Posted in Curriculum, Education, Learning, New Ideas, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Ooohhhmmm: My Mindfulness Unit Plan

Sitting on the edge of the couch that used to belong to my grandmother before she passed away, I’m filled with thoughts and feelings.  There is an itch on my left leg, behind my knee.  I can hear the gurgling of the carbonation leaving my bottle of tasty seltzer water.  One of my dogs is stretched out behind me on the old couch filled with memories of sleepovers at gram’s house.  I can hear my son in the living room gobbling up the new, healthy popcorn I just purchased for him at the grocery store.  I see my wife’s crafting materials neatly spaced around the room we call the office.  As I record these sensory experiences, I’m trying to live in the present moment and think about the now.  I’m trying to be more mindful and not allow the future or past to cloud my thoughts and emotions, but it’s difficult.  However, I’ll persevere and keep trying.  Mindfulness is a journey, much like anything in life.  It takes time, patience, and practice.

So, as I try to live more mindfully, I’ve created what I hope will be a very beneficial and meaningful mindfulness unit for my sixth graders.  I want to begin on the first day of classes so that my co-teacher and I can set our students up to have a successful year in our sixth grade class.  So, here it is in draft form:

Mindfulness Unit

For the 2017-2018 Academic Year

Day 1: What is Mindfulness?

Day 2: What’s the purpose of mindfulness?

  • Show TED Talk Video and Discuss Purpose of Mindfulness
  • Closing Question: Why should you learn how to be mindful?

Day 3: How do you focus on the present moment?

  • Review: What is mindfulness and why might it be important to learn how to be mindful?
  • Have the students make a list of all the thoughts going through their head
  • Ask students: How can you possibly focus on any one thing well when you have so much going on?  What can we do to remedy this situation and be in the present moment?  What is meditation?  How can we do it?  What do we need to remember when trying something new and being mindful?
  • Have the students participate in a Guided Meditation
  • Discuss: How did it go?  How do you feel now?  Do you still have as many thoughts swirling around your head?  How might you use meditation to help you live in the present moment?

Day 4: How do you breathe mindfully?

  • Ask students: How can breathing make you more mindful?
  • Discuss different breathing techniques students use to calm themselves or relax
  • Show Youtube video on 4-7-8 breathing technique and have students practice it
  • Closing Question: How do you think mindful breathing could help you in or out of school?

Day 5: How do you see mindfully?

  • Show students several objects on a table and tell them they need to memorize as many as possible in 20 seconds
  • Have students try to list as many of the objects as possible
  • Ask students: What worked well for you?  What struggles did you face?
  • Have students complete two minutes of 4-7-8 breathing
  • Show students the objects once again and have them memorize as many as possible in 20 seconds
  • Have students write down as many of the objects as possible
  • Ask students: How was this attempt different for you and why?  Did the mindful breathing help you better focus on the task at hand?
  • Ask students: How can you make sure you are focusing on the present moment?

Day 6: How do you show mindfulness?

  • Ask students: What is body language?  How does your body show how you feel?
  • Have the students show an angry pose, happy pose, mad pose with a partner.
  • Have the partner provide the student with feedback on what his body language tells his partner
  • Have the partners switch and repeat
  • Ask students: Why does it appear that we wear our feelings all over our body?  Is that good or bad?  What if we always seemed calm and peaceful?  
  • Show the students a short guided meditation video
  • Ask students: How could being mindful of how your feeling help you when interacting with your peers or teachers?  What could you do the next time you feel anxious, overwhelmed, or angry?

Day 7: How do you reflect mindfully?

  • Begin with 2 minutes of 4-7-8 breathing
  • Have the students reflect in writing, on their e-portfolio on Haiku, on the following questions:
    • What is mindfulness?
    • Why is it important to be mindful in and out of school?
    • How has your focus in school changed since we began our unit on mindfulness?
    • What positive differences have you noticed within yourself since we began our unit on mindfulness?
    • What do you need to do to be more mindful in and out of school?

Day 8: How can you move mindfully?

  • Our Strength and Conditioning Coach will work with the boys on mindful Yoga techniques they could do on their own
  • Ask students: How might you use Yoga to help you be more present and mindful?

Day 9: How can we avoid distractions mindfully?

  • Show students the Youtube Video What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and discuss
  • Ask the students: What can you do to avoid these distractions?
  • Make a list of ideas on the board
  • Have the students choose one strategy to try over the next few days until our next class to see if they noticed a difference.
  • Close with 2 minutes of 4-7-8 breathing

Day 10: How can we avoid distractions mindfully?  Part 2

  • Begin with a guided body scan meditation video
  • Have students share how things went with the strategy they tried to avoid digital distractions
  • If they found success, have them share that and if they struggled, try to brainstorm possible strategies they could try
  • Closing Question: To be mindful outside of the classroom, what do you need to be sure you do?

Day 11: How can pausing make you more mindful?

  • Have the students brainstorm questions they still wonder about mindfulness with their table partner
  • Have each partnership ask their question aloud
  • After the first group asks their question, begin responding immediately without thinking or pausing
  • After the second groups asks their question, pause for 10 seconds before responding
  • Ask the students: Did you notice a difference in the two responses?  Which was more mindful and effective in conveying the point and why?
  • Have one of the teachers pick a fight with the other without pausing when responding in the heat of the moment
  • Then replay the role play with pauses
  • Discuss what the students noticed
  • Goal for the next session: Try using the pausing technique before responding to teachers or peers when emotions are involved

Day 12: How can pausing make you more mindful? Part 2

  • Begin with 2 minutes of 4-7-8 breathing
  • Have students share how the pausing technique worked for them
  • Discuss how they might use pauses in and out of the classroom
  • Ask students: How might pausing before responding help you to be more mindful?

