My Amazing Week in the Fifth Grade

Despite the numerous, depressing headlines that filled our screens and newspapers this week, it’s refreshing to be able to reflect on the remarkable and wonderful week I experienced with my fifth grade class.  I am so lucky to be working with such an amazing group of students and educators.  Each new day is infused with wonderful gifts of thought and action.  It’s as if I’m working in a brilliant snow globe of awesomeness that is shaken on a daily basis.  I love watching the snowflakes of creativity, kindness, and compassion fall all around me.


I thought I would start today’s entry with a short little poem I’ve been working on…

 

I’m from a school that embraces

creativity and compassion, like the Tootsie Roll

center of a Tootsie Roll Pop.

“Can we make crafts to raise money

for Hurricane Florence victims?”

my fifth graders inquired the other day.

 

I’m from a school that challenges students

to think for themselves and be who they are.

I’m from a school where students thrive

and aren’t afraid to take risks.

“We should make a class newscast

like the video we just watched,”

A student suggested a few weeks ago.

This past Tuesday, the entire school viewed

that video my students made,

with awe and respect.

 

I’m from a school filled with kindness

and smiles, as if every moment is special.

I’m from a school where different is the new normal

and students never want to leave.

“He wished he could go to school

on the weekends,” a parent of one of

my students recently shared with me.

 

I’m from a school that seems almost

magical, like Narnia or Fablehaven.

I’m still waiting for the students to

show their wings and fly off towards

the horizon.

 

I’m from a school that is now a part me.

Just the other day,

I noticed that my blood appeared

maroon and gold.  This wonderful

place is changing me,

and I could not be happier.


With so many amazing things that happened in my classroom this week, it’s hard to pick just one to focus on for this entry.  So, instead of spending hours trying to determine which event to explore in detail, I’ll just list them all.

  • After being unable to acquire the materials needed to care for a turtle in the classroom, I decided to find a class pet that would be a bit more student and budget friendly.  While the students did vote on having a turtle as our class pet during the first week of school, I had to share the unfortunate news with them a week later, that we would be unable to make that dream come to fruition.  However, prior to sharing this news with the students, I applied for and received a grant for a hamster from the Pets in the Classroom Program.  Thank you Pet Smart and the wonderful folks at this amazing program that helps teachers find the resources to bring pets into their classrooms.  When I broke the news about the turtle to the students, I also had happy news to share with them.  I was surprised how excited they were about this change from the intended plan.  They seemed more enthusiastic about a hamster than they did the turtle they originally chose as the class pet.  This past week, the hamster joined our classroom family.  The students could not have been more thrilled.  They wanted to hold him, feed him, care for him, and play with him.  It was amazing, watching the students interact with the hamster, which they decided to name Beans.  While I still have no idea what the name has to do with hamsters, the majority of the students voted on that as his name.  If they are happy, than I am happy.  Frankly though, I really wanted Mr. Fancy Pants.  Oh well.  As the Rolling Stones reminded us all of years ago, “You can’t always get what you want.”  Regardless, Beans has brought much happiness and excitement into the classroom.  Fortunately, he is very sociable with us humans and doesn’t mind being held.  This new addition to our classroom is so much more than a real-world learning experience.  Beans is teaching the students to be mindful of how loudly they talk when they are near his cage and the importance of being careful when interacting with living things.  Talk about teachable moments.  Thank you Beans, for all that you have brought to our wonderful class.
  • Prior to Hurricane Florence making landfall in the US not too long ago, I pitched an idea to the students.  “I feel like we should do something to help those being impacted by this storm.  What can we do to support those communities?”  The students were full of wonderful ideas.  While nothing has completely taken off yet, they have begun to take an interest in helping others.  One student brought in a jar that we are using to collect money, while another student is gathering cans to redeem for money.  Another student brought in materials to make handcrafts, that we intend to sell for charity.  During a Science work period last Wednesday, those students who had finished conducting their investigations, worked with a student who taught them how to knit.  It was very cool to watch them all practice this difficult skill.  One student was all smiles as he began to figure out how to knit.  While I posed the original challenge to the students, I am allowing them to own the outcome.  I want them to learn responsibility, compassion, and dedication.  I want them to see that helping others can be rewarding in so many ways.  I can’t wait to see what my young philanthropists come up with in the coming weeks.
  • For our final science assessment, the students have to generate a unique investigation that allows them to test an original solution to a problem impacting our school community.  They will then conduct the experiment and document their findings in the form of a lab report and digital presentation.  While this seemed like a daunting task at first, the students grabbed the bull by the horns, or to use our mascot in the metaphor, they grabbed the beaver by his tail, and ran with it.  One student is trying to find an easy way to reduce the amount of water used by flushing toilets.  So, she put a brick in each of the toilet tanks in our school.  Some of the older students at the school were mystified by what she was doing.  I love it.  It’s getting others thinking.  Isn’t that what science is all about?  Another student is trying to find a way to cut down on mud flows and erosion near the school’s parking lot.  He’s in the process of planting some flora samples now.  Another student is trying out an environmentally friendly way to reduce the amount of poison ivy that lines the nearby forested areas.  Other students are trying to find ways to reduce the school’s use of electricity.  It’s so cool watching them work and gather data.  They are thinking and acting like scientists.  Amazing!

