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

Summer Reading Professional Development Text: Lost at School

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

Some takeaways:

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

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

Posted in Challenges, Change, Education, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

How Can We Help Our Students See their Fears and Anxieties About School as Normal?

This past Tuesday, some colleagues and I celebrated the beginning of our lengthy summer vacation by going to Portland, Maine.  I haven’t had so much fun since I can’t remember when.  Despite the dreary and cold weather, we walked around the Old Port like we owned the town.  We munched on tasty food and talked about non-school stuff; although, that was difficult at times since our common tie is life at a boarding school.  We tried.  We laughed, we got drenched as cars drove through puddles splashing rain upon us, and we sang and danced like nobody’s business.  Yes, that’s right, I said sang.  You see, the reason we went to Maine was to see City and Colour live in concert.  As my pals and I are enamored by Dallas Green’s sultry voice and insightful lyrics, we convinced some of our other teacher friends to come along for the epic journey.  And epic it was.  He played all of his best tunes including an acoustic version of Coming Home that went right into the end of This Could be Anywhere in the World by Alexisonfire, Dallas’ other band.  We almost cried.  As most of the people we went with enjoyed the show, it was really my two closest friends and I who were the most into the show.  We danced the night away.  You see, music moves us like the pied piper moved his mice.  I used to be worried what people around us must think when they see us dancing, “Those people must be drunk or on drugs.”  The beauty of it all is that I am completely sober during concerts.  Music fills my body with joy and I can’t help but move.  Sure, people point and giggle occasionally, but I no longer care.  I realize that if I feel something, I should show it.  So, I do, and so do my concert buddies.  We move to the rhythm of each song as if we are dancers in our own private ballet.  It’s so much fun.  Going to a concert is an experience for us and so I’m sure to leave my fears and anxieties at the metal detectors.

Like me, my students enter our classroom each year filled with fears and anxieties about all sorts of things.  “Will the other students like me?  Will I fit in?  Can I handle the workload?”  As a teacher, I make it a goal to help assuage this fear within my students by creating a safe, caring, compassionate, and supportive environment in the classroom.  Although the beginning of the year is generally the most stressful time for students due to the many unknown variables, the end of the year can also prove to be a bit challenging for our students as well.  After a wonderful year in the classroom, the students begin to worry about next year as the current academic year winds to a close.  They worry about the new students and teachers as well as the many changes that are sure to come in a new grade.  Instead of sending our students off on summer vacation stressed about the next school year, it’s important to help the students see that their fears and worries are a normal part of growing up and maturing.

On the last day of school at my wonderful educational institution, which came and went last Thursday, we devoted time to having the students reflect on the year and share their excitement and fears for seventh grade.  While my co-teacher and I wanted the students to celebrate all of the awesomeness that happened in the sixth grade classroom this year, we also wanted the students to realize that their fears are most likely the same concerns that their peers have.  “I’m worried about the homework load next year.  I’m worried about not fitting in.  I’m worried that the teachers won’t like me.  I’m worried that the new students won’t like me.”  By having the boys share their worries for next year aloud with their peers, they not only had the opportunity to be validated by the teachers and their friends, but they also had a chance to become allies with the other students so that they can work together to help each other overcome the fears they possess.  As we fostered a strong sense of community within the class this past year, we are hopeful that they will take care of one another next year.  Knowing what worries their peers will help them better support each other as they move into the seventh grade.  Helping the students to see that they have friends who support and empathize with them will help make the transition into the next academic year a bit smoother for our boys.

Posted in Challenges, Curriculum, Education, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Being Flexible with Time in the Classroom

Downward facing dog, no thank you.  Yoga is not for me.  The repetition drives me nuts.  While I wish I was a bit more flexible, physically speaking, I do try and stretch at least once every day.  I find stretching to be therapeutic, unlike yoga.  I rarely have muscle and joint problems because of this stretching and resultant slight flexibility.   Sure, I could work on my flexibility a bit more on a daily basis, but I do feel as though completing my back arches and sunken bridges for ten seconds every morning, Monday through Friday, have made a huge difference.  I can now bend over and touch my toes without bending my knees all the way forward.  Progress, thanks in part to my flexibility and amazing stretching routine.

