When Things Don’t Go as Planned in the Classroom

I like to think of myself as a classroom prognosticator.  I feel as though I am generally quite good at predicting the future in my classroom.  I know that if two particular students sit together, they will chat and distract each other all day long.  I also know that my students will be excited in Humanities class on Monday because they love Reader’s Workshop.  My crystal spherical object usually points me in the right direction.  Because I spend so much time planning and preparing for lessons, activities, and field trips, I almost always know how things will go in the classroom.  I need extra time for some lessons and less time for others.  I know these things to be true because I’ve experienced them before.  New things, lessons, or activities, on the other hand, are a different beast entirely.  While I am still pretty good at predicting how new things will go in the classroom, every once in awhile my prediction turns out to be wrong.  Now, why is this, you must be asking yourself.  If I am so good at reading the future on a daily basis, why do I struggle with predicting the outcome of new events?  It’s those unknown factors.  What if the technology doesn’t work properly?  What if students don’t understand my directions?  What if there is a fire drill during the lesson?  Those unknown variables are the ones that mess me up.  They are my kryptonite.  Although I try to prepare for every unknown situation, it’s just not possible.  I occasionally miss one or two variables every time I plan a new lesson.  Generally, those variables are so minute or not relevant that the lesson usually will still usually go as planned; however, there are exceptions to every rule.

Today saw one of those exceptions play out in my STEM class.  My goal was to help the students learn how to use the flashcard making application Quizlet to create flashcards for the vocabulary terms we’ve covered in our math unit.  I had the list of words already prepared and posted to our learning management system.  I checked it twice yesterday to make sure that it still worked.  I played around with Quizlet to be sure I knew how to navigate the website as well.  I even made a test set of flashcards to try out the games and test.  I felt ready and prepared.  I had thought of everything, except the biggest, most crucial part: What if the students can’t locate the vocabulary terms in their math book?  I failed to think about how they would locate the terms in their book.  What if the definition wasn’t in their book?  What if they needed to infer the meaning of the word from the book?  What if they couldn’t remember a certain concept?  Then what are they supposed to do?

After explaining the activity to the students, modeling how to use Quizlet, and answering all of their questions, I let them get to work.  Soon after they started working, the questions started pouring in.  “I can’t find the definition.  What if I don’t know what the word means?  I don’t understand this word?” many of the students said as they worked on the task of making math vocabulary flashcards.  I had forgotten to tell them how to use their book to find the words and what to do when a word wasn’t directly defined in the text.  While most students were able to draw conclusions on their own to solve the task, a few students struggled to complete this task because of the directions I had omitted.  Had I better explained this portion of the activity, they might have felt more successful and needed less of my support.  What I thought was going to take 15 minutes, ended up taking more than 30 minutes to complete.

The moral of this story is, I can’t predict the future no matter how hard I try.  Unknown variables are called that because no one knows what they are.  They are unknown for a reason.  I can’t possibly plan for every single issue, dilemma, or happening.  Luckily, I rolled with today’s lesson and most every student was able to finish the task by the end of class.  I felt a bit off though because I hadn’t properly prepared my students to complete the activity successfully.  Next time, I need to be sure I model how to complete the task and not just how to use the technology tool.  At the end of the period, I shared my thoughts and noticings with the students.  I explained how I thought this activity was going to be short and simple but ended up being a bit convoluted and took much longer than anticipated.  I shared with the boys how I need to better prepare for an activity like this in the future.  I need to be sure I show them how to complete an activity like this.  Although today’s STEM lesson didn’t go entirely as planned, it taught me an important life lesson and allowed me to show vulnerability to my students.  Even teachers make mistakes.  With a growth mindset, failure can quickly be transformed into an opportunity to learn.

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Helping Students Think Like Scientists

In the current state of our country, it’s amazing to see scientists and citizen scientists coming out in droves to support science and its many fields.  Without scientists observing the natural world and collecting data about it, we would never have realized how much damage we as humans are doing to the globe because we burn and consume so much carbon.  We might not understand how DNA works if scientists hadn’t studied living organisms.  Science is what helps us understand the complex world on a higher level.  We can’t expect to move forward with technology, life, and everything else without science.  As our country’s government ignores science facts and knowledge, it’s important for us as teachers to remember that we have a critical role to play.  We need to educate our students to think like scientists, to question everything, and to understand how vital their role is in making the world a better place for all living things.

One of the many benefits of the farm program we utilize in the sixth grade, is scientific thinking.  The students learn how to observe the natural world and understand it on a higher level because they’re always asking why.  Why is that goat black and the other goat white?  Why do daylilies grow in clumps?  Why do some chickens have puffier tails?  The students have learned to question everything and figure out why it is that way?  This natural curiosity that they are practicing and learning this year on the farm bleeds over into the classroom as well.  The students are asking why do some Muslim women wear headscarves while others don’t?  Why do more men than women attend college in some parts of the world?  What would have happened had Italy’s dictator not been executed during WWII?  The boys are learning to question everything in order to fully piece together a mental puzzle of the world and how it works.

