Posted in Class Discussion, Conversation, Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Preparing Students for their Future, Now

In school, my teachers never told me about how they were preparing me for the next year of school.  I feel as though they were just checking off boxes and trying to get through the required curriculum.  Now, as a teacher, I realize that they were in fact preparing me for what was to come in my future courses, but I wish they had been more deliberate and explicit about how they were doing this.  I would have paid a lot more attention to certain lessons or activities had I known that what I was learning would better prepare me for my future classes.  It’s important that students understand why a particular lesson or skill is being covered.  Brain-based research on education tells us that students are more apt to pay attention, focus, and be engaged in something that they find directly relevant to their lives.  If I had known that my ninth grade history teacher’s lesson on civic duty was going to help me be better prepared for the start of tenth grade history, I might have doodled less and remained more focused.

I try to make sure that I explain the purpose of every lesson, unit, or activity completed in my sixth grade classroom.  I want my students to see the relevance and importance in everything we do.  I want to foster a love of knowledge and curiosity for the future.  I want my students to feel prepared for the seventh grade.

In my Humanities class, I have been spending the last several week’s helping my students transition from simplistic and basic plot summaries to more analytical entries when they write about their reading.  In the seventh grade, the students are expected to be able to read a novel together as a class and analyze its meaning on various levels.  They are also expected to interpret and think critically about the novel in written form.  To help prepare my students for the rigors of seventh grade English, I’ve been challenging them to interpret what they are reading instead of simply stating what they are reading about.  I’ve worked with several students on this skill outside of class during evening study hall.

Today in class, I wanted to up the ante a bit.  As we are in the midst of reading the play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose, it felt like a fine opportunity to discuss the characters and their motivation.  Why does the third juror seem so angry?  Why he is not willing to let things go?  Why is the eighth juror so calm?  Why does the fourth juror only sweat when he is put on the spot?  Since the students need to take notes on each of the jurors, explaining personality and character traits with examples, we reviewed each of the jurors today in class.  I had the students explain why the foreman doesn’t talk a lot even though he should be the leader of the deliberations.  How do we know he is a follower?  What is driving the third juror to stick with his guilty verdict?  Why does the fifth juror seem to be more empathetic than many of the other men in the jury room?  Why is the ninth juror, the second person to vote not guilty?  What is the twelfth juror trying to sell to the other jurors?  We discussed what motivates each member of the jury as we analyzed the symbolism within the play.  The students asked insightful questions, discussed the play showcasing great critical thinking skills, took copious notes on the various jurors, and actively participated in analyzing a work of literature.  I felt like I was in a college-level English class.  It was amazing.  The conversations were rich and fruitful.  I challenged the students to take risks in their thinking and interpretation of what the playwright had written.  It was so much fun to talk about how someone’s occupation reveals so much about their personality.  Every detail and word that the author used serves a purpose, and we dug into this.  Why does Rose tell us, repeatedly, that the eighth juror stares out the window?  What purpose does this serve?  The students shared some brilliant explanations for this happening.  After today’s high-level discussion, I feel confident that my students are ready to tackle more complex novels and analyze literature using a critical eye when they move into seventh grade English in September.

What lead to today’s phenomenal outcome?  Why were the students able to discuss literature on such a high level using great critical thinking skills?  Is it because they are really engaged in this play and love discussing it?  Could that be?  Maybe they just enjoy talking about angry men and love to interpret situations.  Perhaps, but what if what happened today was because of how I explained the purpose of our discussion? What if the students were engaged in thinking critically about the play 12 Angry Men because they want to practice being in seventh grade?  Maybe they want to be sure they are totally ready for next year’s English class.  Being deliberate and purposeful in how we introduce lessons and activities to our students is crucial.  When students understand the relevance in what is being asked of them, they are much more able and willing to meet and exceed our expectations and objectives.  As teachers, we need to make sure that we are always preparing our students for what is next in life as we want to help prepare our students to live meaningful lives in a global society.

Posted in Challenges, Learning, Presentation, STEM, Students, Teaching

Why Does Focus Change from Day to Day in the Classroom?

Have you ever had one of those days where you feel pretty awesome?  I mean, I know many people dislike Mondays about as much as I dislike Starbucks, but for me, Monday’s are magical.  “Monday Funday!” is my mantra.  Mondays are the beginning of a new adventure.  Anything is possible on Mondays.  Sure, other days are cool too, but there’s something special about Mondays.

As today is Monday, I went into class today excited for the numerous possibilities.  I was ready for fun and excitement.  After such a focused day in the classroom on Saturday, I was ready to be wowed once again by my amazing students.  While the students were a bit chatty at the start of Humanities, they were mostly focused during Reader’s Workshop.  The boys read quietly while my co-teacher and I conferenced with each student about his spring term reading goal, as today marked the beginning of the spring term.  Going into STEM class, I was feeling quite good.  The boys were a bit energetic but seemed focused during Humanities class.

I’m not sure what happened between fourth and fifth periods, but the focus monster clearly visited the sixth grade classroom and stole the focus from a few of my students, as they were not nearly as focused as they were in class on Saturday or as focused as they were during Humanities class.  What’s strange, is that the structure of the class was exactly the same as it was on Saturday.  The boys began the period by working on making progress regarding their assigned Khan Academy course for ten minutes.  While they were mostly focused during this time, when they transitioned from Khan Academy to the next activity, something happened.  The little focus the students had been using seemed to fade.  They were distracting and distracted as they moved into working with their assigned partner to update their Stock Market Game portfolio.  As they know that they need to complete the record sheet by the end of classes on Saturday, they should have been more motivated than they were.  In order to have fun and play in the Makerspace on Saturday, they need to finish this record sheet packet.  Reminding them of that, I thought, was going to motivate the students to stay focused and work hard to make trades via the Stock Market Game website.  However, a few of the students were having side conversations with their peers when they should have been focused on helping their partners make wise decisions to increase the equity of their portfolio.  On Saturday, they were super focused during this time as they wanted to move up in the standings.

This same strained focus continued during the work period when the students, working with their assigned partner, worked to complete the assigned packet on risk.  They know that the more work they accomplish in class means they will have less to do outside of class for homework.  So, why were they not as focused as they were on Saturday?  The task was exactly the same.  The expectations were also the same.  So, what happened?  The students were incredibly focused and worked diligently to complete the assigned stock packet on diversification in class on Saturday.  The students were so focused that they earned two handfuls of marbles for the Marble Jar, a positive reinforcement technique used to help the students see the value in teamwork, compassion and effort.  Today, they were far from earning marbles because of their lack of effort.  Now, as a group, their focus was by no means awful, but it wasn’t as good as it was on Saturday.  Several of the students were trying to stay focused on the task at hand, but a few of the students were chatting with their friends regarding unrelated topics.  So, what was the difference between today and Saturday?  Why were the students so much more focused in STEM class on Saturday than they were today?  Were there any variables that could have caused this odd result?