As a teacher, being flexible in other ways is a crucial skill to possess.  Things don’t always go as planned and students don’t always do what we’d like them to no matter how many reminders with which they are provided.  Life happens and teachers need to be able to go with the flow.  Although I am a creature of habit, I’ve tried in recent years, to be much more willing to just be and accept life and all its craziness for what it is, life.  So, rather than get all bent out of shape, mentally speaking that is as my physical body never falls out of shape due to my rigorous daily stretching routine, when a student doesn’t hand in his homework, I try to find out the root cause of the issue and support the student appropriately while also holding him accountable for the learning.  It’s made a world of a difference in the classroom because I’m making it all about us rather than a students vs the teacher situation.  We’re all in this together and so we need to take care of one another, is the message I am trying to convey to my students by being more flexible with due dates, time, and options.

Today marked the final Reader’s Workshop session in my Humanities class for the academic year.  My goal was to conference, one last time, with each student to review his reading goals and go over his current Humanities class grade.  As next Thursday is the last day of school for my students, I wanted to be able to help them wrap up their reading progress and let them know what they will need to focus on next year, as readers, in the seventh grade.  I figured I would have enough time in the 80-minute block to meet with each student, but I was sorely mistaken.  Some of the conversations went on a bit longer as I wanted to be sure that the students understood the strategies they will need to employ next year to be successful readers.  I also wanted to provide the students ample time to ask any questions they had regarding their grade for the course with only one week remaining before grades close.  Because of this, I ended up cutting into my STEM class by about 10 minutes.

Now, while some teachers might have had a conniption fit regarding this loss of class time, we are all about flexibility in the sixth grade.  From day one, we told the students that the time limits and constraints stated on their class schedules were merely suggestions.  Because my co-teacher and I are with the students for almost every class period on a daily basis, we are able to use more or less time for classes and lessons depending on what is being covered.  The class start and end times are approximations of what we try to shoot for, but we also realize that life happens in the classroom and we want to make sure we allow time for that as well.  The boys have gotten very comfortable with this approach to class times and know that class is over when we transition into the next one.  So, when the official class time had been breached today during Humanities class, no one said a thing.  The students kept right on reading while I finished up conferencing with every student.  It was amazing.  Once I had completed conferencing with every student, I talked to the boys about what had happened.  I praised them for their flexibility and willingness to just go with the flow.  I mentioned how important these conferences were and that I wanted to be able to meet with every student before transitioning into STEM class.  I didn’t look at the time until I had met with every student, I said to them.  One of the students commented, “I didn’t even realize what time it was.  I was having so much fun reading.”  Statements like that one embody the wonderfully caring, compassionate, and engaged class I am so lucky to be working with this year.  They get it.  They understand why we approach things the way we do in the sixth grade.  They all seem to realize that everything we do in the sixth grade is to best support and challenge the students so that they can grow into the best possible version of themselves.

Time shouldn’t be fixed.  It should be flexible to allow for creativity, questioning, deep dives into the material, and anything else that happens to come up.  As time is a human creation, it’s not the end-all-be-all of life.  Effective and great teachers realize that and are flexible with their schedule.  Wouldn’t it be great if all teachers were to take this approach and be open to having less time for a class, lesson, or period one day and then more the next?  Imagine how many more cool things could be accomplished if this were the case.  Imagine how many more insightful questions and discussions would be had in the classroom.  Imagine how many more projects could be completed if all teachers were open to being flexible with time.  Wow, anything could be possible if time was merely a guide and not a wall created to keep life in neat and organized boxes.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Learning, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

Competition vs Cooperation

In a WWF (or as we now know it WWE) style steel cage match, competition would totally crush cooperation’s butt.  Blood would be shed and someone would lose a tooth or three.  It would probably be close for most of the match as cooperation would work well with itself to get the job done driving in punches and dodging jabs, but in the end, competition would fight hard to be number one and deal cooperation the death-blow in the final seconds of the match.  It would be an epic battle that I would totally pay to see on TV like back in the day.  Summer Slam was always my favorite wrestling event as it came in the middle of summer when I was on school vacation and so my dad would let me stay up to watch the whole thing.  For Wrestlemania, my parents would record it on the VCR for me as it was generally on a Sunday night and I had school the next day.  Ahh, the good ol’ days of shouting matches and fake fighting.  It didn’t get much better than that.

