Seeing the Treasure in the Trash: Creating a Happy Little Social Studies Unit

High school was a time of discovery and exploration.  Don’t worry, I was a friendly explorer, unlike those wretched conquistadors that caused much suffering and death in the name of freedom and exploration.   I was a happy young man in search of new music, friends, movies, love, fun, and garbage.  Yes, that’s right, I was in search of garbage.  Not the band, oh no, not a fan.  I mean actual garbage that people toss away.  You see, it was in high school that I discovered that one person’s, or in this case one company’s, trash, can truly be someone else’s treasure.

Dumpster diving is the act of rummaging through other people’s garbage in search of that special something.  As there was not much to do in the small town of Lebanon, NH, late at night, my friends and I would scavenge through the dumpsters of various companies and organizations that had offices in our sleepy little town.  Although we usually left our nightly excursions with some small trinkets, we never found anything substantial or exciting, until that one night in late July.  There we were, at about midnight, in the middle of summer, literally jumping into this giant dumpster in search of something worthy of our time and effort.  When my friend pulled out a television remote, our excitement began to grow, as we all new what that meant: There was probably a television near by.  Sure enough, when I pivoted and looked behind me, a very large TV stuck out of the pile of battered electronics.  We shouted for joy, softly, so as to not call attention to ourselves in the middle of the night.  I then had one of my friends help me fish that television out of the dumpster and pack it into our car.  While my parents would freak out if I brought a large screen TV into the house, one of my friends ended up bringing it home.  The most interesting part of this whole vignette is that I never found out if he got the television working.  Perhaps it was a dud and deserved to live out its plastic existence in a landfill somewhere, or maybe, it did work.  I like believing that it was a working treasure, that all of our hard work paid off.  I like to think that good things can happen to good people.  To me, that glass will always be overflowing with clean and cold water.

Like my friends and I discovered in high school, if you look long and hard enough, you will find the treasure and beauty in everything, even something that resembles trash.  Luckily, I had the wonderful experience of doing just that, recently.

As one of my professional development summer goals is to revise and retool the social studies unit that I generally use at the start of each academic year, I decided to dig in and give it a shot.  Although I didn’t have a clear idea of exactly what I wanted the unit to look like when finished, I did have some foggy notions swirling about my beautiful brain.  I knew that I wanted to inject an engaging and fun project into the unit, but was unsure of what the journey to that point might look like; however, I forged ahead regardless.  My first iteration of the revised unit felt clunky and disconnected, like a broken television.  While I had added in the project I wanted to include, the unit felt more like a series of separate, unrelated lessons on different concepts or topics.  It lacked flow and life.  It felt like demo tape that a band releases before getting with a producer to craft a polished and brilliant debut album like Pearl Jam’s 10 or Coheed and Cambria’s The Second Stage Turbine Blade.  While it wasn’t yet the beautiful jewel that I had hoped for, it wasn’t simply trash.  The nucleus of its treasure was hidden deep within it, and I just needed to find it.  I needed to change my perspective so that I could transform this awkward unit into something more, something great and engaging.

So, I took a break from it.  I let the unit sit for a few moments and simmer.  I gathered my thoughts and started thinking about what comes next.  How could I alter this unit to make it more meaningful and relevant for my students?  While I see the value in teaching students about the community of which the school is a part, do I need to spend so much time discussing the concept of community?  Could I just jump right into teaching about the town?  How will I then connect the town to the rest of the country?  I did much thinking before I sat down with the unit one more time.  Then, I cut lessons, chopped discussions, added activities, and found a way to bring about cohesion to this unit.  I subtracted the clunkiness to get to the heart of the unit.  I want the students to see how the town of Hopkinton is connected to the state of New Hampshire, and how the state is a part of something even larger, greater.  And, I managed to do just that.

As our country is in the midst of epic turmoil, it is important to me that I empower my students to become agents of change.  I want them to be able to look at the problems facing our great nation and find solutions to them.  I want them to want to foster change within the world.  I want my students to be able to see how important the upcoming presidential election is for our country.  I want my students to be self-aware and know what is going on around our country and world.  I believe that this new unit is just the bridge I need to make my desires come to fruition in the coming school year.

I call this super unit Understanding our Country and it will be divided into three parts.  Part one will focus on the fundamentals of social studies.  The students will learn about what I’ve aptly called the Big Ideas when learning about a new place: Geography, History, Government, and Culture.  I will be sure they understand what each Big Idea represents and the importance it holds.  I will have the students practice applying these Big Ideas as they learn about our fine town.  Once I feel as though they have a firm grasp on these Big Ideas, they will complete an interactive research project on the US.  It is my hope that this project will engage the students and empower them to truly see our country for what it is, full of possibility and wonder.

Expedition USA Project


The most effective way to learn about a new place, is to travel to that place and explore it.  While, sadly, Mr. Johnson informed me that we cannot go on a cross-country field trip to explore the great United States of America, even if we wear fun masks and ride in separate train cars, we must do so virtually.  So, let the excellent, virtual, expedition begin!


The purpose of this project is two-fold: 

  • Learn more about the great country in which we live through some virtual exploration.
  • Practice crucial study skills including note taking, working with a partner, and using Google Maps.

Part I: Brainstorming

  1. Meet with your assigned partner
  2. Brainstorm ideas
    • Make a list of all the places in the US that you and your partner want to visit
      • You must choose at least 5 different locations around the US to virtually visit:
        • One must be somewhere near the East Coast, Atlantic Ocean
        • One must be somewhere near another country
        • One must be landlocked
        • One must be somewhere near the West Coast, Pacific Ocean
        • One must be a National Park

Part II: Research

  1. For each location you will be virtually visiting, gather online research and take notes on your findings

Part III: Google Maps

  1. Create a New Map in Google Maps that includes the following information:
    • Unique title for your expedition
    • Separate Marker for each location you will virtually visit
      • Details about what you will do while there, in your own words
      • Details about what you will learn while there, in your own words
      • Details about why you want to visit that location, in your own words
      • Picture from your virtual visit, with attribution
    • Lines showing how you traveled from BHS to each location and then back to BHS
      • Details about method of transportation, cost, and time it took
      • Kilometers traveled
      • Picture from your travels, with attribution

Part IV: Presentation

  1. Present your Google Map and expedition to the class

Graded Objectives

Your handwritten notes will be assessed on the following objectives:

  • Students will be able to extract the main idea from an online source in their own words.
  • Students will be able to craft neatly organized notes with separate headings for different sources or topics.

Your finished Google Map will be assessed on the following objectives:

  • Students will be able to paraphrase information learned, in written form, regarding a research topic.
  • Students will be able to utilize the Google Maps app to accomplish a task.

You and your partner will also be assessed on the following objective:

  • Students will be able to collaborate and work with a partner to accomplish a task.

I created this project with lots of wiggle room so that the students can and will ask questions.  I didn’t detail or mandate how the various stages of the project will be completed because I wanted to empower the students to choose.  I want the students to determine how some things are done.  I left the instructions a bit vague on purpose, so that they would be confused and want to ask questions and know more.  Students who are thinking and doing, are learning.

This project will conclude the first part of the unit.  The closing activity will have the students make a list of what they learned about the United States of America in completing this project.  I will again get them thinking in terms of the Big Ideas.  I will have them create a chart showing the Big Ideas that they’ve learned regarding our country.  My hope is that they will notice that they have learned very little about the government and history of the US, as parts two and three of the unit pertain to those Big Ideas.

Part two of the unit will focus on the American Government and will feel very much like a civics unit.  The students will explore the hows and whys of our governmental system.  We will then dig into the big election taking place in November of this year.  We will discuss the political parties in our country and learn about the candidates running for president.  My hope is that during this portion of the unit, the students will be inspired to ask many questions about why things are done a certain way in our country.  I want to provide them with just enough information, that they will want to know and learn more.  I want my students to be curious and wonder.  I want them to question things.  I want them to think freely.  I believe that this part of the unit will get them doing just that.

The final part of the unit will allow the students to learn more about the roots of our culture and history.  Who were the first true Americans?  Were there people living in what we now call the US prior to the Europeans setting foot on the new land?  In this third part of the unit, the students will learn about the native people who took care of and respected this land long before the colonists moved in and took over.  This portion of the unit will conclude with an interdisciplinary project in which the students will research a tribe of Native Americans and then craft a historical fiction story regarding that tribe.  My hope is that this final part of the unit will also inspire the students to ask questions and wonder why things happened the way they did in our country.  I hope that it will empower my students to ask why and also conjure up strong feelings and emotions within them.

I will close the entire unit by having the students fill in any gaps they may have in the Big Ideas chart we started at the close of part one.  Throughout the unit, we will also discuss current events happening in our country.  I want the students to pay attention and be aware of what’s going on around them, as they develop the skill of self-awareness.  I want them to wonder and ask why.  I want to empower my students to see problems affecting the citizens of the US.  I want to get them thinking about possible solutions.  I want to empower my students by providing them with knowledge, information, curiosity, and questions.  I want them to ask why and how.

