Posted in Boys, Education, Humanities, Learning, Presentation, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Training Future Generations of Teacher Leaders

My son recently went to prom with a friend of his who happens to be a girl.  No, not his girlfriend, he likes to point out to my wife and I, his friend who is a girl.  The day of the big event, he was quite nervous and a bit grouchy toward his mom and I, which we’re used to as his parents.  While part of me wanted to be frustrated with him, what happened next erased all of those negative emotions.  When we dropped him off at his date’s house, her whole family had gathered to take pictures.  Now, to appreciate the full scope of the story that comes next, there’s something you need to know about my son.  He struggles meeting new people and greatly dislikes having his picture taking it, unless of course, he’s the one taking it.  He takes more selfies in a day than I take breaths.  So, when we arrived at his friend’s house, her entire family came to greet my son.  Instead of retreating into his turtle shell and being all silent, he shook their hands, gave and received hugs, made eye contact, talked to these strangers, and allowed them to take many pictures of him.  Even though he was a bit jerky to my wife and I, he greatly redeemed himself by putting forth his best effort to showcase what a remarkable young man he truly is.  We are so proud of him.  Of course, we’d like to think that his phenomenal behavior was a direct result of how we raised him and trained him to act in front of others.  Who knows?  Maybe that’s what it was or maybe he just knows what to do when interacting with new people.  Regardless, I was a proud poppa that day.  He looked so handsome in his tux.

As a teacher, I have experienced similar proud moments in the classroom with my students: When students have a-ha moments and the lightbulb turns on; when they solve a problem that had been causing them great difficulty; when they put an arm around a peer who is clearly having a rough day; when they apologize for making a poor choice.  The list could go on forever.  It feels good to know that you’ve had a positive impact on another person.  I love it.  In those moments, I’m reminded, yet again why I became a teacher.

Today provided me with one of those proud teaching moments during Humanities class.  For the past few weeks, the students have been preparing elaborate class presentations regarding their I-Search Project.  Some of the boys made documentary movies, others crafted slideshows, and a few made three-dimensional models to help showcase their learning.  The boys began performing their presentations in class today.  While my co-teacher and I didn’t focus too much on how to present the material, we did tell the students that they needed to make their presentations interesting and engaging as we don’t want to fall asleep watching 14 presentations that include the presenter reading from his slideshow.  The students clearly took our advice and ran with it.

The four students who presented today acted more like businessmen and trained teachers than they did sixth grade boys.  They were teaching the class all about Islamic veils, the Hanging Gardens of Babylonia, Buddhism, musical instruments utilized in the Middle East region.  They created amazing documentary movies, presentations using various digital tools, fun and engaging Kahoot quizzes, and interesting speeches on their topics.  I was amazed at how well they presented their project and material.  They were poised, rehearsed, and well-spoken.  It was awesome.  The students in the audience were respectful and asked insightful questions regarding the various presentations.  It was evident that the students were excited to share what they had learned with their peers and their classmates were clearly excited to learn more about the Middle East region.  I could not have been more proud of my students today.  Everything we’ve been trying to instill within them this year was being applied in the classroom this morning during their presentations.  One student even remarked, during his presentation, “It’s so much fun being the teacher.”  Yes, I thought.  It is so much fun being your teacher.

As the last day of classes is but a week away, it’s great to see how much the students have progressed since the start of the academic year.  They have learned a lot about the topics and material covered, gained many skills needed to be successful students, and matured a lot as individual community members this year.  While we are ecstatic to see them to move onto seventh grade next year, we’re also sad to see them go as we’ve had such a blast working with and learning from them this year.  These 14 boys are certainly going to have a huge impact on the world one day.  They will become the next teachers, changemakers, problem solvers, engineers, and everything else inbetween.  Get ready world because here they come…

Posted in Boys, Education, Humanities, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Fidget Tools or Toys?

I used to love playing marbles when I was a youngster in school.  I was the king of marbles at my school.  One time, I used a giant marble my grandfather had given me to win a mini-basketball.  It was epic.  Every recess, my friends and I would bring our marbles outside and have a blast seeing who could get the most in the small dug hole in the ground.  Once recess was over though, if the teachers saw your marbles outside of your backpack, they would be confiscated at once.  No toys of any kind were allowed in the classroom.  Even in the 90s when school counselors and doctors began suggesting that students with attention disorders should use stress balls in their pockets to stay focused, my teachers always said no.  I had a few friends who lost many stress balls that way.  If the teachers saw what they thought was a toy, even if they smelled it, they would take it at once and usually never give it back.  I lost a very rare and valuable Garbage Pail Kids card that way.  Toys of any type, even if they were used appropriately, were considered toys back when I was in school.

As times have changed, the definition of toy has also changed in the classroom.  Counselors and medical professionals around the country are suggesting that students with ADHD use fidget toys in the classroom to help keep themselves focused.  Some of these fidget objects work, when used correctly.  However, most of the times, I find them to be much more of a distraction than an actual helpful tool.  Case and point, the silly fidget spinners that have made their way into schools around the country.  It seems as though many schools have also already begun to ban them.  While students who use them effectively and appropriately do find that they to help keep them focused at times in the classroom, for most students, they are a total distraction.  Students treat them like toys and thus they are used like toys in the classroom.  Although my school doesn’t have a policy on them yet, my classroom policy is that if I see them, I will take them for the period.  If students use them under the table and they are not a distraction to the user or their nearby peers, then I’m fine with them.  I think that only one or two of the seven students in my classroom who use them regularly, use them correctly.  Today alone I confiscated three spinners over the course of three periods.  If students are using them appropriately and they are helping them stay focused in the classroom, then I’m all in favor of these fidget spinners; however, the percentage of students using them effectively is miniscule.  They are much more of a toy than a tool.

