Creating a Culture of Conversation within the Classroom

I was never much of a talker when I was a younger student.  I pretty much kept to myself.  Sure, I had some friends, but not many.  I was very much a quiet, introverted individual.  I didn’t like talking in front of my classmates or other people at all.  As I matured with age, like tasty cheese, I became much more comfortable with speaking in front of and to others.  I now feel much more confident in my ability to chat it up with strangers.  I wouldn’t say that I’m a talker now, but I am more willing to and open to speaking with others than I was many years ago.  I’ve come to realize the power in conversation and discussions.  Much can be learned from talking to others.  I’ve grown most as a person by talking to my wife and bouncing ideas off of her.  I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for her.  Talking with her has made me a better person.  I’ve also grown as an educator from talking to and working with my various co-teachers.  We planned lessons and graded work together.  My co-teachers helped me to change my perspective on teaching.  Two voices are far better than one.  Becoming an individual who converses with others, shares ideas, and listens to what other people have to say has been transformational.  The power of conversation is amazing.  I wish I had been courageous enough as a student to see that.  I wish I had been in classrooms in which the teachers promoted conversation and group work.  I can’t even imagine how my life would be different if I had been more of a talker when I was in school.  It’s crazy to think about.

As a teacher, I see the value in talking and conversation.  I embrace it.  I want my students to share their ideas with the class and others.  I want them to ask questions and think critically.  I want them to appropriately challenge others.  Over the years, I’ve created a culture of conversation in the sixth grade.  Our students complete group projects on a regular basis so they can utilize the power of collective thinking.  We teach our students how to discuss controversial ideas in meaningful and appropriate ways.  We promote question-asking and curiosity in every class.  The students have table partners that they can work with or talk to as they work and grow as students.  We want them to see the power that comes from talking with others.  So much can be learned by asking questions and listening to the ideas and thoughts of others.  We want our students to see the value in this.  While this can be challenging for many of our students and different from what they are used to, by the end of the year, they all grow into talkers who can carry on conversations and discussions that promote growth and great thinking.

Today in class, the students were provided several different opportunities to think critically, grow, learn from others, listen, and talk.  In our study skills class, the students had a popcorn discussion with a peer they don’t typically work with in the class.  They discussed the purpose of being able to assess the reputability of online sources.  Why is it important to be able to judge the credibility of websites?  Many insightful discussions took place.  This then led into a whole-class discussion on the topic that allowed their ideas to bloom with meaning and power.  Later in that same class, the students worked with an assigned partner to complete an activity that allowed them to practice the skill of assessing the reputability of online sources.  They worked together to investigate a website and complete a worksheet.  They coexisted with each other to accomplish a common goal.  Later in the day during Humanities class, the students discussed cartography and questions about maps with a table partner to open our unit on mapping and perspective.  These short partner discussions bled into a large group discussion on the purpose of maps and how the students use maps in their daily lives.  The boys shared some great ideas that provided much fodder to jumpstart our unit.  The boys were engaged in the discussions, which allowed them to become interested in the topic of mapping that can sometimes be a mundane or boring topic for students.  The big activity for the period involved the students, working in small groups, in observing four different kinds of maps.  They discussed what they noticed and saw.  How were the maps different from each other?  What did the maps show?  What do the maps mean?  The students discussed the accuracy of the maps as they pointed out interesting observations they were making.  It was very cool to watch the students learn and explore maps.  I closed Humanities class with a final discussion on what was learned from the various maps they observed.  How were they different from one another?  Which map was most accurate and why?  The students all seemed to have different thoughts on these questions, which allowed for some interesting discussion and further questions to be asked.  So much learning took place in the sixth grade classroom today through conversation.  The students shared ideas, listened to their peers, and processed information learned to formulate their own new ideas.  It was awesome.

Imagine what would have happened in class today if conversation and talking was not the vehicle used to promote learning.  Would the students have been as engaged in the topics being learned?  Would they have generated such insightful and unique thoughts and questions?  Would they have had as much fun?  Would as much learning have happened?  While I can’t say with 100% certainty that the answer to my previous questions would be, “No,” I do hypothesize that very little genuine learning and fun would have happened in the classroom today if conversations and discussions did not take place.  Talking and listening are crucial life skills that lead to growth and maturity.  Without talking or sharing ideas, where would our society be right now?  We need to prepare our students for meaningful lives in a global society, which involves teaching them the power of conversation.

Why Do We Allow Time to Steal Learning from Our Students?

Time is a fickle, fair-weather friend.  When we want time on our side, it seems to fly by like a jet in the sky; but when we want time to quickly pass us by, it seems as though our lives are in slow-motion.  What is up with that?  Why can’t time do what we want or need it to do?  I often wish I had more time to spend with my family.  Why is it that time controls us?  Why can’t we be the master of our own time?  Why are we forced to live our lives according to time?  Why can’t we just do what we need or want to do when we need to or want to do it?  Why is time allowed to rule the world?  Why can’t we be the master of our lives?  Why must we live our lives according to the laws of time?  While I understand the need for control and harmony in the world, I do often wonder what life on Earth would be like if we all lived by our own schedule.  What if there was no time?  Imagine the possibilities.  Sure, there’s always the possibility of chaos, but that possibility exists even within the constraints of time.  So, why not try it?  Why not throw time out the window and live our lives the way we want to, without being controlled by time?

