Using Group Projects to Highlight Student Growth

In school, I always questioned the purpose of group projects.  Where is the learning?  What is the teacher’s role?  Project time felt like free time for me as a student.  I get to just sit and chat with my friends and pretend to work, I used to think.  This mindset lasted for a brief moment, until I realized that the teachers were actually observing and assessing us during these projects.  In my Humanities class, the teacher would frequently check in on my group to assess our work progress and coexistence.  He wanted to make sure that everyone was pulling their weight and staying on task.  He also provided us with feedback on our work so that we could revise it in order to exceed the graded objectives.  I also noticed that my Biology teacher would take the time during group projects to highlight the great things that we, the students, were doing during the work periods.  It felt good to know that my hard work was getting noticed.  I also liked being held accountable by my teachers.  It didn’t take long for me to see the value in group projects.  They weren’t time wasters, but instead were opportunities for growth and development in the classroom.

As the neuroscience of teaching tells us, students learn by doing.  So, as an experienced educator, I make sure to engage my students in the learning process at every turn.  Sometimes this happens through class discussions, in-class activities, or group projects.  As I learned when I was a student, group projects can be great tools for learning when implemented effectively.  I try to make use of group projects at least once during every unit in my classes.  I find that great projects allow students to be actively engaged in the learning process by discussing a problem, brainstorming solutions, designing and creating something, and then sharing their results with others.  Critical thinking, creativity, coexistence, self-awareness, ownership, and growth mindset are all crucial skills that are practiced and applied during the completion of group projects.

Today in my study skills class, the students worked on a group project that we began last week.  The students, working in groups of 5-6, have to design and make an interesting and aesthetically pleasing window display that teaches viewers about something related to the sixth grade curriculum.  This project allows the students to take ownership over part of the classroom while also highlighting their own work.  The students completed their blueprint, created a plan for how they would spend each work period until the due date, and assigned roles to each group member earlier this week.  Today, the students worked on bringing their designs to life.  They were drawing periodic tables, discussing how to make their displays fun and nice to look at, working together to create posters, asking each other for help and suggestions for improvement, working through problems faced, and overcoming social challenges.  It was amazing to watch them work today in the classroom.  Even when they had disagreements or issues with one another, they solved them on their own without my involvement.   I was so impressed.

What stuck out for me most today, was noting the progress and growth the students have made since our first group project of the year, which looked more like a giant automobile pileup than a productive use of time.  The students were solving their own problems, staying focused on the task at hand, interacting with each other compassionately and with care, and challenging themselves to complete work that exceeded the graded objectives.  They weren’t simply trying to just complete the task today, they were holding the bar high for themselves.  Both groups redid work on a few occasions as they were not proud of it.  While it looked fine to me at first glance, they simply did not think it displayed their best effort and was not as accurate as it could be.  Bravo to them for holding themselves accountable.  The ownership and self-awareness my class has this year is phenomenal.  I haven’t worked with a group of this caliber in many years.

I also loved listening to them work…

“Why are we changing from the blueprint?” one student asked his group.

“The plan was just a start.  We then realized that we could make it better and are doing that now.  Plans can be changed,” a student responded.

“Why don’t you guys work on the second window while we finish the first one,” a student said to members of his group.

“Hey, how does this look?  Is it big enough?  Should I add anything to it?” a student asked his group.

“Hey guys, I have this cool idea for a picture.  Let me tell you about it and you can tell me what you think,” a student said to his group.

“Do you need help with that?” a student asked a member of his group.

WOW is really the only response to today’s work period.  The boys worked so well.  I could not have been more impressed.  I closed class today by highlighting the awesomeness that I observed as they worked.  I mentioned all of the great habits of learning I saw being applied, superb progress I noted, and fine teamwork at play.  Group projects like this one allow my students to practice vital learning and life skills, grow as thinkers, students, problem solvers, and people, and be supported and challenged by their teachers and peers.  Group projects are fantastic vehicles for helping students engage in the curriculum and learn to collaborate as a team.  Life is about knowing how to work with and interact with others.  Group projects provide students with opportunities to practice these skills while having fun and learning lots.

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Using Current Events to Teach History

While many people are barely able to recall what they had for lunch yesterday, big memories or experiences stick with us, as they leave emotional scars or tags in our brains.  I remember watching the launch of the spaceship Challenger back in elementary school, filled with confusion and dismay as the shuttle burst into flames on live television.  Although I knew that what had happened wasn’t at all good as my teacher sat at her desk in tears, I was too young to understand the gravity of the situation.  Despite not fully understanding what unfolded on the screen, my brain tagged the experience as powerful and emotional.  Thus, this memory has stuck with me for over twenty years.  Then, of course, everybody who was alive back in 2001, remembers exactly what they were doing and where they were when they found out about the terrorist attack on American soil that occurred on September 11 of that year.  I was teaching second grade at a Catholic school in Maine.  As I had no specials or recess that morning, I was in my classroom with my students from 8:00 a.m. until lunch time that day.  After bringing my students to the cafeteria for lunch, I made my way to the teacher’s room.  Everyone was in tears and very quiet, listening to a radio.  Without asking, I knew that something was terribly wrong.  I then learned what had happened earlier that morning.  These horrible experiences leave their mark on us, ensuring that we will never forget them.  Sadly, positive experiences don’t always hold this same power.  While I do remember celebrating my son’s sixth birthday, I don’t remember specifics of the day.  I just remember that it was fun.  It’s weird how negative emotions seem to hold our memories captive more frequently than positive ones.

