Does Student Feedback Help Teachers?

During my first year of teaching, no colleague or administrator ever came to observe me.  I never received feedback from anyone at my school regarding my teaching practices.  While I knew that I struggled with many pieces of the teaching puzzle that year, no one ever reached out to me to let me know how I could tweak my teaching and grow as an educator.  During my two years teaching second grade at a Catholic school in Maine, my principal and mentor teacher observed me in the classroom on numerous occasions.  Following these visits, they both provided me with much feedback, which I used to grow and develop as a teacher.  They noticed how I seemed to call on particular students more than others, amongst other things.  So, I put a plan into action to make sure that I rectified these issues.  In the two years I taught at that school, much growth and development took place within me because of the feedback I received from my colleagues.  At my current school, I rarely get observed.  This year was the first year I was formally observed in about eight years.  While working with a co-teacher has allowed me to receive feedback on my teaching, I do wonder how much more I would have grown over the years had my school’s administrators observed me and provided me with feedback.

Since I haven’t received much meaningful feedback from other faculty members over my 15 years of employment at my current school, I’ve taken it upon myself in recent years to seek out feedback from the people who matter most to me– my students.  They are the ones who see me day after day.  They are the ones who know me best as a teacher.  While their frontal lobes aren’t completely formed, which means that they lack the means to think critically and insightfully about the world around them, they are the people who see me teach the most.  I teach because of my students, and so, seeking feedback from them just seemed to make sense to me.

A few years ago, I created a Google Form for my students to complete that included many different questions on my teaching style, likes and dislikes regarding the whole sixth grade program, and areas in need of improvement in the sixth grade.  The feedback I received from my students was more meaningful than any piece of feedback I’ve ever received from my bosses in all of my years of teaching, which makes sense as my students do know me best.  Some of the best and biggest changes that I’ve made to the sixth grade program over the years came about due to the feedback I received from my students.

As the end of the calendar year draws to a close, it seemed fitting to seek feedback from my students once again.  A few weeks ago, my co-teacher and I crafted a survey via Google Forms that the students completed in class today.  We tried to limit the number of questions we asked, but we made sure to include questions that would help us understand how we are doing in the eyes of our students.  Prior to the students completing the survey, I explained how vital their feedback is to our growth as teachers.  I reminded them to be honest but appropriate in their feedback.  The students then completed the survey in class today.  Many of them seemed to put great effort into their responses.  Some of the boys took much time to thoughtfully answer the questions so that they could provide us with the best feedback possible.  I praised those students for their time and energy.  The more relevant and meaningful feedback my co-teacher and I receive, the more we are able to self-assess our teaching practices and grow as educators.

At first glance, the feedback our students provided us with today is very positive.  They all seem to like the sixth grade program that we have created.  That’s great news.  Some of the big takeaways for me from the feedback we did receive:

  • A few students noted that I don’t always explain concepts clearly in the classroom.  This is not surprising to me because I have felt as though I could be doing a better job with this aspect of my teaching this year.  There have been times where I’ve felt a bit “off” in the classroom when I was teaching a new concept or covering new content.  I need to work on this moving forward.
  • Most of my students noted how their interest in the area of Humanities has increased this year since being in my class.  This was a bit surprising to me since most of the concepts we’ve been covering this year have been a bit banal and dense.  Who really wants to dig into the American legal system or the different types of flat maps?  It’s nice to know that the teaching methods I’ve been using to engage my students have paid huge dividends.
  • All but one student seems to feel as though I show concern and respect for them in the classroom.  While this means that I’m connecting with my students in powerful and meaningful ways, I do worry about that one student who noted that he doesn’t feel as though I’m showing respect towards him.  As this question was multiple choice, it’s possible that the student accidentally clicked the wrong answer, didn’t read the choices properly, or rushed through the form.  If he did purposefully choose that answer, then I should be concerned.  As the form was anonymous, I can’t go back and double-check.  What I can do, though, is make sure that when the students return from break in 2018, I continue to connect with each and every student on a daily basis.
  • My students feel comfortable enough to joke around with me in appropriate ways.  On the Additional Feedback section, one student wrote, “Mr.Holt should get a sweatshirt with a train on it and it should say ‘I Like Trains.'”  As I was fairly certain I knew who wrote that, I approached him at a quiet and private moment in the classroom to ask him if he did indeed write that.  He smiled a big, wide smile as he said, “Yes I did.”  He then started laughing.  I think he liked that I took the time to read the feedback and then talk to him about it.  It shows that I truly know my students.  That made me feel real good inside.

The moral of today’s blog entry is simple, Seeking feedback from your students will help you grow and develop as a person and teacher.  It’s simple and easy to do, and takes the stress out of administrative observations, that can often feel like interrogations.  I’ve become a better teacher because of the feedback I’ve received from my students.  If you’re looking to improve as an educator, ask your students for advice.

