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.


Greatness in the Sixth Grade Classroom

I wear a teaching cape to feel like a superhero in the classroom; but really, all I need are my students to feel like a superhero.  They are my metaphorical cape.  They help make the dark days of winter seem like bright summer days in the classroom.  They take the boring and everyday and find a way to make it fun.  Who knew how much fun mixing cornstarch and water together could be for sixth graders?  They loved it.  My students teach me more on a regular basis than I could ever hope to teach them.  They’re the real teachers in the classroom.  I’m just the superhero on the sidelines.

Today’s Humanities class provided yet another opportunity for my students to showcase their greatness as they worked on the Globe to Flat Map Project.  While this task is proving quite difficult for the students, they are utilizing a growth mindset to persevere and find new and creative solutions to the problems encountered.  It’s quite amazing.  One group discovered that writing over permanent marker with a dry erase marker on a plastic beach, erases the permanent marker.  Who knew?  Another group found that hand sanitizer somewhat removes permanent marker from a plastic beach ball.  Not only can Purell clean our hands, it can also take permanent marker off of plastic.  I had no idea.  My grandmother was so right when she used to say, “You learn something new every day.”  Boy do I ever.  So, as the students worked in the classroom today, two very amazing things happened.

  • Recently, I’ve noticed that one of my ELLs from a European country raises his hand with two fingers extended.  What is that all about?  Is that a cultural norm he learned back home?  Is he trying to be different?  What’s going on?  So, today, when he raised his hand to ask a question while his group worked on the project, I asked him, “Why do you raise your hand in the manner in which you do?”  I was a bit surprised by the answer, “In my country we do this because if we don’t, it looks too much like the Nazi salute, which is very bad.”  Wow, I had no idea.  So it is a cultural thing.  He does it because that’s how he was trained in his country to not accidentally look like he is giving the Nazi salute.  I find it interesting yet important that schools around Europe help their students understand the gravity of WWII and the Nazi party.  Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party had such a horrific impact on the European people, and the world, that modern Europeans raise their children in such a way to honor the victims of the war and ensure that no recognition is given to the Nazi party.  I would not have learned that if I hadn’t have asked this particular student the question that I asked him.  As he tends to try to bring attention to himself on an almost daily basis, I did wonder if it was a new attention getting behavior.  I sure was wrong, and in the process of being wrong, I learned something.  My students make the best teachers.
  • As this Globe to Flat Map Project is one filled with great difficulty, many of the students struggled today in class.  They were challenged by hand-drawing a map of the world onto a plastic beach ball.  They struggled to create an accurate and properly proportioned globe of Earth.  The students found it difficult to place the lines of latitude and longitude in the proper places.  They were perplexed by how to make sure they were effectively drawing an accurate map of the world on their beach ball.  Much problem solving and troubleshooting took place in the sixth grade classroom today.  The boys worked with their partner to find new and creative ways to solve their problems while other groups had to fix mistakes they had made on their globes.  It was quite awesome to see effective coexistence, communication, critical thinking, and problem solving take place.  For one group though, the challenge that faced them proved very troublesome.  Just when they thought they had it all figured out, they realized the error in their judgement.  They realized that they should have cut their globe at an arch instead of straight along the lines of latitude and longitude.  Wanting to showcase their true potential as students, they asked if they could start the entire project over so that they could apply this new solution they had devised.  Now, realize that they have spent about four hours of class time working on creating their globe and making their map since we started this project.  The final map is due by the end of class on Friday and we have only one period of class time remaining.  If they did redo it, they would have to complete the task almost entirely outside of class during their free time.  Knowing these two students, they will put forth the time needed as they want to do well and challenge themselves accordingly.  After being told all about the limited time that they will have, they still chose to redo the task so that they could utilize the new solution they had devised.  I’m proud of them for using a growth mindset and persevering through their problems.  I’m impressed that they are willing to use their free time to redo a challenging assignment.  Everything that my co-teacher and I have been trying to instill within them all year about hard work, perseverance, and problem solving came to light today as this one group showcased all three of these crucial life skills in making the choice they did.  They didn’t have to redo the assignment as they were meeting the objectives covered, but they chose to because they wanted to test out their hypothesis.  Amazing!

Yet again, my students never cease to amaze and teach me on a daily basis.  Greatness, effort, curiosity, discovery, and failure were alive and well in the sixth grade classroom today.  Sometimes I feel like I should make capes for my students to wear in the classroom, as they are the real superheroes.

Professional Goals Reflection: Am I Working Towards Meeting my Goals?