However, being the open-minded teacher that I am, I wanted to find out what the students thought.  Are fidget spinners a focus tool or a distracting toy?  If the students could persuade me with hard evidence and facts that they are toys and not tools, then I might be open to allowing them to be used more freely in the classroom.  So, for this past Saturday’s current event discussion, my co-teacher and I found a very interesting article all about these fidget toys that would drive the class discussion.  After reading the article together as a class, we had the students discuss the guiding question posed in the article, Are Fidget Objects Toys or Tools in the Classroom?  Surprisingly, almost every student noted how distracting the fidget spinners and cubes can be.  The boys shared personal stories of how they have used them in the classroom and found them to be more of a distraction than a tool to help them focus.  The boys cited examples of other students they’ve seen use them ineffectively as well as excerpts from the article.  Most of the students agreed with me and felt as though these fidget toys are just that, toys of mass distraction.  Those two or three students who saw the benefit in using fidget spinners in the classroom also agreed with me that the spinners should be used under the table or in a way that is useful to the user while also not distracting their peers.  Those same few students also felt as though teachers should take them away if they are used ineffectively.

So, wait a minute.  Are you telling me that my students, who seem to love using these fidget spinners, agree that they are toys and not tools?  What is going on with the world?  My students know what helps them focus or not?  What?  My students know themselves as learners?  How crazy is that?  Actually, that’s quite amazing and awesome.  I’m proud of my students for taking ownership regarding their learning.  They know what works best for them as students.  I’d like to think that this self-awareness my students possess is because of all the work we’ve put into helping them learn and utilize the crucial habits of learning, skills, and reflection this year in the sixth grade.  Perhaps though, they are just very conscientious and careful students who know what is right and what is wrong.  Nahh, it’s gotta be what my co-teacher and I have done in the classroom this year.  Regardless, I was a bit shocked following this discussion to learn that my students realize these spinners are a distraction.  But, if they do see these toys as toys, why do they still try to misuse them in the classroom on a daily basis?  No matter how much ownership and self-awareness they have, they are sixth grade boys who struggle to sit still on a daily basis and think that the word poop is still super hilarious.

Posted in Boys, Education, Learning, STEM, Students, Teaching

Can Curiosity Be Taught?

When my son was very young, he once asked me why the sky is blue.  Being the creative and caring father I am, I made up some elaborate story about a green frog and a blue frog.  To this day, I don’t remember exactly how the story went, but I remember it being very long and in depth.  My son wasn’t very curious and believed my story without asking any follow-up questions.  A few years later, when he was in fourth or fifth grade, his teacher posed the same question to the class, “Why is the sky blue?”  My son, who loves being right and always knows the answer, told his teacher and the class, the story of how the green frog got angry at the blue frog and chucked him into the air, making the sky blue.  He had believed my creative story.  The teacher did a great job of explaining how sometimes parents make up stories to make life seem a bit more interesting.  I’ll never forget when my son came home from school and told me that I had lied to him.  I had completely forgotten that I told him that story.  If I hadn’t been so convincing in how I told that story to my son so many years ago, I wonder if he would have asked me some clarifying questions.  He’s a pretty curious young man, always asking why, and so I wonder if he would have been able to see through my untrue story had I not stated it so matter-of-fact like.  Would he have asked some questions about the frogs and how they were able to throw each other?  How do frogs change color?  Had my son been more curious about my story, I wonder if he would have been able to figure out that I was weaving an elaborate tall tale.  Curiosity might have killed the cat, but it also helps people figure things out.  Why is the sky blue?  Why is the grass green?  How does light work?  The more we know about the world and how it works, the more power we have to solve problems and make the world a better place.

In the sixth grade, I spend a lot of time trying to help my students think critically about the world around them.  Why is it that way?  Why can’t it be this way?  How does that work?  I  want my students to learn something new and then and wonder why.   I want them to be able to make educated hypotheses about new information.  I want them to be curious and question everything.  Knowledge is power, I tell them repeatedly throughout the year, and so, the more you know, the more powerful you will become.  Teaching students to think critically and creatively is not easy and requires much practice and modeling.  Through completing various PBL activities, the students learn how to think critically in order to solve problems.  They learn to persevere and find new solutions to problems.

At this point in the year, I am able to easily track the progress my students have made regarding the skill of critical thinking.  I observe them during STEM and Humanities classes as they work to complete tasks and projects.  I hear them asking insightful questions and working together with their peers to find answers to problems encountered.  Most of them have become creative problem solvers.  This year, though, like every year, I have one student who doesn’t seem to have made any progress in this area.  He doesn’t ask a lot of questions and doesn’t seem to be able to creatively solve problems.  He makes use of a very fixed mindset and frequently gets stuck completing work in and out of the classroom.  Is it because he wasn’t really paying attention when we talked all about how to think critically, how to ask insightful questions, and how to solve problems?  Could that be?  Perhaps he just hasn’t learned those skills yet.  What if it’s something more though?  Sometimes, depending on the problem or topic being discussed, he does display his ability to solve problems and think critically, which leads me to believe that something else is at play here for students like this particular one.  He seems to accept information as is and doesn’t question things.  He doesn’t seem curious and seldom wonders why.  Is this the issue?  Is his inability to think critically about new information due to his lack of curiosity?  If so, what can I do as his teacher to help him?  How can I teach him to be curious?  I feel as though I model it on a regular basis.  I ask tons of questions and always make sure to field questions the students ask as well.  I make noticings and observations as I model the skill of critical thinking.  Nothing I’m doing seems to be helping though.  The bigger question seems to be, can curiosity be taught?  Do students learn to be curious or is it an innate trait?  Are humans born asking why?  If not, then how can we teach our students to be curious?  What else could I be doing to help inspire this student to question the world around him?  How can I help all students not simply accept facts and information at face value?  How can I help them to wonder why and be curious?

Posted in Boys, Education, Learning, Math, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

What’s the Best Method for Teaching Math to Students?

I was a terrible math student in school.  Not only did I not like math class, but I didn’t understand the concepts covered.  I had great difficulty comprehending and processing what was being taught.  Regardless of how pointless I found every math concept ever covered, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how to do math.  How do I find the LCD when adding fractions?  Which property is being used in this geometry problem?  How do I prove that a triangle has three sides?  Math seemed like a different language to me, which is strange because I had a much easier time learning how to speak Spanish.  So, what was my problem?  Was it how my teachers taught me?  Was it their instructional methods?  Did they not effectively teach me the math concepts?  Some of my math teachers utilized projects to help me see the relevance in what I was learning.  That I liked.  My seventh grade math teacher had us complete this cool project on accounting and money.  I had to maintain and update a checkbook, write checks, deposit money, and do all that fun banking stuff.  I remember that unit very well as my teacher made math seem fun.  Then came high school and it was all about bookwork, homework, solving problems, discussing the homework, and repeating the process day in and day out.  As I constantly struggled to understand the concepts covered, I quickly began to hate math.  If my teachers had utilized different instructional strategies when teaching me the content, would I still have felt the way I did?  Would math have been such a struggle for me?