The only differences between today and Saturday were the following:

  • The weather outside was a bit better on Saturday than it was today.  The air temperature was a bit lower today.
  • We began Saturday’s mini-lesson with a short video on diversification.  I began today’s mini-lesson with a quick overview of the three types of risk.
  • Two students were missing from the class on Saturday due to athletic commitments.  Everybody was present today.

That was it though.  Everything else was almost exactly the same.  Could these minor tweaks have made the difference?  Perhaps the temperature outside somehow impacted the air pressure inside the classroom to keep their brains more focused.  Or maybe the video I used on Saturday helped to focus the students prior to working.  The two students that were missing tend to be the more focused students in class on average anyway, and so I doubt their absence played a role.  I wonder what it was that caused today’s difference.  Rather than supposing and hypothesizing I feel as though I should think about what I can do to possibly prevent this lack of focus next time.  What could I have done differently today to help the students stay more focused?  Could I have used a video to introduce the idea of risk to the students?  Should I have allowed the students to work with their partner to troubleshoot the concept of risk as they complete the worksheet packet together?  Might that have helped?  What if I split the students up in the room a bit more as they were in a confined area of our large classroom?  Perhaps that would have made a difference?  Other than that, I’m at a bit of a loss as for what to change.  The one big difference, which might have actually been at play today was the fact that this is the last week of classes prior to spring break.  Maybe the students are just overly excited and can’t focus.  In that case, this is going to be a long week, which is why it will be super important for me to be at the top of my game.  I need to whip out every trick in my book this week to motivate, inspire, and help keep the students focused.

Even though things didn’t go exactly as I would have liked them to on this here Monday Funday, I’m not letting it get me down.  Oh no!  I’m using it as fodder to make tomorrow an even better day.  Learning from my mistakes is one of the easiest ways to grow as a teacher.  So, watch me grow!

Posted in Change, Class Discussion, Current Events, Education, Humanities, Learning, Perspective, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Getting Students to Think like Members of a Jury

Several years ago, I was called for jury duty.  At first I tried to get out of it because I didn’t want to miss time in the classroom with my students, but then I realized that I could use my experience on the jury in our mini-unit on 12 Angry Men.  I could share a real-life experience with my students to help them understand what goes on in a jury room while also getting them to understand the motivation of the eighth juror in the play.  So, I did it.  I was selected to hear a criminal case regarding domestic abuse charges involving adopted children.  Being the father of an adopted son, this case hit home for me.  While I did not allow my prior knowledge, emotions, and biases to cloud my judgment, I did use my background to better understand the case, the facts, and the law that was supposedly broken.  I listened carefully to the facts presented by both sides.  When the jury deliberated, we all agreed that the prosecution did not provide enough evidence to show that any abuse had taken place.  Although the mother of the children emotionally explained her side of the story, there was very little evidence to support it.  Without proof, we could not rule in favor of the plaintiff in this case.  We, as the jury, came back with a “not guilty” verdict based solely on the facts.  While it was hard to listen to the various pieces of testimony in this case, the facts drove our decision.  As a member of the jury, I had to keep an open mind and make my final vote because of what the facts and the laws told me.  It was not an easy case in which to be a part of, but I did my civic duty to the best of my ability based on what was right and just as well as the facts presented.

Freeing one’s mind of bias and possibly inaccurate prior knowledge can be quite difficult, but it is the only way to approach jury duty.  It’s also a great way to broaden one’s perspective when learning new things.  However, it’s also important not to forget what’s right and just as well.  While the facts are the facts and the law is the law, not all laws are right and just.  Helping my students see this fact as they develop a growth mindset in the classroom is crucial.  I try, each and every day, to remind my students of this very fact.  I want them to understand how important it is to look at the facts but to not forget about analyzing the equity of the facts and laws involved when learning new information and developing as a student, person, and thinker.  I want them to question everything.  It’s been especially important as we’ve been digging into the play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose.  I want the students to be able to understand the motivation of the eighth juror.  Why did he do what he did?  Why did he choose to stand alone in a room filled with 11 other men who all seemed to disagree with him?  Why did he take the time to explain his point of view and perspective to a generally close-minded group of individuals?  I want my students to see why Reginald Rose crafted this character the way he did.  The eighth juror calmly reviewed the facts of the case presented by both sides and helped the other jurors see the truth through the veil of their biases.  It is not an easy job for any of the men in the room, especially the eighth juror who has to deal with jurors yelling at him and accusing him of various things.  However, change comes about because of the facts of the case and the courage involved in helping others to see what is right and just.

To help my students practice this same skill employed by members of a jury, I found a current event involving a court case to discuss in class.  The case I used involved the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Native American groups trying to prevent it from going through their land.  As we had already introduced this topic to the boys back in December, they had prior knowledge of the case.  To begin our discussion, I had the students review what the issue was all about.  I then had the students state their opinion and thoughts on the issue.  Which side is “right?”  We then discussed the court case that is still awaiting a final verdict from the judge.  I had the students ask clarifying questions and share their thoughts on the case.  Following this short discussion, I then explained to the students that in order to discuss this current event and the case like members of a jury, they need to free themselves of their judgements and preconceived notions.  They need to look solely at the facts of the case.  So, I handed the students a written explanation of the Trust Responsibility principle used by the Supreme Court to handle issues involving Native American groups and their dealings with the United States of America.  We looked at the part that explained how most tribal land is still controlled by the American government despite the fact that the native groups have sovereignty within the boundaries of the reservations.  I explained to the students how the judge in the case might be using this portion of the principle to make his final decision in the case, which is due this coming week.  While the students seemed to understand the law and what it stated, they were outraged by it.  “The Native Americans were here first.  They are the only true Americans.  We are all immigrants and Europeans.  Why are we controlling their land?  How is that fair?” one student asked.  Another student responded, “This law is unjust and not right.  Why does it seem that nobody cares about this issue?”  My students were angry, like the men in our play.  They were upset with the facts of the case.  We had an amazing discussion.  The students were using examples from history to support their claims as they discussed this case and the issue at hand.  I was so impressed with how insightful and compassionate my students were being.  Even though they understood the law and know that the judge has to rule with the law in mind, they were discussing the facts of the case and how unjust this whole case seems.  I closed this discussion by praising the students for their phenomenal critical thinking.  I told them, “One of the main reasons we discuss current events like this is to make you angry while also empowering you to want to make a difference.  We want you to see how unjust some things in this world can be so that you will want to bring about change within the world.  Perhaps one of you will go onto become a lawyer and fight for the people like these Native American groups who can’t always fight for themselves.”  The students seemed enthralled and motivated.  I can’t wait to see how they change the world in the coming years.

