The Power of Being a Role Model for my Students

Staring at the computer screen, my mind wandered…  I thought about thoughts unrelated to my day.  Why is this screen so bright?  Who made this computer?  How did someone come up with the idea to make computers?  Why do we rely on computers so much as a society?  Then I started to think about other innovations and inventions, like the light bulb and sliced bread.  How did they come about as inventions?  Was it one person or many people who pondered those problems?  Were they successful on the first try or did it take multiple attempts?  As we know, the greatest inventions did not come about on the first try.  Great inventors and scientists spent much time trying out ideas, failing, revising their work, and trying again.  The best things in life take lots of practice, hard work, and failure.  Just imagine, though, if people didn’t take risks and try new things, I might be typing this blog entry on a typewriter and submitting it to my local newspaper for publication.  Risks, hard work, failure, and perseverance lead to innovation and change.

As a teacher, I see the value in this problem-solving formula.  If I want my students to live meaningful lives in a global society, then I need to help them see how important risk taking, hard work, and perseverance are to creativity and innovation.  I need my students to know how to solve problems they encounter in new and unique ways.  I want my students to fail so that they learn how to rise up and overcome adversity.  So, I teach my students this process day in and day out.  I constantly challenge my students to think big and ask why.  I want them to always be looking for how they can make this world a better, safer, and more effective place for all to live.  I empower them to question everything.  I want my students to find problems in their world and then devise and create viable solutions for them.  I train my students to be change makers and innovators, because, as I’m always telling them, “One of you could find the cure for cancer or the solution to poverty around the world some day.”  I teach my students to be self-aware so that they can change things and make the world a better place for all people.

One easy way for me to help my students learn these valuable risk-taking skills is by modelling the desired behavior.  If I want my students to take risks and try new things, then I need to do the same.  So today, I unveiled a new grading procedure, with the caveat that it’s something new and it might fail.  It might not work out the way I have intended, but I want to try and see what happens.

As we utilize the objectives-based grading system in the sixth grade, we are often entering grades with meaningful feedback into our grading portal.  The students always know how they stand in terms of meeting the standards in preparation for the seventh grade.  They can check their grades via our online grading system at any time and know how they are progressing towards the graded objectives.  As my school requires that we also grade our students on their effort in class, we also need to assess their effort on a daily basis.  Although I take mental notes on their daily effort in class, I don’t necessarily make note of this anywhere.  I don’t enter their daily effort into our grading system.  I wait until the end of each marking period to enter their effort grades.  For many of our students, this is frustrating.  While they always know their achievement grades, they are always wondering about their effort grades.  “What is my effort grade in Humanities?” my students will often ask.  Sure, I can answer them with a ballpark number and some trite feedback, but I feel as though I can’t provide them with meaningful and relevant feedback that will promote growth and development.  So, this got me thinking…  How can I help my students know the reality of their effort on a daily basis, so that they can make the necessary changes to become the best students possible?

So, I decided to pilot something for the final term of our academic year.  Every day, I will enter an effort grade for each of their major classes, based on their daily effort.  Are they focused and on task during the period?  Are they prepared for class?  Did they complete the homework?  Are they being a good classmate?  Along with the effort grade, I will include specific feedback on their performance.  If they need to improve in certain areas, I will include that in the feedback.  If they do well in other areas, I will also cite that in the feedback.  I want my students to know exactly how they are performing in all areas of academic life so that they know their areas of strength and weakness.  These daily effort marks and feedback comments will help my students see what they do well and what they still need to work on.  I’m hoping that this change will better support my students as they grow into the best versions of themselves.

Now, I don’t know if this change to how I grade and assess the students will work with our grading system.  Perhaps it will mess things up.  Maybe the average won’t work right or explain the reality of their effort to the students.  Maybe the students will be confused by the data that appears in their grading portal.  What if I don’t have time to enter these grades daily?  What if this change doesn’t make a difference for my students?  What if they still keep asking me for more feedback or help in interpreting their grades?  What if this change ends up being a failure?  What if Einstein said, “Oh, this Theory of Relativity stuff is too hard.  I’m just going to give up.”  What if Thomas Jefferson gave up on making the light bulb?  We’d be in the dark right now.  I can’t let the possibility of failure prevent me from trying new things.  If this effort grading trial fails, then I will make some changes and try something else.  I will not let setbacks and failure prevent me from trying things.  Like my students, I will learn from my mistakes and find a new way to solve my problem.  I won’t give up, no matter what.  I’m hopeful that by me modelling this idea of trying new things, taking risks, and persevering, my students will see the value in the problem-solving process.


How Can We Help Students Learn How they Learn Best?

In college, I found myself constantly thinking, Why didn’t I learn this in middle school or high school?  During my Freshman year at Keene State College, I struggled quite a bit with some basic academic skills.  I didn’t know how to take meaningful and relevant notes from a class lecture.  After weeks of trying to write down every word the teacher uttered, I found a method that worked for me.  I also did not know how to effectively prepare for tests and quizzes, which is why I failed most of my assessments during my first semester at college.  It wasn’t until I talked to some of my friends and learned about how they prepared for tests that I found a system that worked for me.  I would have been much more successful during my Freshman year at KSC had I previously learned the crucial skills of note taking and test taking.  Why didn’t I learn those skills in high school?  It was very easy for me to blame my teachers during that first year away from home as I struggled to get through a challenging course load, but the only person who was responsible for not learning those vital academic skills was me.  These skills were taught in my middle school and high school; however, I failed to put forth the effort necessary to practice and genuinely learn them.  I didn’t attempt to learn how to be the best student possible.  While school always came easy to me in high school, I never figured out how I learn best because I was so focused on simply finishing tasks and assignments.  I never learned how to learn well or be an effective student, and that came back to haunt me in college.  Although I have very few regrets in life so far, I do wish that I had put more effort into focusing on how to be the best student possible.  I wish I had learned how to learn in a meaningful way.