It wasn’t until I became a teacher, that math started to make sense to me.  As I had to teach it to other people, I realized that I wanted to find a way to make math fun and engaging.  I wanted my students to see the relevance in the concepts covered.  I wanted my students to see math as a journey and not repetition.  Over the years, I’ve worked hard to maintain this mantra in my classroom.  Creating a STEM class a few years back helped remind me to be sure I was making math fun and engaging for my students.

Last year, I felt as though I struggled to do this.  While I tried to take the focus off of direct instruction and repetition, I found that I wasn’t effectively educating my students.  They were often confused by the time the chapter assessments rolled around as I hadn’t clarified their questions nor had they been given the time needed to practice the skills covered.  So, this year, I’ve been much more purposeful in my planning and instruction.  Each lesson includes a mini-lesson with time for the students to practice the problems and ask questions regarding the skill covered.  The boys then have at least 10-20 problems to complete on their own to show that they understand the concept covered and can apply it independently.  At the end of each unit, the students must complete a chapter assessment, to demonstrate their mastery of the skills covered throughout the unit.  Test retakes are completed by those students who struggle to accurately apply the skills covered.  This process has seemed to work so far this year.  I’ve also made use of several hands-on math activities, online games, and other projects throughout the year, to allow the students to see the relevance in the math skills covered as well as to help the students see math as fun and engaging.  I feel as though these instructional strategies used are working.  The students are faring much better on the chapter assessments and there is much less confusion regarding the math concepts covered.  However, I do wonder how much fun the boys are having in class regarding the math content.  Are they engaged?  Are they seeing the relevance in the concepts covered?  While they seemed to really like our unit on the Stock Market, did they see how the math skills covered throughout the year were applied?  Do they enjoy the mini-lessons?  Am I making the content seem fun?  Do they really understand the concepts covered?

As the end of this academic year is less than two months away, I feel compelled to ponder the effectiveness of my math instruction and curriculum.  Am I making the math skills covered relevant to the students?  Could I better implement the math skills into the STEM projects?  Could I make my mini-lessons more engaging?  Am I effectively preparing my students for the rigors of seventh grade math?  While I’m sure I could write an entire novel on this topic and all of my questions and thoughts regarding it, I feel as though I’ll never know the exact answer.  Perhaps I should ask my students.  Maybe, creating a survey on Google Forms with questions like the ones I’ve posed here will help me to elicit responses that will allow me truly reflect on my math instruction.  Yeah, that’s what I should do.  I’ll provide my students with the chance to provide me feedback on my math instruction.  What did they really think?  Was the math content presented in an engaging and relevant way?  Did they find it fun?  Did the concepts covered make sense?  I feel as though an activity like this will provide me with real, genuine data that I can use to plan my math instruction for next year.  How can I make the math instruction better for my students?  Although I think I know what might be best for my students, I don’t really know what works best for them.  By gathering data from my students, however, I will then truly begin to know what they think works best for them.  What a brilliant idea!  I can’t wait to learn what they really think about my effectiveness as a math teacher.

Posted in Boys, Challenges, Co-Teacher, Education, Learning, Professional Development, Teaching

What’s the Best Way to Teach Gender and Sexuality to our Students?

My co-teacher and I read an article yesterday from Independent School magazine on the importance of teaching gender and sexuality issues to our students.  It was very enlightening.  It raised many valuable points on why we need to address and teach these concepts and ideas to our students in every grade from K-12.  Our students need to understand that not every student is the same as not every boy may feel like a boy inside.  The article written by Jennifer Bryan included many great points on how to teach these concepts and ideas in the classroom.  The big takeaway for me was that the responsibility of teaching gender and sexuality issues is not up to one person such as the health teacher; it is every teacher’s responsibility to address these issues in their course and curriculum.  English teachers could choose novels that deal with issues of gender roles or sexuality while history teachers could cover the historical significance of these concepts and how they have evolved over time.  Every teacher needs to help their students understand and respect the gender and sexuality of every other student, regardless of the sex the student was born.  Creating an inclusive and accepting community makes all students feel safe and respected so that genuine learning can happen.

After reading this article, my co-teacher and I felt as though our school has some work to do to be more inclusive and supportive of every student.  We don’t cover and address these concepts in every class or every grade.  Our school takes a health class approach to teaching about sexuality and gender and it only happens for a few weeks during the spring term.  On top of that, these concepts are only briefly covered, superficially so in those classes.  What must our students think when we skim over such an important identity-related topic?  Does gender and sexuality not matter?  What if one of our students is still questioning where they fit into the whole spectrum of gender and sexual orientation?  Do they feel supported and respected?  Within the current model used at our school, we would argue that students who are still questioning their identity don’t feel as though they can safely do so at our school.  So, now what?

Rather than talk about utopian ideals that we wish our school could live up to, my co-teacher and I decided to take a stance and do something about this.  We set up a meeting with the Director of Studies at our school so that we could share our ideas and concerns with him.  Our hope is that we can have training on this topic for the full faculty during faculty orientation prior to the start of our next academic year.  Perhaps we could bring a specialist to campus or simply have some discussions on the topic.  How can we be sure that every teacher is purposefully and meaningfully covering this topic within their curriculum?  How can we do a better job as a school of teaching these concepts to our students?  How can we make our community more accepting and inclusive?  We are hopeful that something can be put into place to bring about change at our fine institution so that we can become a school that helps students see themselves for who they are and can be proud to celebrate their identity without fear of persecution.

Posted in Boys, Challenges, Co-Teaching, Curriculum, Education, Grading, Humanities, Learning, Math, New Ideas, Objectives Based Grading, Reader's Workshop, Reflection, Sixth Grade, STEM, Student Conferences, Student Support, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New, Writer's Workshop, Writing

Why I Love Teaching Sixth Grade

On this day of love, I find myself in a loving and reflective mood.  I am so grateful that I have been allowed to create such a strong sixth grade program over my years here at Cardigan.  Because the administrators at my school have faith in my abilities as an educator, I have been able to take risks, try new things, fail, try other new things, and develop a sixth grade program that best suits the needs of each of my students.  So, to celebrate this great freedom and amazing program I’ve been able to create over the years, I’ve devoted today’s blog entry to discussing the sixth grade program.