Getting my students to think like members of a jury while also getting them riled up helped them to understand the web Reginald Rose created in his play.  I wanted them to see how difficult it can be to “see” the facts through the haze of issues, biases, and fairness.  What is right isn’t always the law and what is the law isn’t always just.  I want my students to see and understand this concept as we work through this amazing piece of literature created during a turbulent time in American history, just as we seem to be living during another tumultuous time in our country’s history.  Being able to think like a juror while not forgetting everything else is the key to developing a true growth mindset and becoming a changemaker in our world.

Posted in Grading, Learning, Objectives Based Grading, Relationships, Students, Teaching

Offering Second Chances in the Classroom

I’ve made many mistakes in my short life.  I’ve forgotten to put the toilet seat down, leave a tip at a restaurant, and put money in the parking meter.  I’m far from perfect.  Luckily though, I was given second chances to prove my true worth as a person.  I make sure to tip at least 20% when I go out to eat with my family, put more money than is necessary in parking meters, and almost always put the seat down after using the toilet.  Because I had other chances to make my mistakes right, I learned much from these experiences.  I wonder if I would have learned from those indiscretions had I not been given the opportunity to make better choices and fix my mistakes.

Like me, my students need to be provided second chances when they make mistakes as failure is a crucial part of the learning process.  If I don’t provide my students chances to learn from their mistakes, how will they ever learn the value in trying and failing?  I don’t expect perfection and so I want my students to feel supported and cared for; therefore, I need to allow my students to redo work that does not meet the objectives so that they learn, now, while they are still in school, how to make the right choices.  If students do not meet the graded objectives when their work is assessed, they need to redo the assignment until it at least meets the objectives.  This usually starts with a conversation.  “Why did you not meet the objectives?” I might ask the student.  I will then refer to the assignment rubric or instructions, asking them to read the assignment requirements aloud to me.  During this process, they are usually able to notice what they did not do correctly or accurately.  I then ask them if they understand what it is they need to do.  I want to be sure they comprehend what is being asked of them.  If a student fails to include an opening sentence in his paragraph and that is one of the requirements, I might ask the student if they know what a topic sentence is before I let them work on their own.  The students are then on their own to redo the assignment by the close of the term or unit.  When they turn in their work, I meet with them to conference about the work and process involved.  I want to be able to praise them for putting in the extra effort to redo their work while also reminding them of the importance of following instructions and completing work ahead of time so that they can receive feedback before the assignment is due.  I want my students to value the importance of effort and focus on the skills rather than the final grade.  Providing students with a second chance to meet graded objectives allows this ethos to be developed within the students.

This afternoon, I met with a student who had to redo a major STEM project that was due back in early February.  Because he failed to meet the four objectives on which the assignment was being assessed, he needed to redo the project.  While he had redone it two weeks ago, he had left it with his mother who had flown back to Korea.  So, she needed to send it to the school.  When I reviewed the math storybook that he had crafted, I realized he was missing one crucial requirement.  He did not include a sample problem that showed he understood how to apply the four steps of the problem solving process.  Rather than have him redo his book again just to include this page, I had him orally walk me through one of his problems using the four-step problem solving process.  As I had thought, he understood the process and was able to correctly apply the four steps when solving a math word problem.  Had I not met with him and simply had him turn the assignment in, I would not have been able to ask him follow-up questions or check for understanding in an informal manner.  I would have only been able to grade him on what I had in front of me.  Although he did not meet the original deadline, I am much more concerned with this particular student’s ability to follow and interpret directions.  He has struggled with this issue all year.  So, I wanted to give him a chance to really look at the requirements and redo the work in a way that allowed him to demonstrate his ability to meet the objectives.  Giving him this second chance and having a conversation with him this afternoon, helped him understand why following directions and completing work prior to the due dates in order to receive feedback are such crucial skills he needs to focus on moving forward.  School should never be about grades or deadlines, it’s about progress, growth, and character development.

Posted in Co-Teacher, Curriculum, Education, Learning, STEM, Students, Teaching

Using Brain Research in the Classroom

Back in the early 2000s, I used to think that brain-based research about teaching was just a fad.  Why do I need to understand the brain in order to become a better teacher?  It all sounded like a bunch of hooey to me, like laserdiscs and beta players.  It wasn’t until a former co-teacher convinced me to take an online class with her on the neuroscience of teaching that I saw the light.  It was one of the greatest professional development experiences of my career.  Understanding how the brain learns, and how we as teachers can use that information to improve our teaching and lessons, was eye opening.  After gaining this knowledge, I totally changed the way I approached teaching.  The focus should be on the students.  I should not be the voice up front talking all the time.  Instead, I should create a student-centered classroom that puts the students in charge of their learning.  So, I did, and I have seen such drastic changes within me as a teacher and from the students I have worked with since taking that course.  They are much more self-sufficient and able to creatively solve problems encountered in unique ways because of the changes I made in my classroom.  It is crucial that all teachers learn about how our students learn.  I wish I had understood this idea a lot sooner than I did, but at least I now know how to engage, support, and challenge my students in relevant and meaningful ways in the classroom.

For the final presentation portion of a research project my students are working on in STEM class, they have to memorize a unique expository paragraph that they craft themselves.  While memorization isn’t used in schools as much anymore, it is still an important skill to expose my students to as I know they will need to apply it in their future English classes.  While I introduced the assignment to the students yesterday in class, they will be learning all about the brain science behind memorization in PEAKS class this week and next with my co-teacher.  She is going to explain the many different strategies used to memorize various chunks of information.  She is then going to provide the students ample time to practice applying the different strategies to memorize their paragraph.  This is a perfect closing for the brain unit she has been working on with the students in this study skills class.  The boys learned all about how their brain works and functions.  They learned about the plasticity of their brain and the ideas of growth and fixed mindsets.  This activity on memorization will allow them to apply this information to STEM class.  How can their brain help them remember things?  When the students understand of what their brain is capable, they are able to do so much more because they believe they can.  Most students tend to think of the brain as a filing cabinet with limited space.  When they learn about brain science, they begin to see their brain as this amazing machine that can do almost anything.  The possibilities are endless.  Teaching students the neuroscience of learning is crucial for their growth and development as students.  If we want our students to be able to tap into their full potential as thinkers and learners, they need to know how to do that as well as realize that it is possible.

