Allowing Students to Address Social Issues on their Own

Several years ago, I watched a news segment on an evening program about how schools and teachers in Japan help teach their students how to appropriately interact with their peers and navigate social issues that arise.  These teachers featured in the video didn’t just jump right in, proactively, to solve problems for their students.  Instead, they allowed the students to solve their own problems.  Yes, they observed from afar to make sure that no one was getting seriously injured, either mentally or physically, but they provided the students the time and space to figure things out on their own.  In this day and age of helicopter parenting and extreme allergies to everything, it seems as though caregivers and teachers are very quick to react to situations in order to prevent anything that could be remotely construed as “bad” from happening.  While this seems like a good idea to many people as it prevents dangerous or harmful things from happening, it’s actually very dangerous for and harmful to our children.  How do they learn to solve social problems that arise if they are never provided opportunities to practice solving them on their own?  If parents and teachers are always intervening in situations that occur between students, how will students learn what to do in the heat of the moment?  Sure, we can coach them on how to address those situations in the future, but how do we know if they will be able to apply the strategies we’ve provided them with when they are responding from their amygdala?  We need to allow our students to try solving their own problems, and see what happens.  If things get physical or someone is getting hurt in any way, we must definitely jump in and assist, but other than that, we watch.  Then, after the fact, we address the situation with the students involved and provide coaching or positive feedback as needed.  Preparing our students for life in the real-world, means helping them to solve their own problems.  We are not always going to be around our children or students to tell them what to do and how to do it.  They need to figure these things out for themselves.  Teachers and caregivers need to give up control to allow their students and children to grow and thrive in meaningful ways.

Today, at the start of my Humanities class, two students, who happened to be table partners, we arguing over a pencil.

“You took my pencil,” Student A said.

“No, I didn’t,” Student B said.

“Yes you did.  I need it to write in the homework,” Student A said.

“All you have to do is ask, and I will let you use it,” Student B responded.

“I don’t need to ask to use it because it’s my pencil and you took it,” Student A replied as he grabbed the pencil from the hands of Student B.

I watched, closeby, as this situation unfolded.  I didn’t jump in and help.  I simply observed as the students tried to solve the problem themselves.  After Student A snatched the pencil from the hands of Student B, I waited to see if there would be any retaliation from Student B.  Other than a quiet response from Student B about the pencil being his, there was nothing.  As there appeared to be no real conclusion to this situation, I was worried that it would boil over into the work period.  Luckily, the students are partners for the Globe to Flat Map Project, and had plenty of time together to rectify the situation, if needed.  I suggested to one of the students in that group that I would be observing their coexistence and communication during today’s work period because I was a bit concerned by the pencil situation and what might have caused confusion.  The student acknowledged what I said and got right to work with his partner.  I made sure to check-in with the group on numerous occasions throughout the class period and observed them from afar to ensure their safety.  After a quiet start, they worked together as though there was never a problem between them.  They were productive, compassionate, and used kind communication while working on the project in class.  I was a bit surprised by what happened today in class, as these two students have struggled to effectively coexist throughout the academic year.  I thought for sure that they were going to continue arguing while they worked on creating their flat map.  Boy did they prove me wrong.  They worked together better today, following the pencil issue, than they had for this entire project.  I was amazed.

So, what was it that allowed this to outcome?  How were these two students who had a disagreement directly prior to the work period able to work together so well?  How were they coexisting so effectively?  Why weren’t they still angry with one another?  What happened?  Was today’s result due to the fact that I allowed them to solve the social issue that arose between them on their own?  Did that make a difference?  I allowed the situation to completely unfold, which meant that the situation had almost ended when they began working with each other again.  Were they able to work together effectively because I had allowed the issue to be resolved first?  Did that have an impact on today’s result?  Was it the weather or something else so random that I’d never really know what happened in the classroom today?  While I am far from an expert on any subject, I feel as though I can confidently say that the students were able to be productive during today’s work period because they had the chance to solve the social issue that arose between them on their own.  I allowed them to own their actions and the result.  I didn’t step in or debrief the situation at all as I wanted to see what would happen later in the period.  I allowed life to happen naturally.  I didn’t try to control or stop anything.  Emotions were high and I let them diffuse on their own.  While this approach may not work in every setting, situation, or with every student, it was effective in the classroom today.  Perhaps those schools featured in that news clip I watched many years ago were onto something.  If we empower our students to solve their own problems, and offer coaching or help only when required or needed, then it’s possible that we will be properly preparing them to live meaningful lives in a global society.


