How Can We Most Effectively Engage ALL of Our Students in the Learning Process?

Engagement seems to be a catch phrase in the education world these days.  How can we most effectively engage our students in the classroom?  Numerous books have been written on the subject, while teaching conferences around the world have engagement as their theme.  Why does does it seem that all of a sudden we now need to care about student engagement as part of the learning process?  Why now?  This seems like a common sense strategy that great teachers should have always been using.  The most meaningful learning happens when students are engaged in what they are learning about.  So then, why does it seem that my email inbox is constantly inundated with email blasts about new books and articles written on how to effectively engage students in the classroom?  Why isn’t this idea and topic covered in colleges or teacher preparation programs around the country?  Why does it seem that student engagement is the new hot topic or trend in teaching?

While engagement has always been a concern for teachers, because times and our society have changed so much in the past two decades, what we as educators learned or know about how to engage students in the classroom has changed and evolved.  Our world has changed.  Technology has changed.  Engaging students now isn’t anything like it was when I was a student.  The children of today are different.  Their attention spans have grown incrementally smaller in size due to technology, movies, television, and video games.  Engaging the students of today is much different than it was when I was a student in school.  I used to be able to focus and pay attention to teacher-directed instruction for thirty minutes to an hour when I was in sixth grade.  Now, our students struggle to stay focused or on task for more than ten minutes.  Student engagement is a whole new beast because of all of these changes that have taken place.  Staying current with and abreast of research and information on how to effectively engage students in the classroom is crucial for teachers.  We need to know how to best support and challenge all of our students in this “Brave New World” in which we live.

The issue that I often struggle with in the classroom is engaging all of my students, all of the time.  How can I best support the ELLs in my classroom while also challenging the more advanced students?  Sure, differentiation works well for this, but if I’m teaching a mini-lesson for the entire class on a topic, how can I most effectively reach and engage all of my students?

Today in my Humanities class, I introduced the concept of Epic Poetry.  I began the lesson with a class discussion regarding what the students think they know about this form of poetry.  Several students made some great hypotheses based on simply interpreting the word epic.  A few of the boys even drew connections from the previous forms of poetry studied to epic poetry.  That was pretty neat.  We then read and discussed excerpts from two great epic poems of long ago.  This was when the issue of student engagement popped up.

As I work to engage all of my students, all of the time, I try to call on students who seem disengaged, distracted, or bored in class when something needs to be read aloud.  So, I called on two students, who seemed to not be paying attention during our mini-lesson on Epic Poetry today, to read a stanza from one of the epic poems we studied.  As these two students happen to be ELLs, they faced great adversity when reading the lines aloud as they were filled with large vocabulary words and strange names from ancient Greece.  It took the boys several minutes to get through each stanza, as they had to sound out almost every word and stumbled over every other word.  I heard a sigh from one of the other students in the class during this time.  He was clearly frustrated that this process of reading the poem aloud was taking so long.  While my goal was to keep everyone focused by helping to redirect distracted or disengaged students, I ended up creating an atmosphere of disengagement in the classroom.  How can I best engage all of my students without taking away or distracting from anyone?  During a lesson like this, what’s the best way to help keep everyone focused, engaged, and involved in the learning process?

  • As I was mindful and living in the moment, I was able to react to what was happening this morning.  To help remedy the situation, I read the second poem aloud so that I could emphasize word choice, flow, and meter.  This choice refocused those students who seemed a bit distracted when their peers were reading the poem aloud.
  • What if I had the students read the poems independently, making written observations.  This way, those students who read and comprehend at faster rates could move onto our class Things to Do When Done list while waiting for their peers to finish.  Also, it would allow me to individually support and help those struggling readers in the class.  We could have them come back together as a class to discuss their noticings and observations.  Perhaps this method would have been more fruitful.
  • What if the students had read the two poems together with their table partner, engaging in a conversation about what they noticed and wondered?  Would that have been a more effective way to introduce the epic form of poetry to the students?
  • What if I had read both poems aloud to the class?  While that would have helped that one disengaged student who sighed during class, would it have kept my disengaged ELLs focused?

As the students will be analyzing two poems tomorrow in class, I will try having them work with a partner to read and analyze each poem on their own first, before discussing them altogether as a class.  I hope that this approach will foster more engagement from the students.  We can spend the class discussion focusing on analyzing the poems and not reading them together in a way that might create disengagement.  I feel good about this new idea, but I still wonder, is it the most effective way to engage all of my students?  As of late, I have been interested in the concept of student motivation and I feel as though student engagement is directly connected to it.  I’m hoping to glean some data from tomorrow’s lesson that will help me find new ways to motivate and engage all of my students in the learning process.

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Why Students Just Don’t Understand the Big Things in Life

Growing up, I took many things for granted.  I wasted food because I could, without realizing how many people go without food on a daily basis.  I assumed that money was available whenever and wherever, and so I generally wasted lots of it.  I struggled to appreciate how fortunate I was to have parents who cared for me and kept me safe, food on the table, clothes on my back, and a roof over my head.  Not until I was older, did I fully understand how lucky I actually was.  While I wish that I could go back in time and better appreciate my life as it happened, I do now realize that this lack of understanding and compassion wasn’t due to anything I did wrong or as a result of something my parents did incorrectly.  This is a common problem amongst children and teens, as their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed.  They can’t analyze life and empathize with others the same way someone who has a fully developed prefrontal cortex does.  It’s just not possible.  Sure, we can help young folks understand what is happening in their brains so that they may understand why they do what they do, but will it really make a huge difference?

