How Do I Let Go of my Insecurities in the Classroom?

Growing up in a conservative town, the school I attended had many old-school teachers who had been teaching at that same school for decades.  They believed in the completely inaccurate and horrific old adage of, Children should be seen and not heard.  My teachers trained me to raise my hand when I had something to say.  If students shouted out in the classroom, they were sent out of the room, lectured at, beat with a ruler, or sent to the principal’s office.  I learned that the safest way to make it through a school day was to just be quiet.  I rarely spoke in class because of this model of education.  Even now, in faculty meetings, when I have something to say, I raise my hand rather than just speak out.  Old habits die hard.

Because of my life experiences, when I first became an educator several years ago, I believed that children must raise their hand to speak in class.  So, I held my students to this high standard for a few years.  I would penalize or speak with those students who did shout out instead of raising their hand.  I think I did it out of respect.  I felt as though the students should respect me as their teacher by raising their hand to share an idea or thought with the group.  Not raising one’s hand and shouting out seemed disrespectful to me.  So, I followed the mantra my teachers used even though I hated it when I was a student.

Luckily, I was able to break this vicious cycle a few years after taking a course on the neuroscience of education.  I learned how students really learn.  They need to explore, collaborate, communicate, try, share, fail, and try again.  They need to feel safe and supported.  While forcing students to raise their hand in order to speak in class, allows me as the teacher to be in control of the students at all times, it also makes the classroom very teacher-centered, which is not a good model to follow.  The students need to feel like they have ownership over their learning.  They need to be engaged in what they are learning.  Although I do ask my students to raise their hands when they have a question or thought to share with the class, I try not to penalize those few students who do struggle to keep their ideas inside.  I want my students to feel heard, as long as they are doing so in a compassionate and respectful manner.  I no longer think of shouting out as disrespectful towards me, but rather, I don’t want my students to be disrespectful their peers.  This new approach has allowed me to foster a student-centered classroom in which the students feel heard and respected.  They feel like an integral part of the learning process.  It’s no longer about me vs. them, instead, we’re all in this together like one big happy family.

Every once in awhile though, I do find myself falling back into old habits and speaking to the class about not shouting out.  Today felt like one of those days.  One student in particular shouted out on several occasions.  Rather than point him out directly, I said to the class, “Shouting out is disrespectful behavior that needs to stop.  Thank you to those of you who are raising your hand to participate in our discussion.  I really appreciate that.”  While I wasn’t calling the student out in particular, I was highlighting the fact that shouting out is negative behavior.  Now, on occasion today, this student did add his insight and questions without raising his hand, but he did so, at times, in a respectful manner.  Rather than talk over his classmates, he waited for openings in the conversation.  This is perfectly appropriate behavior.  I didn’t comment on those moments.  Instead, I focused on the moments during which he was talking over students, as this is rude disrespectful behavior.  However, I do wonder if this message was made clear to my students.  Do they understand how to appropriately add to a discussion by not raising their hand?  Well, they do because we’ve taught them the Socratic model of discussion.  They have lengthy group discussions run by the students during which no hands are raised.  They wait for breaks in the conversation to add their thoughts.  Perhaps I should speak with them, as a class, about how to appropriately participate in class discussions.  Shouting out while others are talking is not an effective method.  Waiting for breaks in the conversation like our Socratic discussions is the best way to jump into a conversation without raising one’s hand.  After I return from presenting at the NELMS Conference in Providence, RI, I will tell this to the students.  I want them to understand that it’s not disrespectful to appropriately add to a discussion without raising their hand.  I just need to be sure that I hold myself to this line and not fall back into old habits and try to maintain control of the class at any cost.  Sometimes, this insecurity that I posses, causes me to make mistakes and not be the most effective teacher possible.  Writing about it on this here blog helps me name it and understand how I can grow and change for the better.  One of my many goals as teacher is to guide and not lead or control students.  I need to give up control and help my students effectively learn how to be respectful and compassionate citizens.

Is it Possible to Reach ALL of the Students in my Classroom?