History is a culmination of millions of these once current events and happenings, both good and bad.  As teachers, it is our job to prepare our students for meaningful lives in a global society.  In order to do this, we need to help our students understand how and why the world works the way in which it is does.  We do this through teaching our students about the history of civilizations around the globe.  Understanding why wars were fought and how leaders ruled their people helps us understand what led to the way the world is.  We can learn from history’s mistakes, no matter how horrific they may be.

As I am covering a unit on Africa in my Humanities class, when I’ve been perusing the news recently, I’ve made sure to keep my eyes peeled for current events having to do with the great continent of Africa.  Last week, I read a very sad story about the water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa.  They will be out of water by mid-April.  It’s a tragic story, but it’s history.  So, today, I used this current event as a vehicle for my mini-lesson regarding geographical problems facing Africa.  We discussed the issue as the students began to realize how important a role geography plays on locations.  Although I chose this depressing news story as a way to begin the mini-lesson in class today, it was merely an introduction to the heart of the lesson, which was all about solving problems.  We then watched a TED Talk given by William Kamkwamba from Malawi who created a windmill to help bring water and electricity to his rural village.  I told the boys to use this story as inspiration for how to think innovatively and creatively about solving problems facing other parts of Africa and the world.  These current event discussions were the springboard into a problem-solving activity I had the students begin in class today.  Working with a partner, they chose a problem regarding the geography of Africa and then brainstormed solutions to the problem.  Tomorrow in class, they will create a blueprint for their idea and then present it to the class later this week.  The boys were very engaged in our discussions and the activity.  They were excited to solve real problems facing our world.  What started out as a discussion on a negative current event transformed into a positive activity regarding solutions and creative problem solving.  By using a news story that invoked negative emotion at first, the boys may be able to better tag today’s entire lesson in a meaningful and memorable manner.

As we are living in history, I love to use current events to help my students understand what happened over time that led to these issues.  I try to put the present-day world into historical context for the students.  While I do try to focus on major happenings in the world, most of what we discuss tends to be stories that conjure up negative emotions.  While I don’t enjoy focusing on only the bad parts of history, as we know, negative memories and experience stick with people better than happy stuff.  So, perhaps my students will better remember the current events and history discuss throughout the year, as they are mostly stories that bring about negative feelings within them.

Transforming Daily Reading Quizzes into Meaningful Assessments

As a young, inexperienced English teacher, I was often confused as to my role in the classroom.  Am I the content enforcer or the guide from the side?  I struggled to understand how to be an effective English teacher back then.  While in the midst of reading class novels, I thought I needed to assess my students, daily, on their nightly reading assignments.  Aren’t I supposed to make sure that they are doing the reading outside of class, I often thought.  So, I crafted daily reading quizzes that included questions regarding specific parts of the assigned reading.  In fact, I made some of the questions tricky and difficult on purpose, to ensure that my students were indeed keeping up with the reading.  It’s my responsibility to hold my students accountable, I thought, to maintain control in the classroom.  This need for control caused me to do some crazy things.  Even though my students were completing the reading outside of class, they were unable to successfully complete the daily reading quizzes, as they couldn’t remember the minute details I questioned them on.  The grades my students received in my English class many eons ago were not reflective of their progress or ability, but instead highlighted their inability to pay attention to useless information in the books we read in class.  Many of my students became so frustrated and angered with these daily reading quizzes, that they just stopped reading the class novels altogether.  They saw no reason in keeping up with the reading when it didn’t help them do well on the daily reading checks.  This dischord in the classroom created an atmosphere of spite that prevented genuine learning and assessment from taking place.  Because I had created these challenging reading quizzes, my students had become disengaged in class.  They no longer cared about English or reading.  My need for control and accountability caused my students to become angry and apathetic.  I had changed from a teacher into a dictator.

After a few horrendous years in the classroom, I took a step back and finally realized the injustice that was happening.  I was an ineffective teacher.  After much reflection, learning, practice, and growth, I changed my evil ways.  I discovered that great teachers empower their students by engaging them in the content and curriculum.  Effective English teachers help students learn how to be great readers, thinkers, writers, and problem solvers by asking meaningful and relevant questions that create healthy discourse in the classroom.  My goal as a teacher is to ensure that my students master the foundational skills needed to be successful students and people.  Knowing the color of a character’s shirt is not going to help my students be prepared for seventh grade English.  Instead, I need to allow my students opportunities to practice utilizing the effective reading strategies that will enable them to become strong, thoughtful readers and thinkers.

And so, I no longer make use of daily reading quizzes to trick and confuse my students.  You’re probably wondering how I make sure my students are reading outside of class.  That’s easy.  I allow my students to choose books that interest them.  When students are reading novels and books that they enjoy reading, they will read outside of class because they want to and not because they have to.  I work to instill a love of reading within my students.  To do this, I make use of the Reader’s Workshop model of reading instruction.  Now, this doesn’t mean that my students and I don’t have a book or novel in common.  In fact, the weekly mini-lessons for Reader’s Workshop make use of class read-aloud novels.  I use the read-aloud novels as vehicles for teaching the reading strategies my students will need to become great readers.  Periodically throughout the year, I assess students on their use of the reading strategies covered to ensure that they are properly and effectively prepared for the seventh grade.  To do this, I have the students complete a reading assessment based on our current read-aloud novel.  These assessments include a wide variety of questions, allowing me to know if my students have mastered the reading strategies covered.  The questions are not tricky in any way.  In fact, my students can use any form of notes they’ve taken during our read-aloud discussions and I address any questions they have regarding the assessment itself before they complete it.  I want my students to feel confident and comfortable.  I don’t want them to be stressed in any way while completing these reading assessments, as I want my students to see these assessments as opportunities.  If they struggle to demonstrate their ability to use any of the reading strategies assessed, I work with them outside of class to help them master the reading skills needed to be successful readers in seventh grade and beyond.  These assessments are about creating an atmosphere of care in the classroom.  I want my students to know that I care about them and  want to be sure they are properly prepared for their future English classes.  My method of teaching has changed from dictator to caregiver.