My co-teacher and I just got back from a four-day field trip with our class of sixth graders to an amazing place in Wiscasset, Maine.  The boys learned how to erect a tent, build a fire, chop wood, sleep and survive in the wilderness, work together, solve problems, cook meals over an open flame, and deal with changes in the weather.  It was so awesome!  Despite a little rain, the week was great.  The boys were forced to step outside of their comfort zone, take risks, and try new things.  This was incredibly challenging for many of our students.  While my co-teacher and I loved this trip, many of our students greatly disliked it.  Yes, it’s uncomfortable to go four days without showering.  Yes, it’s hard to sleep when your pillow and sleeping bag are wet from the rain.  Yes, it’s tough when you don’t like the people you are forced to share a tent with.  Yes, life is hard and not always fair.  We can’t always get what we want.  And that’s exactly the reason why my co-teacher and I found this trip to be so beneficial: It was hard.

This trip forced the boys to do things that made them uncomfortable.  Whether they realize it or not, they have all grown from this trip.  This adventure that we went on together changed all of them in some way.  Although they will probably not see or understand the true value of this trip for weeks, months, or years to come, they will one day see why we embarked on this wonderful mission together.  They will one day see how important this trip was to their overall development as people.  They know how to overcome adversity now because of this trip.  They know how to deal with difficult peers now due to having had this experience.  Despite what their brain is able to process right now, they all got a lot from our amazing field trip to Maine this week.  While we wish that our students could see now what my co-teacher and I see, we do know that many great memories and vital experiences took place during the past four days for our boys.

The words from one of my all-time favorite films comes to mind as I reflect on this transformational experience that I just went through with my students…

“And I can feel anything but gratitude for every moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I’m talking about do you? But don’t worry you will someday.”  American Beauty

It’s totally understandable that my students can’t fully appreciate what a fantastic experience they were all just a part of, as their brains are not fully developed yet.  They can’t do the higher level thinking and analyzing that would allow them to understand and appreciate how the challenges they overcame will help them later on in their lives, and that’s okay.  I get it.  I was them once.  I didn’t understand why my parents made me do certain things back then.  I couldn’t fathom why I had to sit through special ceremonies or go on family vacations because my brain wasn’t ready to understand.  Like me, my students aren’t ready to see what really happened to them this week on our field trip to Chewonki, but they will one day, as Lester Burnham reminds us in Sam Mendes’ masterpiece.

The Art of Preparing for Field Trips

While I enjoyed field trips as a student, I absolutely love them as a teacher.  Some of the best highlights of the year occur during our field excursions.  Field trips allow for meaningful and memorable experiences to take place.  They get the students outside of the classroom and create novelty opportunities for challenge, education, growth, and failure.  Genuine learning takes place within the middle school brain when something is new and different.  Our brains love taking in new sensory details and information.  Some of my favorite memories from school happened on field trips.  These special trips allow the students to bond together, solve problems, and have fun.  They will probably not remember how many countries are in Africa, but they will remember flying down a zip line or working with their peers to make pizza that will be devoured for dinner.

Field trips help to enhance the education our students receive in the classroom.  In Science class, the students recently learned about climate change and composting, and so, beginning tomorrow, we will have the chance to experience these ideas and concepts in action, as we are going on a field trip.  Tomorrow morning, we will be departing campus for four days and three glorious nights as we head to Wiscasset, Maine to a place called Chewonki.  We will be camping outside, making our own food, learning how to survive in the wild, growing together as a family, learning about nature and how humans positively and negatively impact it, and having a ton of fun.  I told the boys this morning, “I can’t wait for tomorrow.  I probably won’t even be able to sleep tonight as I’ll be too excited.”

Although field trips are awesome experiences for any class, they require much planning and preparation.  My wonderful co-teacher and I have been organizing tomorrow’s big field trip for over a year now.

  • We found a location, and spoke to the director last May to set a date and coordinate a plan and schedule.  We reserved our spot by putting down a deposit.
  • Back in October of 2017, we confirmed the details of our trip and set up a time for the camp director to come to our school and speak with the boys about the big adventure.
  • We then had to pay for the rest of the trip.
  • Once the camp director visited, then things started to get crazy.  We sent a packing list and permission forms home to the families of our students back in February.
  • In late March, we finished collecting all of the required forms.
  • We then reserved a school vehicle for the trip, money for fuel, and coverage for our other responsibilities, as we’ll be off campus with the students.
  • As the behind-the-scenes work was coming to a close, the big dance grew closer.  Two weeks ago, we reviewed the schedule and plan for our trip with the students, while going over the packing list with them.  We fielded many questions that morning, as the boys were beginning to process what was going to soon be taking place.
  • Over the last two weeks, we reminded the boys to begin the packing process and let us know if they did not have any of the required materials.  While a few of the boys needed to borrow things from us, most of them were already prepared.
  • This past Saturday, I reviewed the packing process one final time as they needed to bring their packed bags to class this morning to be checked.
  • To begin the morning, my co-teacher and I met to review the trip details: Get meal and gas money, make sure the activity vehicle is fueled up, get a snack for the ride, and get any medicine our students will need.
  • Later in the morning, we checked each student’s bag to ensure that everyone is prepared for our big trip.  Most everybody was ready to go.
  • We then reviewed the specifics of tomorrow with the students, including time to meet in the classroom, dress code, and what the students will be expected to do.  The boys had several questions during this time, which is to be expected, as this is a new and different experience for many of them.