In college, I had to take a Spanish class as part of my dual major.  I wasn’t psyched about it as learning a language has always been challenging for me.  I’m not sure exactly why, but trying to learn how to speak in another language has always proved difficult for me and my brain.  So, on day one, I went into class thinking that it would be just like the last Spanish class I had taken during the previous semester.  Oh boy was I wrong.  The teacher walked into the room and began talking completely in Spanish with no translation.  My peers and I shared odd and scared expressions.  Are we in the right class?  What is going on?  What is he saying?  Do we have to write down everything he’s saying?  Ahh, I thought, this is terrifying.  After my brain acclimated to this new way of thinking and learning, I began to really get into the class.  I actually started to enjoy learning Spanish.  It was becoming easier for me.  By the end of the course, every student in the class was almost fluent in basic, conversational, Spanish.  It was amazing.  Despite the very horrific start to the class, we all felt a strong sense of accomplishment.  The teacher had found a way to engage and reach each and every student in the class.  He had made learning a new language something I wanted to suddenly start doing.  While I don’t remember much Spanish from that class, I do remember the feeling I had leaving the course.  I felt cared for and attended to.  The teacher made sure that I understood Spanish and could speak it by the end of the course.

As a teacher, I strive to make my students feel the same way that my Spanish teacher made me feel over the course of the class.  I want my students to understand what they learning while also feeling successful, safe, and cared for.  In STEM class, I often find it challenging to be sure I am reaching each and every student in my class.  The ELLs in my class struggle to understand new concepts covered as they have never learned them in their native language.  Their prior knowledge is limited and so it is very hard sometimes to help them understand the concepts being covered.  So, every time I begin a new unit in STEM class, I try to find new and inventive ways to introduce the concepts so that every student in my class gains at least a basic, foundational understanding of the big idea being covered.

Yesterday in STEM class, I introduced our new unit on Climate Change to the students.  As this concept is often confusing for all students to really wrap their minds around, I wanted to make sure that I found a meaningful way to explain the concept to my students.  I began by asking the students what Climate Change means.  What is Climate Change?  This allowed me a chance to assess the prior knowledge of my students while also correcting any inaccuracies they have about the concept.  This question proved to be a valuable way to begin the unit as many of the students confuse global warming with Climate Change.  So, I made sure to explain the difference between the concepts so that any confusion would be eliminated.  I then asked the boys to think about why Climate Change is an important issue or topic of discussion.  Why should we care about Climate Change?  The students seemed to understand why Climate Change is a big idea that all people should know and care about.  I was impressed.  To help the students really solidify their understanding of Climate Change and what is causing our weather on Earth to change so rapidly, I then put on a little show for the students.

I placed some sand in a bowl to represent Earth.  I then put a hunk of ice on the sand before placing a cover over the bowl to represent Earth’s atmosphere and ozone layer.  I then aimed a blow dryer at the bowl, explaining how the gasses in Earth’s atmosphere create a shield to help block the sun’s harmful ways from entering our atmosphere and planet.  I explained how the sun’s rays enter the atmosphere and then exit again in a cyclical nature.  I made sure to state how this process was happening long before humans inhabited our planet.  Then, when humans began inventing and growing, carbon gas was being emitted into Earth’s atmosphere at a very rapid rate, creating a wall of sorts, within the atmosphere.  The carbon molecules linked with the other gasses in the atmosphere to build a one-way wall.  Earth’s rays could enter the atmosphere but the heat wasn’t allowed to escape Earth like it once did prior to the evolution of humans.  At this point, I removed the cover and replaced it with a piece of plastic wrap.  I then aimed the blow dryer at the bowl.  The students were able to see how the heat from the blow dryer was now melting the ice at an alarming pace.  I then got into an explanation on the ozone layer and how that helps keep much of the sun’s harmful rays away from Earth.  I then allowed the students to ask any follow-up questions they still had about Climate Change and how it has happened over time on Earth.  One of the ESL students in my class asked a clarifying question about how humans caused Earth’s climate to change so quickly.  I drew a diagram on the whiteboard to help this student understand what happened.  This seemed to really help.  By the end of this portion of the period, every student seemed to have formed a pretty strong foundation of knowledge regarding Climate Change.  I was excited as I had finally found a way to engage and reach every student in my class regarding this new STEM concept.  All of my hours of reflecting and refining my approach paid off.  I gave myself a mental high five and did a little dance.  Yah for me!