As I realize how valuable it is for my students to reflect on their learning throughout the day, period, and school year, I want to be sure that I am practicing and modelling reflective behavior in and out of the classroom as well.  In closing today’s Humanities class by having the boys share what allowed them to meet or not meet the goal they set for themselves during today’s work period on the Globe to Flat Map Project, I was inspired to do a little reflecting myself in today’s blog post.  Am I working towards my goals, and if so, how’s it going?

My Goals

Back in early October, which seems like years ago now at this point in the year, I set two professional goals for the academic year.

Goal 1: Gather data on how best to introduce and explain projects and activities to students.  Do rubrics work best?  What kind of rubric will promote creative problem solving?

  • After spending the first few months of the academic year honing in on this goal, I feel confident in the fact that I have indeed gathered much research on the use of rubrics and project handouts.  I’ve varied my approach to introducing and explaining projects to the students so that I could determine if one method is more effective than another.  I’ve spoken to several different faculty members on this topic as well.  What works for them in the classroom?  I’ve come to a few conclusions at this point in the year:
    • Students need some sort of rubric or assignment explanation for any project or activity.  I need to be sure that I explain the project for the students so that they know what is expected of them.
    • The detail I put into the rubric doesn’t seem to make a difference in terms of promoting students to think creatively or ask questions to solve problems.
    • The process the students utilize to complete the task seems to vary by student.  Character and work ethic seem to be the driving factors.  Students who have the academic drive and wherewithal to be successful, will do well no matter what.  A rubric or what it includes will neither hinder nor help them meet the graded objectives.  Students who struggle with English proficiency will face challenges regardless of the language used, but the more detailed the rubric, the more confident they seem to feel while working.  Students who finish work just to get it done, will complete the required academic tasks just well enough to meet the objectives.  No matter how detailed the rubric is or not will make no difference in the outcome for students who live by the status quo.
    • The students themselves seem to make all the difference in the outcome of projects and tasks.  Regardless of how assignments are explained to students, there will always be those students who do well and those who don’t.  The specificity of a rubric or project handout seems to matter very little.
  • I now need to focus on how to inspire all of my students, including those few boys who seem happy completing barely satisfactory work when they are capable of exceeding the objectives covered, to complete work that exceeds my expectations.  I want to figure out how best to challenge each and every one of my students.  How can I help my high functioning students reach for the next level?  How do I ensure that my struggling ELLs are learning the foundational skills needed to be fully prepared for the seventh grade?  How can help my mid-level guys aspire for more?  This is where I need to head for the next few months regarding this goal.  It’s not about the effectiveness of rubrics, it’s about all of the other stuff I’m doing behind the scenes.  Effective teaching will help students to think critically and creatively while solving problems in new and unique ways.

Goal 2: Incorporate mindfulness and learning about the brain, as it pertains to utilizing a growth mindset, into every aspect of the sixth grade program.  How can I best help students learn how to change their thinking to accommodate how they learn best?

  • As I mentioned in an earlier blog post this week, my students seem to have risen to the next level of academic consciousness as they are applying a lot of the skills and strategies learned during the fall term.  They are beginning to think critically.  They are using a growth mindset and realizing that they can accomplish any goal set or task undertaken with great effort, perseverance, and determination.  They are working on being mindful and present in the moment.  They are better able to solve social issues and problems encountered in the classroom on their own now than they were back in September and October.  I feel as though I have met this goal.  The challenge for me now will be to make sure that I hold the students accountable for being able to use a mindful and growth mindset during the remainder of the year.

What’s Next?

As I have basically met the two goals I set for myself in early October, I need something else to keep me motivated, moving forward.  Should I focus on better handling behavioral issues encountered in the classroom?  Should I work on being more mindful and present in the moment to be sure that I am best challenging and supporting my students?  Should I try to spend more time digging into how I could implement coding into my Humanities class?  Where should I go from here?

What if I try to focus on one goal a month, and then move onto the next one?  Might that be a good framework for my goals for the remainder of the 2017-2018 academic year?  I like that, short and simple.

So, for the next two weeks, I will focus on finding more appropriate and meaningful ways to address and handle challenging students.  I will use more patience when talking with students who struggle to meet the expectations of our sixth grade program.  I will attempt to try the Plan B approach suggested in the book Lost at School by Ross Greene.  I will try to empathize with these students so that they feel heard, cared for, and respected.  I find myself falling into the trap of disregarding their concerns and issues.  I view one of my students as a compulsive tattletale and another as an apathetic student who just wants to play sports.  I need to change my thinking about the difficult students in my class.  How can I best help support them while also challenging them to grow and develop as people?  This is my new goal for the remainder of December.  Hopefully, the festive holiday spirit will fill me with the energy and compassion I need to work towards meeting this goal.

What’s the Best Way to Promote Problem Solving in the Classroom?