Helping the Families of our Students Feel like a Part of our Classroom Family

Creating a caring and compassionate atmosphere in the classroom, in which students support and look after one another, is the cornerstone of the sixth grade program that my co-teachers and I have created over the years.  Our motto is: “We’re a family, and families take care of each other.”  We instill this way of living within the boys on day one and tie it into almost every discussion we have with the class throughout the year.  We spend the first two months of the school year helping the students learn how to transform this motto into an actionable plan.  At this point in the year, most of the students are able to live our class mantra and make it a part of their daily routine.  They take care of their fellow sixth grade brothers in and out of the classroom.  It’s an amazing thing to see.  Our class of 11 individuals have turned into a family of students working together towards a common goal.

While we pride ourselves on creating this close-knit family of learners in the classroom, we want to be sure that the parents and families of our students feel a part of this community as well.  We want them to feel like extended sixth grade family members.  We want the families of our students to know what’s happening in the classroom on a daily basis.  This is especially vital for our international students, as their families are thousands of miles away in most cases.  We want them to feel as if they are in the classroom with their student, despite being far away.  We provide our families with fodder for which they can use to create meaningful conversations and discussions with their sons.  We don’t want the parents and guardians of our students to feel disconnected from life in the sixth grade.  We want them to feel a part of something greater than just the school to which they send their son.

We create this strong community through a four-pronged approach, which starts and ends with open and honest communication.

  • Prior to the start of the academic year, we contact all of the families over the summer via email.  We provide them with an introductory letter, explaining our sixth grade program in detail.  We also share numerous videos with our students and families, introducing ourselves as their teachers and guides.  We explain a few of the projects and activities we will be doing throughout the year to help foster a sense of excitement within the students and their families.  We want the boys psyched for the academic year to begin.  This constant barrage of communication over the summer helps bridge the gap between the school and the families of our new students as they go into September knowing exactly what they and their son can expect from the sixth grade program at Cardigan.
  • We send out daily updates via the Remind app to our families regarding life in the sixth grade.  We tell them what we’re doing in each of our classes and update them on changes to our schedule, all with the intention of helping keep them connected to what we are doing in the sixth grade.  This constant contact helps facilitate conversations between the families and their sons.  It also provides us, the teachers, with yet another support system for each of our students.
  • We maintain a class website via Shutterfly that we keep updated with pictures of special events and activities, in and out of the classroom, and weekly newsletters.  This is a more broad way for the families to know what’s happening in the sixth grade classroom.  Who doesn’t love seeing a picture of their child engaged and having fun in school?  This communication really allows the parents to feel as if they are in the classroom with us.
  • As my co-teacher and I are also the advisors for the entire sixth grade class, we provide the families with updates on how the students are doing in the classroom, in sports, and in the dormitory setting.  We field all of the questions thrown our way swiftly and in a meaningful, yet honest manner.  We want the families to have an accurate portrait of their son as they see how they nicely fit into our sixth grade family.  This more intimate communication shows that we truly know and care for the students in our classroom, showing the families how important their children are to us.  This final piece of the puzzle, that weaves the families of our students into our sixth grade community, may be the most important piece of all.  The families feel as if they have an advocate on their side and not just teachers trying to tell them what their son is doing in the classroom.

