Posted in Boy Writers, Boys, Challenges, Change, Education, Humanities, Learning, Reflection, Students, Teaching, Writer's Workshop

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.

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Posted in Challenges, Change, Education, Humanities, Learning, Reader's Workshop, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

How the Novelty of Change Causes Distraction

I crave routine as I am truly a creature of habit.  I wash my body in the same order every time I shower.  I park in the same parking spot on campus every morning, unless someone else takes it, and then I become angry.  I do the same things in the same way, every day.  Knowing what’s coming next and the result is what helps keep my brain happy.  I love having a schedule.  Keeping my life neat and tidy, helps keep my world free of problems and distractions.  However, I have discovered the flaw in my plan over the past many years.  While knowing what to expect is good at times, life is far from scripted and usually the unexpected happens on a daily basis, which causes my best intentions to go up in flames.  Being prepared for everything that life throws my way is a vital life success skill.  Although I’m not a huge fan of change, I do know that being able to live in the present moment will help me better adapt and find mental success in life.  It’s a real challenge, but one that I try to work on regularly.  I’m far from perfect, but every once in awhile I am able to be flexible in my thinking and go where the day takes me.

The problem with change, which is why I struggle with it so very much, is that it’s generally new and unchartered territory.  How do I know what to do in a new situation?  What’s the dress code?  What do I need to bring?  I get very nervous and anxious during times of change because I have no idea what is going on.  I hate that, but it’s healthy for me to work out my brain in this way.

In the classroom, changes cause my students many problems as well.  When a break from the routine presents itself, some of my students struggle to function appropriately.  They forget how to act or what to do when things are a bit unscheduled because they are nervous and anxious, just as I am when faced with change.  It’s a typical response, but one that can cause problems in the classroom.  The goal is to help students learn to be mindful so that when things don’t go as planned, the students are able to live in the moment and not allow change to derail them.  Teaching students to utilize a growth mindset is an easy way to provide them with the needed strategies to successfully navigate changes in the routine or schedule.

My co-teacher and I have made use of a mindfulness curriculum this year to help our students learn coping strategies when life becomes overwhelming or stressful.  We’ve worked with the students and had them practice how to meditate, breathe mindfully, control their bodies in mindful ways, and how to view the world through mindful eyes.  This has helped many of our students address changes thrown their way.  We had the students reflect this morning on the mindfulness lessons covered so far this year, and many of them see the value and benefits associated with being mindful.  Only two students don’t understand how transformational mindfulness can truly be when done correctly.  I’m hopeful that those two students will begin to see its relevance as we continue to practice teaching the students new mindfulness techniques over the coming weeks.

Student Responses:

  • The Mindfulness videos help me calm down if I’m over excited for something or just super hyper.  I feel more Mindful and self-aware from doing the exercises.  I am more mindful and self aware to my surroundings when our class does the “mindful observations.”  Doing the mindfulness exercises helps me be more aware of my surroundings.
  • I think the mindfulness videos help because the voices tone is very relaxing. The voice doesn’t just relax just me, but my brain, and the world becomes clearer.
  • The lessons on mindfulness helped me to focus on one thing. For example, I was not listening to the teacher, but I learned mindfulness. I used mindfulness breathing to learn mindfulness. Mindfulness breathing helped me to focus on one thing, and now I can listen to the teacher very well.  I am now more able to focus on one thing, and understand people very well. Focusing on one thing goes in to mindful, and understanding people goes into self-awareness.
  • I personally think that the lessons on mindfulness have really help me to calm down because they made me more mindful and self-aware.
  • I think that the mindfulness lessons have been mostly helping.
  • I think that lessons on mindfulness helped me be more focused on the class. I can learn more from the class. The mindful lessons really help me a lot in the class and with my homework.