Yesterday for Farm Fun Friday, we headed back to the farm we visited in the fall since it has warmed up enough and all of the snow has finally melted.  The focus for yesterday’s visit was on observations.  Observe the animals, living things, and other components of the farm.  What do they tell us?  What do we know about the sheep and goats because they sat the entire time we were watching them?  Do their feet hurt?  Do they need to have their nails clipped?  What did we notice about the chickens?  Are some developing differently than others, and if so, what does that mean?  The boys made observations in their farm journals as they watched the farm awaken from the dead of winter and blossom into the beautiful spring.  The students were asking many great questions about what they observed.  Why did it seem that one or two daylilies in each bunch seemed to be taller than the rest?  Why are some of the chickens developing tails? Why did my bunny not seem to grow much from our last visit?  What does all of this tell us about the farm and the way the natural world works?

This curiosity the students have gained as a product of our farm program, has helped them to begin developing the critical thinking skills they will need to live meaningful lives in a global society.  Now that they know how to make relevant observations and question things, my hope is that they will be able to go out into the world better equipped to deal with problems encountered.  They won’t just accept adversity when they see it or have it happen to them as they know to question everything.  They will fight for what is right and stand up for things that matter to them.  They won’t allow people in positions of power to take away the freedom of others or say no to science.  Thinking like a scientist has helped my students grow and develop in many ways for their present courses as well as everything the future has in store for them.

Bringing the Research Process to Life For my Students

I used to cringe when my teachers said, “Okay boys and girls, today you are going to choose your research topics.”  NOOOOOOOO! I used to think.  I hated research projects as a student.  Research always seemed like such an evil word that basically meant lots of reading and notetaking.  And on top of all that unnecessary work, I usually had to research a topic that I cared nothing about.  What’s the point?  I just jumped through the hoops to get a grade and didn’t learn anything.  My teachers never taught me how to pull out the main ideas from a text, how to paraphrase information learned to take effective notes, how to properly cite sources, or how to synthesize information learned to write a cohesive essay or report.  It wasn’t until college that I learned how to effectively complete a research project.

To make sure that my students don’t see research in the same way I did when I was their age, I teach the research process like a journey or adventure.  I want my students to see the fun in digging into sources and searching for answers.  It’s like a giant mystery.  In the sixth grade, we use the I-Search approach to teaching the research process.  This method transforms the research process from boring and tedious to engaging and reflective.

  1. The students choose a topic that interests them.  We make sure that they are in love with their topic before even beginning the finding sources phase of the process.  If they are not thoroughly interested and devoted to their topic, then the process will quickly become banal.  So, we have them brainstorm a list of questions they want to know about their topic.  This helps us understand how engaged they are with their topic.  The more curious they are, the more invested they will be in learning about what they choose.  For many students, this is the easy part of the project as they are often very interested in many different topics regarding our units of study.  Sample topics used by our students this year include the hanging gardens, the rise of terrorism in the Middle East region, Buddhist traditions, and Muslim headscarves.
  2. Once they have their topic, they generate a guiding question or two regarding their topic that will drive their research.  We take the time to teach the students how to create guiding questions.  What makes an effective guiding question?  What question words will allow for a question to have multiple answers?  How can you make sure that your question will allow you to dig deeply into your topic?  This phase can be challenging for some students who struggle to think critically.  With guidance and support, they all eventually have an effective question that will guide them through their research journey.  Some questions students generated this year include the following: How does the parliamentary monarchy form of government affect the country of Jordan?  Are there different kinds of Islamic clothing worn by women, and if so, what do they represent?  How did the religion of Hinduism begin?  What are the different string instruments used in the Middle East region?
  3. What many people commonly refer to as the first stage of the research process only begins once the students have a road map for where they would like to go.  Now, sometimes, that destination changes because they were unaware of the many scenic detours their research journey takes them on.  For the most part though, when the students construct an effective guiding question, they know where they hope to end up when all is said and done.  The third phase of the project involves carefully choosing reputable resources from which they will extract useful information.  We have the students locate two web resources, one book, and one interview source.  The students need to create a proper MLA citation for each source found, after they fully investigate the source.  Is it useful?  Will it help them answer their guiding question?  Is the source reputable and trustworthy?  For each source they choose, they have to answer a series of questions that will help them determine if they have indeed found effective research sources.  In this phase, the students get to apply the skills they learned earlier in the year regarding proper MLA citation, conducting an effective web search, and identifying reputable Internet sources.
  4. Once they have mapped out their research journey, then, and only then, do they begin learning about their topic.  They read pages and pages of information regarding their topic.  As they read, they extract important knowledge nuggets in their own words in their I-Search document.  This allows the students yet another chance to practice paraphrasing information learned, as this is a skill many students struggle to master in the upper middle grades.  Once they finish extracting all they can find from each source, they reflect on the source itself.  Was it as useful as they thought?  Did it give them the information they had hoped it would?  What else do they still need to know and learn?
  5. After they have found the buried treasure they searched so hard for, they then need to create a final, revised treasure map as the map they originally created most likely changed throughout the research process.  What did you learn about your topic and about yourself as a researcher?  They create a What I Learned report all about their research process.  While they do discuss what they learned about their topic and guiding question, they also focus on the various stages of the research process.  What phases of the research process are most important and why?  This turns into a very reflective report regarding their research process.
  6. Once the students have had a chance to learn about themselves as researchers and found many knowledge nuggets regarding their chosen topic, they then get to share their findings with the world?  What did you learn?  Why was it interesting?  The students choose a method in which they will present their process and information learned to the class.  Some students create iMovies and slideshows while others get creative and make posters and dioramas.  The possibilities are endless.  This phase is all about creativity.  How can they make their topic and research process memorable and engaging to others?