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Holding Students to High Standards

I expect a lot from my students and make sure to tell them that from day one.  I am open and honest with them throughout the school year.  Doing well takes great effort, perseverance, and hard work.  It will not be easy.  I want them to grow into the best possible version of themselves over the course of the academic year.  I expect them to turn in work that is more than just legible.  I expect them to be kind and caring citizens.  I expect them to spend time working outside of the classroom.  I expect them to do their best in and out of the classroom.  While I set the bar high in the classroom, most of the students are able to jump over it by June.  If I set the bar low and didn’t make them redo messy or incomplete work or didn’t talk to them about unkind acts, then I wonder how much progress they would really make over the course of the year.  The students can only work towards what I expect.  If I expect greatness, then they will work towards that.  If I expect mediocrity, then they will work towards that.  As teachers, we need to set high standards for our students.  We can’t allow them to just do the bare minimum to get by.  We need to push them to do more and be more.

The awesomeness that occurred in my Humanities class today was a direct result of the high standards I set for my students.  In class today, the boys presented the final map they created for the Globe to Flat Map Project.  Each and every group performed an amazing presentation that was rehearsed and well organized.  They didn’t use cue cards or any sort of digital tools.  They merely spoke to the class about their flat map and the process by which it was created.  In the three years I’ve been doing this project in the sixth grade, today’s presentations were by far the best I’ve ever seen.  The boys did a phenomenal job describing what their map showed, how they transformed their globe into a flat map, and how they overcame problems encountered throughout the process.  The students were articulate and clear when they spoke.  They were specific and detailed in their explanations, and every group kept to the allotted 3-minute time period.  Wow!  I was amazed and impressed, but not surprised.

Because I expect a lot from my students, they know that everything they do needs to showcase their best effort.  They know to never turn in something that is just barely finished.  They know to refine, revise, and redo their work until it is truly their best possible work.  What happened in class today was no accident.

I began class today by explaining the three points I expected to be addressed in their presentations:

  • Describe what your map shows so that your peers can make sense of what they are looking at.
  • Explain the process by which you and your partner created your flat map.
  • Describe and explain problems encountered and how you overcame those challenges.

I then asked the students to list what they should be doing during the 10-minute preparatory period that they would have in class to get ready for the final presentations.  I wanted them to own their options and possibilities.  I wanted them to brainstorm and problem solve how they will be able to do what is being asked of them.  The students did a fine job brainstorming some great ideas.  They then got right to work.  And work they certainly did.  Every group was focused and diligently working throughout the short chunk of time.  They were discussing talking order, talking points, and time frame.  Some of the boys also used the time to refine their maps and make sure they showcased their best effort while also meeting or exceeding the graded objectives.  It was awesome to observe them in action.  It was controlled chaos as students moved around the room, talked, and prepared.  Then, finally, came the remarkable presentations.  They were amazing.

Getting to this point in the year takes much time and deliberate effort.  It starts with fostering a sense of community and family within the classroom.  Our mantra is, “We are a family, and families take care of each other.”  Teaching the boys how to apply this way of living takes much work, but pays off in the end when the students learn to care for each other, respect one another, and work together towards a common goal.  Once the boys feel cared for, the rest falls into place very quickly.  It boils down to structure and engagement.  The students need to see the relevance in what they are learning or doing in the classroom.  Creating activities and projects that allow the students to engage in the content in meaningful ways allows for this to happen.  Then it comes down to the structure of the class.  The students need to know and understand the routine.  Everything that happens in the classroom needs to serve a purpose.  Today’s lesson was all about that.  I explained what they needed to do, while they brainstormed how it would take place.  Then, they put everything into action.  If I hadn’t provided the students with an opportunity to own the process today in class or described what the presentations needed to include, the outcome would certainly not have been as wonderful as it was.  Creating high standards in the classroom takes much effort and hard work, but is totally worth it in the end.  My students leave the sixth grade feeling confident and able through hard work, perseverance, and the use of a growth mindset.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Should Students Be Allowed to Redo Work?

The educational guru himself Rick Wormeli preaches about the vital importance of allowing students to redo work that doesn’t demonstrate their mastery of a learning objective or competency, as a way to help them genuinely learn and develop as people, thinkers, and students.  While I agree with his take on grading, assessment, and the redo process, I often hear colleagues of mine argue this counterpoint to the redo process, “But there are no redos in the real world, and so why should I allow students to redo work in my classroom?”  Although great teachers know that comments like the aforementioned one that we often hear from fellow teachers comes from a place of fear and ignorance, I do like to offer a rebuttal to their ridiculous counterpoint.  “Do pilots only have one hour of training time before they receive their license?  Do student drivers only need one hour of practice before taking the driving portion of the exam?  Do surgeons only practice on one cadaver before they operate on a live patient?”  Huh, take that.  Well, perhaps I don’t need to be quite so smug and arrogant, but I am frequently frustrated when former students, I had in class that are now in seventh, eighth, or ninth grade, come to me with stories about how their grades are suffering and they are not allowed to redo their work to showcase their true potential as students.  Not every student processes information at the same speed or in the same manner as everyone else, and not every student is having a perfect day, everyday.  A student may be dealing with stress from a family situation, which is why he was unable to concentrate in class to craft an essay that showcased his ability to meet the graded objectives.  Should he be penalized for something that is out of his control?  Why can’t he redo his work?  Shouldn’t the grade be a reflection of his ability and not about having a good day or processing speed?

