How Will I Grow as an Educator this Summer?

Anger is an emotion I rarely experience.  Frustration and madness, sure, but not anger.  I just don’t find myself getting angry that often.  However, in the last two years, or ever since our sitting president took office, I find myself being brought to the verge of anger on a more regular basis while reading news stories and current events about happenings in our world.  Things just aren’t like they used to be, oh no.  Humans are going a little bonkers.  But this kind of angry is good, because it means that I am paying attention to the world around me.  As some person once said, “If you’re not angry, then you’re not paying attention.”  I watch and observe what is happening in our country and abroad because I care.  I vote, I watch, and I try to make a difference if I’m not liking what I’m noticing.  So, sometimes I do get angry when I’m reading stories on the news app on my phone.  The crazy things that are happening boggle my mind.  It’s as if we are living in a reality television program.

Yesterday, I read a story online that made me a bit angry.  Surprisingly enough though, it wasn’t about the political side of things.  No, it was about something even more near and dear to my heart: Music.  This author had the audacity to proclaim that rock music is officially dead.  What is he talking about, I said aloud to myself while reading this absurd piece.  One of my all-time favorite genres of music is rock.  I listen to rock music on the radio almost daily.  Bands are crafting new rock tunes all the time.  Rock music will never die.  Especially with what’s going on in our world, people need rock music.  Rock is the genre for the counter-culture movements happening globally.  Rock has always provided those invested and knowledgeable angry people with a safe haven, an outlet will you.  Rock music saved my life when I was growing up.  Things were a bit difficult for me as a teen, but fortunately, I had my rock cassette tapes and CDS to comfort me and provide me with an escape when things got too challenging.  I remember listening to Guns N’ Roses’ masterpiece Use Your Illusions I and II so frequently that the tapes eventually broke.  Axl Rose’s lyrics helped me through some tough times.  Then came Pearl Jam’s Ten.  Epic is the only way to describe this album.  Black was my favorite tune from that disc.  Amazing.  As hardcore, metal, punk, and rock evolved in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the landscape of rock music changed as well.  Bands like Coheed and Cambria and Thursday blended genres together and took listeners on a completely new musical journey.  Other bands grew out of this new movement and rock music flourished through the beginning of the 21st century.  New bands and old ones are still crafting and constructing new rock music all of the time.  The author of that ridiculous article clearly has no idea what rock music really is.  You see, in the article, he only referenced bands like Avenged Seven-fold and the Foo Fighters.  While I do like both of those bands, they aren’t the only rock bands around, and they certainly don’t encapsulate the genre.  So, to make this rant come to an end so that I can get on with my blog, this article is completely false and rock music is alive and well, and will always be that way.

Unlike that fictitious article I just referenced, my summer plans are shaping up to totally rock and roll as I prepare for my first year of teaching fifth grade at my new school.  I’m so excited.  I get to set up a new classroom, meet new people, create new curriculum, challenge new students, and be a part of what is sure to be an amazing learning community.  YES!  So, to prepare for all of this awesomeness, I need a plan of action.  So, this summer, I’m going to keep the pedal pushed all the way down to the rocking metal as I work to prepare for the upcoming school year.