The threads that tie the entire process together are the daily reflections the students complete at the end of each work period.  We have the students address two or three questions at the close of every period so that they can stop and think about themselves as a researcher.  What went well and what struggles are they encountering?  They add these reflections to their I-Search document that showcases all of their work.  This document is what we, as the teachers, use to assess their work.  As many skills are being applied in the completion of this project, it is a very large task with many objective grades.

To make this project seem engaging to the students, we introduce it as a journey.  On Tuesday in Humanities class, I strapped on a fancy prospector’s hat and got out a hammer to explain the fourth phase of the I-Search process.  I had the students imagine that they were living on the east coast of the US in the 1800s when word of the California gold rush spread to them.  They of course got the itch to move west in search of money and dreams.  I acted out their journey west and the problems faced as metaphors for the research process.  I then got down on the floor of my classroom and pretended to sift through a river for gold.  I pretended to wipe sweat from my brow as I sifted and sifted for gold with no luck.  I made sure to highlight how I didn’t give up and persevered just like they will have to do when they read through their sources and don’t find the information they are looking for right away.  Then, I pretended to find gold and got all excited, like they will do when they learn about cool information regarding their topic.  After this little dramatization, the students seemed fired up.  They were excited to go on an adventure to mine for knowledge nuggets.  Making the research process come to life for my students helps make this vital life skill more engaging and relevant, thus, allowing for more deeper and genuine learning to take place.  Research isn’t about reading boring information and taking copious notes.  It’s about exploring unchartered territories and learning about new topics.  The research process is an adventure filled with unexpected twists and turns.  Utilizing the I-Search process helps our students see the excitement and fun that can be had when completing a research project.

What’s More Important, Skills or Content?

Thinking back on my school experience as a student, I recall very little about the content covered.  I could probably only tell you a few specific facts about each class I took in high school.  I know America fought in several wars, but I couldn’t tell you the specific dates.  Does that mean I didn’t learn anything in school?  Were my teachers ineffective?  No, because they taught me vital skills needed to succeed in life.  I know how to find answers to questions; I know what to do when I am struggling; and I know how to extract the main idea from a text.  I learned crucial skills that have helped me be successful in life.  I know how to study for exams and solve problems.  As a student, knowing how to do school and be a student is so much more important than learning the specific details of a historical time period or the symbolism of a character in a novel.

As a teacher, I make sure to focus on helping my students acquire key skills they will need to live meaningful lives in a global society.  After having a conversation with a colleague this morning regarding content versus skills, I realized how easy it is for teachers to get caught up in teaching content to their students.  “My students must memorize dates and names for battles and historical events,” some teachers might say.  This belief is much like fake news; if you believe it to be true, you begin to spread ignorance and falsities.  In the technological world in which we live where answers and information can be found by clicking a button, content knowledge is no longer what should be driving our curriculum.  Students don’t need to memorize the elements of the periodic table or mathematical formulas as they can quickly look them up online.  Instead, students need to know how to navigate the Internet, how to complete an effective online search, how to take notes and extract the main idea from a text, how to draw conclusions and make inferences from novels, and how to think critically to solve problems.  Of course, those are only some of the ever important skills our students need to acquire.  We need to teach our students how to be lifelong learners, thinkers, problem solvers, and doers.  Knowing a bunch of information will get you nowhere in life if you don’t know how to analyze literature or tackle a difficult math problem.  Teaching is about imparting vital life skills to our students by using the content information as a vehicle.  While my students think they are learning all about the Middle East region, they are really learning how to think critically about the world around them in order to broaden their perspective and be open to multiple stories and ideas.

Today in STEM class, my students worked on the final project for our unit on climate change.  The students generated unique solutions to the issue of climate change.  How can we reduce carbon emissions?  The boys, working in pairs, brainstormed creative products and ideas for addressing the issue of climate change and are now in the process of building a working prototype of their idea.  One group spent the period cutting and screwing together pieces of wood to build a box that will trap and store heat energy so that it can be recycled and reused by factories, while another group used various parts of a wind turbine kit to construct a working wind turbine that they will innovate for their solution.  Other groups spent the period working with Little Bits to create a solar battery that could be attached to glasses and planting wheat grass in an our aquaponics system that they will use as part of their solution.  The boys were applying numerous skills we’ve introduced and had them practice throughout the year in sixth grade including problem solving, critical thinking, perseverance, asking questions, appropriately using tools, and collaboration.  The students were focused for the entire work period, which lasted about 45 minutes.  It was awesome.