Redos are clearly a part of the real-world, and so why don’t all teachers allow them in the classroom?  It’s a shame that we as educators are still arguing over this issue that is not even an issue.  Grades should always ONLY highlight whether a student possesses or can utilize a learning skill or not.  Notice how there is nothing in that previous statement about when, where, or how, because they don’t matter.  If a student can orally explain a topic or orally showcase his ability to meet an objective, does it matter that he wasn’t able to do it on a written exam?  No.  If a student can demonstrate mastery of an objective or competency, time, place, and medium matter not.

This morning, my co-teacher and I graded some work the boys completed pertaining to a giant interdisciplinary project on biomes.  While many of the boys did quite well, showcasing their understanding of the content while also demonstrating their ability to meet the graded objectives, a few of the students struggled with a couple of the objectives.  In the comment section on our grading portal, we provided those students with specific feedback on their performance regarding the particular objective and a note to redo their work.  While we don’t mandate that they redo every assignment that doesn’t meet or exceed the learning objectives, they always have the option to redo any assignment prior to a break or the close of a unit.  As we don’t focus on grades in the sixth grade but instead help the students see this year as a journey towards gaining foundational skills and knowledge, we don’t want them to redo work because of a grade.  We are very clear with the students on this and even in the comments, we focus on the skill itself that is being assessed and not any grade.  This helps the students see the work for what it truly is and not just a letter grade.  Many of the boys sought us out today to let us know that they are planning to redo work that didn’t meet the graded objectives.  One student even passed in a revised assignment this afternoon.  The boys see this redo process as a way to prepare for life in the real world.  Sometimes you need to persevere through your struggles, fail, and try again in order to succeed.  It’s always about the process and never the product.  Our redo process allows the students to learn this valuable skill while in the sixth grade.

What would happen if we didn’t allow our students to redo their work, we would have many students receiving failing grades, not learning because they are frustrated by their low grades, and giving up when they saw that hard work doesn’t seem to pay off.  They would give up, not try, and learn to dislike school.  We want our students to enjoy school and see it as adventure, much the like video games many of them play during their free time.  Our class is like Minecraft, in that the boys choose how they showcase their learning by designing projects and methods to do so.  When at first they don’t succeed, they try building something else, digging somewhere else, or blowing up their world and starting over.  We allow them to redo their work until they are able to master the competencies or objectives being assessed so that they learn that hard work pays off.

How to Make the Most Difficult Students Not Seem so Difficult

I recently set a goal for myself regarding my interactions with two challenging students in my class, as I felt that I wasn’t always making use of my patient parts while talking, responding, or reacting to choices these students made.  I felt like the wick in my candle for dealing with them was almost nonexistent.  I usually reacted to choices they made instead of responding to or engaging them in a discussion.  My goal is to be more empathetic and compassionate when interacting with these two students.  I want to show them that I truly care about them.  While this time of year between Thanksgiving Break and the upcoming holiday break can be quite stressful for students and teachers, I felt it prudent to focus my energy on being more patient and caring regarding these two students.  I don’t want the anxiety of this short time period to get the best of me and cause me to act in an unkind or impatient manner towards these two students.  So, I set my goal and began working on meeting it.

After several days of being mindful and thoughtful in how I interact with these students, I feel as though I’m off to a fine start in working towards this goal.

  • I keep the goal at the forefront of my mind when I’m in the classroom or around these two students.
  • I started noticing all of the little, good things these two boys are doing.
    • One of the students helped his roommate carry his skis to and from the ski hill on our campus during our Marble Party (when the students fill the Marble Jar in our classroom from working together as a family, they earn a special party that they decide upon together as a group) yesterday.  He wasn’t asked to do this.  He saw that his roommate was struggling and so went to assist him on his own accord.  I praised him for this choice and wrote him a Good Conduct Slip (when students make good or bad choices, we document them in an internal computer system that all faculty members have access to).  This seemed to make him feel good about himself and the choices he was making.  It led to him continuing to make more great choices all day.
    • As for the other student, I observed how he and his partner, who have struggled to get along all year, were working together productively during today’s work period for the Globe to Flat Map Project in my Humanities class.  I praised both him and his partner for their great work and coexistence.  This seemed to help the student continue to work effectively with his partner for the remainder of the period.
  • I take a sincere interest in what they have to say and actively listen when they talk to me about anything and everything.  I ask them questions about their lives to learn more about them as a way to develop more empathy when interacting with them.
    • One of the students recently became a big brother when his mother had another child a few weeks ago.  I make sure to ask him how his little brother is doing on an almost daily basis.  I want this student to see that he is cared for instead of being constantly talked to for making poor choices.
    • The other student loves playing hockey and so I make sure to ask him how his team did following game days.  I engage him in a conversation about the game and his performance.
  • When I’ve needed to address these two students regarding poor choices made in the past few days, I’ve listened actively when they talked and didn’t respond or react.  I listened and asked probing questions.  I empathized with them instead of scolding them for making inappropriate choices.  I want them to see that I care about them and want to hear what they have to say even when they’ve made bad choices.

So far, all of this hard work on my part has paid off.  I’ve had less issues with these two students in class, and when issues did arise, they were easily managed as the boys trust and respect me now.  They are beginning to see that I’m on their team and not against them.  It feels good to know that my choices are having a positive impact on them.  I just needed to change my thinking and mindset a bit.  While we should be doing these things for all of our students, it can be challenging at times when interacting with the same difficult students over and over again.  Sometimes, we just need to take a deep breath, be patient, and listen when feeling challenged by our difficult students.  This allows us to be mindful in the classroom while also making difficult situations and students seem not so difficult.