And that’s the unit.  I structured it this way so that I could create different learning opportunities and activities for the students.  I wanted to find unique ways to teach the crucial study skills they will need to be successful students, as well.  As it is an election year, I want to capitalize on the current event aspect to help them make connections between information learned.  I want this unit to be engaging and fun for the students.  I want to challenge their thinking and broaden their perspectives on our amazing country.  I completely overhauled the unit that I’ve used in past years to make something special and wonderful.

While it took me a few rounds to get to what I have now, I am pleased with the result.  I found the treasure in the trash.  I can’t wait for the new academic year to begin so that I can implement this new unit.  I can’t wait to watch my students explore and wrestle with US maps.  How does this thing fold?  Do I fold it this way or that way?  It will be like watching me try to assemble a piece of furniture I purchased from Ikea, quite the comedy routine.

The entire experience of creating this new social studies unit empowered me to feel like an explorer, charting a course for new lands and information.  I loved sifting through the online research I discovered throughout the process.  Educators have created some amazing units and posted them online for the world to see.  There is a wealth of information out there on our fine country and how to go about teaching students all about it.  This experience did at times bring me back to my dumpster diving days.  Trash or treasure?  Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, my friend.

How Can I Apply my Summer Reading to the Classroom?

Pic 3

While I’m all about science and the study of meteorology, I often find weather forecasts to be confusing and inaccurate.  What does partly cloudy really mean?  How many clouds will be in the sky?  Will we see the sun at all?  What fraction of the sky will be covered by clouds?  I’ve given up putting my faith in the daily weather forecast due to all of this puzzling information.  Instead, when I want to know what the weather is, I simply go outside and look up.  Are there clouds in the sky?  Is it sunny?  I will sometimes also lick my finger and place it into the air to find out how windy it is and in what direction it’s blowing from.  I don’t need some fancy computer model telling me something that may not be true when I can just figure it out for myself.

So, this morning, when I was trying to figure out how to prepare for my weekly shopping trip, I went outside and looked up.  The normally blue sky was 100% covered by clouds.  It looked like an overcast kind of day.  Perhaps the sun would come out later in the day, or maybe not.  It’s really hard to tell.  Might the clouds thicken and produce some moist precipitation?  It’s possible.  Thankfully, the cloud cover brought the temperature down a bit from where they’ve been over the past few days.  Could that change and the clouds move out, giving way to sunshine and increased temperatures?  Perhaps.  Anything is possible on an overcast day like today.  Do I bring a raincoat or umbrella with me to keep my clothes dry?  Do I wear my hat to shield my balding head from the harmful UV rays?  What do I do?  So many questions, with no immediate answers.

Like trying to prepare for the uncertainty of today’s weather, teachers and schools around the country are trying to figure out what the start of the new school year will look like.  Will schools reopen?  Will all students return to school?  Will there be a staggered schedule?  Will students be able to keep their face coverings on through the day if we do return to school?  What precautions will schools take to keep their students and faculty safe?  Would it be safer to simply begin the year the same way we ended the previous academic year, with remote learning?  Too many questions with not enough answers or solutions.  What will September look like for schools, teachers, and students around the country?  As facts regarding the current pandemic have been changing faster than a newborn baby needs to have his or her diaper changed, it’s my perception that schools can’t completely prepare for something that is two months away.  So much can change in that period of time.  What do we do in the meantime then?  We watch, wait, and prepare for numerous possible solutions to the problem of how to start the new school year come September.

While there is much I don’t know about what the new school year holds for me and my school, I do feel confident that I can be prepared for almost every possible outcome.  My gassy gut is telling me that we will most likely have to utilize a combination of in-school and remote learning programs throughout the upcoming school year.  So, I’m looking to grow as a multi-faceted educator who can transition between on-site teaching and distance teaching as quickly as that pizza box guy can fold pizza boxes.

As I dug a bit further into the professional development text that the faculty and staff at my school are reading this summer, I was filled with excitement about some of the new things I want to try in my classroom or online in just a few short months.  When I finally finished the book, Teaching Students to Become Self-Determined Learners by Michael Wehmeyer and Yong Zhao, I felt empowered, as I gained insight into how to improve my remote learning program and my on-site teaching.  Several years ago, when I completed a course on the neuroscience of teaching, I realized the power in creating a student-centered approach to teaching.  When students are in control of their learning, they are more engaged, curious, and motivated to work hard.  This book that I recently finished takes that whole body of knowledge to the next level and explains how to create classrooms and schools that truly empower students to take ownership of their learning through becoming self-determined learners.  I loved the way in which the book was crafted.  It felt more like a non-fiction book than it did an educational textbook.  It wasn’t dense, but it did contain much valuable information on teaching and learning.  I enjoyed how the authors shared research knowledge in relevant and manageable chunks while also mixing in lots of stories on how schools around the globe have created student-driven programs for their students.  I highly recommend this text for all teachers looking to grow and become a more effective guide for their students.  As I’ve known for many years now, teaching isn’t about being the sage on the stage, it’s about being the guide from the side.  And this book provides salient information on how to do that in a more meaningful and effective manner.

Some of my takeaways from the book…

  • Should homework be choice-based for students?  Rather than us as the teachers assigning homework that is, perhaps, sometimes seen as busy work by the students, should we allow the students to choose their homework assignments?  Maybe a student who is struggling to comprehend a newly learned math concept would find further practice with that topic more beneficial than reading on a particular night.  Or perhaps, a student working on crafting a creative fiction story might want to spend time outside of school continuing to develop his or her story instead of completing a math worksheet or some other unrelated task.  As we want our students to engage in the learning tasks, activities, and projects they complete during class, shouldn’t we also want them to be engaged in the work they are doing outside of the confines of class time?  I’m thinking that I might pilot this practice by providing my students with some options for homework each night and allowing them to choose what they will do.  Perhaps some students might have a lot of extracurricular activities happening that night and homework just isn’t feasible.  Isn’t that an okay choice too?  As teachers, we need to be sure that our students are finding a balance between work, play, and self-care.  Maybe homework doesn’t need to be assigned nightly.  Interesting food for thought indeed.  I can’t wait to see how it plays out in practice.
  • How might we get students involved in classroom organization?  Could the students help us determine how to best set up and organize our classrooms?  Perhaps we could work this into our Orientation Day schedule.  Now, this idea, of course, would not be able to be put into practice until after the pandemic has subsided and an effective vaccine is widely available for all citizens.  But, I do love the idea of having the students help to create their ideal classroom.  They could determine the posters that we plaster onto the walls, as well as how we organize the desks and other areas of the classroom.  Maybe they would choose not to use chairs but beanbags or exercise balls instead.  This would be so much fun.  I can’t wait to try this idea in a year or two.
  • At our Closing Faculty Meetings last week, we discussed the idea of student recognition.  How could we best recognize and celebrate student successes without creating a culture of competition and stress to be recognized?  What if we looked to celebrate character instead of academic achievements?  Rather than recognizing the grades a student earns, we could celebrate the positive and caring choices he or she makes.   One of the schools referenced in the book makes use of a Bucket Filling Board based on the book Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud.  My school should totally do that.  We could create a bulletin board display in the front entryway of the school that the students and faculty could use to recognize caring and compassionate choices and actions.  If I notice that a student is going above and beyond to help another student understand a difficult concept, I could recognize them in writing on this board.  I could also then share this example of bucket filling with the greater community during one of our all-school gatherings that take place each morning.  This way, we are teaching students to see the value in kindness, compassion, and caring.  I love it!
  • Should we have a student government at my school?  While we are a micro-school with about 40 students or so, does it make sense to have a governing body composed of students to help the faculty and staff make decisions for the school?  I think it would help students feel and be more involved in the entire process of schooling and education if we were to do so.  Instead of complaining about the way things are, students could work to foster change in the school.  There could be one delegate from each grade, chosen by the students.  They could meet weekly or more frequently, with the aid of a faculty advisor, to discuss changes they would want to make.  They could ask for feedback from their peers for ideas.  Then, once every few weeks, that group could attend one of our Faculty Meetings to share their ideas with us.  We could also ask for their input on school decisions we are making as a faculty.  Talk about engagement.  It would also allow us to meaningfully teach the power of civic duty and responsibility.  I’m totally bringing this idea up with the faculty at one of our next Faculty Meetings.
  • Could we make use of the idea of a Personalized Learning Plan if remote learning happens?  We could work with each student and their family to devise a plan for their learning during the time away from school.  The students could have input on what they learn and how they choose to showcase their learning.  I like this idea because, again, it puts the onus on the students as they work to become self-determined leaners.
  • The book discussed the importance of teaching students an effective process for solving problems.  I like this idea and want to start the new school year introducing the concept of problem solving to my students.  Once I introduce the steps of the process to the class, we could then apply them to a practice problem.  I thought it would be a cool idea to have the students work with me to create a meaningful set of class expectations.  This way they can take ownership of the rules, which would hopefully, in turn, allow them to be more engaged in the entire process of learning.  I can’t wait to try this out in the classroom.
  • Another school featured in the book had students complete the VIA Character Youth Survey as a way to help celebrate the various character traits that students bring to a classroom.  I like this idea and see that it could also be used to help create tailored plans for students to work on developing their lesser strengths.  I took the adult version of the survey and was surprised by the findings.  I feel that knowing where my weaknesses lie, helps me to focus on areas in need of growth.  So cool!  I am totally using this in the classroom.
  • I was intrigued by the Hole in the Wall Project conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s in India.  It made me realize how truly capable our students are.  Their brains seem to be more able to be open to new things and ways of learning.  If we give students the time and space to figure things out on their own, they are very able to teach themselves.  So, instead of me spending lots of time explaining how to use a new technology tool, I could provide my students with time to explore and play on their own.  This way, they can learn on their own, applying the problem solving process I plan to teach early in the year.  I love this idea!

