Using History to Inspire Students to Care

Growing up, I loved the Care Bears.  I used to watch the cartoons and loved the movies.  I even had a stuffed Care Bear.  If my aging memory is still working effectively, I believe I had Lion Heart.  As a child, I loved the idea that animals could project objects and actions from their stomachs.  Imagine if humans could do that, I used to wonder.  How cool would that be?  I would totally shoot cotton candy or toys out of my belly.  While I clearly didn’t enjoy the Care Bears for the right reason when I was younger, I now get it.  Caring for each other is super important.  We need to protect our loved ones and friends, while also protecting our world.  We need to take care of Mother Nature so that future generations of humans will have a place in which to inhabit.  We need to be kind and thoughtful.  Although it took me about 20 years to realize what the Care Bears were really trying to teach me when I was a child, I did finally come to understand the importance of caring.  However, I still often contemplate the idea of shooting things out of my stomach, especially when I’m really hungry.  Pizza or ice cream perhaps.  Hmmm, the choices.

As a teacher, I often wonder how I can best help my students learn the value in caring, sooner than I did.  While my amazing fifth grade students are very kind and caring towards each other, is that enough?  Sure, they are empathetic and very quick to read the emotions of their peers so that they can act in effective and meaningful ways towards one another.  They often help me in the classroom without being asked.  They take care of each other like a family.  Just last week, when one of my students was clearly distraught about her performance in a school activity, one of her classmates came to her rescue and cheered her up, without prodding from me.  She did it because she knows that caring matters.  But, is taking care of each other enough?  What about the world in which we live?  With our climate changing at an unprecedented pace, causing many global catastrophes, I worry about my students and the future that they will undoubtedly be living in.  I worry that storms will continue to grow in intensity, flooding will become more wide spread, and fires will threaten even more communities.  How can I help them see that something needs to be done?  How can I help inspire my students to be change makers?  I mean, we discuss current events on a weekly basis in the classroom, and often talk about the issue of climate change.  I share facts and information with the students on the climate crisis threatening our world and existence.  They clearly understand that climate change is a real problem, but what about solutions?  How can I help them learn to want to take action and bring about change in the world?  How can I inspire my students to make a difference in the world and care about this great planet on which we are so thankful to be living?

As I often feel the great weight of responsibility pushing down upon me when I enter my classroom each and every day, I am so grateful for teachable moments and opportunities for learning.  This past Monday, as most students slept in and played video games with their friends to mark Civil Rights Day, the Beech Hill School was afforded an awesome opportunity.  We spent the morning talking and learning about the Civil Rights Movement and phenomenal change makers like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  We watched Dr. King’s entire I Have Dream speech, listening to his call to action and inspiring words.  We learned how change doesn’t just happen, and that we, the people, need to bring about change.  Each grade watched a different movie regarding this time period in American History.  My fifth grade class watched the inspiring movie Selma, Lord Selma, which told the story of the famous march in Selma, Alabama that helped to bring about change in Washington, D.C.  What I enjoyed most about this particular film was the perspective it offered my students.  The movie wasn’t just sharing facts about this momentous event, but instead it told the story from the point of view of a young girl, about the age of many of my students.  She helped to foster change in her town.  She saw a problem and made a difference.  She was a change maker, in a time when major changes needed to happen.  She was inspired to care for something greater than herself, as I often hope to help my students learn to do.  So, I grabbed opportunity by the horns and used it to my advantage.

While we didn’t debrief or discuss this movie in the moment, I did talk about it in class the following day during our Morning Meeting.  I had the students provide me with feedback on their thoughts regarding the movie.  They all loved it and think I should use it again next year as the movie the fifth grade class watches on this special day.  A few students shared their thoughts and questions on the movie with the class.  They were all so amazed that one young girl could have had such a big impact on the world.  And that’s when I pulled out my soap box.  I explained how it just takes one spark to start a fire.  One person can make a difference.  “I challenge you all now to go out into the world and make a difference.  Look for problems in our world and make a change.  Make some noise.  Talk to people and create solutions.  Be the change you wish to see the in the world.  For example, the climate crisis.  Look at how one brave teenager from Sweden has helped the world to see how important of an issue Climate Change truly is.  I challenge you to look for problems in our world and find ways to fix them.  Bring about change in our world so that it is still around for you and future generations of people,” I said to my students.  As I often get on my soap box when talking about things that are important to our world, I figured that my students probably just tuned me out when I spoke to them on Tuesday morning.  But, I had to try.  I took the opportunity with which I was provided to help teach my students to care about something beyond our class family.