Today in my Humanities class, the students completed a reading assessment on our current read-aloud novel A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park.  Not only does this novel directly tie into our unit on Africa, but it is also a fabulous book for covering important reading strategies the students will need to grow into successful readers.  Before having the students begin the assessment, I reviewed each of the questions with the class, allowing them to ask any clarifying questions.  Today’s assessment had the students answer three basic comprehension questions regarding the major plot events that we’ve covered in the novel thus far, draw a picture of a scene from the novel that they were able to visualize very well, and make a prediction based on what they think will happen next for our two characters Nya and Salve.  One student asked, “So the prediction question doesn’t have a right or wrong answer, right Mr. Holt?”  I then explained how he was correct and that it’s about the support you use in making your claim.  I love it when my students realize that assessments don’t have to be big and scary tests that often confuse or trick students.  Effective assessments empower students to strut their stuff and show what they know.  All of my students exquisitely demonstrated their ability to utilize the reading strategies practiced so far this year.  More than anything though, they felt safe and cared for during the assessment.  No one was ever overly stressed or anxious about it.  They took their time and showed me what they know about how to be great readers.  It was awesome!

Thankfully, for my students sake, I’ve grown and developed a lot as an educator in the last 15 years.  I know what it takes to engage students in the curriculum while challenging and supporting them to grow into effective global citizens.  While assessments are a vital part of the educational process, creating meaningful assessments that allow our students to showcase what they truly know is crucial.  Daily reading quizzes that cause frustration and confusion amongst students are ineffective tools in checking for understanding within our students.  Reading assessments that focus on the big ideas within a text or allow students to demonstrate their ability to utilize various reading strategies covered throughout the year are effective assessment tools.  English teachers need to find ways to transform convoluted reading quizzes into meaningful reading assessments to best support and help their students, because no one wants to make their students feel the way my students did when I first started teaching.

Take Risks and Try New Things; if You Fail, Fix Your Mistakes and Try Again

Recently, my school decided to partner with a local community outreach group to better help our students understand gender-based issues.  While we in the sixth grade loved what the group did with our students, I have heard many other teachers vent about how inappropriate and ineffective the special programming was.  Not everyone is going to like everything schools try, but I love the fact that we tried something.  Although it perhaps didn’t work for everybody, I’m hoping that we can learn from this experience and tweak it for next year.  Just because something fails when you try it the first time, doesn’t mean you should give up on it.  We need to learn from this experience so that we can make it better for next year’s students.

Risk taking and failure is how innovation and invention come about.  We can’t expect that every idea we have will succeed.  We are bound to fail, and that’s okay.  What matters is what we do when we fail.  If we use the failed experience to teach us how to not do something, then we will grow and develop.  This same rule applies in the classroom.  When our students take risks and try new things, we need to applaud their effort regardless of the outcome.  If they fail, we need to help them understand how to learn from the experience in order to grow and develop.

As a teacher, I need to practice what I preach.  Today in my Humanities class, I tried a new method of class discussion.  Every Saturday, we discuss current events in the world around us.  For the fall term, I guided the discussion by calling on students.  At the beginning of the winter term, I introduced the concept of Socratic Discussion and had the boys guide their own discussions based on a topic or question.  While I was not involved in the conversations, I observed the discussions and graded them on their ability to participate in a class discussion.  This week, I wanted to provide the students with a bit more choice as a way of engaging them in the topic of current events.  So, I had the students suggest five major topics or news stories that they wanted to discuss, and I listed them on the whiteboard.  I then had the boys self-select a group based on their interests.  While one group being led by a student went swimmingly, the other groups were disastrous.  The boys were mostly unfocused and distracted.  They were not even discussing the topic at hand.  They were loud and made it difficult for the effective group to hear what was being discussed.  At the close of the activity this morning, I shared this feedback with the students.  I also told them that we would be changing the method with which we discuss current events next week as they couldn’t handle the independence and responsibility that came with small group discussions.  While my initial reaction was to never utilize this method of discussion again, once I had time to reflect on the experience, I realize that I just need to make some slight alterations to the activity before making use of it again in the classroom.  I don’t need to throw it out and start over; I just need to fix what is broken.

Ideas for improvement:

  • Allow the students to offer suggestions for the discussion, but then select the best three topics on my own.  Less options might make the decision easier for the boys.  It would also allow me to eradicate ineffective ideas, which I should have done today.
  • Set ground rules for the discussion.
    • Students need to stay in one group for the entire time.
    • Students need to actively and appropriately add to the discussion.
    • The volume needs to be one that is not distracting to the other groups.
    • Students in the group will grade each other on their performance in the discussion at the close of the activity.  This will push the boys to make good choices and utilize the Habit of Learning of Ownership.
  • Have the student who suggested the idea be the facilitator for the discussion.  This will help bring form and function to the discussion.