As a classroom teacher, I’ve read all the research on creating a competitive classroom environment versus creating an atmosphere of cooperation amongst the students.  Both approaches have their positives and negatives.  Competition drives students to put forth great effort so that they can earn more points or do better than their classmates.  This motivation helps students to do well, generally, when competition is involved in the classroom.  Team games or projects that have a prize or winning component energize the students and get them excited about learning and accomplishing a task.  At the same time though, this extreme competition can drive students to be unkind to their teammates or act in a disrespectful manner as they try to best their classmates.  On the flipside, cooperation pulls students together towards a common goal.  The students act as a singular, family-like unit to complete a task, game, or project.  They help one another and utilize compassion when interacting with their classmates as they are all trying to complete a task together.  Sometimes, though, when cooperation is involved, those students who lack the social skills or strategies needed to be an active member of a team usually do nothing to very little, forcing their teammates to pick up the slack.  This then creates tension amongst the students as fairness plays a huge part in their mental state when issues like this arise.  So, which learning and teaching approach is most effective to help students best learn vital skills needed to be successful students living meaningful lives in a global society?

Today in STEM class, the students finished working on their presentations for Saturday’s big Climate Change Solutions Exposition taking place in the classroom.  Faculty members will be serving as judges while the students present their solutions regarding the problems of global warming and climate change.  It will be organized very much like a science fair.  Each pair of students will be assigned a table and area of the room in which they can set up their digital presentation, prototype, and other materials.  The boys will then try to convince the faculty judges as to why and how their solution is the most viable and best solution to help solve the problem of climate change on Earth.  The students have spent the past several weeks working on creating their solution, prototype, and presentation.  Much research, energy, problem solving, and critical thinking has gone into completing this project.  The boys are pumped and excited as they are vying for a huge prize if they have the solution voted best by the judges.  The energy in the room during the past several work periods has been incredibly positive.  The boys have been focused on their solution and presentation, without being negative or trying to bring other groups down.  The students will even help members of other groups when problems are encountered.  It’s been quite amazing.  For me, competition has been a valuable motivator and tool for the students.  They have worked harder on this project than they have on any previous STEM group project.  Why is this?

I think the big answer is because of the way we have structured the class this year.  We worked tirelessly during the first two months of school to foster a sense of caring and kindness amongst the students.  We explored how to work effectively with others as well as how to encounter and approach problems faced when working with other students.  This atmosphere of support and compassion helped us to create a culture of caring within the sixth grade.  No matter what the project or task is, the students support and care for each other.  It’s amazing to see this in action.  The boys truly do act like a family, taking care of one another.  I think, because we created this family environment within the classroom, the students approached this competitive STEM group project like any other task faced with this year, with love and respect.  For this reason alone, competition is a strongly motivating force of good for the students.  If we had not fostered this sense of trust and support amongst the students, this project based on competition would not be going as well as it is.  Setting students up for success isn’t just about academic content and standards, it’s about teaching students how to be good and kind citizens.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Teachers or Technology Police?

Back when I was in school, computers were far from portable and not that much fun to play with.  The coolest thing I was able to do on the old Macintosh computers my school had was make a turtle go up, down, left, or right on the screen.  And let’s be honest, that wasn’t very cool at all.  I didn’t really enjoy using technology or computers when I was a student.  The coolest piece of technology equipment my teachers used was the film projector.  Now that was a cool piece of technology.  I loved watching filmstrips in school.

Fast forward many, many years to now and everything is entirely different.  Not only have the students changed, but so has everything else.  Technology is small, portable, and really awesome.  You can watch movies, play games, listen to music, and so many other things on a small and very portable device.  Technology and computers can also be fantastic learning devices in school as well.  Students can learn how to code, make movies, create music, and design new products.  The possibilities are endless.  Long gone are the days of moving turtles on a green computer screen.

