Group Writing: How to Inspire Your Students to Enjoy Writing

Sixth grade students love to talk and interact with their friends and peers.  They solve problems through talking, play games while talking, and even talk when they shouldn’t be talking.  Many sixth grade students tend to be very outgoing and interpersonal.  They experience life through social interactions, as they love doing things together in small groups or with a partner.  Teamwork and group work play vital roles for sixth grade students.  If offered the choice to work alone on a project or activity or to complete the task with a partner, most sixth grade students would choose to work with a partner.  They crave social togetherness and feeling like a part of something greater than themselves.  These connections are crucial to how successful sixth grade students feel and actually are in reality.

So, to capitalize on this important facet of sixth grade life, I wanted to try a different kind of writing activity today during Humanities class.  While many of my students have already begun to find the fun and enjoyment in writing, a few of them are still stuck in thinking that writing is a required task and not something they enjoy doing.  To help inspire my students to get into the Halloween spirit today while also helping them find the fun in the writing process, I had the boys participate in a Group Writing activity.  The students each received a different spooky story starter that was the springboard into their story.  They used this prompt to begin their story.  Each student worked on their story for five minutes, formulating a strong beginning.  They then all traded stories with a peer, read what their classmate had written, and then continued building on this new story for five minutes.  They rotated stories with their classmates three more times, as they added to new stories, building on what was already written.  The last rotation had the students finish the story that was worked on by four other students.  Throughout the process, laughter was heard on numerous occasions as they read each other’s stories and added to them.  Smiles spread across the faces of my students as they busily worked to craft scary and strange Halloween-themed stories.  The boys had a blast with the writing portion of this activity.  They all seemed so proud of their work as they pointed out some of the highlights from their pieces while they traded stories with their classmates.  One student came to me towards the end of the writing process and said, “Mr. Holt, I’m loving writing so much now that I may start doing it during my free time.  This activity is so fun.”  Another student, who struggles to write as he finds it boring, told me, “Thanks for doing this activity, Mr. Holt.  It was a lot of fun.”  The boys seemed to thoroughly enjoy crafting crazy, weird, and morbid stories together as a group.  They loved adding to what their friends had crafted and enjoyed reading what their peers had written.  While there was very little talking happening during the writing part of this activity, the social interaction component was quite high.  The students were silently interacting with their peers in written form.  I was impressed and amazed by how much my students seemed to like this activity.  It was awesome.

Before moving into the sharing portion of the activity, I asked the students for some feedback on the process.  Almost all of the students raised their hands to express how much they loved this activity.  To wrap things up, I had the students gather in the reading area of the classroom, turned off the lights, and read aloud their group write stories.  I not only had a blast reading their bizarre, scary, and often funny stories, but the students couldn’t stop laughing.  When their part of the stories was read aloud, shouts of laughter and “This is mine” were heard.  It was such a remarkable experience.  By making writing a social activity, I inspired my students to find their passion.  My students found the fun in writing during today’s activity.  While this is only one way to teach students how to write and craft stories, it is a highly successful method as it allows the students to silently engage in social discourse.  They talked with their friends through their writing.  Many of the stories had tinges of a video game the boys love playing together during their free time.  Almost every story seemed to include some reference to this game.  While I have done this activity every Halloween for the past four years, I’m amazed each and every year by how much my students truly enjoy it.  This activity is usually just the bridge many of them need to cross over the river of challenges and into the land of Writing is Fun.  I can’t wait to see what wonderful masterpieces my students put together during our next writing activity.

Varying the approach to teach writing is important in helping all students see how much fun writing can be.  While some boys love writing creative stories or historical fiction pieces, others like writing non-fiction essays or reports.  Each student is different and unique in their own way, and as teachers, it is our mission to help them tap into their potential as a writer.  What type of writing activity or genre will inspire them?  By providing the students with various writing opportunities throughout the year, we are helping them unlock the writer within.  Group writing activities like the one I did today, can help students uncover the writer inside of them.  Who knows what’s possible unless we give our students a chance to try?  So, if you’re looking to mix things up and make writing fun for your students, try a Group Writing activity.

Struggling to Challenge and Support ALL of My Students

Imagine a world in which teachers design their curriculum and lessons for the average-level student in their classroom.  They use one lesson plan to teach all of their students, regardless of the various levels of the students in their class.  They have very little prep time since they are teaching to the middle.  During their free time though, they are forced to research classroom management techniques since the advanced students in their class are often bored and distract the low functioning students in the room.  This then causes chaos and prevents real learning from happening in the classroom.  These teachers tryout the new class management strategies they read about in professional development texts and online resources, but find no change in the overall atmosphere of the class during their lessons and activities.  The students continue to be distracted and distracting while these teachers are teaching.  Nothing seems to work, and the vicious cycle continues and repeats until the end of the academic year.

Now, while we all know that this is a highly ineffective teaching practice, many teachers in public schools around the world, utilized this model of teaching many years ago.  I am a product of this model of teaching in the elementary grades.  It didn’t work for me, which is what caused many of the behavioral issues I had in the classroom as a student.  I was bored or confused on an almost daily basis.  Despite asking questions or seeking help, I continued to struggle as the teacher viewed herself as the sage on the stage and lectured at us from the front of the classroom during most of the academic day.  This model did not work for me and does not work for a majority of our students.  In education, there is no middle.  There are individual students who all have their own strengths and weaknesses.  Great teachers meet each of their students where they are and support and challenge them accordingly. Effective teaching includes differentiation, group work, one-on-one sessions, student conferences, small group instruction, and partner activities.  This model of teaching is truly challenging as it requires separate lesson plans for each student, a creative use of time and space, and much work outside of the class day.  Great teachers spend much of their free time designing unique, creative, and innovative curricula that will help and support every student in their classroom.  Great teachers don’t need to worry about classroom management issues as they are engaging each and every student in their class.  This teaching practice isn’t easy and can be quite cumbersome at times, but is really the only effective way to teach and educate students.  We need to treat our students as individuals and not a whole group.  There is no middle in the classroom, there are only students.

While I have made great strides towards effectively using this model of teaching in the classroom over my 17 years of experience, I still struggle with it at times.  Today was one of those challenging moments.  As I realized last year that I was not properly providing my Humanities students with a foundation of understanding in the area of English grammar, this summer, I brainstormed ways to inject grammar into my classes on a weekly basis.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve reviewed the three basic parts of speech with my students: Noun, verb, adjective.  I briefly discussed each vocabulary term and made sure that they understood what they meant.

Today, I wanted to provide the students with an opportunity to apply this grammar knowledge.  I began class by reviewing the three major parts of speech we already discussed earlier in the year by having the students define each of the words and offer examples.  The boys were able to do this quite easily, which should be the case at this point in their school journey.  A student then explained to the class how he learned this information in third grade and seemed baffled by why we were talking about it in the sixth grade.  So, I explained to him the process we’ll be using to discuss and learn about grammar this year.  “We’re beginning our grammar journey with the three basic parts of speech as a review.  We will then move into grammar workouts in which you will have to fix grammar errors in writing.  This will then bleed into learning about the more challenging parts of speech.  We will end our discussion of grammar in May by diagramming sentences and identifying the various parts of speech.”  This response didn’t seem to help him feel any better or more engaged in what was being discussed.  I also reminded him that in order to move forward with the level of difficulty in the content covered, I need to be sure that all of the students are able to meet the assessed objectives.  I wanted him to realize that today’s discussion is merely a review and introduction into our year-long grammar adventure so that we are all building on the same foundation of knowledge, moving forward.  While I don’t know if this helped him feel any better, I wanted to be transparent with him while also respecting his emotions and thoughts.