As a teacher, I don’t want my students to have this same regret.  I want my students to truly know themselves as learners, thinkers, students, people, and problem solvers.  I want them to know what works well for them in school and into what areas they need to put forth more effort.  For every project, task, or assignment my sixth grade students complete, I make sure they know why they are completing this task and what skills they are learning and/or practicing.  I want them to see the purpose and relevance in everything we do in the classroom.  Once they see the value, for themselves, in what we are doing in the classroom, they will put forth effort to learn the vital academic skill being taught or practiced.  During these times, I make sure that each student finds what works best for them.  For example, if a student is learning how to utilize bullet-style notes to extract important details from an online source, I work with him to help him realize the most effective way for him to complete bullet-style notes.  For some students, they need to use complete sentences when taking this style of notes because it helps them make more sense of the material they are reading or learning about; however, for other students, they may find that pulling out key words or phrases is a more effective method of using this style of notes.  I want my students to find what works best for them.  As every student is different, each student needs to understand how he or she learns and works best.  I make it a priority to help my students learn how they learn best so that they don’t ever have to feel lost or confused like I did in college.

Today during Humanities class, as my students worked on the presentation for their Africa Projects, I was able to meander through the classroom like a magnificent stream running through a beautiful hardwood forest, observing my students.  I watched them work, answered questions they had about the process and requirements, helped them find materials requested, and provided them with feedback on their work.  One student chose a visual aide tool that I knew would be ineffective for him, and so I worked with him to help him realize this on his own.  I empowered him to find a visual aide vehicle that would be more suitable and engaging for him and his topic.  After much brainstorming and a few trials, he settled on creating a poster to highlight what he learned about the government of South Africa.  Another student seemed to be struggling to stay focused on the task at hand throughout the period.  While he wasn’t distracting his peers, he also wasn’t being productive.  I spoke with him about this during class, but saw no change in his work ethic throughout the period.  Emotionally, he seemed to be in a good place, and so I wondered what the problem was.  At first, I thought it was because he chose a presentation method that was not engaging or interesting him in any way.  Then, at lunch, I spoke with him about this, mentioning what I noticed and hypothesized.  He disagreed with me and revealed that he was distracted by a peer that was sitting near him.  While I never saw the distractions themselves, this student felt as though he did not choose the best spot in which to work.  So, he knows for tomorrow, that he needs to find a spot away from this other student in order to stay focused and be more productive and on-task during class.  Although he came to this conclusion on his own, I’ve spent much time during the last few months helping my students learn how they learn best.  They learned the power in choosing the right spot in the classroom for them.  This student clearly learned that and is planning to apply it in class tomorrow.  He knows how he learns best.

Much power exists for students when they learn how to learn.  My students are beginning to understand themselves as students and learners this year, and it has paid huge dividends.  They have made much progress since September due to the fact that they approach every new task or assignment with a growth mindset and much self-awareness.  When I tell my students to get to work, they silently set goals for themselves, find appropriate spots in which to work, spread the necessary materials out in front of them, and work in a focused manner.  When they encounter problems, they attempt to solve them on their own using critical thinking and self-awareness.  If they are unable to figure out their own problems, they quietly ask a peer or table partner to help before seeking help from me.  They know how to help themselves be the best students possible.  It’s quite amazing, and is sure to help them continue to grow and develop as they matriculate through the grades in school.  I’m hopeful, that this foundation I’m helping them to lay this year in the sixth grade will prevent them for being unprepared for their future years of education and schooling.  Knowing oneself as a learner, is vital to one’s future success in life.

Helping Students Realize that they May Already Know the Answers to their Questions

One of my favorite movies growing up was The Neverending Story.  I mean, who wouldn’t want a flying luck dragon?  Falcor was so cool.  Plus, a band even named themselves after one of the main characters from the movie, Atreyu.  If that’s not a sign of how amazing the film is, than I don’t know what is.  One of my favorite parts of the whole film came towards the end when the princess is shouting at Sebastien to say her name.  Then he’s like, Lady, I don’t know your name.  Why are you asking me?  Then she says, You already know my name, you just need to say it.  And he’s like, What?  Then he shouts something inaudible into the storm, and so the audience never actually figures out what name he gives the princess.  I love the mystery of it all.  Years later, I did some digging online and found out that he named her after his mother.  What really got me is when the princess tells Sebastian that he already knows her name, but until that moment when she reminded him that he did in fact have the answer she was in need of, he had no idea that he did actually know her name.  I feel like that most of the time when my wife asks me, “Did you remember to get the thingy at the store like I asked?”  Well, of course I did remember it, I just needed a friendly reminder to pull it out of my short term memory.

Middle school boys are very similar to Sebastian and I in this way.  They often need friendly reminders about what they already know in order to recall it from their memory.  Once they are are made aware of what they should know, they will usually have an aha moment.  Ohhh, yeah, I remember that? they’d say in response.  Prompting is a very useful educational strategy to help students extract information from their brains.  It’s also a great way to help students link new information to prior knowledge.  Sometimes, we all could benefit from some helpful hints on knowing what we should know.

Today during my study skills class, the students continued working on the Africa Project.  Before allowing them to get to work on creating a bibliography regarding their sources this morning, I explained to them what I noticed in class yesterday.  “While I enjoyed helping many of you in class yesterday, I wonder if I needed to answer all of the questions you posed.  Could you have addressed your own questions?” I said to them in class today.  I then told them what I would like to see them try today so as to empower them with the ability to solve their own problems.  “When you feel like asking me a question, take a deep, mindful breath and ask yourself, using critical thinking, if you really need to ask the question or if you already know the answer.  If after 20 seconds, you feel like you don’t have an answer, please feel free to turn your stop and go card to ask for help,” I said.  I want the students to value their talents and abilities.  They know more than they realize.  They just sometimes need to be reminded of that fact.