In STEM class yesterday, to help introduce the skill of memorization, I showed the boys a short video on how to use the Mind Palace technique of memorization that is thousands of years old.  Shakespeare used it with his actors to help them memorize their lines.  Introducing the students to a completely new technique like this that they have most likely not learned previously, seemed like a fine way to open my lesson on memorization.  I then answered any questions the boys had about this new method of memorizing something before asking the students what strategies they have used in the past to memorize something.  They named some of the basic techniques such as chunking, walking and talking, reading, and listening.  I then provided the students a chance to practice memorizing their piece in class using one of these methods.  Today in PEAKS class, they will dig into many more memorization strategies that will allow them to make use of how their brain learns best.  Knowing about how the brain works though, is crucial when having students learn new information or a new skill.  When students understand how powerful the tool in their skull truly is, they can do anything.

Posted in Curriculum, Humanities, Learning, Presentation, Students, Teaching

Sometimes the Hardest Things are the Easiest

When I was just a wee lad growing up in Lebanon, NH, I used to sit and watch my grandparents and parents spend hours playing this bizarre game they called Cribbage.  It seemed so strange to me back then.  You have cards and move pegs on a wooden board.  What?  At first it seemed so boring to me.  My grandmother would sit in one spot for hours doing nothing but moving plastic pegs around on a board and saying strange things like 15-2.  Back then, I would usually watch my grandparents play for few seconds before I grew bored and played with my Matchbox cars.  Then, as I grew older, more sophisticated, and a bit smarter, I started paying more attention to when my elder family members played this weird game.  Then, one day I asked my grandmother to teach me how to play.  So, she did.  It turns out that this once cryptic game was actually quite easy to play once I learned it.  Years later, I’m still fascinated by this game and often find myself sitting, for hours, moving plastic pegs on a board, happier than a clam in its shell.  I realized, that what I once thought would be too hard for me to do turned out to be quite easy when I tried it.  Sometimes, the hardest things can actually end up being the easiest things to do.

My goal for today’s Humanities class was to introduce my students to our next class read-aloud 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose.  As this is a play and set in a time with which the students are unfamiliar, I was worried that they might not be interested.  I thought that perhaps they will find this play boring and won’t at all be engaged or excited about acting out their assigned parts.  In the past, some of my students have dreaded this activity when it was introduced.  They didn’t see the relevance.  While they always did come around once we got into reading the play, they were not always super excited at first.  So this year, I made sure to think about how I would structure my introductory comments on the play.  I wanted to be sure that all of the students were inspired to focus on reading the play in class.  I prepared numerous slides to provide the students with background knowledge on the play and the context of the history in which it is set.  I wanted to make sure that they understood the idea of America’s judicial system, how it works, and the type of court cases decided by juries.  I went into today’s class a bit nervous but feeling prepared to introduce my students to 12 Angry Men in a relevant and exciting manner.  I was ready to motivate and excite my students, no matter how hard it might be.  I was willing to put in the effort.

Then came the lesson.  I started out by telling the students how we haven’t taught this play in the sixth grade for two years because we haven’t felt like we’ve had a group that could handle such a mature storyline and challenging task, until this year.  At this point, the boys started to sit up a bit straighter in their chairs.  Perhaps they were trying to show me how sophisticated they are.  I then started explaining what the play is about and how we will read it in the class.  “Each of you will be assigned a different role.  Some will have more lines than others, but everyone will need to play his role very well in order for this activity to be successful.”  This seemed to excite some of the boys as they realized that they would all be partaking in the reading of this play.  I then explained how they will have the option to act out the scenes according to the stage directions.  Several smiles filled the room when I told them that.  I could almost see their mental wheels turning.  They were thinking about how they might act out their parts.  They seemed genuinely excited, and I hadn’t even gotten to my other slides on the background information regarding the play.  As I could see how excited the boys were about the play, I started sharing some of my excitement with them.  “What I love about this play is the different types of characters included.  Reginald Rose crafted very different and unique characters.  Some of you will have lines that you will need to shout out while a few of you will have to say some naughty words.”  After I shared this tidbit with them, they were all hooked.  The class broke out in chatter and excitement.  They couldn’t hold it in any longer.  They were pumped to start reading this play.  I could have stopped my introduction right then and there and I would have been fine.  But don’t worry, I didn’t.  I kept going to make sure that each of my students had the context needed to comprehend the play that we will begin reading in class tomorrow.  At the end of the period, I handed each student a copy of the play along with their assigned role so that they could peruse their lines and be prepared for tomorrow.  I wanted them to feel comfortable as we read the play aloud together in class.  Well, when I did this, you would have thought that I was giving the students $100 bills.  They couldn’t open their copy of the play fast enough.  They started reading and finding their lines.  At the start of the next period, I had to remind students to keep their copy of the play in their cubby so that it wasn’t a distraction as several of the students were trying to read it during STEM class.  Yes!  I was so excited by how enthusiastic the class seemed about the play.

Despite all of my hard work and preparation, what I thought would be a hard and difficult task ended up being super easy.  So, I didn’t need to stress, worry, or be nervous about my lesson today, but I didn’t know that.  I was prepared for the worst as I wanted to be sure every student was ready and prepared to start reading the play tomorrow in class.  I had many inspirational and fun things to say about the play, but really only needed a few.  As this year’s class loves reading and enjoys doing things together as a group, just telling them what we are going to do was enough of a build up to get them excited about the activity.  It’s funny how sometimes reflection or over-thinking something can lead to unnecessary stress and anxiety.  I was so worried about getting my students excited about the play that I forgot to remember how much this class loves to read and work together.  Because I was so focused on preventing what happened in the past from happening again, I was unable to see what I already knew.  I didn’t need to spend hours preparing this elaborate introductory lesson, I just needed to show the students the play and tell them that we would be reading it together as a class.  That would have been enough.  I find it so interesting how things that at first glance seem hard, end up being super easy, and how easy things can sometimes end up being a lot harder than than one thinks.

Posted in Education, STEM, Students, Teaching

One of the Many Benefits of Teacher Reflection

Doing difficult things is hard.  It’s not easy to do challenging things.  If it were, everybody would climb Mt. Everest or learn how to play the guitar.  Accomplishing difficult and hard tasks takes time, energy, effort, and much struggle.  Many people don’t like trying new or hard things because of this.  Struggling and failing are no fun for anybody.  However, completing a difficult task or doing something hard, offers great rewards and benefits.  They’ve written oodles of books about people who do hard things.  Some lucky people even have movies made about the difficult things they’ve accomplished.  Hard work does indeed pay off.