This discussion of the three major parts of speech led into an interactive and fun activity in which I was able to informally assess all of my students on their comprehension of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.  I had the students play a fun game of Word Slappers.  Two students came to the board, armed with a word swatter, AKA a fly swatter, and stood next to each other.  On the board were the words Noun, Verb, and Adjective.  I called on individual students to shout out examples of one of the major parts of speech.  The first contestant to slap the correct part of speech with their word slapper, won a point.  The first person to score three points wins the round.  This activity allowed me to know which students struggle with understanding the parts of speech and provided me an opportunity to correct any incorrect prior knowledge the students had regarding the topic of grammar.  I was able to instruct through the use of an engaging, exciting, and educational game.  The students loved it.  They were so into it.  The audience members worked hard to brainstorm difficult examples for the contestants at the board while the student judge watched the two boys at the board very carefully to ensure that our class norms and core values were being followed at every turn.  I closed the activity, reminding them that we will continue this game for a few more weeks before we move into the more challenging grammar workouts.  The boys seemed happy with this.

Although the class discussion portion of this grammar activity seemed wasted on some of the students, I did need to be sure that every student has the same common knowledge regarding these important key vocabulary terms.  Could I have completed this exercise differently?  Perhaps, but it would have probably taken more time had I found a more individualized way to do it.  The discussion portion of the activity only took about 3-4 minutes.  Was it worth it?  Yes, I think so because I now know that all of my students know the difference between nouns, verbs, and adjectives, which means that I can move onto teaching them the more challenging parts of speech.  I do wonder though, moving forward, is there a way to better engage all of my students in this content?  How can I effectively differentiate my instruction to challenge the native English speakers in my class while supporting the ELLs?  I could easily create separate grammar workouts for each student in my class, based on their ability level.  I could also have different levels of the Word Slappers game going on at once in various parts of the classroom.  I could have the advanced students playing a game using adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions while the ELLs could be playing the version of the game we used in class today.  I could also assess each student individually during our next Reader’s Workshop block to be sure that I know the various levels of grammar understanding present in my class.  Perhaps I will try all three of these strategies to make sure that I am challenging and supporting all of the learners in my class.

Growing and Learning as a Teacher and Person

Two summers ago, I taught myself how to solve the Rubik’s Cube.  After weeks of practice, failing, video viewing, and more practice, I was finally was able to solve it.  I only needed to look at the guide sheet for help with the last few steps.  It was quite the accomplishment for me as I struggle, at times, to learn new skills outside of the realm of teaching.  While I did teach myself this new skill to grow as a STEM teacher, I also wanted to challenge myself to grow and learn as a person.  I wanted to prove to myself that even though I am growing a bit older and grayer every day, I’ve still got the magic inside that makes me feel like I’m 17 again.

As an individual, I make sure to attend at least one concert a year to remind myself that I still haven’t lost my groove thang.  In fact, I’m going to see The Used on November 7 in Boston, MA.  I can’t wait.  Their new album Canyon is phenomenal.  I also collect sportscards and play old video games from my youth to make sure my life is plenty full of fun and excitement.  As a teacher, I make use of feedback from my colleagues and students to keep my teaching fresh and fun.  I want to make sure that I never turn into one of those teachers who still uses the same worksheets and lessons they created 20 years ago.  I stay current with new teaching practices and am always looking to try new things in the classroom.  I’m all about staying on the cutting edge of education to be sure that I am the best possible teacher for my students.

A colleague of mine recently observed one of my Humanities lessons and then provided me with some useful feedback on what he noticed.  While he gave me much praise for the lesson and execution of it, he did give me two little things to think about:

  • My cadence.  He noted that when I’m excited about something while teaching, I tend to speak very quickly.  He said that I had a cadence of about 220 words per minute, which is too fast for the ELLs in my class.  The typical ELL student can handle a cadence of about 140 words per minute.  He suggested that I try to think about how quickly I’m speaking while teaching so that all of my students can get the most out of every word that flows freely from my mouth.
  • Student movement.  He noted that I didn’t have the students move or be physically active at all during the 40 minute period.  He suggested that I try to incorporate some physical activities or simple movements into each class period so that I can be sure I’m actively engaging all of my students in the learning process.

Over the short break I had from school last week, I thought long and hard about this constructive and useful feedback.  How could I better challenge and support all of the students in my class?  What can I do to work at slowing my cadence while instructing the class?  How can I be sure that I am actively engaging my all of my students?  What techniques could I utilize in the classroom to get my students to be more physically active?  I brainstormed a solution so simple that it might actually work.  I need to be more mindful while I teach.  If I’m more self-aware while I’m talking to my students, I will be able to remember to talk more slowly so that I am reaching all of the students in my class.  If I’m more present in the moment, I can take the time needed to be sure that my students have a chance to move and be active at least once during every class period.  While this solution to my many questions seemed so easy, I felt like it would actually work.  I can so be more mindful when I’m teaching in the moment.

In class on Saturday, I made it a point during my study skills class to talk more slowly so that I could be sure my ELLs were able to follow what I was saying and process the information I needed them to understand and grab hold of.  Every time I began to get excited about what I was saying, which was quite frequently since I love talking about how students can help themselves learn to be more mindful and self-aware in the classroom, I made sure to slow my cadence.  Instead of spewing out information at a rate of 200+ words a minute, I tried to make sure that I was talking at a cadence of about 150 words per minute.  While that cadence is still a bit fast for the average ESL student, it is still a manageable rate for them to be able to comprehend the majority of what I was saying.  I also made sure to simplify my language and explain new concepts, terms, and vocabulary words in a more easily accessible manner.  Instead of using convoluted English, I kept it basic and simple.  While I’m not quite sure how effective it was as I had no assessment tool for which to collect data during class, the students seemed more aware and focused on what I was saying.  The ELLs in my class who usually ask many questions during class discussions, asked no questions in class on Saturday while we talked about how stress affects the brain and what the students can do to help regulate their stress levels.  This seemed like a very positive sign to me.  I do believe that because I slowed my cadence while talking to the class, all of my students were better able to comprehend and process what I was saying.  Because I made sure to be mindful and present in the moment of teaching, I was able to stay clued into my cadence in class on Saturday.  I’m hopeful that I will be able to continue working on the speed of my speech while teaching, moving forward.

During my Humanities class on Saturday, I made sure to provide my students with an opportunity for physical movement.  To begin the introduction of our new unit on the foundations of government, I wanted to be sure that all of my students understood what the term Government actually means.  As this is a somewhat abstract term and challenging word for non-native English speakers, I wanted to make sure that all of my students left class feeling as though they have a strong understanding of what the word means.  I had the students stand up, think about someone in the class, other than their current table partner, who they believe knows what the word government means, go and stand next to that person, and discuss what the vocabulary term means.  I gave the boys about two minutes to complete this task.  They moved swiftly and safely about the room as the tried to find someone who they believed knew what the word meant.  Then the conversations began.  They spoke to each other about the word government and what it means.  They provided each other with simple definitions of the term and their thoughts on what it means to them.  It was interesting to listen to them all discuss this new and difficult word.  This short activity allowed the students to be physically active as they began contemplating the new word that would be driving our new unit.  Once the students all returned to their seats, they seemed super engaged and were able to all add their thoughts to our discussion on what the word Government means.  I did not need to add anything to the definition my students generated as it was very complete and detailed.  I was so amazed.  Was this result due to the fact that I had them get a bit physical in class prior to our discussion?  Did our unit introduction go so well because they all had a chance to individually play with the word before we discussed it as a class?  I’d like to believe that it was a bit of both.  Providing the students with the opportunity to become physical and interact with their peers helped to actively engage them in the topic and lesson.  My students extracted more from Saturday’s lesson on the Foundations of Government than they had in many previous lessons and activities because I allowed them to move and chat with their classmates.  This engagement factor exponentially increased the mental productivity of my students.  How was I able to do this?  I was mindful of the feedback I received from my colleague and made sure to implement into my class.  I will continue to work on making sure that my students are somehow physically active during each class period, during the remainder of this academic year.

