You Taught Your Students What?: Highlights from Last Week in my Fifth Grade Classroom

While last week did feel a bit chaotic and busy at times at my wonderful little school, as we prepared for the big April vacation taking place this week and had to input Progress Report grades, there was also a sense of serenity, gratitude, and excitement in the air.  The temperatures outside began to rise, the snow had finally melted from our rolling fields, and spring was beginning to take hold in central New Hampshire last week.  Despite the craziness of finishing up a unit, cleaning the school, and preparing for the final two months of the academic year, numerous wonderful things took place in my fifth grade classroom last week.  In no particular order, here they are…

Mindfulness Yoga

Looking back on when I came up with this grand idea of having a Yoga instructor come into my classroom once a month for the entire year to teach my students the power of Yoga, mindfulness, and relaxation, I wasn’t even sure it would be possible.  It seemed like a utopian construct that would never work in reality.  Would I be able to find an instructor crazy and brave enough to be a part of such an ambitious undertaking?  Then, my school’s headmaster gave me the name of a wonderful Yogi who is also the mother of two BHS students.  Would she want to help out?  Could she help out?  Would her schedule allow her to lead such a class?  In early August, I received an excited and hopeful email from Lisa Garside, owner of a local Yoga studio.  She would love to work with me and my class throughout the year, she responded.  The ideal time that I had in mind totally worked with her schedule.  The stars were aligning.  I couldn’t wait for the academic year to begin.  But then, would my students be into it?  Would they be engaged in such a different type of mindful instruction?  When I informed my students of the first session way back in September of 2018, you would have thought that I had told them they had no homework for the rest of the month.  They couldn’t wait for our first class.  What seemed impossible became achievable because I persevered and ran with a kooky idea.

Now, as I think about the fact that we have but one final Yoga session left in this school year, I am feeling bittersweet about it all.  I am ecstatic that it was so well received by my students.  They have loved our monthly Yoga sessions and have really gained much focus, relaxation, and calming strategies over the course of the year.  I am so grateful that Mrs. Garside was able and willing to give us the gift of her time, wisdom, and kindness.  She has been absolutely amazing with my students.  Yoga days are the most relaxed days each month, as we begin them in such a peaceful and calm manner.  I am also sad to think about the end being so near.  Our last Yoga session will take place in May, and serve as another reminder of just how close the end of the school year truly is.  We have been so fortunate this year to have Mrs. Garside work with us month after month.

This past week, Mrs. Garside led my students through our April Yoga session.  The focus for this month was on a different style of Yoga that included quick and fast breathing.  The students learned more about how to focus their energy on breathing and moving, instead of dwelling on their inner thoughts regarding this more challenging form of Yoga.  It was quite amazing to observe my students practicing the concept of mindfulness, as they worked very hard to hold difficult poses for long periods of time.  A sense of awe and wonder washed over me as I watched my students engage in this wonderful Yoga session.

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I believe that every school and class should incorporate some form of Yoga in their routine, as I have witnessed the amazing benefits first hand.  My students are able to be more present in the moment, aware of their breathing, and understand the power of their bodies from partaking in our monthly Yoga classes.  Imagine how much more compassionate, kind, and aware ALL students could be if Yoga was incorporated into the curriculum or routine in some way in ALL schools.  Perhaps instances of bullying and violence in schools would decrease if ALL students were provided the opportunity to stop, relax, focus, breathe, and stretch at least once a month.  Just imagine the possibilities.

Rover Presentations in Science Class

After weeks of great effort, much failure, perseverance, overcoming adversity, trying new things, taking risks, and rebuilding based on feedback, the three student groups presented their space rovers to two judges this past Friday during Science class.  Each group began their presentation by explaining the problem that their solution and rover could solve.  One group tackled the trash and plastic issue plaguing Earth, while another group chose to mine asteroids for frozen water.  The third group had wanted to mine asteroids for their materials.  They were very specific in identifying their problem and solution.  Each group then showcased how their rover works.  They detailed how they built their rover, the problems encountered as they worked and how they overcame that adversity, and how their rover operates.  It was quite impressive to hear the students share their ideas, thoughts, and facts regarding what they had learned throughout our Astronomy Unit.  Amazing!