Clearly, our students see the value in being mindful and present.  However, sometimes, they forget the mindful techniques we’ve worked on when in the moment.  Case and point, Humanities class today.  During the second part of class, I conferenced with the students regarding their reading progress.  While I was conferencing with the students individually, most other students were engaged in quietly reading.  Then, I made a change.  I opened the curtains in our classroom to let in some natural light while the boys read quietly.  This change caused the entire dynamic of the room to shift.  Those students who once sat, quietly reading, now became distracting to their peers and unfocused on their book.  Many of the students became unsettled and unable to do what was being asked of them.  Despite several reminders and attempts to refocus the students, a few struggled to recalibrate themselves from the curtains being opened.  This small switch in the physical appearance of the classroom caused quite the distraction.  Several of the boys never fully returned to reading in a focused manner by the end of class.

Even though the students are equipped with strategies to refocus and be mindful, they were unable to be in the present moment, doing what was asked of them.  The interesting part is that a few of the most unfocused students today during Reader’s Workshop are usually the most focused and dedicated students in the class.  These students are usually able to utilize the mindful strategies we’ve been working on in class during other parts of the day if stress or anxiety settles in; however, today was not one of those usual days.  So then, what was different today?  The change in the curtains being opened.  This extra sunlight and view of the mountains seemed to distract many of the students so much that they were unable to recall how to be mindful or that they should be mindful.  Because I rarely open these curtains, this change was very much a novelty.  It was something new and out of the routine.  As my students crave routine, much like I do, this change to the ordinary proved to be too much for them to handle.  I’m hopeful that as they experience more breaks from the routine over the course of the year, they will better be able to go with the flow and live in the moment, mindfully.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Presentation, Students, Teaching, Writer's Workshop, Writing, Writing Conferences

Learning from Yesterday’s “Failures”

When I was just a wee young lad, the word “fail” was considered almost as bad as other curse words like the “F word.”  If you failed at something, it meant that you were not good and lacked talent.  No one wanted to fail or be thought of as a failure.  It was a Scarlet Letter that you wore with you for the rest of your childhood.

Now, of course, we all know that times have changed and the word failure is synonymous with success.  In order to do something well, you have to fail at it first.  We want our students to fail in order for them to learn how to grow and succeed.  While it’s amazing that our ideas on teaching have progressed so much thanks to technology and research on the neuroscience of education, I do wish that the adults in my world when I was a child would have embraced failing as an essential part of the learning process.  Had I failed more because I was inspired to take more risks with my learning, I wonder how many other things I’d be capable of doing now.  Perhaps I would have learned to stick with playing the guitar.  Maybe I’d be in a band right now, touring Europe.  That would be cool.  I’ve always wanted to see London during this time of year.

As I now see the value in failing on a regular basis because of the learning that comes from the experience, I am more willing to try new things in the classroom as a teacher.  I’m not afraid to try out a new application on the computer or a new instructional strategy in the classroom.  If it works, great; if not, it provides me with a teachable moment in the classroom.  Luckily too, I can also reflect on my failed lessons or activities and learn from them.  While I was not overly happy with the outcome of yesterday’s Humanities lesson on the process of revising writing, I had the chance to reflect on what didn’t go well yesterday.  Then today, I was able to more effectively introduce and explain the purpose of the revision process and the power that it holds.  “Revision is the most important step in the writing process because it provides you with a chance to fix what’s broken with your work.  No writer, regardless of age and experience, is able to craft the perfect piece of writing.  Every writer is in need of fixing and revising their work.  Today, you have a chance to receive feedback from as many people as possible so that you can create an even better story than what you currently have.  You also have the chance to receive such valuable feedback that you will be able to, hopefully, exceed the three graded objective for this assignment.  So, treat today’s revision period with the respect it deserves.”  After feeling as though I did not explain the process of revising one’s writing well yesterday in class, I wanted to be sure that I highlighted the benefits in revising one’s written work based on feedback from others, and I feel like I did that today.  After my introduction and review of what was to happen in class during the work period, I felt quite confident that things would be better today than they were yesterday.

My future-telling skills were clearly right on par today as the work period was phenomenal.  The boys worked so well on providing each other with feedback, revising their work, and growing as writers.  I conferenced with three students and was able to provide them some meaningful feedback that will allow them to make their story far better than it was.  While I didn’t have a chance to observe every student or group as they worked during class today as I was conferencing with students at the back table, the groups I could see and hear seemed to be bleeding greatness.  To conclude class today, I some had students share how the peer editing process went for them in class today.