If you give me a recipe for a tasty dessert, I will rock that recipe and create the most delicious cake or cookies you have ever tasted.  If you need help assembling that new bookcase you purchased from IKEA, please don’t hesitate to call me as long as you still have the directions because I will get it put together, perhaps not correctly but together none the less, in no time flat.  When I’m provided with clear directions, I am able to accomplish a job like nobody’s business.  I can get things done under directions.  Now, if you’re having trouble with your computer or need help fixing something that’s broken, I am not the person to seek help from.  I really struggle with solving problems that don’t come with clear directions.  If I encounter a struggle in life, it often takes me a very long time to overcome it.  My brain views the road of life as linear and constant, and so when things happen to cause that line to veer off course in a non-linear and chaotic manner, my brain begins to melt down.  It’s like the blue screen of death on PCs.  Can’t compute…  While I am able to solve problems that I’m faced with, it usually takes much time, failure, retrying, and effort to get to my destination as my brain likes dealing in the simple and concrete when it comes to problems.  I’m not the quickest problem solver in the world.

Now, I could easily blame my inability to effectively and quickly solve problems on my past teachers.  They didn’t equip me with the strategies and tools needed to solve problems encountered in creative ways.  I could just as easily place the blame for my poor problem-solving skills on my parents and their inability to challenge me and allow me to solve my own problems encountered.  I could use a scapegoat to explain away my mental incapacities, but that would be unhelpful to me as a person.  I am the only one to blame for not developing strong problem-solving skills.  While I wasn’t bombarded by teachers who challenged me to think creatively and solve problems, I also didn’t try to struggle through difficult tasks when I was in school.  I usually took the easy way out, and that allowed me to develop into the very slow problem-solver sitting here typing these words you are currently reading.  I do wish that I had been fortunate enough to be in classrooms where Project-Based Learning was used.  I wish I had been exposed to teachers who used the Socratic style of discussion in their classrooms.  I wish that my teachers had encouraged me to face my problems head on and solve them.  I wish that I had been challenged more by my teachers.  Perhaps my mental capacity for solving problems would be much stronger than it currently is had my teachers employed more effective teaching methods in the classroom.  Perhaps I would be more helpful to others if I had attended schools where solving problems, taking risks, and failing was embraced.  Perhaps my life would be very different right now had my teachers employed a different, more hands-on approach to teaching.  But, if that were the case, then perhaps my life wouldn’t be as perfect as it is right now.  I have a smart, funny, and beautiful wife, an amazing and athletic son, and am fortunate enough to work with a phenomenal group of sixth graders who challenge me to be the best teacher possible for them on a daily basis.  Life doesn’t get much better than this.

As an educator, I do realize the importance of teaching students how to solve problems encountered in new and unique ways.  I want my students to embrace risk-taking and failure in the classroom.  I want them to see how important it is to think critically about problems faced so that they are able to solve them in meaningful and relevant ways.  I want to promote problem-solving in my classroom.  One way I do that is through creating challenging assessments that force my students to struggle through problems encountered and solve them on their own without help or direct guidance from the teacher.

Today in my Humanities class, the students completed an assessment on map parts.  Rather than create a multiple choice test or written assessment, I wanted to challenge my students to think critically and creatively.  Therefore, I created a DOING kind of assessment.  The students, working independently, had to hand-draw a map of a self-created island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.  They had coordinates that it needed to be between, but the area was quite vast.  They could only use drawing tools, pencils, a piece of copy paper, and an atlas to complete this task.  Their map had to include the following:

  • Readable and easily understandable writing and drawing
  • Appropriate Map Title
  • Map Legend: Including symbols for boundaries and major cities
  • Scale Bar
  • Correctly placed lines of Latitude and Longitude based on the coordinates listed in the directions.
  • Labels for at least three major cities with unique names

At the start of class, I explained the directions and fielded all of their questions as I told them that I would not be answering questions while they worked.  As the students will have all different types of teachers next year in the seventh grade, I want to be sure they are prepared to deal with teachers who do not allow questions during work periods.  I told them this was the reason why I was organizing today’s work period the way in which it was set up.  I want them to understand the purpose of why we do things in the classroom while also preparing them for next year.  I spent about 15 minutes addressing questions the boys had about the assessment.  Then, I allowed them to begin working.  I had soft, instrumental music playing, like during all work periods, as they diligently got to work.  They were focused on the task at hand.  They reviewed the directions as they worked, perused their atlas for help, and began drawing their maps.  Each student seemed to take a different approach to the activity.  While a few students jumped right into drawing their island shape onto their paper, others drew on their lines of latitude and longitude first.  Some of the other students didn’t begin drawing right away.  Instead, they looked at the world map in their atlas and reread the directions for the task.  At first, I thought these students were lost or confused, but as I watched them work, I realized, that that was just how they solved problems.  They needed more time to process the information before they began working.  I found that so interesting.  A couple of students seemed frustrated a bit by parts of the task, but persevered through the problem to create a solution that worked for them.  Everyone had a good handle on the task by the end of class.  The atmosphere in the classroom during the last few minutes was one of vast productivity and positivity.  The students were solving problems they encountered.  While I refused to answer any questions about the task that I had previously explained in the directions phase of the activity, many of the boys had unanswered questions that they needed to solve on their own.  This required them to think critically and utilize a growth mindset to solve their problems.  It was awesome because they did just that.  The students were solving their own problems without assistance from me or their peers.  They were getting things done and showcasing great growth as learners and individuals.  I was so impressed and amazed by their performance today.  My students never cease to amaze me on a daily basis.  Wow!