This method of bringing the families of our students into the fold that is our sixth grade program, pays dividends.  The line of communication is wide open before the school year even begins so that the families feel as if they can trust and confide in us.  If concerns or issues need to be raised before or during the academic year, the parents and guardians feel comfortable sharing this information with us.  It’s not an us vs. them mentality in the sixth grade, and we make sure that the families feel as though it isn’t.  We want them to feel invested so that we are able to best help support and challenge their sons.  Teaching is so much more than just what happens in the classroom.  It’s also about connecting the dots to everything else outside of the classroom, as we know that children can’t be raised and prepared by just one person or small group of people.  It takes a kind and caring community to help prepare students to live meaningful lives in a global society.

What’s the Best Way to Help Students See How their Actions are Perceived by Others?

When my son was in middle school, he struggled to see how his actions affected others.  He was unable to think about how others perceived his actions.  He didn’t realize that when he lied in school, teachers would have trouble believing him the next time he spoke the truth.  It was challenging for him to step outside of himself and imagine what others saw when he made the choices he did.  Of course, what we know about brain development tells us that most middle school boys struggle with this skill as it requires much reasoning and critical thinking, which happens in their undeveloped frontal lobe.  Most students in middle school, can’t think about how others might see their actions because their brains just aren’t ready for that level of critical thinking yet.  However, as a parent, it’s very frustrating when our children keep making the same type of mistakes over and over again because they know no other way, yet.  The good news is, that as they get older, this skill becomes something they can do, and so all hope is not lost.  Hang in there, because once boys make it through the difficult middle school years, things get slightly easier, in this department anyway.

As a teacher, I find it difficult to help my students see how their actions impact others.  As many of my students don’t yet have the brain capacity to think things through and empathize with others, I often struggle helping them see the error of their ways.  How can I help students see that certain things they do are perceived as rude and disrespectful by others?  What’s the most effective way to help them learn from their mistakes?  I’ve tried role playing and scenarios.  I’ve tried having conversations with them about their actions.  I’ve tried every trick in my book to help my students learn that their actions can impact others negatively, to very little avail.

Yesterday in my Humanities class, a student was completing an atlas study worksheet with his table partner.  He struggled to answer one of the questions and so asked for help.  As he had yet to peruse the introductory pages of the atlas like the instructions on the worksheet indicated, he had yet to learn how to locate the title on a map.  So, I reminded him that he needs to read and review those first few pages so that he can learn all about the various features of an atlas.  He argued with me saying that he had already learned all of this information at his old school and didn’t need to look over the opening pages in the atlas.  He simply wanted me to provide him with the answer, which I did not do.  When I walked away as I realized he wasn’t processing anything I said, he slammed his fist down onto the table.  Rather than confront him right away about this action, I simply pulled his stop light card to yellow as a warning that he needs to be more respectful.  I then went onto help other students who seemed more responsive to the feedback with which I provided them.  Later in the period, I then went back to this student who seemed confused as to why he had earned a yellow card.  I explained to him what he did when I walked away from him and his table partner.  He then informed me that in the country he is from, that is how he shows his anger.  I told him that at our school and in this classroom, that is not how we show our anger or frustration.  “It is completely acceptable and appropriate to be angry and upset, but it’s how you show that anger outwardly to others that makes a difference.  Slamming your first onto the table is not okay.  You cannot show your anger to others like this.  It is aggressive and disrespectful.”  He didn’t seem to understand why this action was not okay, no matter what I said.  After awhile, I needed to move on to help other students and could spend no more time trying to squeeze water from a fixed mindset rock of a student.