With this new technology comes new challenges for teachers and schools as well.  How do we address and effectively utilize technology in the classroom?  Do students have computers or devices?  Which device is the best to use?  How do we teach students to use technology as a tool and not a toy when in the classroom?  How do we set our students up for success when using technology in and out of the classroom?  So many questions and so many problems to be solved.  My school decided to go the route of 1-to-1, and so each student is provided a laptop.  Teachers are expected to help the students learn to properly use the device and make use of it as part of the learning process in every class.  Lots of good has come from this.  I have students designing inventions to help solve the issue of global warming and learning how to code in the language of Python using the online application Code Combat.  These laptops have been so amazing for my students this year

Recently though, I’ve noticed that my students have gotten a bit sneaky with how they use them.  They have multiple windows open at once and switch between games, videos, and work while they are learning and working.  They play games and watch videos when I’m working with or helping other students and then actually do work when I walk by.  Despite all of the teaching we’ve done throughout the year in the classroom about how to use the laptop as a tool, some of the students treat it like a toy.  I’ve been feeling a lot more like a technology patrol officer than a teacher for some students over the past several days.  Rather than complete their work to demonstrate their ability to meet and exceed graded objectives and to ensure that they have no homework, some of the boys have been misusing their technology tool.  I mentioned this issue to the boys the other day and asked for their feedback.  While they also noticed this issue to be a problem, they offered no possible solutions.  I don’t want to feel like a technology police officer in the classroom.  I want to help support and challenge all of my students.  So, how can I do this and trust that the other students are making positive choices regarding their laptops?

Three possible ideas I’ve brainstormed to address this issue:

  • Have the students work on the opposite sides of of tables so that all of their laptop screens are facing the center of the room.  This way, I can easily help one student while scanning the other screens for good choices.  We utilize this model during evening study hall and it works very well.
  • If I suspect a student is misusing his laptop during the class day, I can close it and not allow him to use it for the remainder of that particular period.  In order to earn it back, he has to complete a tedious writing activity.
  • Help the students remember our class mantra, “We are a family, and families take care of each other.”  Remind the students to take care of their brothers by making sure they are not misusing technology in the classroom.

I’m at a loss for other ideas and so started by implementing options two and three in the classroom on Tuesday.  It seemed to really help.  I did not have to take away any laptops, as everyone was focused on what they needed to do.  I think they might have also been helping keep each other focused as well.  Today, however, I did have to confiscate two laptops as the students were playing a game.  To earn it back at the end of the period, they had to craft a complete paragraph, by hand, explaining why games should not be played during the academic day.  This took away from their time to work in class, which means that these two students will have extra homework to complete outside of class tonight instead of playing games or doing other fun things.  They seemed to learn from their mistake.  It was also great for the other students to see how serious I am about proper use of technology in the classroom.  Although these two strategies seem to be working so far, will they keep working?  Is there more I should be doing to help my students see technology as a tool and not a toy?  What other strategies could I be implementing so that I feel more like a teacher and less like a technology police officer?  I do believe that there is power in talking to the students about what I see happening in the classroom.  I hope to have further conversations with them prior to the end of the year about proper use of technology in the classroom so that they are ready to be effective technology users in the seventh grade.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Learning, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

The Power of Natural Consequences

When I was about 17 years old, I wasn’t afraid of anything.  I was invincible.  Nothing scared me, except for the police.  I was deathly afraid of getting pulled over while driving, despite being a very safe teen driver.  I feel like that might be a bit of an oxymoron, teen driver; however, I was a relatively safe and cautious young driver because I was afraid of getting in trouble with the law.  Whenever I saw a parked police car, I slowed down to almost a crawl, even on the highway.