Although I realize the great anarchy that would ensue if we all just lived our lives, ignoring time, I do often find that time is more of a hinderance and an enemy than it is a helpful friend.  Especially in the classroom.  As a teacher, I find it terribly difficult to plan my lessons according to time and its boundaries.  Great teachers know that lessons never go as planned.  Students ask questions and teachable moments pop up like pimples on middle school students.  That’s what we love about teaching.  We love when the students drive the instruction.  We want them to be curious and ask questions.  We want to guide them to the knowledge, but we often can’t because we are bound by time.  Most schools have a set and structured schedule that forces teachers to contain the fun and adventure of learning to a set time.  How is that right or just?  How can we expect our students to fully engage in the material when we have to stop in the middle and send them onto their next class or commitment?  The research tells us that students learn best when they have time to practice and explore the material they are learning.  So, why do schools have such structured and time bound schedules?  Why are we stealing the fun of learning from our students?

I had what I thought was a pretty sweet lesson all lined up for my study skills class today.  I felt like my lesson allowed for more than enough time to cover the material, allow students to practice, and assess the students on their understanding of the skill covered.  But then of course, life happened.  As my study skills class is the first period of the day for my students, I wanted to remind the boys that today was the start of the winter term and a chance to hit the reset button on their grades.  I also wanted to remind them about what little time we have before our next vacation.  Of course, this inevitably led to several questions from the students, which I love.  I love when my students are actively thinking and engaging in what is being discussed.  Being mindful is a key skill we’ve been trying to help them learn since September.  Then, all of a sudden, I realized that I only had about 30 minutes of class time left to cover my lesson.  I started with my hook activity, which took longer than I thought it would as the students seemed to really be into it.  Discussing the heart of the lesson and learning took about eight minutes, which meant that I only had about three minutes left for the students to practice the skill of completing an effective Google Search.  What about the assessment?  What about going over the practice activity?  What about the closing discussion on the importance of knowing how to complete an effective Google Search?  I had no time for everything else because I needed to send my students onto their next class.  Yes, I’m going to cover what was missed during tomorrow’s class, but that’s not the point.  The point is, I had to stop the learning process midway, creating much interference in their brain.  Very little retention comes when so much interference occurs.

While every course we offer at my school is equally important, I find it very frustrating to limit the learning, exploration, curiosity, critical thinking, investigating, and fun.  Why can’t we have more time for class?  Why do we have just 40 minutes per class?  Why can’t we have a more flexible schedule that would allow teachers to have longer periods on certain days?  What about a block schedule, with longer periods per class?  What about stretching our academic day by a few hours?  Do we really need three hours of athletics?  What if we have sports go later into the evening?  What if we think about what works best for our students and create a schedule around that?

While time and the prison in which it binds us will never disappear, schools need to find more effective ways to educate students.  We can’t expect students to love learning and school when labs, activities, and lessons have to end early because the students need to move onto their next commitment.  We need to find a way to create flexible schedules for students and teachers.  We need to provide teachers with the time to dig into the content and skills because what is happening now at many schools around the world is clearly not working.  Students are missing out on learning opportunities and teachers are feeling stuck because there just never seems to be enough time.  We need to create schools that focus on the learning process and not a series of courses and classes.  We need to make learning fun and enjoyable for our students and their teachers.  We need to steal back time and return it to our schools.

Are Rubrics Effective Assessment Tools?

Rubrics, smubricks.  I feel like that’s all I’ve been blogging about lately as I’m trying to determine their effectiveness.  I feel like a broken record.  I’m getting to the point now where I’m not even sure what a rubric is?  Is it a chart?  A procedure?  What makes a rubric a rubric?  Why do I have to keep typing the word rubric?  Ahhh, I’ve had enough of these rubrics.  I’m throwing them out the window.  Oh, wait a minute.  I don’t actually have a window that opens to the outside in my classroom.  I guess I’ll just have to throw them away instead.  Well, I don’t want to fill our landfill with more useless stuff.  I should probably recycle them so that somewhere, sometime soon someone will be reading or writing on something that is made up of particles from an old, ridiculous, and overused, rubric.  Uh oh, but then rubrics will literally be everywhere, and so I’m not actually going to be able to escape them, ever.  I’m going to start having nightmares about killer rubrics from outer space.  Oh, this is horrible.  Just say no to rubrics!

After that rant, I sort of lost my train of thought.  Oh yes, I know what I wanted to focus on for today’s blog.  Rubrics!  There’s that pesky word again.  It’s like a giant wart that just won’t go away.  Anyway, back to rubrics.  So, today in my study skills class, the students completed work on the final project for our brain unit.  They had to create a Learning Goals Plan that included one SMART goal for each of their major courses along with a plan detailing what they will do to meet their goals.  The plan needed to reference ideas discussed during the unit.  After collecting their plans, we discussed the whole unit.  I asked the boys what they liked and what they found challenging.  They provided my co-teacher and I with some useful feedback.  They loved learning about the brain and found our unit very useful.  They feel as though they’ve never learned about the brain before even though it’s one of the most important parts of their body.  This is all great feedback that we can use as we revise this unit for next year.