Now that my co-teacher and I, as well as our students, are ready to go, we can relax a little bit and get excited.  The energy is high as the students are ready to have some fun and explore the outdoors.  Despite all of the leg work that goes into orchestrating a field trip, it is totally worth it.  The key, however, to a good field trip is the preparation.  Being ready and prepared for a trip takes the stress away and invites relaxation and fun to creep in.  We can’t wait for tomorrow’s big adventure to begin.  It is sure to be a ton of fun.  So, we implore you, if you haven’t taken your students on a field trip this year, please try to make something happen for later in the year or organize a bigger adventure for the next school year.  As much as we would love to think that our students will remember every book we read to them in class, they probably won’t; however, they will remember going on a ropes course, bending metal like a blacksmith, making a campfire, and spending quality time together as a family of learners.  Field trips help to bring learning to life for our students.

How John Tesh Helped Me to Help my Students

So, I have a confession to make.  It’s a pretty big one, and may change the way the world sees me.  While I don’t hide this fact from others, I don’t often throw it into regular conversation either, and so, I totally understand if you choose to unfollow me after the big reveal.  Here goes nothing…

I like listening to the John Tesh Radio show on a local radio station in my area.

Crazy and strange, I know.  You’re probably asking yourself, how can you listen to a Top 40 easy listening radio station when you like Coheed and Cambria, Slipknot, and City and Colour?  The truth is, I do change the channel during the music portion of the show and generally only listen to the John Tesh parts.  I mean, he gives great advice on intelligence for your life.  I’ve learned a lot of really cool, and sometimes, gross facts from Mr. Tesh.  For example, remember those fun bath toys we used to play with as kids while we bathed in our own filth?  They are full of nasty germs and stuff including viruses, bacteria, and things that can get you really, really sick.  Perhaps that’s why I was often sick as a child?  Think about it?  Did you play with those squirty bath toys or rubber duckies as a child while bathing?  Did you get sick?  The two are clearly connected.  Anyway, that’s just one of the numerous fun facts that I’ve learned from listening to his show over the years, I mean months.  While this Earth shattering news on Earth Day of all days is quite disturbing, I hope that you can find it in your hearts to understand why I do what I do when I’m not teaching, spending time with my family, or writing this amazing blog, because, I have another wonderful fact to share with you that I learned from listening to Mr. Tesh on the radio.

John Tesh said that looking at pleasant scenes of nature or the outside world for just 40 seconds, can make people more productive and happy than those who do not have the luxury of “seeing” the outside world.  That makes sense, I thought, but what if they look out a window and see the same thing?  Would they be even more productive and happy?  John Tesh really gets me thinking.  I love it.  Thank you, Mr. Tesh.  While his music is really just a rip off of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and other such bands, his advice is original and thought provoking.  Perhaps he should devote more time to finding fun facts to share on the radio instead of recording more unoriginal music.  Just an idea.  Before I digress too far off track…  I started thinking about this idea of nature and how it can promote productivity and happiness within people.  While the study that he shared pertained to adults at work, I wondered if the same would be true in schools.  So, thanks to John’s inspiration, I did a little test in my classroom yesterday to see if John and I were right.

During my Humanities class yesterday, we read and discussed the wonderfully engaging play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose.  Prior to starting the class, I opened the curtains covering two very large windows that looked out onto Mount Cardigan, the Canaan Street Lake, trees, the brilliantly blue sky, and the natural world.  It was like looking at a Bob Ross painting, magnificent.  So, after looking out the windows for a few moments while I shared a mildly boring story about why we still have the curtains in the classroom, we got right to work.  The students read their lines with emotion, focus, and gusto.  They acted out their lines as if they were performing on Broadway.  The reading of the play flowed like the mighty Mascoma River, quick and dirty.  Well, there are a few curse words in the play that the students get to read.  Don’t worry though, we spent several class periods discussing the power of words and when it’s appropriate to use some words.  I’m not teaching them to talk like crazy pirates of old.  The students performed the play yesterday in class better than they had since we started reading it a few weeks ago.  Even the discussions that we would have, periodically, throughout the period, were deep and fruitful.  The students shared great insight and were really analyzing literature.  It was amazing.  This was, by far, the best period of reading and discussing the play we’ve had.  The boys were on-task, engaged, and super excited during the period.  What’s strange, is that having the curtains open was the only difference between yesterday’s class and previous classes.  I provided the students with the same reminders about reading their lines with emotion and acting them out.