In the area in which I grew up, border patrol stops were common.  They would stop every car and check inside to be sure people weren’t smuggling drugs or people across state or country borders.  It was a common occurrence in the upper valley area.  I had seen these kinds of checkpoints on many occasions growing up.  I knew exactly how to react and what to do.  Despite this, after getting out of work late one evening, and knowing that there was a border patrol checkpoint on the highway, I decided to take a different route home.  While this route was much longer and out of my way, it prevented me from having to get on the highway, thus, missing the border patrol stop.  The fear for me was real back then.  As I took this alternate way to get back to my house from work, I ended up getting a flat tire.  You see, I wasn’t particularly familiar with this the route and all of its turns.  So, when I took a sharp turn, I hit the curb, which sliced my tire, causing it to deflate.  As soon as it happened, I was so upset with myself.  Because I had let my fear get to me, I had gotten a flat tire.  The moral of this story is, don’t listen to those strange voices in your head that tell you to make bizarre choices simply to avoid getting in trouble.  Lesson learned for me, as I never took that long cut home again.  The natural consequence of getting a flat tire taught me to ignore that particular fear in the future.  Now if only I could learn to ignore my other irrational fears, all would be well in the world.

Natural consequences are my favorite as a father and teacher.  Rather than having to lecture students or provide them with consequences that may seem fitting, their choices can naturally provide them consequences while also, hopefully, teaching them an important lesson: Don’t do dumb things.  Although not every action comes with its own built-in natural consequence, some things do, as long as the teacher or caregiver is prepared to allow the child to make his or her own choices.  Sometimes as parents and teachers, we are over-protective and don’t allow our children to learn from their choices. We tend to try and shelter children from harm.  Rather than let a student figure out what happens when they eat glue, we constantly monitor the students and remind them not to eat the glue.  What we need to do is allow children to make choices that might not be the ones we would choose for them, but one’s that provide them with freedom so that they can learn from their mistakes.  Choices with natural consequences are perfect for doing just that.

Yesterday in the classroom, I was finally able to take my students back outside so that they could visit their assigned forest plot.  As the weather has been cold and rainy for the past several weeks, and since the snow just recently melted in some places on campus, the students have been unable to observe their forest plots.  So, I needed to capitalize on yesterday’s moderately good weather.  Now, because of the crazy unspring like weather we’ve been having in recent months, I knew that the forest would be a bit damp and mucky.  So, I told the students to be sure they borrowed boots from the classroom so that their feet wouldn’t get wet.  While a few students took me up on the offer, a fair amount of the boys seemed to think like I once did, that they were invincible.  Their feet will never get wet.  Oh how sorely mistaken they were.  Three students wearing sneakers or dress shoes stepped right into a giant puddle or muddy bog, completely soaking their socks and shoes.  Those students, of course, immediately came running to me when this happened, begging to go back to their room to change.  I reminded them of the school rule that no students may return to the dorms during the academic morning.  Being the teachable moment kind of teacher, I then responded with, “Why didn’t you borrow a pair of boots from the classroom?”  They then responded back with, “I didn’t think it would be this wet.”  Of course they didn’t because they are impenetrable.  Oh to be young again.

Walking back to the classroom with one of the students who had drenched feet, we discussed the idea of natural consequences.  He asked me why he couldn’t go back to his room to change.  I reminded him, again, of the school rule and added, “Having to sit in wet shoes and socks for 30 minutes will hopefully teach you a valuable lesson so that next week when we go outside to visit our forest plots again, you will remember to borrow boots from the classroom so that you don’t get wet feet.”  He didn’t have a witty comeback for that.  He just slowly moped back to the classroom.  While I always want to help and support my students in every way possible, breaking the rules for this student or forcing him to wear boots outside would prevent any actual learning from happening for him.  He needs to see that when he chooses to wear sneakers outside in the forest, they will get wet.  Now he knows.  I don’t like to see students suffer, ever, but they do need to learn, and clearly, my words of encouragement and suggestion did not help.  So, natural consequences it was.   I’m hopeful that these students who had to sit through the final 30 minutes of class with wet shoes will remember this experience next week when we go outside to observe the forest.  Perhaps they will heed my advice to wear boots.  I guess I’ll just have to wait and see how powerful natural consequences truly are.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Learning, Math, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