I closed our discussion today by asking them about the Learning Goals Plan project.  I explained to the students how we had put them into two groups on PowerSchool: Half the class had a detailed rubric outlining the Learning Goals Plan project and requirements, while the other group simply had the procedure with the graded objectives listed.  I did this as a way to gather data on the effectiveness of rubrics.  I asked the group that didn’t have the rubric, “Did you notice a difference?  Was it harder to complete the project without a rubric?  Were you ever lost or confused?”  I was a bit surprised by the responses.  All but one student said they didn’t even realize they weren’t provided with a rubric.  They followed the directions and reviewed the graded objectives as they worked.  This group felt very comfortable with the project and requirements without a rubric.  The one student who felt a bit lost without a rubric is an ELL.  He said, “I felt like I didn’t know exactly what was expected for each part of the project.  A rubric would have helped me feel like I knew what I was doing.”  This makes sense.  As our ESL students struggle to understand and comprehend English, having a rubric does help to clarify and make sense of the directions.  It simplifies the language for them.  The other students in that group without the rubric were native English speakers.  As they have a strong grasp of the language, they didn’t feel the need for clarification.  They felt confident without a rubric.  The group without the rubric was composed of four ELLs and one native English speaker.  The ESL students in that group all felt as though having the rubric was helpful.  They used it to guide them through the project.  It was their beacon in the snowstorm of work.  One of the students said, “The rubric helped us ESL students be on the same level as the native speakers since the rubric explained stuff in a way that makes sense to us.”  Rubrics give the ELLs a step up in the learning process.  This information definitely lines up with my thinking on rubrics and their effectiveness.  Rubrics are useful and almost necessary for ELLs to meaningfully and appropriately complete projects and tasks.  Our native English speakers, on the other hand, don’t really need one, according to the feedback I received from my students today in class.  For a future project, I’m thinking I will provide my ESL students with a detailed rubric and then make them available to the other native English speakers who feel that they need one.  They’ll be optional for the domestic students but required for the ELLs in my class.  I think this approach might work best…

BUT.  Of course, there’s always a but.  When I graded their Learning Goals Plan, I noticed that more of the students in the group that was provided with a rubric met or exceeded the graded objective.  Only one student in the group that was not provided a rubric met the objective.  So, does this mean that the students in the group that feel like they don’t need a rubric actually do need a rubric to be successful?  If not, then why did the group with the rubric have more success in meeting the graded objective?  Was it the rubric?  Was it the students themselves?  Work ethic definitely plays a role in all of this.  The students who want to do well will do well no matter what, and the students who just do the least amount of work to get by will do that regardless of having a rubric.  I do find that the ESL students in my class work harder because they need to and want to.  They know that in order to gain acceptance into independent secondary schools, they need to do well and earn high grades.  This motivation means that they typically work harder than the average domestic student in my class.  So, that makes a difference too.  Would this ESL group have done as well without a rubric?  Perhaps, because they would have asked questions and sought help to achieve the graded they were working towards.  So, should I make rubrics optional for all students or mandate them for all students?  What approach makes the most sense?  For the group of students I’m working with this year, I feel as though rubrics are necessary.  For those students who use them, they will make great use of them and feel very prepared for the task or project, while those students who don’t use them, can just ignore them.  If I provide everyone with a rubric, the likelihood is that even those students who say they don’t use a rubric may actually reference it once or twice during the working phase of the assignment.  I like it.  So, that’s what I’ll do for our next graded project or task: Everyone gets a rubric.  Who knows, maybe it will help everyone to meet or exceed the graded objectives?

Awesome Sauce: When Learning Happens in the Classroom

Being a teacher has its many perks and rewards:

  • Observing students really “get” stuff and have A-Ha moments in the classroom.
  • Being able to decorate your classroom anyway you want with no one telling you, “Those drapes clash with that carpet.”
  • Helping students grow and develop.
  • Challenging students to change their perspective on life.
  • Halloween.  Need I say more?
  • Celebrating a furry brown creature who lives in the ground with songs, poems, and fun.
  • Meeting new students on the first day of school.
  • Running into past students in strange places and taking a stroll down memory lane.

I bet that some of you thought snow days and summer vacation were going to be at the top of my list.  While we, as teachers, do love our time off, we’d much rather be in the classroom with our students molding minds and helping create the next generation of leaders, thinkers, and doers.

Another thing teachers really love about their lifestyle choice is seeing that their students are actually learning.  Yes, it’s great to see the moment when they understand something like a lightbulb going off in their brain, but seeing students apply that new knowledge they learn is even cooler.

Over the years, I’ve wrestled with how to help students see the power of the peer editing process.  How do I help students understand the value in providing their peers with meaningful feedback that will help them effectively revise their written work?  How can I best teach students to be effective peer editors?  Each year I feel as though teaching students to be great peer editors is like what early American settlers went through when they journeyed west in search of land, an arduous and long journey.  It takes many students the entire year to really be able to master the skill of providing their peers with useful feedback.  I get it.  Having a careful eye and providing constructive feedback to others is not an easy thing to do.  It’s hard to effectively help others to make their writing better.  I sometimes struggle with this skill myself, and I’m an adult.  I understand that this journey to becoming an effective peer editor can be bumpy and filled with unexpected twists and turns, which is why I don’t expect my students to be able to meaningfully help others revise their written work until later in the academic year.

Now, while I’ve heard that miracles do happen, I have yet to see any in my short life.  Wait a minute, I take that back: My teenaged son once woke up in a pleasant mood.  That was definitely a miracle.  Inside my classroom, I was fortunate enough today to see another miracle: My students effectively peer editing each other’s written work.

Today’s class began much like any other.  The boys wrote down the homework and completed a Brain Puzzle activity altogether as a class.  Nothing special or miraculous happened.  The boys did what was expected of them.  Then, I introduced the peer editing activity that the students would be completing in class.  I reviewed the difference between editing and revising and made a list on the board of the various writing features they should be looking to comment on regarding their partner’s Learning Goals Plan.  I went over the steps of the process and made sure they understood what was expected of them.  As I was definitely employing a fixed mindset going into today’s class, I was certain that they would have time to peer edit with at least three different students since they usually only provide their partner with superficial feedback on how they can improve their work.  Then came the miracle.

