Lessons for Learning in my Fifth Grade Classroom

When I was just a wee young lad with luscious red hair, completing homework was a hoop I had to jump through in order to go outside and ride my bike or watch television.  Homework always came first in my house.  Once I got home from school, I sat down and did my homework.  Because I viewed it as a hurdle to having fun, I rarely devoted great effort or care to the completion of my homework.  I did it to get it done.  In school, my teachers graded homework on the check system: A check minus meant that it did not meet the expectation, a check meant that it was done, and a check plus meant that it was done very well.  Therefore, I made sure that I put forth just enough effort to earn checks consistently.  That was good enough for me.  My teachers never took time in class to discuss the importance of effort or what quality work looked like, and so it took me quite some time to learn the value of hard work and great effort.  Not until college did I start to understand that I should care about the work I completed as it is a reflection of who I am as a person.  I wish my elementary and middle school teachers had taken time to help me learn the value of effort and taking pride in my work.  I wish I had cared more about the quality of work I completed when I was younger, as I feel it could have helped me grow into a stronger student sooner rather than later.

As a teacher, I try exceedingly hard on a daily basis to make sure that I provide my students with the best possible educational program so that they can more rapidly transform into the best versions of themselves.  I don’t want my students feeling the way I do in 30 years because I didn’t support them in meaningful ways when they were in the fifth grade.  I want my students to see the value and benefits in completing quality work in a timely manner.  I want my students to constantly be challenging themselves to grow and develop as thinkers, problem solvers, mathematicians, and individuals.  I want my students to leave my fifth grade classroom in June feeling as though they know how to be effective and successful students in sixth grade and beyond.  I want my students to value the vital study skill of time management.  I want my students to understand what quality work looks like.  I want my students to strive for excellence in all areas of their life, because they are worth it.

One of the many ways I can help challenge my students to grow and develop in the classroom is to be mindfully aware of every opportunity for learning.  This past week was filled with teachable moments for my students.  On Tuesday, my students had a large assignment due.  They had been working on it since the middle of the previous week.  They had to hand-draw a tri-layered map of the Silk Road region.  As they had already completed a similar assignment during a prior Social Studies unit, my students knew how this complex assignment was to be completed.  Before the previous weekend, I had informed a few students that they would need to spend some time over the weekend working on the task so that they would not have hours of homework on Monday evening.  I contacted parents to let them know what I had asked of them, as fostering strong school-family relationships is crucial.  On Tuesday morning, only three students turned in their completed maps at the start of class.  At first, I felt frustrated.  Why did many of my students not complete the only homework assignment they had last night?  After I processed my feelings of anger and frustration during our mindful meditation in Tuesday’s Morning Meeting, I had an epiphany.  My students are only fifth graders.  How can I expect fifth graders to be perfect and do everything just so?  The fifth grade is a year filled with growth and opportunities to practice study skills.  As I began to accept the fact that my students need to fail in the fifth grade in order to learn vital study and life skills so that they are more effectively prepared for the sixth grade, a sense of serenity consumed me.  I shouldn’t be frustrated, but instead, I should feel elated that I have another opportunity to help my students learn the value of time management and great effort.

So, instead of beginning Social Studies class that day lecturing my students on the value of hard work and how disappointed I am that many of them did not complete the homework, I started class by explaining how fifth grade is a time of learning and development.  “I expect that many of you will fail in certain ways throughout the year so that you have the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and grow as a student,” I told them.  This seemed to shock a few of the students, as their eyes grew big.  “Why is this crazy man telling us that he wants us to fail,” they were probably thinking.  I then had students share why they were unable to complete the homework assignment.  I listed their many reasons on the board.  I made sure to explain to the students that while this year I am referring to their rationales for being unable to complete the map task as reasons, the sixth grade teachers will view their reasons as excuses next year.  “Use this opportunity as a chance to learn the importance of budgeting your time effectively,” I said to my students.  I then had the students brainstorm possible ways they could prevent these same reasons allowing them to not complete their homework in the future.  The students suggested wonderful ideas such as asking for help, making a plan or time schedule of how and when they would accomplish various parts of a task, and using their free time more effectively.  It was a very insightful discussion, which I feel benefited the students well.  They seemed to all understand the importance of completing their work by pre-set due dates.  Later in the week, I gave the students another chance to practice this skill of time management.

The students began working on the final project for our unit on the Silk Road in class on Wednesday.  Before they began working in class, I had each student create a daily schedule of the work they will complete so that they can be sure they are finished by the deadline of next Thursday.  I had the students briefly write what part of the project they will work on each day in class and for homework outside of class.  On Thursday and Friday, I began and concluded each Social Studies class by having the students review and update their daily work schedule.  Did the students complete what they had intended to do for homework the night before or in class that day?  If not, they revised their schedule to reflect the reality of the situation.  This has seemed to really help many of the students stay on track with this complex and large final project.  No one is falling behind, as they had on the previous mapping task.  I am hopeful that this time management task will help the students be and feel successful next week when their final project is due.  I intend to debrief the entire project and schedule task with the students in class next Thursday so that they are able to see the value in effectively managing their time regarding academic tasks and assignments.

As I assessed the mapping assignment when all of my students had finally completed and turned in their work, I realized that many of the students failed to meet the graded objective.  Why is that?  Were they rushing?  Did they not understand what to do?  As they had all been able to meet this same objective a few months ago with a similar assignment regarding ancient Mesopotamia, I knew that they understood how to complete the assignment.  So, was it that they were not as engaged or didn’t care about this unit?  They seemed to really like learning about the Silk Road when we began this unit, and so I don’t believe that engagement was an issue.  Then what was it that caused many of the students to turn in work that lacked effort and did not display fine quality?