Where’s the content, you ask.  Well, the big ideas came earlier in the unit when the students learned about climate change, its causes, and its affect on Earth.  However, each group is learning tons of specific facts and knowledge nuggets regarding their solution.  One group has had to research all about how wind turbines work and how to construct their own while other groups are learning how electricity works so that they can wire their invention to store solar power, how to create a scaled-drawing, how to manipulate clay and cook it, and how to plant wheat grass.  This content is important to them because they need to learn it in order to create their invention.  I’m not telling my students they need to learn all about wiring and electricity or how to power a wind turbine, they want to learn that information so that they can create a working prototype of their solution.  The engagement with the content they are learning through completing this project is much higher than if I lectured at them and had them take notes.  They don’t always see the relevance in class discussions or knowledge I pass along to them during mini-lessons, but when they want to make a pair of solar powered glasses, they go out of their way to learn how that whole process works.  The learning becomes genuine and real.  So, there was plenty of content being learned in my classroom today, but that was only a by-product of the project.  This project, like every STEM project completed in the sixth grade, is all about the skills.  The students are learning how to work with their peers, solve problems, think creatively and critically about the world around them, and persevere through failure.  This is what classrooms around the world should look like.  They should be student-centered, where the focus is on learning and applying skills they will need to be successful in their lives outside of school.  Information and content can be fun, but if students don’t know what to do with it, that content becomes a roadblock to success and forward progress.

How to Effectively Communicate with Students

I was raised in a time when spanking children was an acceptable form of parenting.  When I sat on my baby sister, I got spanked.  What did that teach me, you ask.  Well, it taught me not to sit on my sister, or at least don’t get caught doing it.  It also taught me to fear my parents.  Was that an effective method of parenting?  Well, who am I to say what is right or wrong.  I learned much about life growing up and I feel as though I turned out okay, for the most part.  In the modern world in which we live, parenting like how I was raised is completely unacceptable and unheard of.  If you spank or hit your kids, you can go to jail or lose custody of your children.  We live in a world where words are used to solve conflict and help bring people together.  My wife and I parent through love and compassion.  Of course, we’re stern and hold our son accountable, but we try to do so in a collaborative manner.  It’s not us versus him.  We’re all on this crazy journey together.  While the method of parenting that we are using to raise our son seems to be working, it’s hard to tell if other approaches would be as effective.  Are we doing the right thing?  Saying the right thing?  Are we being too tolerant or too hard?  Parenting, much like teaching, is all about finding what works for the situation and time.  People do and say what they think is right for them.  But, is every approach, action, or word appropriate for every person?  Would raising a completely different child using the same method used to raise me work for that child?  Maybe, but it’s still hard to tell.  Parents and teachers do what they think is best for them and the situation.

Communication is key when connecting with students and building meaningful relationships.  For students to genuinely learn in the classroom, they need to feel safe, cared for, and supported.  How we talk to our students helps lay the foundation for the future.  If we show our students that we care about them and will do whatever it takes to support them, they will reciprocate accordingly.  The opposite is also true, however.  If we talk at our students or use disrespectful words when communicating with them, they will put up walls and be defensive.  Students need to feel cared for, and effective communication is an easy and vital way to make this happen.

Today in STEM class, as my students completed a check-in assessment for the lesson covered in class on Saturday, I noticed that one student, sat, doing nothing.  He wasn’t working or trying to complete his assessment in any way, and he wasn’t asking for help either.  My co-teacher and I have seen this sort of shut-down behavior from this particular student in the past.  When he gets overwhelmed or confused, he will often stop working and sit at his desk area, unmoving, almost motionless.  As I’ve found ways to help him get unstuck and make use of a growth mindset in the past, I wanted to help him again.  Part of me, though, was just frustrated with him.  Because he wasn’t fully engaged in Saturday’s mini-lesson, he struggled to understand the concept, but didn’t ask for assistance or help at all during or after class that day.  So, part of me wanted to ignore him and let him struggle.  Of course, the teacher in me realized that I needed to support and care for him.  So, I thought long and hard about what I would say before I approached him.

“It looks like you are really struggling.  Can I help you in anyway?  What seems to be the problem?” I asked him.  He responded, “It’s not that I don’t know how to do this, it’s just that I don’t remember how to do it.”  I then directed his attention to the first question that asked him to create a table regarding some data.  “Do you understand what you need to do for this one?” I asked.  He then asked some clarifying questions before getting to work.  Once he saw that I wasn’t going to let him struggle and fail without trying to support and help him, he was able to believe in himself and demonstrate his understanding of the skill being assessed.  A few minutes later he asked for assistance on his own.  He didn’t understand what one of the word problems was asking.  So, I reworded it in a way that would make more sense to him.  I also used visual cues.  He then looked at me with a strange expression on his face and said, “Did you just tell me what to do?”  I said, “No, I simply reworded the problem for you in a way that would help you better understand it.  Your brain processed the information in a meaningful way, telling you what to do.”  He then smiled and wrote down the answer.  He finished the rest of the assessment on his own.  He seemed to realize that I was there to support him if need be and so he wasn’t afraid to take a risk and try some of the problems.