The students got right to work.  No, that wasn’t the miracle.  While I have had previous classes struggle with this skill, this year’s group is great at getting right to work.  The miracle came when they started to work.  The students were asking each other questions like, “How will you use a growth mindset?  What do you mean here?  Could you explain more here?”  I was amazed.  They were really trying to provide their partner with constructive feedback.  They were focusing on the big features of their written work and not the little, nit picky stuff like spelling or grammar.  They were trying to help their partner become a better, more effective writer.  They posed great questions and provided each other with effective and meaningful feedback.  It was awesome.  They were completing the peer editing process in a real and genuine manner.  They weren’t just going through the motions like classes in the past have done, oh no.  They were taking the time to really dissect their partner’s work so that he could put it back together in a more effective way.  I was amazed.  They spent so long working with one partner, that they only had time to provide feedback to one student prior to the end of class.  Wow!

How were they able to accomplish this task so early in the year?  No other group has demonstrated mastery of this skill so soon in the school year.  What allowed or helped my students to be successful during today’s activity?   Was it because we’ve been focusing on helping our students utilize a growth mindset while working?   Was that it?  Or was it that I explained what they needed to do in a way that made sense to them?  Perhaps it was because I reminded them that I will be grading them on their ability to provide their partner with effective feedback.  Maybe the sunny weather motivated them to buckle down and really work in class today.  Who knows what it was, as there were so many variables at play.  I don’t feel as though I taught the skill of peer editing any differently this year than I did in past years, and so I’m not sure what it was that helped them all showcase their ability to peer edit their partner’s work in a meaningful way.  I do know that something special happened in the classroom today.  If my students apply the feedback with which they were provided today, they will all certainly be able to exceed the two graded objectives for this task.  I can’t wait to read the final draft of their Learning Goals Plan on Friday as they are sure to be “legen- wait for it- dary.”

Teaching Students How to Manage Large Projects

I’m a list guy.  When I need to make sure that I remember to do something, I write it down.  Well, actually, I type it into a Stickies note on my laptop.  At points during a week, my To Do list will be quite lengthy.  While seeing a formidably long list might put some people on edge, it gives me a purpose.  I always know what I need to be doing to accomplish my work and goals for the week.  When I complete a task or item on my list, I delete it from my laptop.  Now that’s a satisfying feeling.  I love removing items from my list.  It feels good, like therapy or ice cream.  Lists keep me organized regarding work I need to complete.  I manage my life through lists.  Without them, I’d probably be living a very disorganized, chaotic, and stress-filled life, never knowing what is going on or what I need to do.  Lists allow me to live in the moment and enjoy life as I don’t need to stay focused on remembering what I need to do next since I have it recorded somewhere.  Lists are my safety vest as I navigate my way through the tumultuous waters of life.

As a teacher, I try hard to be sure that I’m teaching my students effective organizational skills and strategies.  If I want to effectively prepare my students for meaningful lives in a global society, I need to know that they can manage themselves.  Being organized mentally and physically are crucial to one’s success in life.  Organized students are more able to excel in life and meet their goals as their daily lives are free of stress and clutter.  Teaching students how to be organized is no easy task.  It requires much guidance, practice, and repetition.  I train my students to see the value and purpose in being organized.  This starts at the very beginning of the year as I explain to the boys how and why we do things a certain way in the sixth grade.  So far this year, we’ve covered the following organizational techniques and skills in the sixth grade:

  • Maintain a neatly organized binder with separate tabs for each class.  All papers are properly placed into the correct section.  Every paper or item in the binder has a specific place and purpose.
  • Maintain an updated planbook in which they record daily homework assignments.  This should always be filled out a week ahead so that they are prepared to write in long term assignments.
  • Maintain a clutter free and neatly organized work space at their desk in the classroom.  All materials should be neatly stacked at the top of the table so that the students have plenty of free workspace directly in front of them.
  • Chunk large tasks into smaller pieces so that long term projects don’t seem so daunting.
  • Use a growth mindset to be able to tackle and persevere through any problem encountered.
  • Know that multitasking is a myth.  The students all know that listening to music with words while working is ineffective.  Trying to do more than one mentally demanding task well is impossible because our brains are wired to focus and survive, not split brain power.

Today in Humanities class, I was able to help the students understand the importance in delegating tasks when working with others.  As this is a difficult skill to teach students because they are so self-absorbed in sixth grade, I make sure to introduce it slowly and methodically.  I don’t cover it at the start of the school year because I want the students to learn how to coexist with others before they learn how to work effectively with their peers.  Before the students began working on the Create the Perfect State final project in class today, I reviewed the project requirements and procedure they will utilize to complete this task.  I briefly mentioned how they should talk to their partner about breaking up the task into smaller parts so that they are not both doing the same thing at the same time.  I didn’t say more than this as it is really the first time I’ve discussed this skill with the students.  I wanted to see what they could do on their own first, without assistance or direct teaching.

As the students worked in class today, I observed their behaviors.  How were they working with their partner?  Were they communicating effectively?  Were they delegating tasks?  Were they thinking critically and collaborating effectively?  I noticed many awesome things my students were doing.  They were using creativity to complete the task as they tried out different computer applications and created unique names for their states.  They were sharing ideas with their partner in meaningful ways.  They were actively listening to each other’s ideas as they spoke.  Many of the groups were also delegating tasks well.  This was my favorite part of today’s class as it means that my students are experimenting with the power of relying on and trusting others.  This is no easy feat.  While one person worked on learning about how to use Google Sites, the other student worked on creating a map of their island state.  It was great to see the boys breaking the tasks down into smaller, manageable chunks.  I love it.