During Thursday’s Morning Meeting, I took time to share my findings with the class.  I explained how the quality of work that many of the students completed was low and lacking effort.  I discussed the value of holding the bar high for themselves and completing only work of which they are proud.  I reminded them that while they have the opportunity to redo work in the fifth grade, they may not have this same opportunity in sixth grade and beyond.  I want my students to value hard work and put forth more effort in reviewing their work against the requirements before turning it in so that they are handing in their best possible work.  They seemed to understand what I was saying, but only time will tell.  Plus, they are only fifth graders and have plenty of time to continue learning the value of completing quality work.

I’m hopeful that these two mini-lesson chats helped my students begin to see the benefits in completing quality work in a timely fashion.  Next Thursday will be telling; however, even if not every student turns in a high-quality final project on time, I am confident that they are still learning and working out the kinks of the challenging skill of time management.  Learning to be an effective student is an on-going journey full of failures and successes.  While my journey to understanding the value in effective time management and challenging myself to complete quality work took longer than I wish it had, I did eventually learn these vital skills, as all of my students will too one day.

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How Can Teachers Help Students Gain Important Study Skills?

While this past Tuesday was Teacher Appreciation Day, I look at every day as Teacher Appreciation Day.  Each new day, my students enter my classroom full of excitement, courage, wonder, and perhaps a little anxiety, and I am the lucky one who gets to work with them all day long.  I am able to help them grow and develop as individuals, people, thinkers, readers, writers mathematicians, scientists, and problem solvers.  I see them through their challenges and successes.  I have a student in my class, who at the beginning of the year viewed punctuation as optional.  She would craft an entire paragraph with only one period.  After working with her all year on this skill, she is now able to proofread and edit her own work.  Just last week, she crafted an amazing, properly punctuated paragraph.  I am so proud of how far she has come.  When I celebrated this great accomplishment with her, the biggest smile I’ve ever seen filled her face.  That right there is an appreciation.  It doesn’t get much better than that.  I don’t need a week to receive special gifts from students and their fantastic families because I’m given gifts each and every day.  This week, a student who had been struggling with his multiplication facts all year, had a moment of clarity recently and was able to totally ace his multiplication assessment.  That’s just one of the many gifts my students bring me on a daily basis.  I got into the field of education because I want to help students, because I see the value in making learning engaging and fun.  I got into teaching so that I can help those struggling students overcome their adversity.  I didn’t get into teaching for the money, thanks, or gifts.  So, while having a week in which families and students shower me with donuts and wonderful gifts is nice, I am fortunate enough to receive amazing gifts from my students each and every school day.

One of my most treasured gifts as an educator is when students learn valuable study and life skills in my class.  As my small, yet wonderfully caring and supportive school begins in the fifth grade, I have the terrific task of helping my students prepare for the rigors of life in sixth grade and beyond.  My job is challenging because I have to find a way to marry fun and engaging learning activities with high-level study skills.  I need to help students see the value and benefit in properly completing homework.  I need to help students learn that proper typing form will only make life easier for them as they matriculate into high school and need to type 10+ page research papers.  I need students to be self-motivated to want to complete high-quality work.  This is a year-long process.  As many students began the year in my fifth grade class not having to complete much homework, never having typed more than a few sentences, and never having had the quality bar held very high for them at their past schools, I had to help them transform themselves into students who see that homework helps them grow as students, that proper finger placement on the Home Row keys helps them become faster, more effective keyboardists, and that taking pride in the work they complete will help them grow into the best possible version of themselves.  Being witness to my students growing and developing is one of my favorite aspects of teaching.  I love when a student comes into my classroom in the morning, so excited to share with me the work that he or she completed outside of the classroom for homework the evening before.  It’s so awesome to see them value hard work.

As I know that my students will be receiving a bit more homework in the sixth grade than they do for most of the year in fifth grade, I have ratcheted up the homework load since May 1.  I want my students to practice learning how to best manage their time effectively now so that they are much better at it by the time they move into the sixth grade in September.  I’d much rather have my students fail, make mistakes, and not be able to complete their homework this year, so that I am able to work with them to find ways to help them be successful before they graduate from the fifth grade.

This week in Social Studies class, the students had to finish reading a handout on the Silk Road and completing notes from it for homework.  We began the task in class.  At most, this task would have taken an hour to complete outside of class.  While we haven’t had too many lengthy assignments like this for homework over the course of the year, I know that they will be expected to complete tasks like this on a more regular basis next year.  So, I wanted to see how they would do.  While three students were unsuccessful in attempting the assignment, everybody else was able to complete the homework.  Because the task was tied to an in-class assessment, those three students who did not complete the homework, did end up not being able to meet two graded objectives.  I could tell this was unsettling for those students, as they value success.  That evening, the students had another night of challenging homework.  They needed to work on their Tri-Layered Map of the Silk Road region.  I made sure to touch base with each of the three students who struggled to complete the homework from the evening before, prior to them leaving.  I stressed the importance of learning from their mistakes and making amends.

The next day, only one student came to class unprepared with his homework not done.  The other two students put forth the effort, as they saw the value in hard work and completing their homework.  I made sure to praise those two students for their effort.  They seemed very pleased and proud of themselves.  A little positivity and meaningful praise goes a long way.  While I did have one student who still struggled with the task of completing his homework this week, I had what felt like a very good conversation with him on Friday.  I talked to him about how this lack of effort is affecting his grades and ability to be prepared for sixth grade.  I got the impression that he understands why this is an area on which he still needs to work.  I’m giving this one student another chance to practice the skill of completing work outside of class this weekend.  While I don’t assign homework over weekends or vacations, this student clearly needs to practice this skill.  As he has much more free time on the weekend, I am hopeful that he will be able to work on his map for 30-45 minutes with still plenty of time to play and relax left over.  So, I made sure he left school yesterday with all of the required materials to work on his map outside of class.  I also made sure to ask him what he needed to work on over the weekend with his mother present.  Because I have worked hard to form strong partnerships with the school and families, I am confident that this information will also elicit a few conversations between the student and his parents over the course of the weekend.