Allowing Students to Address Social Issues on their Own

Several years ago, I watched a news segment on an evening program about how schools and teachers in Japan help teach their students how to appropriately interact with their peers and navigate social issues that arise.  These teachers featured in the video didn’t just jump right in, proactively, to solve problems for their students.  Instead, they allowed the students to solve their own problems.  Yes, they observed from afar to make sure that no one was getting seriously injured, either mentally or physically, but they provided the students the time and space to figure things out on their own.  In this day and age of helicopter parenting and extreme allergies to everything, it seems as though caregivers and teachers are very quick to react to situations in order to prevent anything that could be remotely construed as “bad” from happening.  While this seems like a good idea to many people as it prevents dangerous or harmful things from happening, it’s actually very dangerous for and harmful to our children.  How do they learn to solve social problems that arise if they are never provided opportunities to practice solving them on their own?  If parents and teachers are always intervening in situations that occur between students, how will students learn what to do in the heat of the moment?  Sure, we can coach them on how to address those situations in the future, but how do we know if they will be able to apply the strategies we’ve provided them with when they are responding from their amygdala?  We need to allow our students to try solving their own problems, and see what happens.  If things get physical or someone is getting hurt in any way, we must definitely jump in and assist, but other than that, we watch.  Then, after the fact, we address the situation with the students involved and provide coaching or positive feedback as needed.  Preparing our students for life in the real-world, means helping them to solve their own problems.  We are not always going to be around our children or students to tell them what to do and how to do it.  They need to figure these things out for themselves.  Teachers and caregivers need to give up control to allow their students and children to grow and thrive in meaningful ways.

Today, at the start of my Humanities class, two students, who happened to be table partners, we arguing over a pencil.

“You took my pencil,” Student A said.

“No, I didn’t,” Student B said.

“Yes you did.  I need it to write in the homework,” Student A said.

“All you have to do is ask, and I will let you use it,” Student B responded.

“I don’t need to ask to use it because it’s my pencil and you took it,” Student A replied as he grabbed the pencil from the hands of Student B.

I watched, closeby, as this situation unfolded.  I didn’t jump in and help.  I simply observed as the students tried to solve the problem themselves.  After Student A snatched the pencil from the hands of Student B, I waited to see if there would be any retaliation from Student B.  Other than a quiet response from Student B about the pencil being his, there was nothing.  As there appeared to be no real conclusion to this situation, I was worried that it would boil over into the work period.  Luckily, the students are partners for the Globe to Flat Map Project, and had plenty of time together to rectify the situation, if needed.  I suggested to one of the students in that group that I would be observing their coexistence and communication during today’s work period because I was a bit concerned by the pencil situation and what might have caused confusion.  The student acknowledged what I said and got right to work with his partner.  I made sure to check-in with the group on numerous occasions throughout the class period and observed them from afar to ensure their safety.  After a quiet start, they worked together as though there was never a problem between them.  They were productive, compassionate, and used kind communication while working on the project in class.  I was a bit surprised by what happened today in class, as these two students have struggled to effectively coexist throughout the academic year.  I thought for sure that they were going to continue arguing while they worked on creating their flat map.  Boy did they prove me wrong.  They worked together better today, following the pencil issue, than they had for this entire project.  I was amazed.

So, what was it that allowed this to outcome?  How were these two students who had a disagreement directly prior to the work period able to work together so well?  How were they coexisting so effectively?  Why weren’t they still angry with one another?  What happened?  Was today’s result due to the fact that I allowed them to solve the social issue that arose between them on their own?  Did that make a difference?  I allowed the situation to completely unfold, which meant that the situation had almost ended when they began working with each other again.  Were they able to work together effectively because I had allowed the issue to be resolved first?  Did that have an impact on today’s result?  Was it the weather or something else so random that I’d never really know what happened in the classroom today?  While I am far from an expert on any subject, I feel as though I can confidently say that the students were able to be productive during today’s work period because they had the chance to solve the social issue that arose between them on their own.  I allowed them to own their actions and the result.  I didn’t step in or debrief the situation at all as I wanted to see what would happen later in the period.  I allowed life to happen naturally.  I didn’t try to control or stop anything.  Emotions were high and I let them diffuse on their own.  While this approach may not work in every setting, situation, or with every student, it was effective in the classroom today.  Perhaps those schools featured in that news clip I watched many years ago were onto something.  If we empower our students to solve their own problems, and offer coaching or help only when required or needed, then it’s possible that we will be properly preparing them to live meaningful lives in a global society.

Greatness in the Sixth Grade Classroom

I wear a teaching cape to feel like a superhero in the classroom; but really, all I need are my students to feel like a superhero.  They are my metaphorical cape.  They help make the dark days of winter seem like bright summer days in the classroom.  They take the boring and everyday and find a way to make it fun.  Who knew how much fun mixing cornstarch and water together could be for sixth graders?  They loved it.  My students teach me more on a regular basis than I could ever hope to teach them.  They’re the real teachers in the classroom.  I’m just the superhero on the sidelines.

