Posted in Education, Learning, Professional Development, Reflection, Sixth Grade, Students, Summer Reading, Teaching

Mindfulness Background Reading

I stood at the counter recently at a local Dunkin’ Donuts shop, perplexed.  They had both of my favorite donuts on the shelves, the Chocolate Stick and the Vanilla Cake Batter.  I was befuddled by which donut I should choose.  The chocolate stick is easy to hold and eat and makes very little mess when eaten in a car.  The vanilla cake batter donut has a delicious filling that makes me go, “Ahhhh.”  What about not getting a donut at all?  They are full of fat and bad chemicals that only cause problems for my body.  Should I not even bother with a donut? I thought.  It was quite a vexing moment for me.  I didn’t know what to do.  I was torn.

I feel this same baffled way about the teaching resource Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness by Deborah Schoeberlein David that I recently finished reading.  While it filled my mind with lots of great ideas to implement in the classroom, it was poorly organized and overly repetitive.  So, do I give it a rave review and not mention how disorganized the text felt throughout or do I give it an honest review mentioning both the good and bad aspects of the book?  So, like I did that day at the doughnut shop, I paused, took a deep breath, and made my decision: Honesty is always the best policy.  So, here it is, my honest review of the professional development resource regarding mindfulness.

Mental food for thought:

  • The book is very disorganized and repetitive as the author keeps telling us the same thing over and over again regarding mindfulness and how to live mindfully.  While she breaks the concept down into tiny pieces, the definitions and methods are almost always the same.  Due to this chaos within the book, it felt clunky and I found myself skimming over several parts and chapters because they were all providing the reader with the same information.  This aspect made the text hard to digest effectively as I constantly found myself thinking, She already told us this, throughout the book.  Had she organized it in a more meaningful, succinct, and appropriate manner, I would have found much more enjoyment in the entire reading experience.
  • After reading this text, I realized that I am already doing some of the mindful practices the author suggests, which also reminded me that not all new teaching practices are completely new and unique.  Some concepts and ideas are things effective teachers already do on a regular basis, with mindfulness being one of them.  I’ve felt as though the big push recently in education is about teaching students to be mindful.  So, as one of my professional goals is to craft a mindfulness curriculum this summer, I felt compelled to read up on the topic so that I had some sort of foundation on which to build my curriculum.  As I read the book, I realized that a big part of being mindful is reflecting in the moment and after the fact.  I already do this on a daily basis through my teaching blog.  At the close of each and every day of teaching, I stop, reflect on something that went well or crashed and burned that day, and then write about it.  This process allows me to see how I can become a better educator since I am able to see the mistakes I made or celebrate my greatness.  In reflecting, I’m also able to, sometimes, generate possible solutions to problems facing me as a teacher.  Over the past few years that I’ve been blogging and reflecting, I’ve been able to focus my thinking in the moment.  I find myself thinking about what is going well or not as I’m teaching, which allows me to make any alterations needed right then and there.  So, while this idea of mindfulness seemed new and strange to me at first, I’m realizing that I am already on the path of being a mindful teacher, which means that I can model good, mindful practices for my students.
  • Mindfulness is all about taking the time to live in the moment and truly experience life.  I wonder then, if my school’s schedule is more conducive to mindlessness than it is mindfulness.  We have short class blocks, which do not allow most teachers to delve into mindfulness practices.  Our school is driven by time and schedule, which means that most students and teachers are always looking at the clock and not able to be present in the moment.  While our sixth grade schedule is much more flexible, and we reiterate the importance of not living by the clock or time constraints in the classroom at the start of the year, as a whole school, we struggle to build in time for mindfulness.  How can we expect our teachers to teach mindfulness to our students if we don’t provide them with the time to be mindful in the first place?  For our school to truly help students be more mindful in and out of the classroom, our schedule and mindset as an institution needs to change.  We need longer class periods and more time to work with the students on living in the moment and not worrying about what comes next.  We need more time to pause and reflect with our students.  I worry that while my co-teacher and I will teach our students to be more mindful this coming year, if our school doesn’t value mindfulness as a whole, then when our sixth graders move into the other graders, all of the effort and work they put into being mindful will be lost.
  • Teaching students to be mindful involves teaching them about the brain and how it works.  Once the students know how their brain helps them learn while also trying to distract them at every turn, they can begin to see how they can control their line of thinking and change their mindset.  While my co-teacher and I are teaching our students mindful practices, we will also be teaching them about how the brain works in our study skills course.  This way, they will be able to see how the puzzle pieces fit together.
  • Like teaching any new activity or skill in the classroom, it’s important to explain the purpose of mindfulness.  Why are we teaching you to be more mindful?  What’s the purpose?  How can these practices help you become a better student and individual citizen in our world?  These are important questions to address with the students at the outset, which is why we are planning to begin our mindfulness unit with a TED Talk or video that visually shows the students why mindfulness is crucial to their future success in and out of the classroom.
  • Short activities that allow students be more mindful in the moment will be good to use in all of our classes.  Perhaps starting class with one minute of mindful breathing and quiet contemplation could help center the students and recalibrate their brains and bodies prior to jumping into the learning and content for the day.  I want to use this in at least one class a day as I think it will really help the students see the benefits in stopping and pausing before continuing on with their day.  Another simple yet mindful activity is to start class with a riddle.  Having the students think about just the answer to the riddle allows them to hone their focus and concentration at the start of the class.  This is also a cool idea that I want to use in our study skills class.
  • When crafting the mindfulness curriculum for our class this year, I now have several good activities and ideas to include:
    • After explaining the purpose of learning mindfulness, I want to have the students realize how many different thoughts are swirling around their tiny heads at any given moment by having them list every thought they are thinking during a period of 30 seconds.  I will follow this up with a class discussion and reflection activity that will hopefully help the students see the power in decluttering their minds on a daily basis.
    • I want to have the students complete some mindful speech and active listening activities to help the boys learn how to speak aloud and listen appropriately.  The students will work with a partner to read a section of text aloud in various different ways before receiving feedback on each method.  This way, hopefully, the students will be able to see how important volume, annunciation, and intonation are when speaking aloud.  This activity will also help the students learn the importance of being good listeners and how this skill can help them and their partner grow as students and people.
    • The author introduced a cool activity about walking with awareness to help the students see how their body language shows their feelings and emotions without them even knowing it.  This will help the students learn to be aware of their body language and the messages it sends to their peers and teachers.
    • Have students complete various acts of kindness and then talk about the resultant feelings.  How does it feel to be kind and compassionate?  Helping the students see the value in kindness will help them to treasure it and spread it to everyone they come in contact with on a daily basis.
    • I want to have the students try a mindful seeing activity as a way to introduce how quiet observations can lead to mindful vision.  We could work this into the STEM curriculum as they observe the natural world right outside of our classroom.  How much more valuable are the observations they make when they are quiet and patient than when they are talking and focusing on several different ideas?  This is something I struggled with this past year in my STEM class.  When I took the students outside to observe their forest plots, they were so preoccupied with the external factors of bugs, heat, and their peers that they couldn’t mindfully observe their plots. Having the students practice this activity a few different times might help them to see the benefit in mindfully observing the world around them.
    • Have the students complete an activity in which they discuss a hot button topic before seeing how their expectations and judgements cloud their mindfulness.  How can you truly and objectively think about or discuss a topic if your mind is full of preconceived notions and subjective thoughts?  Getting the students to see the importance of broadening their perspective when learning about new ideas or topics is crucial for mindful learning to take place.
  • A great and easy way for the students to document their mindfulness progress is to have them reflect on their mindful thinking and learning in their e-portfolios.  As we will have the students update and maintain their e-portfolio throughout the year, adding another component in which they can document their growth as a mindful student just makes sense.  This way they can see how much more mindful they are at the end of the year compared to how they were at the start of the academic year.

