Reflections on the 2016-2017 Academic Year

It’s hard to believe that I have reached the end of yet another academic year.  How did that happen?  I made it through the late and harsh New England winter that pounded us with snow right on through to May.  I survived our numerous overnight field trips and fun activities.  I survived a new co-teacher.  And I made it through all of this with only one or two extra gray hairs sprinkled into my beard.  Where did the time go?  I know that seems like a huge cliche, but this year seemed to fly by faster than normal.  I guess they were right when they said that the good times can’t last forever.

And good times they were this year in the sixth grade.  My co-teacher and I were so lucky to have such an amazing class of fine young men.  They were kind, compassionate, creative, intelligent, curious, and hardworking students.  While it is always hard to say goodbye to a class at the end of a school, this year may be one of the most challenging as we were blessed with 14 amazing students.  But alas, we can’t purposefully fail them just so that we can keep them for another year, or can we?  They are ready to spread their wings and fly into the seventh grade.  We feel as though we have prepared them well.  They are open-minded, self aware, and creative boys who now know how to effectively coexist with their peers, think critically to solve problems encountered, and own their learning.  They are good to go.

Like the rain falling outside, I am flooded with nostalgia and great memories from the year:

  • The amazing science fair that took place in the sixth grade classroom during Parents’ Weekend in October of 2016.  The boys explained their projects and what they had learned to parents and faculty members as though they were college-level scientists.  I could not have been more proud in the moment.  The boys did such a phenomenal job showcasing their learning and the process involved in acquiring that learning.
  • Our field trips to the Sargent Center and Cape Cod.  Not only did the boys learn a lot about the natural world around us, they also learned how to be good teammates, community members, and friends.  This group of students was more closely bonded together than any other past group I’ve worked with at the sixth grade level.  They all seemed to really like each other and got along swimmingly.
  • The American Presidential Election Process unit we completed in Humanities class.  While I’ve always wanted to conduct a unit about the presidential election, I never have.  This academic year felt like the right time not just because of the circumstances of the election but also because this group seemed really curious and interested in learning more about the American political system.  The speeches they gave at the end of the unit were remarkable.  I was amazed at how brilliantly they spoke.  If the election had been between the two fictional candidates my students created, it would have been a much more mature and sophisticated election.
  • The Farm Program we implemented within our STEM class.  Every Friday, we traveled to a nearby working hobby farm so that the boys could learn about how our human world depends on the natural world for food and so much more.  The students had a blast learning all about life on a farm, raising and taking care of bunnies, crocheting, spinning wool, planting vegetables and flowers, and living a sustainable and environmentally friendly life.  This new program ended up being everything I had hoped it would be and so much more.  I hope my new co-teacher for next year continues with this beneficial component of our STEM curriculum.
  •  My third new co-teacher in three years.  Is it something I said?  Do I smell funny?  I’m hopeful that none of those reasons apply to why my co-teachers continue to leave me year after year.  I feel like I’m a great guy.  Well, this year I was fortunate enough to work with another wonderful co-teacher.  She is intelligent and creative and her brilliant ideas helped us to create more meaningful units and activities.  Her approach to the teaching of our health curriculum in the study skills class was amazing.  She had insightful discussions and conversations with the boys on relevant and important topics including drugs, sex, and relationships.  She wasn’t afraid to jump into difficult topics and conversations so that the students could be well-informed and educated on life in the crazy world in which we live.  It’s going to be hard to see her move onto teaching ninth grade history at my school next year, but I’m also excited to work with another co-teacher next year.  Who knows, maybe this one will stay with me for more than a year.

While my list could go on and on as many fine memories are forever imprinted within my long term memory, I also realize that I have much work to do to get ready for our final two days of class parties and activities.  Although reflection is good and useful in so many ways, so is sleep and family time.  So, off I go to finish the un-fun, paperwork portion of my role as a teacher.  Yuck!  I’d much rather be blogging.

Advertisements

Reflecting on Student Feedback

While I’d like to think that I know everything and have the solution to every problem encountered, I don’t.  I am a work in progress, like every human.  I am constantly changing, evolving, maturing, and growing.  Most of the big changes that I’ve made to my life generally comes from feedback or suggestions from others.  “Hey, you’re really good at helping people understand things.  You should become a teacher,” said a former teacher of mine.  Well, we all know what I did with that feedback.  It’s powerful stuff.

Some of the greatest and most effective changes I’ve made to the sixth grade program over the years stems from feedback provided by the students.  I changed my approach to teaching reading and writing based on the feedback I received from the students.  They didn’t like reading the same book altogether because many of them found my choices boring.  They wanted to read books that they chose.  So, we now utilize the workshop approach to teaching reading and writing so that the boys have options and choices.  Seeking feedback from my students has made me a better teacher over the years.  I crave their thoughts and ideas on what we do in the sixth grade because I know that my perspective is very different from theirs.  I don’t know everything.  I want to craft the most effective and enjoyable sixth grade program possible, and I feel as though asking for feedback from my students is a really easy way to do this.