During the work period in both the study skills class and my Humanities class, they asked very few questions as they solved their own problems.  They transformed themselves into great, independent workers once they realized of what they were capable.  When a student did ask a question, I asked him if there was anyway he could locate the answer on his own.  In many cases, he was able to determine the answer to his own question without my support.  Instead of answering basic questions that the boys could easily answer on their own, I was able to have meaningful discussions with the students regarding the information they were learning about their topics.  One student was baffled by how the British and German forces used Africans as the frontline of their defense in attacks during WWII battles that took place on African soil.  He had no idea that Africans were involved in WWII prior to researching his topic.  He was enthralled and disturbed by this fact.  I was also able to help a student realize that when one switches their mindset, great things can happen.  He was struggling to find a third resource for this topic, but seemed fixated on only the ten items that first appeared on Google.  He did not understand that he could narrow or broaden his search to include other aspects of his topic.  Once he took some time to process what I told him, he was easily able to find another reputable online source.  If I had to spend all of my time answering comprehension or recall level questions, I would never have been able to engage the students in these fruitful conversations.

At the close of the period, I explained what I observed in class and praised the students for demonstrating great self-awareness, ownership, and critical thinking during class today.  I was amazed and impressed at the change that occurred in due to the one little reminder with which I provided them.  Sometimes all it takes a little nudge for someone to realize of what they are truly capable.  The students know how to answer their own questions, but they just rely on the teacher to do the thinking for them sometimes.  By reminding them of the expectations I have for them in class, I empowered them to solve their own problems, and what a huge difference that made.

How Can I Help Empower Students to Work Through their Struggles and Move On While Working Independently?

Thinking back to my days in middle school, I struggled to work independently.  While I could easily stay focused on the task at hand in class, I had very low self-esteem, and constantly doubted myself and my work.  Was I doing the assignment right?  What do I do next?  So, I found myself asking my teachers for much help and support during independent work periods in class.  When I finished an assignment, I needed to have my teacher check it over to ensure that it was done well.  I was not self-aware as a student and struggled to demonstrate ownership over my work.  Because of these struggles, I was not able to move through an assignment, project, or task without asking the teacher numerous questions. This proved problematic for me, my classmates, and my teachers.  Because I asked so many questions during work periods, my teachers were unable to provide fair and equal support to the rest of the students.  I wish my teachers would have helped me to understand how to be more self-aware and solve my own problems as I worked, so that I didn’t need to ask as many questions, taking away from what I was able to accomplish in class.  As I have yet to find a working time machine, I can’t change my past and correct my mistakes, but I can help my students learn how to solve their own problems in order to work independently in a productive manner.

Today in my Humanities class, the students worked on an independent research project regarding our unit of study on Africa.  The boys gathered reputable online sources, appropriately cited their sources, and extracted notes from their various sources.  Every student seemed to be at a different stage of the project.  It was very cool to see the students work at their own pace as they learned about self-chosen topics.  While most of the students were engaged and on task during today’s work period, a few of the boys were distracting their table partner or distracted by the process itself.  As the students worked, I observed their work ethic and habits, assessed their ability to meet the graded objectives, provided feedback to them on their work so that they could revise it before it is turned into be graded, and answered questions the students had.  This kept me quite busy throughout the entire period, as I bopped around from student to student, offering assistance.  While it felt good to provide the boys with meaningful feedback and support throughout the period, I noticed that some of the boys, while waiting to ask me questions, were sitting at their desk completely unproductive.  A few of the students literally did nothing for 10-20 minutes while they patiently waited for my assistance.  Although many of the students waiting did not misbehave or distract their peers, they were also not on-task during some of the class.  This was frustrating to me as I don’t want to see them waste their time.  I also feel bad that I couldn’t help all of them, all of the time.  While I reminded the class that I am only one person and want to be equitable and respectful to everyone, I feel as though that wasn’t enough.  If I want to empower my students to learn how to solve their own problems and move on while working independently, then I need to restructure future work periods so that they are able to practice self-awareness.

Some ideas I will try tomorrow, in hopes of helping empower my students to be more productive, independent workers:

  • I will describe what I witnessed in class to the boys, explaining how this is unproductive behavior.  Pointing out the problem will hopefully bring the issue to light for the students.
  • I will then elicit ideas and solutions from the students.  What do they think they should do if they are waiting for help or have a question?
  • I will then remind them of what they should do when they are waiting to meet with me to be sure that they understand the expectations.
  • During the work period, I will only meet with those students who are effectively showing self-awareness.  I hope that this strategy will be a good reminder as to what they should do instead of sitting and waiting unproductively.
  • I will then debrief the work period at the end of class, pointing out what went well and what struggles the students had practicing the skill of self-awareness and ownership.

I’m hopeful that these tweaks and strategies will help empower my students to be more productive and self-aware during class tomorrow.  As I don’t want my students to be like me in middle school, I need to change things up a bit from today.  I can’t wait to see what happens in the classroom tomorrow.

The Evolution of the Faculty Room

The Teachers’ Room, Faculty Room, Faculty Lounge, or Teachers’ Lounge.  Regardless of its name, shouldn’t the space where teachers gather during free periods or unscheduled time be a safe, positive space in which educators can discuss effective teaching practices and how to grow as teachers?  Teachers need a place where they can ask their fellow colleagues for help or support regrading a challenging student or issue in the classroom.  The Teachers’ Room should be place where educators collect to discuss the art of teaching.  While I know that these spaces have evolved over time from places to make photocopies of worksheets and to grab a cold cup of coffee into smaller spaces to grab a warm cup of coffee and sit for a few moments between classes, it seems as though the pendulum has swung too far in one direction.