And that was just the highlights from this past week.  I don’t have nearly enough time to document and reflect on every little amazing thing that happened in the fifth grade last week.  Let’s just say, my words could never do justice to the magic that happens in the fifth grade at my school on a weekly basis.  Awesome really only covers the tip of the iceberg.  So yeah, I’m a very lucky educator who is able to work at such a special school with wonderful students and teachers.  Every day truly is the best day of my life, as each new day provides me with a new present.

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The Power of Meta Cognition and Reflection in the Classroom

Have you ever stopped and really thought about how your day or week or even year is going?  Who has time for that, you’re probably thinking.  And while that response certainly makes sense, you need to find a way to make time for reflection in your life.  If you don’t stop periodically throughout your life to think about how things are going, then how will you know what to do next?  How can you ensure that your life is going the way you want it to go if you don’t set goals and then reflect upon your progress in working towards them?  It doesn’t need to be a big deal or all-encompassing task.  It can literally take no more than five minutes.

  1. Stop what you are doing, but be sure to keep breathing.  My students love taking me seriously, and so I want to be sure that I’m providing you with safe instructions.
  2. Take a few deep and slow mindful breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth.  Try to sweep out the distracting thoughts littering your mind’s work space.  Focus only on your breathing and nothing else.
  3. This step can be done in written form or mentally.  You choose.  I like to document my reflective process in case one day I wake up and forget my past, like in that amazing movie Memento.  Think about how you have been progressing towards meeting the goals you set for your life.  They could be short term or long term goals.  Have you met them?  What’s going well in working towards them?  What struggles have you faced along the way?  What do you still need to do to meet those goals?
  4. Again, like step three, this step can be done using your calligraphy set or your mind’s eye.  Create a plan for moving forward.  What will you do to ensure that you will work towards and meet the goals you’ve set.  If you met all of your previous goals, set new ones.
  5. And finally, to make sure that you go back into reality calm and ready to tackle any situation that may come your way, take a few more mindful breaths.

That’s it.  That’s all you need to do to keep moving up and to the right in your life graph.  Stop, reflect, plan, and go.  I think you will find it life changing.  Try it.

Borrowing from my own playbook, I utilize this meta cognition strategy on a weekly basis.  As I want my students to always be growing and developing as humans, individuals, thinkers, creators, problem solvers, and team players, goal setting and reflection is crucial in my classroom.  We began this process on day one when I had them reflect in writing on their first day of fifth grade:  What went well and why?  What struggles did you face and how did you overcome them?  What do you need to work on tomorrow to keep growing and learning?  Three simple questions that enabled my students to begin to see the power of reflection.  At the end of the first week of classes, I introduced the concept of goal setting.  Why should people set goals?  What can goals help us do?  What’s the most effective way to create goals?  I then explained the concept of SMART Goals to the class.  They seemed to understand this idea quite easily.  Each student then set three, short term, academic goals for the following week.  On Tuesday of the second week of school, I had the students revisit their goals and write an update on their progress in meeting them: How’s it going in working towards meeting your goals?  What do you still need to do to meet your goals by Friday?  This task allowed them the opportunity to put a plan in place to help them be and hopefully feel successful.  Then, last Friday, I had them reflect on their goals and set three new goals for this week.  And the process will continue and repeat all year.  In the coming weeks, I will have them work towards setting a few long term goals as well.

While this schedule of reflection seems like it would be helpful for students, it also feels very one-sided, you might be thinking.  And you’d be right.  This is only one half of the process I use in the classroom.  While self-reflection, goal setting, and thinking are all wonderful skills, without feedback and support from others, how can you really know if what you’re doing is actually working?  So, in addition to all of this weekly and daily reflection the students are doing, I am also providing them with feedback daily and weekly.  The students earn a daily effort grade for their ability to be ready to learn, put forth effort to learn, and afford others the opportunity to learn.  Each afternoon, I enter their effort grade into our Google Classroom page with feedback on their performance.  How did they do in class today?  I then make sure that the students are regularly checking these grades and reading the feedback with which they are provided.  I do this by providing them time in class each morning to do so.  Each Friday morning during our silent reading period, I conference with each student on their effort and work in the classroom.  How is their effort?  Are they meeting the graded objectives?  What do they need to work on to continue to improve and grow?  I attempt to begin each conference by focusing on a positive piece of feedback before getting into the constructive suggestions and areas in need of improvement.  I end the conference by providing the students a chance to ask me any questions that may be on their mind about anything related to our school or the fifth grade in general.  While the bulk of the students usually don’t have any questions for me, a few do.  This time allows me the opportunity to practice and model mindful listening and reflection.  Not only does this conference, that usually only lasts 1-3 minutes in length, offer me the opportunity to provide the students with oral feedback on their progress in the class, but it also gives the students some fodder for new goals, which they set each Friday afternoon.