So, although today’s new discussion method did not go as planned, I am going to use this experience as a learning opportunity.  I’m not going to stop trying new things in the classroom.  I’m going to continue taking risks to better support and challenge my students.  When lessons or activities fail, I’m going to determine what went wrong and fix it so that it can be recycled instead of just throwing it out altogether.  As teachers, we need to be constantly challenging ourselves to grow and develop.  Trying new things in the classroom, allows us to do just that.  We can’t be afraid of failure.  In fact, we need to embrace failure so that we learn as much, if not more, than our students.  I tell my students all of the time, “I’m not sure who the real teacher in this classroom is, you guys or me?”  Isn’t that what we want?  We want to be role models and students ourselves.  So, let’s go out and try new things.

Learning from my Mistakes in the Classroom

Have you ever had one of those days where you wake up and feel like you can do anything?  As if you could take on the world?  Like anything might be possible?  Like today might be the day you decide to run for president or change the world?  You wake up feeling terrific, top of your game, until life happens.  Then, sadly, as you quickly jump out of bed, you step on something you or someone else had left on the ground the night before, trip, fall, and whack your head on the edge of your night stand; and that is just the beginning of your terrible day in which nothing seems to go your way.  We’ve all had days like that.  They don’t feel good, but they are guideposts on our journey towards enlightenment.  They remind us to value the days where things do seem to be going well.  The challenging days helps us to see every other day as a miracle or gift.  We learn from those difficult days to treasure everything that life has to offer.  Although our bad days don’t always make us feel great in the moment, they are opportunities from which we can grow and develop as people.

While today was by no means a terrible day for me, my Humanities class did cause me to take a deep breath and wonder why it felt more like a train wreck and less like a beautiful car ride through the hills of Maine in the summer.  And that’s putting it lightly.  Well, maybe I’m being hard on myself.  It wasn’t a total disaster.  The students shared some wonderful insight during our discussions and some great learning did take place today in the classroom.  It’s just that I felt off.  In reflecting on the class, it felt like it wasn’t great.  It felt boring and void of fun and enjoyment.  I want my students to be engaged and excited in my classroom.  I want them to like what we’re learning about.  Today’s class did not leave me feeling like my students were interested in what we were doing.  One student had his head down on his desk as we watched a TED Talk on The Danger of a Single Story.  He was clearly not engaged in the class.  I don’t want my students to be bored when they are in my classroom.  I want them to see the relevance in what we’re learning.  I want them to get impassioned by what is being discussed so that they are empowered to go out and make the world a better place.  That wasn’t what happened in the sixth grade classroom today, from my perspective.  Here’s what I saw:

  • Bored students watching an entire TED Talk that lasted for about 18 minutes.
  • Disengaged students making noises, tapping objects and body parts, and clearly not listening to their peers as they shared their thoughts on the skills practiced during our tri-layered map of Africa activity.
  • An incomplete lesson that included several disconnected pieces and parts.
  • Too much sitting and not enough doing.

Now, the reality of what happened in the classroom today, was a bit different from this; however, I hold myself to high standards and know that I could have structured the lesson in a more engaging and meaningful way.  I want to learn from my mistakes so that I don’t repeat them.  Had I ever found the redo button in my classroom, I would have pushed today it so that the lesson would have gone like this…

I open lesson by asking the students critical thinking questions regarding the mapping activity we completed at the start of this week, as I want to be sure that they understand the purpose and relevance of everything we do in the classroom.  This discussion would allow the boys to see the “why” of the tri-layered map activity they began last week.  I call on three students, at random using the popsicle stick method of choosing students to call on, to answer each of the three questions.  This way, most of the students would be involved in the discussion in a relevant way, while the others would still able to stay engaged as the time frame would be shorter than if I called on every student who had something to say.  This would have prevented the disengagement I feel as though I saw during today’s discussion.  I then segway into the heart of the lesson by having the students do some reflective writing for about five to eight minutes.  The students write about a time when they felt they had used a single story to learn about a place or group of people.  The boys then have the opportunity to share their stories with their table partner.  This short writing and sharing activity would focus the students on the topic of a single story, while engaging them in thinking critically and coexisting with their peers.  It would also allow them to be active and move a bit before we watch the video.  Structuring the writing activity in this particular manner would allow for more active engagement from the students, which didn’t happen in class today.  The students then engage in a discussion on the danger of a single story.  I ask them why they think a single story can be dangerous.  I get them thinking about what this concept of a single story means to them.  I then show  them a small portion of the TED Talk on the danger of a single story.  Showing more than eight minutes of the video would cause the boredom that I witnessed in the classroom today.  As the students view the TED Talk, they record, on their whiteboard tables, questions they have and interesting observations they make while listening to the speaker.  I then engage the students in a discussion of their noticings and questions.  I have the students attempt to answer each other’s questions.  I close the lesson with a short discussion on the main message behind the video that we watched.  I want to be sure that the students leave the classroom with salient and tangible facts and information in preparation for tomorrow’s writing activity.