When I worked at a small Catholic school in Maine many years ago, the Teachers’ Room was a small space with a bathroom, refrigerator, and microwave.  Teachers did not gather in this space during their free periods due to its limited size.  Instead, teachers sat in their own classrooms and did work or meandered the halls in search of other teachers who were free and wanting to discuss teaching.  I often found myself sharing lesson plan ideas with my colleagues during these free periods or asking for help regarding certain students.  I attempted to effectively utilize these short snippets of time so that I could have very little work to do outside of school.  I also enjoyed learning from more experienced educators, and found myself asking for their suggestions and feedback on situations that occurred in my classroom.   While the traditional Faculty Room was not utilized the way in which it should have been at that school, teachers found spaces to discuss teaching and to grow as educators.

At my current school, the Faculty Lounge as evolved greatly in my 15-year tenure.  It used to be a large space where teachers would gather to grade papers, plan lessons, check their email, and talk to other teachers about students or lesson ideas.  It was a sweet place to hang out and grow as a teacher.  After a few relocations over the years, our current Faculty Room is a very small space where very few teachers can collect.  It’s often hotter than most saunas in that room and I’ve found that many educators find other, cooler spaces in which to collect and talk about teaching and students.  Perhaps due to the extreme temperature of our current Faculty Room, it has transformed into a negative space where teachers come to complain about our school, their classes, their responsibilities, and students.  It’s no longer the welcoming and open place that it once was.  It’s now a place that I try to avoid so that I don’t get sucked into the negative drama happening behind the scenes at my school.  I’m more of a glass half-full kind of guy and I find it difficult to hear so much negativity in one tiny space.  In fact, I rarely visit the Faculty Room anymore despite the fact that it provides easy access to coffee.  I’d rather take the extra steps needed to walk to our dining commons to grab a cup of tasty coffee than wade through more negative comments.  As negativity breeds more negativity, the Faculty Lounge has grown into this black hole of despair.  If I wanted to wallow in bad news, I’d simply click over to and read about the state of affairs around the world. So, to make a short story even longer, I do not even use the room in my school that is devoted to teachers.

A Faculty Room should be a place where educators come to learn, grow, and relax during the academic day.  It should be a safe space in which teachers share effective lessons or ask for help with challenging lessons.  The Teachers’ Room should be a place where people want to flock to, not away from.  Sadly, the Faculty Lounge at my school has turned into a stinky landfill full of negative trash.  Why is that, you ask.  I have no idea.  Maybe it’s because faculty members feel overworked or unsupported.  Perhaps these negative comments stem from the great discord that is felt at the school.  Maybe some of the faculty members don’t really want to be teachers and so they are apathetic toward the entire field of education.  Who knows exactly what caused this horrible transformation to take place, but it has, and the Faculty Room at my school is now a Complaining Room.

But, it doesn’t need to stay that way.  Like we empower our students on a daily basis, can’t just one person make a difference?  Can’t I try to foster change at my school?  Couldn’t I try to change the atmosphere of the Faculty Room and bring it back to what it once was and now should become?  Well, the short answer is, Yes, I should.  But, you know me, I’m not one for brevity.  So, here’s the full story…

Today, after quickly ducking into the Faculty Room to add some cold water to my coffee to cool it down a bit, I was filled with a sense of gloom and sadness.  Why do people feel the need to talk so negatively all the time?  Why can’t we spread joy instead of anger and frustration?  After making the long trek back to my classroom, I shared my frustration with my co-teacher.  “Why is the Faculty Room such a negative space?  Why can’t it be a place for teachers to gather and discuss teaching?” I asked her.  She then shared her disdain for the Faculty Lounge.  “I just don’t get it,” she said.  As we talked about this problem facing our school, we both started to realize that we were complaining just like the teachers in the Faculty Room.  And that’s when it hit us, the answer to our problem that is.  We can try to bring about positive change within our Faculty Room.  So, my co-teacher and I designed a little social experiment that we are going to try out tomorrow.  During our free period tomorrow, we are going to visit the Faculty Room and start talking about teaching or some great lesson that we have recently done in class.  We’re hoping that this conversation sparks more talking and sharing amongst the other teachers in the small room, which will then lead to more positive discussions taking place, transforming the space back into a productive and meaningful place where teachers can gather to grow and learn.  Maybe we’re too optimistic, but we feel as though it might work.  But, even if it fails, at least we can say that we tried.  Now, we know that trying this one time will not provide us with the benefits we’re hoping for, and so our plan is to keep at it from now until the start of our March Break.  Hopefully, we are able to create a small wave of positive teacher talk that will eventually build into a tsunami of awesomeness.  Who knows what might happen, but we need to try something because we are both sick and tired of having a Faculty Room that breeds negative thoughts and emotions.  We want to work at a school that helps and supports it teachers by creating a culture of change and development.  Perhaps our social experiment will do just that for our Faculty Lounge.

Supporting Some Students Takes Persistence and Patience

Some students are like fluffy little sponges ready to absorb information and adapt to their surroundings.  They are flexible and open to new ideas and approaches.  We love working with students like these because they enjoy school more than anything else in life.  These students are easy to work with and usually put a smile on our faces because they soak up every word that falls from our lips.  Some other students are more like dry sponges in need of a little watering before they are ready to take on the world.  They are very open and willing to learn things with a little help and prodding first.  These students are also easy to work with.  Then there are those few students who are more like a chunk of granite, in need of much work before they can be molded into open-minded young men.  These students need much help, support, and scaffolding in order for learning to take place.  They usually employ a fixed mindset from day one and often face much adversity in their personal lives outside of school.  Over my 17 years of teaching, I’ve had the pleasure of helping to mold quite a few granite slabs into fine, hard-working students.  It’s no easy task, but one well with the undertaking.  While I love all of my students, I do enjoy a good challenge, which is why I look forward to helping shape those few hunks of rock each year.