What a fantastic book filled with great and inspiring ideas.  Schools can be magical places that empower students to engage in and own their learning, if the adults at the schools allow these things to happen by fostering a sense of student agency and teaching students to become self-determined learners.

While the weather outside is still uncertain, I know that I am excited for the new school year to begin, regardless of how it will look or be designed.  I’m ready to try some new things remotely or on-site.  The unknown can easily become a haven for possibility if we are open to taking risks and trying new things.

The Calm in all this Sweltering Heat: My Professional Summer Goals

About a month ago, my son shared with me that the air conditioning in our car was not properly functioning.  Being that it was mid-May, I paid it no mind.  “Just roll down the windows.  I’ll deal with it after my school year has finished,” I told him.  He didn’t argue too much with that response because it wasn’t super hot in New Hampshire in May.  Well, for those of you not familiar with the weather in New England, allow me to educate you on the subject.  On any day in New England, it could snow, rain, sleet, and get very warm, all within 24 hours.  The old adage about our weather is so true: If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.  And change it did, very quickly as May transformed into June.  On a warm day in early June, I went to put gas in the car.  Even with the windows rolled down, I was sweating from parts of my body that I did not know could produce sweat.  By the time I returned home, I felt like I had just traversed a great mountain in a rainforest.  I was moist and stinky, like my teenage son before he started realizing the benefits of using deodorant.  It was horrible.  The next day, I scheduled an appointment to get the air conditioner in our car fixed.  If only I had listened to my son and addressed this issue earlier, I wouldn’t have had to feel like the Swamp Monster of Concord when I gassed up the car that day.  Hindsight and reflection are crucial to learning from our mistakes and being able to move forward in a productive manner.  I just wish that Miss Hindsight wasn’t so adamant about teaching us valuable lessons in the most uncomfortable manner.

As I sit, properly masked up, and patiently waiting for my car’s air conditioning to be fixed, I can’t help but be excited for my cold ride back home.  No more sweat-filled trips for my family.  Yea!  I also realized that this is as good a time as any to start thinking ahead.  As my school year officially wrapped up this week with our Closing Faculty Meetings, I’m feeling pumped and ready for summer vacation to begin.  While I won’t be heading out on any trips to the beach or other overcrowded places in which people don’t seem to understand the importance of social distancing and the use of face masks to keep themselves and others safe and healthy, I am planning to stay plenty busy honing my craft as an educator.  I love summer vacation because it’s a good, long chunk of time in which I can read new professional development texts, research new teaching practices, or just tweak some unit plans or activities.

Like every other summer, I have created a lengthy list of goals or things I’d like to accomplish.  So, here is my list of summer goals for 2020…  Drum roll please…  In no particular order, here they are:

  • I want to read the summer reading book that my school’s collective faculty chose, Teaching Students to Become Self-Determined Learners by Michael Wehmeyer and Yong Zhao.  As I’ve read other books by Mr. Zhao and loved them, I am super excited to dig into this new text.  After reading only the first chapter, I am hooked.  The authors talk about the importance of student agency as they share the story of how a small group of bored but motivated students created their own school within a school that they aptly called the Independent Project.  How cool is that?  I can’t wait to learn more about how I can inspire my students to truly own their learning.
  • I want to choose a new read-aloud book to begin the new school year in Reader’s Workshop.  While I’ve used the novel Wishtree by Katherine Applegate for the past two years and have been pleased with how it ties our community unit together, I’m looking for something different, more controversial.  I’m looking to push my students outside of their zone of comfort a bit.  With all of the scary and sad headlines that have been plastered across newspapers and online news publications in the recent weeks and months, I can’t help but see a teachable moment.  Race in our country has been and will continue to be a very hot and contentious topic, but unfortunately, not one that is often debated or discussed in schools.  Most teachers worry that they may say the wrong thing or create more tension by shedding light on the subject, and so lots of schools have only gently glossed over the topic.  I want to confront it head on.  While the area in which my school is located does have some racial diversity, the majority of students at my school are Caucasian.  So, why not empower my students with knowledge and start a debate on race issues in my fifth grade class?  The two books that I’m looking to use as the catalyst for our discussion are Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes and Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson.  I’ve started reading Ghost Boys and am totally loving the alternating chapters between life and death.
  • I want to create a new Social Studies unit to kick off the new school year.  While I’ve loved the community unit I’ve taught for a few years, the feedback I’ve received from my students is mixed.  They like Social Studies, but they don’t super like diving into a deep unit on the town in which our school is located.  So, I’ve decided to branch out a bit.  Although I’m still going to keep the central theme of the unit on community, I’m going to briefly introduce the students to the town in which our school is located before getting them to think about our entire country.  I’m going to have the students plan a cross-country trip using Google Maps.  I want students to be able to choose where they would want to go if they could go on a trip across our great nation.  While they will have a set budget and requirements, the places they choose to visit will be in the hands of the students.  I am confident that this type of student-choice, Project Based Learning unit will engage the students and allow me to cover lots of skills including note taking, source documentation, and how to complete an effective online search.  I can’t wait to see where the students will want to travel.
  • I want to complete the online training regarding the Modern Classrooms Project.  They provide free, online training for educators looking to create a more student-centered approach to teaching.  It aligns nicely with the ideas covered in the summer reading text I’ll be working on.  I’m excited to learn even more about how I can best engage my students while fostering a love of learning in my classroom.
  • I want to play with the Edison Robots my school purchased for me to use in Science class.  I want to learn how to code and program the robots so that I will be able to effectively instruct my students on how to use them.  I want to have the students use the robots as part of our unit on Astronomy, as they create space rovers to accomplish a self-chosen task.  I’m looking forward to learning more about computer coding this summer, as I play with and explore these very cool robots.
  • I want to create a Professional Learning Community of other fifth grade teachers working in independent schools in the greater Concord area.  I want to reach out to these other teachers and hopefully create some sort of meaningful virtual or in-person learning community in which we can share ideas and knowledge regarding teaching and fifth graders.

While this does seem like a lofty list for a short summer vacation, I do believe that it is doable.  I am positive that I will be able to accomplish all of the goals I have set for myself this summer in a meaningful and relevant way.  As my car will soon be shooting out cold air, so too will I be shooting out lots of knowledge regarding all of the awesome things I’ll be learning this summer.  While I’m not sure that the analogy really works here, it sounds cool and so I’m sticking with it.

So, now I pass the baton onto you.  What are your plans for the summer?  How will you grow as a teacher and/or person?

Distance Learning Weeks 10 & 11: We’ve Reached the Finish Line, Now What?

Looking back on the start of this current school year, I never could have, in a billion light years, imagined that it would end in a virtual environment.  I mean, seriously, pandemics are the subject of sci-fi and horror movies, and virtual learning is for homeschooled or international students looking for a special kind of learning experience.  I knew that distance learning existed, as I read articles about its effectiveness; however, I always thought that virtual school was just not something of which I would ever be a part.

I had dreams for what I wanted my academic year to look like.  I was excited to implement a new project-based learning unit on space that would incorporate Edison Robots.  I couldn’t wait to introduce my students to computer coding, as they built and programmed space rovers.  I also had hopes for how my year would end.  I envisioned my students planting lots of milkweed plants, as part of the new Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary at our school.  I never thought I’d have to completely rethink the end of the year because a pandemic would force schools to close.  But, I did.

Schools across the globe shutdown, forcing students and teachers into a virtual, remote learning environment.  The magnificent mental blueprint I had devised for how my academic year would end was suddenly crumpled into a tiny ball and tossed onto the side of a road like a discarded face mask.  I was, in the blink of an eye, teaching my students from a distance.  The engaging, hands-on projects I had planned, had to be cancelled.  Instead, I was looking at my students on a computer screen, wondering when this terrible dream would end.

I get it, as I’m all about safety first.  Countries shutdown to keep their citizens safe and to further prevent the spread of COVID-19.  We needed to quarantine during these past few months to save lives, and if I could rewind time and deputize myself as overlord in charge of the world, I would have done the same thing, locking down countries to help flatten the curve of the virus.  For the most part, the lockdown and stay-at-home orders that states and countries issued, worked.  The number of infected people and casualties would be exponentially higher had we gone about life as usual and not closed schools and businesses.  However, the reality in which we were forced into meant that the hopes and dreams people had prior to the spread of this horrible virus, had to be put on hold and shelved away for a different, safer time.  Teachers and students quickly got used to distance learning and accepted that the final months of school would be conducted virtually.