Today the students completed the end of the year sixth grade survey to provide me with feedback on our sixth grade program.  I kept the questions broad for the most part so that the boys had choices and options when providing my co-teacher and I with feedback.  I made sure to emphasize how important receiving relevant and appropriate feedback is to us, in the hopes that they would put great effort into completing the form via Google Forms.  I was impressed with their responses as many of the boys seemed to really take their time in providing us with valuable feedback.  I feel as though we received some useful feedback that will allow us to develop and change the sixth grade program for the better.

Takeaways

  • The students really enjoyed our field experiences this year.  They loved leaving the classroom to learn.  Most of the boys cited our trip to Cape Cod as their favorite memory.  A few students even mentioned the bonding opportunities that were provided through these field trips.  They seemed to really enjoy spending time together.  It’s great to know that the students have noticed how we try to foster a sense of community within the class.  They see the value and importance of this aspect of our program.  That feels good.  So, while our budget will be cut for next year, forcing us to remove some of the traditional field trips we’ve done in the sixth grade for years now, we will need to be mindful of how important these community bonding opportunities are for the boys.
  • The students really treasured the freedom and choice with which our curriculum provides them.  They loved reader’s workshop and being able to choose their own books.  They enjoyed having the freedom to choose their topics for the research project we completed during the spring term in Humanities class.  They loved the STEM projects that allowed them to creatively solve problems and generate unique solutions.  Although the brain research tells us that students learn best when they are engaged and see the relevance in the learning, which is why we have developed our program accordingly, it’s always excellent to hear that it’s working and that the students truly are engaged in our classroom.  I’ll be sure to keep these components firmly rooted within the sixth grade curriculum for at least the next academic year.
  • The boys thoroughly enjoyed the Stock Market project we did in STEM class a few months back.  They seemed to like the competition component as well as learning the basics of investing and all about how the stock market works.  While I really like teaching this unit, I was surprised by how much the boys liked it.  I thought for sure that they would have liked the hands-on projects a bit more, but I was mistaken.  Perhaps they saw the relevance of the unit as I feel I did a fine job explaining the reasons why we were covering the Stock Market in STEM class.  Maybe.  Regardless of the reasons why they enjoyed it so much, I need to make sure that we include competitive projects and units in the sixth grade program next year.
  • Every student seemed to have a blast in the sixth grade this year.  They loved almost every aspect of our program and seemed to learn a lot about the world and themselves.  So many of the boys responded with something to the effect of, “Nothing needs to change because it’s already perfect.”  It feels great knowing that my co-teacher and I created a phenomenally challenging and supportive sixth grade program this year.  Although we were a bit worried about how the students would take to the program this year as we tried some new approaches and teaching strategies as well as some new content and units, it’s good to know that all of our hard work didn’t go to waste.  The boys really liked their time in the sixth grade this year.  Yah for us!

So, now the fun, yet challenging work begins.  How do we make our sixth grade program even better for next year?  Over the next three months, I’m going to take a hard look at the feedback we received from our students and try to find ways to capitalize on what they enjoyed and change what they didn’t like.  Just think, if I didn’t ask the students for feedback, I would have to deduce all of this on my own.  How do I know what my students liked and didn’t like if I don’t ask them?  Feedback is one of the most powerful tools we have as teachers; it not only makes us better teachers, but better people too.

Reflection on My Professional Goals for the Year

It’s time to take a trip in the wayback machine.  Let’s set the clock for September of 2016.  The academic year had just begun and excitement was in the air.  My class was off to a great start and I was thinking of ways to grow and improve as an educator.  To challenge myself to improve as an educator, I set some goals for myself.  They weren’t overly lofty goals but they did push me to be better able to support and challenge my students.  Now, fast forward to May of 2017.  The school year is four days away from completion.  It’s been an awesome year in the sixth grade.  Each and everyone of my students has grown and improved in so many ways.  I’m really going to miss this group.  They’ve impressed me throughout the year due to their effort and compassion.  They are a kind group of intelligent and creative young men.  I am one of the luckiest teachers I know because I had the pleasure of working with them this year.  Like my students, I’ve grown and changed a lot throughout this year as well.  I’ve become more patient and open to allowing for flexibility in the classroom.  I learned a little bit about computer coding.  I learned how to almost solve a Rubik’s Cube.  I became the math teacher that I have always wanted to be.  I could go on and on, but I won’t as I’m sure you all have far better things to do than read about my amazing school year.  Instead, my blog today will focus on the progress I made in working towards meeting the two professional goals I set for myself at the start of the academic year.

Goal Number 1: Learn to better support and help the ESL students in my class.