The highlights for me were three-fold:

  • Talk About Preparation: The students were so rehearsed and ready for Friday’s presentations that you would have thought we were live streaming the event for the world to see.  They spoke with poise and clarity, unlike what I normally see and hear during class discussions or chats.  They avoided the dreaded ums, ahhs, and likes as if they were evil incantations uttered by the Teletubbies or Barney.  The students didn’t skip a beat between speakers either.  Each group just knew when to pass the metaphorical baton.  It was awesome.  I was so proud of them.  The judges were in awe of their brilliant performances.  In times like these, I have to remind myself that my students are only in the fifth grade because they often act as though they are gifted graduate students studying to take over the world.
  • Problem Solving in Action: As one group readied to demonstrate how their rover worked for the judges, nothing seemed to happen.  They toggled the on switch back and forth, and still nothing.  Instead of giving up and continuing on with their presentation, they stopped for a few moments to solve their problem.  After fiddling with a few of the Little Bits pieces, they got their rover rolling.  They could have easily given up and not fixed the problem encountered, but they did not and did.  They persevered and reached the top of the mountain of awesomeness.  It was so cool to watch this play out.  Everything we’ve worked on all year was on display in those few brief moments.  I could not have been a more proud teacher.
  • To Judge or Not to Judge: Rather than have me assess the students on their presentations, pose questions, and provide the students with feedback, I brought in two very qualified judges to be a part of the big event in class on Friday.  Earl Tuson, a mechanical engineer who once worked for NASA and Aubrey Nelson, one of the science teachers from my school were absolutely wonderful.  They asked the students high-level questions and kept them on their toes the whole time.  I do believe that having such quality judges helped inspire the students to be so prepared for their presentations.  It’s nice to bring in other community members for the students to interact with throughout the year.

Empathy and Compassion Aren’t Simply Trendy Catch Phrases

As I read many educational blogs and articles found in all parts of the inter-web, it seems as though teaching students the concepts of empathy and compassion are and have been hot topics for quite some time.  How do we best help students learn the power of empathy?  Why does it seem that our students are so entitled in the classroom?  How can we help our students learn to be compassionate citizens?

Like all great teachers, I have tried, over the course of this school year, to instill these ideas of caring and kindness within my students.  We often talk about how to communicate in compassionate ways with each other in the classroom.  Compassion is one of our class norms.  However, it sometimes feels like I’m simply doing lip service to some big, grandiose, and utopian idea that is not really achievable in the classroom.  Is all of this work for not?  What I witnessed this past week in my classroom definitely tells me otherwise.

This past Wednesday, one of my students had his lunch taken, accidentally, as he had left it out of his lunch box during the all-school lunch period.  He came back to the classroom seeming very upset and hungry.  He shared what had happened with me and the other students in the classroom prior to the start of our next class.  Immediately, two students got extra food they had leftover in their lunch boxes to share with this student.  Despite the student saying, “No thanks,” they gave him the food anyway.  He then gratefully enjoyed this gifted food during our class read-aloud.  I shared what had unfolded with the entire class prior to starting to read aloud from our class novel, as I wanted everyone to celebrate the kind deeds in action.  The most happy-tears part of the whole situation was that the students who gave their leftover food to the student who had none, didn’t even pause to think about their choice or actions; they simply got their food out and gave it to the student, as though that is just what you do to help members of your community.  Wow, was just about all I was thinking in that moment.  Perhaps those lessons and all that talk of compassion and empathy did have an impact on my students.

Astronomy Unit Reflection

Going into this Astronomy Unit in Science class way back in mid-March, I felt quite confident that I was providing students with the learning and education on space that they had requested prior to starting the unit.  They gave me some great insight as to what specific topics regarding astronomy that they wanted to study and cover over the course of our unit; and so, when I crafted the unit, I made sure to include what they had asked for and not what topics they had already learned about in the past.  For this reason, I was very hopeful that the students would really enjoy this unit.

Fast forward a month to the end of the unit and I still feel the same way.  The students seemed engaged and curious throughout our unit.  They seemed to like every part of it, including the test.  So, when I asked for feedback on the unit this past Friday, as we closed the door on this fine masterpiece of learning, I had my fingers crossed that my thoughts would align nicely with the students’ perspective on our Astronomy Unit.