While I didn’t totally love this book because it was disorganized and repetitive, I did learn a lot from it.  Reading this text also facilitated much thinking for me on the topic of mindfulness.  Although I wouldn’t recommend this book for teachers looking to create a mindfulness curriculum, it has helped me to think about how I want to organize my own unit on mindfulness.  Now begins the fun work of setting up my mindfulness unit with all that I’ve learned from this resource.

Posted in Education, Sixth Grade, Students, Summer Reading, Teaching

Summer Reading: Books my Students Will Read

As I sit here in the magnificent Howe Public Library waiting for my son to finish a final exam at his high school, I’m filled with glee.  I am so glad that it is him and not me taking exams.  I hated taking final exams in high school and college.  They were so stressful and my hand ached with great pain after each one as I had to write a novella to address the questions being asked.  I am so happy that instead of sitting in a room filled with tension and teenage hormones, I am here in a cool and quiet library updating my blog regarding my second summer professional goal.  The metaphorical sun shines brightly in my epically blue sky today.

After reading the underwhelming Welcome to Camp Nightmare by R. L. Stine, I was worried that all three of my children’s literature selections would be duds.  With the plethora of choices and options in this genre, I feel as though I am more likely to read a bad book than a winner.  Despite these odds, I persevered, thankfully, and came out on top with much to show for my work.  The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce and The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang were both fantastic reads that thrusted me into completely different worlds filled with action, humor, drama, and diversity.  In the sea of icky young adult fiction, it’s nice to know that there are authors willing to take risks and write brilliant books for the future leaders and thinkers of our world.

The Unforgotten Coat tells the amazing story of refugee children trying to navigate life in a new land, while always fearing deportation.  The author did a wonderful job painting the portrait of differences and compassion with Polaroid pictures and a first-person narrative from the perspective of a sixth grade girl as the backdrop.  I absolutely loved every page of the novel and hope that my students choose this book to devour this summer.  There are several great talking and discussion points I could bring up with my students regarding this novel as it is filled with lots of examples of great writing, poor choices, compassionate choices, and kindness in a harsh world where a piece of paper is the difference between safety and loss.  Wow! is just about all I can say about this great book.  If you are looking for a quick read for sixth grade level readers or looking for a new read-aloud to teach your students about diversity and the refugee crisis with which our world is faced, then this is the book for you.

The third book I chose to read that some of my new sixth grade students may read this summer was The Shadow Hero.  As I have grown to enjoy graphic novels thanks in part to the author of this very book, I could not have been more excited to jump into this wonderful novel.  The author does an amazing job telling the story of a Chinese superhero created during the time when comics were all the rage in our country.  Unfortunately, the original story and comic fell to the wayside and never really gained popularity in its own time.  Thankfully though, the author and illustrator reinvigorate The Green Turtle narrative by imagining his origin story.  The book is filled with creative imagery and crisp writing that moves the story forward like the tracks below a speeding train.  Because some of the language used could be construed as a bit mature, this novel would definitely be for more advanced readers or those middle school readers looking for a fun read filled with action.  I was transported to a different time where stereotypes and differences abounded like bubbles in soda.  This book could be used to teach about the Chinese culture or diversity in general.  It might also be a unique way to introduce or teach world mythology to students.  If you’re looking for a young adult novel that is a bit different from the norm, then this may just be the book for you.

While my son sits in a hot classroom, frantically moving his pencil across the page as he answers yet another question about American history, I could not be happier sitting here reflecting upon some great books I’ve read this week.  After reading these three books, I’m inspired to tackle even more young adult novels as I work my way through the rest of my summer professional goals.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Learning, Student Support, Students, Summer Reading, Teaching

Summer Reading Professional Development Text: Lost at School

Although the crux of the concept Ross Greene explains in his book seems intuitive and almost like common sense for teachers and parents, I found this novel to be eye-opening and quite beneficial.  It’s an easy read with short chapters and lots of specific examples.  The story of a school using his Plan B weaves together the book and different ideas suggested within.  As my son is often described as a challenging student, I found this book to hit very close to home.  I “saw” him in many of the descriptions I read about difficult students in school and it made me realize that even though the method of supporting and helping challenging students is good teaching, very few of my son’s teachers have utilized this approach to helping him.  So, I send out a plea to all teachers, if you haven’t yet read this book, please do so and utilize Plan B when working with all students as we don’t want to create apathy and anger within our students.  Let’s get comfortable giving up control in order to foster an atmosphere of caring and collaboration in the classroom.

Some takeaways:

  • I sometimes find myself treating difficult students as if they are being defiant and challenging on purpose.  I then try to inflict my will upon them as a way to control the situation and the student.  Not only does this not work, it creates anger and frustration within the students.  They learn to dislike school because they are not being supported or cared for.  The author explains how as teachers and caregivers, we need to change the way we think about difficult kids.  Challenging students are challenging not as a way to be purposefully defiant but because they have developmental delays regarding thinking and learning skills.  These difficult students are challenging because they don’t know how to do what they are being asked to do.  If they knew how, they would clearly do it.  This idea really made me question how I have dealt with difficult students in the past.  I believe that I usually assume challenging students are purposefully acting out as a way to be defiant.  Boy was I ever wrong.  This new way of thinking will help me better support challenging students in my class come September.
  • Greene proposes that teachers collaborate with students to solve problems and address challenging and difficult behavior.  For many educators, this will be hard to swallow as we often want to be in control of our class.  “How can we possibly allow the students to help us solve their problems.  They have no idea what they need.  They need to be disciplined and receive consequences for their poor choices.”  This fixed mindset is what has caused students like my son to hate school and struggle greatly.  As teachers, we need to realize that we are in this amazing journey, often called education, together with our students.  It is not us vs. them; instead, we need to be one big community and family of learners.  Families do things together and so the same needs to apply in the classroom.  Students know themselves and what they need way better than we do.  Sure, we might not always like their ideas, and that’s okay, but we do need to respect what our students have to say and how they feel.  Students need to be validated if progress is to be made.  The author’s Plan B is all about validating the feelings of our students and then working together with our students to help address these issues that are rearing their head as challenging behaviors in the classroom.
  • Greene’s Plan B approach to solving behavioral problems in the classroom contains three steps:
    • Step 1: Validate the feelings of the student by showing apathy.  “I’ve noticed that it’s been difficult for you to complete your homework on a daily basis.  What’s up with that?”  This step begins the conversation and allows you to determine is going on with the student.  Why is he or she exhibiting this difficult behavior?  This is the most important step in the process as it builds trust and care between the teacher and the student.  While the student may not give up the goods right away, if you keep digging and probing through empathetic questions and active listening, you will eventually figure out what is causing the student to act they way they are acting in the classroom.
    • Step 2: Explain your concern with the student’s behavior.  “My concern is that by not doing your homework, you are unable to practice the skills introduced in class and then seem very confused when we build upon the skills learned.”  This step is obviously the shortest and must be free of judgment and explanation.  Don’t try to assume why the student is acting a certain way, simply state your concern with their behavior.
    • Step 3: Invite the student into the conversation once again by asking for their suggestions on how to solve the problem or address the behavior being exhibited.  “I wonder if there is a way we can help you complete your homework on a daily a basis.  Do you have any ideas?”  This step may take the longest to complete as the student may have lots of ideas that won’t be mutually agreed upon by both the teacher and the student; however, it’s important that we show the student that we value their input.  We want them to be a part of the problem solving process.  If a student doesn’t have any ideas, propose your own.  While the student may not like any of your ideas, he or she might be prompted to provide some of their own once they have had time to process what is being asked of them.  Difficult students often lack executive functioning skills and need more time to process and think before responding.
  • After reading through the three parts of Plan B, I began to wonder, am I already doing a form of Plan B in the classroom at times?  I do find that I sometimes begin conversations regarding a student’s behavior with empathy before getting into my concern with their choices.  However, that is usually where I stop.  I don’t usually allow the student to add their ideas and suggestions to the conversation.  So, what I thought was Plan B is actually Plan A.  I am doling out consequences as a way to control the student and my classroom.  Because I’m not making the problem solving process collaborative, the students become disengaged in the process and no genuine progress is made, which is why I often see these same difficult behaviors repeated throughout the year.  I need to be sure I allow the students to add their thoughts and concerns to our discussions as collaboration is crucial to making real progress.
  • The author helps educators think about the Plan B model of collaborative problem solving by comparing it to differentiating academic instruction in the classroom.  Teachers wouldn’t expect every student to be able to comprehend every aspect of a single novel read without support and scaffolding; therefore, we shouldn’t assume that every student has the ability to transition from playtime to class time without help and support too.  Some students need help from us, their teachers, to learn how to solve problems, transition, etc. and Plan B is a differentiated approach to doing this.  If we differentiate the academic instruction for our students, then we need to do the same for behavior and the social aspects of school too.  I liked this analogy as I see how important differentiation is for academic instruction.  If I put as much time and energy into helping all students address their behavioral issues as I do creating scaffolded learning opportunities for my students, then I would see the frequency of challenging behaviors in my classroom decrease.
  • Plan B isn’t simply an individual approach to problem solving; it can be used for a whole class or small groups as well.  The same three steps are used.  The only difference is that more students are involved.  You will need to set ground rules for how these conversations proceed, but they are vital to fostering a strong sense of community and compassion within the classroom.  Although I do try to address big issues with my entire class, I do so in a very controlled manner without allowing the students to add their insight to the discussion.  I want to work on this for the new academic year.  I’m thinking that maybe having one community meeting a week to address behavioral issues or concerns might help to create a sense of family and caring within the classroom.  I want to run this by my co-teacher to get her thoughts on the issue.  I’m excited about this as I think it will make a big difference in the classroom.
  • The author suggested a cool idea that could easily be incorporated into these whole class Plan B discussions: Have students share gifts or personal qualities and attributes they have that could help their classmates.  This would help the students learn more about their classmates while also helping them all learn who could help them within their class.  This kind of activity could do wonders for building a strong sense of community within the classroom.  I love it and will use it as an icebreaker activity at the start of the year.  I might also revisit this activity throughout the year when issues arise.

Although my feedback and takeaways can’t possibly do justice to how great and wonderful this book is, I feel as though I encapsulated the best and most important ideas of the text.  I love this book and feel as though the ideas presented will help me continue to grow and develop as a teacher.  I can’t wait for September so that I can try Plan B.  Heck, I’m going to try it with my son this summer.  Bring on the challenging behavior!

Posted in Education, Humanities, Language, Learning, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Summer Reading Professional Development Text: Educating English Learners

After a lengthy hiatus brought on by the craziness that is teaching sixth grade at a boarding school, I jumped headfirst right back into Educating English Learners, by Nutta, Strebel, Mokhtari, Mihai, and Crevecoeur-Bryant, now that summer vacation has begun.  While it was quite dense and loaded with vocabulary more geared towards English as a Second Language Teachers, I learned a lot about how to better support and help the English language learners in my class.  I would not recommend this text for light reading as I found myself having to reread several passages because of the syntax and verbosity of the language used.  It’s a great resource for any teacher who works with non-native English students in their classroom.  Although the book doesn’t include neat and easy to use remedies and strategies, it provides the reader with much food for thought and fodder on how to create a caring and supportive environment for all students in the classroom.