Providing the students with difficult and challenging work that they must complete on their own or in small groups promotes an atmosphere of creativity and problem solving.  Doing hard things requires hard work and lots of learning.  By pushing my students to the edge of their comfort level as it pertains to working and learning, I am enabling them to become innovative problem solvers.  Yes, this requires much training on the part of the students up front because the year does not begin this way.  The students do not enter my classroom in September being able to solve their own problems and think creatively, oh no.  I need to provide them with scaffolding and specific strategies.  I need to help them develop a growth mindset.  This pre-work takes the first three months of the academic year to complete, but then once that is done, the magic can happen.  Today was one of those magical days where everything just started to fall into place.  The boys worked through their problems, struggles, and frustrations because they had the tools to do so.  Earlier this year, I gave them the directions that they used today to complete the task in front of them.  Effective teaching involves a very specific and detailed process.  I could not have given the students the task I did today back in September and expected them to be even remotely successful because they lacked the skills needed.  Now that they have those skills, I need to allow them to practice using them by providing them with difficult and challenging assessments, projects, and tasks.  By the end of the school year, they will be able to tackle any problem thrown at them.  Who knows what they’ll be capable of in a few years because of the skills and practice they are receiving in the sixth grade this year.

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.

Fostering Learning in the Classroom Through Challenge and Struggle

Some of the most meaningful learning that I’ve experienced in my life began with great struggle, challenge, and turmoil.  Learning to read proved quite difficult for me and led to numerous bouts of crying when I was just a wee lad.  After months of struggling, I did finally learn to read in the second grade, and it felt awesome.  Last summer, I was teaching myself how to solve the Rubik’s Cube to no avail.  After watching a video for about two hours and struggling to follow along, I realized that I had been holding my cube incorrectly the entire time I was watching the video.  In that moment, the learning happened, and it was only a matter of minutes before I had mastered the step I was on.  Real, meaningful learning is a messy journey filled with bumps and turns.  Nothing great comes without much struggle and difficulty.

As a teacher, I realize this on a daily basis.  I have found that my students learn best when I leave them to stew and struggle.  Instead of providing them with answers or guiding them to the solution, I like to ask more questions and allow the students to work through the challenge.  After much frustration and struggling, the boys are finally able to master the skill and showcase their learning.  Today provided me with yet another example of how effective this method of teaching truly is.

In Humanities class today, I introduced the concept of lines of Latitude and Longitude as they pertain to mapping and location.  I began the lesson by asking the students to imagine a world in which maps had only land masses and geographical landforms on them.  I then posed a situation to them: “So, my friend from Europe called me on my celly and said, ‘Yo, dude.  I’m coming to visit you.  Where do you live?’  I told him that I live in America.  So then he took the plane to the only airport in America.  He then called me on my celly once again and said, ‘Dude, where are you?  I’m at the airport waiting for you.’  I told him that I live in Canaan and that the airport is in the middle of America, thousands of miles away from me.  So then my friend asked, ‘So, where exactly do you live?’  How can I help my friend know how to get to where I am?”  The students all seemed to understand that those invisible lines on the map help with precise location.  We then watched a video on the topic.  I had students take notes and make observations on their whiteboard tables during the short video.  The first period of class ended with a discussion about what they learned from the video regarding lines of latitude and longitude.  They all seemed to understand the concept quite well.  Following the short break between periods, I displayed a blank outline map on the interactive whiteboard that had the Prime Meridian and Equator marked and labelled.  I then reviewed the concept with them, posing questions to various students.  They all seemed to understand the different hemispheres, cardinal directions, and lines of latitude and longitude.