This year, I have a class filled with mostly porous sponges who can’t seem to learn enough.  They enjoy working on projects and spend much of their free time completing assignments.  It’s pretty awesome.  I’ve been able to extend my units and curriculum a bit more than in past years due to the fact that most of my students are up for and crave a good challenge.  Although this aspect of teaching fills me with great joy, I find it easy to execute and accomplish.  I love challenging students and creating unique and engaging projects and assignments that push the students to think critically in order to creatively solve problems encountered.  In order to truly grow as a teacher, I need to constantly be challenged myself.  Fortunately, I do have the pleasure of working with one young man this year who is proving to be quite a tough chunk of granite.  He has struggles with executive functioning skills, is very self-absorbed, struggles to see the reality of situations, and is very deficient in math, reading comprehension, and writing.  This, combined with the fact that his family just welcomed a new baby into the fold, makes him one hard rock to crack.  He is the only student in our class who is constantly challenged by our expectations and has yet to buy into our sixth grade program.  My co-teacher and I discuss this one student on a daily basis during our free periods and team meetings.  He often does not appropriately complete homework assignments and struggles to meet many of the graded objectives across all of our classes.  Our goal for the year, is to help him find the joy in school and learning.  While we don’t expect him to be an A student by any means, we want to help him see the value in school and learning.  We want him to find the fun in learning about new topics and solving problems in creative ways.  We want him to find the polished gemstone that is buried deep under his hard, rocky exterior.  It’s an interesting and sometimes frustrating journey that we are on with this student this year, but one we are excited to have embarked upon.

We began a research project on Africa yesterday in my Humanities class.  The students chose topics and began locating reputable resources from which they can mine for wonderful knowledge nuggets.  While almost every student had chosen a topic and began searching for online resources by the end of class yesterday, our one special student was unable to choose a meaningful topic.  He struggled to brainstorm appropriate ideas that would allow him to learn new information. He attempted to choose topics he already knew much about.  He wasn’t trying to challenge himself and was clearly using a fixed mindset in approaching the task.  My co-teacher and I worked with him on separate occasions, trying to help him find an engaging and appropriate topic for the project, to no avail.  He seemed determined to do what he wanted to do, which prevented him from being able to demonstrate his ability to meet several of the assessed objectives.

This morning in our study skills class, the students continued working on this research project.  This one student spent the period reading through an article on a topic that we had not approved, instead of trying to brainstorm and settle upon a new topic that would help him to grow and develop as a student.  My co-teacher and I were at a loss.  How can we help inspire him to choose a more meaningful topic?  How can we help him want to learn for the sake of learning?  How can we best support this student?  No answers came to us.  We were beginning to get frustrated, but we certainly were not giving up.  We just needed to be patient and persistent, which ended up paying off later in the day.

During my Humanities class, the students had another opportunity to continue working on this hefty research project in class.  The boys dug into their topics and sources like archeologists on a quest to discover a new dinosaur.  They were so excited looking for information and facts to help them understand their topics.  Many of the boys couldn’t help but share their finds with their table partner or me.  This one challenging student began the period, stuck, unable to choose a topic that he was interested in or knew very little about.  So, I stopped and had a chat with him.  I talked to him about why I am challenging him to choose a topic that would allow him to think critically.  I offered him some examples before providing him with time to work independently.  A few minutes later, I stopped to check-in on him, and lo and behold, he had chosen a more appropriate topic.  While it was still lumpy and needed to be ironed out a bit, it was a topic that will require much critical thinking to investigate.  So, I probed him a bit, trying to help him see how to whittle his broad topic down to a more meaningful chunk that would be easy for him to dig into.  Finally, with much support and scaffolding, he had generated and chosen an appropriate topic for his research project.  While it took much effort, patience, and persistence on my part, I was able to help him find his polished parts buried beneath his hard, outer shell.

This timeline of how he worked in class yesterday and today is very typical of him.  It takes him much time to get into an assignment or project before he buys in and begins to see the fun in the task of learning.  We have noticed that the time between him using a fixed mindset and then changing to a growth mindset is decreasing as the academic year progresses.  He’s breaking down his own walls, as he transforms from a mountain of rock into a stone statue with the ability to solve problems and think critically.  As his teacher, I just need to be patient, offer him much support and help, persist and never give up on him, and he will continue to be chipped away until only a soft and pliable inner core remains.  While this task proves difficult on a daily basis, it is one I frequently get excited for, as it allows me to grow and develop as a teacher.  Finding new ways to help support and challenge my students has helped me to become a better educator.