My takeaways:

  • English language learners will struggle less when learning English if their native language literacy skills are strong.  While this seems quite simplistic and obvious, when I read this knowledge nugget, I felt as though someone had slung a bag of bricks at my head.  So, the stronger the EL student is in his or her native language, the better equipped he or she will be to tackle the intricacies of the English language.  Knowing this will help me better structure mini-lessons or plans for the ELs in my class.  Talking to parents and looking at student files ahead of time might provide me with the answers I need regarding this issue.
  • To help EL students feel more welcomed and safe at the start of the school year, labelling objects around the room in the native languages represented in the classroom is a good first step in setting up the classroom.  This will help the students know how much I care about them and want them to be successful.  It’s a little thing that is sure to go a long way.  It’s also great for vocabulary development for those EL students in my class.
  • Things that native English speakers take for granted are truly difficult for EL students to learn.  For example, native English speakers know the difference between words when they are used in social contexts or in academic settings.  A party is a social gathering when discussed amongst friends, but in the social studies classroom it refers to a group of people with similar beliefs.  Although the definitions are closely related, to non-native English students, how is it possible that one word can have more than one meaning?  The English language is full of rules, idiomatic expressions, and exceptions to every rule.  Being aware of these challenges will help us better empathize with and support the ESL students in our classroom.
  • If we know that most native English speakers don’t fully grasp why we say what we do and how we say things in English and our ELLs need much help understanding rules of grammar when learning English, why don’t we do more formal instruction in the classroom on the rules and structure of English?  Why don’t we teach the parts of speech and how to use them?  Why don’t we help students learn how to diagram sentences to understand the hows and whys of English?  Why don’t we teach the English language to all of our students?  As I’ve often wrestled with these questions over the years, I’ve suddenly realized that I don’t formally teach grammar and English to my sixth grade students.  Sure, I brush over it at various times when I’m conferencing with students in Writer’s Workshop or helping an ELL in my class; I don’t however, do any full-class instruction on this.  I need to bring back the formal grammar instruction, but I want to make sure I do so in a meaningful, relevant, and engaging way.  Having the students complete worksheets and underline verbs and nouns seems tedious and boring.  I want my students to truly learn English grammar.  I was thinking of starting my Humanities class twice a week with a brain opener activity I would call Grammar Gurus in which I would teach the students about English grammar through fun activities.  It wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes and it would allow me be sure that my students understand the form and function of the English language.  This would also greatly benefit the ELLs in my classroom too.  Nice!
  • Acting out, visually, or through modelling, new or challenging vocabulary terms will better help the EL students in our classrooms understand what we are discussing or asking them to do.  I could use images or diagrams as instructions on worksheets or on our class website to help non-native English speakers better understand what is being asked of them.
  • Much like labelling objects in the classroom in various different languages, having a word wall in the classroom with new vocabulary terms and their definitions in simple English would also help struggling English language learners better understand the content being covered in class.  My co-teacher and I could use this strategy as an introductory lesson for each new unit.  We could introduce the new vocabulary terms that we will cover throughout the unit and help the students generate student-friendly and simplistic definitions for the new words.  Very cool idea!
  • Thematic units or PBLs help ELLs due to the longer exposure to the content and vocabulary terms covered.  If the students are learning about renewable energy in STEM class and also writing about it in Humanities class, the same ideas, concepts, and vocabulary terms will be used in both classes.  The English language learners in the classroom would then be provided with more time to practice understanding the content and processing the new words and concepts.  What a brilliant idea!  I’m going to talk to my co-teacher about crafting more thematic units throughout the year to better support and help the ESL students in our class.
  • While I’ve always known the power in partnering non-native English speakers with native English students, the book made a point to explain the power in pairing students with different languages together when working on a PBL activity that incorporates technology somehow.  The non-native English speaker can receive English support from the native speaker while they are both problem solving in English together.  Not only does this technique help to bridge cultural differences, it also helps both students grow and develop as English language learners.  I need to make sure I continue this tradition of pairing ELLs with native English speakers in the classroom as the evidence and research proves what I’ve known all along.
  • The text discusses the importance of correcting the English language learners in our class in their writing and oral speech.  This goes against my prior knowledge and what I currently do in the classroom.  Rather than correcting the oral speech of the ELLs in my classroom, I work with them one-on-one with their writing.  I provide them feedback on how to improve their written English.  I should do this more consistently and also correct their oral English as well.  The book highlights the importance of doing this so that the students will learn proper English.  If we cottle the ELLs in our classroom, they will not grow and develop as English language learners.  Although this seems like common sense, I’ve never realized the importance of doing so for the ESL students in my class.  I need to do this regularly in the classroom.
  • For ELLs to grow and develop, they need to be receiving direct instruction from an ESL instructor at least once a day along with inclusion in a mainstream class.  The combination of the two will help the students understand the rules and function of the language while also practicing the social and academic rules of English.  In the sixth grade, my ELLs only have ESL class twice a week.  They need to have it every day in order to be appropriately prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English class.  I need to talk with my school’s director of studies to see if this can be changed for next year and beyond.  While ESL class is a regular course in the seventh through ninth grades, it is done differently in the sixth grade.  This needs to be changed.  Perhaps that’s why I see very slow progress from my ESL students over the course of the year.  As I am not a qualified ESL instructor, I can’t help them in all of the ways they need to be supported as they learn the English language.
  • Because my school has almost 50% non-native English speakers, we need more professional development for supporting ELLs in our classrooms.  We need specific strategies, tips, and tricks we can use when working with English language learners.  While reading this book has helped me understand the issue at hand, it is only a tiny piece of the puzzle of working with ELLs.  I’m sure my colleagues would agree when I say that we need much more help and support from our school in working with non-native English speakers.  We need to be taught about teaching ELLs in our classrooms.  We can’t effectively help all of our students if we don’t know how to do so.

While it took me a bit longer than I had hoped to complete this text, it was totally worth the wait and perseverance.  I now know that I need to be much more deliberate and purposeful in teaching the English language to all of my students, and especially to the English language learners in my class.  I feel as though I am much more prepared now to help support the ELLs in my classroom come September.  Yes, I do still need a lot more help in what specific strategies to use when working with the English language learners in my class, but at least I feel like I have some places to start and ideas for how to improve as an English teacher moving forward.

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Learning, New Ideas, Planning, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, Student Support, Students, Summer Reading, Teaching, Trying Something New

Summer Work: What I’ll Do When It’s Hot Outside

While there are times I miss owning a house and having a place to call my own, I don’t miss mowing the lawn, plucking the weeds, and checking to make sure the basement isn’t flooded, again.  The summer months are the worst for homeowners as there is so much to constantly do and redo again and again.  It’s a never ending cycle of sweaty, back-breaking labor.  No, I don’t miss taking care of a house, especially in the summer.  The summer months are for relaxing, spending time with family, and staying cool inside thanks to artificial air from air conditioners.  What a brilliant invention!  If it weren’t for air conditioners, I’d have to spend every summer at the North Pole with Santa and his elves.  Although it would be super cool to help Santa make presents for all the girls and boys around the globe, I’d miss my wife and son too much.  Luckily though, I get to enjoy the best of both worlds with air conditioning and family fun.

As I spend most of the oppressively hot summer days inside, I’m far from bored.  In fact, my summer vacation is the second busiest time of the year for me.  The most hectic time is definitely the regular school year, of course.  In the summer though, I set lofty goals for what I’d like to accomplish.  Last year, I revised my STEM curriculum, learned how to knit, learned how to solve the Rubik’s Cube, and read a few professional development texts.  This year my goals may be a tiny bit higher as I work each year to grow as an educator and individual.