Day 13: How can you read and listen more mindfully?

  • Begin with 2 minutes of 4-7-8 breathing
  • Have the students think about what they did last night while the teacher reads a section of a text about mindfulness aloud to the class
    • Read the first paragraph quickly
    • Read the second paragraph in monotone
    • Read the third paragraph mumbling
  • Ask the students: Did everybody understand that?  Why or why not?
  • Ask the students comprehension questions:
    • Why isn’t most of what we call learning not useful, according to the author?
    • What does mindful learning cultivate?
  • Ask students: What’s important to remember when talking or reading aloud to the class like you will be doing a lot this year?

Day 14: How can you read and listen more mindfully? Part 2

  • Begin with a guided meditation that the students choose from one we’ve done already in this unit
  • Have the students read a page aloud from their read aloud novel in different ways to their table partner: Angry, sad, excited
  • Have their table partner provide them feedback on their reading
  • Then switch and repeat
  • Have students share what they liked about what their partner did and said while they read aloud, ensuring that they are noticing good active listening strategies
  • Ask students: What’s important to do when speaking aloud or listening mindfully?

Day 15: How do you reflect mindfully? Part 2

  • Begin with 2 minutes of 4-7-8 breathing
  • Have the students reflect in writing, on their e-portfolio on Haiku, on the following questions:
    • How has your focus in school changed since you last reflected on your mindfulness growth?
    • What positive differences have you noticed within yourself since we began our unit on mindfulness?
    • Set a goal or two regarding mindfulness that you will work towards by the end of the fall term.

Day 16: How can you maintain mindfulness throughout the year?

  • Ask students: What did you learn about yourself as a person and student during this unit?  Why is mindfulness important and how can it help make you a better student?  What do you need to do to be able to maintain your mindfulness throughout the year now that our unit is done?
  • Have the students share their mindfulness goals with their table partner and discuss how they will work towards them.
  • Closing questions: What could we do better next time with this unit?  How could we make this unit more effective for students?

I’m feeling quite good about the curriculum I’ve put together.  I’m excited that my co-teacher and I will be able to help our students be more mindful and engaged students as they learn to control the many thoughts and distractions facing them on a daily basis.  I can’t wait for September.  In the meantime, I’m going to continue practicing being mindful so that I can be a positive role model for my students as we work through the mindfulness curriculum together.

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Posted in Education, Learning, Professional Development, Reflection, Sixth Grade, Students, Summer Reading, Teaching

Mindfulness Background Reading

I stood at the counter recently at a local Dunkin’ Donuts shop, perplexed.  They had both of my favorite donuts on the shelves, the Chocolate Stick and the Vanilla Cake Batter.  I was befuddled by which donut I should choose.  The chocolate stick is easy to hold and eat and makes very little mess when eaten in a car.  The vanilla cake batter donut has a delicious filling that makes me go, “Ahhhh.”  What about not getting a donut at all?  They are full of fat and bad chemicals that only cause problems for my body.  Should I not even bother with a donut? I thought.  It was quite a vexing moment for me.  I didn’t know what to do.  I was torn.

I feel this same baffled way about the teaching resource Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness by Deborah Schoeberlein David that I recently finished reading.  While it filled my mind with lots of great ideas to implement in the classroom, it was poorly organized and overly repetitive.  So, do I give it a rave review and not mention how disorganized the text felt throughout or do I give it an honest review mentioning both the good and bad aspects of the book?  So, like I did that day at the doughnut shop, I paused, took a deep breath, and made my decision: Honesty is always the best policy.  So, here it is, my honest review of the professional development resource regarding mindfulness.

Mental food for thought:

  • The book is very disorganized and repetitive as the author keeps telling us the same thing over and over again regarding mindfulness and how to live mindfully.  While she breaks the concept down into tiny pieces, the definitions and methods are almost always the same.  Due to this chaos within the book, it felt clunky and I found myself skimming over several parts and chapters because they were all providing the reader with the same information.  This aspect made the text hard to digest effectively as I constantly found myself thinking, She already told us this, throughout the book.  Had she organized it in a more meaningful, succinct, and appropriate manner, I would have found much more enjoyment in the entire reading experience.
  • After reading this text, I realized that I am already doing some of the mindful practices the author suggests, which also reminded me that not all new teaching practices are completely new and unique.  Some concepts and ideas are things effective teachers already do on a regular basis, with mindfulness being one of them.  I’ve felt as though the big push recently in education is about teaching students to be mindful.  So, as one of my professional goals is to craft a mindfulness curriculum this summer, I felt compelled to read up on the topic so that I had some sort of foundation on which to build my curriculum.  As I read the book, I realized that a big part of being mindful is reflecting in the moment and after the fact.  I already do this on a daily basis through my teaching blog.  At the close of each and every day of teaching, I stop, reflect on something that went well or crashed and burned that day, and then write about it.  This process allows me to see how I can become a better educator since I am able to see the mistakes I made or celebrate my greatness.  In reflecting, I’m also able to, sometimes, generate possible solutions to problems facing me as a teacher.  Over the past few years that I’ve been blogging and reflecting, I’ve been able to focus my thinking in the moment.  I find myself thinking about what is going well or not as I’m teaching, which allows me to make any alterations needed right then and there.  So, while this idea of mindfulness seemed new and strange to me at first, I’m realizing that I am already on the path of being a mindful teacher, which means that I can model good, mindful practices for my students.
  • Mindfulness is all about taking the time to live in the moment and truly experience life.  I wonder then, if my school’s schedule is more conducive to mindlessness than it is mindfulness.  We have short class blocks, which do not allow most teachers to delve into mindfulness practices.  Our school is driven by time and schedule, which means that most students and teachers are always looking at the clock and not able to be present in the moment.  While our sixth grade schedule is much more flexible, and we reiterate the importance of not living by the clock or time constraints in the classroom at the start of the year, as a whole school, we struggle to build in time for mindfulness.  How can we expect our teachers to teach mindfulness to our students if we don’t provide them with the time to be mindful in the first place?  For our school to truly help students be more mindful in and out of the classroom, our schedule and mindset as an institution needs to change.  We need longer class periods and more time to work with the students on living in the moment and not worrying about what comes next.  We need more time to pause and reflect with our students.  I worry that while my co-teacher and I will teach our students to be more mindful this coming year, if our school doesn’t value mindfulness as a whole, then when our sixth graders move into the other graders, all of the effort and work they put into being mindful will be lost.
  • Teaching students to be mindful involves teaching them about the brain and how it works.  Once the students know how their brain helps them learn while also trying to distract them at every turn, they can begin to see how they can control their line of thinking and change their mindset.  While my co-teacher and I are teaching our students mindful practices, we will also be teaching them about how the brain works in our study skills course.  This way, they will be able to see how the puzzle pieces fit together.
  • Like teaching any new activity or skill in the classroom, it’s important to explain the purpose of mindfulness.  Why are we teaching you to be more mindful?  What’s the purpose?  How can these practices help you become a better student and individual citizen in our world?  These are important questions to address with the students at the outset, which is why we are planning to begin our mindfulness unit with a TED Talk or video that visually shows the students why mindfulness is crucial to their future success in and out of the classroom.
  • Short activities that allow students be more mindful in the moment will be good to use in all of our classes.  Perhaps starting class with one minute of mindful breathing and quiet contemplation could help center the students and recalibrate their brains and bodies prior to jumping into the learning and content for the day.  I want to use this in at least one class a day as I think it will really help the students see the benefits in stopping and pausing before continuing on with their day.  Another simple yet mindful activity is to start class with a riddle.  Having the students think about just the answer to the riddle allows them to hone their focus and concentration at the start of the class.  This is also a cool idea that I want to use in our study skills class.
  • When crafting the mindfulness curriculum for our class this year, I now have several good activities and ideas to include:
    • After explaining the purpose of learning mindfulness, I want to have the students realize how many different thoughts are swirling around their tiny heads at any given moment by having them list every thought they are thinking during a period of 30 seconds.  I will follow this up with a class discussion and reflection activity that will hopefully help the students see the power in decluttering their minds on a daily basis.
    • I want to have the students complete some mindful speech and active listening activities to help the boys learn how to speak aloud and listen appropriately.  The students will work with a partner to read a section of text aloud in various different ways before receiving feedback on each method.  This way, hopefully, the students will be able to see how important volume, annunciation, and intonation are when speaking aloud.  This activity will also help the students learn the importance of being good listeners and how this skill can help them and their partner grow as students and people.
    • The author introduced a cool activity about walking with awareness to help the students see how their body language shows their feelings and emotions without them even knowing it.  This will help the students learn to be aware of their body language and the messages it sends to their peers and teachers.
    • Have students complete various acts of kindness and then talk about the resultant feelings.  How does it feel to be kind and compassionate?  Helping the students see the value in kindness will help them to treasure it and spread it to everyone they come in contact with on a daily basis.
    • I want to have the students try a mindful seeing activity as a way to introduce how quiet observations can lead to mindful vision.  We could work this into the STEM curriculum as they observe the natural world right outside of our classroom.  How much more valuable are the observations they make when they are quiet and patient than when they are talking and focusing on several different ideas?  This is something I struggled with this past year in my STEM class.  When I took the students outside to observe their forest plots, they were so preoccupied with the external factors of bugs, heat, and their peers that they couldn’t mindfully observe their plots. Having the students practice this activity a few different times might help them to see the benefit in mindfully observing the world around them.
    • Have the students complete an activity in which they discuss a hot button topic before seeing how their expectations and judgements cloud their mindfulness.  How can you truly and objectively think about or discuss a topic if your mind is full of preconceived notions and subjective thoughts?  Getting the students to see the importance of broadening their perspective when learning about new ideas or topics is crucial for mindful learning to take place.
  • A great and easy way for the students to document their mindfulness progress is to have them reflect on their mindful thinking and learning in their e-portfolios.  As we will have the students update and maintain their e-portfolio throughout the year, adding another component in which they can document their growth as a mindful student just makes sense.  This way they can see how much more mindful they are at the end of the year compared to how they were at the start of the academic year.

While I didn’t totally love this book because it was disorganized and repetitive, I did learn a lot from it.  Reading this text also facilitated much thinking for me on the topic of mindfulness.  Although I wouldn’t recommend this book for teachers looking to create a mindfulness curriculum, it has helped me to think about how I want to organize my own unit on mindfulness.  Now begins the fun work of setting up my mindfulness unit with all that I’ve learned from this resource.

