Thank You: My Attitude of Gratitude

Glancing out my apartment window, I notice large flakes of snow slowly drifting through the cold November air.  How beautiful and amazing that no two snowflakes are alike.  How is that even possible?  Mother Nature is amazing in so many ways.  I am thankful for the beauty that lies right outside my door.

On this Thanksgiving eve, I can’t help but be filled with joy, happiness, and gratitude.  I am thankful for the opportunity to be alive and enjoy all that the world has to offer, both the good and not so good parts.  I’m thankful for the warm smells of apples and cinnamon, and grateful that the smell of skunk rarely fills my nostrils.  I’m thankful for my beautiful and amazing wife, with whom I am lucky to be on this wild adventure called life.  I’m thankful for her smile and thoughtful words when I need them most.  I’m grateful for the magnificent colors of this holiday season, from the reds and greens to the browns and whites.  The greenish hues of an evergreen tree glistening in the sunlight are magnificent.  I’m thankful for good friends, near and far, who are always there when you need them, like a security blanket.  I’m thankful to be working at such a wonderful educational institution.  I’m grateful for my supportive and appreciate headmaster, who makes me feel like the never-ending flame on a menorah.  I’m thankful for my school’s amazing Jill-of-all-Trades, Judy.  I’m not sure what mental state I might be in right now if it wasn’t for her.  I’m thankful for my students and their amazing families.  It’s nice to know that we are all on this fifth grade journey together.  How magical is that?  I’m thankful for the Hallmark Channel and the wonderfully festive holiday movies.  Nothing beats coming home after a long day at work and lounging around in front of the television watching a Christmas movie in your Christmas onesie and reindeer slippers.  Yah, that’s the stuff of which dreams are made.  I’m thankful for great young adult books that have been erupting from the speakers in my automobile on my journey to and fro work in the past several months.  Endling by Katherine Applegate was brilliant.  You should totally check it out if you haven’t already, as you are in for quite a delightful treat.  I’m grateful for many things these days, and am fortunate in numerous ways.  Despite the hardships we all face from time to time, I am a very lucky man.  So, to the snowflakes still drifting by my window like tiny angels sent from above, I say thank you.  Thank you for reminding me of all the greatness that fills my life each and every day.

In this moment of thankfulness, one snapshot from recent days stands out from the rest.  Picture this, it’s Parent-Teacher Conference Day at your child’s school.  But, instead of the formal and sometimes contentious conferences like those from past years, you realize that this year is different.  As you enter your child’s classroom, the teacher greets you with a smile and your child begins setting up.  Setting up for what, you wonder.  Shouldn’t it be the teacher preparing to tell you all about what your child has accomplished in school so far this year?  Your child then proceeds to tell you all about their progress in school this year.  They share their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their goals for continuing to grow and learn.  They field questions you pose, and run the show like a boss.  They seem to know themselves as a learner better than you.  The teacher only contributes to the discussion to recognize your child for his or her growth and progress.  This conference is more of an open and honest dialogue with your child about their process of learning in school, than a time for your child’s teacher to front load you with information about how they think your child is progressing.  Imagine that, a student-led conference.  Amazing, right?  If only schools did that, you think to yourself. Well, no need to keep dreaming because schools around the world are moving in this direction.  In fact, in my classroom, that is how we do Parent-Teacher Conferences.  On Monday and Tuesday of this week, my students wowed their parents, and me, frankly, with their metacognition and ability to reflect on their progress in the fifth grade.  They shared their highlights from the past few months in school and explained how they want to keep growing and developing as learners, doers, and creative problem solvers.  They totally rocked it and ran the show.  Their parents had very few questions, if any at all, at the end of their conferences, as the students did such a wonderful job explaining everything.  I was a proud and grateful teacher, yet again.

Wow, is the only way I know how to sum up today’s entry on gratefulness and student-led conferences.  No, I take that back.  I received an email from the parent of one of my students after she attended his student-led conference on Monday, and I feel as though it really sums it all up nicely.

