equally important to completely understanding the whole picture of a time period, place, or culture.  The art of a place often tells us the stories of the everyday people from that location, which is generally omitted from textbooks.  Understanding how people lived back then will allow us to better visualize the time period and gain a new perspective.  Learning the entire portrait of the history of a place is much like assembling a puzzle.  You need numerous pieces to finish a puzzle much like you need to use many different sources to completely learn and understand a place or historical time period.

Today in Humanities class, I helped my students understand the importance of learning about a place by studying its art.  After introducing the students to our next African country of study, Egypt, I shared various pictures of art pieces from Egypt with the students.  I asked the students to share their observations and noticings with the class.  What do you notice about this art piece?  What does this art piece teach us about Egypt?  While I focused on the art of ancient Egypt, I did share two contemporary Egyptian paintings with the students as well.  I wanted them to see how the art of a place changes over time.  The students made some keen observations of the various pieces we examined.  They saw how important religion was to the ancient Egyptians in the many pieces we viewed.  They also noticed how “perfect” these pieces appeared even after thousands of years.  While I did share some information with the students on the purpose art served the ancient people of Egypt, the students extracted much information and knowledge from the art pieces on their own.  They drew conclusions and made inferences based on what the pieces showed as well as the limited knowledge I shared with them.  They were thinking critically about the people and place of Egypt instead of just learning the facts of the time period.  I was impressed.  Many of the students seemed engaged throughout our discussion and had much insight to offer the class.

Teaching students the history of a place through its art engages students on a completely different level than simply feeding them facts and knowledge about the ancient Egyptians.  In order to glean information from art pieces, students need to think critically, infer, and draw conclusions.  Higher level thinking is required for students to learn from the art of a place, and thus, students better engage with the content and material to make the learning more genuine and real.  Building stronger neurological connections happen when different parts of the brain are activated.  The students need to use their sense of sight to see the art, their auditory senses to intake the knowledge shared orally by their teacher, and then their problem-solving parts to put the puzzle pieces together.  As they see the beautiful artwork, it is imprinted in their working memory, until they learn what it means.  As the students start to understand the piece of art and what it tells them, they become more interested in it and see its relevance to them.  This allows the knowledge and picture to move into their short-term memory.  This process of learning history by studying the art of a place is so much more meaningful to students than lengthy lectures filled with information and facts.  A famous quote states, “A picture tells a thousand words.”  Thus, using pictures and images, enhances learning for students.

Should We Explore Mature Themes in the Classroom?

I remember, vividly, as if it were yesterday, when my parents received the letter home from my elementary school explaining how we would be learning about sex and puberty in our fifth grade health class.  I was mortified because then my parents started talking to me about it.  The last person one wants to talk to about sex is their parents.  It’s super awkward.  Then came the actual sex education class.  The boys were separated from the girls and put into different rooms.  The girls apparently talked about girl stuff and the boys learned all about boy stuff.  So, the boys watched this very old and incredibly boring filmstrip; yes, I said filmstrip.  I’m old, well not really.  I’m older than some people on Earth, but as my grandmother liked to remind me, age is just a number; it’s all about attitude.  So, I feel like a 23 year old.  Before I digress too far from my actual point, I should get back on track.  So, we watched this awful filmstrip that showed cartoonish diagrams of male genitalia.  While it was very awkward to watch this and talk about our changing bodies, it was also quite hilarious.  My friends and I couldn’t stop laughing and giggling.  For some reason, boys find talking about male genitalia the funniest thing since the invention of toilets.  Although we talked about a somewhat mature theme in school, it was much more of a laughing matter than something to take seriously.  Not until high school, did my teachers have us explore more mature themes in a serious manner as they knew we would not be able to handle talking about more “adult” issues in the earlier grades.

But, was that right?  I wonder if some mature themes should be discussed in the younger grades so as to expose our students to life in a global society.  Life is filled with both good and bad experiences.  Fortunately, not all people have experienced everything life has to offer and so learning about unfamiliar yet important life occurrences is crucial.  People need to learn more than one story or side of a topic in order to completely understand it in an open-minded manner.  Allowing students to explore mature topics in the middle grades is important if we want our students to have a broad perspective when they enter high school.  Being exposed to topics and ideas regarding all facets of life including the good and bad parts, helps students be open to new information and ideas and not encounter new topics with a fixed mindset filled with biases.