Today’s Humanities class provided yet another opportunity for my students to showcase their greatness as they worked on the Globe to Flat Map Project.  While this task is proving quite difficult for the students, they are utilizing a growth mindset to persevere and find new and creative solutions to the problems encountered.  It’s quite amazing.  One group discovered that writing over permanent marker with a dry erase marker on a plastic beach, erases the permanent marker.  Who knew?  Another group found that hand sanitizer somewhat removes permanent marker from a plastic beach ball.  Not only can Purell clean our hands, it can also take permanent marker off of plastic.  I had no idea.  My grandmother was so right when she used to say, “You learn something new every day.”  Boy do I ever.  So, as the students worked in the classroom today, two very amazing things happened.

  • Recently, I’ve noticed that one of my ELLs from a European country raises his hand with two fingers extended.  What is that all about?  Is that a cultural norm he learned back home?  Is he trying to be different?  What’s going on?  So, today, when he raised his hand to ask a question while his group worked on the project, I asked him, “Why do you raise your hand in the manner in which you do?”  I was a bit surprised by the answer, “In my country we do this because if we don’t, it looks too much like the Nazi salute, which is very bad.”  Wow, I had no idea.  So it is a cultural thing.  He does it because that’s how he was trained in his country to not accidentally look like he is giving the Nazi salute.  I find it interesting yet important that schools around Europe help their students understand the gravity of WWII and the Nazi party.  Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party had such a horrific impact on the European people, and the world, that modern Europeans raise their children in such a way to honor the victims of the war and ensure that no recognition is given to the Nazi party.  I would not have learned that if I hadn’t have asked this particular student the question that I asked him.  As he tends to try to bring attention to himself on an almost daily basis, I did wonder if it was a new attention getting behavior.  I sure was wrong, and in the process of being wrong, I learned something.  My students make the best teachers.
  • As this Globe to Flat Map Project is one filled with great difficulty, many of the students struggled today in class.  They were challenged by hand-drawing a map of the world onto a plastic beach ball.  They struggled to create an accurate and properly proportioned globe of Earth.  The students found it difficult to place the lines of latitude and longitude in the proper places.  They were perplexed by how to make sure they were effectively drawing an accurate map of the world on their beach ball.  Much problem solving and troubleshooting took place in the sixth grade classroom today.  The boys worked with their partner to find new and creative ways to solve their problems while other groups had to fix mistakes they had made on their globes.  It was quite awesome to see effective coexistence, communication, critical thinking, and problem solving take place.  For one group though, the challenge that faced them proved very troublesome.  Just when they thought they had it all figured out, they realized the error in their judgement.  They realized that they should have cut their globe at an arch instead of straight along the lines of latitude and longitude.  Wanting to showcase their true potential as students, they asked if they could start the entire project over so that they could apply this new solution they had devised.  Now, realize that they have spent about four hours of class time working on creating their globe and making their map since we started this project.  The final map is due by the end of class on Friday and we have only one period of class time remaining.  If they did redo it, they would have to complete the task almost entirely outside of class during their free time.  Knowing these two students, they will put forth the time needed as they want to do well and challenge themselves accordingly.  After being told all about the limited time that they will have, they still chose to redo the task so that they could utilize the new solution they had devised.  I’m proud of them for using a growth mindset and persevering through their problems.  I’m impressed that they are willing to use their free time to redo a challenging assignment.  Everything that my co-teacher and I have been trying to instill within them all year about hard work, perseverance, and problem solving came to light today as this one group showcased all three of these crucial life skills in making the choice they did.  They didn’t have to redo the assignment as they were meeting the objectives covered, but they chose to because they wanted to test out their hypothesis.  Amazing!

Yet again, my students never cease to amaze and teach me on a daily basis.  Greatness, effort, curiosity, discovery, and failure were alive and well in the sixth grade classroom today.  Sometimes I feel like I should make capes for my students to wear in the classroom, as they are the real superheroes.

Helping the Families of our Students Feel like a Part of our Classroom Family

Creating a caring and compassionate atmosphere in the classroom, in which students support and look after one another, is the cornerstone of the sixth grade program that my co-teachers and I have created over the years.  Our motto is: “We’re a family, and families take care of each other.”  We instill this way of living within the boys on day one and tie it into almost every discussion we have with the class throughout the year.  We spend the first two months of the school year helping the students learn how to transform this motto into an actionable plan.  At this point in the year, most of the students are able to live our class mantra and make it a part of their daily routine.  They take care of their fellow sixth grade brothers in and out of the classroom.  It’s an amazing thing to see.  Our class of 11 individuals have turned into a family of students working together towards a common goal.

While we pride ourselves on creating this close-knit family of learners in the classroom, we want to be sure that the parents and families of our students feel a part of this community as well.  We want them to feel like extended sixth grade family members.  We want the families of our students to know what’s happening in the classroom on a daily basis.  This is especially vital for our international students, as their families are thousands of miles away in most cases.  We want them to feel as if they are in the classroom with their student, despite being far away.  We provide our families with fodder for which they can use to create meaningful conversations and discussions with their sons.  We don’t want the parents and guardians of our students to feel disconnected from life in the sixth grade.  We want them to feel a part of something greater than just the school to which they send their son.