Posted in Education, Sixth Grade, Students, Summer Reading, Teaching

Summer Reading: Books my Students Will Read

As I sit here in the magnificent Howe Public Library waiting for my son to finish a final exam at his high school, I’m filled with glee.  I am so glad that it is him and not me taking exams.  I hated taking final exams in high school and college.  They were so stressful and my hand ached with great pain after each one as I had to write a novella to address the questions being asked.  I am so happy that instead of sitting in a room filled with tension and teenage hormones, I am here in a cool and quiet library updating my blog regarding my second summer professional goal.  The metaphorical sun shines brightly in my epically blue sky today.

After reading the underwhelming Welcome to Camp Nightmare by R. L. Stine, I was worried that all three of my children’s literature selections would be duds.  With the plethora of choices and options in this genre, I feel as though I am more likely to read a bad book than a winner.  Despite these odds, I persevered, thankfully, and came out on top with much to show for my work.  The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce and The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang were both fantastic reads that thrusted me into completely different worlds filled with action, humor, drama, and diversity.  In the sea of icky young adult fiction, it’s nice to know that there are authors willing to take risks and write brilliant books for the future leaders and thinkers of our world.

The Unforgotten Coat tells the amazing story of refugee children trying to navigate life in a new land, while always fearing deportation.  The author did a wonderful job painting the portrait of differences and compassion with Polaroid pictures and a first-person narrative from the perspective of a sixth grade girl as the backdrop.  I absolutely loved every page of the novel and hope that my students choose this book to devour this summer.  There are several great talking and discussion points I could bring up with my students regarding this novel as it is filled with lots of examples of great writing, poor choices, compassionate choices, and kindness in a harsh world where a piece of paper is the difference between safety and loss.  Wow! is just about all I can say about this great book.  If you are looking for a quick read for sixth grade level readers or looking for a new read-aloud to teach your students about diversity and the refugee crisis with which our world is faced, then this is the book for you.

The third book I chose to read that some of my new sixth grade students may read this summer was The Shadow Hero.  As I have grown to enjoy graphic novels thanks in part to the author of this very book, I could not have been more excited to jump into this wonderful novel.  The author does an amazing job telling the story of a Chinese superhero created during the time when comics were all the rage in our country.  Unfortunately, the original story and comic fell to the wayside and never really gained popularity in its own time.  Thankfully though, the author and illustrator reinvigorate The Green Turtle narrative by imagining his origin story.  The book is filled with creative imagery and crisp writing that moves the story forward like the tracks below a speeding train.  Because some of the language used could be construed as a bit mature, this novel would definitely be for more advanced readers or those middle school readers looking for a fun read filled with action.  I was transported to a different time where stereotypes and differences abounded like bubbles in soda.  This book could be used to teach about the Chinese culture or diversity in general.  It might also be a unique way to introduce or teach world mythology to students.  If you’re looking for a young adult novel that is a bit different from the norm, then this may just be the book for you.

While my son sits in a hot classroom, frantically moving his pencil across the page as he answers yet another question about American history, I could not be happier sitting here reflecting upon some great books I’ve read this week.  After reading these three books, I’m inspired to tackle even more young adult novels as I work my way through the rest of my summer professional goals.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Learning, Student Support, Students, Summer Reading, Teaching

Summer Reading Professional Development Text: Lost at School

Although the crux of the concept Ross Greene explains in his book seems intuitive and almost like common sense for teachers and parents, I found this novel to be eye-opening and quite beneficial.  It’s an easy read with short chapters and lots of specific examples.  The story of a school using his Plan B weaves together the book and different ideas suggested within.  As my son is often described as a challenging student, I found this book to hit very close to home.  I “saw” him in many of the descriptions I read about difficult students in school and it made me realize that even though the method of supporting and helping challenging students is good teaching, very few of my son’s teachers have utilized this approach to helping him.  So, I send out a plea to all teachers, if you haven’t yet read this book, please do so and utilize Plan B when working with all students as we don’t want to create apathy and anger within our students.  Let’s get comfortable giving up control in order to foster an atmosphere of caring and collaboration in the classroom.

Some takeaways:

  • I sometimes find myself treating difficult students as if they are being defiant and challenging on purpose.  I then try to inflict my will upon them as a way to control the situation and the student.  Not only does this not work, it creates anger and frustration within the students.  They learn to dislike school because they are not being supported or cared for.  The author explains how as teachers and caregivers, we need to change the way we think about difficult kids.  Challenging students are challenging not as a way to be purposefully defiant but because they have developmental delays regarding thinking and learning skills.  These difficult students are challenging because they don’t know how to do what they are being asked to do.  If they knew how, they would clearly do it.  This idea really made me question how I have dealt with difficult students in the past.  I believe that I usually assume challenging students are purposefully acting out as a way to be defiant.  Boy was I ever wrong.  This new way of thinking will help me better support challenging students in my class come September.
  • Greene proposes that teachers collaborate with students to solve problems and address challenging and difficult behavior.  For many educators, this will be hard to swallow as we often want to be in control of our class.  “How can we possibly allow the students to help us solve their problems.  They have no idea what they need.  They need to be disciplined and receive consequences for their poor choices.”  This fixed mindset is what has caused students like my son to hate school and struggle greatly.  As teachers, we need to realize that we are in this amazing journey, often called education, together with our students.  It is not us vs. them; instead, we need to be one big community and family of learners.  Families do things together and so the same needs to apply in the classroom.  Students know themselves and what they need way better than we do.  Sure, we might not always like their ideas, and that’s okay, but we do need to respect what our students have to say and how they feel.  Students need to be validated if progress is to be made.  The author’s Plan B is all about validating the feelings of our students and then working together with our students to help address these issues that are rearing their head as challenging behaviors in the classroom.
  • Greene’s Plan B approach to solving behavioral problems in the classroom contains three steps:
    • Step 1: Validate the feelings of the student by showing apathy.  “I’ve noticed that it’s been difficult for you to complete your homework on a daily basis.  What’s up with that?”  This step begins the conversation and allows you to determine is going on with the student.  Why is he or she exhibiting this difficult behavior?  This is the most important step in the process as it builds trust and care between the teacher and the student.  While the student may not give up the goods right away, if you keep digging and probing through empathetic questions and active listening, you will eventually figure out what is causing the student to act they way they are acting in the classroom.
    • Step 2: Explain your concern with the student’s behavior.  “My concern is that by not doing your homework, you are unable to practice the skills introduced in class and then seem very confused when we build upon the skills learned.”  This step is obviously the shortest and must be free of judgment and explanation.  Don’t try to assume why the student is acting a certain way, simply state your concern with their behavior.
    • Step 3: Invite the student into the conversation once again by asking for their suggestions on how to solve the problem or address the behavior being exhibited.  “I wonder if there is a way we can help you complete your homework on a daily a basis.  Do you have any ideas?”  This step may take the longest to complete as the student may have lots of ideas that won’t be mutually agreed upon by both the teacher and the student; however, it’s important that we show the student that we value their input.  We want them to be a part of the problem solving process.  If a student doesn’t have any ideas, propose your own.  While the student may not like any of your ideas, he or she might be prompted to provide some of their own once they have had time to process what is being asked of them.  Difficult students often lack executive functioning skills and need more time to process and think before responding.
  • After reading through the three parts of Plan B, I began to wonder, am I already doing a form of Plan B in the classroom at times?  I do find that I sometimes begin conversations regarding a student’s behavior with empathy before getting into my concern with their choices.  However, that is usually where I stop.  I don’t usually allow the student to add their ideas and suggestions to the conversation.  So, what I thought was Plan B is actually Plan A.  I am doling out consequences as a way to control the student and my classroom.  Because I’m not making the problem solving process collaborative, the students become disengaged in the process and no genuine progress is made, which is why I often see these same difficult behaviors repeated throughout the year.  I need to be sure I allow the students to add their thoughts and concerns to our discussions as collaboration is crucial to making real progress.
  • The author helps educators think about the Plan B model of collaborative problem solving by comparing it to differentiating academic instruction in the classroom.  Teachers wouldn’t expect every student to be able to comprehend every aspect of a single novel read without support and scaffolding; therefore, we shouldn’t assume that every student has the ability to transition from playtime to class time without help and support too.  Some students need help from us, their teachers, to learn how to solve problems, transition, etc. and Plan B is a differentiated approach to doing this.  If we differentiate the academic instruction for our students, then we need to do the same for behavior and the social aspects of school too.  I liked this analogy as I see how important differentiation is for academic instruction.  If I put as much time and energy into helping all students address their behavioral issues as I do creating scaffolded learning opportunities for my students, then I would see the frequency of challenging behaviors in my classroom decrease.
  • Plan B isn’t simply an individual approach to problem solving; it can be used for a whole class or small groups as well.  The same three steps are used.  The only difference is that more students are involved.  You will need to set ground rules for how these conversations proceed, but they are vital to fostering a strong sense of community and compassion within the classroom.  Although I do try to address big issues with my entire class, I do so in a very controlled manner without allowing the students to add their insight to the discussion.  I want to work on this for the new academic year.  I’m thinking that maybe having one community meeting a week to address behavioral issues or concerns might help to create a sense of family and caring within the classroom.  I want to run this by my co-teacher to get her thoughts on the issue.  I’m excited about this as I think it will make a big difference in the classroom.
  • The author suggested a cool idea that could easily be incorporated into these whole class Plan B discussions: Have students share gifts or personal qualities and attributes they have that could help their classmates.  This would help the students learn more about their classmates while also helping them all learn who could help them within their class.  This kind of activity could do wonders for building a strong sense of community within the classroom.  I love it and will use it as an icebreaker activity at the start of the year.  I might also revisit this activity throughout the year when issues arise.

Although my feedback and takeaways can’t possibly do justice to how great and wonderful this book is, I feel as though I encapsulated the best and most important ideas of the text.  I love this book and feel as though the ideas presented will help me continue to grow and develop as a teacher.  I can’t wait for September so that I can try Plan B.  Heck, I’m going to try it with my son this summer.  Bring on the challenging behavior!

Posted in Education, Humanities, Language, Learning, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Summer Reading Professional Development Text: Educating English Learners

After a lengthy hiatus brought on by the craziness that is teaching sixth grade at a boarding school, I jumped headfirst right back into Educating English Learners, by Nutta, Strebel, Mokhtari, Mihai, and Crevecoeur-Bryant, now that summer vacation has begun.  While it was quite dense and loaded with vocabulary more geared towards English as a Second Language Teachers, I learned a lot about how to better support and help the English language learners in my class.  I would not recommend this text for light reading as I found myself having to reread several passages because of the syntax and verbosity of the language used.  It’s a great resource for any teacher who works with non-native English students in their classroom.  Although the book doesn’t include neat and easy to use remedies and strategies, it provides the reader with much food for thought and fodder on how to create a caring and supportive environment for all students in the classroom.