Transforming Daily Reading Quizzes into Meaningful Assessments

As a young, inexperienced English teacher, I was often confused as to my role in the classroom.  Am I the content enforcer or the guide from the side?  I struggled to understand how to be an effective English teacher back then.  While in the midst of reading class novels, I thought I needed to assess my students, daily, on their nightly reading assignments.  Aren’t I supposed to make sure that they are doing the reading outside of class, I often thought.  So, I crafted daily reading quizzes that included questions regarding specific parts of the assigned reading.  In fact, I made some of the questions tricky and difficult on purpose, to ensure that my students were indeed keeping up with the reading.  It’s my responsibility to hold my students accountable, I thought, to maintain control in the classroom.  This need for control caused me to do some crazy things.  Even though my students were completing the reading outside of class, they were unable to successfully complete the daily reading quizzes, as they couldn’t remember the minute details I questioned them on.  The grades my students received in my English class many eons ago were not reflective of their progress or ability, but instead highlighted their inability to pay attention to useless information in the books we read in class.  Many of my students became so frustrated and angered with these daily reading quizzes, that they just stopped reading the class novels altogether.  They saw no reason in keeping up with the reading when it didn’t help them do well on the daily reading checks.  This dischord in the classroom created an atmosphere of spite that prevented genuine learning and assessment from taking place.  Because I had created these challenging reading quizzes, my students had become disengaged in class.  They no longer cared about English or reading.  My need for control and accountability caused my students to become angry and apathetic.  I had changed from a teacher into a dictator.

After a few horrendous years in the classroom, I took a step back and finally realized the injustice that was happening.  I was an ineffective teacher.  After much reflection, learning, practice, and growth, I changed my evil ways.  I discovered that great teachers empower their students by engaging them in the content and curriculum.  Effective English teachers help students learn how to be great readers, thinkers, writers, and problem solvers by asking meaningful and relevant questions that create healthy discourse in the classroom.  My goal as a teacher is to ensure that my students master the foundational skills needed to be successful students and people.  Knowing the color of a character’s shirt is not going to help my students be prepared for seventh grade English.  Instead, I need to allow my students opportunities to practice utilizing the effective reading strategies that will enable them to become strong, thoughtful readers and thinkers.

And so, I no longer make use of daily reading quizzes to trick and confuse my students.  You’re probably wondering how I make sure my students are reading outside of class.  That’s easy.  I allow my students to choose books that interest them.  When students are reading novels and books that they enjoy reading, they will read outside of class because they want to and not because they have to.  I work to instill a love of reading within my students.  To do this, I make use of the Reader’s Workshop model of reading instruction.  Now, this doesn’t mean that my students and I don’t have a book or novel in common.  In fact, the weekly mini-lessons for Reader’s Workshop make use of class read-aloud novels.  I use the read-aloud novels as vehicles for teaching the reading strategies my students will need to become great readers.  Periodically throughout the year, I assess students on their use of the reading strategies covered to ensure that they are properly and effectively prepared for the seventh grade.  To do this, I have the students complete a reading assessment based on our current read-aloud novel.  These assessments include a wide variety of questions, allowing me to know if my students have mastered the reading strategies covered.  The questions are not tricky in any way.  In fact, my students can use any form of notes they’ve taken during our read-aloud discussions and I address any questions they have regarding the assessment itself before they complete it.  I want my students to feel confident and comfortable.  I don’t want them to be stressed in any way while completing these reading assessments, as I want my students to see these assessments as opportunities.  If they struggle to demonstrate their ability to use any of the reading strategies assessed, I work with them outside of class to help them master the reading skills needed to be successful readers in seventh grade and beyond.  These assessments are about creating an atmosphere of care in the classroom.  I want my students to know that I care about them and  want to be sure they are properly prepared for their future English classes.  My method of teaching has changed from dictator to caregiver.

Today in my Humanities class, the students completed a reading assessment on our current read-aloud novel A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park.  Not only does this novel directly tie into our unit on Africa, but it is also a fabulous book for covering important reading strategies the students will need to grow into successful readers.  Before having the students begin the assessment, I reviewed each of the questions with the class, allowing them to ask any clarifying questions.  Today’s assessment had the students answer three basic comprehension questions regarding the major plot events that we’ve covered in the novel thus far, draw a picture of a scene from the novel that they were able to visualize very well, and make a prediction based on what they think will happen next for our two characters Nya and Salve.  One student asked, “So the prediction question doesn’t have a right or wrong answer, right Mr. Holt?”  I then explained how he was correct and that it’s about the support you use in making your claim.  I love it when my students realize that assessments don’t have to be big and scary tests that often confuse or trick students.  Effective assessments empower students to strut their stuff and show what they know.  All of my students exquisitely demonstrated their ability to utilize the reading strategies practiced so far this year.  More than anything though, they felt safe and cared for during the assessment.  No one was ever overly stressed or anxious about it.  They took their time and showed me what they know about how to be great readers.  It was awesome!

Thankfully, for my students sake, I’ve grown and developed a lot as an educator in the last 15 years.  I know what it takes to engage students in the curriculum while challenging and supporting them to grow into effective global citizens.  While assessments are a vital part of the educational process, creating meaningful assessments that allow our students to showcase what they truly know is crucial.  Daily reading quizzes that cause frustration and confusion amongst students are ineffective tools in checking for understanding within our students.  Reading assessments that focus on the big ideas within a text or allow students to demonstrate their ability to utilize various reading strategies covered throughout the year are effective assessment tools.  English teachers need to find ways to transform convoluted reading quizzes into meaningful reading assessments to best support and help their students, because no one wants to make their students feel the way my students did when I first started teaching.

Take Risks and Try New Things; if You Fail, Fix Your Mistakes and Try Again

Recently, my school decided to partner with a local community outreach group to better help our students understand gender-based issues.  While we in the sixth grade loved what the group did with our students, I have heard many other teachers vent about how inappropriate and ineffective the special programming was.  Not everyone is going to like everything schools try, but I love the fact that we tried something.  Although it perhaps didn’t work for everybody, I’m hoping that we can learn from this experience and tweak it for next year.  Just because something fails when you try it the first time, doesn’t mean you should give up on it.  We need to learn from this experience so that we can make it better for next year’s students.