  • I need to set up and organize my new classroom.  I’m happy to know that my new school will be ordering new whiteboard desks and rocking chairs for my classroom.  Those will help the students stay focused, attentive, and engaged throughout the day.  I get to figure out how I’m going to set things up.  My new classroom has so many windows that look out onto rolling fields and scenes of nature.  I can’t wait to try some new ways of putting things together in my new classroom.  I hope to get started on this process in early July, which is great because I have a ton of stuff in storage right now to move over from my old classroom.
  • I need to determine which math book or series I will be going with for the fifth grade program.  The school currently uses the Big Ideas Learning math series for grades six through eight.  While I want to maintain consistency for the fifth grade, I’m not sure this book series would be best for the group of students I will be working with this fall.  Some of my new students have noted that math is a bit of a struggle for them.  So, my goal is to choose a math curriculum that will engage my students in meaningful ways so that they are excited to learn new math concepts and strengthen their foundation regarding computational skills.  The founder of my new school suggested I look at this new program called Beast Academy.  Wow, was about all I could say when I checked it out.  It is a math graphic novel that uses monsters to teach math concepts.  It’s rigorous and challenging, but tackles the topics in new and creative ways.  I think this would be a great curriculum to use.  Now, I just need to talk things over with my new headmaster to find out what he thinks would be best.  Of course, I will support whatever he chooses, but I’m hoping that he will allow me to try out the Beast Academy program for next year.  Fingers crossed.
  • I need to complete my first science and social studies units on community and the scientific method.  As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’ve got a plan for this process.  I’m excited to try new things and dig into some cool ideas and learning.  I have already begun this process, as it requires much behind the scenes work.  I’m sure that this portion of my summer work will last the longest.
  • I need to determine what my daily schedule will be for the fifth grade program.  Sometime in the coming weeks, I will sit down with my new headmaster to hash out the daily schedule in terms of time.  When will specials be?  What time is lunch?  Things like that.  Once I have this finalized, I can then begin the planning for things like Morning Meeting, Passion Projects, and outdoor discovery time.  This will be one of the first things I can check off of my summer list, as I need this to fall into place before I can really dig into the daily planning of my class.
  • My summer reading goal is small right now as I only have one book on it.  I also want to read some young adult books that I might use during Reader’s Workshop lessons in the fall.  I haven’t decided on those titles yet.  The only book I have so far is Quiet by Susan Cain.  I just started it yesterday and am loving it.  As an introvert, I can totally relate to a lot of what she mentions in the novel.  The world seems to favor extroverts, but its the synergy of people working together that really makes the world work.  We need to embrace the introverts in our work places and schools and allow them to develop their skills in appropriate ways.  We can’t try to make introverted people into extroverts, as it will only cause future problems.  I’m excited to learn some tips and tricks on how to best support the introverts that I will inevitably have in my classroom this year.  I’m hoping to finish this book within a couple of weeks.  Then I will gather the young adult books I want tackle next.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for now.  I’m sure that other things will crop up along the way, as they always do.  That’s just part of the process of developing new things and preparing for a new school year.  The fun is in the middle.  So, now I will embark upon my summer journey of rocking hard as I ready things for the next academic year.  Oh, and I’ll be listening to plenty of rock music.  Rock on!


How’d I Do: My End of the Year Goal Reflection

As I left my classroom this afternoon following the last, formal academic day at my school, sadness filled my heart while the song “It’s so Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” by Boyz II Men popped into my head.  I looked out onto my school’s namesake Mount Cardigan and tears started to fill my eyes.  15 years is a long time to be at one school.  Memories have been washing over me recently like ocean water on a beach of sand.  I remember my first year at Cardigan, right out of college.  I was a wreck.  It was awful.  I couldn’t control the students and was teaching courses I knew very little about.  Things got better though as I grew a bit wiser.  Much has changed about me and the school at which I’ve worked at for the past several years.  Cardigan has changed me, and hopefully I’ve left my mark on this fine educational institution.  While I’m moving onto a new school for the next academic year, I will bring much of what I’ve learned in my time here, to my new school.

As I hop and skip down memory lane in my final days here on the Point, it’s prudent that I reflect on my progress as an educator this year.  Did I meet my professional goals?  Did I grow as a teacher?  How’d I do in the classroom?

It was an awesome year in the sixth grade.  My students made much progress both socially and academically, due in part to the strong program my co-teacher and I created this year.  We helped the boys work through communication and coexistence issues while also helping them to develop as readers, writers, critical thinkers, and problem solvers.