Today in Humanities class, we discussed the country of South Sudan and an issue plaguing that region of the entire continent of Africa: Children being taken or kidnapped and forced into being child soldiers.  I want the students to understand that not all topics we’ll be discussing in our unit on Africa impact only the adults.  Some issues affecting Africa impact people their age or younger.  My hope was to broaden their perspective on the world.  I was also very careful to mention that this is an issue for not just Africa, but all parts of the world.  Children are taken from their families and homes and forced to do things against their will.  While at first, a few of the students struggled to take this discussion and lesson seriously, after reminding them of the fact that this is a mature issue and we need to treat it as such, they were much more focused and mature about it.  After introducing the concept of what it means to be a child soldier and how it is allowed to happen in some parts of South Sudan, we viewed a short news clip about a boy who had been taken from his village and forced to be a soldier.  This video showed, first-hand, what these children have to endure.  It is difficult to watch as it conjures up all sorts of emotions.  Viewers are filled with disgust, anger, sadness, and shock.  Following this video, we debriefed the concept on a more tangible level as the students now had images to put to the facts I had provided them with.  This discussion then lead into a writing activity in which the students needed to imagine that they are a child forced into being a soldier.  What would that experience be and feel like?  While this is a difficult task as it requires students to be empathetic and address serious and real emotions, it is also a great way for the students to apply the skills we’ve been working on all year in Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop.  Although the students definitely had strong emotions about this issue and topic, they seemed to understand the gravity of it as well.  My hope is that it will enable them to more easily learn other issues and topics impacting our world that may not be so easy to comprehend or understand.  A subgoal for this lesson is that learning about this difficult topic will empower my students to want to make a difference to change the world.  Seeing this adversity and indifference, I hope, will inspire them to want to do something about it as they see how awful it is for all people involved.  Helping the boys learn to be empathetic and compassionate at a young age will hopefully allow them to develop into thoughtful and active members of our global community.  We need more changemakers in this world.  Helping my students see the awfulness that exists everywhere, will hopefully motivate them to stand up for their beliefs and make the world a better place for all citizens.

So, while it is challenging to discuss mature themes and issues with students, it’s vital to their social-emotional growth and development.  We want to help our students grow into compassionate and empathetic adults.  Getting students to understand how to discuss and talk about mature and “adult” themes and topics is only better preparing them for the real world.  We can’t shade our students from the brightness of real life forever.  Life is full of both beauty and horror.  Preventing our students from learning the whole story about a topic, issue, or idea will only help them further develop biases and be unprepared for the global society in which they will be living as adults.

The Power of Reviewing Math Vocabulary Terms

While my love of math is a relatively new passion, I have finally come to see the vast power that math holds.  Without math, we cannot describe scientific happenings precisely.  Without math, an asteroid is just near, around, or close to Earth.  How do we know how close or far away it is?  Should we pack our things and board a space shuttle or keep on keepin’ on?  Math specifically and precisely describes our world and how it works.  Without math, we could not further investigate the mysteries of our world.  I wish I had discovered math’s amazing power when I was in school because maybe then I would have better understood chemistry concepts and physics.  I might have even been more interested in how the world works if I had learned to love math when I was in high school.  Perhaps, I would be a physicist right now had I understood math’s awesome power back when I was in school.  The what ifs are infinite, much like math’s power.

As a teacher, I have taken on the responsibility of helping my students learn to love math because of its awesome power.  I want my students to see that while math can be challenging, it can also be a lot of fun and help us to make sense of things that once seemed confusing.  Understanding math can make playing video games like Angry Birds a lot easier.  If you know how to calculate parabolas, then predicting the best trajectory from which to launch your bird to destroy the most pigs could be much easier.  In order to get students to this point, they need to not only understand formulas and numbers, they also need to know concepts and vocabulary terms.  If students don’t know what decrease means, then they will not be able to appropriately solve a word problem involving that term.  Having a strong number sense is futile if students don’t have an equally strong word sense.

Today in STEM class, the students participated in an activity that reviewed a bunch of basic computational vocabulary terms.  Each student, using a 100s chart, listened carefully to a series of oral computations with which I provided them.  They needed to determine the outcome for each series of steps.  Below is an example of one of the series of steps I had them work through.