Helping students learn vital study and life skills in a supportive, caring, and low-stakes  environment will allow them to move into the sixth grade more prepared and ready to attack almost any task thrown their way.  For me, it’s all about the journey.  My students begin the year excited, but lack some important academic skills.  As their teacher, I need to provide my students with quests or opportunities for them to practice and gain these skills that they will need in order to be successful in all that the future holds for them.  My many gifts to my students are these skills that will greatly benefit and empower them with knowledge and know-how.  In turn, I receive the gift of transformation from each of my students.  Looking back on where my students were in September to where they are now, I am filled with happiness and joy.  They are effective, fifth grade critical thinkers and problem solvers.  While a few of my students still have some work to put in to fully transform into effective sixth graders, they are making progress with each new day.  I can’t wait to see what Monday brings.

The Evolution of a Meaningful Classroom Activity

I used to be very much a creature of habit.  I did the same things, the same way, every day.  I craved routine and loved it.  Perhaps it was more about control for me.  I liked feeling that I was in control of my life and destiny.  The way I looked at it was, that if I am able to make things in my life go the way I want them to go, then my life will turn out just as it is supposed to.  That strange theory once made a lot of sense to me, until I realized that I am not in control.  When I saw that my ideal life was slipping through my fingers, great stress fell upon me.  I began living life in a very fearful way.  “I shouldn’t do that because then this horrible thing might happen,” I constantly thought.  I got to a point where I wasn’t able to focus on everyday life because I was so afraid of everything.  It was no way to live my life.

So, I made some mental changes.  First, I realized that I need to live life on life’s terms.  I gave up trying to control every little thing.  I thought of myself as a tiny stone in a river’s bed.  I couldn’t control what other people did no matter how hard I tried.  Instead, I focused on controlling my choices, thoughts, and actions.  I allowed the river of life to take me along for a ride.  I turned when one side of my beautifully bumpy rock got a bit too smooth of course, but I tried very hard to just let life happen.  Because of this huge mental switch, I’m much happier than I ever was.  I’m no longer filled with stress and worry because the parking spot I usually take was filled with someone else’s car.  I don’t allow the actions or reactions of others to cause me discomfort.  I realize that everyone is their own rock in this giant river of awesomeness.  I can’t control what other rocks do, but I can control what I do and how I view what these other rocks do.  I used to allow what others did to frustrate me or cause me great stress.  Now, I just go with the flow and enjoy the ride, and what a beautiful journey it is.  Life is so wonderful, beautiful, amazing, sad, and joyous all at once.  It’s like that painting in a museum you once saw that left you transfixed and in a state of awe and wonder.

Now that I have given up trying to control things, I’m very happy and at peace.  As a teacher, it has allowed me to create an open classroom that is flexible and student-centered.  The students are involved in most of the classroom decisions.  They choose where they sit and how the tables and chairs are organized in the classroom.  Before I plan any field experience, I ask for their input.  While I have generated a curriculum for each subject, it is not rigid nor set in stone.  If I ever feel as though my students need more time with a particular concept, I can put the rest of my activities on hold to review and re-cover that challenging topic or concept.  I have come to realize over the years that if my students are not engaged in what is happening in the classroom, then no genuine learning is taking place.  Being able to craft an individualized and fluid curriculum for my fifth grade class has allowed me to become a better educator and support system for my students.  As my number one goal is always to help my students feel safe as they grow and develop into the best possible version of themselves, I am completely open to making changes to my schedule or daily lessons.  Even the morning of, as I write the daily agenda on the whiteboard in my classroom, I think about each lesson.  How can I make it more engaging, meaningful, or tangible for my students?  Nothing is ever fixed.  Like how I now live my life, I allow my students, classroom, and lessons to take me on daily adventures.  I don’t ever go into a day thinking I know how it’s going to turn out, because I truly have no idea until the end of that particular day.  While it’s a bit scary living like this, it’s also so much fun, as I’m open to all possibilities.

This past Friday, I drove to school thinking about my plan for that day’s Morning Meeting.  What was my goal for the meeting?  What did I want the students to gain from that morning’s meeting?  I knew that I wanted to provide the students an opportunity to share their thoughts on Bucket Filling, but I wasn’t completely certain how I wanted this to look.  Did I want to simply engage the students in a discussion on how they have filled the buckets of others?  Or, did I want something more than that?  As I parked my car that morning, I still hadn’t decided how I wanted this activity to unfold.  Knowing that my brain does it’s best work when I don’t even realize it’s doing anything, I began my morning by sweeping and vacuuming my classroom.  This mundane task would allow my brain to keep mulling over the best way to approach the Bucket Filling activity I wanted to complete in class that morning.  By the time I began etching the daily agenda onto the whiteboard in my classroom, I knew what I wanted to do.

I grabbed 8 differently colored pieces of paper and wrote the name of a student on each one.  I then drew a very simple picture of a bucket onto the paper.  I taped these “buckets” onto the front board in my classroom.  They added a nice splash of color to the board.  As the students entered the classroom, that was one of the first things they noticed.  Many of them asked, “What are these for?”  Like any great teacher, I responded with, “That’s a great question.  You’ll have to wait and see.”  Students do not like that response, but it kept them thinking and wondering, which is what I wanted them to do.