Thanks to the feedback I received from a fellow educator as well as my growth mindset of ensuring I’m best helping and challenging all of my students, I was able to foster some very engaging and thoughtful learning on my classroom on Saturday.  I made sure to remain mindful throughout the academic day so that I could stay focused on my goals of cadence and movement.  Because I want to stay mentally active and young on a daily basis, I will continue to grow and develop as an educator and person despite how old my driver’s license may state that I am physically.  Changing and growing keeps the mind and body young while stagnation leads to death and decay.  As I’ve made it a personal goal of mine to live long enough so that I can say to my son when he calls me in 25 years or so talking about how difficult it is to raise a teenager, “I told you so.  This is karma for all the bad choices you made while growing up and interacting with your mom and I.”  I know it’s a bit evil and vindictive, but it’s the simple things in life that keep me motivated.

How Reflection Helps Students Learn and Grow

Sometimes I feel like a broken record, writing all about how important the reflection process is for our students to grow and develop.  I find that I reflect on how important self-reflection is use for our students, on a weekly basis, especially during this time of year when grades are being tallied and reported out to parents.  I want the students to genuinely understand how they earned the grades they did and what they can do to improve in their classes.  The self-reflection process is an easy way for the students to understand their academic progress.  While I’m sure that everyone who happens upon this blog already knows about the power of reflection for students, I find that many of my colleagues still don’t seem to see the benefit in having students reflect on their progress in their classes.  Many students in the other grades at my school often seem confused by their grades and don’t seem to understand why they have the grades that they do in their courses.  These same students don’t seem to understand how they are progressing in their classes because their teachers don’t provide them with opportunities to self-reflect on their work.  Had these same students been offered chances to reflect either orally or in writing on their classes and grades, it’s quite possible that they would then know exactly how they are doing in their classes and what needs to happen for progress to take place.  So, because I see how many teachers fail to take advantage of opportunities to have their students reflect on their work in their classes, I feel the need to continue discussing and explaining how important the self-reflection process is for all students.

So, to those of you who already see the power in self-reflection for our students, feel free to stop reading and visit another blog or find some other useful resources on teaching and education such as the Educator’s Notebook. As I understand how busy life can be for teachers, I feel no need to waste your time.  To those of you who don’t provide your students with time in class to reflect on their progress and grades, please continue reading as I’d love to help you understand how important the self-reflection process is for your students to grow and develop in your class.

In my previous blog entry which I posted this past Sunday regarding the value of utilizing the student-led conference format in place of the typical and out-dated parent-teacher conferences, I explained how my students demonstrated amazing self-awareness regarding their academic progress in the sixth grade so far this year.  The boys did a fantastic job explaining why and how they earned the grades they did in all of their classes, what they need to do to improve in their courses, and the goals they have set for themselves as we move into the final half of the fall term.  Now, while all of this sounds great and wonderful, how do we truly know if this self-reflection and ownership process works and if it does indeed help students grow and improve in school?  Well, that’s a great question that I have been working to answer over the past several years.  I have much data to support these self-reflection and student-led conference processes, including grades and individual reflections my students have completed over the years.  I also have a tangible example of the power of student reflection from classes today.

I began the sixth grade class day this morning by reminding the students that we have but three weeks until the fall term comes to a close.  “As many of you have great goals that you have set to improve upon your grades in all of your classes, it’s important to remember that we only have three weeks to go until the fall term closes and grades become official.  Know that you can redo work and seek help from your teachers if you are struggling to comprehend material covered or master skills assessed.”  After this brief comment, I jumped right into the normal class routine, and this is when I noticed something peculiar.  The boys seemed more focused than ever before.  They transitioned between tasks, activities, and classes faster than they had earlier in the year.  They asked insightful questions and seemed more focused and attentive than before this past Parents’ Weekend.  One student even came to me asking to redo his ePortfolio and historical fiction story so that he could improve upon his grades.  While I would have loved to have seen this kind of effort from my students earlier on in the year, I’m glad to see that they all learned from their self-reflections and are making the changes they suggested.  They not only wrote about what they need to do to improve, they are actually doing it now.  That’s the power of reflection, right there.  If they hadn’t been provided the time and modeling on how to effectively reflect on their academic progress, I would most likely not have seen the results that I did today in the classroom.  Because my students know what they need to do to grow and develop prior to the end of the fall term, they are able to make the necessary adjustments to bring about the changes they suggested.  You too, could see your students change and develop in the classroom if you provide them the time needed to reflect on their learning and grades.  So, although I might sound like a broken Led Zeppelin vinyl album, it’s important to me that other teachers and educators see the value in the self-reflection process for themselves and their students.  Plus, it’s also great validation to know that I’m effectively helping challenge and support my students to be the best possible version of themselves.  Yah for self-reflection!

Student-Led Conferences: An Opportunity for Our Students to Shine Brightly

When I was a student, I hated talking about my progress and work in the classroom.

“How was school today?” my mom would frequently ask.

“Fine,” I responded.

“What did you learn today?” my mom would often follow up with.

“Stuff,” I said.

“How are you doing in school?” my grandmother would ask.

“Good,” would be my response.

I didn’t like talking about myself as a student and learner because I had no practice doing it.  In school, teacher-parent conferences were led solely by my teachers.  They told my parents how I was doing and what I needed to work on.  No questions were directed at me and I wasn’t expected to say a thing, if I was even in attendance at the conference.  Usually, the conferences were for the parents and teachers only.  Therefore, I never needed to know how to own my learning and be self-aware of my progress in the classroom.  I knew that no one would ever ask me what I needed to do to improve in school, and so I never really reflected on my academics.  I never really knew how I was doing other than what I gleaned from my report cards, which was very little.  In retrospect, I wish I had been provided the opportunity to show more ownership in school.  I wish my teachers had taught me how to discuss my academic progress in a meaningful and relevant way.  I wish my teachers had helped me learn to reflect on my work and progress in the classroom.  I wish I had been more self-aware of my learning.  I wonder how much more I would have challenged myself had I known of my true potential as a student.  I wonder what I might have become had I been more committed to growing and developing as I am now as an educator.  I wonder what amazing accomplishments I might have been able to add to my resume had I been more invested in my learning journey.

As a teacher, I don’t want my students to ever feel like I did and do about my experience in school.  I want my students to know exactly what they need to do to improve and grow as a student, thinker, and individual.  I want them to own their learning and be self-aware.  I want them to set meaningful goals that they will work towards over the course of the year.  I want them to see school and learning as an adventure and journey, and not something they have to do.  I accomplish these goals for my students in several ways:

  • Make learning fun and engaging.  The students complete meaningful projects and activities that allow them to apply the learning in creative and unique ways so as to provide the students with choice.
  • Teach the students how to reflect and the power that it holds.  I have them reflect in writing and orally on their work and progress in the classroom.  They also create and maintain an ePortfolio that documents their progress throughout the year in the sixth grade.  They respond to reflection questions and own their work.
  • I provide the students with feedback on an almost daily basis.  I explain to them, individually, how they are working and progressing towards meeting the objectives or expectations.