At that point, I issued the challenge to them: “Using a blank map, draw and label the Prime Meridian, Equator, and lines of Latitude and Longitude in 30 degree intervals.”  This prompted a few questions, of course.  The students then got right to work.  While half of the students seemed to fully understand the concept and challenge in front of them, the other half seemed a bit confused or lost as they worked.  Three students needed to redo their maps as they switched, in their minds, the lines of latitude and longitude when labelling them on the map.  Two other students were very confused when I explained to them how they had incorrectly completed the task.  I didn’t tell them what to do, I merely asked them some questions.  Are those the lines of latitude or longitude?  How many degrees should be between each line?  For one student, these questions helped, for the other student, these questions only seemed to further confuse him.  Rather than give him the answer, I told him to leave it be for now and work on it during evening study hall tonight.  I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.  I do believe that he is on the verge of understanding the concept and just needs more processing time.

I loved watching the immense learning take place in the sixth grade classroom today.  The boys engaged in the material, struggled a bit, and then overcame their challenges.  Utilizing a growth mindset, they found a solution to the puzzle of understanding how to correctly label the lines of latitude and longitude on a blank world map.  If I had force-fed the students the information or provided them with a pre-labelled map of the world, would the learning they experienced today have been as meaningful?  Would they really understand how lines of latitude and longitude work?  I don’t think so.  I do feel that they needed to struggle with this complex task to effectively learn how lines of latitude and longitude are placed on maps.  This activity is a fine precursor to map drawing that we will do during our first region of study following the holiday break.  Allowing students to struggle, practice, and find new solutions to their problems is how stronger, neurological connections are built in their brains.  Real learning happens through experiencing great difficulty.  Hard things take hardship to accomplish.  The sixth grade classroom is a place where our students can safely, and with compassion and respect, struggle through challenges to get to the light at the end of the dark tunnel that leads to learning.

Why Do We Allow Time to Steal Learning from Our Students?

Time is a fickle, fair-weather friend.  When we want time on our side, it seems to fly by like a jet in the sky; but when we want time to quickly pass us by, it seems as though our lives are in slow-motion.  What is up with that?  Why can’t time do what we want or need it to do?  I often wish I had more time to spend with my family.  Why is it that time controls us?  Why can’t we be the master of our own time?  Why are we forced to live our lives according to time?  Why can’t we just do what we need or want to do when we need to or want to do it?  Why is time allowed to rule the world?  Why can’t we be the master of our lives?  Why must we live our lives according to the laws of time?  While I understand the need for control and harmony in the world, I do often wonder what life on Earth would be like if we all lived by our own schedule.  What if there was no time?  Imagine the possibilities.  Sure, there’s always the possibility of chaos, but that possibility exists even within the constraints of time.  So, why not try it?  Why not throw time out the window and live our lives the way we want to, without being controlled by time?

Although I realize the great anarchy that would ensue if we all just lived our lives, ignoring time, I do often find that time is more of a hinderance and an enemy than it is a helpful friend.  Especially in the classroom.  As a teacher, I find it terribly difficult to plan my lessons according to time and its boundaries.  Great teachers know that lessons never go as planned.  Students ask questions and teachable moments pop up like pimples on middle school students.  That’s what we love about teaching.  We love when the students drive the instruction.  We want them to be curious and ask questions.  We want to guide them to the knowledge, but we often can’t because we are bound by time.  Most schools have a set and structured schedule that forces teachers to contain the fun and adventure of learning to a set time.  How is that right or just?  How can we expect our students to fully engage in the material when we have to stop in the middle and send them onto their next class or commitment?  The research tells us that students learn best when they have time to practice and explore the material they are learning.  So, why do schools have such structured and time bound schedules?  Why are we stealing the fun of learning from our students?

I had what I thought was a pretty sweet lesson all lined up for my study skills class today.  I felt like my lesson allowed for more than enough time to cover the material, allow students to practice, and assess the students on their understanding of the skill covered.  But then of course, life happened.  As my study skills class is the first period of the day for my students, I wanted to remind the boys that today was the start of the winter term and a chance to hit the reset button on their grades.  I also wanted to remind them about what little time we have before our next vacation.  Of course, this inevitably led to several questions from the students, which I love.  I love when my students are actively thinking and engaging in what is being discussed.  Being mindful is a key skill we’ve been trying to help them learn since September.  Then, all of a sudden, I realized that I only had about 30 minutes of class time left to cover my lesson.  I started with my hook activity, which took longer than I thought it would as the students seemed to really be into it.  Discussing the heart of the lesson and learning took about eight minutes, which meant that I only had about three minutes left for the students to practice the skill of completing an effective Google Search.  What about the assessment?  What about going over the practice activity?  What about the closing discussion on the importance of knowing how to complete an effective Google Search?  I had no time for everything else because I needed to send my students onto their next class.  Yes, I’m going to cover what was missed during tomorrow’s class, but that’s not the point.  The point is, I had to stop the learning process midway, creating much interference in their brain.  Very little retention comes when so much interference occurs.