What was it that helped this dream become a reality for me in class yesterday?  I believe that because I began the class by briefly explaining the concept through clarifying the limited prior knowledge that some of my students had regarding Climate Change, I was able to set my students up for success.  I gave them a basic definition of the concept to help them begin to question and process this new information.  I then used a visual display and model to specifically explain, in detail, the concept of Climate Change and how humans brought it into existence.  This helped the students take that basic understanding of Climate Change and solidify it within their minds.  They began to see how it came to be and what caused it.  This tangible representation seemed to help my ELLs really make sense of what could be a very confusing idea.  They saw, on a small scale, what Climate Change is all about.  I then provided the students even more time to process this new concept so that they could ask any clarifying questions they still had regarding this new big idea.  Breaking the introduction of this new concept down into manageable chunks seemed to help the students fully understand this very complex idea.  Rather than just talk at the students about a new idea or topic, having them see the concept come to life, helps those students who struggle to process information auditorily.  This approach to introducing a new idea allowed me to reach each every student in my class.  Isn’t that what we as teachers should be striving for?  We want to help all of our students be and feel successful and I feel as though the introductory lesson I implemented yesterday allowed just that to happen.

Looking Back on the First Sixth Months of the Academic Year

As our lengthy March Break begins tomorrow, it feels like a fine time to reflect on the first two-thirds of the academic year.  It’s hard to believe that when we return from spring break, we will only have about nine weeks until summer vacation.  Where did the time go? It feels like just yesterday we were getting the students acclimated to the world of sixth grade at Cardigan, but alas, they are seasoned veterans on the ways of the classroom and are almost ready for seventh grade and all of the adventures that they will experience next year.  As the end nears, I feel myself getting nostalgic.  Remember when we went to the Sargent Center?  Remember when we had our first Marble Party?  Remember when we first met our bunnies on the farm?  At the same time, though, I’m excited for the fun we still have left and and all of the learning I’m sure to do.

This has been a fantastic year filled with many new experiences:

  • I worked with a new co-teacher this year, who has taught me a lot about teaching and working with students.  While I did have to train her on how our sixth grade program works during the first few weeks and months, she was a fast learner and asked lots of great questions.  I am blessed to have her on my team.
  • I piloted a Farm Program in the sixth grade this year, which the boys love.  They have enjoyed learning how a farm works, raising and caring for bunnies, planting various flora and vegetables, and learning about the importance of caring for the natural world while understanding our place in it.  The boys have learned much as is evident in their weekly journal entries.  This hands on experience was definitely worth all of the hard work that went into planning and preparing for this new program over the summer.  All classes and schools need a Farm Program like ours.  It’s beneficial to the students in numerous ways.
  • I made use of a computer coding online computer program called Code Combat this year.  The students have enjoyed learning all about the Python coding language as they play games and complete various tasks.  It’s helping prepare the students for the technology class they will take as seventh graders.  It’s also opening windows for students who never realized, prior to this year, that they were interested in technology or computer coding.  It’s planting seeds of curiosity within the boys.  I’ve really enjoyed using it and am glad that I happened upon this fun little program over the summer.
  • My mission to have all of my students learn how to solve the Rubik’s Cube fizzled out a bit in the past few weeks.  Earlier in the year, the students would spend ten minutes every week working on learning to solve the cube.  They seemed engaged and excited.  While several students were quick learners and figured out how to solve it within a month or so, there were a few who never really devoted the extra time to figuring it out and have gotten stuck.  No matter how many different ways I try to help those few struggling students, because they are employing a fixed mindset when it comes to this skill, they are unable to figure out how to successfully solve it.  Of course, because our last two units required more in-class work time, the students haven’t had a chance to play with their cubes in almost two months.  I’m hoping to get back into a weekly routine following our long break.  While I don’t want to give up on the challenge I put before myself back in September, I also want to be cautious of not setting myself up for failure.  I’ll have to wait and see what happens in April and May.  Fingers crossed.
  • I utilized Little Bits in my STEM class this year as part of the Astronomy Unit.  The students, working in small groups, had to develop and build a working prototype of a space rover that would help them solve a problem.  The students thoroughly enjoyed this unit.  They loved playing with the circuits and figuring out how to put them together in a meaningful manner.  This new addition was a huge success.  I’m so glad I piloted them in the classroom this year.
  • I restructured our math units so that they were more aligned with the Math in Focus book series we use.  I made sure that the introduction of each new skill was accompanied by a mini-lesson.  I wanted the students to feel successful as they practiced new math skills in preparation for next year.  After a bit of a disastrous math experience last year, I have been very pleased with the outcome I’ve seen so far.  My students are making progress and seem to feel good about math.  Many of my students spend time outside of class working on their assigned Khan Academy course because they want to learn more.  This leads me to believe that the changes I brought about this year in how I taught the math curriculum were successful.