Several years ago, before I started this teaching blog, I used to think that I didn’t have enough time in my day to do something extra.  I couldn’t possibly take time to reflect on my teaching every day because I don’t have any extra time, I thought, but that was a lie.  I was really just scared.  I didn’t want to think about my teaching or reflect on what went wrong in the classroom because then I might realize that I’m not the world’s best teacher.  I was afraid of what would happen if I reflected on my teaching.  At the time, creating a teaching blog seemed too formidable.  It was a challenging task for me that I had avoided because it would require time, energy, and much effort.  I didn’t want to do it, but then I realized that in order to grow and develop as a teacher, I needed to try something different.  So, I went for it.  I did something hard, and I am thankful every day that I took a risk and tried something new.  Even though it takes precious time out of my day, reflecting on my teaching has made me a far better educator than I ever was before I started this blog.  Thinking about my failures and successes allows me to learn from my mistakes or capitalize on what went well.  True, doing hard things is hard, but if it wasn’t for people accomplishing difficult tasks, I wouldn’t be able to share this blog with the world.  In fact, without technological advances that took much effort and hard work, I’d be reflecting in, dare I say, a journal using **GASP** a pencil or pen.  Doing hard things has made the world a better place for all people, especially those needing to write things like this here blog.

Last week, I posted an entry about how I felt like the mini-lesson I conducted in my STEM class was a bit of a disaster.  I rushed through a discussion on mathematical formulas and the stock market.  I didn’t adequately answer questions my students asked, and my students left class clearly feeling confused and anxious.  It was a giant mess.  However, because I took the time to reflect on it in this blog and think about what I should have done, I was able to make sure that I structured today’s mini-lesson in a much more meaningful and relevant manner.

Today in STEM class, I wanted the students to understand the difference between stocks, bonds, and funds.  I began the lesson by asking the students what stocks are as we have already covered this concept in class.  I then simplified the complex and slightly confusing response provided by one of my students.  The boys understood this definition.  I then showed the class a video that visually highlighted the main differences between the three types of investments.  Following the video, I asked students, who I called upon at random by pulling popsicle sticks, to define bonds and funds.  I then clarified the responses provided by the students to simplify the terminology for the students.  I then addressed questions the students had about the new ideas introduced today.  Following this discussion, I then handed out the worksheet packet, explained that they would be working on this packet with their Stock Market Game partner, and then instructed them to get to work.  They had 40 minutes of class time to work on the packet and ask questions that came up as they worked.  The students left the classroom feeling prepared and positive as they now had less homework and understood exactly what they needed to do.  Some of the students even began applying this new knowledge of stocks and bonds as they invested in a mutual fund in the Stock market Game.  I was so impressed.  The boys seemed to fully comprehend these new ideas and understood what was being asked of them in the worksheet packet.  Mission accomplished, I thought as I walked to lunch following STEM class today.

Having learned from Friday’s horrific mistakes, I constructed today’s mini-lesson in a way that allowed the students to understand the new concepts introduced, ask any clarifying questions, and feel positive and successful.  There was no confusion amongst the students as they worked through the worksheet packet with their partner.  Utilizing a video to help explain these new investment terms allowed those students who struggle to process information auditorily, a chance to comprehend this new information in a visual way.  Restating this new information orally for the students in kid-friendly language after viewing the video, helped the students to process what was covered in the video.  It also allowed time for the boys to ask any further questions that they had about bonds and funds.  The final work period portion of the lesson allowed the students to ask questions as they came up rather than having them figure out if they had questions before they even began working on the packet.  Having the ability to collaborate with their partner on this packet also helped them feel prepared and able.  They asked each other questions and solved problems as they arose.  Changing the structure of my mini-lesson based on Friday’s result allowed for a much more positive outcome today.  Had I not taken the time to stop, think, and reflect on Friday’s awful STEM class disaster, I might not have known what I needed to change or how I should have changed today’s mini-lesson to better help and support my students.  Reflecting on my teaching not only helps me grow and develop, but also allows my students to grow and develop because of the changes I make to my teaching.

Posted in Boy Writers, Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, Students, Teaching, Writer's Workshop, Writing, Writing Conferences

How Writer’s Workshop Allows Me to Differentiate My Instruction in the Classroom

At the beginning of each new academic year, students will exclaim, during our Writer’s Workshop introduction, how much they hate writing.  “I hate writing and I will never like it,” students are often heard saying during that first week of classes.  By the end of the year though, those same students can’t stop writing because they have grown to enjoy it so much.  The Writer’s Workshop approach to the teaching of writing provides students with freedom and choice.  They can write whatever they want based on a broad topic.  At the start of the year, we introduce students to the personal narrative style of writing and have them craft a personal narrative piece.  It can be fiction or truth, they get to decide.  It can tell the story of literally anything.  We want our students to play with writing and words so that they learn to see the fun that can be had while writing.  As most of our students have never experienced this style of writing instruction, they are usually so excited that they are able to choose what they write about.  It’s not that our students ever hated writing, they were just never provided opportunities to see how much fun writing can truly be.

Today in Humanities class, the students had one final Writer’s Workshop block to work on their most current writing piece.  Throughout our unit on Africa, we had the students begin working on three different writing pieces based on our mini-lessons.  From those three pieces, they chose their very favorite to finish and bring through the writing process.  We’ve spent this whole week working on this process in Writer’s Workshop, and today was the final chance for students to receive feedback from their peers and teachers.  While a few students had already finished their piece prior to today, most students had not.  Those students who had finished, spent the period reading or completing other work.  They were focused on the task at hand while the other students polished their Africa writing piece.  Some of the boys sought feedback from their peers while my co-teacher and I conferenced with the others.  It was so great to have one-on-one conferences with each of the students.  I asked them what kind of feedback they were looking for.  “What do you want me to look for while I’m reading your piece?  What kind of feedback would you like?” I would ask them at the start of the conference.  I then asked them, “How would you like me to provide you with this feedback?  Shall I comment in your Google Doc, tell you the feedback orally, or write my suggestions at the end of your piece?  What method will work best for you?”  I want to make sure that I am tailoring the conference to meet the needs of my students.  Every student was looking for something different.  Some students wanted me to help them with their grammar while others wanted me to be sure they used enough details from our mini-lessons in their piece.  These conferences were so individual and unique.  It offered me the chance to praise my students, notice their growth as writers, and provide them meaningful feedback to help them grow and develop as writers.  During these conferences, the other students were focused and diligently working on making their pieces even better so that they could exceed each of the three graded objectives.  It was an amazing period filled with beautiful writing, excellent questions, quality feedback, and hard work.  I was so impressed with my students.  They continue to amaze me on a daily basis.