  • Although I did not finish reading the professional development book I started back in October that I had hoped would provide me many great strategies regarding this goal, Educating English Learners by Loyce Nutta, Carine Strebel, Kouider Mokhtar, Florin M. Mihai, and Edwidge Crevecoeur-Bryant, I did make strides in this area.  I tried some new techniques in working with the ELL students in my class.  I tried simplifying the English vocabulary I used and found other pictorial ways to explain directions or new ideas to those students.  I also spent lots of time working with this group of students outside of class to provide them the one-on-one support they needed to get to the place at which they are today.  I am impressed by how much each of the ESL students in my class have grown this year.  Their English vocabulary improved exponentially while their written and oral comprehension also grew quite immensely.  By implementing new and different strategies throughout the year, I was able to best support and challenge the ELL learners in my class.  While I am far from an expert on this topic and will finish reading the book I started almost a year ago, this summer, I do feel as though I made progress in working towards this goal.  I wouldn’t say that I completely met or exceeded this goal, but I did focus much energy, especially early on in the year, in learning new approaches to best supporting and helping the ESL students in my class.

Goal Number 2: Follow through on the new curriculum add-ons I started this year.

  • In trying to tackle quite a few new activities and lessons this year, I might have set my sights a bit too high.  While I didn’t set myself up for failure by any means, I do feel as though I tried to implement too many new things in the classroom this year: I tried to use Khan Academy as a challenging supplemental to the math curriculum for my STEM course; I tried to have the students learn computer coding by using the online application Code Combat; I tried to have the students all learn how to solve the Rubik’s Cube; I tried to have the forest plot project stretch the entire year.  With four new activities and lessons, one or two were bound to slip through the cracks.
  • I feel as though I did a fine job having the students regularly, on a weekly basis, use Khan Academy to fill in gaps in their math learning and to challenge themselves to grow and develop as math students.  Each and every student made progress with his account on Khan Academy throughout the year as I graded them on their effort and performance of concepts mastered.
  • The change in the forest plot project for this year was also a huge success.  With the exception of three months in the winter, the students went outside once almost every week to note changes in their plot, learn about the flora and fauna living in their plot, and think like a naturalist.  The students will be completing the final portion of this project on Monday when they create a flipbook of their plot through the seasons.
  • These first two changes I made this year were quite successful.  Although I didn’t devote as much time to the Rubik’s Cube and Code Combat, I do feel as though I put forth great effort to keep these alive throughout the year.
  • The students used Code Combat at least once almost every week throughout the year as they learned all about the Python coding language.  While I wanted to do more with this and really help the students to see why this skill of computer coding may be a crucial life skill for them to possess, I really just had them work on the program independently or with a partner.  I didn’t follow any of the lesson plans or other activities provided on the website to really give this activity clout in the minds of the students.  A few of the students really struggled with this program and I didn’t do much to support or help them.  If I were to continue this next year, I would front load more lessons and activities at the start of the year before they even got into the application itself.  I would make this skill more relevant to their life and goals.
  • I had similar struggles with the teaching of the skill of solving the Rubik’s Cube.  As I only really memorized how to solve the first two layers of the cube, I couldn’t offer much support to my boys on how to finish the final layer.  While half of my students met the goal I set for them at the start of the year, the other half were unable to solve the Rubik’s Cube.  Despite providing them time in class almost weekly, because I was unable to fully support and help them understand the final stages of solving the cube, they were unable to meet this challenge.  If I were to tackle this same skill next year, I would make sure that I knew exactly how to solve the cube from start to finish.  That way, I would be better able to help support those students who struggled to figure out how to solve it on their own.
  • While I don’t feel that I met this goal this year, I do feel as though I courageously worked towards it and persevered through to the end. I never gave up and tried to be mindful of all four new activities so that none of them would completely slip through the cracks.  I kept up with every one of them, just not at the level I would have liked.

As another year winds to a close here on the Point, I’m reminded of the many changes my students and I went through this year.  We all grew and developed in many ways.  While my students met many of the goals they set for themselves this year, I too made great strides towards meeting my goals.  While I didn’t successfully meet either of them, I am pleased with my progress.  I developed a lot as an educator this year and can’t wait to see what amazing professional challenges I attempt to tackle this summer.

Teaching Students to Own their Learning

How many times have we heard students ask us, “Why did you give me a C?”  As if we give out grades like candy.  Do I look like the candyman?  Students earn grades based on their ability to meet the learning objectives covered.  Rather than take ownership of their learning, they blame the teacher for giving them a grade they feel they do not deserve.  If only they accepted responsibility for their actions and choices, they’d be able to see why they earned the grade they did.  Blunt students who ask us about grades are usually the ones who don’t put forth the effort to meet or exceed the standards or objectives assessed.  So, instead of learning from their mistakes and taking the opportunity to redo the task or assignment, they complain and blame.  Teachers don’t give, we guide.  We don’t provide students with answers or grades, we guide them to answers and help them to see how to meet or exceed graded objectives.  Students do the earning.  In a world where many students act entitled and feel as though everything should be handed to them on a platinum platter, as teachers, we need to help our students see the world through a different lense.  We need to teach students self-awareness and ownership.  The more opportunities the students have to see how their actions and choices dictate the outcome, the easier it will be for them once they make it out into the real world and see that one poor choice can cost them a job, relationship, or worse.