“Me and my partner worked on helping each other come up with better words to describe the setting in our stories,” one student said.  I praised those two students for the great effort they put into looking at one aspect of their writing.

“My partner helped me fix grammar stuff in my story and I helped him make his story funny and not boring,” one student said, laughing.  “He even said that he’s going to write a whole new story since he doesn’t think he did a good job on his first one.”  He was describing what he and his partner worked on during their peer editing conference.  Awesome!  I then explained how amazing it was that because of feedback, this specific writer will be able to grow and develop his writing skills.

I can’t wait to read the revised stories my students will complete by early next week.  They are sure to be far better than what they had typed this week.  And to think that if I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on yesterday’s lesson and thought about how to change things for today’s class, I would not have been able to inspire my students to see the value in revising their writing while also helping their peers make their stories better.  Failure helped me better support and challenge my students to utilize a growth mindset in Humanities class today.  Making mistakes is how genuine learning is fostered.  I need to fail in order to grow.  It seems counter intuitive, but it’s how the brain works.  We are wired to remember things that are tagged with emotion, and so failed experiences stick with us because they don’t make us usually feel very good.  I thought about my “failed” class yesterday for hours, which is why I was able to spend so much time thinking about how to fix the situation in class today.  How could I help my students better appreciate the editing and revising stages of the writing process?  And wallah, I found my answer in class today.  Failure rocks!  I can’t wait to do it again.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Humanities, Learning, Students, Teaching

How to Have a Growth Mindset When Dealing with Challenges in the Classroom

When my son was young, one of his favorite books was Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes.  He would sometimes beg my wife or I to read it aloud to him, especially if he was having a difficult day.  It got to a point where he had memorized some of the lines and would jump in as we read the story to him.  The phenomenal children’s book tells the story of Lilly, a young mouse, who acquires a new purse that she brings to her class for show and tell.  Despite being told to not play with her new purse, she does and consequently gets into trouble.  That afternoon, her teacher, and that night, her parents, remind her that even though today was a difficult day, tomorrow will be better.  My son seemed to like the idea of a clean slate when he woke up each morning.  Even now, at the age of 16, my wife and I will remind him of the moral from that story, and he chuckles.  Sometimes, we all need to be reminded to learn from our mistakes, but then to start fresh, moving forward.  While many children struggle with this skill, I find that even as a teacher and an adult, I sometimes struggle to follow Kevin Henkes’ sage wisdom.  How do I stay mindful living in the moment and not allow past happenings, thoughts, or actions to invade my present state of being?  While I am much better at this skill now than I once was, I still sometimes find myself challenged by being able to hit the restart button on a lesson, colleague, class, or student.

Luckily for me, today offered yet another chance to practice this skill of not allowing the past to sway my current thoughts and actions.  During my first period study skills class this morning, one of my ELL students struggled to understand what he needed to do regarding a new project we began in class today.  This is the same student that displayed many negative behavioral issues during the first week of classes, and will still occasionally show disrespect towards faculty members.  Although much of this behavior is due to his low English proficiency, it was still difficult to witness and be a part of it in the moment.  After introducing and explaining the project aloud to the class orally, with visual clues and a written handout, he was still unsure of what he was being asked to do.  However, he never asked any questions while I described and modelled how to complete each step of the process and the purpose behind the project.  He also shared his struggle to understand in a very broad manner, which he knows not to do since we can only help and support him if we know specifically what is proving to be challenging for him.  While I tried to help him understand what he needed to do to complete the task of reflecting on his learning since the start of the year, I felt myself struggling to help him in a meaningful and patient manner.  As I was never formally trained on how to support and work with ELLs, I found myself fumbling for words when trying to explain the directions to him.  I didn’t know how else to tell him ‘to answer the questions on the sheet’ so that he could comprehend the words and understand the task at hand.  I also noticed that I was becoming impatient with him every time he asked a question during the work period.  While I always assisted him when he needed help, I felt as though I wasn’t being mindful and open to helping him in a relevant and appropriate manner.  I felt like I was reminded of the poor choices he used to make in the classroom when I worked with him.  I felt frustrated and annoyed that I couldn’t help him and that he didn’t seem to want to help himself.  Fortunately for me and him, the class ended and off he went to ESL class.