At the close of class today, I shared, with the boys, my observations.  I mentioned how I saw lots of delegating happening in the classroom today.  I mentioned specific examples of how one student was working on one part of the website while the other student worked on a different part.  They were breaking the large project down into small parts.  I explained how useful that can be when working in a group or with a partner.  I think many of the students seem to understand the value in delegating tasks.  Tomorrow, the boys will have another chance to practice this important skill as they continue working on the Create the Perfect State project in class.

Helping students to see the importance in organizing how groups work together is something I value highly.  I want the students to see that in the real world, people have to work together.  People work in groups, and the skills those individuals bring to the group will determine the group’s effectiveness.  People who know how to delegate tasks and effectively lead a group, will be much more successful in life than people who don’t understand the value in breaking large tasks down into smaller parts.  Delegation is truly a life skill.  being able to teach students the importance of it now, will help them progress forward in life at a rapid pace.  Large, big tasks can seem scary, unless, you find a way to break them down into smaller pieces and make use of others to get the job done.

How Do Teachers Create Effective Rubrics?

Over the past few months, I’ve been doing much research and work on determining the effectiveness of rubrics.  Are rubrics useful tools for assessment?  Do prescriptive and detailed rubrics help students accomplish learning tasks or steal their creativity and critical thinking?  What’s the best way to engage students in their learning?  I’ve come to all sorts of conclusions so far on my journey: Rubrics are useless, Prescriptive rubrics are more effective than simple, broadly stated rubrics, and Feedback on graded assessments leads to genuine learning and growth.  In all of my conversations with teachers and from all of the feedback I received from students, there seems to be no consensus.  For some teachers, prescriptive rubrics seem to be more effective than simple rubrics while some students like rubrics and others don’t find them useful.  No salient points are floating to the top of my research-gathering adventure.  I’m not sure exactly how best to introduce or explain tasks and projects to students in a meaningful and engaging way that promotes creativity and critical thinking.  Geez, learning and solving problems is difficult work.  Now I know how our students feel.

Today, I had another fruitful discussion with a colleague on the topic of rubrics.  She provided me with much insight on the topic as she recently created a grading rubric that her and her students find very useful and effective.  The following big ideas came out of our chat:

  • Words tend to overwhelm students in print form.  Create rubrics that simply state the grading requirements.  Less is more.  Students will use a rubric that is neatly organized and makes use of very few words.
  • Those students who utilize rubrics when completing graded work, use them as checklists.  Detailed rubrics spoon-feed the students everything they need to know about a task and how to complete it.  There is no critical thinking involved when students make use of wordy rubrics.
  • Repetition of the same rubric or style of rubric helps students practice and better learn the essential skills they will need to be successful in their academic lives.  If students are writing several essays over the course of the year, using the same, simply stated rubric every time helps make the learning process more tangible and real for the students.
  • Rubrics tend to prevent genuine learning from taking place in the classroom.  Instead, teachers should simply explain the project procedure and graded objectives to the students without going over the ins and outs of what they will need to do, specifically, to meet or exceed the objectives.  This experience will prompt the students to ask questions regarding points of confusion, thus helping them practice using their critical thinking skills.

I am feeling perplexed now.  Is there any answer to my guiding question?  Is there a most effective way to explain a graded project or task to students?  Could there possibly be a one-size fits all solution to this problem?  Are all students the same?  What works for one student may not work for another, which is why effective teachers differentiate their instruction.  So then, shouldn’t we differentiate our rubrics too?  One rubric may not work best for all of our students.  We need to provide prescriptive and detailed rubrics to those students who desire or need one while also making sure that those students who need a more simply stated rubric have access to one as well.  For those students who don’t want a rubric, we don’t need to provide them with one.  Once we know our students as learners, we can then create rubrics that will work for each of them.  As we should no longer be using the assembly line factory model of education for our students, we need to think about individualizing our teaching.  How can we best support and challenge ALL of our students?  One type of rubric will not work for everyone.  Teachers can create effective rubrics for each of their students once they know how they learn best.

Moving forward, this is what I will focus on trying.  I will create different rubrics for each project or task, and then provide my students with the one I feel will best suit their needs as learners.  Now I’m starting to feel better, like I know something more now than I did when I started.  This whole professional development process feels like panning for gold.  I need to sift through millions of pounds of rock and debris to find the tiny gold nuggets of knowledge and understanding, which makes finding the solution, that much more exciting and fun.

How to Create Just the Right Project for Your Students

Creating an engaging project that promotes critical thinking while also allowing students to showcase their learning regarding various objectives covered throughout a unit is quite the challenging task.  It can feel like planning a wedding in two weeks or finding out two days before Thanksgiving that you’re hosting the holiday for 25 people.  Ahhh!  It’s overwhelming and a bit scary, but after you take a few deep breaths, realize that you can do anything, solutions will come.

As teachers, we work tirelessly to engage and excite our students.  We want them to love coming to our class.  We want them to love learning because it’s fun.  While not every unit we cover can make use of a project or activity that excites our students, we are always looking for some feature to our units that will help bring the learning to life.  We want our students to want to learn and accomplish tasks because they are having fun.  Competitions of all types can do this, but sometimes, at the cost of compassion and integrity.  So then, how can we create the perfect project for our students?

