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

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

Mindfulness Yoga

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

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

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

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

Rover Presentations in Science Class

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

The highlights for me were three-fold:

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

Empathy and Compassion Aren’t Simply Trendy Catch Phrases

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

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

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

Astronomy Unit Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center Field Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feedback 1

Feedback 2

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

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

Getting the Students Excited About a New Unit

When I was in high school, one of my favorite bands was The Smashing Pumpkins.  I absolutely loved Billy Corgan’s voice.  Their music was and still is amazing.  While Siamese Dream was a phenomenal album, the double-disc Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness changed my life.  That album was awesome from start to finish.  Even the cover art created a mood and an atmosphere that could only be summed up with one word: nostalgic.  I remember when I first heard that the album was being released.  I was so excited.  The week prior to its release, I listened to nothing but the band’s previous music.  I was smitten.  I felt like a kid the night before Christmas.  The band put out a video for the first single off of the album.  I couldn’t wait for it to be released.  The local record store in my town opened at midnight the day it came out.  Unfortunately, my parents wouldn’t let me go out that late.  I was so mad.  I just wanted to hear the new songs the band had created.  The first time I listened to disc one, I almost cried.  The songwriting was brilliant and the music was epic.  The band had created a masterpiece.  The wait and hype created was totally worth it.  That album made my senior year in high school memorable in so many ways, despite my moment of projectile vomiting in the middle of Physics class.

Building excitement within people prior to the release of a new album or product is why marketers get paid so much.  Their job is to make people line up for the release of the newest game system or iPhone.  They create commercials and advertisements, helping to create hype and desire within future owners.  As a teacher, I feel that it is important to employ some of these marketing strategies in the classroom prior to starting a new unit.  I want my students excited to learn something new.  I want them to be curious and engaged.  I usually start talking about a new unit a week or so before it begins so that the students start to ask questions.  They begin to do some research on the topic prior to us starting the unit in class.  They become so excited, that when we do actually begin the new unit, they hang on my every word.  Mission accomplished!

For the past few weeks, I’ve been preparing my students for the start of our new unit in STEM class.  Three weeks ago, I had the students complete a survey on what they wanted to learn regarding the unit topic of Astronomy.  I wanted to find out what they were interested in learning more about as most students have been introduced to space and astronomy concepts in the past.  I wanted to make sure that I didn’t cover things they had already learned.   Just knowing that we were going to be learning about astronomy got my students excited.  They couldn’t wait.  They provided me with such detailed ideas and suggestions about the new unit that I was getting excited for it to begin too.  Then, over the past two weeks, I kept reminding the boys of the new unit and that it was starting soon.  I would put quick plugs in at the end of class like, “Can’t wait for our new unit on Astronomy to start soon,” or “Thanks for all of your great feedback on the new unit, it is going to be amazing because of your ideas.”  I had the students asking me details about the new unit outside of class.  They were so curious and excited.

Finally, after weeks of preparation, we began our new unit on Astronomy in STEM class yesterday.  I started the unit with a video hook based on the survey ideas I received from the students.  It was a cool news segment from a year ago about pictures of a far away star that seemed to periodically be blocked by some strange object that couldn’t be explained.  The scientist they interviewed hypothesized that it could be some sort of alien megastructure.  This got the boys talking about aliens and the possibility of life on other planets.  They were so engaged.  I had to cut the discussion short so that we had time for the math pre-test.  I then went over the whole unit online on Haiku.  I detailed the science and math portions of the unit and quickly introduced the group project.  Sounds of, “Yes” and “Yeah” were heard throughout the classroom.  Smiles covered the faces of my budding astronomers.  It was awesome.  I then showed them the Little Bits kits that they would be using to create the space rover in small groups.  You would have thought that I had just shown them a million dollar bill.  I had them hook, line, and sinker.  They were like kids in a candy store, of awesomeness!

Because they were so engaged and eager to jump into our new unit, they completed the math pre-test with a vigor that I hadn’t seen before.  They took their time and checked their work.  They didn’t even check their work on the chapter assessment they completed in class the other day.  That test was graded and this was merely a placement exam.  They seemed to put more effort into completing this pre-test than they did the chapter assessment.  Crazy.  They did quite well too.  I have a few students that moved into the more advanced math group because of the work displayed on this pre-test.  In years past, students do not take the pre-tests seriously.  They usually rush through it as they know they will be learning the material in the coming weeks anyway.  Not this amazing group of students, oh no.  They took this pre-test as if their lives depended upon it.  Was it really because they were so excited about our new unit?  Did that eagerness and anticipation help motivate them to put forth their best effort in completing this pre-test?  It probably helped that I reminded the boys that they had the ability to move into a higher or lower math track based on their results on this pre-test.  I told them, “We want to place you into the math group that will best support and challenge you based on your prior knowledge and skills.  So, be sure to show us what you know.”  I think that might have helped to trigger the great effort and focus I saw in class yesterday.