During this break, I expressed my concern to my co-teacher that I am unable to effectively help this particular student as I am not formally trained to help ELLs.  I feel bad that I can’t better support him as he works to grow as a student.  Then came third period.  This same student returned to the classroom, displaying much more focus and effort.  He took copious notes during our class read aloud, asking questions when he was confused.  He also spent much time redoing an annotation assessment to demonstrate his ability to meet the graded objective.  He was focused on working hard and completing fine work.  He seemed, almost, like a different student as he didn’t allow his frustration or anger cloud what he needed to do and how he worked.  He seemed to treat second period, when he was away from the classroom, as a reset button.  He was showcasing his true potential during this third period class, unlike what I saw from him during first period.  I allowed this new behavior to paint a new picture of this student for me, mentally.  The frustration that I once felt regarding this student seemed to vanish once he walked into the classroom after being in another class for 40 minutes.  I gave him a chance to start over and display his true potential as a student.

Then, at lunch today, this same student came to me to let me know how he did on the math exam during the final period of the day, “I did well on the math part of test, but not so good on English terms.  I should have made flashcards last night like you said.”  We both laughed together as he realized that I was right regarding my advice to him last night.  Despite being frustrated with me last night and earlier this morning during PEAKS class, he was able to start fresh and learn from his mistakes.  We laughed about the challenges we both faced.  Because we changed the way we viewed the situation and tried to look at the latter part of the morning as a clean slate, we were able to both live in the moment and grow from what had happened in the past.  We didn’t allow our negative thoughts to permeate our current state of mind.  We just rolled with it all.  Although going with the flow tends to be something I struggle with, I’m trying very hard to do just that this year.  I’m trying to practice what I preach to the students about being mindful and self-aware in the moment, and it seems to be working.  Yah for me!  However, even more reason to celebrate is the fact that this student is also able to live in the moment and not allow our past interactions to prevent him from moving forward and growing as a student.  He’s able to be mindful and live in the present without having the past distract him.  It’s quite an amazing feat, given that he is only 12 years old.

Like Lilly taught my son and I, no matter how difficult past moments may have been, we always get a second chance to try again.  Now, I hope that I’m able to continue living in the moment and not be persuaded to act or think in a particular manner because of what happened in the past.  I will keep working at being mindful as I grow and develop as an educator so that I don’t get stuck using a fixed mindset.  Being open to possibilities is what helps us to grow and mature as people, teachers, students, and individuals.  Today, a student of mine and I made use of a growth mindset to be sure that we were able to improve in areas in which we both struggle.  It was like a whole new day for us even though only 40 minutes had lapsed since our challenging interaction.  Having a growth mindset doesn’t take much time, just lots of effort and commitment.  We clearly both wanted to do well, and it showed this morning.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Learning, New Ideas, Reflection, Students, Teaching

My Professional Goals for the 2017-2018 Academic Year

I used to think that goal setting was dumb.  “No one sets goals,” I used to say, “Who needs goals when you’ve got the present?”  That was the old me, before I became wise and all-knowing.  Then, I discovered the secret to life and was transformed into the handsome sage sitting in front of this very laptop, typing these very words.  You are so lucky to be reading these prophetic words…  Okay, enough of the craziness, now back to reality.

So, anywhoo, I used to view goal setting as one more thing that I didn’t have the time or desire to do.  Then, I learned all about the neuroscience of teaching and how students learn, and came to the realization that for genuine learning and growth to happen for our students, there needs to be relevance and a purpose behind everything we and they are doing in and out of the classroom.  They need to see, for example, that they should learn all about the causes of great wars so that they will understand how countries and nations formed, which will help them earn a high grade on the next history assessment and allow them to meet the goal they set for themselves regarding history test improvement.  Goal setting is a crucial part of the learning process for not just students, but for all learners.