Is there anything else I could have done that would have helped this student see the error in his ways?  This certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve seen this type of behavior from this student this year.  I’ve tried talking to him later on about the choices he makes and he still seems perplexed as to why what he did was not appropriate.  I’ve informed his mother of the pattern of behavior and reactions I’ve seen from him, and she is very receptive.  She usually discusses these issues with him to help him understand why what he did was not okay.  He will even tell me that is mother explained to him why what he did was unacceptable, yet he continues to repeat the reaction in class.  What am I missing?  What else could I be doing?  I’ve even tried the Plan B approach that Ross Greene writes about in his book Lost at School with this student, and have had no luck.  Perhaps there is a cultural barrier at work as he is an ELL from a European country and this is his first experience at a US school.  That could very well be, and if so, what do I do then?  How do I help remove this barrier for him?  How can I help him see that his actions do impact others in sometimes hurtful and negative ways?  Perhaps this will be an ongoing struggle for him until his frontal lobe becomes more developed.  Maybe this year will be tough for him, but as he grows and matures, if he stays at a school in the US, this skill of empathy and perception will become easier.  In the meantime, I’m going to keep trying different approaches to help him see how others perceive his actions so that he will hopefully begin to understand how his actions have consequences.

How My Reflection Changed My Students

Having seen the value of individual reflection for many years now, I know the power it holds.  Being a reflective teacher has enabled me to become more effective at helping and supporting my students.  Taking the time to stop and think about what went well or what proved difficult in class on a daily basis has helped me refine my approach to teaching and the field of education.  Teachers are not the givers of information.  We are guides for our students as they journey towards understanding.  We are the flashlights our students use as they navigate their way through the dark world of life and school.  We encourage our students to ask questions.  We help them solve problems encountered.  We empower them to think for themselves in a critical manner.  We show them the path that will lead them towards enlightenment.  We pack their knowledge backpacks full of use study and work skills.  We are beacons of light and power for our students.  We are not libraries full of facts and information.  Reflecting over the past many years on my daily teaching practices has allowed me to see my true role as a teacher.

During the past week, I’ve struggled with feeling as though I am not appropriately helping my students see the value in revising their written work.  Earlier last week, the students seemed unable to focus their effort on making their historical fiction stories better and more effective while also providing their classmates with useful feedback on how they can improve their stories.  The boys seemed to rush through the process to finish and be done with it, rather than really jumping into the task as though they are on a writing journey.  This bothered me because I know that in order to grow and develop as writers, they need to see the benefit in revising their work based on feedback.  They need to utilize a growth mindset to see feedback provided to them as useful.  My students seemed greatly challenged by this phase of the writing process.  They seemed more interested in what they could do when they finished writing.  Very few of the students seemed to take the assignment seriously, and that caused me to pause.

How will they be prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English class if they can’t learn to improve upon their writing based on suggestions provided to them by others?  I reflected on my struggles in this very blog last week, at least twice.  I then incorporated some new thoughts and ideas into my class so that my students would, hopefully, be able to see the vast power that revising their work holds for them as students.  While I did see my students begin to change their thinking regarding the revision step of the writing process, I was skeptical that all of them had revised their thinking on the topic.  I reflected in writing and mentally.  What else could I do to inspire my students to see that they need to take the process of revising their work seriously if they want to grow as writers?

Then came class today.  Today provided students one final opportunity to revise their historical fiction stories based on feedback provided to them by me, their teacher, and their classmates.  I also had them reflect on the process they used to craft this piece of writing, using an author’s note.  The students needed to respond, in writing at the bottom of their stories, to four questions.  Those students who finished revising their story and crafting an author’s note had two options:

  1. Complete an extra credit, objectively graded task, that involves the students creating a book jacket for their historical fiction story.  They must craft a front and back cover for their stories, being sure to include a title, relevant, hand-drawn image, brief summary of the story, and quotes from others on their story.
  2. Work on the Things to Do When Done list that is posted on one of the window displays in our classroom.  They could fill out their planbook for next week, work on Typing Club, work on homework, check their grades, or work in the Makerspace.

The students quickly got to work.  They seemed very focused on the task at hand.  A few of the students spent a good chunk of their time revising and improving upon their stories.  It was amazing to watch them add details, dialogue, and more effective character descriptions to their stories, on their own.  Some of the other students put forth fine effort into reflecting on their writing process as they crafted their author’s note.  Their responses were detailed and included examples from their writing experience.  It was impressive to see them being so mindful and reflective as they own their work.  The five students with whom I conferenced took the feedback I offered them with open arms.  They asked meaningful questions that allowed them to understand what they needed to do to improve their story.  It was fun to read their stories, praise their phenomenal talents as writers, and challenge them to grow and develop as they improve upon their writing pieces.  Students who had finished their story and author’s note early on in the period, took it upon themselves to help others revise their piece, if help was needed.  They were being truly compassionate community members.