Risk taking and failure is how innovation and invention come about.  We can’t expect that every idea we have will succeed.  We are bound to fail, and that’s okay.  What matters is what we do when we fail.  If we use the failed experience to teach us how to not do something, then we will grow and develop.  This same rule applies in the classroom.  When our students take risks and try new things, we need to applaud their effort regardless of the outcome.  If they fail, we need to help them understand how to learn from the experience in order to grow and develop.

As a teacher, I need to practice what I preach.  Today in my Humanities class, I tried a new method of class discussion.  Every Saturday, we discuss current events in the world around us.  For the fall term, I guided the discussion by calling on students.  At the beginning of the winter term, I introduced the concept of Socratic Discussion and had the boys guide their own discussions based on a topic or question.  While I was not involved in the conversations, I observed the discussions and graded them on their ability to participate in a class discussion.  This week, I wanted to provide the students with a bit more choice as a way of engaging them in the topic of current events.  So, I had the students suggest five major topics or news stories that they wanted to discuss, and I listed them on the whiteboard.  I then had the boys self-select a group based on their interests.  While one group being led by a student went swimmingly, the other groups were disastrous.  The boys were mostly unfocused and distracted.  They were not even discussing the topic at hand.  They were loud and made it difficult for the effective group to hear what was being discussed.  At the close of the activity this morning, I shared this feedback with the students.  I also told them that we would be changing the method with which we discuss current events next week as they couldn’t handle the independence and responsibility that came with small group discussions.  While my initial reaction was to never utilize this method of discussion again, once I had time to reflect on the experience, I realize that I just need to make some slight alterations to the activity before making use of it again in the classroom.  I don’t need to throw it out and start over; I just need to fix what is broken.

Ideas for improvement:

  • Allow the students to offer suggestions for the discussion, but then select the best three topics on my own.  Less options might make the decision easier for the boys.  It would also allow me to eradicate ineffective ideas, which I should have done today.
  • Set ground rules for the discussion.
    • Students need to stay in one group for the entire time.
    • Students need to actively and appropriately add to the discussion.
    • The volume needs to be one that is not distracting to the other groups.
    • Students in the group will grade each other on their performance in the discussion at the close of the activity.  This will push the boys to make good choices and utilize the Habit of Learning of Ownership.
  • Have the student who suggested the idea be the facilitator for the discussion.  This will help bring form and function to the discussion.

So, although today’s new discussion method did not go as planned, I am going to use this experience as a learning opportunity.  I’m not going to stop trying new things in the classroom.  I’m going to continue taking risks to better support and challenge my students.  When lessons or activities fail, I’m going to determine what went wrong and fix it so that it can be recycled instead of just throwing it out altogether.  As teachers, we need to be constantly challenging ourselves to grow and develop.  Trying new things in the classroom, allows us to do just that.  We can’t be afraid of failure.  In fact, we need to embrace failure so that we learn as much, if not more, than our students.  I tell my students all of the time, “I’m not sure who the real teacher in this classroom is, you guys or me?”  Isn’t that what we want?  We want to be role models and students ourselves.  So, let’s go out and try new things.

The Beauty in Teaching

As the bright and beautiful orange-hued sun slowly seemed to disappear behind the horizon just outside my window, I was reminded of how absolutely amazing our world truly is.  Despite all of the conflict and horror stories in the form of news that seem to fill our screens on a daily basis, there is much beauty in the world: Sunsets, ocean waves, snow-covered mountains, my wife, and UGG boots are but a few of these daily reminders.  It is so very easy to get caught up in the daily rigamarole of life.  Between raising a teenager, preparing for classes, reading the news, and grading student work, it makes sense that my stress level is almost always at defcon 1.  Recently, I’ve been trying to live in the moment and focus on all of the positive and happy things in my life, as a way to reduce the production of cortisol in my brain.  And let’s just say that it’s a work in progress.  What really helps is when I can simply stop and enjoy the little things in life, such as watching the sun set outside my window or rubbing my wife’s cute little feet.  In those moments, all of the challenges constantly bombarding my life seem to magically fade away for a brief moment as a sense of calm overcomes me.  Life truly is wonderful and beautiful in every way, and these moments allow me to see things more clearly.  The difficulties and stress-inducing moments facing me on a daily basis are what allow me to more genuinely appreciate all of the sublime and magnificent experiences life has to offer.

Teaching is one of those wonderfully marvelous experiences that remind me just how lucky I am to be alive.  No matter what happens in the classroom, good or bad, teaching fills me with a sense of peace and excitement.  I’m excited watching my students grow and develop and am overcome with peace while in the midst of an engaging activity in the classroom.  Today provided me with yet another spectacular, metaphorical sunset in the classroom.  Not only were my students engaged in the lesson, but I was in the zone while teaching.  I took a basic discussion on stereotypes and perspective and transformed it into an empowering talk about how to prevent the use and creation of stereotypes when learning new information.

We began our new unit on Africa today in my Humanities class.  I began class by having the students review the big ideas learned in the Globe to Flat Map Project we completed before the holiday vacation.  I posed two questions to the students that helped focus their thoughts on the power of perspective when learning about new information or a new region of the world.  The boys seemed to understand how one’s perspective shapes how new information is learned.  I wanted to get them thinking about how the way we view the world impacts how we learn about it as well.  I then had the students read about the Nacirema culture of people.  If you’ve never learned about this unique tribe of people, I highly suggest checking it out HERE.  The boys worked with their table partner to read the article and discuss a few guiding questions.  I observed them as they worked and chuckled internally as looks of shock and awe filled their faces while they processed the article and Nacirema culture.  They found it so weird that the people visited medicine men and had mouth rituals.  After the students finished the activity, I brought the students together for a short debriefing discussion.  I asked them a few questions about this strange group of people to be sure that the big reveal would have much power.  I then explained to them that this article is a different perspective on the American people.  They looked surprised and stunned by this revelation until they started to really dissect what the article had stated.  They realized that the author simply found a unique way to describe everything that we as Americans do on a daily basis.  Because we have only one perspective of the world, it’s easy to forget that there are infinite ways to interpret and see the world around us.