I just wanted to say how thrilled I was with today’s 5th grade conference, not because of my son’s progress, but rather, because of the way it was conducted. I readily admit, I was skeptical at first. When I first learned that my son would run the conference, the thought may have crossed my mind once or twice – what do you mean that my child will not only be at the conference but also run it?! After today, my view is completely opposite.

Today’s conference was everything that I would desire, and more, from a school conference. My son was able to articulate what he does well, as well as what he has already worked to improve on. He was honest about things he needs to do better. Additionally, he had established his own goals, and together we were able to expand on those. 

As I reflected on the conference, I realized that one of the major benefits is that I don’t have to speak to him “parent-to-child” about the things he needs to improve on. I loved that I didn’t get the feeling that I was being ceremoniously patted on the back about having a studious child; there was more of a feeling of transparency all around between the three of us, and as a parent, I know that each of my children certainly have areas that challenge them. I also recognize and appreciate that it likely took exponentially more time for the teacher to prepare all of this with each student.

Many thanks to Mr. Holt for these efforts, and I heartily applaud his concept of the student-run conference.

More gratitude.  I love it!  Thank you, parent of one of my students, for taking the time to show your gratitude.  On that note, Happy Thanksgiving to you all, and I hope you take this opportunity to reflect on the many things you all have to be grateful for in your lives.

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It’s All About Relationships

Driving to my school this morning to help out at an Open House event for prospective fifth grade families, I felt a sense of calm and peace wash over me like glaze on a doughnut.  I was moved to philosophical thought, as I finally had a chance to meaningfully reflect on my teaching.  After an amazing, yet rich and full fall trimester in the fifth grade, I haven’t had much me-time.  I’ve been straight out, pedal-to-the-metal busy planning, teaching, grading, supporting and helping my students, and meeting with families, not to mention all of my responsibilities as a father and husband.  So, this morning, as I made my way south to the wonderful Beech Hill School, I had the opportunity to think poetically about the last three months at my new school…


Like a smooth stone shaped by the current, rolling along a river’s bed,

I’ve been changed and transformed by my school and students over the past few months:

I’ve taken risks and tried new things I never thought possible,

like mindful yoga and a student-driven newscast;

I empowered my students to own their learning,

as if they were the teachers and I the student;

I embraced failure and made it a positive part of our classroom vernacular,

one must fail for learning to be manifested;

My students challenged me to push them forward in new directions,

like ships changing course to avoid icebergs;

I employed new strategies to promote social awareness in the classroom,

we are a family, and families take care of each other, I preached;

I tried new, innovative ways to engage my students in the process of learning,

like Forest Fridays, student choice, a class pet, and bonus points.

 

I thought about the struggles I faced as well,

the challenges that kept me busily searching for possible solutions,

like the Goonies searching for One-Eyed Willy’s lost treasure.

Even after only a short time at my new school, I’ve grown in many ways,

like mountains being formed through tectonic plate movement.

My peaks eroded through the winds of change and new challenges

while my deep valleys began filling in with new information debris.

 

I am a semi-polished piece of granite, floating in the river

that is the Beech Hill School, learning and growing in a

never ending cycle of compassion and commitment.

I can only imagine what the next few months have in store for me.


As I pondered all of my moments of wonder, scenes of serenity, and snapshots of challenge, I started dwelling on what truly matters.  Although, as educators, we are constantly bombarded by articles and blog entries on new pedagogical approaches to teaching and advances in technology, what I began to realize on my early morning trek was that all that fancy stuff, all those bows on the presents of teaching, are meaningless without the gift of relationships inside.  High tech gadgets like interactive whiteboards and hands-on projects are ineffective and useless if we haven’t formed strong bonds and positive relationships with our students.  If our students don’t feel supported, cared for, or safe at school, then their brains will be unable to learn in any sort of meaningful and genuine manner.  Tiny problems that are easily solved because of the strong relationships we have with our students will quickly snowball into giant issues if we do not work to create strong and effective relationships with our students.