These various tools and teaching practices help the students learn how to be independent and self-aware learners on a journey of self-discovery and learning.  It’s amazing how well my students know themselves as readers, writers, problem solvers, critical thinkers, and people.  Twice a year, the students have the opportunity to put all of these pieces of the ownership and reflection puzzle together in the form of student-led conferences.

My co-teacher and I utilize the student-led conference format, in the sixth grade, in place of the typical parent-teacher conference method that many schools use.  The students talk to their parents about their learning and progress in their classes using their ePortfolio as a guide.  They run the show and their parents ask them questions that they field.  Instead of us, the teachers, telling the student and parents how their son is doing in class, the students take ownership of their learning and talk about the progress they are making in the sixth grade.

As we know that our students are very self-aware of their academic progress, it’s only fitting that they should be the ones to talk about it.  Sure, my co-teacher and I could tell the parents how their child is doing, but in our eyes, these conferences are an opportunity for the students to shine in front of their parents.  At a boarding school, many of the students are only able to see their families during these special Parents’ Weekends, which only happen twice during the academic year.  These weekends should be filled with joy and celebration.  The students are doing amazing things and their parents should be able to see and hear all about it.  For us in the sixth grade, having the students share their remarkable progress and success in the classroom with their parents is so much more meaningful and tangible.  The families are able to see, first hand, how much their sons have changed and developed as they participate in the student-led conference.

This weekend marked our first Parents’ Weekend.  The students, over the course of Friday and Saturday, completed their student-led conference in our classroom with their families.  The boys totally rocked their conferences.  They demonstrated how much they truly know themselves as students and own their learning, for their parents.  It was great.  My co-teacher and I are so proud of our boys and how hard they have worked over the first half of the fall term as well as this weekend.  Their performances during their conferences were amazing.  One student even answered the 75 questions his aunt asked, flawlessly and even better that we could have responded as his teachers.  He promoted our awesome program as though he was leading an infomercial on the sixth grade at Cardigan.  Wow! was just about all we could say.

The other students also had great conversations and discussions with their parents on their progress in the sixth grade.  The families had very few questions at the end for my co-teacher and I because their son explained everything so brilliantly.  It was amazing to watch our students conduct themselves with poise and maturity.  They spoke about their strengths and accomplishments as well as their weaknesses.  They also explained the goals they have set for themselves to improve upon their grades for the close of the fall term in a few weeks.  The students showed their parents how phenomenal they are as learners and individuals.  Many of the families were completely blown away by how self-aware their sons have become about their academic progress.  Being a part of these student-led conferences for us as the teachers was very much like watching a beautifully executed ballet.  We applauded, with our words, at the close of each movement, or in this case conference, and remained silently amazed as the students danced their way through their academic journey during the first half of the fall term in the sixth grade.  We said very little, as should be the case with this format for parent conferences.  The boys opened a dialogue between them and their parents.  The student-led conferences helped to create a bridge the families can use to discuss school and learning with their sons in the future so that our students never feel like I did as a student.

Here are some excerpts from the reflections the students shared with their families during their student-led conferences.

“For the most part I think I am trying my hardest in all of my classes.  I think on my good days my effort would be a 5 to a 4. But on my not so good days probably a 4 to a 3. I think I have used a growth mindset by not giving up and always striving to improve my skills. For example when I was doing the math test I made sure that I did all the problems instead of just skipping over them. I think I need to work on being more focused in class so I can understand more.  For example when instructions are being told I should especially listen. I also think I need to work on not talking in class when the time is not appropriate. For example when there is a transition from classes I will only talk out in the hall. My goals for the second half of this term is to get at least effort honor. I hope to reach this goal by trying extra hard and really reaching for a 5 effort grade.”

“I think I am improving and my grade is going higher and higher. It is because since I move to this school I started to do more reading than I did before and I can choose a book that is fun to read, also I learn more English words from my teachers and my friends.  I think my reading skills are more fluent than when I began school. Firstly, I am able to read through a sentence without having to reread it again and again until I get it. Secondly, I am able to understand what I am reading. I think can do better by working on my speed.  Personally, I think I have improved in my writing skills too! I am able to write very attractive summary and write details. However, I still can improve by writing carefully.  Finally, my discussions skill are okay I will say. It is because some of my facts are based on nothing. I need a fact to support my main idea. I need to gather information from my classmates and teachers.”

“I am doing decent in math class so far. I do my homework and turn it in on time but I still usually get checks. Every once and awhile I tend to rush through my homework so it is messy the problems can be wrong. I understand the material and do all of my homework but two things I can improve on is checking my homework better, moving a bit slower and asking for extra help so I can always get check pluses on my homework. Another thing I can work on is trying harder. When I rush I don’t try as hard.  I think that I am using a growth mindset when I don’t understand a material. For example, I don’t know LCM or GCF that well but I tried my best to figure it out. the only thing that I didn’t do is ask for help even though I didn’t know the material. I did the LCM and GCM assignments but one thing I could improve on is asking for extra help on a materiel I need help with or don’t know. This is what I can do to ensure I am using a growth mindset in math class.  One thing I can do to understand all math topics is ask for extra help in study hall or in between classes. Other things I can do is retake a test if I get a bad grade, keep using a growth mindset, listening well in class, and not writing I don’t know for the do nows or homework.  My short term goals are to get better grades, get check pluses on my homework, and ask for extra help on materials I don’t know.”

“I work well with others on group tasks. Like I was always talk to my group, give them my idea. And always show leadership in the group.  I’ve been able talk my idea clearly and help other learning. And they always make my idea be better and better. I like it.  That was fun. When I solve some problems, I enjoy that. And feel good for that. I use my idea to solve the problems.I think I was good at listen, I use that to solve problems.  In science, I need to learn more word about science, I was good at the experiment. I always enjoy all the homework in the science class.  I think I did a really good job in the improve science word. I feel the plan was really work. The thing I need to improve my word: Make a word book with the Chinese. Be able to ask more question.  That will be work.”

How My Students Help Me Become a Better Teacher

When I was a young lad, I always wanted a rock polisher.  I thought they were the coolest things ever.  You can take an old, nasty looking rock and turn it into a polished stone in a matter of hours.  How awesome is that?  Every year for Christmas I asked for one, and you know what I never got?  Yes, that’s right, a rock polisher.  Now, this isn’t some rant about what I never had growing up.  This rant is all about rocks.  You see, rocks are constantly in a state of change.  The rock cycle causes them to melt, harden, shoot out of Earth, and repeat.  They also become weathered, break down, reform into something else, and then do it all over again.  Rocks are amazing like that.  Although we can never see these processes take place as they happen over long periods of time, I’ve always been in awe about how focused rocks are on changing and growing.  What I always found spectacular about rock polishers is that they can make a process that usually takes years in rivers and on Earth’s surface, to happen almost overnight.  What I love most about rocks is that they are never happy with their current state as they are always longing for improvement and change.  Liquid rock inside Earth is always trying to find a way out to become something a bit more solid and hard, while large chunks of granite rock are always looking to roll into something a bit smaller and more compact.  Rocks are fantastic role models for humans.  We can learn a lot from rocks.  Rocks teach us to value a growth mindset and persevere through problems no matter their size.  Rocks also teach us to look at the world and see the endless possibilities that exist.  Rocks are pretty phenomenal and beautiful naturally occurring objects.