My takeaways:

  • English language learners will struggle less when learning English if their native language literacy skills are strong.  While this seems quite simplistic and obvious, when I read this knowledge nugget, I felt as though someone had slung a bag of bricks at my head.  So, the stronger the EL student is in his or her native language, the better equipped he or she will be to tackle the intricacies of the English language.  Knowing this will help me better structure mini-lessons or plans for the ELs in my class.  Talking to parents and looking at student files ahead of time might provide me with the answers I need regarding this issue.
  • To help EL students feel more welcomed and safe at the start of the school year, labelling objects around the room in the native languages represented in the classroom is a good first step in setting up the classroom.  This will help the students know how much I care about them and want them to be successful.  It’s a little thing that is sure to go a long way.  It’s also great for vocabulary development for those EL students in my class.
  • Things that native English speakers take for granted are truly difficult for EL students to learn.  For example, native English speakers know the difference between words when they are used in social contexts or in academic settings.  A party is a social gathering when discussed amongst friends, but in the social studies classroom it refers to a group of people with similar beliefs.  Although the definitions are closely related, to non-native English students, how is it possible that one word can have more than one meaning?  The English language is full of rules, idiomatic expressions, and exceptions to every rule.  Being aware of these challenges will help us better empathize with and support the ESL students in our classroom.
  • If we know that most native English speakers don’t fully grasp why we say what we do and how we say things in English and our ELLs need much help understanding rules of grammar when learning English, why don’t we do more formal instruction in the classroom on the rules and structure of English?  Why don’t we teach the parts of speech and how to use them?  Why don’t we help students learn how to diagram sentences to understand the hows and whys of English?  Why don’t we teach the English language to all of our students?  As I’ve often wrestled with these questions over the years, I’ve suddenly realized that I don’t formally teach grammar and English to my sixth grade students.  Sure, I brush over it at various times when I’m conferencing with students in Writer’s Workshop or helping an ELL in my class; I don’t however, do any full-class instruction on this.  I need to bring back the formal grammar instruction, but I want to make sure I do so in a meaningful, relevant, and engaging way.  Having the students complete worksheets and underline verbs and nouns seems tedious and boring.  I want my students to truly learn English grammar.  I was thinking of starting my Humanities class twice a week with a brain opener activity I would call Grammar Gurus in which I would teach the students about English grammar through fun activities.  It wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes and it would allow me be sure that my students understand the form and function of the English language.  This would also greatly benefit the ELLs in my classroom too.  Nice!
  • Acting out, visually, or through modelling, new or challenging vocabulary terms will better help the EL students in our classrooms understand what we are discussing or asking them to do.  I could use images or diagrams as instructions on worksheets or on our class website to help non-native English speakers better understand what is being asked of them.
  • Much like labelling objects in the classroom in various different languages, having a word wall in the classroom with new vocabulary terms and their definitions in simple English would also help struggling English language learners better understand the content being covered in class.  My co-teacher and I could use this strategy as an introductory lesson for each new unit.  We could introduce the new vocabulary terms that we will cover throughout the unit and help the students generate student-friendly and simplistic definitions for the new words.  Very cool idea!
  • Thematic units or PBLs help ELLs due to the longer exposure to the content and vocabulary terms covered.  If the students are learning about renewable energy in STEM class and also writing about it in Humanities class, the same ideas, concepts, and vocabulary terms will be used in both classes.  The English language learners in the classroom would then be provided with more time to practice understanding the content and processing the new words and concepts.  What a brilliant idea!  I’m going to talk to my co-teacher about crafting more thematic units throughout the year to better support and help the ESL students in our class.
  • While I’ve always known the power in partnering non-native English speakers with native English students, the book made a point to explain the power in pairing students with different languages together when working on a PBL activity that incorporates technology somehow.  The non-native English speaker can receive English support from the native speaker while they are both problem solving in English together.  Not only does this technique help to bridge cultural differences, it also helps both students grow and develop as English language learners.  I need to make sure I continue this tradition of pairing ELLs with native English speakers in the classroom as the evidence and research proves what I’ve known all along.
  • The text discusses the importance of correcting the English language learners in our class in their writing and oral speech.  This goes against my prior knowledge and what I currently do in the classroom.  Rather than correcting the oral speech of the ELLs in my classroom, I work with them one-on-one with their writing.  I provide them feedback on how to improve their written English.  I should do this more consistently and also correct their oral English as well.  The book highlights the importance of doing this so that the students will learn proper English.  If we cottle the ELLs in our classroom, they will not grow and develop as English language learners.  Although this seems like common sense, I’ve never realized the importance of doing so for the ESL students in my class.  I need to do this regularly in the classroom.
  • For ELLs to grow and develop, they need to be receiving direct instruction from an ESL instructor at least once a day along with inclusion in a mainstream class.  The combination of the two will help the students understand the rules and function of the language while also practicing the social and academic rules of English.  In the sixth grade, my ELLs only have ESL class twice a week.  They need to have it every day in order to be appropriately prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English class.  I need to talk with my school’s director of studies to see if this can be changed for next year and beyond.  While ESL class is a regular course in the seventh through ninth grades, it is done differently in the sixth grade.  This needs to be changed.  Perhaps that’s why I see very slow progress from my ESL students over the course of the year.  As I am not a qualified ESL instructor, I can’t help them in all of the ways they need to be supported as they learn the English language.
  • Because my school has almost 50% non-native English speakers, we need more professional development for supporting ELLs in our classrooms.  We need specific strategies, tips, and tricks we can use when working with English language learners.  While reading this book has helped me understand the issue at hand, it is only a tiny piece of the puzzle of working with ELLs.  I’m sure my colleagues would agree when I say that we need much more help and support from our school in working with non-native English speakers.  We need to be taught about teaching ELLs in our classrooms.  We can’t effectively help all of our students if we don’t know how to do so.