While this sounds great and makes complete sense to me as a teacher, how do I do it?  How do I teach students to own their learning?  What can I do to empower the next generation of leaders?  How can I help my students see that what they do impacts what happens to them?  Along with all of the problem based learning projects completed throughout the year, the constant self-reflection we have the students do, and the e-portfolio we have the students maintain, I make sure to put the learning completely on their shoulders.  When they ask me a question about a task or assignment, I usually respond with another question.  “How do I exceed the objective?” a student asked me today.  My response was simple, “That’s a great question, how could you exceed the objective?  What will you need to do to demonstrate mastery of the objective being assessed?”  While my students dislike when I do this, it forces them to do the thinking, problem solving, and learning.  If I gave this student the answer to his question today, I would have stolen a learning opportunity from him.  I would have prevented him from understanding how to solve a problem as well as what it takes to exceed a graded objective.  Approaches like this are one of the ways I have helped to teach my students how to own their learning throughout the year.

Another way is in how I structure the tasks my students need to complete to showcase their learning.  Rather than having them take a final math exam to prove what they have or haven’t learned in the sixth grade this year, I created a final project that puts the onus completely on them.  They have all of the power to determine into which math course they will be placed next year.  After completing a final placement exam, the students self-corrected the test and discovered what gaps still exist in their math knowledge.  What skills proved tricky for them to master?  Upon knowing what skills they still need to work on to be able to be placed into the math course of their choosing, they need to create an action plan for their summer.  What will the students do to fill in the gaps in their learning?  How will they be able to meet the goal they have set for themselves?

In class today, following a mini-lesson on how to create an action plan and what one looks like, the boys generated their own action plan.  The students put much thought and effort into generating a useful plan that they can use to help them prepare for seventh grade math.  The boys were specific in what they will do.  Some of the students are planning to use Khan Academy to review and learn the skills with which they struggle while others are going to have their parents print out worksheets that they will complete.  While each student had a different, individualized plan, they all had one thing in common–much learning should happen this summer.  The students know exactly what they need to do to meet their math goals.  Now, the onus is on them once again.  They need to follow through and do what they have said they will do.  I’m hopeful that many of the students will meet and achieve their goal come September, but I’m also certain that a few students will not do what they have said they will do to meet their goals.  Those are also the same students who are quick to argue about grades.  They aren’t quite ready to take the responsibility needed to showcase their true potential.  Perhaps one day they will discover the power of ownership, but in the meantime, we as their teachers, can keep trying to help them see how important it is to them to own their learning.

Training Future Generations of Teacher Leaders

My son recently went to prom with a friend of his who happens to be a girl.  No, not his girlfriend, he likes to point out to my wife and I, his friend who is a girl.  The day of the big event, he was quite nervous and a bit grouchy toward his mom and I, which we’re used to as his parents.  While part of me wanted to be frustrated with him, what happened next erased all of those negative emotions.  When we dropped him off at his date’s house, her whole family had gathered to take pictures.  Now, to appreciate the full scope of the story that comes next, there’s something you need to know about my son.  He struggles meeting new people and greatly dislikes having his picture taking it, unless of course, he’s the one taking it.  He takes more selfies in a day than I take breaths.  So, when we arrived at his friend’s house, her entire family came to greet my son.  Instead of retreating into his turtle shell and being all silent, he shook their hands, gave and received hugs, made eye contact, talked to these strangers, and allowed them to take many pictures of him.  Even though he was a bit jerky to my wife and I, he greatly redeemed himself by putting forth his best effort to showcase what a remarkable young man he truly is.  We are so proud of him.  Of course, we’d like to think that his phenomenal behavior was a direct result of how we raised him and trained him to act in front of others.  Who knows?  Maybe that’s what it was or maybe he just knows what to do when interacting with new people.  Regardless, I was a proud poppa that day.  He looked so handsome in his tux.

As a teacher, I have experienced similar proud moments in the classroom with my students: When students have a-ha moments and the lightbulb turns on; when they solve a problem that had been causing them great difficulty; when they put an arm around a peer who is clearly having a rough day; when they apologize for making a poor choice.  The list could go on forever.  It feels good to know that you’ve had a positive impact on another person.  I love it.  In those moments, I’m reminded, yet again why I became a teacher.

Today provided me with one of those proud teaching moments during Humanities class.  For the past few weeks, the students have been preparing elaborate class presentations regarding their I-Search Project.  Some of the boys made documentary movies, others crafted slideshows, and a few made three-dimensional models to help showcase their learning.  The boys began performing their presentations in class today.  While my co-teacher and I didn’t focus too much on how to present the material, we did tell the students that they needed to make their presentations interesting and engaging as we don’t want to fall asleep watching 14 presentations that include the presenter reading from his slideshow.  The students clearly took our advice and ran with it.