It has truly been an epic year in the sixth grade.  I’ve been pleased with how our classroom community has developed since September.  All of the students seem to really like each other.  They are kind and compassionate and go out of their way to help each other.  It’s quite amazing to see this in action.  They are a fun and insightful group that have made huge strides in many ways.  Our ELLs have made tremendous growth regarding their English writing, reading, and speaking.  Their vocabulary has grown exponentially.  Our shy students have blossomed into social butterflies and our class leaders have become even stronger.  Because we put so much time and energy in during the first two months of the academic year to help our students hone their social skills and develop their emotional intelligence, our students have been able to grow and mature in so many other ways at such a rapid pace.  Fostering a sense of care, trust, and safety in the classroom is crucial to helping support and challenge students.  Our year has been so great in the sixth grade because of the effort and dedication my co-teacher and I put in early on.  I can’t wait to see what excitement and fun will be had during the final two months of the school year when we return from break in late March.

Teaching Students to Enjoy Drama

Writing has always been one of my passions.  When I was struggling to deal with the death of my grandfather back in my teen years, I turned to writing to deal with and address my emotions and feelings.  I processed my grief, anger, and sadness by scribbling letters and words onto lined paper.  The weight I placed upon myself after my grandfather passed away, seemed to leave my body when the black pen chaotically danced upon the paper, revealing more of my true emotions and feelings.  Aside from music, writing was one of my main outlets.  It served a purpose that blossomed into a passion.  I love crafting creative stories, sculpting poems, and constructing expository pieces.  Writing has always been my jam, like the first song on Thursday’s Full Collapse album.

While I dabbled in multiple writing forms over the years, one genre I tried to avoid, like any country song ever made, was drama.  I just didn’t get plays.  What purpose do they really serve?  The character development is usually quite weak and the setting is so bland and gray.  I used to view plays as the unnecessary form of writing, like any movie starring Brad Pitt.  They seemed so mundane and artificial.  I just didn’t get drama.  So, as a teacher, I avoided teaching a play or even introducing the writing form for many years.  I let my bias of the art form influence my choices in the classroom.  Because I didn’t like plays, I would make sure that my students felt the same way.  Well, back then anyway.  Then, a co-teacher of mine from a few years ago opened my eyes to the genre.  “We should introduce drama to our students.  We should read a play altogether as a class,” she suggested.  So, as I valued her opinion, I listened.  I remembered reading the play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose many moons ago when I was in high school and not totally hating it, unlike any play ever penned by Shakespeare.  So, I grabbed a copy and refreshed my memory.  It was short and contained enough roles for every student in our class.  Plus, a few of the boys would have the opportunity to curse.  They’d like that.  So, we went with it.  The students loved it.  You would have thought we gave them an extra free period to play games.  They couldn’t get enough of it.  That was quite a few years ago, and I have taught this play ever since.  Each year the students in my class have a blast acting out and performing this play.  They love examining the symbolism of the eighth juror and the anger some of the men in the jury room possess.  So it seemed that my dislike of plays and drama started to transform into something else.  I’m not willing to say that I like plays now, but I do have space in my writing heart for the genre now.