Yes, if only I had found that redo button.  Imagine the possibilities.  While redoing this lesson, isn’t possible this year.  I now know how I would alter it for next year, if I decide to stick with it.  Reflecting on today’s lesson also allows me to be more self-aware as I plan future lessons.  I need to always make sure that my lessons and activities are engaging, relevant, and active.  I don’t want to look out into a crowd of blank stares and disengaged students.  I want my students excited to be learning, thinking, and solving problems.  Unfortunately, what happened during my Humanities class today did not showcase effective teaching and active learning, but, as in life, I get to go to bed tonight and try all over again tomorrow.  Now, tomorrow is certainly no redo, but it is a new chance to make things better and highlight effective teaching.  Tomorrow is my opportunity to be the best possible teacher I can be for my students.

The Moment You Realize Something Amazing Is Happening

It was a cold morning in mid-November.  Early, only about 6:00 a.m.  My wife and I were tired, nervous, worried, scared, and a little excited.  Mostly nervous though.  You see, we were on our way to a meeting to find out if we would be chosen as the forever family for a child we hoped to adopt.  The drive was long and the roads were mostly straight and boring.  Highway driving is no fun when you’re tired or preoccupied, both of which applied in my case.   Would the permanency committee choose us?  Would we finally be able to start a family and become parents?  What if we are not chosen?  What if we are chosen?  Are we ready to be parents?  I couldn’t think straight that morning as questions zoomed around my mind like mosquitos at a campground.  It certainly didn’t take long for negative thoughts to enter my stream of consciousness.  We will never be chosen, I thought.  Why are we even trying?  As this cacophony of questions and thoughts swirled about in my brain, I struggled to stay focused on driving.  While I tried to be an attentive driver, my brain wanted me to ponder so many other things.  As we approached our destination, blue lights erupted in my rear view mirror.  What is going on, I thought.  And that’s when I realized that I was going excessively fast on the highway.  As the police officer told me what I already knew, I didn’t get angry or mad at myself.  Even when he gave me a ticket for $220, I didn’t freak out or go to a negative place mentally.  I saw this experience as an omen.  It was in that moment that I realized that everything was going to work out as it should.  I was filled with a sense of inner peace.  My negative thoughts began to turn positive.  In that brief moment, I realized  that something amazing was going to happen.  And sure enough, when we got to that meeting, we were chosen to be our son’s forever family.  Being pulled over by the police officer woke me up to the truth that the universe already knew.  We were going to become parents that day.  But, because we were so preoccupied with negative and positive emotions and thoughts, we couldn’t see what was right in front of us.  That incident that cost us a large sum of money, was just the thing I needed to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Today in my Humanities class, a similar light appeared to me.  After returning from vacation a little over two weeks ago, our students have been acting a bit differently.  They’ve been more focused, more intuned in the classroom.  They have been coexisting with their peers better than ever before.  They are using a growth mindset to overcome challenges and learn new information with an open mind and broad perspective.  They seem to have applied all of the feedback we’ve been giving them since September to grow and develop as students, thinkers, learners, and people.  It’s been amazing.  What’s weird about it though, is that I didn’t really see the big picture.  It didn’t occur to me that something special was happening in the classroom.  Despite discussing, with my colleagues, the great changes I witnessed in the classroom from my students since their return from winter vacation, I wasn’t able to put the pieces of the puzzle together.  I wasn’t able to see that my sixth grade class had morphed into a dedicated, compassionate, and hard working group of students.  Now, they have always been a remarkable class, don’t get me wrong.  It’s not like they were horrible children before break and miraculously turned into perfect students.  No, they have always been a great group of young men, but something changed after break.  They kicked their student parts into overdrive.  They were now absolutely phenomenal students capable of greatness in every way.  It wasn’t until today, however, that I was able to, once again, see that light at the end of the tunnel.

At the end of my Humanities class today, as my students slowly left the room in preparation for their next class, asking me insightful follow-up questions to what I had mentioned at the close of the lesson, I realized that things weren’t like they were before break anymore.  I’m no longer putting out fires between students.  I’m no longer trying to find new ways to challenge and support the students who refuse to make use of a growth mindset in the classroom.  I’m now able to cover more curriculum and have more fun with the content and lessons because we’ve hit our stride.  Things have really come together for us as a class.  It’s truly amazing.  In that moment, it hit me.  It was like a bolt of lightning had struck me.  As I pondered this epiphany, I began to wonder, How did this happen?  What led to this sudden transformation?  How was this group of students able to overcome adversity and climb to the top of the sixth grade mountain so early in the academic year?  This is the first year that I’ve had a group achieve such greatness so early in the year.  What’s going on?  Is there something funky in the water?  Is it the weather?  I suddenly became very curious.

As I thought long and hard about what could have caused this amazing transformation in the classroom, I came to one conclusion.  My students have changed into effective learners, thinkers, students, and peers so early in the academic year because my co-teacher and I implemented a unit on mindfulness and the brain at the start of the year.  That’s got to be the reason for the change, as everything else is the same.  The curriculum is basically the same as it has been for the past few years, minus some minor tweaks.  Our approach and program are the same as they have been.  The only difference is that we covered a unit on the brain and learning in our study skills class at the beginning of the academic year.  We talked to the boys about the plasticity of their brain and how it’s possible to learn anything, if you think you can.  We taught the students mindfulness and relaxation techniques.  We explained the power of using a growth mindset in and out of the classroom.  We helped the students understand how they could be the most effective students possible.  This one slight change must be what caused the huge change I’ve seen in my students since their return from vacation.  As they now realize that they can do anything they put their minds to, they are more able to persevere through challenges, ask for help, solve their own problems, and think critically about the world around them.