The four students who presented today acted more like businessmen and trained teachers than they did sixth grade boys.  They were teaching the class all about Islamic veils, the Hanging Gardens of Babylonia, Buddhism, musical instruments utilized in the Middle East region.  They created amazing documentary movies, presentations using various digital tools, fun and engaging Kahoot quizzes, and interesting speeches on their topics.  I was amazed at how well they presented their project and material.  They were poised, rehearsed, and well-spoken.  It was awesome.  The students in the audience were respectful and asked insightful questions regarding the various presentations.  It was evident that the students were excited to share what they had learned with their peers and their classmates were clearly excited to learn more about the Middle East region.  I could not have been more proud of my students today.  Everything we’ve been trying to instill within them this year was being applied in the classroom this morning during their presentations.  One student even remarked, during his presentation, “It’s so much fun being the teacher.”  Yes, I thought.  It is so much fun being your teacher.

As the last day of classes is but a week away, it’s great to see how much the students have progressed since the start of the academic year.  They have learned a lot about the topics and material covered, gained many skills needed to be successful students, and matured a lot as individual community members this year.  While we are ecstatic to see them to move onto seventh grade next year, we’re also sad to see them go as we’ve had such a blast working with and learning from them this year.  These 14 boys are certainly going to have a huge impact on the world one day.  They will become the next teachers, changemakers, problem solvers, engineers, and everything else inbetween.  Get ready world because here they come…

The Benefits of Working with a Co-Teacher

When I first started teaching, I used to think I could and had to do it all.  I would arrive to school early and stay late just so that I could accomplish everything.  I would never think to ask for help and certainly never accepted it when offered as I thought it was a sign of weakness.  I was an island unto myself and I liked it that way.  Little did I know how harmful it was to me and my teaching.  By not talking to other colleagues and bouncing ideas around with them or asking for help, my teaching became very stagnant very quickly.  I figured that everything I did was great as I had no one to say otherwise, and so I kept doing the same thing year after year.  Then, I worked with a co-teacher and everything changed.  I realized that I was far from perfect and needed to change my approach in the classroom.  So, I did.  I grew and became a better teacher because I had someone who could provide me with feedback and offer help and support at every turn.  My first co-teacher became one of my best friends as we worked so closely together.  I offered her suggestions on her teaching and life and she did the same for me.  We both grew and became effective educators because of this collaboration.  Working with someone else who can offer me advice, feedback, support, and help is one of the greatest things that has happened to me in my professional life.

Today’s STEM class provided me with yet another prime example of how vital and important a co-teacher can truly be.  My students are in the midst of a project that will allow them to understand where they stand mathematically,  Are they ready for seventh grade math?  If not, what gaps still exist in their learning that need to be filled?  Are they ready for pre-algebra or algebra I?  This project is all about helping them figure out what they need to do over the summer to prepare for the math course that they would like to be in next year.  In class today, the students were working on filling in their learning gaps by watching videos, working with a peer, or asking the teachers questions.  It also meant that I needed to be available to provide them with practice problems and worksheets.  As I was busy setting the students up with practice activities, my co-teacher fielded questions the boys had and monitored their work habits to be sure they were focused and working to prepare for Thursday’s final placement exam.  We worked together like a well-oiled machine.  It was phenomenal.  The boys were all on track learning new skills and reviewing old ones.  While there was a lot going on in the classroom, it was very controlled and focused.

Today’s class went so smoothly because my co-teacher was in the room providing support and help to the students while I was busy creating their practice assignments.  If she wasn’t there to help, chaos would have ensued very quickly.  The students would have been yelling and screaming for help and perhaps even swinging from the lights.  Our STEM class works so smoothly on days like today because of our co-teaching model.  We support one another and the students very well.  It’s great.  I can’t imagine trying to do what I did today without her support.  It would have been nightmarish.  Having extra help in the classroom, a person to provide you with feedback, and a creative sounding board are just some of the amazing benefits of working with a co-teacher.  While I realize that it’s just not feasible for every classroom or teacher to have a co-teacher with whom to work, when complex projects are being worked on, it is hugely helpful for both the teachers and the students to have a co-teacher in the classroom.

Being Flexible with Time in the Classroom

Downward facing dog, no thank you.  Yoga is not for me.  The repetition drives me nuts.  While I wish I was a bit more flexible, physically speaking, I do try and stretch at least once every day.  I find stretching to be therapeutic, unlike yoga.  I rarely have muscle and joint problems because of this stretching and resultant slight flexibility.   Sure, I could work on my flexibility a bit more on a daily basis, but I do feel as though completing my back arches and sunken bridges for ten seconds every morning, Monday through Friday, have made a huge difference.  I can now bend over and touch my toes without bending my knees all the way forward.  Progress, thanks in part to my flexibility and amazing stretching routine.