When it was finally time for the Bucket Filling activity, I explained the activity to the students after a quick review of Bucket Filling: “Each of you will be given three small pieces of paper.  On each piece of paper, you will write one thing that someone has done to fill your bucket or one character trait that you respect and appreciate about that person.  You will then tape that slip of paper to the person’s bucket.  If you want more paper, feel free to grab extra slips from my desk.  Like you usually do, be mindful as you are writing and filling each other’s buckets.  Make sure that everybody’s bucket has at least one slip attached to it by the end of the activity.  Spread the love.”  I then addressed questions the students posed.  One student was a little confused by the activity, and so I clarified it in a way that helped her understand what she needed to do.  Another student then asked about a bucket for a student who wasn’t in class at that point.  “Shouldn’t we make a bucket for him too?” he asked.  And so, I did add a bucket for that student.  I love how compassionate my students are, thinking about others.  Then, another student suggested that I should also have a bucket.  While I did intend for this to be an activity for the students to be filled with joy and happiness, I did add a bucket for myself.  Why not?  I can never have too much joy.  My favorite question during this time had to do with the activity itself.  “Could we do this activity during our Closing Meeting instead of the Gratitude Wall each afternoon?” he asked.  Oh, I thought.  What an interesting idea.  “Let’s see how this all plays out first, and then we can talk more about it,” I responded.  I was amazed that this student could already see the value in this activity before it even started.  Wow!

What I thought was going to be a very quick activity, turned into something much greater.  As the students began taping their positive comments and thoughts of thankfulness for their peers to the various buckets, they saw that not everyone had the same amount.  So, they all grabbed more slips of paper to balance the buckets.  While I thought for sure that I’d be recycling the extra thirty slips of paper I had made that morning, each and every extra piece of paper was taken and used by the end of the activity.  Smiles covered the faces of my students as though they had just been told there would be no homework for the remainder of the school year.  They seemed so happy filling the buckets of their peers with kind words.  I was bewildered yet again.  My students never cease to amaze me on a daily basis.  What could have been a quick task that would have allowed them to move into the reading of their Reader’s Workshop book within a minute or two, transformed into a very special 10-minute activity of awesomeness.  Seriously, I am such a blessed and fortunate educator.  Not only do I get to work at an amazing school like BHS, but I am able to wake up each morning and learn from a group of amazing fifth graders.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

After the students had literally filled each other’s buckets on the board with caring words of kindness, I then read the slips of paper aloud to the class.  The positive energy filled the classroom like helium in a balloon.  It felt wonderful.  I then asked the students how they felt after having been a part of this activity.  One student said, “It feels good to know that our classmates appreciate what we are doing.”  Another student said, “While it was hard at first to think of something to write for one student, it became easier, and then I couldn’t stop filling buckets.”  Another student said, “It felt good to make other people feel good.”  I then closed the activity by asking the students if they would like to replace the Gratitude Wall with this activity each afternoon.  All but one student wants to complete this activity in place of the Gratitude Wall during our daily Closing Meeting.  As this is a version of a Gratitude Wall, we aren’t really losing that wonderful activity;  instead, we are replacing it with something more specific and special.  I can’t wait to see how our Bucket Filling activity goes Monday afternoon.

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Because I allowed this activity to unfold as it did, it grew into something unexpected and remarkable.  What I thought would be a short discussion on Bucket Filling, turned into a heartwarming activity that further united my class together.  Had I not been open to the possibility of this brief little discussion becoming something more, then my students and I would have missed out on a very special opportunity.  Allowing life to take me where it will in the classroom, has made me a more effective teacher.  I just need to have faith that things will work out as life intends.

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.

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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How Are You Able to Be Mindful in the Classroom?

Life seems to come at us from every direction sometimes.  Do this, do that.  Now, take care of this issue.  Oh, and don’t forget to complete that task by tonight.  Then, of course, emergencies and unexpected crises seem to pop up when you are so not prepared for them.  It can often feel like a lot is resting on our shoulders at any given time.  How can we possibly juggle every ball that is thrown our way?  How will we ever accomplish every task on our list?  Stress and a strong sense of overwhelmingness washes over us on an almost daily basis with the numerous things we need to do, address, or get done.  Just when we think we’ve reached a calm in the ocean of life, a storm sweeps through, disrupting everything.  So, how do we do it?  How do we get everything done while also holding onto just a tiny fragment of our sanity?

For me, it’s about living in the present moment.  I try very hard to be mindful of what is happening at any given time.  I try not to dwell on my never-ending “To-Do” list or think about the future.  I try to focus on what is happening at that very second.  What sounds do I hear?  What am I doing?  How am I feeling?  Sometimes, when I feel the weight of everyday life pushing down upon me as if a giant giraffe were jumping on my head, I stop moving and doing, close my eyes, and take a few deep, mindful breaths.  I wipe distractions to the left and push my focus to the right.  I only think about the present.  Once I open my eyes and resume what I was doing, my body and soul feel a bit lighter, as if my cortisol levels decreased.  I feel more prepared to tackle life once I’ve taken a moment to reset myself and mentally recalibrate.  Mindfulness techniques make a difference for me in my daily life.  They help me deal with the many jabs life takes at me.  Being present and aware in the moment allows me to duck, dodge, and dive a little easier than I would have been able to if I allowed my distractions and the future to take hold.

As I see the power and value in being mindful, I make use of a lot of these strategies and approaches in my classroom.  I have my students participate in various mindfulness practices on an almost daily basis.  When we transition from one class or activity to the next, I allow the students the opportunity to stop, recalibrate, breathe, and be more mentally present in the moment.  Just this past Thursday, a local Yoga instructor worked my students through our monthly mindfulness Yoga activity.  The focus was on body visualization this month.  The students were way into it and very engaged.  They love having the chance to stop, move around, and focus on themselves during these monthly experiences.  I feel as though these mindfulness techniques and strategies have helped my students feel and be more aware, present, and focused during class.  Namaste, and thank you Lisa Garside for leading these monthly sessions.