So, knowing what I know about the power of goal setting, I decided that it was time to give my school year a focus and some clarity.  Aside from helping my students grow and develop as individuals, what am I trying to get out of this new school year?  What is my purpose in the classroom?  Why am I here?  Well, that last question is far too big to tackle in some tiny blog entry like this and so I’ll focus on the others instead.

My goals for the 2017-2018 Academic Year:

  • I want to gather data on how rubrics and project introductions help promote or reduce the amount of creativity students are able to put into their work so that I can begin to understand how to best introduce a new task or assignment to my students.  I want to understand if specificity in rubrics or explanations of new projects makes a difference in the students’ ability to think critically about the assignment or content covered.  If students are provided with too much information about how to complete a task or project, is there any room for creative, original thought or do the students just do what they’re told to do in order to earn a “good” grade?  So, to work towards meeting this goal over the course of the year, I’m going to create different types of rubrics and project descriptions for the same task so that I can split my class into two groups and try to determine what kind of explanation best promotes the use of creative problem solving skills.  Although my data may be skewed depending on how I group the students, I plan on using different grouping methods each time I conduct this experiment.  While I certainly have a hypothesis on the topic, I have no hard evidence to support my claim, and so I need to collect data this year to determine an accurate result.
  • I want to incorporate ideas and skills covered during our Mindfulness Unit in Team Time and our Brain Unit from PEAKS class into my Humanities class.  I want to help the students understand that if they can be mindful in the classroom during class discussions, they will be better equipped to actively listen to and participate in the current events discussions in Humanities class.  I also want to be sure that when I’m covering a new concept or skill in Humanities class, I’m referencing the ideas of growth mindset and brain parts to explain how they should best be utilizing their hypothalamus to catalogue and store this new information.  Being mindful myself, I hope to be able to better explain the inner workings of, as well as the purpose and relevance behind tasks and assignments throughout the year in Humanities class.  I want my students to be able to see how each separate piece of the puzzle fits together so well: Learning and the Brain, Mindfulness, and Humanities.

With these two goals driving everything I’m doing in the classroom, I’m looking forward to an exciting year filled with transformation and education.  I hope to learn a lot about myself as a teacher as well as the art of teaching.  How can I better support and challenge all of my students in the classroom?  What else could I be doing?  So, now I will jump headfirst into the remainder of my school year, well-equipped with a roadmap to success: Goals.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Humanities, Reader's Workshop, Students, Teaching

How to See the Good in Bad Choices

When I was in the fifth grade, I witnessed a fight between two of my friends during recess.  Because I was a witness, I needed to go to the vice principal’s office to share my side of the story.  Even though I wasn’t in trouble at all, I was terrified of being in the office.  I thought that just being in the office was trouble enough.  I was so nervous and anxious that I don’t even remember what I said.  Despite the fact that I was called into the office to help and do good, I felt only bad feelings.  There was no good for me that day in what could have easily been a fine and good situation.  I was helping to solve a crime but felt more like I had committed one.  It was a horrible experience.

To be sure my students never have to feel the pain of being called to an office, I’m very mindful about how, when, and where I speak with students about the choices they make.  I go out of my way to praise the good choices in the classroom as frequently as possible while I make sure that the difficult conversations about bad choices happen in private, away from other students.  I usually speak quietly to the student, “Please see me after class.”  While this statement alone can instill fear, I make sure to notice good choices that student makes later in class, before I speak with him.  This usually assuages their fear and helps them realize that as their teacher, I am there to support and help, not scare and hurt.  I also make sure that my conversations with the students about their bad choices are short and to the point or lengthy and more of a discussion if time permits.  I try to use Ross Greene’s Plan B when talking to students about their bad choices.  If time allows, I dig into the discussion with the student, but if time is limited, I focus on what their bad choice was, how it affected others, and what they should do next time instead of committing the bad choice.  I want difficult conversations to be easy and painless while also informative and relevant.  Talking to students about their bad choices shouldn’t cause them anxiety like it did for me when I was a student.  If I want students to learn from their bad choices, I need to be sure they are not operating from the fight or flight portion of their brain.  Scared or nervous students don’t learn anything from conversations about their choices as they are so focused on survival.  I want to alleviate fear for students when having conversations that should be used as learning opportunities.  Difficult conversations should not cause angst for students.  Sometimes, discussions about bad choices can also include positive aspects.