Being a teacher, at times, is a lot like being in advertising.  We need to “sell” our students on the content, skills, and curriculum.  We need them to see how it is relevant to them and why they would want to learn it.  Engaging our students can be tricky and challenging at times, but isn’t that one of the fun parts of being a teacher?  It’s like trying to find the one key that opens the lock when you have 7,500 possibilities.  Yeah, being a teacher is a lot like being a puzzle maker.  We show our students the brilliant pieces of the picture, and they put them all together to form their image of learning.

Collecting Student Input to Drive a Unit’s Content

I always wished that school for me was more like the Magic School Bus.  I wanted my teachers to come into class and say, “Hey, what do you want to learn about today?”  How cool would that be if students got to choose the content and what they learned about.  Talk about individualized education.  While I know that I wouldn’t have been able to go on fun field trips like Ms. Frizzle’s class because we didn’t have a sweet school bus that changed into anything, it would have been nice if my teachers took my input and we actually learned about something that my peers and I wanted to learn about.  Now I know there are independent schools like that out there, but they are rare and very few students have the opportunity to attend them.  What if all schools allowed the students to help develop the curriculum and content for the classes?  Talk about building relationships and having students own their learning.  This would do that as the students would be learning about what interests them.  I love this idea.  Now, how can I do it in my classroom?

So, I got to thinking a few days ago, What content do I want to cover in my next STEM unit on Astronomy?  What do the students really need to know about space?  Should I teach an overview of the solar system?  Nah, they probably have seen a unit like that ten times prior to this year.  What about something on exoplanets?  That might be fun.  Then, I started to think, What would the students like to learn about?  What matters to them?  What topics would get them excited about space?  That’s when it hit me.  I should just ask my students what they want to learn about and then I can incorporate it into my unit on astronomy.

So, during a free period today, I’m going to have the students complete a Google Form that asks two questions:

  1. Our next STEM unit is going to focus on Astronomy and space.  What topics would you like to learn about?  The Solar System, Planets, Exoplanets, Colonizing Mars, Moons, Space Junk, Satellites, or something else?
  2. Are there any special projects you would like to complete or work on during our STEM unit on Astronomy and space?  Labs, Investigations, Group Projects, or something else.

I’m hoping that the students will take the time to really think about what they want to learn.  I have plenty of my own ideas, but I’d much rather use their input.  If they are choosing the content, they will be much more engaged in class as they take ownership of their learning since they chose it.  I can’t wait to see what kind of fodder and ideas come from this exercise.  I’m thinking that if this plan goes well, I may be able to create the greatest astronomy unit of all time for my STEM class.  Well, maybe not the best unit of all time, but at least the most relevant and appropropriate unit for the students in my class.  Although I won’t be able to fit them into a cool school bus and fly them to the moon, with their input, we still should be able to have an amazing experience in our next unit on astronomy.  To quote one of the greatest space explorers of all time, “To infinity and beyond!”

Reflections on a STEM Unit

Each year, when I adapt a previously used unit in STEM class, I struggle to remember what I had wanted to change the year before when I finished the unit and made mental notes.  I always kick myself.  Why didn’t I jot some notes down about what I wanted to change or add?  As I barely remember what I had for dinner last night, recalling specifics about what went well in a particular class is close to impossible.  So, as I reflected on what went well regarding our recent STEM unit on astronomy, I decided that I didn’t want to keep kicking myself year after year.  I’m now going to document my reflections on each unit so that I have evidence of what I want to change, delete, or add.  It only took me a few years to figure this out.  Oh well, you live and you learn.  I’m just glad I’m finally doing the learning part.

While I think astronomy is a good unit of study with which to begin the year in STEM class because it’s interesting and gets students hooked right away, what is covered and how it’s covered needs to be changed.  Even after making some slight changes from what I did last year, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the outcome.  Time was an issue.  I felt like we ran out of it.  The students were unable to finish their group project because of it.  Now, yes, I could have been more flexible and provided the students with more time.  But, I also didn’t want the first unit to drag on for 10 weeks.  So, I ended it after about seven weeks.  I was disappointed that we didn’t have the chance to test the space vehicle creations the students had been developing over the unit.  This is one of my favorite aspects of the unit, and so I hated to leave it hanging like a chad in Florida.