So, is my hypothesis accurate?  Does looking out of a window to see beautiful scenes of nature, promote even more focus, productivity, and happiness amongst people?  While I should gather a bit more data so as to be all scientific and such, I feel as though the answer is, Yes.  I have posters of nature on the walls of my classroom, and they haven’t made much of a difference on a day-to-day basis.  Clearly, allowing the students to look outside before beginning yesterday’s lesson made all the difference.  They were relaxed, focused, productive, and happy.  I had one student come to me and say, “This is the best activity I’ve ever done in school,”  referring to the reading and discussing of the play.  Although I love the play and know how great it is, I do often wonder how much my students enjoy reading and discussing it.  However, yesterday, they seemed super into it.  Was it the rays of sunshine that penetrated the double-paned glass?  Did that help to promote more focus?  Was it the rolling hills?  Did looking at those for a few moments fill them with glee?  Maybe, or maybe it was something else.  But for now, I’m going to go with, I’m right.

So, there you have it.  Listening to the John Tesh Radio Show inspired me to try something new in the classroom, and it paid huge dividends for my students.  They got more out of Saturday’s class than they have in a while, and it was all because of John, sunshine, and my brilliant creativity.

Having Fun with Poetry

“Poetry shmoetry.”  “I hate poetry.”  “Poetry is for girls.”  “Flowers, sunshine, and birds.  Yuck.”  “Poetry is so boring.”  I could go on, but you get the idea.  Most students with whom I’ve worked over the years feel this way about poetry.  They just don’t like it, for whatever reason.  Perhaps their previous teachers did not effectively introduce poetry to them in an engaging and meaningful way.  Or, maybe, they just weren’t ready to learn about poetry prior to entering the sixth grade.  With this much disdain towards the art of poetry, I make it a yearly mission to change the way my students think about poetry.  I work to help them see poetry as something that is fun and challenging to do.  I want my students leaving the sixth grade with a broader perspective on poetry.

Today in my Humanities class, I introduced the concept of a Poetry Slam to the boys…

A poetry slam is

like a play with a

cast of one.

Words create the scenery

as your body weaves

emotion throughout

the audience.

 

Have fun as you

recite your chosen

haiku for all to hear.

Act, perform, and paint

pictures with your

words and body,

Leaving the audience

stunned and wanting…

 

I tried to convey a sense of excitement and fun through my description of this amazing event, with which we were about to embark.  I didn’t model a sample, as I really wanted the students to draw their own conclusions and interpret the parameters creatively.

First student read his haiku

as if he were dead and lifeless.

I was bored, as were the others.

Do I stop and correct him?

I wondered as he finished.

Holding the bar high for

my students, I knew what

had to be done.  I didn’t snap

my fingers like the others,

when words stopped flowing

from his lips.  Instead I called

him out saying, “You can do better

than this.”  Then I performed

a haiku in the Poetry Slam way

to show him what fun could be had.

He went again, and nailed it

like it was the final piece in

a ship of words he built

for us all to ride upon.

Amazing, I thought. “Now,

that’s how you perform

at a Poetry Slam,” I said

to him as he walked off stage

grinning in excitement.

 

The rest of the students blew me away, as they read their haikus aloud for us all to hear and enjoy.  It was a banquet of awesomeness for our ears and eyes.  The boys writhed around the stage, as they recited their poems, adding emphasis and emotion for impact.  They had so much fun performing in front of their peers.  Students who are usually so quiet, got into character and read their poems with gusto and panache.  I was thoroughly amazed.  The boys had a blast during our first Poetry Slam, as they realized how much fun poetry can be when you change the way you look at it.  It’s not just words on paper.  It’s emotion, blood, sweat, and tears pouring from one’s heart.  Poetry is all the stuff that makes life what it is: Alive and real.

Transforming Haikus into FUN-kus

When I was a kid, I used to love playing with GO-Bots.  I mean, who wouldn’t love transforming a car or truck into a robot?  C’mon now.  They were so cool.  I thought for sure that they were going to be the biggest toy to hit the market since Legos.  Sadly, Transformers were released a year later, and put the kibosh on any success the GO-Bots might have seen.  While I did thoroughly enjoy Transformers, as they were much more complex in terms of their transformations, compared to the GO-Bots, I tend to be a sucker for things that come before.  My heart will always be with the fearless GO-Bots.

Like the GO-Bots did with a little human help, I did a little transforming of my own today in the sixth grade classroom.  You see, I have found over the years that students begin a lesson on Haiku poetry with a very fixed mindset.  They either love the Haiku form of poetry because it provides them with a clear format and equation for how to create one, or, they hate it because it’s too structured or confining.  Today was certainly no exception to that fact.  As we began discussing Haikus, I heard some groans and saw a few sad faces.  The boys were upset that they would have to craft boring and challenging Haiku poems today in class.  As the lesson progressed, however, the atmosphere in the classroom seemed to be transforming.

Here’s a little play-by-play of the major highlights from today’s lesson on Haiku poetry that helped my students to see Haikus in a new light.