Great teachers, like rocks, are always looking to grow and develop.  How can I become a more effective educator?  Reflection is definitely a huge part of that process of change, but the rest comes in the form of feedback.  Feedback we receive from our colleagues and our students.  The most effective feedback I’ve received over the years, comes from my students.  They know what they like and what they don’t like and they aren’t afraid to tell the world all about it.  Students can be brutally honest, which can be both good and bad.  However, the feedback students have provided me with over the years has allowed me to grow and mature as a teacher.  The implementation of Reader’s Workshop came out of reflecting on feedback received from my students about the books we were reading altogether as a class.  The structure of units and activities used throughout the years is all due to the wisdom I’ve gained from asking my students to comment on what they like and what they would change if they were in charge.  Reflecting on and then using feedback received from my students is why I am the effective teacher I am today.

Humanities class provided me with yet another opportunity to receive two different kinds of feedback from my students today.  As we have come to the end of our first unit on the Canaan Community, I had the students complete a survey, providing me with their thoughts on the unit as a whole.

Questions posed in the survey:

  • What was your favorite part of this unit and why?
  • What fact or piece of information, that you learned throughout the unit, did you find the most interesting or engaging?
  • What did you think about our class read-aloud Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman?
  • What did you like about the Historical Fiction Story Writing Project and why?
  • If you were the teacher teaching this unit, what would you change about it for next year?
  • Using Cardigan’s Effort Grading Scale, grade Mr. Holt on how effectively he taught this unit.

I was impressed with the honest and detailed feedback I received from the students.  Overall, they seemed to enjoy the unit.  I was a bit surprised by their favorite parts though.  While I thought for sure that almost everybody would say, “The archeological dig,” only three students cited that as their highlight of the unit.  Three other students explained how the historical fiction story writing project was their favorite part of the unit.  What?  I don’t think any student has ever cited the final project as their favorite part of the unit, which means that because I focused on helping the students find the fun and excitement in writing, they were actually able to dig into their stories more meaningfully than digging for bottles by the river.   I was happy about that.  I was also pleased that many of the students stated different facts about Canaan’s diverse history that really stuck with them, which means that I didn’t overly discuss or talk about one topic or piece of Canaan’s history too much.  Yah for me.  I also enjoyed learning that the students seem to enjoy our class read aloud novel Seedfolks.  While we don’t spend a ton of time reading and discussing this novel, I’m glad that the students enjoy it and seem to understand how it ties our unit together.  I was worried that this group of students did not like this text because they often seem so disengaged during read-alouds.

While all of the feedback I received from the boys today via this survey is useful to me, the fourth and fifth questions allowed me to extract the most meaningful feedback.  I wanted to determine what aspects of the writing process I have done an effective job explaining and introducing.  Those that I found creative and engaging ways to introduce to the students, I figured, would be their favorite part. I also wanted to know what aspects of the unit the boys did not like and want to see changed for next year.  The answers I received from the students on these two questions will help drive the revisions and changes that I make to this unit for next year.  Their feedback will also help guide me in planning future lessons this year.

Here’s what they had to say:

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It was great for me to learn that many of the students seemed to enjoy writing their historical fiction stories, which means that they found their passion; they found how to make writing fun for themselves.  If that’s all they get out of sixth grade this year, I’ll be happy.  Learning to love the act of writing will help them be successful in almost every area of school life in their future.  I also love that a few of them seemed to enjoy the choice and engagement act of the project.  They liked that I allowed them to write about whatever piece of Canaan’s history most interested them.  As research on the brain tell us, students learn best when they are engaged in the act of working and have the ability to choose the vehicle through which they showcase their learning and understanding.  It’s nice to know that at least a few of my students see the benefit in being provided choice when working.

I wasn’t very surprised by the responses my students provided regarding things they would change about the unit.  I know that in every class I have one student who doesn’t like anything, and so I wasn’t shocked to read that one student found the field experiences boring.  It wasn’t because he truly found them boring, it’s just that he doesn’t know how to utilize a growth mindset and provide meaningful feedback.  I get that.  It is nice to know that the most common response focused on time.  They want more time spent on the really fun parts of the unit.  That makes sense.  I wish we were able to allocate more time in our schedule for those fun field experiences.

Overall, the feedback from the survey will be very helpful for me to think about and reflect upon as I look at revising this unit for next year.  As the students seemed to really enjoy the historical fiction story project I used this year, I think I will stick with that as the final project for next year.  I changed it from last year because many of the students explained how they didn’t like the final poster project they needed to complete as the final project for the unit.

The second piece of feedback I received from the students today, came in the form of a rubric.  The focus for my Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan is on grading rubrics and their effectiveness for introducing and describing graded projects and activities to students, and since the students just completed the historical fiction story project using the grading rubric as a guide, I wanted to know what they thought of the grading tool.  Did the rubric help them in the writing process, and if not, what would have made the rubric more effective?  After a short whole-class discussion on that question, I had the students, working with their table partner, create a new grading rubric that I could use to assess this project next year or assess future writing projects the students complete this year.

I was so impressed with how focused the students were in working with their partner to create a new rubric.  They seemed dedicated to providing me with useful feedback.  Every group gave me some amazing insight and ideas on how to create a more student-friendly grading rubric.

My takeaways:

  • Students want me to use more simplistic, student friendly words when describing what is being asked of them to meet or exceed the objective.  For example, in the grading rubric I had the students use, I wrote, “The setting is described so well that you feel like you’re there.”  One group suggested that it should read, “You see the picture in your mind.”  I like it.  That’s some quality feedback that I can easily incorporate into the next grading rubric I create.
  • One group thinks that having visual or picture cues would help them better understand what is being expected of them at each level.  As the native language is not English for half of my class, pictures are easier to read than words.  That’s a unique idea I hadn’t thought about for a rubric before.  While they couldn’t provide any concrete examples of how I might do this, I really want to give this idea a try  for the next rubric I create.
  • One group suggested that I need to include a writing standard about not copying ideas or information from other sources in the rubric.  These two students seem to think that originality is important.  I like it, but I’m also aware that sometimes, imitation leads to inspiration and new ideas.  While I’m not sure that I will use this in a future rubric, it’s definitely something worth considering.
  • One group approached the rubric creation from a very different perspective.  Instead of starting out with what it takes to exceed the objective, they began with how not to meet the objective.  Their thought was that if I start with the lowest point value on the rubric, I can easily add more to each one as the point value increases.  They thought that would be easier than starting with the highest point value and subtracting details.  Interesting.  I never thought about this method of creating a rubric before.  Perhaps I’ll try this on a future rubric.
  • Grading rubrics seem to help the students.  Many of them found the rubric to be a valuable guidepost for them along their writing journey.  Here’s what my students had to say about them:
    • That rubric help me a lot. Because that paper tell me every moment, what did I need to improve for my story.
    • I think the grading rubric helped me in a phenomenal way because i new the objectives my story needed to meet like for example when I was trying to write my story at the beginning it helped me get a thought about what i’m supposed to do and how to get a good grade.   
    • Lastly, I have a sheet call the grading rubric, I helped me to complete the story. For example, I can see if my sentences make sense or not or see if my sentences have included everything a sentence need to have.
    • The grading rubric helped me a lot because without it I wouldn’t know what I was doing and what to change. I needed a rubric so I knew exactly what to edit.
    • I think the grading rubric helped me by providing some goals and giving me an idea of what I need to write to get a good grade.
    • I thought the grading rubric helped because it showed me what the expectations were and what exceeding the objective was. It helped me because I just focused on exceeding the objective. For example I saw that I didn’t have enough facts on the rubric so I added more in. Also I saw that I didn’t have enough details so I looked at the rubric and fixed my story.
    • The rubric helped me to put requirements in the story. For example, first I read the grading rubric. After reading it, I started to make story with requirements like five facts, correct grammar, and more.