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A big component of being mindful is that I am able to notice when the atmosphere of calmness and serenity becomes replaced with a sense of unease or negative energy.  Following lunch this past Wednesday, when I returned to the classroom, I noticed that some of the students were huddled together, talking quietly.  In my experience, when a group of people are gathered together and speaking softly, it generally means that they are talking about something that they don’t want others to know about.  In a school setting, this is usually not an indication that the students are planning a big party to celebrate their awesome teacher, oh no.  As I approached the group, I overheard students saying things like, “She said that she has a crush on…” and “He doesn’t even like her.”  I then made a blanket statement to the class that talking about people when they are not present is disrespectful and goes against our class norms.  “There is no place in this classroom for rumors or gossip,” I said.  Once the entire class was present and we were about to move into Language Arts class, I took a few minutes to address this issue in a more formal way.  For those students who were unaware, I explained the concepts of rumors and gossip to the class.  I then talked about how our brains, evolutionarily, are wired to hear and pay attention to negative pieces of information as a way for us to stay alive and survive.  “We need to now retrain our brains to focus on the positive and avoid negative things like gossip and the spreading of rumors.  Rumors tend to be untrue and are hurtful towards others.  If you are concerned about someone or something that you feel they have done that is upsetting to you in some way, address them individually and compassionately.  Don’t talk about people behind their backs,” I shared with the class.  I reminded the students that gossip and the spreading of rumors has no place here at our school or in our classroom.  “If you wish to continue with this behavior, which I would highly suggest you not do, you need to not do so in this classroom,” I said.  I then ended the conversation by asking if students had any questions or comments they would like to share with the class.  No hands went up.  And that was that.

I do believe that my students heard what I had to say and understood the messaging, as I have not been witness to any further issues of these negative behaviors in the classroom.  As my fifth grade students are still learning and growing, conversations like the one I had with them on Wednesday afternoon are crucial in helping them understand what behaviors are socially acceptable and compassionate.  I also want them to be aware that it is human nature to want to spread rumors and gossip, and so it is vital that we work hard to counter this tendency.  The students seemed to get it.

Because I was mindful and aware of what was happening in the present moment when I walked into my classroom that afternoon, I was able to address this issue with my students when it happened.  Had I not been focused and mentally aware, I wonder if I would have noticed what was happening.  Perhaps I would have been thinking about tomorrow’s lesson or all the things I needed to do after school, and would have completely missed the teachable moment.  I wonder what would have happened later in the day or the following day had I not stopped to address the issue of gossip and rumors.  Perhaps, some of my students would have had their feelings hurt.  Maybe, the emotional state of my students would have been heightened because of this negative energy circulating around the classroom.  I do believe that nothing good would have come about had I not talked to my students about this issue.  Being mindfully aware and present in the moment allows me to seize teachable moment opportunities like this one.  While addressing the social and emotional needs of my students does take time away from the “academic curriculum,” my students would not be mentally prepared to process or learn any new information if they felt unsafe or anxious and stressed in any way.  Taking the time to deal with issues as they arise in the classroom allows for the students to grow in numerous ways and feel and be safe, respected, and cared for.  Taking care of my students and fostering a sense of community within my classroom means that I have to earn the trust of my students.  They have to feel as though they are supported and feel heard.  Being mindful and living in the present moment allows me to do just these things on a daily basis.  What about you?  How do you take care of yourself in order to care for others?

Is Our Focus on Social Emotional Learning in Schools Detracting from Academic Learning?

As I prepared for my big presentation at the New England League of Middle School’s annual conference in Providence, RI, this past week, I asked my students for some help.  “I’m feeling very anxious and nervous about my presentation tomorrow.  Any ideas on what I could do to help alleviate this release of cortisol in my brain?”  I was expecting silly answers like, “Picture everyone in their underwear,” but instead I received some very thoughtful responses that amazed me.

  • “You could do some mindful breathing before you start, like we do in the classroom,” one student said.  I love that they see the value in the mindful activities we utilize in the classroom.  It filled my heart with joy to hear this response.
  • “You could do some gambling before your presentation,” one student said, with a smile on his face.  I was hoping for at least one laughable suggestion; however, it does make me wonder what goes on at home that made him think this was something that people do.  Hmmm…
  • “You could picture all of the teachers in the audience as your fifth graders.  Like, don’t call them our names, but imagine you are teaching us,” one student suggested.  Ahh, be still my heart.  I love my students.  They always know just what to say.

Equipped with this sage advice from my students, I made my way into my workshop session on Thursday hopeful, calm, and a bit richer.  I felt ready to take on the world.


My workshop session was on the power of social emotional learning in the classroom.  My main goal was to help teachers and administrators see the genuine value and importance of focusing on educating the whole child.  I began my session by having the 30 attendees participate in a guided meditation, as a way of taking care of themselves.  I referred to it as my gift to them.  Many of the audience members seemed to get a lot out of this short activity.  I then attempted to engage the participants in a discussion regarding their prior knowledge of SEL, and you would have thought that I was asking for volunteers to recreate that final dance scene from the movie Dirty Dancing.  The large room was silent, with no hands going up.  Ohh teachers, we can be a strange bunch sometimes.  eventually though, the group warmed up to the fact that audience participation will enrich the session.  It could be that about three minutes after I asked them the question that fell on deaf ears, I had them participate in a pair-share activity that got the audience members out of their seats and moving around.  At that point, the overall energy level in the room did increase.

As we debriefed this partner activity, a school counselor added this interesting knowledge nugget to the discussion, “It feels to me that we are focusing too much on the social emotional aspects of teaching and moving away from the academic learning.  I’ve noticed that students at my school are struggling on tests and assessments more so than ever before.  I wonder if it is because we are spending so much time on mindfulness, conflict resolution, and other social apsects of learning.”  After she finished speaking, I heard people muttering under their breath in disbelief.  Did she really just say that?  I then thanked her for her input and posed a wondering of my own to the group “I wonder what will happen to those students who come into our classrooms filled with anxiety, stress, or some other negative emotion if we don’t provide them the space and place to relax, mentally unload, reflect, and release those strong emotions that will cause the release of cortisol in their brains.  Will they be able to really learn anything that we teach them?  Won’t it just go in their ears and back out again?  Don’t we need to prepare our students for academic learning opportunities before we jump right into them?”  Several other participants chimed in after me, echoing my sentiments.  People were trying to help this person understand the power of the social emotional aspects of learning.