Just last week, a student in my class struggled to showcase his learning and reflect in a meaningful way in the ePortfolio he was working to prepare for his student-led conference.  I provided him space to attempt to solve his problem on his own.  While he didn’t openly admit that he was unable to solve his dilemma independently, he sent me a frustrated email that told me he needed help.  Because I have come to understand this student over the past few months and have a great rapport with him, I read through the veneer of anger.  The morning after I received his email, I had a great chat with him about his struggles.  I then worked with him during free periods in our daily schedule to help him display how he has grown and changed since early September.  I re-framed questions, worked with him to put his ideas and thoughts into complete sentences, and helped him transform his thinking onto his laptop.  When all was said and done, he seemed happier and proud of what he had accomplished.  He realized, that when he asks for help, he is able to accomplish the task at hand.

Because I have a strong relationship with this student, I knew that his angry email was a cry for help.  Forming meaningful relationships with our students allows for all of the other puzzle pieces of teaching to fall into place.  When our students feel cared for and understood, they are able to engage in project-based learning and get the most out of interactive learning tools.  Genuine learning happens when our students are able to work from the new, modern portions of their brains responsible for problem-solving and emotion.  My peaceful moments of reflection this morning allowed me to see that all of the awesomeness that happened in my fifth grade classroom this year was as a direct result of the relationships I formed with my students.  Great teachers are great at connecting with their students in just the right ways.

It’s so easy to get caught up in trying to plan the best, most effective, hands-on units possible, when all that really matters is how we interact with our students.  If we know, understand, and care about our students, everything we do plan will be exactly what our students need to help them grow and learn.  Unit planning for me comes down to my students.  What do they need to be successful?  How can I best challenge my students?  What type of project will motivate them to want to know more?  When I start with my students first, I find that the path to growth and learning is always right around the corner.  At the Beech Hill School, we always put our students first, which is why our students love coming to school each and every day.  I even had four amazing students show up today to help out with the Fifth Grade Open House event.  They value their learning and our class community so much that they are willing to give up their free time on a Sunday to help others see the power in being a Beech Hill School student.  If that doesn’t speak to the power of relationships, then I don’t know what does.

Having Fun in the Fifth Grade

My year in the fifth grade was filled with trauma and struggles.  I remember almost nothing positive from my experience in the classroom that year.  I was picked on mercilessly for being different.  I had no friends because of the constant harassment.  I almost always felt alone.  I struggled with great sadness the entire time I was in the fifth grade.  My grandfather passed away that same year.  He and I were very close.  It was a difficult and trying time for me.  While I’m sure some positive things happened that year, because I was racked with such sorrow, I don’t recall anything good happening to me that year in the fifth grade.

To ensure that none of my students ever have such a year in the fifth grade at my school, I’ve created a program filled with hands-on, engaging experiences in tandem with a strong social-emotional learning component.  I want my students to feel like a part of something more than just a class or a grade.  I work hard to foster a sense of community unity within the class.  We work together to solve problems and complete activities.  The Marble Jar positive reinforcement strategy I employ helps the students to see the power in working as one unit.  They hold each other accountable and remind themselves to always be doing the right thing.  It’s pretty cool to see this in action.  It’s like I have eight co-teachers in the classroom with me at all times.  If my students carry baggage to school with them, I want them to be able to unpack it with us in the classroom.  My goal is for all of my students to feel safe and cared for, so that meaningful, fun, and engaging learning can take place.  This approach seems to be working, as my students love coming to school on a daily basis.  Many even beg their parents to bring them to school early so that they can hang out with their peers, create something grand in the Maker Space, or interact with our class hamster.