I tried a few new things this year that I felt went very well…

  • The mindfulness curriculum that my co-teacher and I developed and implemented during the fall term and throughout the year seemed to really help focus the students mentally and socially.  While by the end of the year, they did joke a bit with each other about it.  “Make sure you are mindful now boys,” they would say to one another, which is great because it means that they got it, they see the power in living in the present moment, staying calm, and avoiding external and internal distractions.
  • I created a unit on Figurative Language for my Humanities class that I used during the spring term.  During the past several years, I’ve used the same unit on the Middle East region during the final academic term of the year.  While I’ve enjoyed this unit and feel as though the students do get a lot out of it, I always wondered if I was properly preparing them to think critically about literature.  In the past, I have focused mostly on basic reading and writing strategies and skills, and have found that some of my students do not feel prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English class.  As the expectations are ratcheted up quite a bit, the students are expected to know how to analyze literature.  So, I changed my final unit of the year so that I could help my students be and feel more prepared for life in the seventh grade.  It was so much fun, and probably my most favorite unit of the year.  Every piece of Humanities class fit together so perfectly during this unit, from our Idiom of the Day bellringers to our class read aloud and poetry activities.  It was awesome.  The students had a blast learning how to make their writing more colorful and creative while also learning how to interpret figurative language used in works of literature.
  • Our big field trip of the year to Chewonki in Maine was a huge success.  While the boys seemed to not enjoy it in the moment, as it was hard and asked them to step way outside of their comfort zone, they are already beginning to see the great benefits and fun that came from this great experience.  This was a completely new trip for the sixth grade, but I was ready for a change as we had been going to the same place in Cape Cod for nine years.  Chewonki was that change, and boy was it a great change at that.

I also met my two professional goals that I set way back in October of last year…

  • I want to gather data on how rubrics and project introductions help promote or reduce the amount of creativity students are able to put into their work so that I can begin to understand how to best introduce a new task or assignment to my students.
    • After much work on this topic throughout the year, I’ve realized that my original hypothesis is correct and that rubrics are futile tools that simply steal creativity and critical thinking opportunities from students.  The only group that I found in my research that gets any use out of a rubric is the ESL students, as rubrics tend to use simple English language that is manageable for them to process easily and quickly.  Mission accomplished.
  • I want to incorporate ideas and skills covered during our Mindfulness Unit in Team Time and our Brain Unit from PEAKS class into my Humanities class.
    • While I didn’t necessarily do this as much as I would have liked to have done it and, perhaps, as meaningfully, I do feel as though I did accomplish this goal.  We incorporated mindfulness activities into our study skills class at least once a week during the spring term.  We had the students complete a guided meditation that we led before having them share how others have helped them or how they have helped others in the class.  These activities helped to focus the students while allowing them to develop compassion and gratitude.  I also made use of the big ideas behind mindfulness, including growth mindset, perspective, and open-mindedness, in my Humanities class throughout the year.  Every part of our curriculum came down to helping them broaden their perspective as a way to be more kind, compassionate, and thoughtful, and I reminded them of that often in class.  Although I wish I could have met with the students at the start of the academic day daily, our schedule didn’t allow for that.  Had it though, I would have conducted a Class Meeting that contained a mindfulness activity as well as some student sharing.  My goal is to make use of this type of Morning Meeting on a daily basis in my classroom at my new school starting in August.

Thinking back on the year as a whole, it felt very productive, and I feel as though I did a great job helping my students to grow and develop as students and people.  Yes, it is hard to say goodbye to my current school, but I’m doing so on good and positive terms.  It’s time for me to move on and start a new adventure.  I now have much to do this summer to prepare for the next academic year at my new school.  I can’t wait to start jumping into things in a few short weeks.  For now though, I will live in the present moment and make the most of the time I have left at my current school.  Until the summer when I will inevitably be reflecting on life at my new school, I’m out.

How Can We Most Effectively Engage ALL of Our Students in the Learning Process?

Engagement seems to be a catch phrase in the education world these days.  How can we most effectively engage our students in the classroom?  Numerous books have been written on the subject, while teaching conferences around the world have engagement as their theme.  Why does does it seem that all of a sudden we now need to care about student engagement as part of the learning process?  Why now?  This seems like a common sense strategy that great teachers should have always been using.  The most meaningful learning happens when students are engaged in what they are learning about.  So then, why does it seem that my email inbox is constantly inundated with email blasts about new books and articles written on how to effectively engage students in the classroom?  Why isn’t this idea and topic covered in colleges or teacher preparation programs around the country?  Why does it seem that student engagement is the new hot topic or trend in teaching?