While it took me a bit longer than I had hoped to complete this text, it was totally worth the wait and perseverance.  I now know that I need to be much more deliberate and purposeful in teaching the English language to all of my students, and especially to the English language learners in my class.  I feel as though I am much more prepared now to help support the ELLs in my classroom come September.  Yes, I do still need a lot more help in what specific strategies to use when working with the English language learners in my class, but at least I feel like I have some places to start and ideas for how to improve as an English teacher moving forward.

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Learning, New Ideas, Planning, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, Student Support, Students, Summer Reading, Teaching, Trying Something New

Summer Work: What I’ll Do When It’s Hot Outside

While there are times I miss owning a house and having a place to call my own, I don’t miss mowing the lawn, plucking the weeds, and checking to make sure the basement isn’t flooded, again.  The summer months are the worst for homeowners as there is so much to constantly do and redo again and again.  It’s a never ending cycle of sweaty, back-breaking labor.  No, I don’t miss taking care of a house, especially in the summer.  The summer months are for relaxing, spending time with family, and staying cool inside thanks to artificial air from air conditioners.  What a brilliant invention!  If it weren’t for air conditioners, I’d have to spend every summer at the North Pole with Santa and his elves.  Although it would be super cool to help Santa make presents for all the girls and boys around the globe, I’d miss my wife and son too much.  Luckily though, I get to enjoy the best of both worlds with air conditioning and family fun.

As I spend most of the oppressively hot summer days inside, I’m far from bored.  In fact, my summer vacation is the second busiest time of the year for me.  The most hectic time is definitely the regular school year, of course.  In the summer though, I set lofty goals for what I’d like to accomplish.  Last year, I revised my STEM curriculum, learned how to knit, learned how to solve the Rubik’s Cube, and read a few professional development texts.  This year my goals may be a tiny bit higher as I work each year to grow as an educator and individual.

  • Read Two Professional Development Texts
    • As I never finished the book Educating English Learners that I began at the start of this past academic year, part A of my first summer goal is to complete that.  In order to be sure that I best support, challenge, and care for the non-native English speakers that are sure to fill my sixth grade classroom next year, I want to finish reading this text.  I’m hopeful that it will provide me with many valuable and useful strategies that I can apply in the classroom at the start of the year.  This way, I will be better equipped to help the international students in my class be able to effectively learn and grow as English language learners.
    • The professional development summer reading book I chose from the list provided by my school’s administration is Lost at School by Ross Greene.  Although I never read his immensely popular book about how to help difficult or explosive children, I’m excited to dive into this resource for helping students with behavioral issues feel cared for and supported.  I have sometimes found myself fumbling for the best strategy to use to to help students with chronic behavioral issues.  As I know there is clearly some sort of underlying motivation for their poor choices, I struggled, at times, to best help students who seemed to be “too cool for school.”  I’m optimistic that this resource will provide me with much fodder for next year and beyond.  How do I best help students with behavioral issues in the classroom?
  • Read Three Summer Reading Books my Students May Read This Summer
    • As my new co-teacher and I put together a pretty amazing list of possible summer reading books for our new sixth graders, we wanted to be sure that between the two of us, we have read them all.  As there are nine books on the list and we each read one, I’ll be reading three that interest me and my new co-teacher will read four that she’s excited to read and perhaps utilize in STEM class next year.  I’ll be reading Welcome to Camp Nightmare by R.L. Stine, The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce, and The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang.  As I’m a huge fan of young adult literature, I can’t wait to dive into these treasures.
  • Create Mindfulness Curriculum
    • After attending a workshop on the importance of teaching students how to be mindful in this ever distracting world in which we live, I felt compelled to find a way to implement mindfulness into my curriculum.  Since my new co-teacher and I have three extra periods a week with the sixth grade boys in the fall, we now know how we are going to cover this ever important topic with the students.  Once or twice a week, we want to introduce, explain, and have the students utilize mindfulness practices including meditation, breathing exercises, self-awareness, and much more.  As I haven’t had much opportunity to dig into the many resources available online for teaching this important topic, I’m looking forward to having the time this summer to craft a meaningful and appropriate mindfulness curriculum for our new sixth grade students.
  • Revise Humanities Unit on Community
    • Despite truly loving the community unit my co-teacher and I used this past year, I want to take the time to deeply reflect on it.  Does it cover and address the big ideas I want my students to take away from it?  Is it fun and engaging for the students?  Does it take up too much class time or not enough?  Is every part of the unit interconnected?  Are there too many field experiences or not enough?  Should I stick with just the town of Canaan or cover the entire state of NH?  What’s the best way to instruct a unit on community?  I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel by any means and will probably keep most of what I used last year, but I want to take the time to meaningfully look at the unit and what it entails.  Is there a better way to implement a unit on community in the sixth grade?
  • Learn How to Effectively Utilize a Makey Makey Tool
    • Not only is it fun to say, “Makey Makey,” but it’s also a really cool resource to use to get students learning about computer mechanics and circuitry.  As I was recently given a Makey Makey of my own, I feel compelled to not simply learn how to use it, but to learn how to use it effectively so that I can teach students how to use it in our classroom’s Makerspace starting in September.   As the Makey Makey website includes many great tutorials and resources on how to best utilize them in the classroom, I’m excited about playing with this cool new tool this summer.  I wonder what amazing knowledge I will gain from learning how to use the Makey Makey.  I can’t wait to find out.
  • Research Grading Rubrics and Create Several Different Types
    • As I am moving into year one of my school’s Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan (ITIP) beginning in September, I felt it prudent to choose a topic that I could begin focusing on this summer.  While teacher and student reflection is definitely my jam, I already do it and have seen tangible results because of its utilization in and out of the classroom; therefore, I’ve decided on a topic that will force me to look at how I assess and grade student work.  Although I’ve seen the benefits of using the objectives-based grading model in the sixth grade classroom over the past several years that I’ve used it, grading and assessing student work still proves to be a bit subjective at times.  Is this because the objectives I’ve created are too subjective or open to individual interpretation?  Do these challenges stem from having expectations for my students that are too high or too low?  What is causing the issues that I’ve seen regarding the grading and assessment of student work?  To help me figure out what might be at play here, I’ve decided to focus on the grading tool I use to assess student work.  While I’ve never been a fan of prescriptive rubrics as I feel they steal creativity and problem solving from the students, I’ve only been using a bare-bones list of expectations the students need to meet when completing a project or assignment.  Is this enough for the students to be able to effectively demonstrate their ability to meet or exceed the graded objectives?  Should I use rubrics instead so that the students know how to meet and exceed the graded objectives for a particular task or assignment?  Might that help or would it limit what the students could do because rubrics are so explanatory?  Are there different types of rubrics I should use?  What is the most effective way to introduce an assignment and grade and assess student work using the objectives-based grading model?
    • So, this summer, I want to research grading rubrics and their effectiveness in the classroom.  What type of rubric works best?  Do rubrics work?  What data have teachers and schools collected on assessment that might help me address my ITIP topic?  I also want to create a few different types of grading tools and rubrics that I could utilize in the classroom to collect my own data on assessment.