But, was she getting at something?  Do we spend too much time on the “touchy-feely” aspects of teaching?  Are we moving too far away from academic learning?  Are our students graduating from high school less prepared for the rigors of the real-world now than ever before?  As our nation has been dealing with far more acts of school violence than most other countries in the world in recent years, schools around the country have been trying to address the reasons behind this violence.  Organizations and school districts have been implementing social emotional learning programs in schools across the nation to help curb the issues they believe are causing this influx of violence in schools.  Are these programs helping?  Are they making a difference?  Has there been a reduction in school violence since schools began putting these programs in place?  Should we just focus on academic learning in schools instead, and hope for the best?

While it is always important to view conversations and big ideas like this one from all perspectives, taking in all view points; however, at the end of the day, we do need to rely on our what our hearts tell us.  Great teachers know that our students won’t be able to learn if they are under stress.  And, if we allow this stress to fester and grow within our students and classrooms, it will lead to far bigger issues.  We cannot ignore the fact that many of our students are carrying around much emotional baggage with them when they enter our classrooms.  We need to provide our students with safe places to share their feelings, process their thoughts, become mindful and aware of the world around them, gain empathy, and feel cared for.  Only once our students are able to release some of the stress plaguing them, will they be able to begin the academic learning process.  Our students are humans, not robots.  We can’t expect them to compartmentalize their feelings and emotions so that we can shove our “important curriculum” into their brains.  The process of learning doesn’t work like that.  Brain science reaffirms this.  Our brains cannot intake new information if they are in a state of stress or under the spell of the “fight or flight” mechanisms in our brains.  As teachers, we need to focus on the social emotional aspects of learning before we can even begin to get into the process of academic learning.  Now more than ever, it is crucial that we spend time addressing the social and emotional issues affecting our students, because, if we don’t, future generations of students will be graduating with far fewer academic skills than those who have recently graduated.  Students need to feel and be safe and cared for before any sort of genuine learning can take place.  Thus, in some schools, we aren’t taking enough time to address the social emotional learning of our students.  As a nation, we need to better prepare our students to be kind, compassionate, resilient, emotionally attuned, and empathetic.


As I finished my workshop session on Thursday morning, feeling pretty good about how it went, something magical happened.  That same school counselor who posed the heavy-weighted question to the group during my presentation, came up to me to as I was packing away my materials to thank me for a wonderful session.  She told me that she now realizes and sees the value in focusing on the social emotional aspects of learning.  It took this session to wake her up a bit to the reality of the world in which our students live.  And this is why more teachers need to present sessions at conferences like NELMS and AMLE.  We need to get the word out about issues including SEL, brain science, and so much more.  So, to this school counselor who took a chance on my session, I say, “Thank you.”

How Do You Provide Students with a Voice in the Classroom?

In this incredibly digital and intensely social world in which we live, it’s very easy for anyone to have a voice online.  You can like posts that speak to you, love pictures that poke at your soul, follow people who intrigue you, and receive instant feedback from people around the world.  But isn’t it all a little superficial?  Do you really love that picture of your second cousin’s, half-sister’s, best friend’s uncle’s new car?  Isn’t it just a car?  Love is supposed to mean something more than just approval.  Love is powerful.  The online, social world in which many people seem to live is not so much about having a voice as it is keeping up with the Smith’s or that cool new blogger.  The choices offered to you online are not genuine or real, they are there to fool you into thinking that your thoughts and ideas really do matter.  If these so-called choices did make a difference, then perhaps that person who received 10,000 dislikes on a picture or post might actually care enough to take it down.  This feedback provided to others online is less about growth and more about connection, jealousy, and numerous other emotions.

Real feedback and choice come about in face-to-face interactions between invested people.  When someone asks you what you think of the picture he or she shows you, you will think before responding and, hopefully, provide an insightful and accurate response that could elicit growth from the photographer.  “I really liked your use of light and color, but the background was a bit fuzzy.  Was that intentional?”  This sort of meaningful feedback is how people can grow as individuals, thinkers, and so much more.  It’s thoughtful, compassionate, and real.  It’s not trying to get a rise out of someone or boost someone’s ego unnecessarily.

How do you provide students with choices and a voice in the classroom?  Do you allow them to choose their reading materials for Language Arts?  Do you let them choose partners for a group project?  Do you allow them to choose the topics covered in your curriculum?  Do you allow your students to help set up the classroom?  Do you allow the students to take care of your class pet?  How do you allow the thoughts and ideas of your students to be heard?  I’ve noticed that when students feel as though they have a voice or choice, investment in the class, project, or task is so much higher.  Students love to feel heard and respected.  They like to know that their teachers really do want to know how and what they think.  It empowers them.  It makes them want to work harder, be kinder, and grow as students.