Introduction

Going through the adolescent stage of development is like being on a roller coaster without a seat belt.  When you flip upside down, you fall out of your seat unless you are holding on with everything you’ve got.  Each benchmark within adolescence brings new turns, curves, and loops.  Working with adolescent boys is like trying to dodge raindrops.  You can’t avoid the inevitable.  Craziness and chaos will ensue.  But heck, that’s why middle school teachers work with this age group.  We’re a little crazy too because we remember what it was like to be this age.

At Cardigan, we make it our mission to mold young boys into compassionate and mindful young men.  It’s a wild and sometimes frustrating journey, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  Boys who attend sixth grade at Cardigan begin this adventure earlier than most as it is the youngest and smallest grade at our school.  Because of this, we have created a very unique  program that will help our boys foster a family spirit and connection that they carry with them throughout their time at Cardigan; to help provide them with some safety features on the bumpy roller coaster of adolescence.

Rationale

Brain-based research on how learning really happens reveals that students learn best when they are engaged, motivated, feel safe, are challenged and supported.  The sixth grade program has greatly evolved over the years due to this research and, as sixth grade teachers, we are always trying to find new and innovative ways to inspire and effectively educate and prepare our boys for meaningful lives in a global society.

Our Philosophy: We’re a family, and families take care of each other

The first ten weeks of the academic year are focused on building a strong family atmosphere amongst the students.  One of our biggest goals in the sixth grade is to foster a sense of family within the boys.  We want the students to understand and be able to effectively coexist with one another in a way that celebrates their differences.  First, as teachers, we model the behavior we expect to see from the students.  Second, we spend time each week talking about what makes an effective community.  We have the students share personal information about themselves including interests, hobbies, sports, and social identifiers.  We help the boys examine all parts of their personality that remain hidden to most of the world.  In exploring this, the students begin to think deeply and critically about themselves and how they fit into the world.  They also have a chance to share this information with their peers.  While making them vulnerable, it helps the boys make deep connections with each other.  We provide the students with specific strategies on how to communicate with their peers effectively, how to solve problems amongst themselves, and how to work together as a team to accomplish tasks.  We utilize numerous team building activities as catalysts for these mini-lessons: The boys build spaghetti towers in small groups, create a scavenger hunt with a partner, and solve various tasks that provide opportunities to practice and learn how to be effective teammates.  We want the boys to understand what it takes to be Cardigan community member.  

During the first month of school, we take the boys on an overnight trip to our school’s CORE cabin to help build a sense of family and community within the boys.  While the location of the cabin is on our campus, it feels very like it could be miles away.  We build a fire together and then roast marshmallows.  We tell stories, play games, and interact as a family.  If problems arise, we take the time to help the students learn how to work together to solve them.  It’s an amazing experience that helps lay the groundwork for future whole-class experiences we will provide the boys with throughout our year together.

Towards the end of the first term, we put our teamwork and family to the test with a three-day trip to an outdoor center in southern New Hampshire.  The focus of the trip is teamwork.  The students work together to solve problems, accomplish tasks, and have fun learning about how to survive in the wilderness.  It’s always one of the big highlights for the sixth grade boys.  They will never forget how they overcame their fears and learned to help and support their classmates in new and fun ways.

Co-Teaching

While our class size fluctuates from one year to the next, in recent years we’ve had a smaller sixth grade class.  A tight-knit team of two lead teachers is the most effective method for our program.  We plan, grade, and teach together.  Having another person to bounce ideas off of allows for more ideas to come to fruition.  As units are developed, we work together to generate engaging lessons.  With two people working together to complete this process, ideas can be built upon and added to.  Good ideas become great ideas.  Grading together allows for conversations about objectives and work.  How can we create objective objectives that don’t allow room for interpretation?  Having two teachers in the room for classes allows the students to be fully supported, and those students who need one-on-one time have the chance to receive it with two teachers in the classroom.  We can conference with students more effectively during humanities class and the boys are able to safely conduct investigations in STEM class.  We constantly model effective teamwork skills for the boys so that they see what we expect from them.  Co-teaching has fostered a sense of compassion in the classroom.  In order to create a family atmosphere amongst the students, we need to be able to effectively care for them, and  with two trained educators in the room, we can more effectively challenge, support, and ensure the safety of each and every sixth grade student in our class.

Classroom Organization

In order to help foster a sense of engagement in the classroom and to allow our students to feel as though they can focus on the lesson or activity at hand, our classroom is organized in a very specific manner.  

We have a reading nook area for small group work, independent reading, and movie viewing when appropriate.  The boys can sit or lie on the carpet squares in any way that allows them to feel engaged and focused.  We also have a small group work table for those students who need to be sitting to work and stay focused.  The desk table area is towards the front of the classroom near our interactive board and projector.  We use whiteboard tables to allow the students the opportunity to take notes, brainstorm, solve math problems, or just doodle upon them while working or listening.

We instituted this change just this year and it has made a huge difference.  We also use rocking style chairs at the desk work area to allow those students who need to move and stay focused.  These chairs help create a sense of calm and focus in the classroom during full group instruction lessons.  While every student is rocking, they are able to pay attention and listen intently.

These classroom organizational choices are based on the neuroscience of learning.  Students are able to genuinely learn the concepts and skills covered when they feel safe, engaged, and motivated.  The classroom furniture we use and the spaces we’ve created help our students to learn in a meaningful way.

Curriculum

Our goal is for our boys to feel connected to and engaged with the curriculum we employ in the sixth grade.  We want the students to enjoy coming to classes because they are excited and interested in what is happening.  We are constantly revising and updating what we do and how we do it, and because of this, our curriculum is a living and breathing entity.

Humanities

In our humanities class, the students develop their critical thinking skills to become community-minded young men with an awareness of the world around them.  We begin the year with a unit on community so that they learn to accept and appreciate differences in others.  Through completing various activities during the first two weeks of the academic year, the students begin to understand how they fit into our sixth grade family as well as the greater Cardigan community.  The boys also learn much about their peers through this first unit.  Everything else we work on throughout the year in humanities class builds upon this foundation we create at the start of the year.  