Is that really what’s going on?  Is that one unit the cause of this awesome transformation?  Perhaps.  Or maybe it’s something else entirely.  Maybe next year when I begin the academic year the same way I started this one, I’ll get the same result, which will confirm my suspicions.  Or maybe I won’t.  Maybe I won’t see this same, rapid transformation in next year’s class.  Despite all of this uncertainty, I am certain that my students have changed into super students, capable of accomplishing great things.  As today made me realize what the universe already knew, I’m able to now notice and make observations that might help me to uncover the truth behind what happened to my students.  I’m just glad, however, that today’s epiphany didn’t cost me $220.

Can Useless Information Actually Be Useful?

I am the king of useless knowledge.  Well, perhaps that is a bit of a stretch.  However, I do know a lot of unimportant information about topics that will never save my life or help me move ahead in the world.  I could talk for days about the grunge music scene from the late 1980s and 1990s.  I can name the band members from many of the influential bands from that movement in music.  Will knowing the lead singer of Mother Love Bone ever come in handy for me in life?  Of course not, but did learning it help prepare my brain to be more able to learn other fun facts about Mother Love Bone and the formation of Pearl Jam?  Yes.  Because I learned about Andrew Wood and Mother Love Bone, my brain was able to make connections from that information to many other knowledge nuggets that are linked to this fact.  So, while knowing that Andrew Wood’s untimely death led to the formation of Pearl Jam will never help me find a new job or buy a house, it does highlight the importance of helping students learn to make connections between information chunks they need to or want to store in their long term memory.

As I see the value in learning information that is interesting and engaging, I have tried to find ways to incorporate the teaching of this skill and strategy into my sixth grade classroom.  I begin most classes with what I refer to as a Brain Opener activity.  These activities allow the students to begin calibrating their brain for the class we are about to jump into.  They usually include some sort of critical thinking component as a way to help the boys begin to activate and work on forming their frontal lobe.  Some of them also include the teaching of useless information.

Today’s Brain Opener in Humanities class was Word of the Day.  The purpose of this activity, which I explained to the boys when we started it several months ago, is to help them begin to compile a mental inventory of English words that they may encounter on future standardized tests including the SSAT, which the majority of our students take in the ninth grade.  The words I choose come directly from a study list generated by the SSAT board.  I tell them each day we complete this activity, “Try to use this word in conversation with others and your writing over the next few days so that you will be able to add it to your long term memory in preparation for the SSAT.  Also, try to find a way to connect this word and its definition to past words you have learned or information you already have stored in your memory bank.”  I want the students to see the value in linking pieces of information and knowledge together in their brains, which we discussed during our unit on the brain that we completed at the start of the year in our study skills class.

For this activity, I read the word of the day, that is projected onto the board, aloud for the students.  I then explain which part of speech the word is before going over the definition.  I make sure to use student-friendly language for the definition so that all of my students, including my ELLs, are able to understand the word and its meaning.  I then provide the students some thinking time so that they can generate a grammatically correct sentence that accurately utilizes the new word.  I call on a few volunteers for this activity, clarifying any mistakes they make in using the word.  They have become quite good at this activity and create very effective and high-level sentences.

Other Brain Opener activities I utilize include Trivia Time and On This Day.  Trivia Time provides the students with a fun and engaging opportunity to learn useless knowledge regarding many different topics.  At the start of the year, I had the students create a theme song for this activity, which they sing at the start of Trivia Time each week.  This may be one of their favorite aspects of the entire activity.  Although, sadly, I do not feel as though I currently have any contenders for the next addition of American Idol.  Sometimes the singing of the theme song sounds like a cacophony of cats in an alley.  I then ask three questions to students, chosen at random using the popsicle stick method of name choosing.  The students are vying for a special prize if they correctly answer their question.  The boys really enjoy this competitive and friendly activity that teaches them information that will never save their lives, but, as I remind them almost weekly, may help them win the big prize if they are ever chosen to appear on the game show Jeopardy.  Again, this activity helps the students learn the importance of drawing connections between their prior knowledge and these new facts.  I make sure to help them determine how it might be connected to information they have previously learned, when applicable.  On This Day is another critical thinking activity that the boys enjoy.  It begins with a short video on events that occurred on that particular day in history.  As the video plays, I jot down the major events onto the whiteboard.  Following the video, I ask volunteers to help us determine which event is the most historically significant and why.  The students love delving into the history behind major events in time.  These discussions and conversations can go on for a bit if I notice that the students seem interested in a particular fact or happening.  This activity is also another great way to help the students practice how to connect new information to something they may already know.

Helping students to see useless information as vital and important allows me to help my students learn how to best utilize the plasticity of their brains.  Making connections between bits of information they need to store in their long term memory, makes the process of memory storage and future retrieval more effective.  Thanks to MTV and music magazines I read as a teenager, I am able to help my students see that all information being thrown at them on a daily basis can serve a purpose if stored and used correctly.  These Brain Opener activities, allow me to do just that in my classroom.

Is Hand Drawing a Map Still a Useful Skill We Should Be Teaching our Students?

Many years ago, in schools around the world, students learned about how maps are made, various map parts, how to read a map, and how to draw maps.  Teachers spent weeks teaching their students all about cartography as they would need to one day learn how to navigate around the world using maps and atlases.  It was a vital skill once upon a time.  Then technology revolutionized maps and cartography and rendered paper maps and atlases almost obsolete.  People use their phones and GPS units to navigate the world.  If someone wants to find out how to travel from here to Boston, MA, they whip out their phone and an app tells them exactly what to do.  People rarely use paper maps anymore because of these technological changes.  So, I’m forced to wonder if teaching students about maps and mapping is necessary.  Should we spend time teaching students all about cartography or skip it?  Is cartography still an important life skill?