As the end of this bizarre and surreal school year was coming to a close, I wondered how I might provide my students with some sort of effective and meaningful closing experience.  How could I end the year in a way that didn’t feel stale and glitchy like a bad virtual conference?  Would it be possible for me to get parting gifts to my students?  Would I still make use of similar activities that I would utilize during a normal, on-site school year?  I had lots of choices to make as the final three weeks of remote learning approached.

Here’s how I chose to bring closure to the 2019-2020 academic year for my fifth grade class:

  • During the final three weeks of school, I had the students complete an interdisciplinary project to help keep them engaged and motivated.  Our normal routine of classes was suspended during the final weeks of school to allow students time to dig into the meaningful and relevant Betterment Project.  The students loved this very differentiated and individualized project that allowed them to work at their own pace, as they designed and built, cleaned and organized, and planted various flora specimens.  CLICK HERE to check out the projects the students completed.
  • As the students finished working on their Betterment Projects, I had them spend some time reflecting on their academic year and their individual progress and growth.  As we focused on metacognition, growth mindset, and reflection throughout the school year, it felt fitting to have the students close out their year in the fifth grade by looking back on how they have changed as students, thinkers, readers, writers, scientists, mathematicians, and teammates.  CLICK HERE to view the reflection format my students used.  Here are some excerpts from their reflections:
    • I’m a fifth grade student at The Beech Hill School.  I was nervous to shadow at Beech Hill.  I had all these thoughts going through my head. My biggest fear was:  What if I do something wrong? Then I realized you can’t do anything wrong at The Beech Hill School. You may get Behavioral reflections, but that will only teach you more. When I got accepted I was slightly happy, because I know I am a good student. I know I was trying pretty hard, and I had to think the best. My first few weeks I was still getting in the swing of things. I didn’t know what the routine was, what Prodigy was, or what Forest Fridays are. Through the course of the year I knew so much more. Most everything was familiar to me, At the end of the year everything was too familiar. In a way that I knew what I was doing, the schedule was very clear. I also had the best friends ever. We had our fights, but we always figured it out. For example, I was rolling down a hill with a student.  We hit heads and there was a small pause. We started to laugh, we kept asking each other if you were ok. I wanted school to last forever, but it has to take a pause sometime. In the beginning ( Fall Trimester.)  My grades were: A-’s and A’s. In the middle of the year ( Winter Trimester.) My Grades were: B,A,A+, and A-. At the end of the year ( Spring Trimester.) My Grades were: A’s, A-’s, and A+’s. I started strong, and ended strong. In the middle I had a bump, but that didn’t stop me. Now I feel I have become a better student in so many different ways.
    • Okay, honestly I am not the most organized person in the world.  Shocker right? But I can say my organization skills got 1% or 2% better, a little. When I came in I was actually more of a slob then I am now. My desk was kind of gross. Like I found a corn chip, a granola bar, and a little pack of Nutella in there, gross. I was not used to having a cubby or not having a desk. My cubby organization never got better. I really tried to keep it clean, but it never stayed that way. I was one of the people who finished cubby cleaning last, and it didn’t really help that I shared a cubby with another messy person. 1 messy person + another messy person = DISASTER. My shared cubby is another story. It was a MESS. We had a lego tractor, a sled, a brick named Brickey, diplomas, and even a bag of Cheez Doodles. My binder was okay organized, not super clean, but not a big mess. My skills got a little better, but not a lot. I still struggle with that and always have struggled with that. Just to tell you how not organized I am, I don’t even know how to spell organized, I’m copying it and pasting it. So on an ending note this only got around 1 ½ % better.
    • My critical thinking skill improved throughout the year. It started as a reasonable skill that I possessed and used sometimes. But in the 5th grade middle semester I had already used it more than ever. I had begun to build it by working on our shelter,  building my go cart and doing my community project. An example is I was able to answer current events questions that I had no idea about or did not know existed. Also I was able to answer khan academy questions I did not know, by process of elimination and other strategies. These strategies have improve my critical thinking skills.
  • To help make the time my students spend at our wonderful school even more memorable and special, I like to have them write a letter to their older, hopefully more mature, selves that I will then give back to them upon their graduation from our school.  I call it, Letter to your Eighth Grade Self.  They write a letter to themselves that they will open in a few years.  While I provide them with guiding prompts and questions for how to craft their letter, I tell them that this letter is solely intended for them.  It should be something special and fun.  “Make it something that you will be able to laugh at and enjoy when you open it in three years,” I tell them.  To help wrap up this crazy COVID year, I had the students craft these special letters that I will keep locked away in the closet in my classroom.  Many of the students had much fun writing these letters.  Some of the students wrote several pages to their future selves.
  • Being a bit of a sappy, emotional person, I love to provide my students with lots of opportunities to reflect on their year in the fifth grade in a nostalgic manner.  I wrote a poem that I shared with the students during the last week of school.  By the time I finished reading it aloud to my class, we were all on the verge of tears.  I also created a slideshow with pictures and music that I shared with the students.  They thoroughly enjoyed this virtual walk down memory lane.  I like closing the year with experiences like these, as they help the students head into summer vacation on a positive note, thinking about all of the wonderful experiences from the school year.  It also helps to get them excited to return to school in the fall.
  • As I like to provide my students with some special mementos from their year in my class, I put together gift bags for my students.  After receiving permission from my headmaster, I arranged for the families of my students to come to campus during the final week of school.  I had the parents make it a surprise for the students, as I had told the students, the day before, that I would not be at school when they came to pick up paperwork for next year.  Practicing proper social distancing techniques while wearing face masks, we were able to gather together, in person, to close out the school year in a meaningful way.  I shared some final remarks with the students, handed out the gift bags, and allowed the students and their families to chat with one another, from a distance.  The students enjoyed this final moment together, as a fifth grade class.

Although this academic year was far different from the expectations I had formulated last summer, I found a way to end it in a meaningful and relevant manner for me and my students.  We all left our final class gathering feeling happy, sad, and excited, the perfect balance of emotions for this strange and weird time in which we are living.  While we may not soon awaken from this crazy dreamworld in which we are currently living, we will survive and make it through together, as one big, messy family.  I wish you all a wonderful summer vacation.

Self-Reflection: How’d I Do in Working Towards my Goals this Year?

We are our harshest critics, I’ve always told my students.  We look to hold ourselves to incredibly high standards, which can be both a blessing and a burden.  When we hold the bar of excellence too high for ourselves, it’s very easy for negative emotions and feelings to take hold within us.  Then, we begin to doubt ourselves.  To avoid this cycle of shame, we need to hold ourselves to high, but reasonable, standards.  We need to push ourselves to be the best version of ourselves as possible, without overextending.

One easy way to do this is by setting clear and specific goals for ourselves.  Goal setting gives us something to strive for, a path on which we can venture towards something else, something bigger than us.  At the start of each new academic year, I create professional goals for myself, standards by which I can measure my growth as an educator.  I then spend all year working towards those goals, trying to become the best possible teacher for my students.  While I don’t always meet every goal I set for myself, I work tirelessly towards them, persevering through challenges and striving for change and personal growth.  I use these failed goals as markers on my journey.  Failure is part of the learning process.  The goals I am unable to meet signify something, a roadblock perhaps.  Sometimes, goals I don’t meet represent something I didn’t realize that I did not care about or think is important as a teacher in the moment when I set the goal.  Reflection allows for time and space to pass so that I can truly, effectively assess what is important to me.

This year, I set three, specific goals for myself, three bars by which I can assess how I fared as a teacher this year.  Did I grow in the areas that I had hoped to?  Did I do the hard work to foster change within myself?  Was this a successful year for me?

While this has been one of the strangest academic years for all teachers and students, I do believe that it was a successful one for me.  My students all made so much progress this year.  They all improved greatly in multiple areas.  They are skilled thinkers, readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, and people.  I pushed them to become their best selves.  I held the standards high, offered support and assistance when needed, and fostered a love of learning within my students.  School is about more than just checking off a list of things learned: It’s about learning to see the world through different perspectives; it’s about learning how to be compassionate; it’s about learning how to persevere; it’s about gaining respect; it’s about finding the fun in learning; it’s about seeing ourselves in new and special ways.  And I feel as though I did that for my students this year.

Goal 1: I want to help my students learn to see themselves as Math students.