The humanities class occupies a double block period that covers both the history and English curriculum for the sixth grade.  This integrated approach allows students to see how the big ideas in History and English go hand in hand.  We cover various communities and cultures from around the world so that we can provide the students with a macro view of the world in a micro manner.  Our goal is to help the students understand perspective and how it can change based on many different factors.  We utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction so that a love of reading and writing is fostered within the boys throughout the year.

For Reader’s Workshop, the students choose just-right (engaging, grade-level and reading-level appropriate) books so that they are interested in what they are reading.  While at the start of the year, several students often seem uninterested in reading, they grow to become voracious and excited readers because the boys can choose books, novels, texts, and e-books that interest and engage them.

For Writer’s Workshop, the students choose the topics about which they write within the confines of the genre requirements.  The vignette form of writing is the first genre covered in the sixth grade.  Rather than mandate that it be a personal narrative vignette, we allow the students to choose the topic.  This choice and freedom empowers the students.  “I can write a short story about anything?” we often hear our students exclaim.  For boys, writing is generally not something they enjoy doing.  They would much rather go outside and play or explore instead of writing.  We want our students to see writing as something that can be fun and hands-on.  If we allow our students to write about topics that engage them, a sense of excitement develops within them.

STEM Class

An effective way to bring science to life is to create a Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) class.  Students have difficulty seeing how the different math and science puzzle pieces fit together.  They also struggle with the math concepts when they aren’t applied in realistic ways that make sense to them. Helping the students build neurological connections between prior knowledge and what they learn in our classroom is one of the many ways we make our program meaningful for our students.

Our STEM class teaches students to persevere.  They learn how to overcome adversity, think differently, see problems from numerous perspectives, communicate effectively, and be curious. We teach students what to do when faced with a new problem. As Angela Lee Duckworth stated in her well-received TED Talk, we need to teach our students how to be gritty. Our sixth graders are provided with opportunities to explore, try new things, fail, try again, talk with their peers, sketch out new ideas, and then do it all over again.

Our STEM curriculum holds the bar high for our students. Rigor doesn’t mean that we require more work to be done for the sake of doing it, it means that the standards and objectives we are teaching are challenging, specific, and relevant. Our STEM units challenge students to think creatively and solve problems in innovative ways. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Common Core Math Standards (CCSS) are the foundation of our STEM curriculum. These standards promote rigor and problem solving in fun and engaging ways.

PEAKS Class

At Cardigan, while we weave study skills into every course that we teach, we have one class devoted to supplementing and supporting every other core subject: Personalized Education for the Acquisition of Knowledge and Skills (PEAKS).  The true purpose of the course is to help the students understand how they best learn, metacognition.  Through self-inventories and mini-lessons on learning styles and the multiple intelligences at the start of the year, the boys begin to become self-aware of their own learning styles and preferences.  Much reflection is also completed throughout the year so that the boys have a chance to observe their strengths and weakness and set goals to work toward.  They also document this learning process in an e-portfolio that they continuously update throughout the year.  Beginning the year in this way, allows the students to focus on the process of learning and how being self-aware will help them grow and develop.  During the winter term, students learn about brain plasticity and how their working memory functions as a way to build upon their self-awareness and genuinely own their learning.  This course supports and challenges each and every student where and when they need it.

Homework

Student engagement isn’t confined within the walls of the classroom.  What the students do or don’t do outside of the classroom can be equally important.  If students aren’t seeing the relevance or value in their homework assignments, then we’ve lost them.  In the sixth grade, we approach homework in the same manner we approach everything.  It’s all about choice and engagement.  We want the students to further practice the skills learned in the classroom in a captivating way that allows them to continue learning and growing as a student.  Homework is not graded and assessed purely for effort.  If we want our students to practice, fail, try again, and continue to practice, then we must not grade this practice work.  Plus, since the students are completing the work outside of the classroom, it is difficult to know who is doing the work and how it is being done.  Are the boys getting assistance from peers, teachers, or parents to complete the work?  While we promote this self-help approach, grading the individual students on work when we don’t know exactly how the work was completed.  Most of the homework assigned is a continuation of what was worked on in class.  

For example, in humanities class, we do much writing and reading.  So, a typical homework assignment is to read from their Reader’s Workshop book for 30 minutes.  As they choose their Reader’s Workshop books based on ability and interest level, the engagement is already there.  Plus, this practice allows them to increase their reading stamina so that they are prepared for the reading demands of seventh grade.  Homework assignments shouldn’t be separate, stand-alone tasks that overly challenge the students.  Developmentally, by the time the sixth graders get to evening study hall at 7:30 p.m. they are exhausted and unable to focus for a long period of time in order to effectively process information and solve problems.  You might say that our homework assignments complement the classroom curriculum the way a beautiful brooch can bring out the colors of a flowing dress.

Project-Based Learning

To prepare students for lives in the global society in which they will live and work, we teach our students how to effectively work in groups to solve open-ended problems with no right or wrong answer. Students need to know how to delegate tasks, lead groups of their peers, follow instructions, ask questions, and solve problems. Project Based Learning ties all of the aforementioned skills together with ribbons of the required curriculum. While the students are engaged with the content and hands-on aspects of the project, they are also learning crucial life skills that will help them persevere and learn to overcome adversity.

Standards-Based Assessment

To help our students adopt learning skills necessary to grow and develop as critical thinkers and problem solvers, we use a standards-based system of grading. The focus is on the standard or objective being assessed. If our curriculum is set up according to the standards, why should we grade the students on anything other than what the curriculum asks? If we are teaching paragraph structure and the standard is, students will be able to craft an original, properly formatted, and complete paragraph, then we should only be grading student work on that one standard using a scale that aligns with the school’s grading criteria? Points must not be taken away for spelling, grammar, or other reasons unless the paragraph is being assessed regarding those standards as well. Rick Wormeli and other leading educational reform leaders have been talking about standards-based grading for years. It is the only way to accurately grade students on what is essential.