Had I spoken to him in a frustrated tone or not carefully chosen my words, I could have caused him to stay shut down throughout the period.  While communication is an important part of connecting with students, it also needs to be effective communication if we want to build strong relationships with our students.  I wanted this particular student to feel cared for and supported and so I needed to make sure I used words that displayed that to him.  While this interaction was successful for this student today, it may not work for every student, every time.  I read this situation and acted accordingly.  If something similar happens to another student, I might need to use a slightly different approach that would work for that student in that moment.  With so many variables at play all of the time, there is not always one right answer when communicating with students; however, there are plenty of wrong ways to communicate with our students, and it’s important that we avoid them.  Thinking before acting and then using compassionate and caring language when communicating with students who are struggling is usually the best approach for these types of situations.

Is Collaboration an Effective Strategy for Teaching Math?

Sometimes I wish life came with an instruction manual.  Sure, it could be digital, but it would need to be prescriptive and descriptive, with diagrams.  In fact, it would probably be best in digital form as it would need to be millions of pages long.  I wonder what that might read like…

  1. Breathe.
  2. Cry.
  3. Drink mother’s milk.
  4. Poop.
  5. Pee.
  6. Sleep.
  7. Cry when you want to wake up.

There would truly be an infinite number of steps.  But wouldn’t it be nice to know how to deal with all that life throws your way?  I would really like validation regarding some of the things I’ve done in the classroom or at home as a husband and father.  Am I really doing the right thing?  Should I have done something differently?  Knowing, for certain, what I am supposed to do ahead of time in various situations would definitely help me feel more prepared.  This way I would also know if what I’m doing is the best option.  While I do like the freedom to choose and the excitement that comes from the unknown at times, I often question myself later on.  Did I handle that situation appropriately?  Could I have better addressed that issue?  Knowing what to do and being prepared at all times removes questioning from the equation altogether.  Imagine if you never needed to wonder how to deal with that student or address that issue with your child.  Wouldn’t that be great?

Since life doesn’t, sadly enough, come with instructions, I find myself often wondering if what I’m doing in the classroom is effective.  Is one teaching strategy better than another?  Today in my STEM class, the students worked on their assigned math course.  My co-teacher conducted a mini-lesson for the students in the supportive group while I lead a mini-lesson for the students in the accelerated group.  After the mini-lesson, which lasted about 15 minutes, the students got right to work on their assigned homework.  The students in each of the two groups, huddled together to complete the homework.  I was a bit worried that they would simply copy off of each other, and so I monitored these groups closely.  As we have fostered a strong sense of collaboration and compassion in the sixth grade classroom, the students are great at supporting one another in appropriate ways.  The groups of students seemed to be effectively working together to accomplish the task.  They talked through each problem, mapped it out on the whiteboard tables, and answered each other’s questions.  When one student was confused, another student helped by explaining the process or problem to the student in a meaningful manner.  Each student in both groups seemed to really understand the skill covered in today’s mini-lesson.  It was quite amazing to see this form of effective collaboration in action.  Because the content covered for the accelerated group was a bit challenging as it dealt with word problems, I was worried that two of the students in that group would really struggle to complete the homework as they tend to take much time to process new concepts.  Instead, these students helped their group persevere through the challenging homework problems.  One student who I thought was about to get frustrated and walk away from his group, was in fact, having an a-ha moment and able to help his group solve the particular problem they were working on.  I was so impressed with my students and how they worked together in STEM class today.

I find that collaboration is a challenging skill to teach young students.  For me as a student, collaboration meant that the students next to you would copy from your paper and there was certainly no talking to each other.  Usually one person did all of the the work.  In our current global society, collaboration has taken on a new meaning.  It’s not about doing the work, it’s about talking, discussing, problem solving, and the group think mentality.  This can be difficult for students to understand, especially those from different cultures and academic backgrounds.  For some of our international students, copying is the appropriate way to accomplish certain tasks.  Helping students to learn a new way of collaborating is definitely tough, but very important.  Students need to understand how to support one another and help each other understand concepts and how to solve problems without one person doing all of the work.  As a teacher, I often wrestle with teaching collaboration and group work.  Should I allow the students to work together?  Are they really working together or is one person doing all of the work?  Is effective collaboration really happening?  As teachers, we need to observe and monitor our students.  Conferencing with them one-on-one to assess their understanding of concepts and skills also helps.  If we are teaching them the strategies needed to successfully understand how to work together and collaborate, and we monitor their progress throughout the year, then we will know whether or not they are truly and effectively collaborating and if it work for them.