The big takeaways for me were that the students did really enjoy this unit, overall.  While there are always going to be outliers in an activity like completing a feedback form, almost every students felt like I had covered what they wanted to learn in a way that worked for them.  This felt really positive.  Asking for thoughts and ideas before the unit, helped me to generate a very meaningful and engaging unit on an often fun topic for students.  Asking the students for help in creating an engaging and fun curriculum totally helps.  Student buy-in was great throughout this unit, as they had helped to shape it.  I love it!

Here are some direct quotes from the Google Form the students completed regarding their thoughts on our astronomy unit:

  • In answering the question, “Is there anything(s) that you wish we had learned about space that we did not cover during this unit?” one student responded: No, I feel like I was informed of everything I wanted to learn.
  • In addressing this question, “If you were the teacher, what would you change about the Knowledge Phase, including mini-lessons and test?” one student wrote: Nothing. I thought that you handled them very well.

McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center Field Trip

As I’m sure we can all attest to, we may not remember many of the specific topics covered when we were students in school, but we sure do recall, vividly, the experiences we had in school.  I will never forget the field trips I took to Fort Number Four in fourth grade, an outdoor science center in sixth grade, and Washington D.C. in ninth grade.  Those opportunities brought the learning to life for me.  I remember the fun times with classmates, cool science facts, and the amazing exhibits in the museums we visited.  As teachers, we realize this fact, and try to imbue our class and curriculum with engaging and enjoyable experiences.

This past Tuesday, as a way to wrap up our Astronomy Unit, I took my class to visit the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery in Concord, NH.  The students enjoyed the hands-on exhibits in the discovery center.  They loved trying to land the space shuttle and experiencing the different types of waves.  We concluded our visit with a very cool planetarium show on Black Holes.  After partaking in the unveiling of the Black Hole images from two weeks ago, my students were so into learning more about Black Holes.  It was awesome.  Throughout the show, I heard my students say, “Wow,” “That’s so neat,” and “I didn’t know that.”  It was awesome.  While they may not remember every last fact we learned about space throughout our unit, I’m hopeful that they will never forget our class trip to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center.

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All that stuff happened in just one week?  Whoa, that was a very rich and full week.  As I wax nostalgic on all the fun I’ve had with my class this year, it’s comforting to know that I still have almost two more months with them before they matriculate into sixth grade.  How much more fun can be had?  Well, we are sure to find out starting next week.

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Providing Students with Opportunities to Give Thanks to Others

A few weeks ago, while we were discussing current events in our world during Social Studies class, one of my students asked, “Why is all the news so negative and about horrible things happening?”  What an insightful question, I thought.  It does seem as though most of the news we read about online or in newspapers is focused on the negative things happening around the world.  Just look at the main stories on CNN.com. What about all the good stuff that is happening?  Unfortunately, our brains are wired to survive, and thus, we focus on negative pieces of information that may help better prepare us to fight and survive.  While we no longer live in caves and need to worry about giant predatory cats attacking us, our brains still crave bad news.  It’s why we can’t look away from car crashes when we see them on the side of the road.  As the news media know this knowledge nugget as well, they focus on the negative aspects of life.  I constantly remind my class that we have to retrain our brains to see the good in the world.  It is our duty to focus on the positive things that are happening around the globe.  Websites like Positive News help us to do just that.  Although I want my students to view the world from multiple perspectives, we don’t have to focus solely on the awful things taking place in our country and beyond.  We can also appreciate the amazing people who are making wonderful things happen globally.  Our world is much like an onion.  At first glance, the state of affairs seems a bit depressing: People are dying, lawmakers are fighting, and terrorists are attacking.  It’s like the outer skin of an onion, most people find it unpleasant to look at it and generally tear it off immediately.  Once you dig deeper in the world though, you find stories about citizens protesting for their rights and freedom, Katie Bouman helping to create the algorithm that allowed us all to see the first-ever pictures of a black hole, and how terror attacks are decreasing around the world.  Just like in an onion; once you peel back that outer skin, you get to the tasty, zesty parts of the onion that make our omelettes and burgers that much more delicious.