Now, getting the students to the point at which we are currently in the classroom takes much time.  Our first few Writer’s Workshop blocks are filled with learning opportunities.  Some students write for about 10 minutes and then move onto another task.  Helping the boys learn to develop their stamina as writers takes time.  During our first go-round at peer editing, the students give and receive very little feedback that is at all useful.  They focus on the font size or color.  They don’t analyze the writing to see that adding more depth to the character would help move the story forward faster.  All of these little details about writing and what an effective Writer’s Workshop should look like takes much time and effort.  We do much modelling for the students on how to provide quality feedback, utilize feedback provided by others, stay focused on writing for long periods of time, self-edit and revise their own work, and generate writing ideas.  After several months of mini-lessons and practice, the students get to the point that we were able to witness first hand today in the classroom.  The students know what to do and how to do it and so they just do it.  They write, edit, peer edit, revise, conference, talk about writing, and really work to make their writing stronger and more detailed.

Observing an effective Writer’s Workshop in action is quite the amazing sight.  It almost feels like you are in a tiny cafe in a city where writers sit and work all day, drinking coffee, writing, and talking about writing.  Fostering this love of writing and care for others takes much time and energy but is so worth it.  Because I am able to meet with every student and not worry about what the others are doing as I know they are focused and on track, I am able to differentiate my instruction to meet the needs of each individual student.  I make sure to pay extra close attention to grammar when I am conferencing with my ESL students.  I also do some teaching during these conferences too as I notice recurring mistakes.  For my more advanced writers, I focus on the nuances of writing like plot holes, character development, and setting.  I challenge those authors to focus on revising the bigger parts of their writing.  These conferences provide me this time to really focus my instruction for each student so that I can be sure they are prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English.

Using the Writer’s Workshop method to teach writing has not only made me a better teacher, but it has helped my students learn to find the enjoyment in writing.  By June, my students love writing and enjoy talking to their peers about it.  This method of instruction also allows me to make sure that my students are accurately applying the skills discussed and practiced during our mini-lessons.  Differentiating the instruction is crucial to helping students be and feel successful, and Writer’s Workshop is one easy way to create opportunities to do just that in the classroom.

Posted in Education, Learning, Math, Mistakes, STEM, Students, Teaching

What Happens When You Rush a Mini-Lesson?

One of my least favorite things to do when I was a kid was cleaning my room.  I hated it.  I was fine living in squalor.  Bring on the dirty clothes and toys all over the floor.  I was fine with the mess, but apparently my parents were not okay with the plastic litter and chaos of my bedroom.  My parents believed that a bedroom should be a sanctuary and sanctuaries are supposed to be clean.  What if your sanctuary is a landfill though, how are you supposed to clean an actual dump?  While saying things like that only made my father angrier, it was fun to mess with my parents.  But, at the end of the day, I did have to clean my room.  So, I did.  I shoved everything into my closet and under my bed.  A few times, this method of cleaning got the thumbs up from my parents as they failed to look in my closet or under my bed.  One day, however, my mom saw something sticking out from under my bed, and this made her bend down to see what it was.  Like a ticking time bomb, the junk heap under my bed had been discovered.  My laziness only brought me more yelling and consequences.  After several years of this, I learned my lesson and thoroughly cleaned my room the proper way.  I realized that laziness was not the answer.  Trying to rush along the process only made matters worse.

While I find that I generally remember this little knowledge nugget from my youth on a regular basis, occasionally, I slip back into those bad habits.  Today was one of those days. I needed to leave STEM class early today for personal reasons.  Having known that for a few days, I planned what I thought would be a quick and easy mini-lessson that would allow the students to finish the period by working on the homework packet independently as my co-teacher remained in the room and answered any questions they had.  I had it all set and ready to go.  Then came the execution, which was where I went terribly wrong.  Because I had flipped my agenda around a bit to allow the students time to work with their partner on updating their portfolio on the Stock Market Game website, I only had about 20 minutes for my mini-lesson.  I thought for sure that would be enough time.  Boy, was I ever wrong.  I began the lesson by explaining the benefits and obligations for a company when they decide to go public and sell shares in their company.  This is where it all started to go wrong.  Instead of giving a brief overview of the reasons listed on the handout I had provided to the students, I had the students read the reasons aloud to the class.  I then stopped and explained or clarified each of the points, which was completely unnecessary as the written explanations said all that was needed to understand the point being made.  I then beat a dead horse by addressing questions raised by the students because of my overly specific explanation of each point.  While this portion of the mini-lesson was only supposed to take five minutes, it took me about 20 minutes to get through the handout.  At this point, I should have left the classroom, but I wanted to be sure the students understood the rest of the packet.  So, I had them peruse it to make sure they understood the remaining questions and activities.  This lead to more questions that were unnecessary had I simply provided them time to work and process what was being asked of them.  Instead, I answered their questions with more confusion.  I took one final question before I departed the classroom.  At this point, I knew I had totally botched the lesson, but had to leave.  I felt terrible.

Here’s what I should have done…  I should have began the mini-lesson by asking students why companies would want to go public and sell shares of their company on the stock market as we went over this in class on Monday.  This would have taken about two minutes to do.  I then should have briefly summarized the rest of the items on the handout, without reading them aloud.  This would have taken about another three minutes.  I then should have quickly explained the reading part of the worksheet packet by mentioning the objective on which their answers to the questions would be assessed.  I then could have spent the next 10 minutes solving some sample math problems from the rest of the worksheet packet with the whole class on the board.  This would have created more understanding and less confusion.  It would have also allowed the students time to process this new information.  I would have then had about two to three minutes to answer any final questions the students had before they got to work.  I then would have been able to leave on time.  Instead, I ended up leaving 15 minutes late because I tried to rush a mini-lesson.  While mini-lessons are intended to be short, they should also be clear and concise.  My mini-lesson ended up being long and laborious.  If I had put more deliberate thought into how the lesson should go prior to executing it, I might have been able to prevent the chaos that ensued in class today.  Trying to take the easy way out, only results in more work and consequences for all involved.  For my next mini-lesson, I plan on spending extra time preparing for it to be sure that I am covering the ideas and information in a clear and relevant way.  I want my students to learn and not be confused.  Luckily, my brain is much more developed now than it was when I was seven and so I am sure that I will learn from this mistake and be sure to never repeat it.

Posted in Boys, Challenges, Co-Teaching, Curriculum, Education, Grading, Humanities, Learning, Math, New Ideas, Objectives Based Grading, Reader's Workshop, Reflection, Sixth Grade, STEM, Student Conferences, Student Support, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New, Writer's Workshop, Writing

Why I Love Teaching Sixth Grade

On this day of love, I find myself in a loving and reflective mood.  I am so grateful that I have been allowed to create such a strong sixth grade program over my years here at Cardigan.  Because the administrators at my school have faith in my abilities as an educator, I have been able to take risks, try new things, fail, try other new things, and develop a sixth grade program that best suits the needs of each of my students.  So, to celebrate this great freedom and amazing program I’ve been able to create over the years, I’ve devoted today’s blog entry to discussing the sixth grade program.