Well, it turned out that my students were actually listening to me.  They heard my call to action.  All of my nauseating talk of helping to save the world and make it a better place for all, finally sunk in.  Later that day, two students proposed an idea to me.  “Mr. Holt, we want to help the students be more mindful of what they are throwing in the trash so that we can help to slow down climate change.  We want to make a trash chart on which we would note all of the trash of which we dispose in the classroom.  We want to try it and see if it helps,” they said to me.  Inside, I was sobbing like that Christmas Santa brought me the original Optimus Prime Transformer, the metal one, while outwardly I contained my enthusiasm and excitement.  “Wow, that sounds like an awesome idea.  Let’s see what the rest of  the class thinks.  If they are on board, then I say, let’s go for it,” I said to them.  Later that afternoon, during our Closing Meeting, one of the students who had brainstormed this amazing idea, talked to the class about it.  Everyone agreed that it was a fantastic idea.  We even added an incentive.  The student with the lowest amount of hash marks on the chart at the end of each week, will receive a special prize.  The students were enthused about this new challenge.

So, that afternoon, that one student created our first Trash Chart and posted it near the garbage can in our classroom.  What a simple but very cool idea.  The next morning, we began noting all of the trash we threw away.  Every tissue counted as one piece of trash.  Every tea bag and tea bag wrapper of which I disposed counted as a separate piece of trash.  Very quickly, I started to see that I was adding much trash to our trash can.  The students noticed this as well.  Like I’m constantly pushing them to do, I decided to make a change of my own.  I don’t like how wasteful I am with my tea supplies.  So, this weekend I am going to purchase a reusable tea ball and loose tea leaves so that I am not promoting the creation of more wasteful products.  My students inspired me to make a change.  It’s like the circle of change.  I helped to inspire them to foster change, which in turn made me bring about change.  It’s like a huge change train.  Chhoo-Chhoo, all aboard the Change Train to a better tomorrow.

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Like the Care Bears taught me, I’m helping to teach my students the power in caring for something greater than just ourselves and each other.  If not us, then who?  If not now, then when?  History inspired this change to happen.  If it wasn’t for past change makers like Dr. King, Ghandi, Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, and many more, then I wouldn’t have been able to inspire my students.  It truly takes a village to educate and raise a community of future change makers.

In the Battle Between Skills and Content, Who Would Win?

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, blog readers of all ages, genders, and ethnicities, welcome to a match-up for the ages.  (Imagine loud claps and screams of excitement coming from an imaginary audience.)  In this corner, (which could really be any corner you choose as this is a blog and not an actual arena,) we have the ever sturdy and reliable, full of facts and information, Content.  Can I get a woo hoo?  (Picture screams of joy and boos coming from that same imaginary audience.)  Who doesn’t love content?  I mean, it’s the backbone of game shows like Jeopardy.  Can learning really happen without subject area content?  Is this even going to be a fair contest?  (Hear shouts of YES and NO coming from the imaginary audience you’ve been picturing in your head.)  But wait, because in the other corner, (which should just be the opposite of whatever corner you pictured Content in,) we have the trusty, always dependable, super useful and necessary, Skills.  (You should be hearing screams of joy and boos coming from the imaginary audience of really cool and riled up people.)  I mean, can you even learn content knowledge without the skills to do so first?  The skills to work, take notes, and study make it so that you can learn the content.  Shouldn’t Content just throw in the towel right now?  (Screams of YES and NO come from the amazingly imaginary audience.)  Well then, let’s get ready to RRRummmbllle!

Imagine a WWE style wrestling match between content and skills.  How cool would that be?  I would totally pay the exorbitant amount of money to see that pay-per-view match.  It would be epic!  In the end though, I do believe that skills would be crowned the victor.  Sure, content knowledge is important.  I mean, we can’t expect our students to fully digest what they are reading, listening to, or watching in the world around them if they don’t have a strong foundation of background, content knowledge.  However, that sturdy foundation is useless if there are no skills built upon it.  Students must learn how to assess the credibility of websites in order to locate and find trustworthy content knowledge online.  Our students need to know how to attack a textbook and take effective notes on the main idea before they can glean any content from that book.  Skills should be at the heart of what schools are teaching our students using the content as delivery receptacles.  History class shouldn’t really be about learning history.  It should be about the skills of analyzing information, differentiating between fact and fiction, comparing and contrasting events throughout history, understanding the culture and traditions of our diverse and unique world, and being able to view this beautiful crucible around us through the lens of critical thinking.  Class titles should merely be masks, subterfuge for what’s really happening inside classrooms.  Our students should be learning vital skills to become safe, thoughtful, creative, and open-minded global citizens.  Right?  (At this point, you should be excitedly applauding or clicking the tiny X at the top of your browser to close this window.)