  • Read Two Professional Development Texts
    • As I never finished the book Educating English Learners that I began at the start of this past academic year, part A of my first summer goal is to complete that.  In order to be sure that I best support, challenge, and care for the non-native English speakers that are sure to fill my sixth grade classroom next year, I want to finish reading this text.  I’m hopeful that it will provide me with many valuable and useful strategies that I can apply in the classroom at the start of the year.  This way, I will be better equipped to help the international students in my class be able to effectively learn and grow as English language learners.
    • The professional development summer reading book I chose from the list provided by my school’s administration is Lost at School by Ross Greene.  Although I never read his immensely popular book about how to help difficult or explosive children, I’m excited to dive into this resource for helping students with behavioral issues feel cared for and supported.  I have sometimes found myself fumbling for the best strategy to use to to help students with chronic behavioral issues.  As I know there is clearly some sort of underlying motivation for their poor choices, I struggled, at times, to best help students who seemed to be “too cool for school.”  I’m optimistic that this resource will provide me with much fodder for next year and beyond.  How do I best help students with behavioral issues in the classroom?
  • Read Three Summer Reading Books my Students May Read This Summer
    • As my new co-teacher and I put together a pretty amazing list of possible summer reading books for our new sixth graders, we wanted to be sure that between the two of us, we have read them all.  As there are nine books on the list and we each read one, I’ll be reading three that interest me and my new co-teacher will read four that she’s excited to read and perhaps utilize in STEM class next year.  I’ll be reading Welcome to Camp Nightmare by R.L. Stine, The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce, and The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang.  As I’m a huge fan of young adult literature, I can’t wait to dive into these treasures.
  • Create Mindfulness Curriculum
    • After attending a workshop on the importance of teaching students how to be mindful in this ever distracting world in which we live, I felt compelled to find a way to implement mindfulness into my curriculum.  Since my new co-teacher and I have three extra periods a week with the sixth grade boys in the fall, we now know how we are going to cover this ever important topic with the students.  Once or twice a week, we want to introduce, explain, and have the students utilize mindfulness practices including meditation, breathing exercises, self-awareness, and much more.  As I haven’t had much opportunity to dig into the many resources available online for teaching this important topic, I’m looking forward to having the time this summer to craft a meaningful and appropriate mindfulness curriculum for our new sixth grade students.
  • Revise Humanities Unit on Community
    • Despite truly loving the community unit my co-teacher and I used this past year, I want to take the time to deeply reflect on it.  Does it cover and address the big ideas I want my students to take away from it?  Is it fun and engaging for the students?  Does it take up too much class time or not enough?  Is every part of the unit interconnected?  Are there too many field experiences or not enough?  Should I stick with just the town of Canaan or cover the entire state of NH?  What’s the best way to instruct a unit on community?  I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel by any means and will probably keep most of what I used last year, but I want to take the time to meaningfully look at the unit and what it entails.  Is there a better way to implement a unit on community in the sixth grade?
  • Learn How to Effectively Utilize a Makey Makey Tool
    • Not only is it fun to say, “Makey Makey,” but it’s also a really cool resource to use to get students learning about computer mechanics and circuitry.  As I was recently given a Makey Makey of my own, I feel compelled to not simply learn how to use it, but to learn how to use it effectively so that I can teach students how to use it in our classroom’s Makerspace starting in September.   As the Makey Makey website includes many great tutorials and resources on how to best utilize them in the classroom, I’m excited about playing with this cool new tool this summer.  I wonder what amazing knowledge I will gain from learning how to use the Makey Makey.  I can’t wait to find out.
  • Research Grading Rubrics and Create Several Different Types
    • As I am moving into year one of my school’s Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan (ITIP) beginning in September, I felt it prudent to choose a topic that I could begin focusing on this summer.  While teacher and student reflection is definitely my jam, I already do it and have seen tangible results because of its utilization in and out of the classroom; therefore, I’ve decided on a topic that will force me to look at how I assess and grade student work.  Although I’ve seen the benefits of using the objectives-based grading model in the sixth grade classroom over the past several years that I’ve used it, grading and assessing student work still proves to be a bit subjective at times.  Is this because the objectives I’ve created are too subjective or open to individual interpretation?  Do these challenges stem from having expectations for my students that are too high or too low?  What is causing the issues that I’ve seen regarding the grading and assessment of student work?  To help me figure out what might be at play here, I’ve decided to focus on the grading tool I use to assess student work.  While I’ve never been a fan of prescriptive rubrics as I feel they steal creativity and problem solving from the students, I’ve only been using a bare-bones list of expectations the students need to meet when completing a project or assignment.  Is this enough for the students to be able to effectively demonstrate their ability to meet or exceed the graded objectives?  Should I use rubrics instead so that the students know how to meet and exceed the graded objectives for a particular task or assignment?  Might that help or would it limit what the students could do because rubrics are so explanatory?  Are there different types of rubrics I should use?  What is the most effective way to introduce an assignment and grade and assess student work using the objectives-based grading model?
    • So, this summer, I want to research grading rubrics and their effectiveness in the classroom.  What type of rubric works best?  Do rubrics work?  What data have teachers and schools collected on assessment that might help me address my ITIP topic?  I also want to create a few different types of grading tools and rubrics that I could utilize in the classroom to collect my own data on assessment.

So, that’s it.  That’s my plan for the summer in between chauffeuring my son around to his driver’s education course and football training commitments as well as spending time with my wife and making sure I do as much as I can to help out around the house since I’m quite absent when the academic year begins.  So, bring on the heat as I’ll be keeping cool and busy inside this summer with my epic workload and professional development goals.  Go me!

Posted in Challenges, Change, Education, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

How Can We Help Our Students See their Fears and Anxieties About School as Normal?