This feedback that they receive from me, coupled with their self-reflection, helps guide them forward on their journey in the fifth grade.  They know what they need to do to continue to grow and develop, and they have a plan for how to do so.  It’s quite the power-pack of awesomeness.  But, does it work, you’re probably wondering?  It seems like a lot of class time and energy devoted to reflection and feedback.  Is it worth it?  The short answer is, Yes.  Here’s what I’ve observed in just the first three weeks of school using this meta cognition and feedback loop.

  • A student that struggled to put forth much effort during the first week of school, began to really challenge himself during the second week.  Could this be as a result of the feedback with which I provided him?  Or could it be because of the meaningful SMART Goals he set for himself that included staying more focused in class to do more than just finish a task or assignment?  Perhaps it was a combination of the two.
  • Another student had great difficulty staying focused in class during the first two weeks of school.  He would often loudly play with his water bottle, stare around the room, or just sit and stare off into the distance during class lessons or work periods.  He also wasn’t accomplishing his nightly homework assignments.  After providing him with feedback last Friday, he set some really specific SMART Goals that, I believe, allowed him to hone in on those areas of struggle for him this week.  In the two days that we’ve been in school so far this week, I’ve seen a huge change in his behavior and effort.  He is completing the nightly homework well, focusing in class, not distracting others, and accomplishing his work.  It’s amazing!  Is it because of the feedback and reflection process?  Maybe.  It could also be the fact that I spoke to his parents about this issue at the end of last week.  Or, maybe it’s that I provided him with a fidget object that he can use in the classroom, at the start of this week.  Who knows?  Maybe it’s all of the above reasons that has fostered this change within him.  I do wonder if the change would have occurred had I not provided him feedback or the opportunity to reflect on his progress.
  • Another student struggled to not talk while others were working quietly or talking during the first week of school.  The following week, I needed to redirect him much less often.  He seemed to self-correct on his own.  Was this because of the feedback he received from me?  Or was it his self-reflection?
  • A few students struggled to understand the expectations of our classroom during the first week.  They talked over their peers and were distracting to others quite a bit.  Then, their behavior seemed to magically change, and this was no longer an issue during week two.  What happened?  Was it my feedback?  Was it their self-reflection and goal setting?  Or maybe a combination?

The results I’ve seen so far in the classroom are telling me that this combination of teacher feedback and student self-reflection is making a positive difference.  My students are growing, developing, and learning because of this, I feel.  I see this meta cognition and feedback as mental hydration for the students.  Their brains need to process and think about what is happening in the classroom and what they are learning.  At the same time though, they also need an outsider’s perspective to know if what they are doing is as it seems.  Does their perception match the reality?  This process I use in the classroom seems to really help students attune to what’s going on.  I love it and have already seen its amazing impacts in just a few weeks.  While I tried a similar approach with previous classes, I never had the time to do it this purposefully or meaningfully.  It’s working, and so I’m going to keep working on it with the students.  Learning and growing is not an easy process by any means, and so the more tools that we can equip our students with, the better off and more prepared they will be.  Success can truly be measured by looking both internally and externally.  Is what you were hoping would happen really happening?  And that’s the power of meta cognition and teacher feedback.

Student-Centered Learning: How Does it Impact Student Engagement in the Classroom?

I read an interesting article last week about the landmark book The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik.  The article summarizes the metaphor the author uses to suggest how children should be raised in modern society.  While the article is geared towards parents, I do wonder if the same concept could apply to education as well.  Should we be trying to build students that do what we think as educators is best, or should we be cultivating a positive classroom culture that promotes teamwork, reflection, mindfulness, critical thinking, compassion, problem solving, and creativity so that students can develop and bloom into their own person?  As we are no longer preparing students to go out into a world of industry that is driven by factories in which all people need to be doing the same thing and following the same directions, logic leads me to believe that we should not be trying to craft students to fit into a particular mold.  Instead, schools and teachers should be helping students to find themselves while providing them opportunities to learn the useful and necessary skills they will need to be effective global citizens.  Teachers should be empowering students and handing the reigns of control over to them.  Students need to learn how to solve problems and think for themselves.  If schools employ a curriculum that forces students to follow a prescribed set of directions to complete a required task, how will students learn to be responsible citizens in our world?  Schools need to realize that times have changed.  We are no longer preparing students for factory life.  We are preparing students to think critically about the world around them in order to solve problems in creative and compassionate ways.  Schools that have evolved over time are the ones that are most helping students and our world.  Because I teach at a school that sees the power in creating learning opportunities for students in order to help them thrive and blossom into all sorts of beautiful, free-thinking organisms, I am able to implement a meaningful curriculum that focuses on inspiring students.