This then led into a discussion of stereotypes and how they form.  The students discussed a few questions altogether as a group while learning what stereotypes are and how we can prevent them from spreading.  When learning about new information, it’s important to utilize our perspective to view and analyze this information, but we also need to use a growth mindset and take in this new information through many different lenses.  I want my students to know that they should never accept something they learn at face value.  I want them to ask questions and find out more about something before they create and formulate their own thoughts or opinions on a topic.  Education leads to an open mind, which allows for stereotypes to be squashed instead of utilized and multiplied.

I closed the lesson with a quick picture activity in which I showed the students two different pictures, one of Kenya and one of Detroit, Michigan.  I asked the students to observe the pictures and speculate as to what type of people might live there.  I also asked them to hypothesize as to where in the world the pictures were taken.  Many of the students utilized their slightly biased and stereotypical prior knowledge when interpreting the pictures, as I expected.  When I shared with them what the pictures actually showed, they were a bit surprised.  I then reminded them of the importance of keeping an open mind when learning about new things.  Take in much information in order to effectively broaden your perspective on the world, I told them.  Several students stayed behind after class to share some interesting information and thoughts with me on today’s topic.  They were curious and engaged in what we learned.  They are excited to learn more about this special and unique part of our world.

As my goal is to prepare my students for meaningful lives in a global society, I need to be sure they know how to analyze and interpret all of the information with which they will be faced.  Helping them to see how their perspective plays a role in how they view and learn about the world, is crucial.  My hope is that they will now be able to go into our unit on Africa with a growth mindset, asking lots of questions and wanting for more knowledge on the various topics we’ll be discussing.

Following an amazing lesson like the one I had today in my classroom, I am reminded just how much beauty exists right in front of me.  I don’t need to travel to exotic places to see amazing things.  I need only to stop and observe my students as they grow and develop into critical thinkers and creative problem solvers.  Listening to my students discuss a new culture and new information as they wrestled with their own biases and stereotypical thoughts, filled me with such joy and reminded me why I became a teacher in the first place.  Educating others while spreading happiness and kindness is what it’s all about.  While it took a sunset for me to stop and see the beautiful things right in front of me today, at least I was provided the opportunity to reflect and recall what really matters in life.

How to Make the Most Difficult Students Not Seem so Difficult

I recently set a goal for myself regarding my interactions with two challenging students in my class, as I felt that I wasn’t always making use of my patient parts while talking, responding, or reacting to choices these students made.  I felt like the wick in my candle for dealing with them was almost nonexistent.  I usually reacted to choices they made instead of responding to or engaging them in a discussion.  My goal is to be more empathetic and compassionate when interacting with these two students.  I want to show them that I truly care about them.  While this time of year between Thanksgiving Break and the upcoming holiday break can be quite stressful for students and teachers, I felt it prudent to focus my energy on being more patient and caring regarding these two students.  I don’t want the anxiety of this short time period to get the best of me and cause me to act in an unkind or impatient manner towards these two students.  So, I set my goal and began working on meeting it.

After several days of being mindful and thoughtful in how I interact with these students, I feel as though I’m off to a fine start in working towards this goal.

  • I keep the goal at the forefront of my mind when I’m in the classroom or around these two students.
  • I started noticing all of the little, good things these two boys are doing.
    • One of the students helped his roommate carry his skis to and from the ski hill on our campus during our Marble Party (when the students fill the Marble Jar in our classroom from working together as a family, they earn a special party that they decide upon together as a group) yesterday.  He wasn’t asked to do this.  He saw that his roommate was struggling and so went to assist him on his own accord.  I praised him for this choice and wrote him a Good Conduct Slip (when students make good or bad choices, we document them in an internal computer system that all faculty members have access to).  This seemed to make him feel good about himself and the choices he was making.  It led to him continuing to make more great choices all day.
    • As for the other student, I observed how he and his partner, who have struggled to get along all year, were working together productively during today’s work period for the Globe to Flat Map Project in my Humanities class.  I praised both him and his partner for their great work and coexistence.  This seemed to help the student continue to work effectively with his partner for the remainder of the period.
  • I take a sincere interest in what they have to say and actively listen when they talk to me about anything and everything.  I ask them questions about their lives to learn more about them as a way to develop more empathy when interacting with them.
    • One of the students recently became a big brother when his mother had another child a few weeks ago.  I make sure to ask him how his little brother is doing on an almost daily basis.  I want this student to see that he is cared for instead of being constantly talked to for making poor choices.
    • The other student loves playing hockey and so I make sure to ask him how his team did following game days.  I engage him in a conversation about the game and his performance.
  • When I’ve needed to address these two students regarding poor choices made in the past few days, I’ve listened actively when they talked and didn’t respond or react.  I listened and asked probing questions.  I empathized with them instead of scolding them for making inappropriate choices.  I want them to see that I care about them and want to hear what they have to say even when they’ve made bad choices.

So far, all of this hard work on my part has paid off.  I’ve had less issues with these two students in class, and when issues did arise, they were easily managed as the boys trust and respect me now.  They are beginning to see that I’m on their team and not against them.  It feels good to know that my choices are having a positive impact on them.  I just needed to change my thinking and mindset a bit.  While we should be doing these things for all of our students, it can be challenging at times when interacting with the same difficult students over and over again.  Sometimes, we just need to take a deep breath, be patient, and listen when feeling challenged by our difficult students.  This allows us to be mindful in the classroom while also making difficult situations and students seem not so difficult.