This past Tuesday, some colleagues and I celebrated the beginning of our lengthy summer vacation by going to Portland, Maine.  I haven’t had so much fun since I can’t remember when.  Despite the dreary and cold weather, we walked around the Old Port like we owned the town.  We munched on tasty food and talked about non-school stuff; although, that was difficult at times since our common tie is life at a boarding school.  We tried.  We laughed, we got drenched as cars drove through puddles splashing rain upon us, and we sang and danced like nobody’s business.  Yes, that’s right, I said sang.  You see, the reason we went to Maine was to see City and Colour live in concert.  As my pals and I are enamored by Dallas Green’s sultry voice and insightful lyrics, we convinced some of our other teacher friends to come along for the epic journey.  And epic it was.  He played all of his best tunes including an acoustic version of Coming Home that went right into the end of This Could be Anywhere in the World by Alexisonfire, Dallas’ other band.  We almost cried.  As most of the people we went with enjoyed the show, it was really my two closest friends and I who were the most into the show.  We danced the night away.  You see, music moves us like the pied piper moved his mice.  I used to be worried what people around us must think when they see us dancing, “Those people must be drunk or on drugs.”  The beauty of it all is that I am completely sober during concerts.  Music fills my body with joy and I can’t help but move.  Sure, people point and giggle occasionally, but I no longer care.  I realize that if I feel something, I should show it.  So, I do, and so do my concert buddies.  We move to the rhythm of each song as if we are dancers in our own private ballet.  It’s so much fun.  Going to a concert is an experience for us and so I’m sure to leave my fears and anxieties at the metal detectors.

Like me, my students enter our classroom each year filled with fears and anxieties about all sorts of things.  “Will the other students like me?  Will I fit in?  Can I handle the workload?”  As a teacher, I make it a goal to help assuage this fear within my students by creating a safe, caring, compassionate, and supportive environment in the classroom.  Although the beginning of the year is generally the most stressful time for students due to the many unknown variables, the end of the year can also prove to be a bit challenging for our students as well.  After a wonderful year in the classroom, the students begin to worry about next year as the current academic year winds to a close.  They worry about the new students and teachers as well as the many changes that are sure to come in a new grade.  Instead of sending our students off on summer vacation stressed about the next school year, it’s important to help the students see that their fears and worries are a normal part of growing up and maturing.

On the last day of school at my wonderful educational institution, which came and went last Thursday, we devoted time to having the students reflect on the year and share their excitement and fears for seventh grade.  While my co-teacher and I wanted the students to celebrate all of the awesomeness that happened in the sixth grade classroom this year, we also wanted the students to realize that their fears are most likely the same concerns that their peers have.  “I’m worried about the homework load next year.  I’m worried about not fitting in.  I’m worried that the teachers won’t like me.  I’m worried that the new students won’t like me.”  By having the boys share their worries for next year aloud with their peers, they not only had the opportunity to be validated by the teachers and their friends, but they also had a chance to become allies with the other students so that they can work together to help each other overcome the fears they possess.  As we fostered a strong sense of community within the class this past year, we are hopeful that they will take care of one another next year.  Knowing what worries their peers will help them better support each other as they move into the seventh grade.  Helping the students to see that they have friends who support and empathize with them will help make the transition into the next academic year a bit smoother for our boys.

Posted in Education, Sixth Grade, Teaching

Reflections on the 2016-2017 Academic Year

It’s hard to believe that I have reached the end of yet another academic year.  How did that happen?  I made it through the late and harsh New England winter that pounded us with snow right on through to May.  I survived our numerous overnight field trips and fun activities.  I survived a new co-teacher.  And I made it through all of this with only one or two extra gray hairs sprinkled into my beard.  Where did the time go?  I know that seems like a huge cliche, but this year seemed to fly by faster than normal.  I guess they were right when they said that the good times can’t last forever.

And good times they were this year in the sixth grade.  My co-teacher and I were so lucky to have such an amazing class of fine young men.  They were kind, compassionate, creative, intelligent, curious, and hardworking students.  While it is always hard to say goodbye to a class at the end of a school, this year may be one of the most challenging as we were blessed with 14 amazing students.  But alas, we can’t purposefully fail them just so that we can keep them for another year, or can we?  They are ready to spread their wings and fly into the seventh grade.  We feel as though we have prepared them well.  They are open-minded, self aware, and creative boys who now know how to effectively coexist with their peers, think critically to solve problems encountered, and own their learning.  They are good to go.

Like the rain falling outside, I am flooded with nostalgia and great memories from the year:

  • The amazing science fair that took place in the sixth grade classroom during Parents’ Weekend in October of 2016.  The boys explained their projects and what they had learned to parents and faculty members as though they were college-level scientists.  I could not have been more proud in the moment.  The boys did such a phenomenal job showcasing their learning and the process involved in acquiring that learning.
  • Our field trips to the Sargent Center and Cape Cod.  Not only did the boys learn a lot about the natural world around us, they also learned how to be good teammates, community members, and friends.  This group of students was more closely bonded together than any other past group I’ve worked with at the sixth grade level.  They all seemed to really like each other and got along swimmingly.
  • The American Presidential Election Process unit we completed in Humanities class.  While I’ve always wanted to conduct a unit about the presidential election, I never have.  This academic year felt like the right time not just because of the circumstances of the election but also because this group seemed really curious and interested in learning more about the American political system.  The speeches they gave at the end of the unit were remarkable.  I was amazed at how brilliantly they spoke.  If the election had been between the two fictional candidates my students created, it would have been a much more mature and sophisticated election.
  • The Farm Program we implemented within our STEM class.  Every Friday, we traveled to a nearby working hobby farm so that the boys could learn about how our human world depends on the natural world for food and so much more.  The students had a blast learning all about life on a farm, raising and taking care of bunnies, crocheting, spinning wool, planting vegetables and flowers, and living a sustainable and environmentally friendly life.  This new program ended up being everything I had hoped it would be and so much more.  I hope my new co-teacher for next year continues with this beneficial component of our STEM curriculum.
  •  My third new co-teacher in three years.  Is it something I said?  Do I smell funny?  I’m hopeful that none of those reasons apply to why my co-teachers continue to leave me year after year.  I feel like I’m a great guy.  Well, this year I was fortunate enough to work with another wonderful co-teacher.  She is intelligent and creative and her brilliant ideas helped us to create more meaningful units and activities.  Her approach to the teaching of our health curriculum in the study skills class was amazing.  She had insightful discussions and conversations with the boys on relevant and important topics including drugs, sex, and relationships.  She wasn’t afraid to jump into difficult topics and conversations so that the students could be well-informed and educated on life in the crazy world in which we live.  It’s going to be hard to see her move onto teaching ninth grade history at my school next year, but I’m also excited to work with another co-teacher next year.  Who knows, maybe this one will stay with me for more than a year.

While my list could go on and on as many fine memories are forever imprinted within my long term memory, I also realize that I have much work to do to get ready for our final two days of class parties and activities.  Although reflection is good and useful in so many ways, so is sleep and family time.  So, off I go to finish the un-fun, paperwork portion of my role as a teacher.  Yuck!  I’d much rather be blogging.