We create this strong community through a four-pronged approach, which starts and ends with open and honest communication.

  • Prior to the start of the academic year, we contact all of the families over the summer via email.  We provide them with an introductory letter, explaining our sixth grade program in detail.  We also share numerous videos with our students and families, introducing ourselves as their teachers and guides.  We explain a few of the projects and activities we will be doing throughout the year to help foster a sense of excitement within the students and their families.  We want the boys psyched for the academic year to begin.  This constant barrage of communication over the summer helps bridge the gap between the school and the families of our new students as they go into September knowing exactly what they and their son can expect from the sixth grade program at Cardigan.
  • We send out daily updates via the Remind app to our families regarding life in the sixth grade.  We tell them what we’re doing in each of our classes and update them on changes to our schedule, all with the intention of helping keep them connected to what we are doing in the sixth grade.  This constant contact helps facilitate conversations between the families and their sons.  It also provides us, the teachers, with yet another support system for each of our students.
  • We maintain a class website via Shutterfly that we keep updated with pictures of special events and activities, in and out of the classroom, and weekly newsletters.  This is a more broad way for the families to know what’s happening in the sixth grade classroom.  Who doesn’t love seeing a picture of their child engaged and having fun in school?  This communication really allows the parents to feel as if they are in the classroom with us.
  • As my co-teacher and I are also the advisors for the entire sixth grade class, we provide the families with updates on how the students are doing in the classroom, in sports, and in the dormitory setting.  We field all of the questions thrown our way swiftly and in a meaningful, yet honest manner.  We want the families to have an accurate portrait of their son as they see how they nicely fit into our sixth grade family.  This more intimate communication shows that we truly know and care for the students in our classroom, showing the families how important their children are to us.  This final piece of the puzzle, that weaves the families of our students into our sixth grade community, may be the most important piece of all.  The families feel as if they have an advocate on their side and not just teachers trying to tell them what their son is doing in the classroom.

This method of bringing the families of our students into the fold that is our sixth grade program, pays dividends.  The line of communication is wide open before the school year even begins so that the families feel as if they can trust and confide in us.  If concerns or issues need to be raised before or during the academic year, the parents and guardians feel comfortable sharing this information with us.  It’s not an us vs. them mentality in the sixth grade, and we make sure that the families feel as though it isn’t.  We want them to feel invested so that we are able to best help support and challenge their sons.  Teaching is so much more than just what happens in the classroom.  It’s also about connecting the dots to everything else outside of the classroom, as we know that children can’t be raised and prepared by just one person or small group of people.  It takes a kind and caring community to help prepare students to live meaningful lives in a global society.

Is Modelling the Right Approach When Teaching a New Skill in the Classroom?

In my 17 years of teaching, I’ve often wrestled with the concept of modelling.  While I want my students to understand how to do what is being asked of them, does modelling steal the thinking from them?  If I show my students how to do something through modelling the skill, will they get stuck in their thinking?  Will they be unable to find other ways to solve the problem?  I worry that when I model a new skill or activity, my students will simply regurgitate what I showcased in the work they complete and turn in, and where’s the learning in that?  But, and of course there’s always a but, what if I don’t model or properly explain a new skill or activity?  Will the students be too perplexed or lost to effectively showcase their learning?  If I don’t show them what to do and how to do it, will they be able do it?  Is there a balance in modelling new skills and activities for students in the classroom so that they know what to do but are still able to demonstrate their own, original thoughts and learning?

I’m not sure if I have the exact answer because, as all teachers know, every student is different.  What works for one student may not work for another.  The method that I’ve had luck with recently is the I do, We do, You do approach to modelling a new skill in the classroom.  I start by engaging the students in a discussion regarding the purpose of the new skill they will be learning.  I want them to always understand the why of everything we do in the classroom.  Relevance is a huge part of ownership in the class for our students, according to research on learning and the brain.  I then briefly model the new skill with help from the students, combining the I do and We do steps so that they are actively engaged in the modelling and not passive watchers.  I then provide the students with an opportunity to practice the new skill in the You do step.  During this part of the lesson or activity, I observe the students and provide feedback to each of them on their progress and ability to utilize the new skill.  I then close the lesson by reviewing the big ideas and concepts covered by this new skill learned.  This method seems to be the most effective for me in the classroom.  While I still do need to differentiate my instruction a bit during the You do phase for a few of my students, it does work for the majority of my students.  The You do step is structured in such a way that I’m able to provide extra assistance and help to those students who need it.

Yesterday in my study skills class, I introduced the two-column note taking system to the boys.  I began the lesson with a few discussion questions.  What are two-column notes?  What purpose do they serve?  I wanted to be sure the students understood why they were learning this particular method of taking notes.  I explained to them how this is the most common form of notetaking used in the other grades at our school.  This is a key skill they will need to have in their academic toolbelt in order to be successful students next year and beyond.  They all seemed to understand my explanation.  I then walked the students through the skill itself.  I had them set up their lined sheet of paper with the proper heading as I had done on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom.  I asked a student volunteer to tell me the first step in organizing the paper for two-column notes, as I wanted to be sure that my students were actively engaged in the learning process.  After drawing the line on the board as they drew the line on their paper, I called on various students to determine the importance of information in a passage on the Boreal Forest before paraphrasing it for our notes.  As the students paraphrased the information, I wrote it onto the board and instructed the students to copy it onto their notes.  My co-teacher wondered around the classroom, helping those students who needed more guidance and support.  I then asked other students to tell me if the information paraphrased was effectively paraphrased to be sure that the students understood this skill discussed earlier in the week.  After going through three sentences together as a class, I had the students complete the remainder of the passage on their own.  As the boys worked, my co-teacher and I helped those students who needed extra scaffolding and provided feedback to those students who were completing it effectively on their own.  By the end of the period, it was clear that every student in the class had a pretty firm grasp of how to effectively complete two-column notes using expository research.