  1. Begin at the number that represents how many sides are on a square
  2. Plus the value of a dime
  3. Take away 2
  4. Add 21
  5. Plus 11
  6. Combine with 12 more
  7. Decrease by 3
  8. Subtract a dozen
  9. Take away 20
  10. Plus 3
  11. Minus 10
  12. Increase by 2

The goal was for them to know the exact answer by following the steps I read aloud.  I was sure to provide them ample processing time in between each step.  While I wanted the students to practice their basic mental math facts, this activity also provided the students a chance to review pertinent vocabulary terms that they will see in word problems in their future math courses.  For our ESL students, this activity allowed me a chance to define unknown words for them.  Surprisingly, many of my ESL students did not know how much a dozen is or what the value of a dime is.  Quick activities like this allow for opportunities to support all of the learners in my classroom.  Knowing the vocabulary terms used in math classes and the math portion of our STEM class is vital to fully understanding the concepts and skills involved.  The students seemed to really enjoy this activity without realizing how much learning and reviewing was actually taking place.  I love when that happens.  The hidden curriculum used in the classroom so important in helping support and challenge the students.

My hope is to continue using activities like this throughout the remainder of the academic year so that the students are learning all aspects of the math concepts covered.  The power of math is great, but can only be harnessed by those who fully understand its power.  Understanding anything requires knowing almost everything about it.  Since the vocabulary of math is so integral to comprehending various skills, there is much power that comes with completing activities like the one I had my students participate in today.

Teaching Students to Think Creatively

Creativity has always been one of my strong suits.  When I was in elementary school it came out in the form of elaborate lies to my friends.  I would make up these big, grand untruths to try to fool my peers or earn their friendship.  I once told a bunch of kids that my uncle worked for a marble manufacturing plant and often gave me free marbles.  I promised to give them all marbles if they came to my birthday party.  I was very desperate for friends back then.  Then, in middle school and high school, I took to writing and began crafting these epic stories and poems.  I created strange worlds and unique images to convey my emotions and thoughts.  As an adult, I’m really good at fabricating stories, explaining happenings with bizarre tales.  My mind is always trying to figure out the whys and hows of life, and in the process, I generate these interesting and strange ideas.  This creative thinking comes in handy when I’m trying to devise new units or lesson plans.  I am great at thinking of cool new ways to integrate the curriculum and make learning fun and hands-on for my students.

The one area I struggle with, at times though, is teaching students how to be creative and think outside of the triangle.  How do I inspire my students to generate unique solutions to problems?  How can I best help students grow and develop their creative minds?  Sure, I utilize project-based learning in the classroom, which allows for much creativity and problem solving.  For the most part though, the solutions are generally easy to create because I provide them with a bit of a skeleton.  What if I just said, build a space vehicle.  Then what might happen?  Would my students be able to create their own solutions and ideas that are different and unique from other ideas or would they simply look for ideas online and base their creations off of something that already exists?  While innovation is definitely an aspect of creativity, I would love to see my students start from nothing and generate a whole new idea.  How do I foster this sense of creativity in the classroom?

Today during Humanities class, the students presented their pitch presentations, based upon their solutions to problems facing villagers and the people of Malawi, to me and the students.  I was expecting some brilliant and unique solutions to simple problems after the feedback and explanation I provided them with in class on Thursday and Friday.  However, I was a bit disappointed in the final solutions they had managed to create.  Most of the ideas were copycats from the Internet or based completely on ideas that already exist.  Three groups wanted to build a water wheel that would collect water from a lake and send it to another location using pipes or a bucket and pulley system.  While this is a simple and easy solution to the problem, it is not unique.  Out of the seven ideas, there was only one idea that was mostly unique.  One group suggested grading the roads so that when it rained, the water would flow onto one side of the road where it would then be carried via ditches or gullies to a collection container.  That container would then be used to water crops or be filtered and used as drinking water.  Cool idea.  It seemed somewhat unique.  But, even this idea was based on things that have already been invented.  So, how do I inspire my students to generate new and inventive solutions?  How can I inspire my students to create something different?  There are, of course, lots of activities for teaching creative problem solving.  I’ve used many of them before.  And, they help.

But, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s my student or me that needs to change.  Am I using a fixed mindset when analyzing their solutions and creative problem solving skills?  They are finding different and innovative ways to solve problems.  Perhaps I’m expecting the next big technology idea to come from my students.  Am I holding the bar too high?  Are they actually already thinking creatively to solve problems and I’m just not seeing it because I’m looking for that one diamond in the rough that comes around once or twice in a lifetime?  Maybe, I need to change my thinking and perspective.  Maybe I need to see that my students are thinking outside of the box and generating unique solutions to problems in class.  One group’s idea for addressing the water shortage problem in Malawi was to create gutters using only materials available to the villagers such as large leaves, wood, clay, or anything else.  The water would then be carried to a bucket with a built in filtration system.  The villagers could then utilize this collected rainwater for drinking.  Sure, this idea isn’t entirely new, but they didn’t know that when they created it.  They didn’ search online for solutions and copy anything.  They created this idea all on their own.  Wow!  When I think about it this way, I’m amazed that my students were able to create such unique and innovative ideas.  Impressive.  So, my students really are able to think creatively to solve problems and generate new ideas.