During class today, I only needed to redirect two students who seemed to find focusing on the task at hand, individually, difficult.  Those two students, once redirected, did regroup and got right back to work on growing as writers.  The rest of the students seemed zoned in on improving their skills as writers.  They reviewed the three graded objectives on which their final story will be assessed.  They were committed to exceeding my expectations as they clearly saw the value in the process of revising their work.  I could not have been more proud and impressed by my students today.  They rocked their stories!  I can’t wait to read their final drafts.

So, what did I learn from all of this.  Well, I learned that reflection not only changes me, but it fosters change within my students.  Because I reflected on what didn’t feel right to me last week, I changed my approach to teaching the revision phase of the writing process.  Today, I saw, first hand, how this change impacts my students.  They were completely different writers today than they were last week.  They care about making their stories better, and thus crave feedback.  It’s quite amazing.  They weren’t rushing to finish their stories, they took their time to polish their words and develop their characters.  Because I took the time to think about how I could better support and help my students become better writers, I changed the way I spoke to my students about revising their work.  I didn’t explain the process as a task, but a journey they were going on to transform themselves into better writers.  My personal reflections on revision didn’t just change me, they changed my students too.

What’s the Best Way to Help Students See the Value in Editing and Revising their Work?

As an adult, I love receiving feedback from my colleagues on how I can make my lessons more meaningful, my student comments more effective, and my blog entries more reflective.  I crave input from others as I know that I am far from perfect and am looking to grow as a teacher, thinker, and writer.   I need help from my peers to improve as an individual.  I realize this now as a grownup.  When I was a young student, things were very different for me.  I wasn’t focused on growing and developing my skills as a writer or student.  I was way more focused on having fun.  I rushed to finish every assigned task so that I could have more time to chat and interact with my friends.  I wasn’t focused on growing and making use of a growth mindset as a student, and so when a classmate or teacher provided me with feedback on how I could improve my work, I usually ignored whatever was said or quickly made a single change to the work.  I wanted to be done with my assignments when I was in school.  I operated under the assumption that when I put my pencil or pen down, my work was done.  It had to be perfect because I was finished.  No feedback given to me from anyone could make my work any better than it was in that moment.  And I certainly never went in search of feedback back then, oh no.  I was all about turning my work in and being done.  I definitely made use of a fixed mindset when I was in school.

As a teacher, I understand where my students are at.  I get it as I was once them.  They don’t want me to tell them what to do.  They don’t want me to take away their fun, play time.  They want to do the work and be done.  So, my goal is to change the atmosphere of the classroom.  I need to help my students learn to rewire their brains so that they want to learn and grow.  I need to help my students learn to accept feedback and utilize it to make their work even better.  I try to show my students the importance of using a growth mindset in the classroom.  I want my students to see the value in receiving feedback from their peers and teachers.  I want my students to want to transform into the complete opposite type of student that I was in school.  Now, I know that most middle school boys are not set ready to want to take suggestions on how to improve their work.  This is a learned skill.  I need to help them rewire their brains a bit so that they see the benefit in seeking feedback from their classmates.  This is a year-long process, but one that is near and dear to my heart.  I don’t want my students to be like me back then.  I want my students to be able to grow and develop as students and writers.