Did yesterday’s lesson go so well because there were two teachers in the classroom to help monitor the progress of the students?  Perhaps.  I do think that effective co-teaching makes a huge difference in how our students are able to practice new skills.  If one of us is modelling at the front of the classroom, the other is able to observe the students, and help those struggling students as needed, not slowing down the overall pace of the lesson.  With just one teacher in the classroom, lessons go much slower to allow for help, questions, and differentiation.  This prevents the high functioning students from being effectively challenged.  Co-teaching is a great model for teaching a diverse population of students.  I also feel as though the method of modelling we utilize in the sixth grade classroom helps to support and challenge all of our students.  Those boys who learn quickly are able to see the skill modelled a few times and then try it out on their own, while those students who need more help, are able to receive it during the practice stage of the process.  Having the students help me complete the I do step of the process also allows for more engagement in the classroom.  By cold-calling on the students throughout the modelling process, I can ensure that they actively engaged in the lesson and learning the material.  Every part of this modelling process helps to make sure that I’m not stealing the thinking or creativity from the students while also making sure that they understand what is being asked of them.  So, to answer the question posed in my title, Yes, I do feel as though effective modelling is the right approach to the instruction of a new skill.  The learning process needs to be active and more of a two-way dialogue, not simply direct-instruction from the teacher.  When done well, modelling helps engage, challenge, and support students in the learning process.

Professional Goals Reflection: Am I Working Towards Meeting my Goals?

Introduction

As I realize how valuable it is for my students to reflect on their learning throughout the day, period, and school year, I want to be sure that I am practicing and modelling reflective behavior in and out of the classroom as well.  In closing today’s Humanities class by having the boys share what allowed them to meet or not meet the goal they set for themselves during today’s work period on the Globe to Flat Map Project, I was inspired to do a little reflecting myself in today’s blog post.  Am I working towards my goals, and if so, how’s it going?

My Goals

Back in early October, which seems like years ago now at this point in the year, I set two professional goals for the academic year.

Goal 1: Gather data on how best to introduce and explain projects and activities to students.  Do rubrics work best?  What kind of rubric will promote creative problem solving?

  • After spending the first few months of the academic year honing in on this goal, I feel confident in the fact that I have indeed gathered much research on the use of rubrics and project handouts.  I’ve varied my approach to introducing and explaining projects to the students so that I could determine if one method is more effective than another.  I’ve spoken to several different faculty members on this topic as well.  What works for them in the classroom?  I’ve come to a few conclusions at this point in the year:
    • Students need some sort of rubric or assignment explanation for any project or activity.  I need to be sure that I explain the project for the students so that they know what is expected of them.
    • The detail I put into the rubric doesn’t seem to make a difference in terms of promoting students to think creatively or ask questions to solve problems.
    • The process the students utilize to complete the task seems to vary by student.  Character and work ethic seem to be the driving factors.  Students who have the academic drive and wherewithal to be successful, will do well no matter what.  A rubric or what it includes will neither hinder nor help them meet the graded objectives.  Students who struggle with English proficiency will face challenges regardless of the language used, but the more detailed the rubric, the more confident they seem to feel while working.  Students who finish work just to get it done, will complete the required academic tasks just well enough to meet the objectives.  No matter how detailed the rubric is or not will make no difference in the outcome for students who live by the status quo.
    • The students themselves seem to make all the difference in the outcome of projects and tasks.  Regardless of how assignments are explained to students, there will always be those students who do well and those who don’t.  The specificity of a rubric or project handout seems to matter very little.
  • I now need to focus on how to inspire all of my students, including those few boys who seem happy completing barely satisfactory work when they are capable of exceeding the objectives covered, to complete work that exceeds my expectations.  I want to figure out how best to challenge each and every one of my students.  How can I help my high functioning students reach for the next level?  How do I ensure that my struggling ELLs are learning the foundational skills needed to be fully prepared for the seventh grade?  How can help my mid-level guys aspire for more?  This is where I need to head for the next few months regarding this goal.  It’s not about the effectiveness of rubrics, it’s about all of the other stuff I’m doing behind the scenes.  Effective teaching will help students to think critically and creatively while solving problems in new and unique ways.

Goal 2: Incorporate mindfulness and learning about the brain, as it pertains to utilizing a growth mindset, into every aspect of the sixth grade program.  How can I best help students learn how to change their thinking to accommodate how they learn best?