The feedback I received from my students on the grading rubric will greatly help me as I look to create and design future rubrics.  It’s nice to know that many of my students seem to find them useful.  So, my next big data-gathering event will be when I create a project with just a simple explanation instead of using a detailed rubric.  Will this more simple project introduction better engage the students in asking questions and thinking creatively about how they will showcase their learning, or will it be too confusing for them?  I can’t wait to find out.

Because I seek feedback from my students, I’m able to grow and develop as a teacher, like a giant chunk of obsidian rock.  If I didn’t ask my students for their thoughts and ideas today, I would never really know what they thought about grading rubrics and the Canaan Community unit.  How can I collect data for my Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan if I don’t ask my students for feedback?  I can’t better support and challenge my students if they don’t challenge me by providing me with ways I can improve and grow.  As I told my class today, the best teachers make the best students as they are always looking to learn and improve.

How My Reflection Changed My Students

Having seen the value of individual reflection for many years now, I know the power it holds.  Being a reflective teacher has enabled me to become more effective at helping and supporting my students.  Taking the time to stop and think about what went well or what proved difficult in class on a daily basis has helped me refine my approach to teaching and the field of education.  Teachers are not the givers of information.  We are guides for our students as they journey towards understanding.  We are the flashlights our students use as they navigate their way through the dark world of life and school.  We encourage our students to ask questions.  We help them solve problems encountered.  We empower them to think for themselves in a critical manner.  We show them the path that will lead them towards enlightenment.  We pack their knowledge backpacks full of use study and work skills.  We are beacons of light and power for our students.  We are not libraries full of facts and information.  Reflecting over the past many years on my daily teaching practices has allowed me to see my true role as a teacher.

During the past week, I’ve struggled with feeling as though I am not appropriately helping my students see the value in revising their written work.  Earlier last week, the students seemed unable to focus their effort on making their historical fiction stories better and more effective while also providing their classmates with useful feedback on how they can improve their stories.  The boys seemed to rush through the process to finish and be done with it, rather than really jumping into the task as though they are on a writing journey.  This bothered me because I know that in order to grow and develop as writers, they need to see the benefit in revising their work based on feedback.  They need to utilize a growth mindset to see feedback provided to them as useful.  My students seemed greatly challenged by this phase of the writing process.  They seemed more interested in what they could do when they finished writing.  Very few of the students seemed to take the assignment seriously, and that caused me to pause.

How will they be prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English class if they can’t learn to improve upon their writing based on suggestions provided to them by others?  I reflected on my struggles in this very blog last week, at least twice.  I then incorporated some new thoughts and ideas into my class so that my students would, hopefully, be able to see the vast power that revising their work holds for them as students.  While I did see my students begin to change their thinking regarding the revision step of the writing process, I was skeptical that all of them had revised their thinking on the topic.  I reflected in writing and mentally.  What else could I do to inspire my students to see that they need to take the process of revising their work seriously if they want to grow as writers?

Then came class today.  Today provided students one final opportunity to revise their historical fiction stories based on feedback provided to them by me, their teacher, and their classmates.  I also had them reflect on the process they used to craft this piece of writing, using an author’s note.  The students needed to respond, in writing at the bottom of their stories, to four questions.  Those students who finished revising their story and crafting an author’s note had two options:

  1. Complete an extra credit, objectively graded task, that involves the students creating a book jacket for their historical fiction story.  They must craft a front and back cover for their stories, being sure to include a title, relevant, hand-drawn image, brief summary of the story, and quotes from others on their story.
  2. Work on the Things to Do When Done list that is posted on one of the window displays in our classroom.  They could fill out their planbook for next week, work on Typing Club, work on homework, check their grades, or work in the Makerspace.

The students quickly got to work.  They seemed very focused on the task at hand.  A few of the students spent a good chunk of their time revising and improving upon their stories.  It was amazing to watch them add details, dialogue, and more effective character descriptions to their stories, on their own.  Some of the other students put forth fine effort into reflecting on their writing process as they crafted their author’s note.  Their responses were detailed and included examples from their writing experience.  It was impressive to see them being so mindful and reflective as they own their work.  The five students with whom I conferenced took the feedback I offered them with open arms.  They asked meaningful questions that allowed them to understand what they needed to do to improve their story.  It was fun to read their stories, praise their phenomenal talents as writers, and challenge them to grow and develop as they improve upon their writing pieces.  Students who had finished their story and author’s note early on in the period, took it upon themselves to help others revise their piece, if help was needed.  They were being truly compassionate community members.

During class today, I only needed to redirect two students who seemed to find focusing on the task at hand, individually, difficult.  Those two students, once redirected, did regroup and got right back to work on growing as writers.  The rest of the students seemed zoned in on improving their skills as writers.  They reviewed the three graded objectives on which their final story will be assessed.  They were committed to exceeding my expectations as they clearly saw the value in the process of revising their work.  I could not have been more proud and impressed by my students today.  They rocked their stories!  I can’t wait to read their final drafts.

So, what did I learn from all of this.  Well, I learned that reflection not only changes me, but it fosters change within my students.  Because I reflected on what didn’t feel right to me last week, I changed my approach to teaching the revision phase of the writing process.  Today, I saw, first hand, how this change impacts my students.  They were completely different writers today than they were last week.  They care about making their stories better, and thus crave feedback.  It’s quite amazing.  They weren’t rushing to finish their stories, they took their time to polish their words and develop their characters.  Because I took the time to think about how I could better support and help my students become better writers, I changed the way I spoke to my students about revising their work.  I didn’t explain the process as a task, but a journey they were going on to transform themselves into better writers.  My personal reflections on revision didn’t just change me, they changed my students too.

How the Novelty of Change Causes Distraction

I crave routine as I am truly a creature of habit.  I wash my body in the same order every time I shower.  I park in the same parking spot on campus every morning, unless someone else takes it, and then I become angry.  I do the same things in the same way, every day.  Knowing what’s coming next and the result is what helps keep my brain happy.  I love having a schedule.  Keeping my life neat and tidy, helps keep my world free of problems and distractions.  However, I have discovered the flaw in my plan over the past many years.  While knowing what to expect is good at times, life is far from scripted and usually the unexpected happens on a daily basis, which causes my best intentions to go up in flames.  Being prepared for everything that life throws my way is a vital life success skill.  Although I’m not a huge fan of change, I do know that being able to live in the present moment will help me better adapt and find mental success in life.  It’s a real challenge, but one that I try to work on regularly.  I’m far from perfect, but every once in awhile I am able to be flexible in my thinking and go where the day takes me.

The problem with change, which is why I struggle with it so very much, is that it’s generally new and unchartered territory.  How do I know what to do in a new situation?  What’s the dress code?  What do I need to bring?  I get very nervous and anxious during times of change because I have no idea what is going on.  I hate that, but it’s healthy for me to work out my brain in this way.