While every course we offer at my school is equally important, I find it very frustrating to limit the learning, exploration, curiosity, critical thinking, investigating, and fun.  Why can’t we have more time for class?  Why do we have just 40 minutes per class?  Why can’t we have a more flexible schedule that would allow teachers to have longer periods on certain days?  What about a block schedule, with longer periods per class?  What about stretching our academic day by a few hours?  Do we really need three hours of athletics?  What if we have sports go later into the evening?  What if we think about what works best for our students and create a schedule around that?

While time and the prison in which it binds us will never disappear, schools need to find more effective ways to educate students.  We can’t expect students to love learning and school when labs, activities, and lessons have to end early because the students need to move onto their next commitment.  We need to find a way to create flexible schedules for students and teachers.  We need to provide teachers with the time to dig into the content and skills because what is happening now at many schools around the world is clearly not working.  Students are missing out on learning opportunities and teachers are feeling stuck because there just never seems to be enough time.  We need to create schools that focus on the learning process and not a series of courses and classes.  We need to make learning fun and enjoyable for our students and their teachers.  We need to steal back time and return it to our schools.

Embracing Failure as Part of the Learning Process

“To fail, is to lose.  There are no second chances in life.  If you fail, you won’t make the team.  Failure is weakness.”  These are all phrases I grew up hearing on television, in school, and on the basketball court.  I was taught that failure is bad.  It was ingrained within me from an early age.  I became a perfectionist because I didn’t want to mess up and fail.  Changing my thinking and mindset on this idea took me many years.  It wasn’t until I completed a course on the neuroscience of education that I really started to see failure as a positive word and concept.  Failing is part of the learning process.  For genuine learning to take place within the minds of our students, they need to see the relevance of what we are covering.  If they try a new task or skill and fail, they are likely to learn from their mistakes and find another solution to the problem.  Failure is essential to learning.  I tell my students all the time, “I want you to fail so that you will learn.”  While many of my students look at me like I just cursed at them everytime I say this, I’m hopeful that by the end of the academic year, they will see the value and importance in taking risks, trying new things, failing, and trying again.

Yesterday, my co-teacher and I took our sixth grade students outside to the new ropes course our school just built on our lovely campus.  It is amazing.  There are several elements we can use with the students.  As my co-teacher was formally trained on how to use the course, she walked the boys through a challenge entitled the Island.  The students have to work together to get all of the students to cross over three blocks of wood that are spread apart.  They can’t move the wood, they can’t touch the ground, and they can only use two wooden planks to assist them in their quest for success.  We were so excited to bring the boys outside to allow the students to apply the teamwork and community skills we’ve been working on all term.

Then came the failure.  The students were unable to complete the task after 25 minutes of trying.  They did not effectively communicate with each other, they didn’t appropriately use their bodies, they didn’t follow the rules of the challenge, and they weren’t compassionate or respectful to their peers.  It was a bit of a disaster.  My co-teacher and I never stepped in to solve these problems for the boys.  We let them fail on their own.  Then, we returned to the classroom where we had them do some self-reflection on the experience in writing.  While this ropes course activity didn’t go the way my co-teacher would have liked, I reminded her that the class needed to fail today.  If they had succeeded, then we could move them onto seventh grade right now.  We still have much to teach them.  This failure will allow us to help them learn how to effectively communicate with one another.  The boys needed to not be unsuccessful in order to learn from their mistakes.

Today during our Team Time block, I spoke with the students about effective communication.  I had them brainstorm a definition that made sense to us as a class, and I then wrote it on the board.  I then had each student share one thing the class or individual students could do to more effectively interact with their peers in meaningful and compassionate ways.  The boys had some great ideas that we talked about.  They mentioned body language, tone, word choice, and so much more.  It seemed like a productive conversation.

This discussion is a springboard into Friday when we will have the students try this same challenge once more, hopefully applying some of the strategies we spoke about today regarding effective communication.  We will begin Friday’s ropes course challenge with some debriefing in the classroom before heading outside.  We want the students to understand what they need to do to be successful at accomplishing the task.  I’m hopeful that the boys will take this opportunity to learn from Tuesday’s failure.  At this point in the year, our students are beginning to see that they need to make mistakes and fail at something in order to really learn how to do it well.  I can’t wait to see what happens on Friday.  Will they learn from their failure and complete the challenge, or will we have to revisit this challenge again later in the year?

How Can I Inspire Students to Use a Growth Mindset and Persevere Through Struggles?