Today during my Humanities class, I introduced the students to a book in our class library through a Book Talk.  I really tried to persuade the students as to why they should want to read the novel Armstrong and Charlie by Steven B. Frank.  I provided the students with an overview of the book before reading a snippet from a very funny scene.  After my Book Talk, we moved into the class read-aloud portion of Reader’s Workshop.  Once we had finished reading a chapter in the book Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, I had the students transition into the quiet reading portion of Reader’s Workshop.  Now, as I was wrapping up our discussion on the class read-aloud book, three students began moving towards the outside of the circle, closest to the exit for the reading area.  These three students were also making hand and face gestures to each other as they moved and positioned themselves towards the back of the circle.  Fortunately, I knew their motivation and so I had them wait while I dismissed the other students.  I then spoke with these three boys in private after everyone else began silently reading.

The issue was that these three boys all wanted to read the Book Talk book I introduced earlier in the class, and so they were jockeying for a prime position in the reading area to be sure that they were the one who would grab the book from the shelf first.  I knew this, which is why I stopped any shenanigans from happening.  The boys knew exactly why I wanted to speak with them and were very apologetic.  “Sorry for being rude and disrespectful, Mr. Holt,” they said.  I then said, “I don’t want to be the one who decides which of you gets to read the book.  I want you three to determine that.  How will you do that?”  One of the students then said, “I can read it later.  You two can decide who gets it.”  I thought that was very polite and kind.  Then, another of the three students said, “Yeah, I don’t need it right now.  You can have it.”  The irony in all of this was that as the third student who was going to choose the book turned to grab it from the bookshelf, it was gone.  Another student from the class had grabbed it.  It’s nice to know in times like this that karma exists.  So, none of those three students who made bad choices were able to read the book they all wanted to enjoy.  Everything worked out just as it was supposed to in the end.

As this whole situation was unfolding and happening, I was secretly celebrating inside.  My students love reading so much that they are willing to argue and compete to read a book.  What more could I ask for as their Humanities teacher?  I was so happy and excited despite the slightly disrespectful behavior the boys exhibited.  I called them on it and they understood the error of their ways.  I’m overjoyed that I made a book seem that appealing to my students.  While it is a fantastic novel about school integration during the Civil Rights Movement, I don’t think it’s worth getting in trouble over; however, I did add fuel to the fire by reading an incredibly hilarious and risque scene from the text to inspire the boys to want to read the book.  I can’t help that I’m a great salesman.  Regardless, I was able to find the good in what many saw as a bad or difficult situation.  I got my students so excited about reading that they were willing to make a bad choice just so that they could read the novel that I explained during my Book Talk.  So, I guess you could say that I inspired my students to make bad choices.  Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound like a good thing at all.  I need to change the way I think about this occurrence so that I don’t come across as a horrible teacher.  How about this?  I got students excited about reading.  How they dealt with that excitement was on them.  Yeah, that sounds much better.  It makes me sound less like an awful educator.  I inspire students to want to read.  I’ll let them own their bad choices.  Those were not on me.  Yes, now I’ll be able to sleep tonight.  Thank you Mr. Wordsmithing for allowing me to make a terrible statement sound delightful and positive.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Humanities, Learning, Presentation, Students, Teaching

What’s the Most Effective Way to Engage All Students?

I was in school during the worksheet boom.  Sometimes I wondered who was doing the teaching, the teacher or the worksheet. It felt like every class had worksheets.  Worksheets kept students engaged back then.  Sure, the students hated them because they were mindless busy work, but they kept us focused and quiet in class, for the most part.  Luckily, worksheets are no longer the in-thing in education and are now rarely used.  When students see a worksheet now, they get excited because they are novelty.  It’s so crazy how trends in education change as often as my son changes his clothes.