In the classroom, changes cause my students many problems as well.  When a break from the routine presents itself, some of my students struggle to function appropriately.  They forget how to act or what to do when things are a bit unscheduled because they are nervous and anxious, just as I am when faced with change.  It’s a typical response, but one that can cause problems in the classroom.  The goal is to help students learn to be mindful so that when things don’t go as planned, the students are able to live in the moment and not allow change to derail them.  Teaching students to utilize a growth mindset is an easy way to provide them with the needed strategies to successfully navigate changes in the routine or schedule.

My co-teacher and I have made use of a mindfulness curriculum this year to help our students learn coping strategies when life becomes overwhelming or stressful.  We’ve worked with the students and had them practice how to meditate, breathe mindfully, control their bodies in mindful ways, and how to view the world through mindful eyes.  This has helped many of our students address changes thrown their way.  We had the students reflect this morning on the mindfulness lessons covered so far this year, and many of them see the value and benefits associated with being mindful.  Only two students don’t understand how transformational mindfulness can truly be when done correctly.  I’m hopeful that those two students will begin to see its relevance as we continue to practice teaching the students new mindfulness techniques over the coming weeks.

Student Responses:

  • The Mindfulness videos help me calm down if I’m over excited for something or just super hyper.  I feel more Mindful and self-aware from doing the exercises.  I am more mindful and self aware to my surroundings when our class does the “mindful observations.”  Doing the mindfulness exercises helps me be more aware of my surroundings.
  • I think the mindfulness videos help because the voices tone is very relaxing. The voice doesn’t just relax just me, but my brain, and the world becomes clearer.
  • The lessons on mindfulness helped me to focus on one thing. For example, I was not listening to the teacher, but I learned mindfulness. I used mindfulness breathing to learn mindfulness. Mindfulness breathing helped me to focus on one thing, and now I can listen to the teacher very well.  I am now more able to focus on one thing, and understand people very well. Focusing on one thing goes in to mindful, and understanding people goes into self-awareness.
  • I personally think that the lessons on mindfulness have really help me to calm down because they made me more mindful and self-aware.
  • I think that the mindfulness lessons have been mostly helping.
  • I think that lessons on mindfulness helped me be more focused on the class. I can learn more from the class. The mindful lessons really help me a lot in the class and with my homework.

Clearly, our students see the value in being mindful and present.  However, sometimes, they forget the mindful techniques we’ve worked on when in the moment.  Case and point, Humanities class today.  During the second part of class, I conferenced with the students regarding their reading progress.  While I was conferencing with the students individually, most other students were engaged in quietly reading.  Then, I made a change.  I opened the curtains in our classroom to let in some natural light while the boys read quietly.  This change caused the entire dynamic of the room to shift.  Those students who once sat, quietly reading, now became distracting to their peers and unfocused on their book.  Many of the students became unsettled and unable to do what was being asked of them.  Despite several reminders and attempts to refocus the students, a few struggled to recalibrate themselves from the curtains being opened.  This small switch in the physical appearance of the classroom caused quite the distraction.  Several of the boys never fully returned to reading in a focused manner by the end of class.

Even though the students are equipped with strategies to refocus and be mindful, they were unable to be in the present moment, doing what was asked of them.  The interesting part is that a few of the most unfocused students today during Reader’s Workshop are usually the most focused and dedicated students in the class.  These students are usually able to utilize the mindful strategies we’ve been working on in class during other parts of the day if stress or anxiety settles in; however, today was not one of those usual days.  So then, what was different today?  The change in the curtains being opened.  This extra sunlight and view of the mountains seemed to distract many of the students so much that they were unable to recall how to be mindful or that they should be mindful.  Because I rarely open these curtains, this change was very much a novelty.  It was something new and out of the routine.  As my students crave routine, much like I do, this change to the ordinary proved to be too much for them to handle.  I’m hopeful that as they experience more breaks from the routine over the course of the year, they will better be able to go with the flow and live in the moment, mindfully.

Learning from Yesterday’s “Failures”

When I was just a wee young lad, the word “fail” was considered almost as bad as other curse words like the “F word.”  If you failed at something, it meant that you were not good and lacked talent.  No one wanted to fail or be thought of as a failure.  It was a Scarlet Letter that you wore with you for the rest of your childhood.

Now, of course, we all know that times have changed and the word failure is synonymous with success.  In order to do something well, you have to fail at it first.  We want our students to fail in order for them to learn how to grow and succeed.  While it’s amazing that our ideas on teaching have progressed so much thanks to technology and research on the neuroscience of education, I do wish that the adults in my world when I was a child would have embraced failing as an essential part of the learning process.  Had I failed more because I was inspired to take more risks with my learning, I wonder how many other things I’d be capable of doing now.  Perhaps I would have learned to stick with playing the guitar.  Maybe I’d be in a band right now, touring Europe.  That would be cool.  I’ve always wanted to see London during this time of year.

As I now see the value in failing on a regular basis because of the learning that comes from the experience, I am more willing to try new things in the classroom as a teacher.  I’m not afraid to try out a new application on the computer or a new instructional strategy in the classroom.  If it works, great; if not, it provides me with a teachable moment in the classroom.  Luckily too, I can also reflect on my failed lessons or activities and learn from them.  While I was not overly happy with the outcome of yesterday’s Humanities lesson on the process of revising writing, I had the chance to reflect on what didn’t go well yesterday.  Then today, I was able to more effectively introduce and explain the purpose of the revision process and the power that it holds.  “Revision is the most important step in the writing process because it provides you with a chance to fix what’s broken with your work.  No writer, regardless of age and experience, is able to craft the perfect piece of writing.  Every writer is in need of fixing and revising their work.  Today, you have a chance to receive feedback from as many people as possible so that you can create an even better story than what you currently have.  You also have the chance to receive such valuable feedback that you will be able to, hopefully, exceed the three graded objective for this assignment.  So, treat today’s revision period with the respect it deserves.”  After feeling as though I did not explain the process of revising one’s writing well yesterday in class, I wanted to be sure that I highlighted the benefits in revising one’s written work based on feedback from others, and I feel like I did that today.  After my introduction and review of what was to happen in class during the work period, I felt quite confident that things would be better today than they were yesterday.

My future-telling skills were clearly right on par today as the work period was phenomenal.  The boys worked so well on providing each other with feedback, revising their work, and growing as writers.  I conferenced with three students and was able to provide them some meaningful feedback that will allow them to make their story far better than it was.  While I didn’t have a chance to observe every student or group as they worked during class today as I was conferencing with students at the back table, the groups I could see and hear seemed to be bleeding greatness.  To conclude class today, I some had students share how the peer editing process went for them in class today.

“Me and my partner worked on helping each other come up with better words to describe the setting in our stories,” one student said.  I praised those two students for the great effort they put into looking at one aspect of their writing.

“My partner helped me fix grammar stuff in my story and I helped him make his story funny and not boring,” one student said, laughing.  “He even said that he’s going to write a whole new story since he doesn’t think he did a good job on his first one.”  He was describing what he and his partner worked on during their peer editing conference.  Awesome!  I then explained how amazing it was that because of feedback, this specific writer will be able to grow and develop his writing skills.

I can’t wait to read the revised stories my students will complete by early next week.  They are sure to be far better than what they had typed this week.  And to think that if I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on yesterday’s lesson and thought about how to change things for today’s class, I would not have been able to inspire my students to see the value in revising their writing while also helping their peers make their stories better.  Failure helped me better support and challenge my students to utilize a growth mindset in Humanities class today.  Making mistakes is how genuine learning is fostered.  I need to fail in order to grow.  It seems counter intuitive, but it’s how the brain works.  We are wired to remember things that are tagged with emotion, and so failed experiences stick with us because they don’t make us usually feel very good.  I thought about my “failed” class yesterday for hours, which is why I was able to spend so much time thinking about how to fix the situation in class today.  How could I help my students better appreciate the editing and revising stages of the writing process?  And wallah, I found my answer in class today.  Failure rocks!  I can’t wait to do it again.