So, that’s it.  That’s my plan for the summer in between chauffeuring my son around to his driver’s education course and football training commitments as well as spending time with my wife and making sure I do as much as I can to help out around the house since I’m quite absent when the academic year begins.  So, bring on the heat as I’ll be keeping cool and busy inside this summer with my epic workload and professional development goals.  Go me!

Posted in Challenges, Change, Education, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

How Can We Help Our Students See their Fears and Anxieties About School as Normal?

This past Tuesday, some colleagues and I celebrated the beginning of our lengthy summer vacation by going to Portland, Maine.  I haven’t had so much fun since I can’t remember when.  Despite the dreary and cold weather, we walked around the Old Port like we owned the town.  We munched on tasty food and talked about non-school stuff; although, that was difficult at times since our common tie is life at a boarding school.  We tried.  We laughed, we got drenched as cars drove through puddles splashing rain upon us, and we sang and danced like nobody’s business.  Yes, that’s right, I said sang.  You see, the reason we went to Maine was to see City and Colour live in concert.  As my pals and I are enamored by Dallas Green’s sultry voice and insightful lyrics, we convinced some of our other teacher friends to come along for the epic journey.  And epic it was.  He played all of his best tunes including an acoustic version of Coming Home that went right into the end of This Could be Anywhere in the World by Alexisonfire, Dallas’ other band.  We almost cried.  As most of the people we went with enjoyed the show, it was really my two closest friends and I who were the most into the show.  We danced the night away.  You see, music moves us like the pied piper moved his mice.  I used to be worried what people around us must think when they see us dancing, “Those people must be drunk or on drugs.”  The beauty of it all is that I am completely sober during concerts.  Music fills my body with joy and I can’t help but move.  Sure, people point and giggle occasionally, but I no longer care.  I realize that if I feel something, I should show it.  So, I do, and so do my concert buddies.  We move to the rhythm of each song as if we are dancers in our own private ballet.  It’s so much fun.  Going to a concert is an experience for us and so I’m sure to leave my fears and anxieties at the metal detectors.

Like me, my students enter our classroom each year filled with fears and anxieties about all sorts of things.  “Will the other students like me?  Will I fit in?  Can I handle the workload?”  As a teacher, I make it a goal to help assuage this fear within my students by creating a safe, caring, compassionate, and supportive environment in the classroom.  Although the beginning of the year is generally the most stressful time for students due to the many unknown variables, the end of the year can also prove to be a bit challenging for our students as well.  After a wonderful year in the classroom, the students begin to worry about next year as the current academic year winds to a close.  They worry about the new students and teachers as well as the many changes that are sure to come in a new grade.  Instead of sending our students off on summer vacation stressed about the next school year, it’s important to help the students see that their fears and worries are a normal part of growing up and maturing.

On the last day of school at my wonderful educational institution, which came and went last Thursday, we devoted time to having the students reflect on the year and share their excitement and fears for seventh grade.  While my co-teacher and I wanted the students to celebrate all of the awesomeness that happened in the sixth grade classroom this year, we also wanted the students to realize that their fears are most likely the same concerns that their peers have.  “I’m worried about the homework load next year.  I’m worried about not fitting in.  I’m worried that the teachers won’t like me.  I’m worried that the new students won’t like me.”  By having the boys share their worries for next year aloud with their peers, they not only had the opportunity to be validated by the teachers and their friends, but they also had a chance to become allies with the other students so that they can work together to help each other overcome the fears they possess.  As we fostered a strong sense of community within the class this past year, we are hopeful that they will take care of one another next year.  Knowing what worries their peers will help them better support each other as they move into the seventh grade.  Helping the students to see that they have friends who support and empathize with them will help make the transition into the next academic year a bit smoother for our boys.