As teachers should really be the best students, I make it a priority to stay up to date with current educational research and pedagogy from around the world.  I read several articles and blog entries on a weekly basis to be sure that I am always working towards becoming the best possible teacher for my students.  Each weekend, when I dig deep into the goldmine of educational research, I find articles talking about the importance of content over skills as well as articles all about how skills are more valuable than content knowledge.  So, which articles speak the truth?  Who would win in a battle between skills and content?  Is one more important than the other?  Can you teach students skills without using content knowledge as the delivery vehicle?  Is it possible to regurgitate content class after class without teaching or having the students utilize any skills?

I see it more as a symbiotic relationship.  It shouldn’t be a skills vs. content kind of discussion, it should be a skills and content sort of hybrid discussion.  Our students need to learn content knowledge nuggets in order to navigate this strange and wonderful world in which we live; however, they can’t effectively learn or keep those nuggets of knowledge safely stored in their brains without skills.  Our students need to know how the brain learns and operates so that they can then learn effective ways or skills to effectively store information in their memory banks.  All teachers and classes should be teaching students about the neuroscience of learning.  Our students need to gain important life and learning skills in order to become effective global citizens, and content is the perfect way for teachers to be sure that their students are effectively, and in engaging ways, learning and practicing these crucial skills.  Content and skills go hand-in-hand like sun butter and jelly or red and green.  Students need both to succeed in life.

I’ve recently been contemplating this dual role of content and skills in my classroom.  My fifth graders and I are in the midst of a wonderfully engaging unit on Mesopotamia in Social Studies class.  I’m using the content of this ancient civilization to help my students learn the valuable skills of effective and organized note taking, being able to pick out the main idea over the details in passages of text, comparing and contrasting two different ideas, using specific examples to support their claims, and problem solving and critical thinking as they pertain to particular situations.  On Thursday and Friday, I used the history of writing and the creation of Sumerian Cuneiform as the vehicle for which I could teach my students how to sift through details to get at the main idea as well as how to think critically about a topic in order to answer open-ended questions.  My students were enthralled with the video we watched and were totally engaged in the discussion that grew from the knowledge of how the Sumerians created writing.  It was so cool to observe my students getting excited about ancient history.  They were asking high-level questions and able to comprehend and address the challenging questions and scenarios I posed to them.  It was so much fun.  I thought about the skills and content the students were learning together.  It was pretty remarkable.  It wasn’t about the content or skills, it was about the relationship between them.  My students crave knowledge and content.  They are like sponges in the classroom, always asking why and how.  As they love learning about topics and things, I need them to gain vital skills.  I give them what they want while teaching them what they need to become and grow into successful students and global thinkers.  I need to utilize the content in order to help my students gain the necessary skills they will need as they matriculate into the next grade and so on.

I used to think that teaching was all about the content.  Isn’t that why there are so many different textbook companies in existence?  Then, like a pendulum, I started to see skills as the important part of educating students.  When I focused solely on the skills, I found that student engagement went down.  That’s when I started to see content and skills as a duo and not hero and villain match-up.  They need to be used together to help students learn and grow.  I can’t teach my students necessary learning skills without the attraction of the content area knowledge.  The facts and information are like the bait I use to get students hooked onto the line of learning how to be effective students, thinkers, and individuals.

Instead of a wrestling match, we should be picturing content and skills frolicking through a field of daises and sunflowers, holding hands and smiling at each other, while in the background, soft jazz or elevator music plays as the sun shines down upon our two lovebirds.  Ahh, how cute would that be, right?

Do Fidget Objects Help or Hinder Student Focus in the Classroom?

“Mr. Holt, how old are you?” my students recently asked me.

My response to that question is always the same, “How old do you think I am?”

“You’re like a big kid in an old man’s body,” one of my witty students commented.

“As my grandmother would often say, age is just a number.  You are as young as you feel.  I feel 23 years young but am actually 42 years old,” I then responded to my students.

“Wow, you don’t seem that old.  I mean, you’re bald, but you still go sledding with us,” my students said.

Age truly is just a number and nothing more.  My age is my mindset.  I feel young and peppy like my students.  I love having fun, being silly, and telling jokes.  My students help me feel young and full of youth.  Even around adults, my inner child comes out.  During faculty meetings at my school, I often struggle to stay focused when one of my colleagues talks for more than five minutes.  Instead of zoning out or getting lost amidst my thoughts though, I do find ways to stay focused and attentive to what is being discussed during these meetings.  When I notice my attention beginning to wane, I start shaking my leg, tapping my foot, cracking my knuckles, or some other physical activity that allows my mind to stay focused.  While this does help me to stay focused, it usually results in causing others to be distracted as they feel the tables in the room shake or hear the noise caused by my foot tapping or shaking.  When I notice that my behavior creates a distraction, I stop and find another way to distract my body; however, this usually means that I will check my email or do something else that spreads my brain power too thin.  As we’ve learned in recent years, multitasking is a myth perpetuated by those in charge to get more work out of their employees.  Like my students, I can’t fully listen to someone speaking while reading text on my computer screen.  So, then I’m back at where I started when my focus started to drift at the beginning of the meeting.  If only I had another way to channel my energy.