In my fifth grade class, I try to provide my students with options and choices on a daily basis.  If the students want to reorganize the tables and chairs after a Yoga session, I let them have at it, as long as they work together as a class and come to a consensus on the choice made.  They tend to stay more focused when they are able to decide how the classroom is organized.  We have tried about 10 or so different configurations just this year.  My students choose their reading material for Language Arts based on their reading level and interest.  I want my students to find pleasure and enjoyment in reading.  Utilizing the Reader’s Workshop approach to reading instruction helps students grow as readers in ways that whole-class instruction through one novel or basal readers can’t.  I allow the students to determine where they sit in the classroom each day.  They pride themselves on trying to vary the place in which everyone sits on a daily basis.  They try to make sure that two people do not sit next to each other two days in a row.  It’s very cool to watch them layout the desk tags at the end of each day in preparation for the next one.  I allow my students to take turns caring for our class hamster each weekend or over each break.  The students really love being able to have a part in caring for Beans.  It also helps to socialize our hamster.  It’s win-win for everyone.  Providing my students with choices helps them feel as if they are a part of something greater and more important than just a class.  They take responsibility in how the classroom looks each day.  They bring their thoughts and ideas to our Morning Meeting in order to make our class community better, stronger.

Prior to our most recent vacation this past week, I asked the students for their thoughts on our next Science unit.  I wanted to know what the students had previously learned about space so that I didn’t repeat information and bore some of them.  I also wanted to know about any topics that they want to learn about during our unit.  So, I had the students complete a Google Form, on which they provided me feedback regarding our upcoming unit on Space.

Google Form

I want my students to feel as though they have a voice and that it really matters.  As I knew that I was going to finalize the unit during the short break, I wanted to ensure that I would be covering information that my students cared about, in a way that mattered to them.  I didn’t want to just teach them information they had already learned in a way that didn’t engage them.

Feedback 1

Feedback 2

Based on this feedback, I knew what I had to focus on for the mini-lessons as well as hands-on activities.  As most of my students had learned at least the basics of space including planets and stars, I chose to skip those foundational topics and move onto higher-level  concepts in which they had indicated they were interested.  I’ll be covering exo-planets, other galaxies, NASA, life cycle of a stars, and the possibility of colonizing Mars.  I also crafted activities within the mini-lessons that utilize the work-style many of the students seem to prefer.  I made sure that almost every mini-lesson will make use of some sort of partner or group work.  I’m hopeful that throughout our unit on Space, my students will see that I incorporated their feedback, and feel respected and heard.

It’s important to me that my students have choices and a voice, because it is not my classroom, it is our classroom.  I want them to take ownership and be completely invested in what is happening in our class.  I want my students to know that I trust them and care about their opinions.  I want them to be heard.  In this often tumultuous, online world in which many of our students live, it is easy for them to be fooled into thinking that their voice and choice matters.  So, no matter what happens outside the walls of our amazing schools, our students should feel respected, heard, and be provided the chance to have a genuine voice that does make a difference and have an impact on the world in our classrooms.

The Benefit in Teaching Students How to Prepare for Tests and Quizzes

I am a product of the American public school system during a time when standardized tests, quizzes, and unit tests were how they measured your intellect and academic progress.  In my 14 years of schooling, you see I failed kindergarten and had to complete a year of Transition before moving into the First Grade, I completed numerous tests and quizzes.  The total is probably somewhere in the 100s.  However, despite the focus on tests and quizzes as a way of measuring what students know, not once in all of my years in school did I ever learn how to effectively prepare or study for tests.  No teacher ever explained how to study for a test or prepare to complete a test.  Not one of my teachers ever went over how to attack a test, especially one of the standardized nature.  I never learned how to prepare for the mountain of tests I was forced to complete.  Luckily, school came easy for me.  I figured out the system by the sixth grade and learned how to do school like a professional student.  I achieved the Honor Roll every quarter from the sixth grade through to graduation.  I learned early on how to please teachers and give them what they wanted.  While this skill helped me be successful while in school, in retrospect, it is also what prevented me from learning the material in a truly meaningful manner.  While I retained the basics from my many years in school, I don’t recall much more than that.  My knowledge of what I should have learned from my many history courses is shaky at best.  I wish I had learned how to effectively learn what my teachers were teaching me.  I wish I was provided with tips on how to retain information and move it from the working memory into the short-term memory, and so on.  I wish my teachers had given me more of a foundation in the skills of learning instead of focusing on the learning and facts themselves.

As a teacher who realizes the negative impact of not learning how to effectively learn, I make it a point to focus on the foundational skills of learning throughout the year in my class.  I want my students to know how their brain takes in information and stores it.  I want my students to see that if they can link facts or pieces of information with prior knowledge, it will more easily be stored in the brain for future use.  I help my students see the power in learning something in a fun, novel, and engaging way.  I teach my students tricks regarding memory retrieval, as that is the vital part of the process of learning.  I don’t want my students to graduate from high school feeling as though they didn’t really learn much.  I want my students to learn how to learn for the sake of learning.  I want to empower my students with knowledge on how to prepare for tests and quizzes.  I want my students to be and feel like successful students.

While I am not a huge fan of cumulative unit tests, I can’t deny the fact that my students will be taking tests of that nature in the sixth grade and beyond.  During the first half of the year in my fifth grade classroom, my students learn how to learn.  I teach them about the power of their brain and how it works.  I provide them with tricks on how to retain information.  I teach them skills ahead of knowledge.  I teach them how to use their peers as resources.  I show them how learning and school can be fun and engaging.  Then, during the second half of the academic year, I focus on preparing them for the numerous challenges they will face in the years ahead.  I teach them how to prepare for tests and quizzes.  I teach them how to manage their time in order to complete their work and assignments.  I teach them how to attack school with vigor and fury.  I prepare them for a future of taking in information and regurgitating it in some form again, and luckily, I am not alone.  The great school at work I work promotes this idea of skills first, knowledge second across the grades.  Students at the Beech Hill School learn the value of learning.