The Crazy Things Teachers Say to Help their Students

While I’d like to think that I’m still a spring chicken in my 20s, capable of staying up late and getting up early with no repercussions, I’m often reminded that I’m no twenty-something anymore.  A few weeks ago, I attended an amazing Thursday concert in Boston with some dear friends on a school night.  The show was epic as it was the first night of their reunion tour.  The next day, I was on duty in my dorm and had to teach classes.  Although I was tired, I made it through quite well, with no big issues.  Then, the next day, I had to wake up early to drive to Providence, RI for the NELMS Conference that I was presenting at.  My lack of sleep had clearly caught up to me because when I went to find where I had parked my car following the conference, I was forced to go on an hour-long wild goose chase as I had no recollection of where I had parked or how I had gotten from my car to the conference the day before.  It was awful.  That’s when I realized that I can’t have more than one late night and early morning in a row.

Now, one might think that this story is going to be my segway into how I say crazy things in the classroom.  Oh no, that story had just been percolating in my mind for the last few hours and so I wanted to get it out before it became a distant memory, since I am getting very old and senile.  Seriously, who can’t remember where they parked their car?  Anyway, this story is actually a bit of an appetizer for the main introductory story for today’s entry.  You see, as I am getting a bit older, I tend to forget which stories I’ve told before.  As I thought about today’s post, the perfect story came to me, but then I thought, wait a minute, did I already share that delectable little treat of a tale?  Since I couldn’t quite remember, I decided to go for it anyway.  So, my apologies if you’ve heard this one before.

Back in highschool, my friends used to rag on me all the time about how I was going bald at the ripe old age of 16.  Actually, my distinguished widow’s peak had begun to rear its ugly head when I was just 12 or 13 years old.  My friends would always call me baldy.  I didn’t take offense to it as I knew they were just giving me a hard time because that’s what friends do.  However, one time in school, my art teacher, Mrs. Clary, tried to stand up for me.  My friends were razzing me real good about going bald, when Mrs. Clary walked over and said, I kid you not, this, “Mark, don’t worry about it.  My husband is bald and you know where the hormones that used to grow his hair went, right?”  Of course, my friends and I all knew where those hormones went and what Mrs. Clary was revealing to us.  “Mrs. Clary!” we all said after about 10 seconds of laughter.  I’ll never forget that nugget of a story for two reasons.  One, it was the day a teacher helped me out and stood up for me, and two, it was the day I realized that sometimes, teachers say the darndest things.

As a teacher and someone who has worked with children of all ages for over 20 years, I sometimes find myself saying crazy things too.  Once, when I worked in a day camp with five and six year olds, I said, as I was talking with some fellow counselors, “I’ll be right back.  I have to go wipe Ben’s butt.”  Then there was the time I had to remind my students to make use of good manners, “Please be sure not to eat your boogers, but wash your hands afterwards if you do so anyway.”  While we do often say crazy things as teachers, we do so because of our students.  We offer healthy reminders to keep our students safe, and we go out of our way to help take care of and support our students at all costs.  This need and desire to help our students is usually what leads to the wild things that come out of our mouths inside the classroom.  Such was the case for me today.

In STEM class, my students were in the midst of working on a project regarding climate change.  Today in class, they brainstormed ideas to address this big issue and concern affecting our world and all of us.  As the students worked with their partner to generate a unique idea that would help our world reduce carbon emissions, I walked around and observed how the students worked together.  I also fielded questions the students had as they worked.  Two students came to me to with a dilemma.  They have a brilliant idea about creating mechanical pencils using only clay and other natural resources.  Cool idea.  They are worried that they won’t be able to make their idea come to fruition.  They are nervous and anxious to try building the pencil as they think they might fail.  So, to help inspire them to persevere and take risks, I shared a story with the two students.

“Tom, let me tell you a story about another student named Tom who I worked with many years ago.  So, this Tom came to me in the classroom one day and said, ‘Mr. Holt, I have this idea for putting a filament inside of a glass ball to make light, but I’m worried it won’t work.’  So, I said to him, ‘Tom, I believe in you.  I know that you can do it.  Heck, you might fail a bunch of times, but you will eventually make light inside of that glass ball.  Persevere and don’t give up on yourself.  Believe in yourself the way I believe in you.’  Then, a few years later, Tom Edison invented the lightbulb.  If that Tom can do it, so can you.  Now, go, believe in yourself, take risks, and try it because you never know what’s possible until you try.”  The two boys walked around chuckling a bit, but seemed to be feeling a little more positive.

Although as teachers, we are supposed to be the purveyors of truth and knowledge, sometimes, in the name of helping our students, it’s perfectly fine to stretch the truth and tell a fib.  My students knew that I had made up the story I told today as I clearly am not old enough to have taught Thomas Edison, but the moral within the story came through bright as Tom’s light bulb.  Those two boys know that I care about and believe in them and so I am hopeful that they will keep on trying to make that clay pencil they brainstormed.  Sometimes, saying crazy things, no matter how old we are, is how we can best support our students.

Is a Seating Chart Necessary?