As I’ve often written on this very blog, I wonder who is doing more of the learning inside the classroom, me or my students.  Case and point right here.

Prior to the most recent holiday break, one of my students shared some very cool information with me.  She told me about a rubber band like material that, when placed on the legs of desks or chairs, can be used as a fidget tool for students.  It’s out of sight and generally creates very little noise or distraction for others.  They are quite inexpensive as well.  I wonder if they really do help students stay focused.  She asked, “Could we try them in our classroom?”  Like all good boys and girls, I added these fidget bands to my Christmas wish list, hoping that Santa would deliver the goods for my students.

To play it safe, over break, I researched these bands.  Several different companies have created a version of them over the years.  Some seem better than others based on my research and the reviews I read.  After completing this bit of research, I was almost completely sold on the idea of trying them in my classroom for the start of 2020.  My only concern at that point was the distractibility of the bands.  Would they end up being used by my students in the same manner that many students use fidget objects?  Would these bands cause my students to be more unfocused than on task?  Would they help my students or hinder their learning process?  After many trials of allowing my students to use fidget objects in the classroom, I’ve come to realize that fidget objects are more of a toy and distraction than a helpful tool to help students focus.  When my students are using their hands to play with putty, squishes, or other fidget toys, their focus dwindles, in many cases.  I tested this theory in class on several occasions by cold-calling on students who were using a fidget object.  I would ask them a simple comprehension question based on what I was talking to the class about.  In most cases, I found that those students were unable to answer the questions I posed because they were not completely listening to me speak.  Instead, they were splitting their brain power between listening to me and playing with their fidget toys.  For most students, I had found that fidget objects were more toys than tools. Several research studies supported the data I collected in my classroom.  So, my past experiences with fidget objects definitely weighed heavily upon me as I researched these new fidget bands.  Were fidget bands just another fidget toy?

While being alive on planet Earth has taught me many things, the most important lesson I’ve learned over the years is that it can’t hurt to give new things a try before passing them off as hooey.  So, despite what my past experiences with fidget objects was trying to tell me, I ignored those pleas and decided to give the fidget bands a try.  I ordered, I mean, Santa delivered, a class set of Busy Bands to our classroom over break.  My students were so excited to see the new bands installed on their chairs upon returning from our lengthy break.  “Busy Bands, yes!” many of my students exclaimed as they entered the classroom Monday morning.  During our Morning Meeting that day, I introduced the bands and discussed with the students how we will try them out for a few weeks to determine their effectiveness.  I worked very hard to ignore the loud slapping noises the students were making with the bands as they tried them out during Morning Meeting.  I reminded myself that new things create a sense of novelty at first.  My students were exploring and playing with these new bands.  After I spoke to them about the bands, the excessive noise was squelched.  Ahhh, I thought, much better.

Throughout this past week, I observed the students as they worked.  They were using the Busy Bands, and they seemed to help keep them focused.  Only two students, on one occasion, early in the week used fidget toys that required the use of their hands.  It seemed as though the Busy Bands were working.  They were helping my students stay on task in a non-distracting manner.  Even during our mindful meditation, the students used the bands in a silent and appropriate manner.  So far, I’m very pleased with how the bands seem to be helping my students.  They are using a fidget tool in an effective manner.  The bands are helping my students focus their brain power on the task at hand.  During the three or four whole-class instruction lessons completed throughout the week, the students used the bands to release the excess energy coursing through their fifth grade bodies so that they could listen and effectively participate in the activities and discussions.  Their feet were quietly bopping up and down and back and forth while their brains seemed to be focused on the task at hand.  They listened well, took copious and effective notes, and were able to address questions I posed to them.

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Mission accomplished?  Perhaps for now.  I’m going to engage my students in a discussion regarding the effectiveness of the Busy Bands sometime in the next few weeks, as another data point.  I want to know what my students think and feel.  Do they see what I see regarding these new fidget bands?  My students are an equal part of our classroom community, and so I almost always involve them in the decision making process when changes happen in the fifth grade.  While week one with the Busy Bands seemed to be a success, who knows what next week will bring.  Will these fidget tools transform into fidget toys in the coming weeks?  Based on the results I gathered this past week, I’m hopeful that my students will continue to utilize the bands as focus tools and not fidget toys.  I’m going to go one step further to test out the effectiveness of these bands: I’m going to use one on my chair in my next Faculty Meeting.  If the bands can help keep me focused, then Busy Bands will be a winner in my eyes.