Introduction

Going through the adolescent stage of development is like being on a roller coaster without a seat belt.  When you flip upside down, you fall out of your seat unless you are holding on with everything you’ve got.  Each benchmark within adolescence brings new turns, curves, and loops.  Working with adolescent boys is like trying to dodge raindrops.  You can’t avoid the inevitable.  Craziness and chaos will ensue.  But heck, that’s why middle school teachers work with this age group.  We’re a little crazy too because we remember what it was like to be this age.

At Cardigan, we make it our mission to mold young boys into compassionate and mindful young men.  It’s a wild and sometimes frustrating journey, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  Boys who attend sixth grade at Cardigan begin this adventure earlier than most as it is the youngest and smallest grade at our school.  Because of this, we have created a very unique  program that will help our boys foster a family spirit and connection that they carry with them throughout their time at Cardigan; to help provide them with some safety features on the bumpy roller coaster of adolescence.

Rationale

Brain-based research on how learning really happens reveals that students learn best when they are engaged, motivated, feel safe, are challenged and supported.  The sixth grade program has greatly evolved over the years due to this research and, as sixth grade teachers, we are always trying to find new and innovative ways to inspire and effectively educate and prepare our boys for meaningful lives in a global society.

Our Philosophy: We’re a family, and families take care of each other

The first ten weeks of the academic year are focused on building a strong family atmosphere amongst the students.  One of our biggest goals in the sixth grade is to foster a sense of family within the boys.  We want the students to understand and be able to effectively coexist with one another in a way that celebrates their differences.  First, as teachers, we model the behavior we expect to see from the students.  Second, we spend time each week talking about what makes an effective community.  We have the students share personal information about themselves including interests, hobbies, sports, and social identifiers.  We help the boys examine all parts of their personality that remain hidden to most of the world.  In exploring this, the students begin to think deeply and critically about themselves and how they fit into the world.  They also have a chance to share this information with their peers.  While making them vulnerable, it helps the boys make deep connections with each other.  We provide the students with specific strategies on how to communicate with their peers effectively, how to solve problems amongst themselves, and how to work together as a team to accomplish tasks.  We utilize numerous team building activities as catalysts for these mini-lessons: The boys build spaghetti towers in small groups, create a scavenger hunt with a partner, and solve various tasks that provide opportunities to practice and learn how to be effective teammates.  We want the boys to understand what it takes to be Cardigan community member.  

During the first month of school, we take the boys on an overnight trip to our school’s CORE cabin to help build a sense of family and community within the boys.  While the location of the cabin is on our campus, it feels very like it could be miles away.  We build a fire together and then roast marshmallows.  We tell stories, play games, and interact as a family.  If problems arise, we take the time to help the students learn how to work together to solve them.  It’s an amazing experience that helps lay the groundwork for future whole-class experiences we will provide the boys with throughout our year together.

Towards the end of the first term, we put our teamwork and family to the test with a three-day trip to an outdoor center in southern New Hampshire.  The focus of the trip is teamwork.  The students work together to solve problems, accomplish tasks, and have fun learning about how to survive in the wilderness.  It’s always one of the big highlights for the sixth grade boys.  They will never forget how they overcame their fears and learned to help and support their classmates in new and fun ways.

Co-Teaching

While our class size fluctuates from one year to the next, in recent years we’ve had a smaller sixth grade class.  A tight-knit team of two lead teachers is the most effective method for our program.  We plan, grade, and teach together.  Having another person to bounce ideas off of allows for more ideas to come to fruition.  As units are developed, we work together to generate engaging lessons.  With two people working together to complete this process, ideas can be built upon and added to.  Good ideas become great ideas.  Grading together allows for conversations about objectives and work.  How can we create objective objectives that don’t allow room for interpretation?  Having two teachers in the room for classes allows the students to be fully supported, and those students who need one-on-one time have the chance to receive it with two teachers in the classroom.  We can conference with students more effectively during humanities class and the boys are able to safely conduct investigations in STEM class.  We constantly model effective teamwork skills for the boys so that they see what we expect from them.  Co-teaching has fostered a sense of compassion in the classroom.  In order to create a family atmosphere amongst the students, we need to be able to effectively care for them, and  with two trained educators in the room, we can more effectively challenge, support, and ensure the safety of each and every sixth grade student in our class.

Classroom Organization

In order to help foster a sense of engagement in the classroom and to allow our students to feel as though they can focus on the lesson or activity at hand, our classroom is organized in a very specific manner.  

We have a reading nook area for small group work, independent reading, and movie viewing when appropriate.  The boys can sit or lie on the carpet squares in any way that allows them to feel engaged and focused.  We also have a small group work table for those students who need to be sitting to work and stay focused.  The desk table area is towards the front of the classroom near our interactive board and projector.  We use whiteboard tables to allow the students the opportunity to take notes, brainstorm, solve math problems, or just doodle upon them while working or listening.

We instituted this change just this year and it has made a huge difference.  We also use rocking style chairs at the desk work area to allow those students who need to move and stay focused.  These chairs help create a sense of calm and focus in the classroom during full group instruction lessons.  While every student is rocking, they are able to pay attention and listen intently.

These classroom organizational choices are based on the neuroscience of learning.  Students are able to genuinely learn the concepts and skills covered when they feel safe, engaged, and motivated.  The classroom furniture we use and the spaces we’ve created help our students to learn in a meaningful way.

Curriculum

Our goal is for our boys to feel connected to and engaged with the curriculum we employ in the sixth grade.  We want the students to enjoy coming to classes because they are excited and interested in what is happening.  We are constantly revising and updating what we do and how we do it, and because of this, our curriculum is a living and breathing entity.

Humanities

In our humanities class, the students develop their critical thinking skills to become community-minded young men with an awareness of the world around them.  We begin the year with a unit on community so that they learn to accept and appreciate differences in others.  Through completing various activities during the first two weeks of the academic year, the students begin to understand how they fit into our sixth grade family as well as the greater Cardigan community.  The boys also learn much about their peers through this first unit.  Everything else we work on throughout the year in humanities class builds upon this foundation we create at the start of the year.  

The humanities class occupies a double block period that covers both the history and English curriculum for the sixth grade.  This integrated approach allows students to see how the big ideas in History and English go hand in hand.  We cover various communities and cultures from around the world so that we can provide the students with a macro view of the world in a micro manner.  Our goal is to help the students understand perspective and how it can change based on many different factors.  We utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction so that a love of reading and writing is fostered within the boys throughout the year.