  • I find that Math is the one subject that many students view in a negative light.  They see it as being too difficult, confusing, and unnecessary for success in life.  Students often feel that you either are a Math student or not a Math student, there can be no middle ground.  So, I spent this year trying to help my students see that ALL people can be and are Math students.  I worked to undue some of the negative connotations and thoughts previous schools and teachers worked to ingrain within my students.  I helped them see Math as being fun and a crucial life skill.  We played Math games, learned about the Stock Market, and pushed ourselves to build a solid Math foundation on which future skills can be built.  I worked with one student, in particular this year, who told me at the start of the school year that she hated Math and was not a Math student.  In October, when I shared her first Math grade with her and talked about the effort and progress she had made in a few short weeks, she started to cry.  She said, “This is the highest grade I’ve ever had in Math class.  My old teachers told me that I was stupid and couldn’t do Math,” she said.  I almost burst into tears myself.  So, I made it my priority to help her see that she is capable of so much more than she thinks.  I helped her to see that she is a critical thinking Math student.  I helped her to see that Math can be fun.  I helped her to understand how Math can be useful for her.  This past week, I received a wonderful card from her that I will forever treasure.  In her sarcastic and witty way, she let know that I made a difference in her life.  “You helped me hate Math around 5% less & also that I am a Math student & I’m not stupid,” she wrote.  Reading her card, made me tear up, but also helped me to see that I did help my students learn to see themselves as math students this year.

Goal 2: I want to make the final project in our Social Studies unit on community more engaging, relevant, and fun for my students.

  • As our first Social Studies unit was all about community, it made sense that the final project should also be about community.  Rather than have the students complete some sort of research project or presentation on what they learned about the community in which our school is located, I wanted my students to see themselves as part of that community.  I wanted them to see the power in being compassionate community members.  So, I did just that.  This blog entry details what that final project shaped up to be.  My students devoted much time and energy into creating a meaningful moment for people in the greater Hopkinton, NH community.  They saw the good in what they were doing and it made them feel happy.  They loved it, and it helped to teach them how to be kind, caring, and civically minded community members.

Goal 3: I want to be sure I take the time to address the social-emotional issues that arise in class on a regular basis.

  • While I have always known about the importance of social-emotional learning in the classroom, this year helped me to truly reap the benefits of it, first hand.  The chemistry of my class was very unique, in that almost every student was very strong-willed, independent, and opinionated.  This caused much friction at times within the class.  The students frequently frustrated one another because of their very similar personalities.  We spent much time discussing compassion and compromise.  A few of the students were greatly challenged with working together and locked horns on several occasions.  I worked the class through many mini-lessons on how to compromise and work with teammates.  We role-played different scenarios and talked about possible solutions.  This helped the students learn to more effectively communicate with one another by the close of the year.
  • Because this class had an excess of energy and emotion, we spent lots of time talking about self-regulation.  What can you do when you become frustrated or upset?  How can you learn to be the boss of your emotions?  These lessons helped the students better cope in challenging times.
  • I also carved out time each day during our Morning and Closing Meetings for the students to share their thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, and desires with the whole class.  They talked about their feelings, while their classmates learned to be thoughtful listeners.  These sharing moments helped to foster a sense of openness and trust within our class family.
  • Every day also featured a mindfulness activity of some sort to help the students recalibrate and become more self-aware.  The silent meditations were incredibly therapeutic for both the students and me.  By the time we transitioned to Distance Learning this year, we had reached the 10-minute mark in our daily meditations.  The students were focused and working on themselves for 10 whole minutes.  It was amazing!  The students all felt the benefits of this self-care time.
  • So, did I meet this goal?  I’d say that I did, as I grabbed at every opportunity to help my students learn to be more compassionate, mindful, kind, and caring young people.

Sitting in my warm apartment, it does indeed feel as if summer is right around the corner.  It’s very hot outside and the humidity keeps rising a bit each day.  I’m not a fan of that constant feeling of being moist and wet all summer.  Yucky!  Despite the fact that the summer solstice is only a few short weeks away, it doesn’t feel like the end of another school year.  It feels like we’ve just begun.  Remote Learning changed how we experience school and time.  When we started Distance Learning about 11 weeks ago, it marked the start of something new, as if a new school year had begun.  As teachers, we had to create new rules for online learning and set-up new expectations, like we did back in September.  Everything felt so surreal.  I lost track of the days, and weeks seemed to fly by in an instant.  So, while this next week marks the last week of school for this academic year, it just feels a bit strange and different than in years past.  I’m still very sad to see my students move into the sixth grade, but also so proud of the great progress they all made in the fifth grade this year.  They are ready for that next step and I am so excited to watch them continue to grow and strive for excellence.  I am also totally ready for summer vacation, as I’ve found that this new way of doing school is far more challenging and labor-intensive than doing school on site.  I need a break, a time to recharge.  But, for now, I’ve got four more awesome days left with my students, and I am going to make the most of every moment.  I want them leaving our final closing activity on Thursday with tears in their eyes, wonderful memories in their hearts, and excitement in their souls.  Fifth Grade Rocks!


Distance Learning Week 9: Finding Meaningful Ways to Close the Academic Year

Do me a quick, little favor: Go take a look in your junk drawer.  What’s that you, you say, you don’t have junk drawer?  Oh, that can’t possibly be true.  Everyone has a junk drawer, the catch-all for random items that have no other place to go.  It’s like the Island of Misfit Toys, but less cool because we’re adults now.  Even someone like me, who craves order and cleanliness, has a junk drawer because not everything can be so easily categorized.  It’s not as if you could put the meat thermometer with the pots and pans or kitchen utensils because it could get damaged, and it’s not something you use with the pots and pans or utensils.  It’s not a cooking device, it is a cooking aid.  So, where does it live?  In the black hole of the junk drawer.  Some things just can’t be classified.  Luckily though, those things are few and far between, which is why we only need one junk drawer.

If only life was as easy as putting things in their proper places.  Wouldn’t that be swell?  Imagine if nothing unexpected ever happened, and so we could plan for everything.  There would be no emergencies, no accidents, and nothing out of the ordinary would ever happen.  Life would remain constant and normal, like the flat line on a heart monitor.  Wait a minute, doesn’t a flatline signify death?  That can’t be good.  Perhaps we don’t really want life to be so simple and clean.  Maybe a little chaos is a good thing.  I suppose the unexpected event, from time to time, wouldn’t be all bad.  Learning to adapt can be a trusty survival skill.  Okay, so I take it back, life would be boring and dull if it happened like we organize our kitchens.  We need life to be a bit spicy, a bit hectic, a bit different from the norm.  It keeps things fresh and novel, never knowing what’s coming next.  What song will start playing on my radio next?  I have no idea, and I love it.

Then came this whole COVID-19 Pandemic.  Just when we thought we liked the unexpected, the very horrible and unexpected happened, causing us to reassess what we really want life to be like.  I’m all for surprises and accidents, but this health crises is devastating and awful.  It has caused more death and disaster than anything in recent times.  It’s stealing people’s jobs and houses.  It’s breaking up families and forcing us all to get used to a very new normal in which nothing expected may ever happen again.  We are now living in scary times.  This is no longer the fun kind of chaos.

However, even in the darkest of times, there is a silver lining.  We, as the human race, have become more resilient.  We are stronger now than we ever were before.  We are rising above all the ash of this turbulent time and rebuilding some sense of happiness and rainbows.  Like my mom always said, “When God gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  And that’s exactly we are trying to do.

Distance learning has definitely made many teachers stronger, better, and more flexible than ever before.  Teachers have had to get creative about how to teach their students in this uncertain time.  We are trying to find the good in all of this.  It’s incredibly challenging and hard, and certainly not the way we would like to see our school years end.  We would love to hug our students goodbye, give them a high-five, let them know that we are here for them, but we can’t do that like we used to.  So, we transform like Optimus Prime and become a massive truck barreling down the highway carrying possibilities, solutions, and hope.

My plan for the last three weeks of school, prior to the quarantine and stay-at-home order, was to have my students complete their capstone project that I call The Fifth Grade Betterment Project.  They were going to find a way to give back to our school community and make things better for us all.  Last year, my students built a community garden, constructed a free lending library, brainstormed a genius classification system for our class library, and started a school store.  They put much time, energy, sweat, and a little blood into making our BHS community a better place for all who happen upon this little slice of heaven in Hopkinton, NH.  I was so excited thinking about the possible projects this year’s class would try to tackle.  How would they make our school better?  Then March happened, and my plans got sucked into the Pandemic vacuum, or so I thought.

What if I modified the capstone project?  What if I found a way to make it something that the students could do from home?  What if, instead of having them think solely about how to make our school a better place, they thought about how they might make their family, home, town, city, or state better?  So, I went back to the drawing board, metaphorically speaking that is, as I don’t actually own a drawing board, pulled my plans out of the COVID vacuum, and crafted The Virtual Fifth Grade Betterment Project.  I structured it similarly to last year’s on-site project, but with a twist.  They now need to find a way to create a project from home that will allow them to give back to others in different and unique ways.