In this vein, we also want the students to understand that learning is a process.  Education is like a living organism.  Our students will grow, change, regress, and evolve throughout the year.  As we expect and want our students to meet or exceed all of the objectives covered so that we know they will be fully prepared for seventh grade, we allow students to redo work that doesn’t meet the graded objectives.  The boys are allowed to redo all and any work for a unit until the unit has finished.  They can seek help from the teachers and utilize any feedback we provide to them in order to showcase their ability to meet or exceed the objectives.  This grading system is dynamic and can be changed to allow for the students to employ a growth mindset and truly own their learning.

Conclusion

At Cardigan, we prepare students for an unknown future in a world that will inevitably be very different from its current state.  Because of this, in the sixth grade, we have devised over many years of data collection, research, and practice, to develop a strong and creative academic and social program that engages students in an applicable curriculum that teaches problem solving, critical thinking, coexistence, and how to manifest and utilize a growth mindset.  Students who attend Cardigan Mountain School starting in the sixth grade and then go onto graduate at the close of their ninth grade year receive a meaningful and rich experience.  They grow up together, and, in turn, a family atmosphere and spirit is created within that group of four-year boys.  While it can be challenging at times to be a sixth grade student at Cardigan, our inclusive program helps the boys feel safe and connected within a special family known as the sixth grade.

Posted in Boys, Education, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Expecting the Unexpected in the Classroom

When my wife and I met our son for the first time in Delaware, we were as happy as could be.  He was almost six years old and full of spunk.  As this was our first meeting with him and his foster family, we weren’t expecting to have him stay overnight with us in our hotel room, but he did.  We also weren’t expecting to have him come home with us that weekend either.  However, his social worker suggested we bring him home for Thanksgiving and she would come up to NH and pick him up later the next week.  Well, she never came to get him and said he could just stay with us as we were adopting him.  My wife and I certainly weren’t expecting him to come home with us after that first meeting, but he did.  We rolled with it because we knew that if it was happening, it was meant to be.  10 years later, it’s still meant to be and on a daily basis I expect the unexpected from my teenage son.  Each new day with our son is like a box of chocolates from Forrest Gump, “You never know what you’re gonna get,” and while it keeps us on our toes, we mostly love expecting the unexpected.

In a similar vein, my current sixth grade class never fails to surprise me.  In fact, it happened again today.  The students recently filled the positive reinforcement Marble Jar we use to help foster a sense of teamwork and focus within the class.  This means that they need to choose a party to have.  As we are so close to the big winter break, we had two options to offer them this morning.

  1. They could have a half-day Marble Party on the final day of classes before break.  It wouldn’t be a very long party though as we have cleaning and packing happening prior to this.
  2. We could have a full-day Marble Party on the day we return from the big break.

I thought for sure that the students would choose to have the Marble Party this Thursday, but they surprised me and unanimously voted to have it on the day we return from vacation.  Wow!  Perhaps I am the only one who needs instant gratification.  I’m a sucker for speedy delivery despite the great costs associated with it.  My boys wanted to wait in order to have an epic and lengthy Marble Party.  I was impressed.  They really are such a kind and thoughtful bunch of young men, and the surprises didn’t end there either.  Oh no.

Then, I solicited ideas for the Marble Party from the students.  In years past, this has been a 30-minute process as everyone as an idea.  The problem is, most of the ideas are repeats of what was already discussed and written on the whiteboard.  This year, the students listen to one another and don’t repeat ideas.  They go after what they want.  There were only four ideas suggested by the 13 students.  Wow, again they amazed me.  The whole process of selecting a Marble Party only took about 15 minutes, which is less than half of what it normally takes to complete this process.  They were so focused and attentive today that we were able to complete a somewhat difficult process in almost no time at all.  Again, they blew me away.

At this point in the year, I try not to have any expectations for this group of students as they continue to surprise me on a daily basis.  I’m trying really hard not to compare them to other groups and say, “Oh man, this is going to take a long time because it did last year” or “Oh, this is going to be a challenging project because it was two years ago.”  I’m trying to just go with the flow and let this group continue to amaze me with their kindness, care, focus, attention, and great effort.  They are phenomenal critical thinkers who love solving problems and completing quality work which exceeds my objectives.  I’m learning to let this excellent group of students write their own story this year, separate from any other group’s story.  This class is in a class all their own and so, just like each new day with my son is a blessing, each new day with this class is a gift.  Who knows what tomorrow will bring.  Anything’s possible with this class.

Posted in Boy Writers, Boys, Education, Humanities, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching, Writing

How to Make the Most of Halloween in the Classroom

I used to love getting all dressed up in costume and going to school on Halloween.  We would do a parade around the school and get lots of candy.  It was epic.  Of course, how focused was I really on Halloween?  Not very, but I loved being in costume, pretending to be someone else, my alter ego, will you.  Then, things changed.  Public schools began succumbing to the over-political correctness of our society and suddenly we couldn’t celebrate holidays or recognize them in any sort of meaningful manner.  It is quite sad really.  The young children of a colleague of mine came to breakfast looking very sad this morning.  I asked them where their costumes were.  They said, “We can’t wear costumes to school.”  They seemed so disappointed and melancholy.  It broke my heart a bit.  Luckily though, at the school I work at, we are allowed to wear costumes to classes and meals.  I love it.  Halloween is definitely one of my favorite holidays because I get to dress up.  I was Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and my co-teacher was the Wicked Witch of the West.img_0395

I had so much fun being someone I’m not.  My students had a blast as well.  Despite being in costume, they were very focused in class.  While this group of students tends to be more focused and dedicated than other groups I’ve worked with in the past, Halloween is Halloween and I wasn’t expecting the fine committment I saw from them in the classroom today.

Now, being an elementary teacher by training and in my heart, I love celebrating the festive holidays such as Halloween and Groundhog’s Day.  So, we mixed things up a bit in the sixth grade today to celebrate the day formally known as Samhain.  During Humanities class, the boys participated in the annual Halloween Writing Extravaganza.  It’s much like a round-robin writing activity.  Each student starts a different story based on a teacher-provided prompt for four minutes.  Then, the students pass their story to the person on their left.  They read what was previously read and then begin adding to it for four minutes.  This continues until everybody has added to each story.  As I have many students in my class this year, I broke them into two groups.  So, each group of seven worked on writing seven different stories.  I was impressed by their focus and dedication throughout the writing activity.  They wrote for the entire time, developing the stories.  Some students continued after the allotted time to make their story even better.  As they wrote, my co-teacher and I observed the boys.  They had smiles on their faces as they diligently wrote and added to the macabre masterpieces.  Even our most reluctant writers and workers scribbled away throughout the activity, crafting brilliantly horrific stories of ghosts and weirdness.  It was awesome.