Giving up was my mantra when I was younger.  If something was too difficult, I’d just stop, claiming that I couldn’t do it.  I gave up on a lot of things in life.  I gave up on clarinet lessons in the fifth grade because I thought I’d never get any better at playing the notes.  I gave up playing basketball in sixth grade because I thought I was no good.  I gave up playing the guitar in seventh grade because it was too challenging for me.  I gave up trying to improve upon my grades from Bs to As in high school because I didn’t think I could do the work.  In retrospect, I wish I had made use of a growth mindset when I was in school so that I could have grown and learned to do a lot more.  Perhaps if I hadn’t stopped playing the guitar, I’d be on tour with a band right now.  If I had worked hard to earn better grades in school, maybe I would have been able to go to a more challenging university.  My life would be a lot different right now if I had given up on my fixed mindset.  Instead though, I gave up on using a growth mindset.  I gave up on learning.

As a teacher, I want to be sure that my students don’t end up like me in 20 years or so, filled with regret that they didn’t make use of a growth mindset in school.  I want my students to see the value in effort, failure, and hard work.  I want my students to appreciate challenges and tackle them with an open mind.  To do this, I have my students constantly reflecting on their growth and development.  They maintain an ePortfolio to document their learning progress.  They receive constant feedback from my co-teacher and I on their progress in our classes.  They must redo work that does not meet the graded objectives.  I tell my students on an almost weekly basis how important failure is to the learning process.  “I want you to fail this year so that you can learn new ways to solve your problems.”  We foster an atmosphere of effort, risk-taking, failure, critical thinking, problem-solving, and teamwork within the classroom so that our students will leave sixth grade understanding the importance of making use of a growth mindset.

While many of our students, this year, seem to be off to a great start to their journey towards having and using a growth mindset, one of our ELLs seems to be very stuck in his thinking.  He feels as though he is using a growth mindset, when in fact he is using a fixed mindset.  His perception doesn’t agree with the reality.  Despite providing him with much feedback on his challenges and strengths, he has made very little academic progress this year.  He looks at his work as being finished once he is done working on it.  He does not apply feedback or suggestions provided by his teachers or peers.  He believes that everything he does is A quality work and exceeds the objectives.  When we try to explain to him how his work is not meeting our objectives and expectations, he argues or refuses to think critically in order to understand what we are saying.  Although his English proficiency is getting better, he is still not making progress in his major classes because he is not willing to effectively utilize a growth mindset.

So, what can I do to help inspire this student to take risks, try new things, incorporate feedback, put forth more effort, redo work, and learn from his mistakes?  How can I help him see the value in using a growth mindset?  How can I help him see that he will not grow or develop as a student this year if he continues to make use of a fixed mindset?  How else can I support this student?  I’ve tried every trick in my educational book to assist him, and nothing seems to be working.  He is the only student who is regressing and not progressing this year.  What am I not doing that could help?  I use positive reinforcement, regularly, with him, and this helps at moments, but not consistently.  I’ve tried explaining to him how valuable applying the feedback provided by others is to his learning process.  I’ve explained these concerns to his parents and they’ve spoken to him about this issue as well, but still there has been no change in the classroom from him.  How can I best support and help this one student grow and develop if he refuses to allow himself to grow and develop?  Will it come in time?  Is this developmental?  He is a 13-year-old sixth grader; shouldn’t he have figured out that hard work leads to progress by now?  I’m not sure what I should be doing to help him that I haven’t already tried.  For now, I will continue reinforcing the positive choices he makes that help him progress towards using a growth mindset, provide him with ample feedback on what he can do to improve, and show him that I care about him and want to see him be successful; hopefully, all of this will help him begin to see the power in having a growth mindset.

Struggling to Challenge and Support ALL of My Students

Imagine a world in which teachers design their curriculum and lessons for the average-level student in their classroom.  They use one lesson plan to teach all of their students, regardless of the various levels of the students in their class.  They have very little prep time since they are teaching to the middle.  During their free time though, they are forced to research classroom management techniques since the advanced students in their class are often bored and distract the low functioning students in the room.  This then causes chaos and prevents real learning from happening in the classroom.  These teachers tryout the new class management strategies they read about in professional development texts and online resources, but find no change in the overall atmosphere of the class during their lessons and activities.  The students continue to be distracted and distracting while these teachers are teaching.  Nothing seems to work, and the vicious cycle continues and repeats until the end of the academic year.