While engagement has always been a concern for teachers, because times and our society have changed so much in the past two decades, what we as educators learned or know about how to engage students in the classroom has changed and evolved.  Our world has changed.  Technology has changed.  Engaging students now isn’t anything like it was when I was a student.  The children of today are different.  Their attention spans have grown incrementally smaller in size due to technology, movies, television, and video games.  Engaging the students of today is much different than it was when I was a student in school.  I used to be able to focus and pay attention to teacher-directed instruction for thirty minutes to an hour when I was in sixth grade.  Now, our students struggle to stay focused or on task for more than ten minutes.  Student engagement is a whole new beast because of all of these changes that have taken place.  Staying current with and abreast of research and information on how to effectively engage students in the classroom is crucial for teachers.  We need to know how to best support and challenge all of our students in this “Brave New World” in which we live.

The issue that I often struggle with in the classroom is engaging all of my students, all of the time.  How can I best support the ELLs in my classroom while also challenging the more advanced students?  Sure, differentiation works well for this, but if I’m teaching a mini-lesson for the entire class on a topic, how can I most effectively reach and engage all of my students?

Today in my Humanities class, I introduced the concept of Epic Poetry.  I began the lesson with a class discussion regarding what the students think they know about this form of poetry.  Several students made some great hypotheses based on simply interpreting the word epic.  A few of the boys even drew connections from the previous forms of poetry studied to epic poetry.  That was pretty neat.  We then read and discussed excerpts from two great epic poems of long ago.  This was when the issue of student engagement popped up.

As I work to engage all of my students, all of the time, I try to call on students who seem disengaged, distracted, or bored in class when something needs to be read aloud.  So, I called on two students, who seemed to not be paying attention during our mini-lesson on Epic Poetry today, to read a stanza from one of the epic poems we studied.  As these two students happen to be ELLs, they faced great adversity when reading the lines aloud as they were filled with large vocabulary words and strange names from ancient Greece.  It took the boys several minutes to get through each stanza, as they had to sound out almost every word and stumbled over every other word.  I heard a sigh from one of the other students in the class during this time.  He was clearly frustrated that this process of reading the poem aloud was taking so long.  While my goal was to keep everyone focused by helping to redirect distracted or disengaged students, I ended up creating an atmosphere of disengagement in the classroom.  How can I best engage all of my students without taking away or distracting from anyone?  During a lesson like this, what’s the best way to help keep everyone focused, engaged, and involved in the learning process?

  • As I was mindful and living in the moment, I was able to react to what was happening this morning.  To help remedy the situation, I read the second poem aloud so that I could emphasize word choice, flow, and meter.  This choice refocused those students who seemed a bit distracted when their peers were reading the poem aloud.
  • What if I had the students read the poems independently, making written observations.  This way, those students who read and comprehend at faster rates could move onto our class Things to Do When Done list while waiting for their peers to finish.  Also, it would allow me to individually support and help those struggling readers in the class.  We could have them come back together as a class to discuss their noticings and observations.  Perhaps this method would have been more fruitful.
  • What if the students had read the two poems together with their table partner, engaging in a conversation about what they noticed and wondered?  Would that have been a more effective way to introduce the epic form of poetry to the students?
  • What if I had read both poems aloud to the class?  While that would have helped that one disengaged student who sighed during class, would it have kept my disengaged ELLs focused?

As the students will be analyzing two poems tomorrow in class, I will try having them work with a partner to read and analyze each poem on their own first, before discussing them altogether as a class.  I hope that this approach will foster more engagement from the students.  We can spend the class discussion focusing on analyzing the poems and not reading them together in a way that might create disengagement.  I feel good about this new idea, but I still wonder, is it the most effective way to engage all of my students?  As of late, I have been interested in the concept of student motivation and I feel as though student engagement is directly connected to it.  I’m hoping to glean some data from tomorrow’s lesson that will help me find new ways to motivate and engage all of my students in the learning process.