To engage students in the classroom, teachers use various active learning approaches.  They will engage the students in discussion, Think-Pair-Share activities, Socratic discussions, projects, and other hands on activities.  We find ways to make the learning fun and interactive for our students.  Sometimes, though, I wonder if these new approaches do really engage all students.  Are there other ways to be sure that all students are engaged and on-task in the classroom?

Today in Humanities class, I attempted to engage the students in various types of class and partner discussions to get them thinking about communities and what they want to learn about the community in which our school is located.  I posed several, what I thought were great, critical thinking questions for the students to ponder and discuss.  After explaining to the students the importance of not being a distraction to their peers and staying present in the moment, a few students did not seem engaged in class today.  They were fiddling with various objects and talking to their peers.  When I called on them to see if they were paying attention while fidgeting, as some students can, they were unable to address my question as they weren’t genuinely paying attention.  I then spoke to the whole group again about not staying focused and being unable to meet the expectations of the class.  This didn’t make much of a difference, those disengaged students remained disengaged throughout.

So, what happened?  What caused them to be unfocused and disengaged?  Were they bored or uninterested?  What could have helped them be more engaged in what was going on in class?  In moments like these, I wonder if having a specialized worksheet would have helped those fidgeting, disengaged students.  While I’m not generally a fan of worksheets, if the students had something they needed to fill in that was graded, perhaps this would have helped keep them motivated and interested in what was being discussed.  Is that my only option though?  Could I try other approaches to help keep those two or three other students from distracting their peers?  I’m not sure at this point what other ideas could help but I will definitely be trying the worksheet solution during our next lengthy class discussion period.  Perhaps this will help keep all of the students focused on the learning and engaged in what is being discussed.  Well, it looks like Justin Timberlake isn’t the only one bringing something back.  I’m bringing the worksheet back into the classroom, at purposeful and specific times.  Don’t worry though, I’m not going to make this a regular practice; however, if it helps my disengaged students stay focused, I might implement it during class discussion days.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Humanities, Learning, Students, Teaching

Is Modelling an Effective Teaching Strategy?

When my son learned to do new things growing up, he had to try them out for himself.  He is very much a kinesthetic learner.  No amount of watching or modelling would have helped him learn how to do anything faster.  He needs to do it in order to learn.  Then there are other people who need to watch it being done first in order to learn how to do something.  Modelling a new skill or task is crucial for this type of person.  They need to see first and do later.  Me, I’m a mix.  Sometimes I need a little modelling to help me get started and for other new things, a quick explanation will suffice.  Being a teacher, I know that I have all different types of learners in my room.  Some students learn by doing, others learn by listening, some need to watch, and others learn in completely different ways.  As their teacher, I need to take this into consideration when leading or planning a lesson.  For some of the more complex tasks, I try to model what is being asked of them, while if it is an easier task, I will try verbal or written instructions.  I also try to help build critical thinking and problem solving skills within my students by occasionally providing very little instructions for a task.  Using a variety of instructional methods is vital when trying to tap into the learning styles of my students while at the same time trying to help them learn how to develop their listening, watching, and doing skills.

Yesterday in my Humanities class, the students had the task of creating an account on the Goodreads website, friending me, and adding various books.  I wanted them to really understand how to navigate the website as we will be using it regularly in class.  As it is early in the academic year and many of them are unfamiliar with their laptops and the Internet, I thought it best to model this entire process for them.  So, I imagined I was a student and modelled how to create an account on the website while also accomplishing the other tasks.  I verbalized my thought process as I modelled so that they understood what they needed to do and how it was supposed to be done.  I then addressed questions the students had about how to complete the task being asked of them.  Very few questions were raised.  As the students worked, very few of them needed assistance.  Was it because of my modelling?  Did that help them understand the process and task better?  Could I have introduced the assignment in another way that would have been more beneficial to them?  Perhaps, but this early in the year, modelling seemed the way to go.  My students now all understand how to use this website.  Could they have figured it out on their own?  Maybe, but I do feel as though I would have had many more questions if I let them try to complete this task on their own.  I would have fielded the same questions over and over.  By showing them the basics of how to accomplish the task, I provided them with just enough information to do what was needed.  While a few of the students didn’t understand all of the English language words I used to describe what they needed to do on the website, they all understand how to do it.  Perhaps I could have given the students the option to fly solo and figure it out on their own or watch me model the process.  This way, they could own their choice, and those who learn best by doing would have the opportunity to do so while those who learn by watching and listening would also be provided with what they need.  Maybe I will try this approach next time I’m introducing a task of this nature.