Then, once each of the stories had been completed, I read them aloud to the class.  The students sat in awe, listening to their strange stories of gore and humor.  I’ve never heard more laughter from a class than I did today as I read their bizarre stories aloud to them.  It was so much fun.  When we ran out of time to read all of the stories, you would have thought I had stolen their cell phones.  They were so sad to hear me stop reading.  They wanted to hear each and every story they crafted.  I’m photocopying the stories for the boys to enjoy again and again on their own.  My students were so excited, happy, and engaged in Humanities class today, writing.  On other days, when we write in class, they aren’t nearly as enthusiastic or scary looking.  Perhaps not wearing costumes every day to class is a good thing.  Creating engaging and fun writing activities for the students helps them to realize that everyday skills can be fun and phenomenal when their perspective changes.  They were all writing in class, just about topics that interested them on this particular day.  I capitalized on the novelty of Halloween to engage my students.  Doing this kind of activity each and every day would not be beneficial.  The luster would fade after awhile.  Sometimes, utilizing novelty in the classroom is great, as long as it is not overused.

Here are two samples of their amazing work:

Story 1

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Story 2

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Clearly, my students had fun in Humanities class today as they crafted funny, creative, and slightly scary stories.  Mixing things up a bit on fun days like Halloween, engages the students and gets them excited.  Trying something new today brought out the writers in all of my students.  It was awesome.  Even though I was worried that my students would be over excited and unfocused in class today, because I made use of a new and fun activity, they were hooked.  I won their focus, effort, and attention today.  Yes!  Winner, winner, candy for dinner.  So, on fun days like Halloween, to help keep our students dedicated and focused on learning and growing, we try new and unique activities like a Halloween Writing Extravaganza or pumpkin dissections.  What boy wouldn’t want to write a creepy story or dissect a living organism that has innards the consistency of brains?

Posted in Boys, Education, Teaching

Are Single-Sex Schools Beneficial to Students?

I remember being a third grader at the local public school in the town in which I grew up as if it were yesterday.  Because I was different, I was constantly teased and picked on by both the girls and the boys.  I never really liked going to school back then because of it.  Then came middle school.  The students picked on me less, which was a welcomed relief.  I actually liked going to school in seventh and eighth grade because of that huge change.  As I was still trying to figure out who I was as a person, I was very shy and awkward back in middle school.  Some of my baby fat still hung around my face in seventh grade.  Those school pictures are horrendously scary.  Even though things started coming together for me in middle school, I still struggled a bit in my classes.  I felt as if I was constantly being compared to the girls in the class.  Why can’t you write an essay like Sally?  Why don’t you boys act more like the girls?  As a boy in the classroom, I was constantly being judged unfairly.  Due to this, I rarely participated in class discussions as did my male peers.  We were afraid of what the girls might say or do.  We didn’t want to get made fun of or ridiculed in front of an entire group of girls.  We were constantly labelled as troublemakers in the class.  While things got a bit better in high school, the same issues still applied.  The girls almost always knew the answer and raised their hands, which meant I did not.  The teachers seemed to favor the girls in the class over the boys.  I thought for sure that college would be different, and in most cases it was.  I did have some English courses that were just like middle school though.  The professors favored the girls.  They received the praise in the class.  They were the ones receiving the high grades.  As a male, I was constantly being compared to the females in those particular classes.  It was as if being born a male made me a bad person.  I felt like that through most of my years in school.  I’m not looking for anyone to throw me a pity party, though.  Yes, it was challenging, but I survived as did most of my male friends.  I do wish though, that I had attended an all-boys school.  The problems I encountered in academic settings with girls, prevented me, at times, from being the best possible student.  Had I not felt pressure from the girls and favoritism from the teachers, my school years would have been very different.  Imagine if I had felt comfortable enough to participate in class discussions more frequently.  What if I had been inspired to tackle the problem of world hunger and solved it by now?  The list of what ifs? could go on and on.  If only I had had the opportunity to attend a single-sex school, my years of schooling would have provided me with a far better experience than the one I did have.

I recently read an article that discussed the drawbacks of single-sex schools.  While some of the points do make a bit of sense, most of what the author mentions, I feel, is unfounded.  The author cites research and analyses conducted recently suggesting that there are no academic advantages to attending a single-sex educational facility.  Although I don’t want to argue with science and research, I do want to point out that I have had several families and students over my 13 years working at an all-boys school tell me how much better their son achieved academically at my school.  Their grades improved, their behavioral issues seemed to vanish, and their emotional state improved drastically.  This wasn’t just one family or student, this was the case for numerous students I’ve worked with over the years.  Their son achieved academic success at a single-sex school.  Reflecting back on my school experiences, I would have probably achieved academic success at a single-sex school too.  This article seems to be speaking some untruths.

The teachers at same-sex schools like the one I teach at are trained in helping boys.  We know how to educate and work with boys.  We have taken classes on the subject, read numerous professional texts about teaching boys, and have gone through much professional development on how to best support and challenge boys.  We know how to work with boys very well.  I often felt as though my middle school teachers and even some of my elementary school teachers did not know how to teach boys.  They taught to the girls in the class.  They didn’t know how to address our high energy.  They didn’t like that we wrote stories about guns and war.  They didn’t know how to work with boys.  They knew how to work with a generic, middle of the road student who most likely was female.  Many co-ed schools struggle to meet the needs of  all of their students because of the teacher training their teachers received.  Very few teachers at co-ed schools learn how to best help all students and learners.  So, how is it possible that there are no academic advantages to single-sex schools?  That just isn’t true.