What’s the Best Way to Help Students See the Value in Editing and Revising their Work?

As an adult, I love receiving feedback from my colleagues on how I can make my lessons more meaningful, my student comments more effective, and my blog entries more reflective.  I crave input from others as I know that I am far from perfect and am looking to grow as a teacher, thinker, and writer.   I need help from my peers to improve as an individual.  I realize this now as a grownup.  When I was a young student, things were very different for me.  I wasn’t focused on growing and developing my skills as a writer or student.  I was way more focused on having fun.  I rushed to finish every assigned task so that I could have more time to chat and interact with my friends.  I wasn’t focused on growing and making use of a growth mindset as a student, and so when a classmate or teacher provided me with feedback on how I could improve my work, I usually ignored whatever was said or quickly made a single change to the work.  I wanted to be done with my assignments when I was in school.  I operated under the assumption that when I put my pencil or pen down, my work was done.  It had to be perfect because I was finished.  No feedback given to me from anyone could make my work any better than it was in that moment.  And I certainly never went in search of feedback back then, oh no.  I was all about turning my work in and being done.  I definitely made use of a fixed mindset when I was in school.

As a teacher, I understand where my students are at.  I get it as I was once them.  They don’t want me to tell them what to do.  They don’t want me to take away their fun, play time.  They want to do the work and be done.  So, my goal is to change the atmosphere of the classroom.  I need to help my students learn to rewire their brains so that they want to learn and grow.  I need to help my students learn to accept feedback and utilize it to make their work even better.  I try to show my students the importance of using a growth mindset in the classroom.  I want my students to see the value in receiving feedback from their peers and teachers.  I want my students to want to transform into the complete opposite type of student that I was in school.  Now, I know that most middle school boys are not set ready to want to take suggestions on how to improve their work.  This is a learned skill.  I need to help them rewire their brains a bit so that they see the benefit in seeking feedback from their classmates.  This is a year-long process, but one that is near and dear to my heart.  I don’t want my students to be like me back then.  I want my students to be able to grow and develop as students and writers.

Today in Humanities class, my students worked on the self-editing, self-revising, and peer editing processes regarding their historical fiction stories as they work to create a second draft that is far better than their first, sloppy copy.  On Wednesday, I explained the difference between editing and revising and then modelled this process with a story a student of mine had written several years ago.  The boys seemed to understand that these two steps, that sometimes get lumped into one, are individual processes that need to be completed separately.  I even spent time discussing the importance of editing and revising by comparing it to a bike.  “When your bike gets a flat tire, you can’t ride it anymore.  So, what do you do?  You fix the flat tire.  That’s like the editing process.  You fix the little things.  Now, what happens to that same bike after five years of wear and tear?  It gets rusty and probably too small for you.  So, then what?  You have to make some big repairs.  That’s the revision process of writing.  You fix the big things.”  I’m not sure if this helped them better grasp the two concepts, but perhaps it did.  Those who finished their historical fiction stories in class, began the editing and revising processes.  Then, today, I went over the peer editing process by reviewing the difference between editing and revising.  I then modelled this process with a student as I explained the different parts of the worksheet that will guide this step of the writing process.  I explained this process as more of a discussion.  “Tell your partner what you specifically want feedback on so that he can hone in on that as he reads through your story.  Then, after you have both completed the worksheet and read each other’s story, have a discussion.  Talk about what your partner did well and what he needs to work on.  Be specific.”  I reminded them of their goal: To provide your partner with effective feedback so that he is able to revise and edit his story in such a way that he exceeds all of the graded objectives.  I had hoped that this explanation would be enough for my students to understand the process and be able to complete it with little to no issues.  Wow, was I ever wrong.

Two groups had meaningful discussions as they peer edited each other’s stories, talking about writing and what they need to do to make their stories more effective.  It was quite awesome to listen to these discussions as they seemed very meaningful and relevant.

“I think you need to add more detail here,” one student said.

“I sort of already do that here.  Check it out,” he responded as he pointed out what he had already typed on his laptop.  These two groups were really digging into the task of peer editing.  They seemed to really enjoy it.  Perhaps it was because they saw the value in it or maybe it was because they were trying to make their writing better so that they could exceed the objectives.  Either way, great stuff was going on in two of the groups.

Then, one student took almost the entire period to finish writing his story as he hadn’t completed it for homework like he should have.  This meant that one student was unable to have a buddy with which to peer edit.  I stepped in and provided him with feedback, but our conversation was one-sided for the most part as I had no story in need of being proofread.  The other two groups seemed to be more focused on laughing and goofing around than actually accomplishing the job of peer editing.  Despite a few reminders to stay focused and on task, they continued laughing loudly and not providing each other with useful feedback.

So, what happened with those two, ineffective groups?  Why were they unable to complete the peer editing process in the same, meaningful manner as the first two groups I mentioned?  What was the difference?  Did they not care about growing as writers?  Did they not see the value in the editing and revising processes?  Did they just want to be done with the task so that they could do anything else?  While one group was composed of two, low functioning ELLs who struggled to comprehend the task at hand, the other group did not.  So, what was their issue?  Why were they not as engaged in the process?  Did they not see the relevance in it?

As I pondered these questions for quite some time after class, I had an epiphany.  For as much as I want my students to be like the adult me and see the value in revising and editing their written work, they are sixth graders going through this process for the first time.  Developmentally, there shouldn’t be complete buy-in just yet.  They are not able to see the relevance in the important process of revision.  They need more practice before they will see how beneficial it is to them as writers.  In the meantime, I need to remember where they are at developmentally.  Their frontal lobe is not fully developed and so reasoning and critical thinking skills are lacking.  Like me back then, they won’t be able to see the power of revising and editing their work for quite some time.  This means that they also won’t see the benefit of receiving feedback on how to improve their work for a few years.  It doesn’t mean that I should stop them from completing this process.  Oh no.  It just means that I need to be more patient and flexible.  Not every sixth grader in my class is going to desire feedback on their written work like I do.  The more I can provide them with opportunities to practice giving and receiving feedback on how they can better revise and edit their written work, they more that they will able to see how important this process is to their growth as writers.  Writing is a journey, much like teaching.  And so, I need to remember that not every story or student is going to be a polished work of art at first.  It takes much time and energy to foster a sense of valuing the refining process.

In the meantime, is there anything else I could be doing that would better support those students who are struggling to see the value in the revision process?  Are there other activities or methods I could be using?  While the writing group process can work, I don’t want to utilize that activity quite yet as they won’t be able to understand the significance of providing and receiving feedback.  Tackling the task of revising and editing in small groups is a great way to allow students to test the waters to see what happens.  Tomorrow in class I will reemphasize the benefits in providing each other with meaningful feedback as they complete the peer editing process. I will review their goal and hopefully offer them one more chance to practice this difficult task.  While I’d like my students to see the value in the revision process now, I know that their brains aren’t currently ready to tackle such a complex task in a relevant manner.  As I continue to foster a sense of community in the classroom and the students grow to see each other as valuable resources, they will begin to make better use of a growth mindset when approaching the writing and revision processes.  They just need more practice and time.