We started our slightly different, renovated Betterment Project this week via remote learning.  I got the students excited about the project with a hype video I created.  Then, they began brainstorming ideas.  What could they do to put together all of the fifth grade puzzle pieces they’ve been gaining all year and create a special project that would give back to more than just our school community?  Here are some of their ideas:

  • One student, who sought and received permission from the local library in her town, is creating a community garden outside of the library building.  She will plant lots of vegetables, which she will then donate to the local food pantry upon harvesting them.  What a cool and compassionate idea!  She has already started the weeding and cultivating processes.  Amazing!
  • One student is transforming a very large space in her family’s garage into a family room.  She asked each of her sisters and her mom for input on the design for the room.  She is now in the process of cleaning the space and removing all of the trash and recyclables.  What a great way to give back to her family!
  • Another student is going to construct bat houses that she will hang around the forested areas of our school.  She loves animals and did much research on bats to design the houses that she will build next week.
  • One student noticed that birds were building nests in very unsafe places near her house.  So, she decided that she will build bird houses for the birds to use instead.  What a brilliant and thoughtful idea!

As the students completed the planning and designing phases of the project this past week, they will spend all of next week completing their projects.  I can’t wait to see how they turn out.

While I had to get creative about making this final project work in a remote learning environment, I feel as though I’ve been mostly able to effectively do so.  My students are super excited about the Betterment Project and have impressed me with the amount of effort and energy they are putting into their work.  It’s awesome!  They are spending time working on their projects outside of the allotted school time because they are so engaged in how they haven chosen to give back to their local communities.  I love it!

While life is certainly far from being as easy as using a junk drawer, this pandemic is forcing teachers and all people to find new and innovative ways to make things work.  We’ve had to get creative, be flexible, and accept that life is different from how it was a few months ago.  Although my students can’t be at school right now, they are finding ways to give back to their communities in amazing and compassionate ways, reminding me just how lucky I am to be their teacher.

Distance Learning Week 8: Trends I’ve Noticed

Remember those Magic Eye images that came out in the 1990s?  If you stare at them long enough, in just the right way, three-dimensional pictures will appear?  It was like magic, hence the name.  They were super popular for quite some time.  People loved them.  Me, I hated them because I was unable to see the magical pictures that apparently appeared for everyone else.  I tried and tried, believe me.  I wanted to be able to see what everyone else saw, but I couldn’t.  I couldn’t get those silly pictures to show me anything other than a blurry mess of colors.  Magic, my butt.  More like rip-off, fake, phony, and any other word that means not cool.  Okay, perhaps I’m being a bit harsh.  Maybe, just maybe, the pictures weren’t the problem.   Perhaps the problem was my eyes, maybe.  I mean, the pictures were fake and made on a computer before computers were accurate and awesome, and so it’s possible that the pictures were also part of the problem.  However, my vision is super bad and I have all sorts of astigmatisms and eye issues.  Without glasses, the world looks like one of those blurry Magic Eye pictures.  So, it’s possible that I couldn’t see the magic in the images because of my vision difficulties.  Let’s be honest though, the images weren’t really magical.  They were simply an optical illusion created in the mind using the Gestalt Theory of how the mind fills in blanks to make things whole and recognizable to us.  Our brains don’t like not knowing what something is, and so when we see something that doesn’t quite make sense, our brain forces us to make sense of it based on context clues and past experiences.  So, if you look at a Magic Eye picture with a bunch of yellow objects and bananas on it, you will eventually see a big banana pop out at you.  That’s not magic, it’s science.  But, I digress.  The point of this jaunt down memory lane is to show how, when I was younger, I used to struggle noticing things and making sense of what something means.  Because I didn’t used to always be such a dashing and reflective individual, I would sometimes not be able to learn from my mistakes or make meaningful observations of the world around me.

Fortunately, people, like the times, change.  I slowly began to see the power in reflection.  I now understand the importance of thinking about both the good and bad of various situations to learn how to improve and grow as a person and educator.  I was also able to finally see the magical picture in one of those Magic Eye images.  It really is like magic.  It just pops out at you like a 3D movie.  It’s so cool!  There are layers to each image.  How do they do it?  It must be sorcery or Voodoo that make them work.  I love it!

As I reflected on this past week, I began to realize that trends were forming within my remote learning class.  Situations and issues I’ve read about online, were beginning to make them selves present to me, like a Magic Eye image.  Things were popping out at me, that I hadn’t really noticed during the start of my school’s distance learning program.  Here are some of the amazing trends I have begun to notice:

  • Some students who struggled to accomplish quality work or effectively engage in the curriculum when we were at school, on site, began to work hard and accomplish work that exceeded the graded objectives during remote learning.  One student in particular has been doing some of the best work she’s done all year.  She is way more engaged and focused virtually than she was at school.  This article I read explains some of the possible reasons for why this happened, but I believe that it is because the social issues and distractions that existed for her at school, are not an issue when she is home and working.  She is able to better engage in the content and work because she’s not distracted listening to other students work or thinking about how other students perceive her.  She is able to be herself and work.  It’s been amazing to observe this transformation.
  • Some students who struggled accomplishing work at school, still struggle to complete tasks and assignments appropriately in this time of distance learning.  I have a few students in my class who struggle to do work outside of the school building, and those same students are having difficulty doing work virtually as well.   While looping in the families of the students helps a bit, the quality of work they accomplish is usually not super strong.  Is it motivation, ability, engagement, or something else?  While one of the students does have some learning challenges, she struggles with the work that I know she is able to do on her own.  I think it may be engagement and motivation.  In school, she worked very hard and accomplished lots of work, but outside of school, she’s always struggled to finish her work.  She’s got a large family, and so she may be very distracted as well.  I will keep working with her and trying to find new ways to help her demonstrate her learning in a way that isn’t distracting.
  • Being on the computer for a long time is exhausting for students and teachers.  Remote learning is hard work and requires that we are at a screen for long periods of time each day.  This creates a very different kind of fatigue and exhaustion, as compared to being on site.  I’ve heard reports from the parents of my students that they tend to be a bit grumpier and more moody than they were when school was being conducted in person.  The quarantine, which carries with it the lack of in-person social connections, coupled with the long screen hours, wears on the brain in big and real ways.  The students are often tired, despite getting numerous hours of sleep each night.  The pandemic is causing stress, anxiety, and so many other complications and issues within our students and their families.  It’s tough stuff, which is why the social and emotional learning piece is so very crucial right now.  The students need to know that they are cared for and have the opportunity to share and process their thoughts and feelings.
  • Project-Based Learning is highly effective in this period of remote learning.  Rather than bore students with mind-numbing worksheets and tedious, rote tasks, I’m finding much success in long-term projects and activities.  The students prefer to do and show their learning in unique ways.  For the Passion Project that we recently finished, almost every student chose a different way to showcase what they had learned: One student choreographed and recorded a dance she created while learning about the history of ballet, another student wrote and performed a song about Stonehenge, and one student created a talk-show sort of video to teach us about model rocketry.  It was so cool to see the different ways students chose to demonstrate their learning.  Providing students with choice and freedom makes a big difference in their learning outcomes.
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A student sharing a diorama she made for her Passion Project on Guppies.

With only three weeks left in my academic year, I am filled with a mixture of emotions.  I am saddened that our year is coming to a close, disappointed that we could not end the year in person, happy that my students and their families have remained healthy and safe during this time, pleased that my students have the skills that I feel they will need in order to be successful in the sixth grade next year, and relieved that this crazy time of distance learning is almost finished.  I can’t believe that my students and I have been doing remote learning for eight weeks now.  Where did the time go?  It all seems so surreal and blurry, like those wild Magic Eye images.

Distance Learning Week 7: What Just Happened?

Long before the sun rose from beneath the horizon this morning, I was awoken at around 4:00 AM by the sound of a chirping bird.  What is going on, I thought.  How is this possible?  The sun has yet to rise, but still a bird is calling from right outside my window.  Does it need help?  Is it calling for me?  Shouldn’t the bats still be flying around, looking for food.  How is it that a bird is awake, and making its presence known so early in the morning?  I was perplexed and a bit perturbed that I was awake so early in the morning.  And then, as suddenly as it had begun, everything was silent once again, a few, brief moments later.  I didn’t even have time to finish trying to figure out why a bird would start calling so early in the morning.  Perhaps it was trying to get that elusive first worm in the morning.  Who knows?  But, then, the chirping sounded ceased, and the only sound that came from outside my open wind was the sound of rustling branches and leaves as the wind pushed its way through them.

Why was that bird calling so early in the morning?  Was it lost, hurt, or confused?  It sounded like a young bird.  Perhaps it was looking for its lost parents.  And then, why did it stop so soon after it started?  As I drifted off back to sleep, the mystery of the bird call lingered in my mind.

Much like the mysterious bird call that briefly stole me away from dreamland this morning, I spent much time this past week trying to solve another intriguing puzzle.

In last week’s blog entry, I reflected on feedback I received from my students on how I could improve the remote learning program for my fifth graders.  I thought long and hard about the great ideas with which my students provided me.  I brainstormed changes that I would make to the program for the following week.  I felt energized and excited for the week to come because of my reflection and the new changes that I would unveil for my students, virtually, in class on Monday.  I was pumped up and hopeful that these changes would help better engage and motivate my students to want to learn and work hard.