Why Students Just Don’t Understand the Big Things in Life

Growing up, I took many things for granted.  I wasted food because I could, without realizing how many people go without food on a daily basis.  I assumed that money was available whenever and wherever, and so I generally wasted lots of it.  I struggled to appreciate how fortunate I was to have parents who cared for me and kept me safe, food on the table, clothes on my back, and a roof over my head.  Not until I was older, did I fully understand how lucky I actually was.  While I wish that I could go back in time and better appreciate my life as it happened, I do now realize that this lack of understanding and compassion wasn’t due to anything I did wrong or as a result of something my parents did incorrectly.  This is a common problem amongst children and teens, as their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed.  They can’t analyze life and empathize with others the same way someone who has a fully developed prefrontal cortex does.  It’s just not possible.  Sure, we can help young folks understand what is happening in their brains so that they may understand why they do what they do, but will it really make a huge difference?

My co-teacher and I just got back from a four-day field trip with our class of sixth graders to an amazing place in Wiscasset, Maine.  The boys learned how to erect a tent, build a fire, chop wood, sleep and survive in the wilderness, work together, solve problems, cook meals over an open flame, and deal with changes in the weather.  It was so awesome!  Despite a little rain, the week was great.  The boys were forced to step outside of their comfort zone, take risks, and try new things.  This was incredibly challenging for many of our students.  While my co-teacher and I loved this trip, many of our students greatly disliked it.  Yes, it’s uncomfortable to go four days without showering.  Yes, it’s hard to sleep when your pillow and sleeping bag are wet from the rain.  Yes, it’s tough when you don’t like the people you are forced to share a tent with.  Yes, life is hard and not always fair.  We can’t always get what we want.  And that’s exactly the reason why my co-teacher and I found this trip to be so beneficial: It was hard.

This trip forced the boys to do things that made them uncomfortable.  Whether they realize it or not, they have all grown from this trip.  This adventure that we went on together changed all of them in some way.  Although they will probably not see or understand the true value of this trip for weeks, months, or years to come, they will one day see why we embarked on this wonderful mission together.  They will one day see how important this trip was to their overall development as people.  They know how to overcome adversity now because of this trip.  They know how to deal with difficult peers now due to having had this experience.  Despite what their brain is able to process right now, they all got a lot from our amazing field trip to Maine this week.  While we wish that our students could see now what my co-teacher and I see, we do know that many great memories and vital experiences took place during the past four days for our boys.

The words from one of my all-time favorite films comes to mind as I reflect on this transformational experience that I just went through with my students…

“And I can feel anything but gratitude for every moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I’m talking about do you? But don’t worry you will someday.”  American Beauty

It’s totally understandable that my students can’t fully appreciate what a fantastic experience they were all just a part of, as their brains are not fully developed yet.  They can’t do the higher level thinking and analyzing that would allow them to understand and appreciate how the challenges they overcame will help them later on in their lives, and that’s okay.  I get it.  I was them once.  I didn’t understand why my parents made me do certain things back then.  I couldn’t fathom why I had to sit through special ceremonies or go on family vacations because my brain wasn’t ready to understand.  Like me, my students aren’t ready to see what really happened to them this week on our field trip to Chewonki, but they will one day, as Lester Burnham reminds us in Sam Mendes’ masterpiece.

Today’s Ice Cream and Broccoli Moments

Growing up, my grandmother often reminded my sister and I how difficult life was growing up during WWII.  “We had such little food, that if we didn’t eat every little scrap, we’d end up going hungry or starving,” she would say before making sure that we ate every morsel on our plates.  In fact, we couldn’t even have dessert unless our plate was free of food at the end of the meal.

Short Side Story

I greatly disliked the taste and consistency of broccoli.  It felt like I was eating an actual tree from outside if it was undercooked or raw.  When it was cooked or steamed, it felt like mushy Play-Doh or baby food in my mouth.  It was so nasty.

We Now Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

So, on night’s when we had broccoli for dinner, I, sadly, was unable to enjoy whatever was for dessert.  On those nights when it was ice cream, I cried myself to sleep.  I just couldn’t bring myself to eating yucky, green broccoli.