So then, my next question is, how is that possible?  How are they able to do this?  Is it something I did?  Are my students able to solve problems in unique ways because of all the problem-based learning we’ve done all year?  Has that made a difference?  Is it because we constantly talk about the need to think critically about the world and use a growth mindset to generate new and unique solutions to problems?  Did that help?  Or is this group of students just better able to think creatively?  I could hypothesize until the cows fly over the moon and still never know for sure, but what I do know is that sometimes it’s important to take a step back and think about the way one views the world.  Maybe the world doesn’t need changing.  Maybe it’s just us that needs to change how we perceive the world.

Progress Takes Times

Thinking back to when my son was six or seven years old, he struggled to make good choices.  He needed to be reminded to clean up his toys several times before he would actually do so.  Back then, I thought he would never learn to take care of his stuff.  Fortunately, children grow up and mature.  While his room is sometimes still a mess, he does generally pick up after himself, and sometimes without even being asked to do so.  People do and will grow and change.  Progress just takes time.  Sometimes change comes about quickly, like the weather, and sometimes change comes slowly, like my son learning to take care of his hair.  For the longest time, my wife and I would have to brush it for him or it would be a tightly tangled mess.  Now, he carries a brush around with him like a security blanket.  It only took eight years for him to figure this out.  For some people, change takes even longer than a mere eight years.  Some people do not change until they are well into their forties or fifties.  The caveat here is that change will only occur if the person wants it to happen.  If I don’t really want to exercise, but I try it a few times, I won’t ever stick with the routine and no real change will take place.  I need to want to exercise in order to be healthier.  Then, and only then, will change take place.

In the classroom, I see all types of change and attempted change on a yearly basis.  Some students make changes to their study habits after the first marking period when they earn grades that they feel don’t display their true abilities.  They start working harder in class and spending more time outside of class to complete work.  Other students may try to change after the first marking period, but struggle to do so consistently.  They may have a few days of strong effort during which they turn in quality work that showcases their ability to meet or exceed the graded objectives.  Then, they revert back to their old habits of turning in work late or just completing the bare minimum to get by.  Some people struggle to keep the fire within burning brightly day after day.  It’s hard work to stay focused and complete great work each and every day.  However, some people are motivated to do this and will make it happen.

As a teacher, I see most of my students, on average, make progress after the first full term of classes.  They need to practice good habits and learn effective strategies to be successful before they can apply them, and this takes time.  Prior to the winter break, many students are beginning to change and grow as students, thinkers, readers, writers, people, and learners.  The big changes, though, aren’t usually evident until right around this time of the academic year.  This is when, as a whole, the class starts to gel and come together like a perfect puzzle.  They went through the storming phase of group dynamics for about four months until they entered the norming phase.  Now, the boys are understanding each other on a much higher level.  They can anticipate behaviors and predict outcomes.  They know each other’s likes and dislikes.  They are forming strong bonds and friendships.  They are transforming into a real family.  Again, progress and change take time.  The boys needed to realize that they wanted to come together as a group to do great things and earn positive rewards as a class before change could happen.

Today was a prime example of this change taking place in the classroom.  For the past several months, the students have struggled to effectively participate in our weekly farm fun days.  Many of the students were easily distracted and unfocused during our farm days. Some of the students failed to record their findings and noticings in their farm journal on a weekly basis.  I needed to speak to several of the boys about their behavior almost every week.  While last week was a bit better, I did still have to talk to three students about their misuse of language.  Prior to today, our farm visits resembled a beautifully clean carpet in a house filled with children and animals.  While in the morning, the carpet looked spotless, after a few hours of the animals traipsing around on it with their dirty paws and the children spilling food drink upon it, it looked like a messy surrealist painting.  The same thing was true about our farm days.  The boys would begin our farm time being very focused, and then after about 30 minutes, many of them were running amok, despite clear expectations.  Then, today happened, and after our two hours of farm fun, our student carpet remained intact and still resembled a carpet.  The boys listened to our farm instructor, followed directions very well, wrote in their farm journals, and showed compassion to their peers.  It was an excellent day and by far the best farm day we’ve had all year.  The boys made the change because they wanted to.  I think they were sick of hearing me remind them of the same things week after week.  They wanted to show me that they could meet all of the lofty goals I set for them.  They wanted to make the changes needed to be successful and so they did.  Although it took them about 15 weeks to change, they finally did.  Progress takes time.  Earth didn’t always look like it does now.  It used to be a massive fireball covered in volcanoes spewing lava into the air.  Now, Earth is a magnificent place filled with beautiful oceans and spectacular mountains.  Change takes time, but will happen eventually.  As my mother used to remind me on an almost daily basis when I was younger, patience is a virtue.  So, as a teacher, I try very hard to be patient and remind myself that my students will change, eventually.  They will all figure things out for themselves.  Man, I hate admitting that my mom was right back then.  Mothers are good like that.