As a teacher, being flexible in other ways is a crucial skill to possess.  Things don’t always go as planned and students don’t always do what we’d like them to no matter how many reminders with which they are provided.  Life happens and teachers need to be able to go with the flow.  Although I am a creature of habit, I’ve tried in recent years, to be much more willing to just be and accept life and all its craziness for what it is, life.  So, rather than get all bent out of shape, mentally speaking that is as my physical body never falls out of shape due to my rigorous daily stretching routine, when a student doesn’t hand in his homework, I try to find out the root cause of the issue and support the student appropriately while also holding him accountable for the learning.  It’s made a world of a difference in the classroom because I’m making it all about us rather than a students vs the teacher situation.  We’re all in this together and so we need to take care of one another, is the message I am trying to convey to my students by being more flexible with due dates, time, and options.

Today marked the final Reader’s Workshop session in my Humanities class for the academic year.  My goal was to conference, one last time, with each student to review his reading goals and go over his current Humanities class grade.  As next Thursday is the last day of school for my students, I wanted to be able to help them wrap up their reading progress and let them know what they will need to focus on next year, as readers, in the seventh grade.  I figured I would have enough time in the 80-minute block to meet with each student, but I was sorely mistaken.  Some of the conversations went on a bit longer as I wanted to be sure that the students understood the strategies they will need to employ next year to be successful readers.  I also wanted to provide the students ample time to ask any questions they had regarding their grade for the course with only one week remaining before grades close.  Because of this, I ended up cutting into my STEM class by about 10 minutes.

Now, while some teachers might have had a conniption fit regarding this loss of class time, we are all about flexibility in the sixth grade.  From day one, we told the students that the time limits and constraints stated on their class schedules were merely suggestions.  Because my co-teacher and I are with the students for almost every class period on a daily basis, we are able to use more or less time for classes and lessons depending on what is being covered.  The class start and end times are approximations of what we try to shoot for, but we also realize that life happens in the classroom and we want to make sure we allow time for that as well.  The boys have gotten very comfortable with this approach to class times and know that class is over when we transition into the next one.  So, when the official class time had been breached today during Humanities class, no one said a thing.  The students kept right on reading while I finished up conferencing with every student.  It was amazing.  Once I had completed conferencing with every student, I talked to the boys about what had happened.  I praised them for their flexibility and willingness to just go with the flow.  I mentioned how important these conferences were and that I wanted to be able to meet with every student before transitioning into STEM class.  I didn’t look at the time until I had met with every student, I said to them.  One of the students commented, “I didn’t even realize what time it was.  I was having so much fun reading.”  Statements like that one embody the wonderfully caring, compassionate, and engaged class I am so lucky to be working with this year.  They get it.  They understand why we approach things the way we do in the sixth grade.  They all seem to realize that everything we do in the sixth grade is to best support and challenge the students so that they can grow into the best possible version of themselves.

Time shouldn’t be fixed.  It should be flexible to allow for creativity, questioning, deep dives into the material, and anything else that happens to come up.  As time is a human creation, it’s not the end-all-be-all of life.  Effective and great teachers realize that and are flexible with their schedule.  Wouldn’t it be great if all teachers were to take this approach and be open to having less time for a class, lesson, or period one day and then more the next?  Imagine how many more cool things could be accomplished if this were the case.  Imagine how many more insightful questions and discussions would be had in the classroom.  Imagine how many more projects could be completed if all teachers were open to being flexible with time.  Wow, anything could be possible if time was merely a guide and not a wall created to keep life in neat and organized boxes.

Breadth vs Depth: How Much is Too Much?

School for me was like being in a shoe factory where only one type of shoe was made.  Every day was the same: Listen to the teacher talk and take notes or complete a worksheet.  That was basically the formula, day after mundane day.  Learning was the same for every student as we were supposed to all be the same at the end of our experience just as all pairs of shoes need to look the same when coming off of the assembly line.  My teachers just scratched the surface of every topic covered.  While I was sometimes interested in a particular topic covered, we never got to go deep into any one area.  We learned just enough to be able to answer questions on a test or write an essay.  This always frustrated me as a student.  Just as I was becoming engaged in school, the topic changed, causing my interest level to decrease significantly.  Whis was that?  Why did my teachers feel the need to cover so much, but only so deeply?  Why could we not spend a month or more on a topic or unit of study?  Why did we have to rush through the curriculum at such a breakneck speed?  Genuine learning can’t possibly happen when the material and content is taught and assessed over such a short time period.  Brain science tells us that it takes more time than a few days to move information from the working memory to the short term memory and then into the long term memory; therefore, it was not possible for me to learn anything in a meaningful manner when I was in school.  So then, back to my previous question, why did my teachers do it that way?