Posted in Education, Students, Teaching

Reflecting on Student Feedback

While I’d like to think that I know everything and have the solution to every problem encountered, I don’t.  I am a work in progress, like every human.  I am constantly changing, evolving, maturing, and growing.  Most of the big changes that I’ve made to my life generally comes from feedback or suggestions from others.  “Hey, you’re really good at helping people understand things.  You should become a teacher,” said a former teacher of mine.  Well, we all know what I did with that feedback.  It’s powerful stuff.

Some of the greatest and most effective changes I’ve made to the sixth grade program over the years stems from feedback provided by the students.  I changed my approach to teaching reading and writing based on the feedback I received from the students.  They didn’t like reading the same book altogether because many of them found my choices boring.  They wanted to read books that they chose.  So, we now utilize the workshop approach to teaching reading and writing so that the boys have options and choices.  Seeking feedback from my students has made me a better teacher over the years.  I crave their thoughts and ideas on what we do in the sixth grade because I know that my perspective is very different from theirs.  I don’t know everything.  I want to craft the most effective and enjoyable sixth grade program possible, and I feel as though asking for feedback from my students is a really easy way to do this.

Today the students completed the end of the year sixth grade survey to provide me with feedback on our sixth grade program.  I kept the questions broad for the most part so that the boys had choices and options when providing my co-teacher and I with feedback.  I made sure to emphasize how important receiving relevant and appropriate feedback is to us, in the hopes that they would put great effort into completing the form via Google Forms.  I was impressed with their responses as many of the boys seemed to really take their time in providing us with valuable feedback.  I feel as though we received some useful feedback that will allow us to develop and change the sixth grade program for the better.

Takeaways

  • The students really enjoyed our field experiences this year.  They loved leaving the classroom to learn.  Most of the boys cited our trip to Cape Cod as their favorite memory.  A few students even mentioned the bonding opportunities that were provided through these field trips.  They seemed to really enjoy spending time together.  It’s great to know that the students have noticed how we try to foster a sense of community within the class.  They see the value and importance of this aspect of our program.  That feels good.  So, while our budget will be cut for next year, forcing us to remove some of the traditional field trips we’ve done in the sixth grade for years now, we will need to be mindful of how important these community bonding opportunities are for the boys.
  • The students really treasured the freedom and choice with which our curriculum provides them.  They loved reader’s workshop and being able to choose their own books.  They enjoyed having the freedom to choose their topics for the research project we completed during the spring term in Humanities class.  They loved the STEM projects that allowed them to creatively solve problems and generate unique solutions.  Although the brain research tells us that students learn best when they are engaged and see the relevance in the learning, which is why we have developed our program accordingly, it’s always excellent to hear that it’s working and that the students truly are engaged in our classroom.  I’ll be sure to keep these components firmly rooted within the sixth grade curriculum for at least the next academic year.
  • The boys thoroughly enjoyed the Stock Market project we did in STEM class a few months back.  They seemed to like the competition component as well as learning the basics of investing and all about how the stock market works.  While I really like teaching this unit, I was surprised by how much the boys liked it.  I thought for sure that they would have liked the hands-on projects a bit more, but I was mistaken.  Perhaps they saw the relevance of the unit as I feel I did a fine job explaining the reasons why we were covering the Stock Market in STEM class.  Maybe.  Regardless of the reasons why they enjoyed it so much, I need to make sure that we include competitive projects and units in the sixth grade program next year.
  • Every student seemed to have a blast in the sixth grade this year.  They loved almost every aspect of our program and seemed to learn a lot about the world and themselves.  So many of the boys responded with something to the effect of, “Nothing needs to change because it’s already perfect.”  It feels great knowing that my co-teacher and I created a phenomenally challenging and supportive sixth grade program this year.  Although we were a bit worried about how the students would take to the program this year as we tried some new approaches and teaching strategies as well as some new content and units, it’s good to know that all of our hard work didn’t go to waste.  The boys really liked their time in the sixth grade this year.  Yah for us!

So, now the fun, yet challenging work begins.  How do we make our sixth grade program even better for next year?  Over the next three months, I’m going to take a hard look at the feedback we received from our students and try to find ways to capitalize on what they enjoyed and change what they didn’t like.  Just think, if I didn’t ask the students for feedback, I would have to deduce all of this on my own.  How do I know what my students liked and didn’t like if I don’t ask them?  Feedback is one of the most powerful tools we have as teachers; it not only makes us better teachers, but better people too.

Posted in Education, Reflection, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

Reflection on My Professional Goals for the Year

It’s time to take a trip in the wayback machine.  Let’s set the clock for September of 2016.  The academic year had just begun and excitement was in the air.  My class was off to a great start and I was thinking of ways to grow and improve as an educator.  To challenge myself to improve as an educator, I set some goals for myself.  They weren’t overly lofty goals but they did push me to be better able to support and challenge my students.  Now, fast forward to May of 2017.  The school year is four days away from completion.  It’s been an awesome year in the sixth grade.  Each and everyone of my students has grown and improved in so many ways.  I’m really going to miss this group.  They’ve impressed me throughout the year due to their effort and compassion.  They are a kind group of intelligent and creative young men.  I am one of the luckiest teachers I know because I had the pleasure of working with them this year.  Like my students, I’ve grown and changed a lot throughout this year as well.  I’ve become more patient and open to allowing for flexibility in the classroom.  I learned a little bit about computer coding.  I learned how to almost solve a Rubik’s Cube.  I became the math teacher that I have always wanted to be.  I could go on and on, but I won’t as I’m sure you all have far better things to do than read about my amazing school year.  Instead, my blog today will focus on the progress I made in working towards meeting the two professional goals I set for myself at the start of the academic year.

Goal Number 1: Learn to better support and help the ESL students in my class.

  • Although I did not finish reading the professional development book I started back in October that I had hoped would provide me many great strategies regarding this goal, Educating English Learners by Loyce Nutta, Carine Strebel, Kouider Mokhtar, Florin M. Mihai, and Edwidge Crevecoeur-Bryant, I did make strides in this area.  I tried some new techniques in working with the ELL students in my class.  I tried simplifying the English vocabulary I used and found other pictorial ways to explain directions or new ideas to those students.  I also spent lots of time working with this group of students outside of class to provide them the one-on-one support they needed to get to the place at which they are today.  I am impressed by how much each of the ESL students in my class have grown this year.  Their English vocabulary improved exponentially while their written and oral comprehension also grew quite immensely.  By implementing new and different strategies throughout the year, I was able to best support and challenge the ELL learners in my class.  While I am far from an expert on this topic and will finish reading the book I started almost a year ago, this summer, I do feel as though I made progress in working towards this goal.  I wouldn’t say that I completely met or exceeded this goal, but I did focus much energy, especially early on in the year, in learning new approaches to best supporting and helping the ESL students in my class.

Goal Number 2: Follow through on the new curriculum add-ons I started this year.