When Things Don’t Go as Planned in the Classroom

I like to think of myself as a classroom prognosticator.  I feel as though I am generally quite good at predicting the future in my classroom.  I know that if two particular students sit together, they will chat and distract each other all day long.  I also know that my students will be excited in Humanities class on Monday because they love Reader’s Workshop.  My crystal spherical object usually points me in the right direction.  Because I spend so much time planning and preparing for lessons, activities, and field trips, I almost always know how things will go in the classroom.  I need extra time for some lessons and less time for others.  I know these things to be true because I’ve experienced them before.  New things, lessons, or activities, on the other hand, are a different beast entirely.  While I am still pretty good at predicting how new things will go in the classroom, every once in awhile my prediction turns out to be wrong.  Now, why is this, you must be asking yourself.  If I am so good at reading the future on a daily basis, why do I struggle with predicting the outcome of new events?  It’s those unknown factors.  What if the technology doesn’t work properly?  What if students don’t understand my directions?  What if there is a fire drill during the lesson?  Those unknown variables are the ones that mess me up.  They are my kryptonite.  Although I try to prepare for every unknown situation, it’s just not possible.  I occasionally miss one or two variables every time I plan a new lesson.  Generally, those variables are so minute or not relevant that the lesson usually will still usually go as planned; however, there are exceptions to every rule.

Today saw one of those exceptions play out in my STEM class.  My goal was to help the students learn how to use the flashcard making application Quizlet to create flashcards for the vocabulary terms we’ve covered in our math unit.  I had the list of words already prepared and posted to our learning management system.  I checked it twice yesterday to make sure that it still worked.  I played around with Quizlet to be sure I knew how to navigate the website as well.  I even made a test set of flashcards to try out the games and test.  I felt ready and prepared.  I had thought of everything, except the biggest, most crucial part: What if the students can’t locate the vocabulary terms in their math book?  I failed to think about how they would locate the terms in their book.  What if the definition wasn’t in their book?  What if they needed to infer the meaning of the word from the book?  What if they couldn’t remember a certain concept?  Then what are they supposed to do?

After explaining the activity to the students, modeling how to use Quizlet, and answering all of their questions, I let them get to work.  Soon after they started working, the questions started pouring in.  “I can’t find the definition.  What if I don’t know what the word means?  I don’t understand this word?” many of the students said as they worked on the task of making math vocabulary flashcards.  I had forgotten to tell them how to use their book to find the words and what to do when a word wasn’t directly defined in the text.  While most students were able to draw conclusions on their own to solve the task, a few students struggled to complete this task because of the directions I had omitted.  Had I better explained this portion of the activity, they might have felt more successful and needed less of my support.  What I thought was going to take 15 minutes, ended up taking more than 30 minutes to complete.

The moral of this story is, I can’t predict the future no matter how hard I try.  Unknown variables are called that because no one knows what they are.  They are unknown for a reason.  I can’t possibly plan for every single issue, dilemma, or happening.  Luckily, I rolled with today’s lesson and most every student was able to finish the task by the end of class.  I felt a bit off though because I hadn’t properly prepared my students to complete the activity successfully.  Next time, I need to be sure I model how to complete the task and not just how to use the technology tool.  At the end of the period, I shared my thoughts and noticings with the students.  I explained how I thought this activity was going to be short and simple but ended up being a bit convoluted and took much longer than anticipated.  I shared with the boys how I need to better prepare for an activity like this in the future.  I need to be sure I show them how to complete an activity like this.  Although today’s STEM lesson didn’t go entirely as planned, it taught me an important life lesson and allowed me to show vulnerability to my students.  Even teachers make mistakes.  With a growth mindset, failure can quickly be transformed into an opportunity to learn.

Posted in Challenges, Co-Teaching, Curriculum, Education, Learning, Math, STEM, Students, Teaching

Is Collaboration an Effective Strategy for Teaching Math?