While the article did seem very prejudiced against same-sex schools, the author did mention one point that makes sense to me.  The research conducted at various schools around the world states that students at single-sex schools develop more stereotyped views of other groups of people.  For example, boys may treat girls differently if they attended an all-boys school because of the lack of exposure to females.  So, although there is some sense behind this claim, I do feel that most same-sex schools do a fantastic job addressing these issues.  At my school, we talk a lot about gender roles, how to treat women, and how to be kind and compassionate towards all people.  We deliberately educate our students on how to be a great person and not just a great young man because we realize that our students will be a part of a global society that includes females.  We help our students to broaden their perspectives on numerous issues regarding gender and diversity.  While some same-sex schools may not take such an intense approach to addressing these issues and concerns, my school, and I’m sure many others, do.  We want our students to be good people, regardless of their sex or gender identification.

So, in closing, while I’m sure some single-sex schools don’t address issues regarding stereotypical behavior towards other groups of people and may not provide their students with any academic advantages, many same-sex educational institutions, such as my school, do.  I worry that people unfamiliar with single-sex schools might read this article and gain a negative perspective on same-sex schools.  There are so many benefits to a school such as mine.  Our boys receive a top-notch education from talented and well-trained teachers.  We know how to help and educate boys, and we do it very well.  Our students go onto become role models and leaders in their communities because of the teaching and training they received at my school.  To address the question I posed in my title, single-sex schools do help students in many ways.  The benefits are too numerous to list.  But don’t take my word for it, check out single-sex schools where you live.  Do some research.  Visit a same-sex school.  Sit in on a class or two and I’m sure that you will see the same benefits that I am fortunate enough to see on a daily basis.

Posted in Boy Writers, Boys, Change, Education, Humanities, Sixth Grade, Teaching, Writer's Workshop, Writing, Writing Conferences

Rethinking The Structure of Writing Groups

One of my favorite courses in college was Poetry Workshop.  The class was structured like a big writer’s conference or writer’s workshop session.  Each Wednesday evening, we would meet for three hours and share and discuss our work.  Each student would read his or her poem aloud and then receive feedback from the group.  I loved the discussions best of all because they were a chance to talk about writing and figure out how to improve or change a piece to make it more effective.  The conversations were dialogues, not each person saying, “I liked how you used the word flagrant in your piece.  It was cool.”  Oh no.  The students asked each other questions and discussed word choice and line breaks.  Everything was a give-and-take.  We provided each other with constructive feedback so that everybody in the group could grow and develop as a writer and poet.  I learned more about writing in that four-month class than I ever did in all of my years of elementary school.

As a teacher, I want to inspire my students in the same way.  I want them to like writing and the process of writing as much as I did back then.  I want them to see the value in revision and want to talk about writing for the sake of honing their craft.  While we utilize the writer’s workshop model for literacy instruction in the sixth grade, I do wonder if we are effectively implementing every aspect of it.

Today in Humanities class, the students participated in writing groups as a way to receive feedback from their peers on how to improve upon their poem to make it even stronger.  The goal of writing groups, which we share with the students every time, “is to help your peers improve their piece so that they are able to meet and/or exceed every graded objective.”  We reviewed the protocol with the boys today at the start of class since it has been a while since we’ve had writing groups.  “Each student will share his piece aloud with the group while the other two or three members will take copious notes on noticings and wonderings based on the type of feedback the reader said he is looking for.  Then, the writer will physically remove himself from the group while the other members discuss the author’s piece.  While the writer is listening and taking notes on the feedback provided, he does not participate in the discussion.  He doesn’t ask questions and accepts or declines the suggestions and feedback offered.  The other students will ask each other questions and make suggestions about how the author could improve the piece.”  Although some of these discussions were quite strong today, most of the conversations were more of a “do it to get it done kind of thing” than an actual task and opportunity that is taken seriously.  The writers listened for feedback they liked and ignored the rest while the other students discussing the piece just shared noticings and wonderings and weren’t able to have a genuine conversation about the piece and what the author can do to make it stronger and better.

So then, why do we do it this way?  Why do we structure the writing groups so that the students can’t be involved in the discussion?  My co-teacher from a few years ago took several courses through the National Writing Project and they use this same format for writing groups.  She loved it and so we’ve done it ever since despite noticing how much the students have struggled with the process.  They aren’t mature enough to handle having high-level conversations regarding much critical thinking at the sixth grade level.  The writers want to ask their peers discussing the piece questions about the feedback.  They want to speak for themselves and take ownership of their writing.  They can’t just sit and listen.  But, that’s how we structure it.  And after today’s writing groups experience, I’ve realized that this format needs to change for next year.  It’s not beneficial to all students.  Sure, some students receive helpful feedback, but most are not provided with the kind of feedback that allows them to grow and develop as writers.  Most sixth graders are not able to notice the figurative language and how it builds the scene or foreshadows future happenings.  They get stuck on how their peers read the piece aloud.  “He read it very slowly without emotion.”  How is that specific tidbit of feedback going to help the writer improve his piece?  It’s not.  What if we allowed the writers to engage in the conversation and speak for their piece?  What if we allowed them to explain and discuss the questions raised by the other members of the group?  Wouldn’t that elicit higher-level thinking and discussion?  Wouldn’t that allow the writer to be provided with more valuable feedback?

Instead, today, a few of the students felt frustrated and as though they didn’t receive any sort of helpful feedback.  Of course, one of those students utilized a fixed mindset going into writing groups and wouldn’t have liked any feedback he received unless it was positive and praised his poem.  But, a few of the students felt like they didn’t receive the sort of suggestions they were hoping for.  The ideas for revision some of the boys received lacked depth and were more like editing marks than deep revision suggestions.  Plus, many of the authors wanted to address the questions brought up by their peers, but because we structure the writing groups in a specific manner, they are not allowed to get involved in the discussions.  This proved frustrating to some of our boys.  So, why not change the format?  Why keep something in the curriculum that is clearly broken?

So, next year, when we introduce and utilize writing groups, they will be structured more like conversations and dialogues.  We want the students to own their work and feel as they though can explain their choices and work.  We want the boys to analyze writing and dig into it instead of just scratching the surface.  Next year, writing groups in the sixth grade will look more like the writing groups I experienced in my college course.  We want to bring the fun and engagement back into writing.  No more staying with the status quo.  It’s time to admit defeat and overhaul the format.  Why keep repeating something that the students clearly don’t enjoy and that doesn’t seem to help them grow as writers in any way?  “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  No more shame will be had in the sixth grade.