  • As disengagement began to fill my classroom, I had the students examine three different examples of Haiku poetry as an active way for me to introduce the poetic form to the class.  I had student volunteers read each Haiku aloud before asking students to make observations and noticings.  What did you notice about these three Haikus?  What do they have in common?  The students noticed that Haikus have three lines, the second line is the longest, Haikus are focused on one topic or object that readers will be able to easily identify or relate to, and the meter is 5-7-5.  I was impressed that they were able to pick up on all of this just from simply studying some sample Haikus.  As they shared their noticings with the class, I added some footnotes in the form of questions: Does a Haiku have to contain exactly five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third?  Does it have to rhyme?  Can it be funny?  These questions allowed the students to begin to realize that what they thought was a constrictive form of poetry, is actually a bit more open and flexible.
  • As the students started to wrap their minds around the syllable requirement of a Haiku, I asked them why teachers often incorporate Haiku into a unit on poetry if it tends to be greatly disliked by the students.  The first young man I called upon said, “Word choice.”  Being able to choose the right word means that you must increase your vocabulary as you learn new synonyms and vocabulary words.  Learning to be selective with the words one uses in one’s writing, helps one grow and develop as a writer.  At this point, despite liking the Haiku form of poetry or not, the students started to see the relevance in why they should learn about this form of poetry.
  • After fielding the few questions posed by my students about Haiku poetry, I called on three volunteers, at random, to generate a class Haiku based on a topic suggested by another member of my class.  The topic was family.  The first student shared his opening line, “Family is a warm group,” which happened to be seven syllables in length instead of the suggested five.  So, I called on another student to revise the line, transforming it into a line containing only five syllables.  He subtracted the powerless words “is” and “a.”  The second student shared his brilliant line, which contained exactly seven syllables.  The final student had his line ready to go before I even called upon him.  His line formed the perfect closing to a wonderful poem on family.  The students seemed to really understand this form of poetry once we crafted a class Haiku.
  • The students had 12 minutes to begin crafting their own Haiku poems in class.  As they wrote, I walked around, observing the students.  I read their lines and provided them positive feedback on what they had constructed.  I was amazed with what they were writing.  More than anything, though, I was impressed by how engaged and excited they were during this process.  Every student began typing right away.  They seemed invested in crafting wonderful works of art.

By empowering my students to determine the format of a Haiku based on examples we read together as a class, they felt in control.  I wasn’t telling them how to write a Haiku.  Instead, I was asking them how to write a Haiku.  This turning of the tables, so to speak, provided the students with the ownership they needed to feel invested in the task of crafting three Haikus.  By also broadening the requirements of a Haiku, the students felt as though they had more options in how they could write their own Haikus.  I was no longer limiting them by saying, “Your first line MUST include only five syllables.”  I transformed this controlling language into something more engaging, “While I’d like you to work towards including only five syllables in the first line, if you can’t, for whatever reason, don’t worry about it.  The syllable formula is a suggestion and not a rule.  Take a risk, try new things, and if you mess up, keep persevering, looking for just the right word.”  The boys really liked this new explanation of the syllable count suggestion, as it provided them with options and flexibility.  Unlike how Billy Corgan felt in his epic song Bullet with Butterfly Wings, my students did not feel like “just a rat in a cage” as they crafted their Haikus in class today.  They felt empowered to take risks, choose words they like, and craft Haikus that spoke to who they are as individuals and not some confining format.  Transforming how I taught the Haiku form of poetry to my students today helped them to see the fun in writing short poems, much like I saw the fun and simplicity in playing with GO-Bots.  Changing one’s perspective can really have a powerful impact.

Perspective

Opening one’s mind

generates new perspective,

and changes the world.

Celebrating Accomplishments in the Classroom

Remember when you were just a wee, young lad wearing diapers around the house?  Ahh, those were the good ol’ days with not a care in the world.  Life was so easy back then.  All you had to do was run around.  The diapers took care of bathroom breaks and your parents fed you.  It was awesome.  However, of course, life changes and we have to grow up.  We have to learn to do things on our own.  UGGGHHH!  Apparently, six years old is too old to be wearing a diaper around the house.  So, our parents worked to potty train us so that we would no longer be the freak in first grade who still wears a diaper.  What’s wrong with that?  Anyway, my parents used a sticker chart to motivate me to want to “tinkle” and “do poop poop” in the toilet.  I loved those charts.  When I earned five stickers, I got a prize.  Awesome sauce!  One time I got this super sweet plastic finger puppet that had a movable mouth.  It was so much fun to play with.  I loved getting rewarded for doing something as simple as going to the bathroom.  It made me feel good and motivated me to want to keep on doing it.  I haven’t had to wear a diaper since first grade, much like many of you I assume.

As a teacher I see the power in this motivational strategy.  Celebrating big victories and little ones are crucial in helping students learn how to be great and effective students, thinkers, problem solvers, writers, and readers.  Using rewards to celebrate the accomplishments of students helps to foster a sense of community and compassion within the classroom.  I utilize a Marble Jar as a class-wide positive motivation technique.  Each time the students, as a class, amaze me with something like completing a task incredibly well, being extremely kind to each other, or helping others, they earn a handful of marbles.  Once the In jar is filled, the class earns a special celebratory party.  They love the Marble Jar and work hard to earn marbles.  This tool helps me foster a sense of camaraderie and unity amongst the students.  It’s quite amazing.  I also offer high fives, stickers, tasty treats, and other little rewards for when students successfully complete a task or exceed my expectations.  This system of celebration allows me to create a culture of excitement and hard work within the classroom.  The students all strive for greatness so that they can earn rewards.  While I’ve read a few studies and professional articles on the drawbacks to extrinsic motivation, I’ve had nothing but success with it in my classroom.