Sometimes I wish life came with an instruction manual.  Sure, it could be digital, but it would need to be prescriptive and descriptive, with diagrams.  In fact, it would probably be best in digital form as it would need to be millions of pages long.  I wonder what that might read like…

  1. Breathe.
  2. Cry.
  3. Drink mother’s milk.
  4. Poop.
  5. Pee.
  6. Sleep.
  7. Cry when you want to wake up.

There would truly be an infinite number of steps.  But wouldn’t it be nice to know how to deal with all that life throws your way?  I would really like validation regarding some of the things I’ve done in the classroom or at home as a husband and father.  Am I really doing the right thing?  Should I have done something differently?  Knowing, for certain, what I am supposed to do ahead of time in various situations would definitely help me feel more prepared.  This way I would also know if what I’m doing is the best option.  While I do like the freedom to choose and the excitement that comes from the unknown at times, I often question myself later on.  Did I handle that situation appropriately?  Could I have better addressed that issue?  Knowing what to do and being prepared at all times removes questioning from the equation altogether.  Imagine if you never needed to wonder how to deal with that student or address that issue with your child.  Wouldn’t that be great?

Since life doesn’t, sadly enough, come with instructions, I find myself often wondering if what I’m doing in the classroom is effective.  Is one teaching strategy better than another?  Today in my STEM class, the students worked on their assigned math course.  My co-teacher conducted a mini-lesson for the students in the supportive group while I lead a mini-lesson for the students in the accelerated group.  After the mini-lesson, which lasted about 15 minutes, the students got right to work on their assigned homework.  The students in each of the two groups, huddled together to complete the homework.  I was a bit worried that they would simply copy off of each other, and so I monitored these groups closely.  As we have fostered a strong sense of collaboration and compassion in the sixth grade classroom, the students are great at supporting one another in appropriate ways.  The groups of students seemed to be effectively working together to accomplish the task.  They talked through each problem, mapped it out on the whiteboard tables, and answered each other’s questions.  When one student was confused, another student helped by explaining the process or problem to the student in a meaningful manner.  Each student in both groups seemed to really understand the skill covered in today’s mini-lesson.  It was quite amazing to see this form of effective collaboration in action.  Because the content covered for the accelerated group was a bit challenging as it dealt with word problems, I was worried that two of the students in that group would really struggle to complete the homework as they tend to take much time to process new concepts.  Instead, these students helped their group persevere through the challenging homework problems.  One student who I thought was about to get frustrated and walk away from his group, was in fact, having an a-ha moment and able to help his group solve the particular problem they were working on.  I was so impressed with my students and how they worked together in STEM class today.

I find that collaboration is a challenging skill to teach young students.  For me as a student, collaboration meant that the students next to you would copy from your paper and there was certainly no talking to each other.  Usually one person did all of the the work.  In our current global society, collaboration has taken on a new meaning.  It’s not about doing the work, it’s about talking, discussing, problem solving, and the group think mentality.  This can be difficult for students to understand, especially those from different cultures and academic backgrounds.  For some of our international students, copying is the appropriate way to accomplish certain tasks.  Helping students to learn a new way of collaborating is definitely tough, but very important.  Students need to understand how to support one another and help each other understand concepts and how to solve problems without one person doing all of the work.  As a teacher, I often wrestle with teaching collaboration and group work.  Should I allow the students to work together?  Are they really working together or is one person doing all of the work?  Is effective collaboration really happening?  As teachers, we need to observe and monitor our students.  Conferencing with them one-on-one to assess their understanding of concepts and skills also helps.  If we are teaching them the strategies needed to successfully understand how to work together and collaborate, and we monitor their progress throughout the year, then we will know whether or not they are truly and effectively collaborating and if it work for them.

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Challenges, Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

What’s the Best Method for Helping Students Learn About Music?

In the summer before my fifth grade year of school, a big decision stared me straight in the face?  What instrument should I play in school?  Saxophone?  Clarinet?  Drums?  Students had the option to play an instrument in the fifth grade at my school.  While we didn’t have to do anything, many of my friends were talking about which instrument they were going to choose, and so I felt like I needed to fit in.  I didn’t really want to play an instrument, but I succumbed to peer pressure anyway.  So, I chose the clarinet.  Lets just say that it’s not the sexiest of instruments to play, but I went with it anyway.  After about three weeks, I gave up and stopped playing because the lessons were during recess.  What fifth grade boy wants to miss recess to learn how to play a musical instrument?  Not me.  The lessons were all about repetition and rote memorization.  Everybody had to do the same thing at the same time.  This method of learning about music didn’t work for me.  I do however, to this very day, still wish I hadn’t given up on the clarinet.  I wish I had persevered and stuck with it.  Listening to and enjoying music is a big part of my life, and I wish I knew how to read music or play a musical instrument.  Perhaps, if I had been taught the true value of learning to play an instrument or had a more engaging instructor, I might be playing in the philharmonic orchestra somewhere in the world right now instead of posting a reflection on my awesome day of teaching.  I’m glad I’m where I am doing what I love though.