Teaching Skills Through the Content

When I taught second grade many moons ago in a small yet wonderful school in Sanford, ME, I had the students participate in a bit of a social activity based upon an experiment completed several years ago on discrimination based upon physical traits.  When the students entered the classroom that morning, I gave them all a sticker to place upon their shirt.  Half of the students had a blue dot on their sticker while the other half had a red dot on their sticker.  For the first portion of the academic day, I favored the students wearing stickers with a red dot on them and ignored the students wearing stickers with the blue dot on them.  I called on the red dot students, allowed them to sit in the front of the classroom, and allowed them to get drinks from the water fountain every thirty minutes.  During this time, I ignored the blue dot students.  I could see that some of the students were getting frustrated and angry.  Then, after lunch, I switched and began favoring the blue dot students and ignored the red dot students.  By the end of the day, several students were so upset that they were in tears.  Mission accomplished, I thought.  At the close of the day, I debriefed the activity and explained what I was doing and why we did it.  I wanted the students to see how people who are discriminated against based on physical characteristics feel.  The students seemed to fully understand the goal of this activity and were outraged when I shared information on the civil rights movement in our country.  They couldn’t understand why someone would want to make another person feel the way some of them had felt today.  So, while I was only trying to teach the students about why we recognize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement in our country, the students learned so much more than just that.  The hidden curriculum taught in classrooms is often more important than the actual academic curriculum we try to cover by the end of each year.  Skills outweigh information and facts tenfold.

Today in my Humanities class, I covered our first of several mini-lessons on regions and countries within Africa.  Today, I focused on Malawi.  I had the students locate the country on a map and discuss characteristics of the country based on its physical features.  However, this was only part of the lesson.  The second portion of the lesson focused on the people and adversity facing them.  I talked to the students about William Kamkwamba, the boys who wrote the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.  I then had them watch the short TED Talk he gave back in 2009.  We discussed the message and theme of the video before I had them think about the problem William was trying to solve.   This then lead into an activity in which the students had to brainstorm a problem facing the small villages of Malawi, devise a solution to the problem making use of only materials readily available to the villagers, and then create a presentation that students will use when they pitch their idea to me in class on Saturday.  I explained how our classroom will be transformed into the sixth grade Shark Tank, much like the television show of the same name, as they try to convince me that their idea is the best solution to a problem facing the country of Malawi.  The students got right to work as they chose the problem they wanted to solve.  Many of the groups chose to tackle the issue of access to clean water; however, each solution was so unique and different.  I was impressed.  The objective for this lesson, as the students saw it based on what I revealed to them, was to learn about the physical and cultural geography of Malawi.  However, I had many other objectives and goals for the lesson that I did not share with the students.  I wanted the students to practice effectively collaborating with a partner to accomplish a task, communicating in meaningful ways with a peer, delegating tasks and responsibilities in appropriate and relevant ways, and thinking critically about problems to generate unique solutions.  As the boys worked on this activity, I heard them communicating effectively and watched them constructing unique solutions to problems, sharing the burden of the work, and working together to accomplish a common goal.  I was amazed.  They worked together so well in class today.

While the students didn’t realize this hidden curriculum as they worked, I was sure to point it out at the end of the class.  I shared my insight and observations with the students.  I wanted them to realize that along with learning about Malawi, they were also learning vital social skills that will allow them to develop into hard working and effective global citizens.   Although, on the surface, today’s lesson seemed like a content driven experience about a small landlocked country in Africa, the crucial, meaningful heart of the lesson was all about helping the students learn how to work with others in relevant, effective, and meaningful ways.  No matter how many facts my students learn or memorize, if they don’t know how to appropriately work with others, they will be unable to live meaningful lives in our global society.  The social skills students need to learn and master are so much more important than the content.  The content serves as the vehicle through which we help the students gain these vital life skills.  Like my second graders learned after participating in that social experiment many years ago, judging people and ideas based on a single perspective or story is detrimental to all involved.  Lessons in the classroom are about far more than what they appear on the outside to our students.  It’s everything underneath the surface that matters.