In my Humanities class, I still teach my students the importance of mapping and cartography.  I see it as more a lesson in perspective, hand-eye coordination, perseverance, and growth mindset, rather than just a defunct skill that students no longer need to learn about.  My students recreate three different maps over the course of the year, to practice the skill of hand drawing a map.  In class yesterday, my students worked on their tri-layered map of Africa.  They persevered through challenges and difficulties encountered as they created their hand drawn masterpieces.  A few of the students had to completely redo their maps because their proportions were off.  Now, I didn’t tell them to redo their maps, oh no.  You see, when they sought feedback from me on their maps, they realized, on their own, how inaccurate their maps truly were.  They then asked if they could redo their maps.  My response was, “That is one way to solve your problem.”  Other students learned to trust in their own abilities as they created their maps, improving upon their hand-eye coordination from their first map back in December.  A few students seemed to even be enjoying this activity of hand drawing a map.  They liked being able to recreate something just by looking at it.  For each student, this activity of hand drawing a map teaches so much more than just the act of recreating, by hand, a map.  Students are able to truly practice and apply a growth mindset through this activity, as it is equal parts effort and accuracy.

So, while students may no longer need to know how to read an atlas or locate a specific place on a map, they will always need to learn how to persevere through challenges, use a growth mindset when encountering new information or experiences, and use their hands to create or make something.  Learning about the art of cartography and mapping is merely the vehicle I use to help students learn how to be effective thinkers, problem solvers, and creators.

The Power in Responding to Students’ Questions with More Questions

I love questions.  I love asking them and I love trying to tackle them to find an answer or solution.  I tell my students every day how much I love when they ask questions.  Engaged students are always asking questions.  It’s a form of active learning.  We learn about the world around us by asking questions.  Our brain learns when we are engaged in the content.  By asking relevant questions in search of answers and knowledge, our brains are able to specifically and genuinely intake the information and answers and move it into our short-term memory.  Imagine if Thomas Edison hadn’t asked about lights or electricity?  We might very well be in the dark right now.  Imagine if the colonists hadn’t asked about why the British were still able to control them from across the Atlantic Ocean?  Asking questions moves the world forward.  Learning happens when we ask questions.

As a teacher, I want my students to become critical thinkers and creative problem solvers so that they can live meaningful lives in a global society once they leave the confines of my classroom.  To do this, I purposefully teach my students the power in asking questions.  I begin the year by introducing the skill of questioning in the classroom.  I explain how important it is for students to question the world around them.  I praise the boys when they ask questions early on in the year to be sure that the other students, who are not asking questions, see the value in doing so.  I model this skill for the boys by posing questions to them on a daily basis.  When they answer a question I pose, I follow it up with, “Why is that?” or something similar.  I respond to their questions with more questions.  Throughout the course of the year, I remind my students how important it is to question the world around them.  “Question everything, even me.  Don’t simply accept everything I tell you as fact.  Ask questions to determine the credibility of what I’m saying.”  I want my students to think like investigators or detectives, always looking for answers by asking just the right questions.  Later in the year, I help the students figure out how to ask effective questions in order to learn more meaningful information. Reinforcing the skill of questioning over the course of the year helps the boys develop into insightful thinkers and question-askers so that they can effectively learn about the world around them in meaningful ways.

Today in my Humanities class, I challenged the students to ask great questions and then empowered them to find their own solutions.  As the students continued working on creating their tri-layered maps of Africa for our unit on the continent, the students asked many fine questions: “Is my map accurate?  Do I need to include a key on my map?  How do I use color on my map?  What should my title be?  How do I draw Gambia on my map?  Do I need to include this country that isn’t on the list?”  Rather than providing them the answers to their questions, and thus, stealing their ability to think and problem solve on their own, I generally posed more questions or made broad suggestions: “That’s a great question, how can you check to verify the accuracy of your map?  What does the rubric say about a key?  How do you think you should use color on your map?  What kind of title do you think you should use?  How is Gambia included on the map in the atlas?  Do you think you should include that country on your map, and why?”  In most cases, the boys were able to answer or address their own questions.  I’ve found that spoon-feeding students information or answers prevents genuine learning and critical thinking from taking happening.  Answering students’ questions with more questions forces the students to think critically and solve their own problems.  It empowers them to be the teacher and allows them to see how much they really do know about an activity or topic.

My students were so much more engaged in the task at hand today because they were the ones doing the work and solving their problems.  I was merely the silent observer.  I watched them utilize a growth mindset to overcome difficulties faced.  I observed the students demonstrating ownership by choosing to redo work that they felt would not allow them to meet or exceed the graded objective.  I watched the students effectively coexist with their table partner while sharing one atlas.  I observed the application of problem solving and critical thinking skills as the students diligently worked to accomplish the task at hand.  Because I empowered my students to answer their own questions, they became the ones in charge in the classroom.  They had the knowledge, but they just needed a little nudge from me to remind them of this fact.  By posing questions to them when they asked me questions, they realized that they did actually know how to solve their own problems.  Sometimes, students just get so into the habit of relying on their teachers to tell them everything, that they forget how capable they truly are on their own.  While being able to ask effective questions is a crucial life skill, being able to answer one’s own questions is a skill that all people should be striving for.