  1. Pour over the content and objectives you are looking to cover in a unit.  What are the big ideas and essential questions?  How can you turn those essential questions into an exploration or project for the students?  Extracting the big ideas from an upcoming unit will help inspire you to create that one perfect project.
  2. Know your students.  What excites them?  Do they like hands-on projects?  Do they like group projects?  Do they like to talk and discuss?  Knowing what your students enjoy, will help you to design and construct a meaningful project for them.
  3. Begin laying out your unit.  Map it out using whatever information systems management software your school uses.  My school makes use of PowerSchool.  Put everything together and map out your daily lessons.  As you start to see it all come together, a project idea may smack you right in the frontal lobe.
  4. Create the best project or final assessment that you are able to at the time.  You may not like your first few ideas, and that’s okay.  As you process the information and your ideas, a better, more fun idea is bound to come into your mind.  In order to get something new, you must start with something old first.
  5. If you’ve created your entire unit and still have no ideas for the perfect project, don’t stress or worry.  Talk to colleagues.  What projects or activities do they use in their classroom that engage their students?  How can you tweak those ideas to fit your unit?  Go online and see what other teachers are doing.  Imitation is the best form of flattery, someone very wise once said.
  6. If you’ve come to the end of your unit and your students completed the original project or assessment you created, don’t fret and feel like a failure.  Use the experience as a learning opportunity.  Ask the students what they thought.  Have them complete a reflection on the unit and final project.  Ask them for ideas.  Our students are often like untapped sugar maple trees, full of syrupy goodness.  They may have ideas and suggestions for us.  Some of my best ideas have come from feedback I received from my students.
  7. Revise your unit for next year, based on all of the feedback and ideas you’ve gathered during the implementation phase.  By this point, you should have created a very perfect, engaging project for next year, and already been thinking about future projects you can do with this year’s class.  Reflective teaching allows for growth and development to happen at a swift pace.

As I was putting together a recent unit on the foundations of government, I felt the pressure of creating the perfect project.  I wanted to engage my students in the learning process.  Nothing I brainstormed seemed appropriate or fun.  So, I designed my unit with what I felt was the best possible final assessment idea, and then just let it be.  After a few days of processing all of the thoughts and ideas swirling about my head, the perfect idea finally came to me.  So, I revised my unit before I began utilizing it in the classroom.  It felt good to put together something that I was excited about it.  Positive energy is contagious, much like common colds are in the classroom.  If we are excited about something as teachers, we will present it to our students in a way that will hopefully energize them as well.

Yesterday, I introduced the final project to the students, with much fanfare.  They were excited to get started.  Not only did they love the idea that it was a partner project, but they seemed super jazzed about the fact that they had total creative license over almost every aspect of the project.  They had very few questions after I explained the project and went over the digital version of the project that I had put together on PowerSchool.  Was that a bad thing?  No, because I’m sure questions will come up as they work, and I will field them then.  They couldn’t wait to get started.  The creative and positive energy flowing around the classroom was palpable.  The boys had smiles on their faces as they designed flags for their utopian state.  The students had deep and meaningful conversations about where in the world their state should be located based on natural disasters, closeness to the equator, and other factors.  They were thinking critically and creatively about the task at hand.  I could not have been more proud or excited than I was yesterday.  When I informed the students that it was time to pick up and prepare for their next class, you could feel, the energy level change.  They were disappointed that they could no longer work on this project.  Then, after class had ended, a few students were in the hallway discussing their plan for working on the project this weekend, outside of the classroom.  They are so excited about completing this learning task and doing well on it that they are creating a plan to work during their only chunk of free time.  Wow!  I think that says it all right there.  I created the perfect project for my students and the unit.  It took time, energy, and much thinking and searching, but I was able to do it.  Sometimes it comes down to perseverance and growth mindset.  As we teach our students the value of utilizing a growth mindset, it’s important that we remember to employ one ourselves as we are working and teaching.  Anyone can create the perfect project for their students and the unit being covered.

Below is the project description for the perfect project I introduced to my students in class yesterday:

Creating the Perfect State Project

Once you have learned all about the purpose of government, the roles of government, the features of a state, and the types of government, you will have a chance to apply that knowledge and create your own, perfect state and government.  What will your state’s territory look like on a map?  What will be the features of your population?  What form of government will your country utilize?  Be creative and have fun as you create a utopian place for all to live in harmony.


  1. Choose a partner that you feel you will be able to work with effectively, and report your selection to Mr. Holt.
  2. Create a unique, fictional island state, complete with government and population.
  3. Complete the Sovereign State worksheet with your partner.
  4. Watch Google Sites Video Tutorial to Learn how to use the Google Sites application.
  5. Create a Google Sites website to promote your country and inform others about its features.
  6. Share your website with at least two faculty members in order to receive meaningful and useful feedback that you can use to revise and improve your website.
  7. Finalize website and share it with the world.

Website Requirements

Your finished and neatly organized Google Sites website must answer and address the following questions about your unique and fictional but effective state:

  • Where in the world is your state located and what are its borders?
  • What form of government will your fictional state utilize and why?
  • What are the features of your population, including level of wealth, level of education, cultural traditions, and where people live, and why did you decide upon them?
  • How are the leaders of government and assembly selected and voted upon, and why?
  • How do elections happen in your state, and why?
  • How is your state protected, and why?
  • How are laws made in your state, and why?
  • What are the roles citizens and how are citizens protected in your state, and why?
  • What is the process by which someone who is not born in your state can become a citizen of your state, and why?
  • Why should and would outsiders want to live in or visit your state?

Graded Objectives

  • Students will be able to identify and describe the four features of a state.
  • Students will be able to explain how the four roles of government impact a place and its people.
  • Students will be able to synthesize and apply knowledge learned regarding the roles of government and the four features of a state to create a fictional but effective country.
  • Students will be able to utilize the program Google Sites appropriately to create a working web site.

Due Date

Your finished website must be posted and made live for others to view by the end of class on Friday, November 17.