Some epic highlights from this past week in the fifth grade…

  • On Tuesday, the students posted the second episode of their News Five video to our Google Classroom page for everyone in the class to enjoy.  It is absolutely amazing and rivals most news shows on television these days.  This side project grew from a comment a student made after we viewed a short news-like video in Science class.  One of my students said, “Hey, we should make a fifth grade class news video like this for the whole school to see.”  I loved the idea so much that the following week, I provided the students a whole day to work on making the first episode.  The students did all of the work.  They planned the stories, wrote them, recorded it on one of their iPads, and laid it all out on iMovie.  I just observed the process and made sure they were safe throughout.  It was so much fun watching them work.  They were like little producers.  Two weeks ago they worked on the second episode of the newscast.  Based on the feedback we received on the first episode, I worked with them to plan out the story topics and then write the stories to be sure that we raised the bar of the newsworthiness of the segments included in the video.  The students did everything else.  They had so much fun recording this segment.  They worked together to be sure that each story was as close to perfect as possible.  This episode included interviews with other students, another video, a behind-the-scenes segment, and props.  It was amazing.

News 5 Video

  • On Thursday morning, as part of our SEL curriculum, a local Yoga instructor came in and led our students through a mindful Yoga session.  She comes in to work with us once a month.  This was her second time working with us.  The students love doing Yoga, and it helps them begin the day on a positive, peaceful note.  Serenity filled the classroom Thursday after our Yoga session, like warm, melted chocolate erupting from a chocolate fountain.

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  • On Friday morning, we enjoyed a fun but cold Forest Friday session in the woods near our school.  The focus was on weather-proofing their shelters and starting to make a proper fire pit.  The students cooperated well with their partner to accomplish the task at hand.  They stayed focused on their shelters and fire pits for a whole hour.  It was amazing.  I was so impressed with their perseverance and dedication.  They had so much fun being outside and finding unique and innovative ways to make their shelter rain and snow proof.  This weekly activity is something all of the students look forward to.  They enjoy going outside and getting their hands dirty.  Those students who struggle, at times, to focus in the classroom, thrive outside.  It’s great to provide the students with options in terms of showcasing their learning.

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And those were just some of the highlights from last week.  I could have gone on and on about the fun and engaging experiences with which the students were provided, but I’ll close this entry here.  The fifth grade program at my school is one of learning, compassion, care, engagement, community, and fun.  All of these facets are a part of everything we do in the fifth grade, from our Morning Meeting to our final closing of the day.  It’s all about helping the students broaden their perspective, feel safe, build positive memories, and have fun learning the skills and content they will need to be successful in sixth grade and beyond.  I want my students to look back on their experience in the fifth grade with fond memories.

The Power in Taking Risks and Trying New Activities to More Effectively Engage Our Students

Let’s take a walk down memory lane to begin today’s entry…  You are in your fourth grade classroom, working to finish a vocabulary test.  If only you had studied your words a bit longer.  What does feasible mean, you wonder.  As soon as you hand in your piece of yellow, lined paper, the teacher utters those magic words, and excitement erupts from you and your classmates as though it is the end of the school day.  “Okay girls and boys, everyone put your head down on your desk because it’s time to play Heads Up, Seven Up,” she says with a smile.  You then quickly fold your arms and slam them down onto your desk in the form of a nest.  You then place your head into your arm nest and wait for the teacher to tap the heads of seven students.  Please be me, you desperately hope.  Then your heart is gripped by the dark hands of sadness as you realize that you weren’t chosen.  Oh well, you think, at least you have a chance to be chosen by one of the “it” students.  You quickly put your thumb up, as your hand rests on the edge of your desk.  While you try hard to be good and obey the rules of the game, you can’t help but peek a bit.  You stealthily move your head off the edge of your desk, just a bit so that you can glance at the shoes of the “it” students.  Then, you feel that feeling you’ve been waiting all game to feel.  Someone taps your thumb.  A giddiness washes over you like that time you chose the blue finger puppet monster at the dentist’s office.  You wait for the teacher to give the next cue.  “Heads up, seven up.”  You then stand up, scanning the seven people standing at the front of the room.  Which one tapped me, you wonder.  Then you remember that you had seen white sneakers near your desk right before you were tapped.  You stare at the line of shoes.  But everyone’s wearing white sneakers, you soon realize.  Oh well.  It’s your turn to guess.  Steven, you say.  Wrong.  It was Nick.  Does it really matter though.  You just got to play a really sweet game instead of having to complete more worksheets. Everyone’s a winner, you think to yourself as the lunch bell rings.