Because I see how much negativity my students are constantly bombarded with in our world, I make it a personal goal of mine to spread positivity in my classroom.  I want my students to value kindness and compassion.  I want my students to be grateful and appreciative.  I want my students to see how being positive and focusing on the good in the world can make you a happier, kinder person.  I do this in multiple ways.  I bring positive energy into the classroom with me each day so that I can make learning and developing fun and engaging.  I greet my students warmly as they enter the classroom each day.  I play happy or energetic music in the morning, before school officially begins, to help put smiles on the faces of my students.  I write a pun or silly joke on the board each morning that usually inspires my students to say, “Oh, that is a very bad dad joke Mr. Holt.”  I close each day by having students share something they are grateful for that day on our Gratitude Wall.  This discussion brings about positivity and helps my students to see how small acts of kindness go a long way.  I love that this experience fosters such joy and happiness.  Smiles spread throughout the classroom during this time of day.  Tiny acts like the ones I do each day in my classroom to bring about a positive atmosphere, spread joy and kindness, despite the negativity that is constantly staring many of my students in the face when they turn on their laptops or look in the newspaper.

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Another simple way I help to teach my students the importance of being thankful and kind to others is through letter writing.  When a special guest visits our class, our headmaster arranges for a fun day of skiing, or community members help our class in some way, I have the students sign a thank you card that we give to that person.  Through modelling this kind of behavior, I’m hopeful that my students will see how important doing something like this is and how much it means to the person.  When our headmaster received our thank you card, he immediately came to our class to thank us for making his day.  He was grateful that people appreciated his little gesture.

I also have the students craft and send personal emails to other teachers and students in the school, periodically throughout the school year.  Not only, does this allow me the opportunity to teach the students how to craft and format a formal email, but it presents the students with the chance to spread a little joy to someone else.  Who doesn’t find themselves smiling when they receive an email from a co-worker or peer thanking them for something they did?  It makes a difference.  Here are some of the messages my students have sent to faculty members and other students at our amazing little school:

  • “Thank you for playing outside at recess with me. You make it very fun. When you come out I have a lot of fun. Thanks again for giving me the opportunity to have fun with you.”
  • “It has been my pleasure working with you on the group science project. You have done lots of work to improve the rover and other things like quests. Also, your perseverance is so amazing!  When you get frustrated, you push through even if a problem is so big that you think you can’t handle it! Not only that but any other group projects I have done with you are so fun and you make all of them very interesting! Thank you for being a great friend!”
  • “Thank you for swinging with me and hanging out with me every
    day. it is really fun. See you tomorrow.😁
  •  “I would just like to thank you for helping me during drama. You kept track of my cloak during drama. You also helped me with homework when we had some free time. “
  • “Tonight the fifth grade had a homework assignment to write to a facility member on something that they have done that I am Grateful for. I picked you because, when I joined The Beech Hill School, I wanted to be in Yearbook! I knew It was a little late to join but you excepted me in. Also, you taught me how to use Entourage Yearbooks and maneuver through all the difficulties. I was so happy you showed me all of that! So once again thank you so much for your help.”
  • “I’m thankful that you come into my class and teach us Spanish. I like learning Spanish from you more than I did at my old school. I also want to thank you for having the upper classes hold Empanada Day. It was fun trying all of the different recipes and judging all of them. Thank you for all that you do.”
  • “Hello! I just wanted to thank you for helping the actors in drama get it together. I also wanted to thank you for directing the play. Some of us were pretty spooked about going onstage. Again, thank you for your leadership skills and helping the actors get scripts onto the stage.”

Although negativity spreads like the wretched, common cold, positivity can have the same effect.  I feel as though my students have become more thankful and kind over the course of the year because of these minor acts.  While they are assigned to complete these tasks, I have noticed them going out of their way to say “thank you” in other situations.  The students are also quick to remedy situations in the class that seem unkind.  When they notice that someone is feeling upset or sad, they will talk to that person and find out how they can help that person feel better.  It’s really quite amazing.  My class truly is like one big, happy family that takes care of each other.

Lessons in Learning from a Mechanical Engineer

Teachers are the best students, as we must never stop learning and growing.  Educators are always in search of new lessons, new ways to approach a concept in the classroom, and new ways to engage our students.  Teachers are like great adventurers on magical quests for knowledge, understanding, and a bright future for our students.  While most of this learning does generally happen outside of the walls of our classrooms, we also learn a lot from our students.  Each day I’m in the classroom with my students is like Christmas all over again; I keep unwrapping magical gifts of wonder and excitement.  I often ask my students, “I wonder who’s doing more learning today, me or you.”  Our students teach us how to be kind, how to approach and solve problems, how to speak what’s on our mind, how to be curious and wonder, how to care for others, and how to see the world through rainbow-colored glasses of awesomeness.  Joe Dirt was right, life really is a garden.