As we completed reading 12 Angry Men in class earlier this week, I realized that we still had class time together prior to our March Break.  Instead of beginning our new unit on the Middle East Region, I decided to give the students a chance to try creating their own play.  As we analyzed Rose’s masterpiece over the past two weeks, I knew that the students understood the form of drama and how it works.  So, why not have them take a crack at writing their own play?  It seemed like a rather cutting edge idea.  I liked it.  So, I did it.

Today, I explained the assignment that laid ahead of them: “Now you have the chance to be like Reginald Rose.  You get to create your own play.  Perhaps you’ll want to rewrite a scene from 12 Angry Men or update it or maybe you’ll want to craft a parody of 12 Angry Men.  If none of those ideas seem to tickle your fancy, you could always craft an original play about something completely different.  You get to choose.  So, choose an idea that is exciting.  Pick a topic that will be fun for you to write.”  After fielding some questions, the students got right to work.  I could tell that some of the boys were very excited about the prospect of crafting their own play.  One of the students asked the class if it would be okay for him to use their names in his play.  The students gave him the big thumbs up.  While most of the students quickly whipped open their laptops and started feverishly typing as though their life depended on it, a few of the students sat, staring at a blank screen for many minutes.  No ideas seemed to come to them.  They were stuck.  Rather than provide them with ideas, I let them struggle through.  They were getting to what I like to call the sweet spot.  When students begin to struggle with a task or assignment, they either shut down, misbehave, sit motionless lost in thought, or persevere.  As long as students don’t have a meltdown in the classroom or start distracting their peers, I know they’ve hit the sweet spot.  The point at which the neurons in their brain begin to sizzle with creativity.  Sometimes, students stay stuck in this sweet spot for a while, until the right idea comes to them, but when it comes, oh man.  It’s awesome!  You can almost see the mental wheels begin to turn.  The creative juices flow through them like sweat from the brow of an athlete in the heat of competition.  After twenty minutes of staring at a blank computer screen, those three stuck students, found their idea.  They worked through the struggle to find that one special idea.  Then, even they couldn’t be stopped.  They kept writing and writing.  Some students had several pages of their original play finished by the end of the sixty minute work period.  They were on fire.

Many of the students were so excited by what they had begun to create, that they felt the need to share what they had with me or a peer.  During the Morning Break period, instead of taking a break to get a snack, use the restroom, or check their email, several of the students stayed in the classroom working on their play.  At that same time, I noticed a few of the students gathered around one student’s computer screen.  Usually, this means they are playing a game or doing something they shouldn’t be doing.  I waited a few moments before checking on the situation.  Giggling erupted from the group of students as they stared at the computer screen.  “What are they doing now?” I thought to myself.  Then, when I walked over to find out what was going on, I realized that they were reading a play that one of them had written.  It was titled 12 Angry Bunnies and was a parody of the play we had read.  Bunnies were in cage deliberating on a case involving another bunny.  It was quite original and funny.  The boys were so into this playwrighting exercise.  I was in awe.  The genre that once felt like a thorn in my side, was now being enjoyed by my students.  They had so much fun writing their own, unique masterpiece.  It was amazing.  My students were taking to drama like I took to Coheed and Cambria and City and Colour.  Was it me?  Did I help to inspire them?  I may be a really cool educator with a lot of fantastic talents, but an inspiration?  Really, I doubt it.  I think it was 12 Angry Men.  They enjoyed this play so much that it inspired them to want to create their own play.  When at first some of the students seemed stuck or even a little frustrated about having to write a play, they all ended the period enamored by this genre that I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them continued working on their play over the upcoming break.  Who knew that something I used to loathe could turn into a teachable moment and fun for my students.  Maybe I’ll some day learn to like country music and share my new love with my students.  Yah, no.  Country music is not for me and never will be.  Frankly, it should really not be for anyone, unless there are people out there who like when their ears bleed.