During our Morning Meeting on Monday, I explained to my students the changes that I would be making to our remote learning program, and supported this information with the rationale for why I was making these changes.  I made sure to thank my students for their feedback, letting them know that I listen to their input.  I crave feedback from my students, I told them, because I want to be sure that I am effectively challenging and supporting them throughout their learning journey.  I spoke to them for about two minutes, explaining how I would be posting the daily agenda for the following day, the afternoon prior so that they could begin working on things if they so desired.  I also mentioned that I would be trying to create alternative and more challenging assignments in place of synchronous work for those who preferred to work independently or were looking to be challenged a bit more.  I had applied the feedback with which my students provided me, and wanted to make sure that they felt heard and listened to.  And that was all I said.

Fortunately, this past week’s schedule included many asynchronous assignments and activities, which meant that there were very few places in which I could offer other challenges or independent work options.  The synchronous meetings and activities that were planned, were vital to the unit, curriculum, or activity, and could not be adapted.  I was able to create some learning extensions or extra credit tasks in Math, twice throughout the week.  I added two extra credit problems to Thursday’s multiplication and division assessment and offered students an alternative to working on Prodigy in class on Monday.  I did continue to post the daily agenda the day before, each day this past week.  And those were all of the changes I made to our distance learning program throughout the week.

It didn’t seem to me like I had changed much; however, the results were very unexpected.

  • Two of the students who had told me, last week, that they wanted more independent, asynchronous tasks and assignments, did not take advantage of the alternative, independent options I had created.  They also, did not complete their work any earlier, despite saying that they wanted to have the ability to do so.  In fact, one of the students who had made it very clear that she would like me to send out the daily agenda the night before so that she didn’t need to be on Google Meet during the class day, was requesting to work with me online at various points throughout the week.  She remained on the Google Meet after I provided instructions to the students, muting her mic and working, in case she ran into problems.  Even though she said that she wanted to complete the work on her own schedule, she was completing the work on the schedule that I created, synchronously with me.  Interestingly enough, she jumped onto our Google Meet for help or just to chat more this past week than she had in the first six weeks of our remote learning program.  And, the cherry on top of it all, is that she worked harder and completed better quality work this past week than she had since the start of our virtual learning program.
  • The student who said that she wanted to be challenged more and felt like the work was too easy, did not take advantage of any of the extra credit or learning extension options with which I added to our weekly program.  She did the required work well, as she has all along, but did not choose to challenge herself any further than that.  Despite wanting more difficult work, she did not indulge in any of the more challenging options I created for the students to demonstrate their learning.  She seemed perfectly content doing just what was assigned.
  • Students who had been working well, but not to their fullest potential prior to this past week, began to crank up the effort and output.  I had several students complete some of their best work of the year during this past week.  They created videos on Flip Grid chock full of paraphrased information, facts, and supporting details.  They revised their work based on my feedback better than ever before.  They persevered through challenges, as if that’s just what you do.  Several students needed to completely rewrite full paragraphs of their book review this past week because they had included too much of a summary and not enough of an analysis of the text.  In the past, those same students struggled to incorporate feedback with which I provided them and would become very sullen or quiet.  Instead, those same students, jumped onto our Google Meet, asking for feedback.  “What can I do to make this better?” they would ask.  They were requesting to be challenged.

What?  How?  Why?  So many questions floated through my mind during this past week.  I did not understand what was happening.  The students who wanted things to be different did not take advantage of the changes I made to the program, and the students who seemed content with the way things were, increased their productivity and effort almost exponentially.  What?  That doesn’t make sense.  How did that happen?  Why did those students who provided me with feedback, not make use of the changes I made?  Not much else changed in our weekly routine, and so why did those students not complete the extra credit work that they asked for or do the work ahead of time like they wanted to be able to do?  It doesn’t make sense to me.  If I ask for something to be changed, it is because I want it to be different; and so, I will take advantage of the change when it happens.  These students, not so much.  Were they simply giving me feedback for the sake of giving me feedback?  I suppose that’s possible.  Perhaps they were just challenging me to find new ways to grow as an educator.

What about the students who worked harder this week than they ever had in the past?  What led to that outcome?  Those were students who hadn’t provided me with any feedback.  So, why did they suddenly put the pedal to the metal?  They seemed more engaged and happy this week during our remote learning program than they had since we started doing virtual school in late March.  What?  Did it just start to click?  Were the assignments more engaging?  What was it?  I just can’t seem to put my finger on it.

Like the bird chirping conundrum, I am perplexed by what happened with my students this week.  I am, of course, so happy with the result, but, at the same time, I want answers.  I want to know what led to the changes in my students so that I can bottle it up and use it again next week.  In chatting with my lovely wife about what was happening this past week, she suggested that all of these changes happened because of what I told the students in class on Monday.  She said, “People like to feel heard, and you made it clear to your students that you listened to what they had to say and made appropriate and relevant changes based on their feedback.”  That makes sense, but could it really have had that large of an impact?  Perhaps.  It does feel really good when people take your advice and run with it.

Instead of wracking my brain trying to figure out what happened with my students in virtual school this week, I will accept the great and positive outcomes for what they are and move on.  I will acknowledge that my students, like the chirping bird, were just doing their thing and being awesome like always.  Perhaps I don’t always need to solve every puzzle thrown my way.  This time, I will accept the outcome and reality of it all and roll on, like a freely moving pebble in a slow moving stream.

Distance Learning Week 6: Seeking Feedback and Making Changes

During the past six weeks of remote teaching, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting and researching.

  • Is the distance learning program I’ve created for my fifth graders the most effective program possible?  Is it helping all of my students?  Is there more I could be doing?  Is the balance I’ve tried to strike between asynchronous and synchronous learning effective?  Am I asking too much of my students?  Am I not challenging my students enough?  Am I differentiating my instruction in a meaningful manner?
  • I’ve also read numerous articles on how to create an effective distance learning program, but it seems that every article takes a different stance.  Some professionals argue that schools should not implement a remote learning program, as access to technology and the Internet is not equitable in all areas of our country.  They believe that during this time away from school, students should simply relax and spend more time with their families.  Then there are educators who suggest that there needs to be more synchronous learning to asynchronous learning, as students need to connect with their peers and teachers during this uncertain time.  Of course, then there are those in education who say there must be a certain balance between asynchronous and synchronous learning, as students need to spend less time on screens.

So, which experts should teachers believe?  What formula for distance learning should we follow?  With all of these experts chiming in with different answers, it’s almost impossible to know what the right thing to do is.

But wait a minute, we’re teachers.  We know our students incredibly well at this point in the school year.  We know what works and doesn’t work for them.  We have a pretty good idea of how to best support and assist all of our students.  As teachers, we know what to do.  Instead of trying to sift through piles of hay looking for that oh so special golden needle answer, we should be navigating this whole remote teaching problem as we handle any problem in our classrooms, by trusting in our experience, preparation, knowledge, and understanding.  We are teachers because we care about our students and want to help them continue to grow and learn.  We need to trust our gut instincts.  Of course, we should also reach out to colleagues and seek guidance from other teachers, but we should not view that help as gospel.  We need to create the distance learning program that we feel and know is best for each and every one of our students.  Will we get it right the first time?  Oh no we won’t.  We will make mistakes.  I know that I have made plenty of mistakes in the past six weeks, but I’m learning from those errors.  We will persevere through this wild and crazy time of remote teaching, as we continue to challenge and support our students.  We will focus on the social and emotional aspects, as much as we do the curriculum and content.  We will check-in with our students and help them in any way possible.  We will continue to care for our students during this time of distance teaching because that’s what teachers do.  We rise to any challenge with which we are faced.  We find new and creative solutions to challenging problems like video conferencing, online learning, assessment, and so much more.  While we would much prefer to be in school right now with our students, we are doing what is best for them, us, and our country.

While I feel that the remote learning program I have put in place for my fifth graders is effective for most of my students, it is far from perfect.  There are ways I can make it better.  As I’ve been reading professional articles about the dos and don’ts of distance learning recently, I’m more perplexed than ever about how I can tweak and alter my virtual learning program to better help my students, as each author has something different to say.  Then, as I was creating the weekly self-reflection Google Form my students complete each Friday to reflect on their work and effort, I started to feel like a giddy school child.  The answer for how I can improve my distance learning program is right in front of me on my computer screen.  I should ask my students for feedback on what I could do to better help them.  So, I added a new question to this week’s self-reflection: Is there anything Mr. Holt can do to help support you, as you continue to grow and develop as a student?  Short and simple.  I did not make it a required question because I know that for most of my students, the program I have in place is working for them.  In fact, some of my students are thriving in this distance learning environment.  The question is really for the one or two students who want or need something else, something more.

As expected, about 70% of my students feel that things are going well and they have no suggestions for improvement.  However, two students did have some meaningful feedback for me:

  • Push me harder. I feel that some of the work you give us is too easy, tougher work.
  • I wish I could do more independent work because it is hard to look at a screen for that long.