Today in Humanities class, my students worked on the self-editing, self-revising, and peer editing processes regarding their historical fiction stories as they work to create a second draft that is far better than their first, sloppy copy.  On Wednesday, I explained the difference between editing and revising and then modelled this process with a story a student of mine had written several years ago.  The boys seemed to understand that these two steps, that sometimes get lumped into one, are individual processes that need to be completed separately.  I even spent time discussing the importance of editing and revising by comparing it to a bike.  “When your bike gets a flat tire, you can’t ride it anymore.  So, what do you do?  You fix the flat tire.  That’s like the editing process.  You fix the little things.  Now, what happens to that same bike after five years of wear and tear?  It gets rusty and probably too small for you.  So, then what?  You have to make some big repairs.  That’s the revision process of writing.  You fix the big things.”  I’m not sure if this helped them better grasp the two concepts, but perhaps it did.  Those who finished their historical fiction stories in class, began the editing and revising processes.  Then, today, I went over the peer editing process by reviewing the difference between editing and revising.  I then modelled this process with a student as I explained the different parts of the worksheet that will guide this step of the writing process.  I explained this process as more of a discussion.  “Tell your partner what you specifically want feedback on so that he can hone in on that as he reads through your story.  Then, after you have both completed the worksheet and read each other’s story, have a discussion.  Talk about what your partner did well and what he needs to work on.  Be specific.”  I reminded them of their goal: To provide your partner with effective feedback so that he is able to revise and edit his story in such a way that he exceeds all of the graded objectives.  I had hoped that this explanation would be enough for my students to understand the process and be able to complete it with little to no issues.  Wow, was I ever wrong.

Two groups had meaningful discussions as they peer edited each other’s stories, talking about writing and what they need to do to make their stories more effective.  It was quite awesome to listen to these discussions as they seemed very meaningful and relevant.

“I think you need to add more detail here,” one student said.

“I sort of already do that here.  Check it out,” he responded as he pointed out what he had already typed on his laptop.  These two groups were really digging into the task of peer editing.  They seemed to really enjoy it.  Perhaps it was because they saw the value in it or maybe it was because they were trying to make their writing better so that they could exceed the objectives.  Either way, great stuff was going on in two of the groups.

Then, one student took almost the entire period to finish writing his story as he hadn’t completed it for homework like he should have.  This meant that one student was unable to have a buddy with which to peer edit.  I stepped in and provided him with feedback, but our conversation was one-sided for the most part as I had no story in need of being proofread.  The other two groups seemed to be more focused on laughing and goofing around than actually accomplishing the job of peer editing.  Despite a few reminders to stay focused and on task, they continued laughing loudly and not providing each other with useful feedback.

So, what happened with those two, ineffective groups?  Why were they unable to complete the peer editing process in the same, meaningful manner as the first two groups I mentioned?  What was the difference?  Did they not care about growing as writers?  Did they not see the value in the editing and revising processes?  Did they just want to be done with the task so that they could do anything else?  While one group was composed of two, low functioning ELLs who struggled to comprehend the task at hand, the other group did not.  So, what was their issue?  Why were they not as engaged in the process?  Did they not see the relevance in it?

As I pondered these questions for quite some time after class, I had an epiphany.  For as much as I want my students to be like the adult me and see the value in revising and editing their written work, they are sixth graders going through this process for the first time.  Developmentally, there shouldn’t be complete buy-in just yet.  They are not able to see the relevance in the important process of revision.  They need more practice before they will see how beneficial it is to them as writers.  In the meantime, I need to remember where they are at developmentally.  Their frontal lobe is not fully developed and so reasoning and critical thinking skills are lacking.  Like me back then, they won’t be able to see the power of revising and editing their work for quite some time.  This means that they also won’t see the benefit of receiving feedback on how to improve their work for a few years.  It doesn’t mean that I should stop them from completing this process.  Oh no.  It just means that I need to be more patient and flexible.  Not every sixth grader in my class is going to desire feedback on their written work like I do.  The more I can provide them with opportunities to practice giving and receiving feedback on how they can better revise and edit their written work, they more that they will able to see how important this process is to their growth as writers.  Writing is a journey, much like teaching.  And so, I need to remember that not every story or student is going to be a polished work of art at first.  It takes much time and energy to foster a sense of valuing the refining process.