Ahh, the good ol’ days of elementary school and “Heads Up, Seven Up.”  Who didn’t like that game.  It was so fun.  It’s one of the most treasured memories from my years at the Hanover Street School.  I don’t remember what I learned in those five years, but I do remember the experiences.  I recall the field trips and the fun games we played.  As a teacher, I am constantly trying to devise new, innovative ways to engage my students in the learning process.  How can I find a fun way to help them learn new information?  How can I make learning interesting and exciting for my students?  On Tuesday afternoon, as I made my way home, I thought long and hard about those two questions.  How could I help my students remember the three components of digital citizenship that we covered in class over the past two weeks?  Could we play a game?  Jeopardy?  Perhaps, but my students love to move around and be active.  What game would combine jeopardy with a sport like baseball.  Then it hit me like a ton of Acme bricks.  And that is how Holt Ball was born.  Like “Heads Up, Seven Up,” it’s a simple game.  Two teams of students work to answer review questions correctly.  If the team that is up to bat answers 75% of their questions correctly, they move onto a round of live Holt Ball.  Baseball rules apply to live Holt Ball rounds. During the question rounds, an out is awarded to the team if the student does not answer his or her question correctly on their own, without help.  They may take an out and seek help from their team members. Points are awarded for correct answers without help as well as runs scored during Holt Ball rounds.

We played Holt Ball in class on Wednesday.  After explaining the rules, choosing teams, and having the students choose their team names, the fun began.  The students had a blast.  It allowed them to have fun, be active, and review the concepts of digital citizenship that they were assessed on in class today.  It allowed me to clarify any confusion that existed.  I helped those students who struggled to answer their question correctly by explaining the concept in a way they hadn’t thought about before.  This interactive and exciting game got my students moving, talking, playing, and reviewing concepts for today’s big assessment.

Going into Wednesday’s game of Holt Ball, I was a bit worried that the rules would be too confusing or that they just wouldn’t want to be up and active.  I was nervous to try this activity.  What if it failed?  What if the students didn’t like it?  What if they did like it?  What if it worked?  Like I tell my students, “If you say you can, then you will succeed, and if you say can’t, then you won’t be successful.”  I took my own advice and decided to give it a try.  Failure is part of the learning process, and so, if it did fail, much learning could come from the experience.

Fast forward to today’s assessment.  Every student exceeded the three objectives being assessed.  They didn’t just know the information, they were able to apply it with gusto.  Even those students who struggle with assessments demonstrated a strong understanding of the concepts covered.  I was blown away.  What happened today?  Was it playing Holt Ball yesterday?  Did that game pack more power than I thought?  Was it more than just an enjoyable game?  Was Holt Ball what helped my students master the content covered?  Or was it something else?  Did they enjoy this unit on digital citizenship, and so, therefore the material was stickier than other concepts from units that weren’t as engaging?  Or was it something else entirely?  I’m going with Holt Ball.  Yeah, it had to be the review game that pushed them all over the edge of understanding.

Taking risks and trying new activities or lessons in the classroom allows me to find new and exciting ways to engage my students in the process of learning.  If I hadn’t tried playing Holt Ball in my class yesterday, would my students have performed as well as they had on today’s assessment?  I’ll never know, but the scientist in me thinks that perhaps they may not have done as well on today’s test if we hadn’t had fun playing an amazing game named after its creator.  As teachers, we need to continuously be thinking, reflecting, and learning so that we can find new and innovative ways to build excitement in the classroom.  By playing Holt Ball with my students yesterday, I provided them with an experience that they will most likely carry with them for years to come, as I did with Heads Up, Seven Up.