Although my students provide me with many lessons on a daily basis, I often find myself learning from my colleagues as well.  My school’s headmaster is an amazingly kind, caring, and thoughtful man whose heart is filled with never-ending support and love.  He goes out of his way to help and support the teachers and students of our amazing school on a daily basis.  The other teachers in my school community are some of the wisest and most wonderful educators I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting and working with.  The English teacher directs our students in plays that rival those I’ve seen on Broadway, while our Math teacher is pretty much the smartest person I know.  Her ability to solve problems is phenomenal.  Our Science teachers make a dynamic duo of chemistry and physics.  They engage our students in cool projects and know more about squid than the creatures themselves.  Our History teacher is compassionate and filled with energy like a hot air balloon of love, archeology, geology, and art history.  She seems to know history better than those who have written textbooks on the subject.  My learning journey never ends due to my amazing students, fellow teachers, and all of those special guests I invite into my classroom.

Wednesday morning, Earl Tuson, a mechanical engineer, farmer, father, husband, and so much more, spoke to my students about solving problems while working for NASA.  He told great stories about the importance of being open to all ideas and listening to others.  He was once on a team that had to create a device or machine that would carry astronauts from one part of the International Space Station to another, outside of the giant craft.  While his team had been working on this problem for quite some time, they were stuck.  He came on board and suggested they think about it like a bicycle.  As the team was very fixed in their mindset, they were unable to hear Mr. Tuson’s brilliant and simple solution to their problem.  In the end, they crafted this complex machine that fell apart in space.  If only his team members had listened to all of the ideas put forth before choosing one, perhaps NASA would not have had yet another problem to solve.  The students were engaged in what Mr. Tuson had to say and asked many great questions about our Astronomy Project.  One student asked about the best material to protect a space craft from the harmful rays of the sun, while another student bluntly asked if her group’s idea for a solution to the problem of trash on Earth was realistic or viable.  Rather than directly respond to her question, he asked her to think about if the trash on Earth is indeed trash at all.  Couldn’t we reuse the plastic?  Can we use the rotting food as compost?  Is their really trash that cannot be somehow repurposed?  This response caused her to rethink her group’s approach to the problem.  As Mr. Tuson spoke to my class, I felt inspired to learn and grow as well.

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After his talk with my students, I picked his brain a bit further.  I asked him more directly about how he approaches problems.  Do you draw things out before you begin building?  How do you plan out solutions?  I was a bit surprised by his response.  He said, “I tinker and play until the pieces seem to come together.  Through doing, I am better able to be inspired and think critically.  I can’t draw out a solution without first trying to put things together.  The process doesn’t work like that.  Those who create a blueprint before actually constructing a product, end up having to spend much time revising their design because theories and ideas don’t always end up working the way we’d like them to in life.”  This got me thinking.  So, I then asked him, “Should I revise the project steps a bit to allow the students to tinker and play with the materials they will use to build their space rovers before having them create a blueprint?”  He felt as though providing the students with a chance to play and experiment first, would lead to better results and more engagement.  I then changed the stages of the project to allow students time to play with the Little Bits pieces before they crafted a blueprint.  And was I ever thankful I did that.

Thursday and Friday of this week, the students began the design phase of the group project in class.  After brainstorming their solutions, I gave them time to learn how to use the Little Bits STEM Kits.  I wanted them to see the possibilities and learn how they work.  As the students tinkered and played, they talked about ideas.  “Oh, we could use this to make our rover do that,” many of the students said as they snapped the circuit pieces together.  They were so into this tinkering process.  Their faces lit up when they discovered something new that they could do.  The buzzer button was one of their most favorite pieces.  Shockingly enough, I wasn’t bothered by the constant buzzing as much as I thought I would be.  The other students were the ones telling their classmates to refrain from using the buzzer for more than a few seconds.  That was pretty neat.  After the students determined the ins and outs of the Little Bits pieces, they began sketching out their rover ideas.  Their blueprints were much more detailed and thorough than they would have been had I not allowed them to tinker and play first.  Mr. Tuson was right, allowing students to engage with the pieces and materials first leads to more unique and specific ideas and solutions.  My grandmother was so right, I really do learn something new every day.

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