As we are in the downward hump of our school year, I am focusing my energy on helping my students learn how to prepare, study, and complete tests and quizzes.  As we just finished a large unit in Science class on Ecology, I took the opportunity to introduce and teach test preparation skills.  Prior to the test, we played a fun review game that covered all of the information learned throughout the unit.  The students retained almost every knowledge nugget I had thrown at them.  Yes, they learned the value in the retrieval strategies I had taught them earlier in the year.  Then, following this fun review game, I spent a period exploring test preparation skills with the students.  How do you prepare for a test?  What does that process look like?  I introduced the steps of the process to the students before I taught them how to create an effective study guide.  I also explained to the students the power in asking questions.  “Some teachers,” I said, “will be very straightforward with you about what will be on a test, while others will not.  It is your responsibility to ask questions regarding things you don’t understand or know.  If the teacher doesn’t tell you what will be covered on the test, just ask.”  I allowed my students to pepper me with questions.  I even showed them the test and went over it.  I don’t want them to think of the skill of test preparation as some secret and scary thing.  I want them to learn that it’s part of the learning process.  Solidifying and reviewing the information that is stored in their short-term memory, will allow it to be more easily moved into their long-term memory.  After our lengthy discussion and study-guide-making period, I explained the next step, studying.  What does studying look like?  “Knowing yourself as a student is crucial for this final step of the test preparation process.  Knowing how to best review the material will help you be more effectively prepared to showcase what you retained,” I told the students.  I then had the students think about how they learn best?  Are you a visual student?  Do you work best with others?  Do you take in information auditorily?  What works for you?  Each student then generated a study activity that they felt would work best for them.  One student made a Kahoot! review quiz, as he learns best from doing.  Another student chose to create a mock test from her study guide, as she learns best from thinking through all possibilities.  Other students worked with a peer to test each other on the material.  Each student chose a strategy or activity that works for them.  Their homework that evening, was to complete this process.

I felt confident that this first lesson on test preparation was successful.  Of course, this is only one of many lessons like it that I will teach throughout the year to help fully prepare my students for the numerous learning opportunities they will face in their future years of schooling.  I did feel as though the students seemed to understand the power in effectively preparing for a test.  They asked many insightful questions, created a useful study guide, and brainstormed some very cool ideas on how they will study for the test.  I felt hopeful.

Then came the test on Friday morning.  While I know that my students do indeed know the material covered on the test, I also realize that test anxiety is a real struggle for some students.  Despite knowing their stuff, some students freeze up during a test and are unable to recall what they know.  As this was our first large test of the school year, I wanted to be sure that my students felt as stress-free as possible.

Before the students arrived to school that day, I had left them each an inspirational note on their desk.  “You can do it.  You know this stuff.  You’ve got it,” were some of the messages I wrote on the sticky notes I stuck to the tables where they were working that day.  They seemed to like these notes.  I think it helped to lighten the mood in the classroom as well.  Directly preceding the test, I explained the brain research on test-taking before having the students complete some Brain Gym exercises.  They seemed to really enjoy these activities.  They liked being able to move around and get their blood pumping.  I then gave the students time to get some water, sharpen a pencil, and go to the bathroom before sitting down to complete the science test.  I then went over the importance of not talking during the test so as to respect your peers.  Once I handed out the tests, they got right to work.  I played some instrumental focus music via Youtube so that the room wouldn’t be entirely silent during the test.  Research studies have shown that soft music can help with memory retrieval and serenity during stress-inducing situations like taking a test.  I also handed out, to those students interested, a small butterscotch candy that I called test fuel.  Having something to chew or suck on allows the brain to do its job more effectively.  Throughout the test, the students asked very few questions.  They drew diagrams and wrote lengthy explanations to questions about ecosystems and biomes.  The one thing I didn’t see in the classroom during the test was stress or nervousness.  None of the students fidgeted in their seats or looked around the room confused.  They all seemed to look as though they knew what was going on, as if they were prepared.  It was pretty awesome.  Everyone finished in the allotted time as well.  After all of the students completed the test, we celebrated with a round of applause and tasty gummy worms.  It felt really good to me.  I was excited to assess their tests and see all that they learned about our unit on ecology.

Test Taking

Later that day, I graded and assessed their tests.  I was most impressed and excited by how well they all did.  Their diagrams showing how plants grow, including the process of germination as well as the resources required for growth to take place, were detailed and nicely demonstrated their understanding of this concept.  Their answers to the written responses were thorough and spot on.  Only one student struggled with one of the graded objectives, and when I met with him that afternoon to reassess him one-on-one through a discussion, he was able to explain his diagram in a way that showed me he understood the concept very well.  I can’t say that I was blown away by the result of this first major test-taking experience because this class of students is so amazing on a regular basis anyway, but I was incredibly proud of how well they all did.  They took this chance to practice taking a test very seriously.  They put their best into this whole adventure.

Our first foray into preparing for and completing a test was a huge success.  Was it the in-class preparation we did on Wednesday and Thursday of this past week?  Did the fun review game help them to retrieve the information from their memories?  Was that what helped?  Or was it that they learned how to prepare for and study for a test?  Did that lesson on the steps of the test-taking process help them effectively prepare for Friday’s big test?  Perhaps it was that I had provided the students time in class to create a study guide and study for the test.  Maybe that was the kicker that put them over the top.  Or was it something that took place on Friday?  Maybe the Brain Gym exercises helped alleviate some of their stress.  Or perhaps it was the test fuel or the positive notes on their desks.  Maybe those helped them attack the test with confidence and energy.  While I could probably ponder this whole experience until I am blue in the face, I don’t believe that it was just one thing.  Taking a test is an experience with multiple prongs.  The students have to have learned the information in meaningful ways first.  Then, they have to prepare for the exam in an effective manner.  Once they are ready for the test, they then have to complete the test in a way that will reduce the amount of cortisol that is released in their brain.  It’s a multi-pronged experience.  All of what we did throughout this unit led to Friday’s awesome outcome.  The students did so well because of every aspect of the learning process.  It’s good to know that they are now well on their way to being effectively and meaningfully prepared to attack the many tests and quizzes they will see in their future.