Learning from Colleagues

While I wasn’t the sharpest crayon in the Crayola box when I was in school, I managed to achieve Honor Roll level grades and become a member of the National Junior Honor Society.  Because of this status and the fact that I was in mid-level courses, I was considered to be the smartest student in my classes.  Therefore, everyone wanted to sit next to me so that they could try to copy off my paper or ask for help; and when it came time to complete a group project, everyone in the class wanted to work with me.  You see, not only was I seen as one of the most intelligent students in my classes, but I was also a perfectionist, which meant that everything I turned in had to be perfect, and I never trusted anyone else to complete work that met my standards of perfection.  Students liked working with me because I did all of the work for group projects.  Interestingly enough, it seemed as though I was teaching my peers more in our classes than they were learning from the teachers.  I guess it makes sense then that I became a teacher.  I enjoy helping others through their learning journey.

As a teacher, I seek help from others, much like my peers in high school did from me.  I look to my colleagues for advice, guidance, suggestions, and ideas.  As learning is a journey with no finish line, I’m always looking to progress forward.  There is always more that I can to learn to become a better educator.  My Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan journey is helping motivate me to become an even more effective educator.  I’m learning a lot about rubrics, project and/or activity introductions, and assessments as I delve into what makes an effective rubric.  Are prescriptive rubrics the most effective way to help students understand and know what they have to do in order to meet or exceed the objectives for the task?  Would less be more in this instance?  If a rubric utilized simply stated language for each graded objective, would that better help students understand what they need to do while also allowing them to think critically about the assignment and use creativity to complete it?  What’s the best way to explain graded activities or assignments to students?  To help me answer and address the many questions that I’ve been raising regarding my ITIP topic, I’ve spoken to my fellow teachers.  I’ve had two conversations already with teachers on how they use rubrics in their classrooms, and have learned much from our conversations.

Today provided me yet another opportunity to learn and grow as a teacher.  I spoke with a history teacher about how she used and currently uses rubrics in the classroom.  What I gleaned from our conversation today was that the rubric itself doesn’t matter too much.  Students who enjoy learning and school will complete quality work with or without a rubric.  They will ask effective questions that show they are thinking critically about the task at hand.  They put forth great effort in and out of the classroom to showcase their fine understanding of the content and skills covered.  These students, if provided with a rubric, will use it as a guide to be sure they are doing what is expected of them.  If these same students are not provided with a rubric, they will still use a growth mindset to accomplish the task in a meaningful manner that highlights their great ability to think critically and creatively about what they are being asked to do to demonstrate their learning.  Rubrics don’t seem to make a difference to these students, no matter how specific the rubric may or may not be.  Then there are those students who are either apathetic or unable to show their learning in an appropriate manner.  Those students struggle to accomplish any task with or without a rubric.  This group of students can be divided into two subgroups: Students with learning difficulties and students who choose not to do well even though they could.  If provided with a rubric, the students with learning difficulties will use it as it guides them through the learning task.  They crave specificity and detail with regards to projects and assignments.  They need to know exactly what is expected of them so that they can do it.  Those students who seem not to care about completing quality work will not use a rubric as they don’t care and feel as though they already know everything.  If only they knew how detrimental to their learning journey that having a fixed mindset can be.  The moral of this story is that it doesn’t matter if we use rubrics or not when explaining graded assignments in the classroom, as 75% of our students will not make use of them anyway.  Using rubrics, according to the fantastic discussion I had today with a fellow history teacher made me realize what I’ve thought all along: Grading rubrics are unnecessary tools for students.  They confuse students, steal their thinking, and rob them of their creativity.  Overly prescriptive rubrics prevent students from needing to use critical thinking skills while broadly worded rubrics generally go unused by students.

After today’s fruitful discussion with a colleague, I’m now beginning to wonder if I should even use grading rubrics at all when introducing or explaining tasks.  What if I create rubrics for those interested students?  Make them optional.  Students can choose to see me for a rubric that they could use to guide them through the learning journey.  That might be an interesting approach to my rubric dilemma.  Perhaps I will try this method on a future task or graded assessment to determine its effectiveness.  Maybe making the rubric an optional piece that they can choose to use or not will help the 25% of my students who do make use of rubrics when completing tasks.  I like it.  What a clever idea I crafted.  If I didn’t have the conversation I did with a fellow teacher today, I doubt I would have even realized this point: Most students don’t even use rubrics when completing their work.  Talking with others has helped me grow and develop as an educator in the 17 years I’ve been working in schools.  Using the resources available to me has allowed me to become a more effective educator.

Fixing a Broken State: Having Students Apply Knowledge Learned about Government

One of my most favorite memories from history class when I was in school was the stock market game.  To teach us all about the stock market crash that happened prior to the start of WWII in our country, my teacher had us invest fictional money in the current stock market.  Each day, we spent time tabulating how much money was lost or gained.  It was so much fun competing against my classmates.  This engaging and relevant activity taught me more than any lecture or worksheet ever did in school.  As a teacher, I try to make sure that every lesson or activity I complete in the classroom leaves my students feeling the same way I did in my eighth grade history class.