I have a student in my class who has struggled to stay focused and engaged all year.  He fidgets, distracts his peers, and has great difficulty paying attention.  Despite working with him, his family, and his advisor to offer suggestions and strategies on how he can help himself, I have seen little change in his behavior since the start of the year.  Until yesterday, that is.  Even after reflecting on it, I’m not sure exactly what it was that caused this change in class yesterday, but he was like a different student.  He paid attention, sat up straight, asked questions appropriately, was engaged in class, and didn’t fidget with things on his table.  What is going on, I thought.

During the break in between our double-block of Humanities class, this student noticed that I had some donuts on my desk.  So, he came and asked to have one.  He’s blunt like that.  My response, “You can try to earn one.”  He asked, “How?”  “I can’t tell you that,” I responded.  Then he started running around the room tucking in chairs, picking things up, and neatening up the room.  He asked, “Does that earn a donut?”  “No,” I said.  He then went about his routine, preparing for class.  It was at that moment that I had a thought.  If this student continues with the amazing effort that he showed during third period, I will reward him with the donut he wants.  I didn’t reveal this information to him as I wanted to see what he was capable of on his own.

This student continued with great effort, focus, and attitude during fourth period.  It was amazing.  He was totally engaged in class, unlike anything I’ve seen before.  He earned a 5, the highest possible grade, for his daily effort.  It was awesome.  Then I started wondering, “Was this just a fluke?  Can he maintain this great effort into tomorrow?”

This morning, prior to the start of first period, I asked this student if he had seen his daily effort grade from yesterday.  “Yes,” he said.  “You did awesome yesterday.  I was so proud of your focus.  Amazing.  Keep it up.  Oh, and see me at Morning Break today so that I can reward you with that donut you earned for yesterday’s great effort.”  His face lit up brighter than my sister’s Lite-Brite machine when he realized that he had earned the donut he wanted from yesterday.  Despite knowing that he had already earned the donut, he had a great first period in study skills class and continued to kick butt in Humanities class during third period.  His effort was amazing, again.  When he saw me for the donut during the break, I praised him for yesterday’s great effort and told him to keep it up.  And that he did.  He finished Humanities with great effort once again, without any donut on the line.  He did it because he wanted to, because he felt good about himself.  The donut wasn’t simply a reward, it was the pat on the back he needed to stay motivated and work hard in the classroom.

While not every reward and motivational trick will work with every student, trying out ones that might with certain students can make a huge difference.  In my experience, extrinsic motivation eventually leads to intrinsic motivation.  This student has caught the focus bug and is running with it, hopefully for a while.  As teachers, we should celebrate every victory or accomplishment, no matter the size.  For this student, his staying engaged in class was a big deal, and so I rewarded him with a little prize.  At the end of the day, the only thing that really matters, is if we can show our students that they are cared for and respected.  Everything else will fall into place once the students know we care for them.  Providing students with positive motivation and rewards is one easy way we can celebrate all the other wonderful things our students do along their journey to adulthood.

Trying to Find Awesome in the Unknown

“It’s time to move on, time to get going.  What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing,” wrote the late and great Tom Petty.  These words certainly ring true for me.  While I’ve been teaching at my current school for 15 wonderful years, it’s time for me to begin the next chapter in my life.  It’s time for me to put my family first and head out into the great unknown.  And I am scared out of my wits.  Being a person who craves routine, taking this great leap makes me incredibly uncomfortable.  What if I fail?  What if it doesn’t work out?  Like the trailblazers before me, I need to trust that everything will work out as planned.  Now I just need to jump into the pool of endless possibility.  Scary?  Yes, terrifying.  But what if things go right?  What if this is the fork in the road I am supposed to take?

Yesterday, I was provided an amazing opportunity.  I was fortunate enough to attend an Open House at my new school.  I saw what will be my new fifth grade classroom for next year.  The windows and light in the room are phenomenal.  I can make a Reading Nook in the back left area of the room with a Maker Space on the opposite side.  I can get some movable tables and chairs for work spaces towards the front of the classroom.  The possibilities are so exciting.  I can’t wait to get in and set it up over the summer.

While churning the creative cogs in my brain was definitely super fun, my highlight from yesterday was meeting three of my new students.  They are amazing, creative, curious, intelligent, and wonderful young people.  They asked insightful questions and shared fun stories with me about their lives.  Although one of my goals for meeting my new students was to help them feel at ease with making the transition to a new school and classroom for the next academic year, I felt as though I learned more from them than they could have possibly gleaned from what little I said.  One of my students is a fantastic speller and wants my new school to host a school-wide spelling bee next year.  Awesome!  I can’t wait to see about setting something like that up for next year.  Another one of my students is way into fencing and taught me some of the crucial moves in the sport.  Awesome!  I can’t wait to learn more about this unique sport.  The other new student I met yesterday is quite the actress and can’t wait to dance around the classroom learning all about coding, engineering, and chemistry.  Awesome!  The energy these students brought with them yesterday was so contagious.  I can’t wait to help them unleash their potential in the classroom in a few short months.