  • As I mentioned in an earlier blog post this week, my students seem to have risen to the next level of academic consciousness as they are applying a lot of the skills and strategies learned during the fall term.  They are beginning to think critically.  They are using a growth mindset and realizing that they can accomplish any goal set or task undertaken with great effort, perseverance, and determination.  They are working on being mindful and present in the moment.  They are better able to solve social issues and problems encountered in the classroom on their own now than they were back in September and October.  I feel as though I have met this goal.  The challenge for me now will be to make sure that I hold the students accountable for being able to use a mindful and growth mindset during the remainder of the year.

What’s Next?

As I have basically met the two goals I set for myself in early October, I need something else to keep me motivated, moving forward.  Should I focus on better handling behavioral issues encountered in the classroom?  Should I work on being more mindful and present in the moment to be sure that I am best challenging and supporting my students?  Should I try to spend more time digging into how I could implement coding into my Humanities class?  Where should I go from here?

What if I try to focus on one goal a month, and then move onto the next one?  Might that be a good framework for my goals for the remainder of the 2017-2018 academic year?  I like that, short and simple.

So, for the next two weeks, I will focus on finding more appropriate and meaningful ways to address and handle challenging students.  I will use more patience when talking with students who struggle to meet the expectations of our sixth grade program.  I will attempt to try the Plan B approach suggested in the book Lost at School by Ross Greene.  I will try to empathize with these students so that they feel heard, cared for, and respected.  I find myself falling into the trap of disregarding their concerns and issues.  I view one of my students as a compulsive tattletale and another as an apathetic student who just wants to play sports.  I need to change my thinking about the difficult students in my class.  How can I best help support them while also challenging them to grow and develop as people?  This is my new goal for the remainder of December.  Hopefully, the festive holiday spirit will fill me with the energy and compassion I need to work towards meeting this goal.

The Power in Teaching Students to Understand Computer Coding

I love teaching sixth grade, and it’s one of the reasons why I wake up so happy each and every morning.  I love challenging students to think critically.  I love watching my students struggle through problems using perseverance and a growth mindset.  I love guiding students to the metaphorical watering hole of learning and watching them figure out what to do once there.  I love teaching Humanities and our study skills classes.  I love helping students learn how they learn best.  I love helping students broaden their perspective.  I love everything about my role in the sixth grade this year, well, almost everything that is.

Last May when the school needed to hire a new co-teacher to work with me in the sixth grade, I was offered a choice: Teach STEM or teach Humanities?  As I majored in English in college, I feel most qualified to teach the Humanities class; however, I developed the STEM class three years ago and have been the only teacher of the course since its inception.  It’s kind of my thing, but I was never formally trained in teaching math or science and so I always felt like I had to do much learning on my own outside of class.  My understanding of the STEM content was very limited.  While I loved teaching STEM class, I always felt a little in over my head.  So, I chose to stick with Humanities.  While I love teaching my Humanities class, I do miss the hands-on and engaging projects I had the students do last year in STEM class.  Don’t get me wrong, my new co-teacher is doing a fabulous job teaching the STEM course this year, but I do miss all of the fun I had in STEM class the past three years.  It’s very easy to get students excited about a topic when they are able to play with Little Bits to create a working rover.  It’s a lot harder to get students excited about the topic of government in Humanities class, no matter what type of project or activity is used to convey the information.  I miss working with the students in STEM class.

Today reminded me, yet again, of just how much I miss teaching STEM class.  In our study skills class today, I pushed the PAUSE button on our regularly scheduled unit on Academic Integrity so that I could have the students participate in the global Hour of Code event taking place this week.  After showing the students a short video created by the wonderful folks at Code.org, I had the boys choose an activity on the Hour of Code website to complete for the remainder of class, which ended up being about 30 minutes.  The boys had so much fun learning how to create the fun and engaging video games they often play including Minecraft, Flappy Bird, and other such games.  The students persevered through challenges, asked peers for help when needed, used a growth mindset to think critically about their problems in new and unique ways, and had a ton of fun learning how computer coding works.  They learned how if and then statements work as well as how difficult it is to create just one tiny portion of a very complex video game.  They realized how important every space, digit, or letter truly is when coding.  At the end of the period, the boys looked as though they had lost their puppy dog when I had them shut their laptops to close the class.  They didn’t want to stop programming games and having fun.  They didn’t want to stop learning.  A few students remained in the classroom during their free period 90 minutes later to keep working on the coding projects they had started earlier in the day.  The boys had so much fun engaging in an activity that hopefully inspired them to learn more and perhaps made a few of the boys realize where their passion lies.

In STEM class last year, I had the students use the online program Code Combat on a weekly basis to learn computer coding.  The boys had so much fun learning how to make computer games.  I really missed that, until today.  Today gave me a taste of what I was missing, and made me realize that I don’t have to miss it.  Coding isn’t just a STEM topic.  Coding applies to every subject.  Computer coding can be used to help students learn how to be brief and succinct writers in English class.  Coding can be used to help students work through challenging math problems in the form of games.  Coding can be used to help students understand complex ideas such as government.  Coding doesn’t have to be something that is only taught in tech or STEM classes.  Coding could and should be taught or covered in every class.  I could easily use coding programs in Humanities class or our study skills course.  I don’t have to pine away for what once was when I can bring the magic into the classes I am currently teaching.  I can use coding to inject a little more engagement into the classes I do teach.  Coding is the language of the future, and so I should capitalize on this in every way possible.