Now, while we all know that this is a highly ineffective teaching practice, many teachers in public schools around the world, utilized this model of teaching many years ago.  I am a product of this model of teaching in the elementary grades.  It didn’t work for me, which is what caused many of the behavioral issues I had in the classroom as a student.  I was bored or confused on an almost daily basis.  Despite asking questions or seeking help, I continued to struggle as the teacher viewed herself as the sage on the stage and lectured at us from the front of the classroom during most of the academic day.  This model did not work for me and does not work for a majority of our students.  In education, there is no middle.  There are individual students who all have their own strengths and weaknesses.  Great teachers meet each of their students where they are and support and challenge them accordingly. Effective teaching includes differentiation, group work, one-on-one sessions, student conferences, small group instruction, and partner activities.  This model of teaching is truly challenging as it requires separate lesson plans for each student, a creative use of time and space, and much work outside of the class day.  Great teachers spend much of their free time designing unique, creative, and innovative curricula that will help and support every student in their classroom.  Great teachers don’t need to worry about classroom management issues as they are engaging each and every student in their class.  This teaching practice isn’t easy and can be quite cumbersome at times, but is really the only effective way to teach and educate students.  We need to treat our students as individuals and not a whole group.  There is no middle in the classroom, there are only students.

While I have made great strides towards effectively using this model of teaching in the classroom over my 17 years of experience, I still struggle with it at times.  Today was one of those challenging moments.  As I realized last year that I was not properly providing my Humanities students with a foundation of understanding in the area of English grammar, this summer, I brainstormed ways to inject grammar into my classes on a weekly basis.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve reviewed the three basic parts of speech with my students: Noun, verb, adjective.  I briefly discussed each vocabulary term and made sure that they understood what they meant.

Today, I wanted to provide the students with an opportunity to apply this grammar knowledge.  I began class by reviewing the three major parts of speech we already discussed earlier in the year by having the students define each of the words and offer examples.  The boys were able to do this quite easily, which should be the case at this point in their school journey.  A student then explained to the class how he learned this information in third grade and seemed baffled by why we were talking about it in the sixth grade.  So, I explained to him the process we’ll be using to discuss and learn about grammar this year.  “We’re beginning our grammar journey with the three basic parts of speech as a review.  We will then move into grammar workouts in which you will have to fix grammar errors in writing.  This will then bleed into learning about the more challenging parts of speech.  We will end our discussion of grammar in May by diagramming sentences and identifying the various parts of speech.”  This response didn’t seem to help him feel any better or more engaged in what was being discussed.  I also reminded him that in order to move forward with the level of difficulty in the content covered, I need to be sure that all of the students are able to meet the assessed objectives.  I wanted him to realize that today’s discussion is merely a review and introduction into our year-long grammar adventure so that we are all building on the same foundation of knowledge, moving forward.  While I don’t know if this helped him feel any better, I wanted to be transparent with him while also respecting his emotions and thoughts.

This discussion of the three major parts of speech led into an interactive and fun activity in which I was able to informally assess all of my students on their comprehension of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.  I had the students play a fun game of Word Slappers.  Two students came to the board, armed with a word swatter, AKA a fly swatter, and stood next to each other.  On the board were the words Noun, Verb, and Adjective.  I called on individual students to shout out examples of one of the major parts of speech.  The first contestant to slap the correct part of speech with their word slapper, won a point.  The first person to score three points wins the round.  This activity allowed me to know which students struggle with understanding the parts of speech and provided me an opportunity to correct any incorrect prior knowledge the students had regarding the topic of grammar.  I was able to instruct through the use of an engaging, exciting, and educational game.  The students loved it.  They were so into it.  The audience members worked hard to brainstorm difficult examples for the contestants at the board while the student judge watched the two boys at the board very carefully to ensure that our class norms and core values were being followed at every turn.  I closed the activity, reminding them that we will continue this game for a few more weeks before we move into the more challenging grammar workouts.  The boys seemed happy with this.

Although the class discussion portion of this grammar activity seemed wasted on some of the students, I did need to be sure that every student has the same common knowledge regarding these important key vocabulary terms.  Could I have completed this exercise differently?  Perhaps, but it would have probably taken more time had I found a more individualized way to do it.  The discussion portion of the activity only took about 3-4 minutes.  Was it worth it?  Yes, I think so because I now know that all of my students know the difference between nouns, verbs, and adjectives, which means that I can move onto teaching them the more challenging parts of speech.  I do wonder though, moving forward, is there a way to better engage all of my students in this content?  How can I effectively differentiate my instruction to challenge the native English speakers in my class while supporting the ELLs?  I could easily create separate grammar workouts for each student in my class, based on their ability level.  I could also have different levels of the Word Slappers game going on at once in various parts of the classroom.  I could have the advanced students playing a game using adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions while the ELLs could be playing the version of the game we used in class today.  I could also assess each student individually during our next Reader’s Workshop block to be sure that I know the various levels of grammar understanding present in my class.  Perhaps I will try all three of these strategies to make sure that I am challenging and supporting all of the learners in my class.