I used to hate assigned seats in elementary school.  “Why can’t I sit next to my friend?  It’s not like we’re going to talk to each other or anything, we just want to be next to each other,” I used to say to my teachers.  Unfortunately, they didn’t bite at this and knew the truth, that we would just distract each other all day long.  I just didn’t understand that.  Then came high school and middle school.  No assigned seats.  I could sit wherever I wanted each and every day for each and every class.  I could sit in the front of the room one day and in the back the next day.  I loved the options and choice.  While I usually sat next to my friends, we were mature enough to know not to talk to each other during the entire class.  My teachers trusted me and my classmates to make good choices once we hit seventh grade.  The teachers wanted to teach us ownership.  If you made poor choices because of where you sat, it impacted your grade in the class.  The teacher didn’t tell you where to sit because you were negatively impacting your experience in the classroom, they wanted you to learn from your mistakes and own them.  This approach worked for most every student.  But what about those few students who struggled to make good choices regardless of the impact and outcome?  Should the teachers have chosen a spot in the classroom for those students?  Would that approach have better supported those struggling students?

As teachers, we are bombarded with a barrage of questions and issues on a daily basis:  How can we better support that student?  Have you written your lesson plans for next week?  Did you read the email from Johnny’s mom about the homework issue?  We need to then react to all of those situations.  How do we respond?  What’s the best approach?  Is one solution better than another?  This same philosophy applies to seating options in the classroom.  Should students be allowed to choose their seat in the classroom or should it be assigned?  Does it matter?  Does the grade of the students make a difference?  If students can handle making effective choices, do we let them choose?  What about those few students who have difficulty making the best choice for themselves?  Do we create an assigned spot for those students?  While we’d like to think that we have all of the right answers as teachers, we don’t.  We go with what we think is best for our students and us.  While it may not always prove to be the best solution in hindsight, we make the best choice for the place and time.

In the sixth grade, we scaffold the students in regards to seating.  We begin the year with every student having a name tag with their name on it.  We assign the students a seat on a daily basis based on several criteria.  We generally try to separate the students whose native language is not English during the first few months so that they have the chance to practice speaking and understanding English.  We also try to separate students who are good friends or worst enemies.  Sometimes, we have students sit next to a particular person based on an activity or project we are working on in the classroom.  On other occasions, we just randomly mix the students up.  However, the students do not get to choose where in the classroom they sit during the first five months of the academic year.  Once February rolls around and we feel as though a strong community is forming within the class, we allow them to choose their own seats for the final four months of the school year.  We want the students to begin to try out what seventh grade will be like.  Most seventh grade teachers at my school do not have assigned seating and so the boys need to be able to understand the thought process that should go into choosing the best seat for them.  We want the students to begin to own their choices and their learning.

While this freedom works for almost every student, every year it seems as though one or two students tend to struggle with how to make the most effective choice for themselves.  One of our international students tries to sit next to a peer from his home country so that he can ask him questions about class in their native language.  This choice is not only distracting to his peers, but it doesn’t allow the struggling ESL student to develop as an English language learner.  We have another student who likes to sit next to his best friend in the class.  While they get along very well, they also tend to be very distracting to each other during class.  Although we want them to own their choices and learning, if their behavior prevents others from learning, is it right?  While these issues have popped up every year, they never become more than minor problems after we discuss them with the students.  Once the students know they can lose the power to choose their seat if they can’t make the best choice for themselves, we usually see change come about.

Is this scaffolded approach to seating arrangement in the classroom the best method?  Should we continue assigning seats for the entire year?  Does it make a difference?  Is one approach better than another?  If our students have freedom and choice, will they feel more engaged in the classroom?  Will this option prove to be too challenging for some students?  After several years of using this model for seating in the classroom, I feel confident in saying that it works for me and my students.  Will it work for every teacher in every classroom or for every student or class?  No, but it works for us in the sixth grade.  Teaching isn’t a fine science; it’s more of an art that is always changing based on the materials available, time, and frame of reference.  Teachers make the best decisions they can in the moment for them and their students.

What’s the Best Method for Teaching Math to Students?

I was a terrible math student in school.  Not only did I not like math class, but I didn’t understand the concepts covered.  I had great difficulty comprehending and processing what was being taught.  Regardless of how pointless I found every math concept ever covered, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how to do math.  How do I find the LCD when adding fractions?  Which property is being used in this geometry problem?  How do I prove that a triangle has three sides?  Math seemed like a different language to me, which is strange because I had a much easier time learning how to speak Spanish.  So, what was my problem?  Was it how my teachers taught me?  Was it their instructional methods?  Did they not effectively teach me the math concepts?  Some of my math teachers utilized projects to help me see the relevance in what I was learning.  That I liked.  My seventh grade math teacher had us complete this cool project on accounting and money.  I had to maintain and update a checkbook, write checks, deposit money, and do all that fun banking stuff.  I remember that unit very well as my teacher made math seem fun.  Then came high school and it was all about bookwork, homework, solving problems, discussing the homework, and repeating the process day in and day out.  As I constantly struggled to understand the concepts covered, I quickly began to hate math.  If my teachers had utilized different instructional strategies when teaching me the content, would I still have felt the way I did?  Would math have been such a struggle for me?

It wasn’t until I became a teacher, that math started to make sense to me.  As I had to teach it to other people, I realized that I wanted to find a way to make math fun and engaging.  I wanted my students to see the relevance in the concepts covered.  I wanted my students to see math as a journey and not repetition.  Over the years, I’ve worked hard to maintain this mantra in my classroom.  Creating a STEM class a few years back helped remind me to be sure I was making math fun and engaging for my students.