From day one in my fifth grade classroom, I’ve tried to focus on how I teach.  Rather than seeing myself as a carpenter, I’ve put forth much energy to be more of a guide or gardener.  Instead of telling my students what they need to do to show mastery of a particular concept, skill, or objective, I provide them with options or ask for their input.  I’m trying to foster a sense of autonomy and responsibility among the students in my class.  My goal is for them to see what is important and valuable, and then begin steering the classroom ship in that direction.  Although this manner of teaching does seem to make the most sense to me based on the reality in which we live, it’s not easy to break myself of old habits.  In college, I was trained to think that my role as a teacher is to ensure that my students do what I say according to the rules of how to do it.  As a young and naive educator and college student, I accepted what my professors told me.  They know what is best, I thought.  Years later, I realized that what I once thought was the right way to teach was in fact not at all accurate.  So, I’ve been doing much research on teaching and learning over the past few years.  I’ve changed my teaching style to adapt to what I’ve discovered along the way.  It’s challenging for me to think that I should not be the one in charge of the learning in the class.  I have to give up control, I thought.  But I am a control freak and need everything to go just so.  How can I possibly give up control and expect that everything will be okay?  It’s not about control, it’s about managing my expectations.  If I want students to leave my classroom being curious, responsible, self-sufficient, creative, compassionate, and mindful young people, than I need to change the way I think about teaching and living in general.  So, I’ve been doing that.  This year, in particular, I’ve been very thoughtful and purposeful in everything I say and do in the classroom.  I want to inspire my students to learn and grow as individuals and fifth grade family members. I want what I do in the classroom to be about them, which is why I’m trying to create a student-centered approach to learning in the classroom.

  • In my last entry I wrote about a brilliant idea one of my students had for a writing project.  So, I ran with it and implemented it in the classroom this week.  After explaining the project and task to them, I allowed the students to brainstorm the story idea, characters, and chapter assignments.  I observed from the side as they got into a great discussion.  They bounced ideas off of one another and came up with a very unique story idea in which seven superhero children travel to the Atlantic ocean to help pick up trash that the super villain Squid Man has been dumping into the ocean.  They had so much fun coming up with ideas and choosing roles.  I didn’t intervene once.  While it seemed chaotic at first, with many students talking at once, one student interjected and said, “It’s really hard to hear each other’s ideas when we are all talking at once.  Why don’t we have one person call on people who are raising their hands?”  A student raised her hand to be the leader and the rest of the conversation went swimmingly.  It was so awesome.  If I had jumped in and tried to control the situation like part of me wanted to do, I would have prevented opportunities for growth and learning from taking place.
  • After completing a scientific investigation together as a class to model and teach the steps of the scientific method, I wanted to provide the students with a different investigation in which they could practice and apply what they learned.  While I had plenty of ideas in mind, my only stipulation was that they had to use corn starch and at least one other material to create an investigation.  Some students chose glue or clay, while others chose water of some sort.  It was so cool to observe them all taking risks, trying new things, and learning about themselves as science students.  They seemed to have so much more fun than groups of students I’ve worked with in the past that did not have the freedom to choose their materials or type of investigation.  My fifth graders were excited and engaged.  It was amazing!
  • During the first week of classes, we watched a news-like video in Math to help the students begin to see that Math is about a mindset and not how one is born.  After watching the video, a student raised her hand and said, “We should do a news video like that and present it to the whole school during Community.”  I loved the idea so much, as did the other students in the class, that we are going to do just that tomorrow.  The students spent last week gathering pictures, interviews, and video footage of the school and other students during their free time.  Tomorrow we will spend the day putting the video together.  The students will assign roles, record the newscast, and then lay it out on the computer.  I can’t wait to see what the students create.  They are so creative.  I was however, at first, hesitant to try something like this as it meant that I would not be in control.  What if it doesn’t go right?  What if the students make mistakes?  What if…  The list could go on and on.  Just like with the story project, I need to allow the students to solve their own problems and take responsibility for their learning outcomes.  If it doesn’t work out or fails, even better.  That way, the students will have the ability to think critically, problem solve, and try something new.

These examples simply highlight a few of the ways I’ve tried to create a student-centered classroom in the fifth grade this year.  I’m super excited and happy with how things are going thus far.  I can’t wait to see how the future unfolds.  For me, it’s all about trying new things as a way of empowering my students and helping them to learn real-world skills that will allow them to transform and bloom into effective global citizens.