So, next year I want to arrange the unit differently to allow the students ample time to tinker and play when creating their space vehicles.  After watching the film Beyond Measure recently, I got a great idea about another change I want to make to this particular part of the unit.  Instead of having the students brainstorm materials with which to create their space vehicles, which tends to be challenging for them to do as they aren’t familiar at that age with what materials are available to them, I am going to give each group the materials when they are ready for the building phase.  This way, I can challenge them to learn and do more.  In the movie, the teacher gives the students a bunch of cardboard, tape, and a motor to construct a Mars Rover.  They have to learn how to wire a motor and make it move a vehicle.  I love that idea.  I want to better challenge my students so that engagement continues to go up in the classroom.  I’ve been looking online at some cool coding and computer programming kits that would be fun and exciting for the boys to use.  This might be the route to go.  I’m so pumped for next year already.

Another change I would like to make is in regards to how the foundational knowledge is covered.  This year I tried something different from last year.  I had the students read a textbook entry in order to answer some basic comprehension questions.  While it was definitely more engaging and interesting than what I had done the previous year, it lacked the engagement factor I was looking for.  What if I had the students work with a partner to create a board game that addresses specific questions I want the students to learn the answers to?  That way they practice using one of the Habits of Learning we focus on in the sixth grade, Coexistence.  Plus, they would be able to problem solve how to create a board game based on the information learned.  This activity would engage the boys, provide them with choices in how to showcase their learning, and allow them to work together to accomplish a task.  I love it.  This seems as if it would be far more relevant to the students than completing a worksheet or answering some simple questions.  It also requires more critical thinking than basic comprehension.  They need to apply the information learned in order to solve the problem.  I love challenging my students to do more than just know the material covered.  At the end of the year, the skills acquired are far more important than knowing and understanding the content.  If the boys learn how to effectively work together, creatively solve problems, and think critically about concepts, then they will be prepared to matriculate to seventh grade.

I was also thinking that I wanted to alter the math curriculum portion of the unit as well.  The math book work seemed so contrived.  The boys didn’t seem really engaged with it.  Plus, the whole purpose of the STEM class is to allow the students to see how the math skills learned are connected to other areas of life, such as engineering and science.  I want to involve the math skills more into the group project and the board game.  But, I also need to be sure the students are prepared for the various math classes in the seventh grade.  If they don’t get used to book work or solving lots of problems, I worry that they won’t be prepared for the “rigor” and repetition of their future math courses at my school.  So, what do I do?  Do I better incorporate the math skills into the other portions of the unit so that the students see the relevance in what we are learning or do I keep to the status quo for my school?  Ahh, the dilemma?

So, changes are sure to come for my STEM unit on astronomy next year.  I’m excited to continue to grow and develop my STEM curriculum as I continue to grow and learn as an educator.  Now that I have a document outlining the changes I’d like to make, I will, hopefully, actually remember to adapt and evolve this STEM unit for the next academic year.

The Power of Student Discussion

One of my favorite things to do as a college student was to hang out with my friends and just talk.  We’d discuss everything from politics to bad coffee.  It was so much fun and enlightening.  I loved debating and challenging my friends on certain topics or just adding witty banter to a discussion I didn’t really want to jump into.  To this day, I still love just having a chat with my good friends.  I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about a good discussion that gets me going and keeps me excited.  As a teacher, I try to bring that same enthusiasm for discussion into the classroom.  I’d much rather have my students share ideas and talk than listen to me all period because I rarely have anything good to say anyway.

Today in STEM class, we began the double block with a discussion on astronomy current events.  For homework last evening, the students chose an interesting current event regarding some aspect of astronomy.  They then read the article and prepared some notes mentally or in writing regarding how they wanted to share what they learned with the class.  Each student shared orally his current event with the students.  The boys then had a chance to ask some questions, which usually spurred a short conversation on the topic.  The boys were engaged and excited about the various ideas shared.  They seemed curious about the idea that Pluto might have once contained water.  It was great.  They were inquisitive while thinking critically about the topics shared.  While the entire lesson lasted only about 30 minutes, they easily could have gone for another 30 and been completely enthralled and focused on the discussion.  They questioned their peers and wondered about the world of astronomy.

Now, had I given them this same information in a handout or as a lecture, would they have been as curious or engaged?  Perhaps, but most likely not.  When students take responsibility and ownership over their learning, they are much more focused and engaged.  This engagement, in turn, leads to more learning and the creation of more neurological pathways.  Feeding students information is futile unless they have a chance to process and ponder it through discussion.  As teachers, we need to give the students more opportunities to discuss the knowledge and concepts our curriculum covers.  Rather than cover more content, we need to let students play and explore, orally, with what is being covered.  Let’s allow the students to drive the bus.  The neuroscience of education tells us that students will truly learn much more when they are allowed to choose how and what they learn.  So, to you I say, transfer the power from the teacher to the students and let’s get discussing.