For the past week, I’ve been introducing my students to the foundation of government.  We discussed the purpose of government based on the ideas of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.  I then explained to them the roles of government and the requirements of a state.  While we discussed these ideas in length and I fielded many questions from the students about what it all meant, I wondered if they truly understood what effective government looks like in action.  So, to assess my students’ understanding of the big ideas we’ve been covering in Humanities class for the past week, I had them create an action plan to fix a fictional broken government.  I had a list of problems facing this fictional country on the whiteboard and then reviewed what it all meant.  I added some details for the sake of clarity and understanding.  I then had the students ask any questions they had about the state.  They asked some great questions to glean understanding from my explanation.  They were very curious.  They wanted to know if this state was a real state or something I made up.  While I made it all up, it could easily be based on a number of states from around the world, and so I shared that with them.  I was impressed with the critical thinking the students put into analyzing and assessing the information with which I provided them.  Then, working with a partner of their choosing, they had to create a written plan that showcases the action they would suggest the UN take to help this country protect the natural rights of its citizens.

The students got right to work on the task at hand.  They utilized a growth mindset as they generated unique solutions to the numerous problems facing this fictional state.  I was amazed by the innovative but realistic ideas they generated.  One group suggested that they would arm the tribes and encourage them to rebel against their dictator.  While this rebellion is going on, they would then send materials and supplies to the country to help them rebuild their shattered state.  What an interesting idea.  I pointed out how this idea can sometimes work in the real-world by sharing how Afghan soldiers were armed by outside sources to rebel against their government, which led to terrorist groups being armed and angry at America and its allies for interfering with their country’s affairs.  Another group explained how they would build schools, hospitals, and toilets in the state after assassinating the dictator.  They would then train the citizens to take care of themselves, create a government, and protect themselves against other countries.  This group, like many of the groups today, were all about empowering the citizens to solve their own problems rather than trying to inflict our control over the defunct state.  Another group explained how they would train the citizens to farm and help them create farms and grow their own food.  How creative, yet simple.  They would also ensure that the citizens had a fair and just election to choose a new, and good leader for the country.  They also shared how they would remedy the dirty water supply.  So cool.  Another group wrote about using a spy to infiltrate the dictator’s government as way of overthrowing him and removing him from power.    How James Bond.  Every group had unique and realistic ideas to help this struggling nation return to a place in which all of its citizens feel and are safe and respected.  I was amazed by the level of critical thinking they put into their action plans.

Today’s activity clearly shows how well my students understand the basic ideas of government.  It also helped make this abstract learning more real and tangible.  They had to think about how to solve problems using the information they’ve been learning over the past week.  They had fun doing it.  They were engaged in the learning as they tried to create effective solutions to the problems plaguing this broken state.  I believe this project allowed my students to feel like I did in my eighth grade history class, excited to participate in a fun and engaging project while learning about history.

Embracing Failure as Part of the Learning Process

“To fail, is to lose.  There are no second chances in life.  If you fail, you won’t make the team.  Failure is weakness.”  These are all phrases I grew up hearing on television, in school, and on the basketball court.  I was taught that failure is bad.  It was ingrained within me from an early age.  I became a perfectionist because I didn’t want to mess up and fail.  Changing my thinking and mindset on this idea took me many years.  It wasn’t until I completed a course on the neuroscience of education that I really started to see failure as a positive word and concept.  Failing is part of the learning process.  For genuine learning to take place within the minds of our students, they need to see the relevance of what we are covering.  If they try a new task or skill and fail, they are likely to learn from their mistakes and find another solution to the problem.  Failure is essential to learning.  I tell my students all the time, “I want you to fail so that you will learn.”  While many of my students look at me like I just cursed at them everytime I say this, I’m hopeful that by the end of the academic year, they will see the value and importance in taking risks, trying new things, failing, and trying again.

Yesterday, my co-teacher and I took our sixth grade students outside to the new ropes course our school just built on our lovely campus.  It is amazing.  There are several elements we can use with the students.  As my co-teacher was formally trained on how to use the course, she walked the boys through a challenge entitled the Island.  The students have to work together to get all of the students to cross over three blocks of wood that are spread apart.  They can’t move the wood, they can’t touch the ground, and they can only use two wooden planks to assist them in their quest for success.  We were so excited to bring the boys outside to allow the students to apply the teamwork and community skills we’ve been working on all term.

Then came the failure.  The students were unable to complete the task after 25 minutes of trying.  They did not effectively communicate with each other, they didn’t appropriately use their bodies, they didn’t follow the rules of the challenge, and they weren’t compassionate or respectful to their peers.  It was a bit of a disaster.  My co-teacher and I never stepped in to solve these problems for the boys.  We let them fail on their own.  Then, we returned to the classroom where we had them do some self-reflection on the experience in writing.  While this ropes course activity didn’t go the way my co-teacher would have liked, I reminded her that the class needed to fail today.  If they had succeeded, then we could move them onto seventh grade right now.  We still have much to teach them.  This failure will allow us to help them learn how to effectively communicate with one another.  The boys needed to not be unsuccessful in order to learn from their mistakes.

Today during our Team Time block, I spoke with the students about effective communication.  I had them brainstorm a definition that made sense to us as a class, and I then wrote it on the board.  I then had each student share one thing the class or individual students could do to more effectively interact with their peers in meaningful and compassionate ways.  The boys had some great ideas that we talked about.  They mentioned body language, tone, word choice, and so much more.  It seemed like a productive conversation.

This discussion is a springboard into Friday when we will have the students try this same challenge once more, hopefully applying some of the strategies we spoke about today regarding effective communication.  We will begin Friday’s ropes course challenge with some debriefing in the classroom before heading outside.  We want the students to understand what they need to do to be successful at accomplishing the task.  I’m hopeful that the boys will take this opportunity to learn from Tuesday’s failure.  At this point in the year, our students are beginning to see that they need to make mistakes and fail at something in order to really learn how to do it well.  I can’t wait to see what happens on Friday.  Will they learn from their failure and complete the challenge, or will we have to revisit this challenge again later in the year?