In the meantime, is there anything else I could be doing that would better support those students who are struggling to see the value in the revision process?  Are there other activities or methods I could be using?  While the writing group process can work, I don’t want to utilize that activity quite yet as they won’t be able to understand the significance of providing and receiving feedback.  Tackling the task of revising and editing in small groups is a great way to allow students to test the waters to see what happens.  Tomorrow in class I will reemphasize the benefits in providing each other with meaningful feedback as they complete the peer editing process. I will review their goal and hopefully offer them one more chance to practice this difficult task.  While I’d like my students to see the value in the revision process now, I know that their brains aren’t currently ready to tackle such a complex task in a relevant manner.  As I continue to foster a sense of community in the classroom and the students grow to see each other as valuable resources, they will begin to make better use of a growth mindset when approaching the writing and revision processes.  They just need more practice and time.

How to Change your Thinking in the Moment

Despite preaching to my students about the value of utilizing a growth mindset, I sometimes struggle to use one myself.  It’s very easy to get stuck in a negative line of thinking.  “This will never work.”  Over the years, I’ve focused my energy on trying to be mindful of how I’m feeling so that I don’t allow my emotions to get the best of me.  I’m definitely getting better but still have much room for improvement.  I try to take one day at a time.  Luckily for me, today provided another opportunity to practice this very technique that I’ve been working on.

Today marked the first day of Academic Orientation at my school.  For the sixth grade, this meant having the students play some group games, discuss class norms, organize their planbook binders, and generally get to know each other better.  These two days of orientation help to build the foundation for a successful year in the classroom for the boys.  Of course, today was no exception.  The boys were awesome.  We are fortunate to have a fine group of 10 wonderful young men from around the globe in our class.  They worked well together as they began bonding like a family.

Like every other part of life, today was filled with twists and turns.  The timing of our activities was off a bit and our projector stopped working.  These were simple problems with quick and easy solutions.  There was, however, one issue that arose that proved a bit challenging for me.  One of our students struggled to follow simple directions and meet our basic expectations in the classroom today.  While he is an ELL, it was hard to tell if his issues were due to his lack of language proficiency or something else entirely.  His attention issues most certainly made it difficult for him to stay focused, but the big challenge was his defiant behavior.  He refused to do what was asked of him.  After working with him in the dormitory all weekend, I began the morning a bit frustrated with him.  So, when he first displayed this refusal behavior, I reacted a bit negatively.  “Ms. Levine explained how to do this.  Please ask your table partner for help as we are not going to do it for you.”  While this reaction didn’t elicit much of a change in his behavior, I realized that I would need to change my approach with him.  So, later in the morning when he refused to share a poster he had made about himself, I thought about what I would say before I said it as I wanted to be respectful and elicit a more productive response from him.  “As this is an activity to learn more about our family, it’s important that you share about yourself with your classmates so that they can get to know you.  We are a family and we need to work together like one.  The more your peers know about you as a person, the better they will be able to work with you as a student in the classroom this year.”  After a short pause, he did do what was asked of him very well.  His English was quite strong, which leads me to believe that his behavior is not entirely tied to his lack of proficiency in English.  So, then, what could be causing him to exhibit this defiant behavior?  Is he angry that he is at a new school in a strange place far from home?  Is he homesick?  Does he not want to be a part of our class family?  Is he embarrassed to share about himself with the group?  What could be causing this defiant behavior?

Over the next few days and weeks, I hope to uncover the root of this issue and help him through it.  I want this student to be and feel successful in my classroom.  So, I will need to be extra patient and compassionate as I mindfully navigate my way through helping uncover why this student is acting the way in which he is acting.  It will be important for me to not take what happens personally and try to discover the whys of his behavior.  Perhaps I will even try Plan B with him from the great professional development resource I read this summer Lost at School by Ross Greene.  Maybe this will help me figure out what is going on with this student.  No matter what, I am going to persevere with a growth mindset and much patience to help this student feel like a part of our classroom community.  Being mindful when interacting with this student will help me to change my thinking so that I can respond to him instead of reacting to him.

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…

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.

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?

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.