  • In trying to tackle quite a few new activities and lessons this year, I might have set my sights a bit too high.  While I didn’t set myself up for failure by any means, I do feel as though I tried to implement too many new things in the classroom this year: I tried to use Khan Academy as a challenging supplemental to the math curriculum for my STEM course; I tried to have the students learn computer coding by using the online application Code Combat; I tried to have the students all learn how to solve the Rubik’s Cube; I tried to have the forest plot project stretch the entire year.  With four new activities and lessons, one or two were bound to slip through the cracks.
  • I feel as though I did a fine job having the students regularly, on a weekly basis, use Khan Academy to fill in gaps in their math learning and to challenge themselves to grow and develop as math students.  Each and every student made progress with his account on Khan Academy throughout the year as I graded them on their effort and performance of concepts mastered.
  • The change in the forest plot project for this year was also a huge success.  With the exception of three months in the winter, the students went outside once almost every week to note changes in their plot, learn about the flora and fauna living in their plot, and think like a naturalist.  The students will be completing the final portion of this project on Monday when they create a flipbook of their plot through the seasons.
  • These first two changes I made this year were quite successful.  Although I didn’t devote as much time to the Rubik’s Cube and Code Combat, I do feel as though I put forth great effort to keep these alive throughout the year.
  • The students used Code Combat at least once almost every week throughout the year as they learned all about the Python coding language.  While I wanted to do more with this and really help the students to see why this skill of computer coding may be a crucial life skill for them to possess, I really just had them work on the program independently or with a partner.  I didn’t follow any of the lesson plans or other activities provided on the website to really give this activity clout in the minds of the students.  A few of the students really struggled with this program and I didn’t do much to support or help them.  If I were to continue this next year, I would front load more lessons and activities at the start of the year before they even got into the application itself.  I would make this skill more relevant to their life and goals.
  • I had similar struggles with the teaching of the skill of solving the Rubik’s Cube.  As I only really memorized how to solve the first two layers of the cube, I couldn’t offer much support to my boys on how to finish the final layer.  While half of my students met the goal I set for them at the start of the year, the other half were unable to solve the Rubik’s Cube.  Despite providing them time in class almost weekly, because I was unable to fully support and help them understand the final stages of solving the cube, they were unable to meet this challenge.  If I were to tackle this same skill next year, I would make sure that I knew exactly how to solve the cube from start to finish.  That way, I would be better able to help support those students who struggled to figure out how to solve it on their own.
  • While I don’t feel that I met this goal this year, I do feel as though I courageously worked towards it and persevered through to the end. I never gave up and tried to be mindful of all four new activities so that none of them would completely slip through the cracks.  I kept up with every one of them, just not at the level I would have liked.

As another year winds to a close here on the Point, I’m reminded of the many changes my students and I went through this year.  We all grew and developed in many ways.  While my students met many of the goals they set for themselves this year, I too made great strides towards meeting my goals.  While I didn’t successfully meet either of them, I am pleased with my progress.  I developed a lot as an educator this year and can’t wait to see what amazing professional challenges I attempt to tackle this summer.

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Teaching Students to Own their Learning

How many times have we heard students ask us, “Why did you give me a C?”  As if we give out grades like candy.  Do I look like the candyman?  Students earn grades based on their ability to meet the learning objectives covered.  Rather than take ownership of their learning, they blame the teacher for giving them a grade they feel they do not deserve.  If only they accepted responsibility for their actions and choices, they’d be able to see why they earned the grade they did.  Blunt students who ask us about grades are usually the ones who don’t put forth the effort to meet or exceed the standards or objectives assessed.  So, instead of learning from their mistakes and taking the opportunity to redo the task or assignment, they complain and blame.  Teachers don’t give, we guide.  We don’t provide students with answers or grades, we guide them to answers and help them to see how to meet or exceed graded objectives.  Students do the earning.  In a world where many students act entitled and feel as though everything should be handed to them on a platinum platter, as teachers, we need to help our students see the world through a different lense.  We need to teach students self-awareness and ownership.  The more opportunities the students have to see how their actions and choices dictate the outcome, the easier it will be for them once they make it out into the real world and see that one poor choice can cost them a job, relationship, or worse.

While this sounds great and makes complete sense to me as a teacher, how do I do it?  How do I teach students to own their learning?  What can I do to empower the next generation of leaders?  How can I help my students see that what they do impacts what happens to them?  Along with all of the problem based learning projects completed throughout the year, the constant self-reflection we have the students do, and the e-portfolio we have the students maintain, I make sure to put the learning completely on their shoulders.  When they ask me a question about a task or assignment, I usually respond with another question.  “How do I exceed the objective?” a student asked me today.  My response was simple, “That’s a great question, how could you exceed the objective?  What will you need to do to demonstrate mastery of the objective being assessed?”  While my students dislike when I do this, it forces them to do the thinking, problem solving, and learning.  If I gave this student the answer to his question today, I would have stolen a learning opportunity from him.  I would have prevented him from understanding how to solve a problem as well as what it takes to exceed a graded objective.  Approaches like this are one of the ways I have helped to teach my students how to own their learning throughout the year.

Another way is in how I structure the tasks my students need to complete to showcase their learning.  Rather than having them take a final math exam to prove what they have or haven’t learned in the sixth grade this year, I created a final project that puts the onus completely on them.  They have all of the power to determine into which math course they will be placed next year.  After completing a final placement exam, the students self-corrected the test and discovered what gaps still exist in their math knowledge.  What skills proved tricky for them to master?  Upon knowing what skills they still need to work on to be able to be placed into the math course of their choosing, they need to create an action plan for their summer.  What will the students do to fill in the gaps in their learning?  How will they be able to meet the goal they have set for themselves?

In class today, following a mini-lesson on how to create an action plan and what one looks like, the boys generated their own action plan.  The students put much thought and effort into generating a useful plan that they can use to help them prepare for seventh grade math.  The boys were specific in what they will do.  Some of the students are planning to use Khan Academy to review and learn the skills with which they struggle while others are going to have their parents print out worksheets that they will complete.  While each student had a different, individualized plan, they all had one thing in common–much learning should happen this summer.  The students know exactly what they need to do to meet their math goals.  Now, the onus is on them once again.  They need to follow through and do what they have said they will do.  I’m hopeful that many of the students will meet and achieve their goal come September, but I’m also certain that a few students will not do what they have said they will do to meet their goals.  Those are also the same students who are quick to argue about grades.  They aren’t quite ready to take the responsibility needed to showcase their true potential.  Perhaps one day they will discover the power of ownership, but in the meantime, we as their teachers, can keep trying to help them see how important it is to them to own their learning.