Switching to a Growth Mindset Can Be a Messy Process

I’ve read a few studies and research recently on how some teachers and parents are ineffectively applying Carol Dweck’s work and ideas on growth mindset.  They are focusing solely on the effort aspect of the concept.  Effort alone doesn’t lead to progress and growth.  Teachers need to spend much time in their classrooms to help their students see the idea of growth mindset from every perspective.  Growth mindset is more than just putting forth effort.  Helping students to develop a growth mindset involves specific and deliberate instruction.  Students need to understand how plastic their brains are to be able to see how possible something like growth mindset truly is.  Through the lense of neuroscience, students will begin to see the full magnitude of the concept of growth mindset and the benefits it provides those who utilize one.  Dweck’s work on growth mindset is not just another fly-by night catch phrase in education, it is a real and effective technique and approach we can help students learn to apply in the classroom.  Teaching growth mindset as a fun vocabulary term is ineffective and may prevent students from genuinely being able to learn the power that possessing a growth mindset can have on growing and learning, in and out of the classroom.

Dweck’s work states that people possess mixed mindsets throughout their lives.  While some people are more able to employ a growth mindset in the classroom, others use a growth mindset on the playing field during games and practices.  Those people who make use of a fixed mindset today regarding one aspect of their life, have the opportunity to change their mindset and utilize a growth mindset tomorrow.  As the brain is very plastic, change happens constantly.  It is very easy to turn a closed mind into an open one.

Over the course of the year in the sixth grade, my co-teacher and I have been helping the students learn how to make use of a growth mindset in and out of the classroom.  We want our students to see how effort, attitude, and reality all play a part in the equation that leads to their mindset.  If you put forth the effort to try to solve a challenging math problem, despite once thinking it was difficult, have a positive attitude about the process and how things might go, and then employ both great effort and a positive attitude when actually completing the task, greatness is bound to happen.  Even if you get the wrong answer, you will eventually learn how to find the correct answer because your mind is open to possibilities.  Because of this approach to learning, we’ve seen much progress from many of our students this year.  Boys who struggled with English, writing, reading, math, or science at the start of the year, are now demonstrating mastery in many of these areas because they know how to effectively employ a growth mindset.  Now, there is one interesting observation I’ve made throughout the course of this year regarding these changes in mindset.  It isn’t a beautiful and finished painting hanging in a museum.  Not all of the boys make use of a growth mindset right away at the start of every lesson, class, or activity.  It tends to be a process because of their mental processes.  Some students may begin working in class with a fixed mindset, but once they ask questions and think about what is being asked of them, they begin to change their mindset to one of possibility.  Observing this isn’t like watching a river meander.  It’s more like watching third and fourth graders learn to play basketball.  At the beginning of the season, they can barely run and dribble at the same time, but by the end of the season, they are working as a team and scoring baskets.  Watching the team develop over the course of the season is like watching my students develop their mindset over the course of a class or period.

Today in my Humanities class, I was able to observe this crazy mixture of mindsets in action.  The boys began working on creating their tri-layered map of Africa today in class.  I reviewed the requirements handout with the students while showing them an example of a finished product that one of my students completed last year.  I made sure they could see how different each layer of the map is.  I then fielded a few questions the students had before letting them get to work.  I purposely did not answer every question the students had as I wanted to let them utilize their critical thinking skills to solve problems they encountered, on their own.  I want to empower them to be their own problem solvers.  As they got to work, a mix of mindsets were being employed.  Some students got right to work, opening their atlas to the map of Africa and beginning to draw the outline of the continent on their blank paper.  Others seemed frozen in time, I believe, because they were processing what was being asked of them.  Those same students did eventually get to work effectively after a few minutes passed.  Then there were those students who seemed completely frustrated and confused.  They had questions that needed to be answered.  I let those students stew for a minute, hoping that they might be able to move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset on their own.  While for one or two of those students, that was the case, one student still seemed very confused after some minutes passed.  So, I fielded his questions, briefly.  Then, I let him sit and process the assignment.  He eventually got to work.  By the end of the period, everyone seemed to be using a growth mindset to work on the task at hand.  What started out as a cacophony of mindsets and confusion, quickly transformed into a growth mindset river, slowly meandering through a peaceful field of beautiful flowers and maps of Africa.

Once students processed the information they were intaking regarding what I had asked of them, they were able to put the mental puzzle together.  This then led to action.  For some students, this process happens slowly and loudly, as they ask numerous questions and seem utterly lost and confused.  For other students, this process of understanding happens more quickly and quietly.  I was able to see examples of both types of students today in class.  Those quick processors, got right to work, while the slower processing students took their time before getting down to work.  Then there were the students who needed much time to process information.  But even that group of students got to work by the end of class today.  As Carol Dweck’s work on mindset tells us, moving to a growth mindset can be messy and tricky.  It’s not a neat process wrapped up with a bow and glittery wrapping paper.  It’s a mangled mess of tape, newspaper, and other types of paper barely covering the gift inside.  Remember that gift you gave your mom for her birthday when you were four years old?  Watching students work and move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset is much like looking back at how you wrapped that present.  It’s not pretty, but it’s what’s inside that mattered to your mom.  The final result is what we as teachers are looking at.  No matter how chaotic the process may be, if students are able to move towards using a growth mindset in the classroom, everything is awesome.