After meeting my new students and their families, I had a lovely and engaging conversation with my new headmaster about the curriculum and program I will be working to create this summer.  I can’t wait to jump into formulating the interdisciplinary units to create a cohesive fifth grade program that will foster a strong sense of community, compassion, curiosity, growth mindset, and problem solving.  I want to empower my students to tackle any problem, with which they are faced, with enthusiasm.  The social studies curriculum will be the driving force for the theme of the core subjects.  The science and language arts pieces will grow out of this wonderful seed of ancient civilizations.  The students will learn about the native people that once inhabited the land that American’s now call home while digging into the scientific discoveries of the time.  We’ll be going outside to explore the natural world and learn about how the Native Americans made clothes, food, and so much more.  Every aspect of the fifth grade program will fit together to form a phenomenal community puzzle.  I am so excited about the endless possibilities that exist.  I can’t wait to get started.

Despite all of the unknowns that exist in this new adventure I am about to undertake with my family, the excitement and possibilities far outweigh the feelings of doubt that try to penetrate my mind from time to time.  While saying goodbye to the home I’ve known for many years is going to be difficult, it’s time for me to move on and tackle a new challenge.  So, get ready new school because here I come, cape and all.

Using Music in the Classroom

Growing up was no easy feat, and being ridiculed and having overbearing parents, did not help one iota.  Luckily, I had a great core group of friends and music to get me through.  Music was my security blanket when I was a teenager.  After having a difficult day at school, I’d come home and blast whatever cassette tape or compact disc that was in my boombox.  The sweet sounds of Guns n’ Roses and Pearl Jam made all of my problems seem a little smaller.  Music was my oasis in the desert that was growing up in a small town.  Shannon Hoon’s vocal stylings helped remind me that everything will be okay in the end.  Music made life bearable, and allowed me to grow into the man sitting at this laptop typing these very words.  Some great people have been quoted saying, “Music soothes even the most savage of beasts.”  And how true that line rings.  Music is, for many people, the safety raft they use to navigate their way through the choppy waters of life.

I see how vital a role music plays in the lives of my students.  When they are having a challenging day, listening to a song or two in between classes helps them to self-soothe and get recalibrated for what comes next.  Music holds great power for all people, regardless of culture, language, socio-economic background, or geographical location.  Music is the tie that binds people together.  One of the first questions I often hear students ask each other at the start of each year is, “What kind of music do you like?”  This matters to them as they try to form their own support group of friends.

As music is so important to the lives of our students, why does it seem that many teachers are not tapping into this potential?  Why are they not using music in the classroom?  Why do many teachers not allow students to listen to music in class?  As a music lover, I see the power and value in music for my students.  I begin every class with soft music playing as the students enter the classroom and prepare for whatever class is happening next.  I use more acoustic or gentler music during these transition times, as I want to set a quiet and reflective mood in the room.  I’m able to create an atmosphere of serenity and preparedness in the classroom through the use of music during these times of the academic day.  I also play instrumental music when the students are working, independently, in the classroom.  I choose reflective and soothing music during these times, as I want to inspire my students to stay focused and be creative.  With this soft music playing, the students are generally very productive and on-task during these times.  I also allow my students to listen to their own music, with headphones, during class transitions.  This allows the students the downtime they need to process information learned in the previous class and to prepare for what the future holds.  Class is able to begin smoothly and without incident during these times.  Music allows me to set the tone in the classroom and inspire a particular behavior.  It’s mental medicine for my students.

As we began discussing poetry in my Humanities class on Friday, I wanted my students to see poetry as something more than just words.  I wanted them to see that poetry is everywhere, all around them.  So, yesterday, I began a discussion in class with my students on music as poetry.  I asked them if they thought that music is poetic.  We had a great discussion about song lyrics and what makes a song poetry or not.  I then had the students spend class time, individually, listening to their own, personal music.  Is the music they usually listen to poetic?  As they listened to their music, they took notes on poetic lines they heard.  I closed the lesson by having the students share some of the lines they extracted from what they listened to.  They pulled out some great and poetic examples of figurative language.  It was awesome.  They were so engaged and excited by this activity, and a bit surprised that I would allow them to listen to their own music during class.  They were really into the activity, as they started to discover that poetry isn’t just words on a page, but that it can come in many forms, including music.

As teachers, we need to find new, fun, and creative ways to engage our students in the classroom.  As music is the lifeblood for so many of our students, it just makes sense to find ways to incorporate it into the curriculum of our classes.  As music saved my life, I want to give back to the world of music and help future generations of teachers, thinkers, problem solvers, doctors, and flight attendants find the power in music.  Who knows how the music I’ve played in the classroom over the years, for my students, has inspired them.  Maybe a student, who didn’t really give much thought to music prior to being in my class, began listening to music that changed their life for the better.  Or perhaps, some song I played while the students worked in the classroom inspired them to craft a brilliant poem, story, or expository essay.  Music, like life, works in mysterious ways sometimes.  If we let it, music can change the world.