Excellent, I thought.  This is just what I have been searching for.  So, what I need to do is provide my students with more options for how they can demonstrate their learning.  I need to offer more asynchronous, independent options for students who crave less screen time and provide more extension activities for those students who aren’t feeling challenged enough.  I need to better differentiate my remote learning program so that I can better support, help, and challenge all of my students.  This is exactly the guidance I have been searching for.  Instead of reading countless articles written by administrators or educators who may not even be participating in a remote learning program, I simply needed to ask my students.  While I often seek feedback from my students on different units and activities, I had not asked for their input in the past few weeks.  Again, for most students, the program I have in place now, is very effective, but my goal is to make it effective for ALL of my students.  So, tweaks will need to be made for next week.  I will create new extension activities for those students who want or need to be further challenged.  I will also create options for how students can show their learning of a concept or skill.  I will continue to develop and change my distance learning program based on the feedback I receive from my students, as well as their families.  I sent home a survey for parents to complete yesterday, that may elicit even more feedback and suggestions on how I can continue to improve the remote learning program I have in place for my students.

I am a teacher, and I will persevere through every challenge and obstacle, as I find new and creative ways to better support and help all of my students during this time of virtual schooling.  There is no utopian solution to the challenge of distance learning.  No well-written article will provide me with just the solution I am seeking to create the perfect virtual learning program for my students.  I know my students, and with their help and feedback, WE will create the distance learning program that is best for them.

Distance Learning Week 5: Getting Creative with our Earth Day Celebration

At a time when people are being forced to stay home around the globe, pollution is dissipating in parts of Asia, water in Italy is becoming clean and clear, and wildlife are roaming free in places in which they’ve never before been allowed.  Earth is on the rise.  These major and miraculous changes are just more proof that humans are to blame for Climate Change.  We, sadly, are the problem.  However, humans can also help.  People have invented nets to capture ocean plastic and remove it from our seas, teenagers and children are speaking out about Climate Change, and many people are finding ways to power their homes with clean energy.  Despite being the biggest part of the problem, we can also be the solution.

Back in the 1960s, people started to see how much of a negative impact humans were having on Earth.  Oil spills were killing wildlife, global temperatures were surging, and rain forests were being clear cut.  Some activists and politicians started to take note, which led to the creation of Earth Day.  Unfortunately, 50 years later, things have only gotten worse.  Ice caps are melting, strange storms are brewing in areas never before hit by such odd weather, and temperatures in our oceans are climbing at an alarming rate.  Animals and plants are going extinct because of what we’ve done.  Luckily though, there is good news.  People are becoming more aware of these problems than ever before.  People are speaking out, protesting, and trying to bring about change.  While things may not change drastically any time soon, changes are being made to help protect Mother Earth from further damage.  She is a vital member of our family, and we need to take care of her like one.

While Remote Learning has made many things much more challenging for teachers and students, I knew that I had to find a creative and powerful way to celebrate and make my students aware of Earth Day.  When we were in the classroom, we talked about recycling, reducing our carbon footprint, and helping to protect Earth.  It felt only fitting that we needed to also talk about Earth Day.  So, Wednesday, April 22, was devoted to making my students more aware of the issues impacting our great planet and what we can do to make a difference.  During our Morning Meeting, I posed a special question to the students for our share that day: Why should you, as fifth graders, care about what happens to Earth?  Their responses were powerful and passionate.  They seem to understand the gravity of the situation.  Here are some their responses:

  • “If this world dies, we don’t really have a back-up planet.  One day a year is not even close to enough.  If everybody were to be mindful of their consumption of fossil fuels and products made by them on Earth Day, it still wouldn’t help.  It wouldn’t even put a dent in the problems.”
  • “We’re the next generation to live on this Earth and we want to be here for as long as possible.  We want our kids to actually have a planet on which to live.”
  • “I always think of us as equals with other animals.  They are dying, and so we are next.”
  • “We need to prepare for what may come and what will come.  We want our Earth to be the best that it can be.  One day isn’t enough.  We should have Earth Day every day.”
  • “Earth helps us, it helps the environment, and so we should take care of the Earth like it is one of our family members.”

My goal was to begin the day by helping my students to see why we all need to take care of Earth.  All humans have a responsibility to do something to help our Earth.  I closed out our discussion by telling the students, “We need to have a more symbiotic relationship with Earth.  While we are only going to be able to do a few things during our virtual class day today, I want you to think of the other 364 days as Earth Days as well.  So, what else can you do to help?  All year we’ve talked about the little things that we can do like recycling, not over-using water or other natural resources, and finding a way to repurpose things that we would otherwise throw away.  Do those little things at home.  Find your own ways to help.”  Self-awareness is a big part of how changes can and will be made.  I wanted my students to understand why we do celebrate Earth Day each year, as a way to begin our day-long celebration.

Later that morning, I had the students go out and become one with Earth.  The students went outside and sat in the forest, played in the woods, or just explored the natural world right outside of their homes.  As they did this, I had them do some writing and drawing about their experiences.  I wanted them to see the beauty of Earth and all that she provides us with.  I wanted them to hear the birds calling, the wind whistling, the trees waving, and life slowly awakening from its long winter sleep.  I too participated in this activity, and was blown away, almost literally by the strong winds blowing that day, by just how beautiful the natural world truly is.  The trees huddled together like athletes before a big game.  The wind blew so loudly, as if Mother Nature were commanding us to rise and celebrate on this special day.  It was awesome.  I then had the students gather together again on Google Meet to share our experiences in being outdoors.  They all really appreciated the opportunity to get outside and look around.  One student spent her time in a tree, writing poetry.  Here are some of the wonderful things they created during their time in nature:

Pic 3

  • One student created a game regarding Climate Change as well as a quote: “We gave the Earth to Climate Change and now we must take it back.”  How deep is that?  Wow!
  • One student wrote a poem:
    • Earth
      • The wind is howling and it is freezing.
      • Tall trees I see,
      • So quiet, just me
      • Dead silence:
      • It’s just me and the breeze.
  • Another student also wrote a poem:
    • Nature
      • Cold but brisk, sending shivers down your spine
      • The trees swaying, wait,
      • no, waving, saying, hello.
      • The sun comes out of hiding
      • to say, hello.

Pic 2

Pic 1

The students were so inspired by nature.  They created some very cool drawings, stories, thoughts, and poems.  I closed our sharing discussion by telling the students, “As we can all see, there is clearly so much in nature that inspires us.  As you continue with your day, take the time to look around and see all the wonder and beauty that Earth has to offer.”  My goal for this activity was for students to truly appreciate Earth and all that she allows us, as humans, to do.  I wanted my students to see what it is they are trying to protect and care for on this Earth Day.

I closed our academic day by having the students share and think about what they can do to continue celebrating and taking care of Earth later that day or over the next 364 days.  They had some very realistic and helpful ideas for how to continue to spread this love for Earth.  Here are some of their suggestions:

  • “I could help take care of the ducks that live in a pond near my house.  There was a little oil spill that happened a while ago and my mom and I helped clean the ducks off and protect them from the oil.  I can continue to watch over them.  I can also watch over the turtles that live in the pond.  Last year, a car drove over a turtle that had  gotten in the road.  I could help get the turtles out of the road if I see them in it.”
  • “There’s all this rusty metal and trash in the woods behind my house.  I could remove it and then turn that area into a nice bike trail for my family and others to enjoy.”
  • “I can write messages on the sidewalk and roads using sidewalk chalk.  I wrote one on today that said, ‘Happy Earth Day!  Do something nice for the environment.'”
  • “There is a pond near my house in which lots of wildlife live.  There is also lots of trash and stuff in it too.  I could take out some of the trash and help to keep the pond clean.”
  • “I make cake pops and when I’m done with the sticks, I reuse them.  I’m also telling people that I give the cake pops to, to reuse them as well.  I can work on reusing and repurposing things.”
  • “I can protect the trees and forest near my house to make sure they stay clean and healthy.”

While I wasn’t expecting any of my students to generate some new and amazing idea that no one has ever thought of before to save Earth, they all had ideas that are realistic and would be possible for them to do.  What really amazed me was what one student said before she shared her idea, “We all lie.  I know I do, but this is something important.  We’re all saying great ideas, but I hope that we stick with them and actually do them.  Mr. Holt asked us to share ideas we could do, we should think of it as have to do.  We need to act like every day is Earth Day.  I hope we can all do what we say we’re going to do.”  How profound and honest.  I love it!  My students are the ones holding each other accountable.  That’s pretty awesome!  “From the mouths of babes,” someone once said.  So true.  My students are incredibly thoughtful, compassionate, and insightful.  I closed out our Earth Day celebration with some parting words, “Stay true to yourself and be the spark of change.  Find ways, each and every day, to help take care of and protect Earth.”  My goal for this activity was to inspire my students to keep these positive vibes going.  I want them to truly think of every day as Earth Day.

Although we would have done a bit more to recognize Earth Day if we were on site at school on that day, I feel that I found some creative and engaging ways for the students to be a part of the 50th Earth Day celebration.  I didn’t allow Remote Learning to stop me from recognizing this special day.  Instead, I got creative and found ways to make Earth Day a virtual event for my students.  Remote Learning is only as restrictive as I allow it to be for me as a teacher.