Last year, I felt as though I struggled to do this.  While I tried to take the focus off of direct instruction and repetition, I found that I wasn’t effectively educating my students.  They were often confused by the time the chapter assessments rolled around as I hadn’t clarified their questions nor had they been given the time needed to practice the skills covered.  So, this year, I’ve been much more purposeful in my planning and instruction.  Each lesson includes a mini-lesson with time for the students to practice the problems and ask questions regarding the skill covered.  The boys then have at least 10-20 problems to complete on their own to show that they understand the concept covered and can apply it independently.  At the end of each unit, the students must complete a chapter assessment, to demonstrate their mastery of the skills covered throughout the unit.  Test retakes are completed by those students who struggle to accurately apply the skills covered.  This process has seemed to work so far this year.  I’ve also made use of several hands-on math activities, online games, and other projects throughout the year, to allow the students to see the relevance in the math skills covered as well as to help the students see math as fun and engaging.  I feel as though these instructional strategies used are working.  The students are faring much better on the chapter assessments and there is much less confusion regarding the math concepts covered.  However, I do wonder how much fun the boys are having in class regarding the math content.  Are they engaged?  Are they seeing the relevance in the concepts covered?  While they seemed to really like our unit on the Stock Market, did they see how the math skills covered throughout the year were applied?  Do they enjoy the mini-lessons?  Am I making the content seem fun?  Do they really understand the concepts covered?

As the end of this academic year is less than two months away, I feel compelled to ponder the effectiveness of my math instruction and curriculum.  Am I making the math skills covered relevant to the students?  Could I better implement the math skills into the STEM projects?  Could I make my mini-lessons more engaging?  Am I effectively preparing my students for the rigors of seventh grade math?  While I’m sure I could write an entire novel on this topic and all of my questions and thoughts regarding it, I feel as though I’ll never know the exact answer.  Perhaps I should ask my students.  Maybe, creating a survey on Google Forms with questions like the ones I’ve posed here will help me to elicit responses that will allow me truly reflect on my math instruction.  Yeah, that’s what I should do.  I’ll provide my students with the chance to provide me feedback on my math instruction.  What did they really think?  Was the math content presented in an engaging and relevant way?  Did they find it fun?  Did the concepts covered make sense?  I feel as though an activity like this will provide me with real, genuine data that I can use to plan my math instruction for next year.  How can I make the math instruction better for my students?  Although I think I know what might be best for my students, I don’t really know what works best for them.  By gathering data from my students, however, I will then truly begin to know what they think works best for them.  What a brilliant idea!  I can’t wait to learn what they really think about my effectiveness as a math teacher.

What’s the Best Way to Teach Gender and Sexuality to our Students?

My co-teacher and I read an article yesterday from Independent School magazine on the importance of teaching gender and sexuality issues to our students.  It was very enlightening.  It raised many valuable points on why we need to address and teach these concepts and ideas to our students in every grade from K-12.  Our students need to understand that not every student is the same as not every boy may feel like a boy inside.  The article written by Jennifer Bryan included many great points on how to teach these concepts and ideas in the classroom.  The big takeaway for me was that the responsibility of teaching gender and sexuality issues is not up to one person such as the health teacher; it is every teacher’s responsibility to address these issues in their course and curriculum.  English teachers could choose novels that deal with issues of gender roles or sexuality while history teachers could cover the historical significance of these concepts and how they have evolved over time.  Every teacher needs to help their students understand and respect the gender and sexuality of every other student, regardless of the sex the student was born.  Creating an inclusive and accepting community makes all students feel safe and respected so that genuine learning can happen.

After reading this article, my co-teacher and I felt as though our school has some work to do to be more inclusive and supportive of every student.  We don’t cover and address these concepts in every class or every grade.  Our school takes a health class approach to teaching about sexuality and gender and it only happens for a few weeks during the spring term.  On top of that, these concepts are only briefly covered, superficially so in those classes.  What must our students think when we skim over such an important identity-related topic?  Does gender and sexuality not matter?  What if one of our students is still questioning where they fit into the whole spectrum of gender and sexual orientation?  Do they feel supported and respected?  Within the current model used at our school, we would argue that students who are still questioning their identity don’t feel as though they can safely do so at our school.  So, now what?

Rather than talk about utopian ideals that we wish our school could live up to, my co-teacher and I decided to take a stance and do something about this.  We set up a meeting with the Director of Studies at our school so that we could share our ideas and concerns with him.  Our hope is that we can have training on this topic for the full faculty during faculty orientation prior to the start of our next academic year.  Perhaps we could bring a specialist to campus or simply have some discussions on the topic.  How can we be sure that every teacher is purposefully and meaningfully covering this topic within their curriculum?  How can we do a better job as a school of teaching these concepts to our students?  How can we make our community more accepting and inclusive?  We are hopeful that something can be put into place to bring about change at our fine institution so that we can become a school that helps students see themselves for who they are and can be proud to celebrate their identity without fear of persecution.