As a teacher, I feel that covering so much content and curriculum at such a fast pace is ineffective.  In order for relevant learning to happen, the students need to be provided time to play with the new skills and content learned before they can be assessed on it.  They need to have opportunities to engage in the material, question the information learned, and process it so that they can make connections between the information learned and their prior knowledge.  This approach takes time.  As a teacher, I’m all about depth.  I want my students to jump into the material being covered and swim around for a while rather than simply dipping their toes in, which was my experience as a student.  While I believe, based on my past experience as well as my knowledge and training as an educator, that depth is more important than breadth when it comes to curriculum and content, I do sometimes wonder if my approach is the most effective one.  What if there’s something I’m missing?

In my Humanities class, the students have spent the last month working on a research project regarding a self-chosen topic.  The boys are in the midst of finishing their class presentations.  They are being so methodical with how they present all that they’ve learned about their topic.  They are crafting amazing documentary videos, learning how to use new digital tools, and really trying to think about how they will share their knowledge with their peers so that they will be engaged.  It’s impressive.  None of the students are rushing to finish their work and meet the objectives.  They are enjoying the opportunity to deeply and meaningfully learn about a topic of interest.

Imagine if I had condensed this project into a week or two so that I could cover more material and content.  Would the students be as engaged in their projects and presentations?  Would they have the chance to really get excited about learning if they had to worry about completing their work on time?  Would meaningful learning be happening if the students weren’t provided the ample time needed to delve into their research topics?  I think not.  I think the students would dislike the project if they didn’t have the time to dig deeply, question, process, learn, and play with the material.  For me, helping my students find the joy in learning is all about time.  I want them to have the time necessary to fall in love with the material and learning involved.  It’s all about depth and not breadth.  At the end of the day, knowing how to be a thinker, learner, writer, reader, student, problem solver, and person is so much more important than knowing a lot of useless facts about various topics.

Competition vs Cooperation

In a WWF (or as we now know it WWE) style steel cage match, competition would totally crush cooperation’s butt.  Blood would be shed and someone would lose a tooth or three.  It would probably be close for most of the match as cooperation would work well with itself to get the job done driving in punches and dodging jabs, but in the end, competition would fight hard to be number one and deal cooperation the death-blow in the final seconds of the match.  It would be an epic battle that I would totally pay to see on TV like back in the day.  Summer Slam was always my favorite wrestling event as it came in the middle of summer when I was on school vacation and so my dad would let me stay up to watch the whole thing.  For Wrestlemania, my parents would record it on the VCR for me as it was generally on a Sunday night and I had school the next day.  Ahh, the good ol’ days of shouting matches and fake fighting.  It didn’t get much better than that.

As a classroom teacher, I’ve read all the research on creating a competitive classroom environment versus creating an atmosphere of cooperation amongst the students.  Both approaches have their positives and negatives.  Competition drives students to put forth great effort so that they can earn more points or do better than their classmates.  This motivation helps students to do well, generally, when competition is involved in the classroom.  Team games or projects that have a prize or winning component energize the students and get them excited about learning and accomplishing a task.  At the same time though, this extreme competition can drive students to be unkind to their teammates or act in a disrespectful manner as they try to best their classmates.  On the flipside, cooperation pulls students together towards a common goal.  The students act as a singular, family-like unit to complete a task, game, or project.  They help one another and utilize compassion when interacting with their classmates as they are all trying to complete a task together.  Sometimes, though, when cooperation is involved, those students who lack the social skills or strategies needed to be an active member of a team usually do nothing to very little, forcing their teammates to pick up the slack.  This then creates tension amongst the students as fairness plays a huge part in their mental state when issues like this arise.  So, which learning and teaching approach is most effective to help students best learn vital skills needed to be successful students living meaningful lives in a global society?

Today in STEM class, the students finished working on their presentations for Saturday’s big Climate Change Solutions Exposition taking place in the classroom.  Faculty members will be serving as judges while the students present their solutions regarding the problems of global warming and climate change.  It will be organized very much like a science fair.  Each pair of students will be assigned a table and area of the room in which they can set up their digital presentation, prototype, and other materials.  The boys will then try to convince the faculty judges as to why and how their solution is the most viable and best solution to help solve the problem of climate change on Earth.  The students have spent the past several weeks working on creating their solution, prototype, and presentation.  Much research, energy, problem solving, and critical thinking has gone into completing this project.  The boys are pumped and excited as they are vying for a huge prize if they have the solution voted best by the judges.  The energy in the room during the past several work periods has been incredibly positive.  The boys have been focused on their solution and presentation, without being negative or trying to bring other groups down.  The students will even help members of other groups when problems are encountered.  It’s been quite amazing.  For me, competition has been a valuable motivator and tool for the students.  They have worked harder on this project than they have on any previous STEM group project.  Why is this?