Although all of my students were able to successfully accomplish yesterday’s task, I did learn that there is always more than one way to do something.  Teaching is definitely an art, open to interpretation.  We do what we believe will best help our students learn and grow.  Sometimes this means taking risks and trying an approach that will help most students.  Varying the instructional methods used in the classroom is very important to the learning process and so as long as I provide my students with opportunities to solve problems on their own later on, then what I did yesterday to model a task was not an incorrect choice.  Learning from doing taught me that there are other ways to solve problems and accomplish the task at hand.  Was modelling the best instructional method to introduce yesterday’s task?  Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t, but either way I helped my students learn and grow during class yesterday.

Posted in Challenges, Co-Teacher, Curriculum, Education, Learning, New Ideas, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

What Makes Effective Teaching?

This morning, as I perused the various headlines via the News app on my iPhone, a story caught my eye: “Educators: Innovate Less, Execute More” by Kalman R. Hettleman.  The author proposes that teachers need to focus on effectively teaching students rather than trying to find new and novel ways to teach and educate them.  Although the focus of the article is really on how public schools implement RTI, the first few graphs do discuss classroom teachers.  As I first read the article, I found the perspective refreshing after having been inundated for the past several years with books, articles, and conferences on the importance of being an innovative teacher and using innovative technology products and services in the classroom.  Most of these books and conferences all focused on the same issues and ideas, and so they all felt very repetitive; therefore, I was ready for something different.  But, upon further contemplation of this article, I realized that the author was somewhat contradicting himself, as great and effective teachers are always trying to find new and better ways to effectively teach and engage their students.  In order to execute a lesson or activity well, teachers must know and understand how their students learn best so that they can be sure they are reaching each and every individual student in their classroom.  To do this, teachers need to find new and novel ways to hook students.  While being sure that the lesson is executed well is an important part of the teaching and learning process, it’s only a part of the larger educational puzzle.  Teachers must constantly innovate their teaching practices in order to be effective in the classroom.  Great teachers are the best students because they value the importance of knowledge.

As the final three days of faculty meetings begin tomorrow morning at my fine educational institution, I can’t help but get excited for what is going to happen on Friday: Registration Day.  My new students will arrive and get settled into their dormitories and prepare for the start of classes next week.  I can’t wait to meet my 11 new and eager students as we embark upon a journey of curiosity, wonderment, knowledge, failure, and fun.  I can’t wait to introduce Reader’s Workshop to the boys and get them excited about reading.  I can’t wait to have them play and explore with the Makey Makeys we’ve added to our Maker Space this year.  I can’t wait to begin working with my new co-teacher.  I can’t wait to begin implementing the new Brain and Mindfulness units my co-teacher and I crafted this summer.  I can’t wait to put on my teaching cape and get down to business.  I just can’t wait for the new academic year to begin.

While I will be sure to execute lessons and activities well in the classroom this year, as Mr. Hettleman suggests I should, I will try to also do what he states I shouldn’t do in the classroom, innovate and try new things.  I will take risks and try new approaches to teaching to help best support all of my students.  Great teaching requires a positive attitude, desire to learn, flexibility, creativity, innovation, enthusiasm, and an understanding of effective teaching practices.  So, thank you Kalman, for reminding me what it takes to be an effective teacher.  Thank you for helping stir up my mental pot and prepare for the coming days that are sure to be filled with fun, drama, and lots of questions.

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

Summer Reading Professional Development Text: Lost at School

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

Some takeaways:

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

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