Preparing My Students to be Superhero Poets

When I’m in my classroom, on some days, I feel like a superhero as I fly around the room helping my students overcome problems.  Perhaps it’s the teaching cape I wear.  Maybe that’s what really does it for me.  Being a super teacher fells pretty great.  On other days though, I feel like a swashbuckling knight destroying the evil distraction dragons that try to defeat my students.  As swords are not permitted at my school, I don’t really have any props to bring this fantasy to life; however, my costume box does hold a shield and plastic sword.  Perhaps that’s what makes this feeling more of a reality.  Sometimes though, I feel like a merman on a quest to bring order and justice to the sea of chaos otherwise known as my classroom.  Ever since I first saw the movie Splash with Tom Hanks, I’ve been in search of a mermaid.  I’ve looked in the ocean on every whale watch, to no avail.  Teaching is certainly no easy feat, and one does need to harness special powers to be a really great teacher.  Feeling like a superhero, knight, or merman helps bring light to the challenge in front of me each and every day when I walk into my classroom.  I need to support and challenge my students while also keeping them safe and cared for.

Today, as I zoomed around my classroom, things felt different.  I felt different.  My lesson on poetry seemed to be really making strides, more so than ever before.  My students seemed to fully understand how poetry is different from prose and what makes a poem great.  They contributed wise insight to our discussions.  It was quite amazing, but slightly unexpected.  Then, when the boys began crafting their own, unique poems, things started to get really strange.  The boys were crafting masterpieces of words and figurative language.  They were taking risks and trying new word combinations.  I’ve never had an introductory poetry lesson go as well as today’s.  What was going on?  Was it the curse of Friday the 13th?  Was that the cause of this strangeness today in the sixth grade classroom?

Perhaps the date did have something to do with the result that transpired during my Humanities class this morning.  Or maybe it was all of the work I put into creating a unit on figurative language that built up to poetry in a very deliberate and purposeful way.  I do believe that was what led to the awesomeness that occurred in my classroom this morning.  You see, rather than completing a short and brief introductory lesson on poetry this year, I wanted to have my students explore language, its history, and power before having my students play with words and craft poems of their own.  We began our unit by discussing the power of words.  The students learned that every word packs a punch, some more than others.  They also learned what gives words their power as we dug into etymology.  These opening lessons carried us into Wednesday’s activity, in which the students literally played with words to create new and interesting combinations.  The students took risks and worked to create unique images and phrases.  Then today, I introduced the idea and concept of poetry to my students.  After a short discussion on what makes a poem poetic, the students began trying their hand at crafting a poem of their own.  I didn’t belabor my explanation of the poetry activity, as I wanted to empower my students to apply the skill of self-awareness and problem solving we’ve been working on all year.  The boys got right to work on their verses.  I was blown away at what they produced in such a short time, with very little explanation.

Examples of their Greatness

The trees are pillars to the heavens

Streams as pure as the hope that guides us.

Fall leaves, works of art

Caves chances to explore

Branches full of needles as if ready to sew

sticks opportunity for imaginative fun

Warm rocks, places to sit and enjoy it all

Spring leaves cast mystic green light as it to make it all alive, even the shadows

And after it all you end up on the edge of a pool of the woods living in it all,

feeling the life that fills it and makes it beyond perfect


The ball cuts through the grass,

like a swimmer diving into a pool,

it reaches its destination,

the goal,

it dives into the net lobbying,

like a golf ball hit into the sky,

it sails like odysseus into the goal.

 

As the students had been exploring language and the power that words hold for the past few weeks in Humanities class, my students had already been wearing their poetic mindset without even realizing it.  Along with our class read-aloud novel Booked by Kwame Alexander that is written in verse and provided the students with much fodder and inspiration since we began it at the start of our unit, the structure of the lessons leading up to today’s poetry activity laid the foundation for my students to think like a poet.  They were becoming word doctors without even noticing, which I believe led to the fantastic result that I was lucky enough to witness in class today.

To be a superhero teacher, I need to be prepared for every situation or dilemma thrown my way.  Planning this figurative language unit in the way I did, allowed my students to feel totally comfortable with the art of poetry.  In years past, my students struggled with poetry because they didn’t fully understand how to play with words and use them in new or fun ways.  I was forcing them to do something that they were not properly prepared for.  Today, my students were more than ready to write their own poems because they now understand how language works.  They get it, and it showed today.  Sadly, there were no distraction dragons for me to slay in the classroom today because my students were all so committed to crafting amazing and brilliant poems.  They were engaged and happy in Humanities class.  They were excited to write poetry and put words together in unique and fun ways.  It was awesome.  I felt more like a puppy in the sidecar of my students’ motorcycle today, observing from the side and being completely happy and content just sniffing at the air, than I did a superhero, knight, or merman.  And you know what, that’s exactly how I should feel.  I’ve worked hard this year to prepare my students for moments like this.  They don’t need my super powers anymore as they have gained their own.  They are ready to slay their own dragons and conquer the world without fear, knowing that I’m always there watching them, proudly.