Teaching is all about engaging students in the content.  While I’m not a music teacher, I do feel obligated to impart some musical knowledge and wisdom to my students.  I want them to understand the power of music.  Music, like a photograph, speaks volumes without saying anything at all.  We can learn so much about people, culture, and history from studying music.  As a teacher, I want to be sure my students understand the great power that music holds.

Today in Humanities class, I lead a foray into the music of the Middle East Region.  We’ve been learning all about the region, forms of government, types of religion, and roles of women in this region of the world.  For our final mini-lesson on this region, I wanted to help the students piece everything we’ve been giving them together, and what better way to do that than through music.  First, I introduced some of the basic instruments used by musicians in the Middle East.  We listened to the sound that each made.  Then I shared three different pieces of music from that region with the students.  The first piece was a traditional piece of Arabic folk music that made use of many of the instruments we discussed in the opening of the lesson.  I then had the boys listen to a modern piece of Arabic pop music.  The final song was a piece of traditional Jewish music from the region.  Following each piece, we discussed what they noticed, similarities and differences.  We didn’t dig into the complexities of music composition or anything deep like that.  Instead, I wanted the students to share their thoughts and feelings on the pieces.  How did the music make you feel?  What can we learn about the culture of the Middle East Region from listening to these pieces of music?  The students provided great fodder for our discussion.  They noticed things that I hadn’t even thought about.  They heard so much more in the pieces than just the music.  It was amazing.  The boys shared the emotions that were conjured up by the pieces.  “This pieces sounds energetic and happy.  It doesn’t sound like it would come from the Middle East region based on what we’ve learned about this part of the world.”  We had a great discussion on a region of the world and its music.  We talked about history, music, religion, and culture all by simply listening to music.  The students were so engaged that I ended up not being able to call on every student who wanted to participate due to lack of time in the period.  We could have spent the rest of the morning talking about music and what it teaches us as they were that into it.

Unlike my horrible experience with music instruction in school, I’m trying to provide my students with opportunities to see music as something more than instruments and reading music.  Sure, some students in my class do play an instrument and take lessons outside of the academic day.  That’s amazing.  I’m so impressed that they have the wherewithal to do that, as I didn’t when I was their age.  I want my students to see the power that music holds as well.  Music is not just about sounds and words, it’s about emotions, feelings, history, culture, dance, and so much more.  Music is an experience, and I feel as though I was able to convey this idea to my students today through our short mini-lesson on the music of the Middle East Region.  They seemed curious and engaged.  Perhaps they will learn more about music outside of class on their own as their appetite for more was awakened in the classroom today.  Maybe, or maybe not.  Perhaps most of my students walked away from class today feeling like they got just enough musical knowledge and will not dig any deeper.  That’s okay too, as long as my students don’t see music as something unfun.  I want them to see that music is about life and can be fun and engaging.  Luckily, I feel like I did that today for most of my students.

Was my method of music instruction the best way to teach students about music?  Maybe not.  Was the way my band teacher tried to teach me the most effective method of music instruction?  Clearly not for me.  What about other methods?  What about other vehicles?  What other engaging ways could we teach music to our students?  Digital music making?  Music history?  Music analysis?  Is one way of teaching students to see the value in music better than others?  Does every method work for every student?  Of course not.  As teachers, we need to try new things and take risks like we want our students to do.  We need to learn, try things, fail, and try something different.  Like teaching any subject or content area, there isn’t just one way to teach, but there is always one outcome that we should be shooting for– engagement.  In order for students to learn, they need to be interested and engaged in the content.  So, whatever we choose to teach, music or any other subject for that matter, we need to remember to make it exciting, relevant, and interesting for our students.