For Reader’s Workshop, the students choose just-right (engaging, grade-level and reading-level appropriate) books so that they are interested in what they are reading.  While at the start of the year, several students often seem uninterested in reading, they grow to become voracious and excited readers because the boys can choose books, novels, texts, and e-books that interest and engage them.

For Writer’s Workshop, the students choose the topics about which they write within the confines of the genre requirements.  The vignette form of writing is the first genre covered in the sixth grade.  Rather than mandate that it be a personal narrative vignette, we allow the students to choose the topic.  This choice and freedom empowers the students.  “I can write a short story about anything?” we often hear our students exclaim.  For boys, writing is generally not something they enjoy doing.  They would much rather go outside and play or explore instead of writing.  We want our students to see writing as something that can be fun and hands-on.  If we allow our students to write about topics that engage them, a sense of excitement develops within them.

STEM Class

An effective way to bring science to life is to create a Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) class.  Students have difficulty seeing how the different math and science puzzle pieces fit together.  They also struggle with the math concepts when they aren’t applied in realistic ways that make sense to them. Helping the students build neurological connections between prior knowledge and what they learn in our classroom is one of the many ways we make our program meaningful for our students.

Our STEM class teaches students to persevere.  They learn how to overcome adversity, think differently, see problems from numerous perspectives, communicate effectively, and be curious. We teach students what to do when faced with a new problem. As Angela Lee Duckworth stated in her well-received TED Talk, we need to teach our students how to be gritty. Our sixth graders are provided with opportunities to explore, try new things, fail, try again, talk with their peers, sketch out new ideas, and then do it all over again.

Our STEM curriculum holds the bar high for our students. Rigor doesn’t mean that we require more work to be done for the sake of doing it, it means that the standards and objectives we are teaching are challenging, specific, and relevant. Our STEM units challenge students to think creatively and solve problems in innovative ways. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Common Core Math Standards (CCSS) are the foundation of our STEM curriculum. These standards promote rigor and problem solving in fun and engaging ways.

PEAKS Class

At Cardigan, while we weave study skills into every course that we teach, we have one class devoted to supplementing and supporting every other core subject: Personalized Education for the Acquisition of Knowledge and Skills (PEAKS).  The true purpose of the course is to help the students understand how they best learn, metacognition.  Through self-inventories and mini-lessons on learning styles and the multiple intelligences at the start of the year, the boys begin to become self-aware of their own learning styles and preferences.  Much reflection is also completed throughout the year so that the boys have a chance to observe their strengths and weakness and set goals to work toward.  They also document this learning process in an e-portfolio that they continuously update throughout the year.  Beginning the year in this way, allows the students to focus on the process of learning and how being self-aware will help them grow and develop.  During the winter term, students learn about brain plasticity and how their working memory functions as a way to build upon their self-awareness and genuinely own their learning.  This course supports and challenges each and every student where and when they need it.

Homework

Student engagement isn’t confined within the walls of the classroom.  What the students do or don’t do outside of the classroom can be equally important.  If students aren’t seeing the relevance or value in their homework assignments, then we’ve lost them.  In the sixth grade, we approach homework in the same manner we approach everything.  It’s all about choice and engagement.  We want the students to further practice the skills learned in the classroom in a captivating way that allows them to continue learning and growing as a student.  Homework is not graded and assessed purely for effort.  If we want our students to practice, fail, try again, and continue to practice, then we must not grade this practice work.  Plus, since the students are completing the work outside of the classroom, it is difficult to know who is doing the work and how it is being done.  Are the boys getting assistance from peers, teachers, or parents to complete the work?  While we promote this self-help approach, grading the individual students on work when we don’t know exactly how the work was completed.  Most of the homework assigned is a continuation of what was worked on in class.  

For example, in humanities class, we do much writing and reading.  So, a typical homework assignment is to read from their Reader’s Workshop book for 30 minutes.  As they choose their Reader’s Workshop books based on ability and interest level, the engagement is already there.  Plus, this practice allows them to increase their reading stamina so that they are prepared for the reading demands of seventh grade.  Homework assignments shouldn’t be separate, stand-alone tasks that overly challenge the students.  Developmentally, by the time the sixth graders get to evening study hall at 7:30 p.m. they are exhausted and unable to focus for a long period of time in order to effectively process information and solve problems.  You might say that our homework assignments complement the classroom curriculum the way a beautiful brooch can bring out the colors of a flowing dress.

Project-Based Learning

To prepare students for lives in the global society in which they will live and work, we teach our students how to effectively work in groups to solve open-ended problems with no right or wrong answer. Students need to know how to delegate tasks, lead groups of their peers, follow instructions, ask questions, and solve problems. Project Based Learning ties all of the aforementioned skills together with ribbons of the required curriculum. While the students are engaged with the content and hands-on aspects of the project, they are also learning crucial life skills that will help them persevere and learn to overcome adversity.

Standards-Based Assessment

To help our students adopt learning skills necessary to grow and develop as critical thinkers and problem solvers, we use a standards-based system of grading. The focus is on the standard or objective being assessed. If our curriculum is set up according to the standards, why should we grade the students on anything other than what the curriculum asks? If we are teaching paragraph structure and the standard is, students will be able to craft an original, properly formatted, and complete paragraph, then we should only be grading student work on that one standard using a scale that aligns with the school’s grading criteria? Points must not be taken away for spelling, grammar, or other reasons unless the paragraph is being assessed regarding those standards as well. Rick Wormeli and other leading educational reform leaders have been talking about standards-based grading for years. It is the only way to accurately grade students on what is essential.

In this vein, we also want the students to understand that learning is a process.  Education is like a living organism.  Our students will grow, change, regress, and evolve throughout the year.  As we expect and want our students to meet or exceed all of the objectives covered so that we know they will be fully prepared for seventh grade, we allow students to redo work that doesn’t meet the graded objectives.  The boys are allowed to redo all and any work for a unit until the unit has finished.  They can seek help from the teachers and utilize any feedback we provide to them in order to showcase their ability to meet or exceed the objectives.  This grading system is dynamic and can be changed to allow for the students to employ a growth mindset and truly own their learning.

Conclusion

At Cardigan, we prepare students for an unknown future in a world that will inevitably be very different from its current state.  Because of this, in the sixth grade, we have devised over many years of data collection, research, and practice, to develop a strong and creative academic and social program that engages students in an applicable curriculum that teaches problem solving, critical thinking, coexistence, and how to manifest and utilize a growth mindset.  Students who attend Cardigan Mountain School starting in the sixth grade and then go onto graduate at the close of their ninth grade year receive a meaningful and rich experience.  They grow up together, and, in turn, a family atmosphere and spirit is created within that group of four-year boys.  While it can be challenging at times to be a sixth grade student at Cardigan, our inclusive program helps the boys feel safe and connected within a special family known as the sixth grade.