I think the big answer is because of the way we have structured the class this year.  We worked tirelessly during the first two months of school to foster a sense of caring and kindness amongst the students.  We explored how to work effectively with others as well as how to encounter and approach problems faced when working with other students.  This atmosphere of support and compassion helped us to create a culture of caring within the sixth grade.  No matter what the project or task is, the students support and care for each other.  It’s amazing to see this in action.  The boys truly do act like a family, taking care of one another.  I think, because we created this family environment within the classroom, the students approached this competitive STEM group project like any other task faced with this year, with love and respect.  For this reason alone, competition is a strongly motivating force of good for the students.  If we had not fostered this sense of trust and support amongst the students, this project based on competition would not be going as well as it is.  Setting students up for success isn’t just about academic content and standards, it’s about teaching students how to be good and kind citizens.

Fidget Tools or Toys?

I used to love playing marbles when I was a youngster in school.  I was the king of marbles at my school.  One time, I used a giant marble my grandfather had given me to win a mini-basketball.  It was epic.  Every recess, my friends and I would bring our marbles outside and have a blast seeing who could get the most in the small dug hole in the ground.  Once recess was over though, if the teachers saw your marbles outside of your backpack, they would be confiscated at once.  No toys of any kind were allowed in the classroom.  Even in the 90s when school counselors and doctors began suggesting that students with attention disorders should use stress balls in their pockets to stay focused, my teachers always said no.  I had a few friends who lost many stress balls that way.  If the teachers saw what they thought was a toy, even if they smelled it, they would take it at once and usually never give it back.  I lost a very rare and valuable Garbage Pail Kids card that way.  Toys of any type, even if they were used appropriately, were considered toys back when I was in school.

As times have changed, the definition of toy has also changed in the classroom.  Counselors and medical professionals around the country are suggesting that students with ADHD use fidget toys in the classroom to help keep themselves focused.  Some of these fidget objects work, when used correctly.  However, most of the times, I find them to be much more of a distraction than an actual helpful tool.  Case and point, the silly fidget spinners that have made their way into schools around the country.  It seems as though many schools have also already begun to ban them.  While students who use them effectively and appropriately do find that they to help keep them focused at times in the classroom, for most students, they are a total distraction.  Students treat them like toys and thus they are used like toys in the classroom.  Although my school doesn’t have a policy on them yet, my classroom policy is that if I see them, I will take them for the period.  If students use them under the table and they are not a distraction to the user or their nearby peers, then I’m fine with them.  I think that only one or two of the seven students in my classroom who use them regularly, use them correctly.  Today alone I confiscated three spinners over the course of three periods.  If students are using them appropriately and they are helping them stay focused in the classroom, then I’m all in favor of these fidget spinners; however, the percentage of students using them effectively is miniscule.  They are much more of a toy than a tool.

However, being the open-minded teacher that I am, I wanted to find out what the students thought.  Are fidget spinners a focus tool or a distracting toy?  If the students could persuade me with hard evidence and facts that they are toys and not tools, then I might be open to allowing them to be used more freely in the classroom.  So, for this past Saturday’s current event discussion, my co-teacher and I found a very interesting article all about these fidget toys that would drive the class discussion.  After reading the article together as a class, we had the students discuss the guiding question posed in the article, Are Fidget Objects Toys or Tools in the Classroom?  Surprisingly, almost every student noted how distracting the fidget spinners and cubes can be.  The boys shared personal stories of how they have used them in the classroom and found them to be more of a distraction than a tool to help them focus.  The boys cited examples of other students they’ve seen use them ineffectively as well as excerpts from the article.  Most of the students agreed with me and felt as though these fidget toys are just that, toys of mass distraction.  Those two or three students who saw the benefit in using fidget spinners in the classroom also agreed with me that the spinners should be used under the table or in a way that is useful to the user while also not distracting their peers.  Those same few students also felt as though teachers should take them away if they are used ineffectively.

So, wait a minute.  Are you telling me that my students, who seem to love using these fidget spinners, agree that they are toys and not tools?  What is going on with the world?  My students know what helps them focus or not?  What?  My students know themselves as learners?  How crazy is that?  Actually, that’s quite amazing and awesome.  I’m proud of my students for taking ownership regarding their learning.  They know what works best for them as students.  I’d like to think that this self-awareness my students possess is because of all the work we’ve put into helping them learn and utilize the crucial habits of learning, skills, and reflection this year in the sixth grade.  Perhaps though, they are just very conscientious and careful students who know what is right and what is wrong.  Nahh, it’s gotta be what my co-teacher and I have done in the classroom this year.  Regardless, I was a bit shocked following this discussion to learn that my students realize these spinners are a distraction.  But, if they do see these toys as toys, why do they still try to misuse them in the classroom on a daily basis?  No matter how much ownership and self-awareness they have, they are sixth grade boys who struggle to sit still on a daily basis and think that the word poop is still super hilarious.