You’re probably wondering how this story is connected, in any way, shape, or form to teaching.  Well, it’s not really.  It’s more of an umbrella-style theme for today’s blog post.  Reflecting back on my teaching day, I felt as though there were numerous ideas and happenings that I wanted to delve into a bit deeper.  So, rather than wrestling with myself over which topic to write about, I decided to make today’s entry a compilation of sorts, kinda’ like a mixtape from the 1980s and 1990s.  Man, I miss mixtapes.  I was the king of mixtapes back in my younger years when I still had hair.  A friend would give me a theme or style of music, and I would create for them the most perfect and relevant mixtape ever known to mankind.  Today’s entry will focus on the good and the bad from my day in the sixth grade, hence the title: The ice cream represents the successes, while the broccoli represents the challenges.

As I like to close on a happy note, I will begin with my broccoli moments…

  • I felt as though my introductions into and transitions between activities and lessons were lacking today.  I just sort of jumped from one thing to the next with no bridge or connection.  I didn’t like how it felt.  I forgot to go over the standings for the Stock Market Game before I had the students jump into trading on the website in class, and so I threw it in later as the students were working.  It lacked the panache I had hoped for.  In Humanities class, I didn’t fully introduce or explain the group writing task in a meaningful or engaging way.  While the students seemed to really like this activity, I felt like I could have made it much more intriguing or appealing had I done a better job introducing it to my students.  I need to be more mindful about this aspect of my teaching, moving forward.  I need to make sure that I explain or introduce new lessons or activities in an engaging manner.
  • Having a classroom with large windows and high ceilings, I often have to deal with cluster flies and hornets every fall and spring.  Today, a lovely hornet decided to make an appearance during my Humanities class.  How rude!  While I wish I could control what happens in my classroom, I of course, cannot.  What I can control, however, is what I do, which I struggled with today.  The hornet decided to fly very close to a few of my students, as I was right in the middle of explaining a new activity.  Despite having spoken to my students in the past about how to react to hornets in the classroom, these two students freaked out.  They started screaming, jumped out of their seats, and ran across the room, in the middle of my lesson.  This greatly distracted the class, and laughter ensued.  I was very frustrated by the reaction of those two students and lectured them about not distracting class.  I also informed them that this outburst would impact their daily effort grade negatively.  I also made a blanket statement, to the class, about what to do when the unexpected happens.  In retrospect, this was not one of my finest teaching moments.  I should have been much more empathetic and thought about how I would have felt back in sixth grade if a hornet flew close to me.  This would have allowed me to react in a more appropriate manner, instead of shaming these two students.

Now for my ice cream moments…

  • In my study skills class today, the students worked on completing another transaction in the Stock Market Game.  As the students worked in their groups, I observed their behavior and work ethic.  As the boys are super engaged in this activity, there was very little monitoring that needed to happen.  So, I started interacting with the students as they researched which stocks to buy.  “Did you look at today’s financial current events?” I asked a few of the groups.  I received the same response from each group, “No.”  So, after showing them how to do this on Google Finance, I drew their attention to one article about how it was predicted that the Dow would drop 200 points today due to what President Trump had said about Syria recently.  I then engaged the students in a conversation.  What should you do?  Sell your stocks?  Short sell?  Be patient and hold on to what you have?  Will this prediction come true?  Are all companies in jeopardy of being impacted by this drop?  What companies or indices would be positively impacted by a world crisis?  I had some great discussions with many of the groups.  While two of the groups decided to sell all of their stocks because of what I they had learned, two groups decided to hold tight and weather the storm.  At the end of class, I debriefed these discussions with the students and reminded them the power of paying attention to what’s going on in the world when investing money.  They all seemed to understand how the market is not random and impacted by what is going on in the world.  I love teachable moments.
  • As we are going to be embarking upon a short unit on poetry in my Humanities class beginning on Friday, I wanted to provide the students with a chance to see the power in playing with words in new and unique ways.  So, I had the boys, literally, playing with words in class today.  It was awesome.  Each student was given an envelope filled with magnetic poetry words.  Their job was to put them together in new and interesting ways to create images, sentences, or phrases that they liked.  They then recorded their creations via Google Drive.  This activity proved challenging for some students as they are uncomfortable trying new things with language.  One student had crafted the sentence, “It was raining.”  I pointed out how that is not new or unique.  I then suggested a change, which he seemed confused by at first.  Then, he started to laugh about it.  He was beginning to see how putting words together in fun and new ways can be very exciting and humorous.  Learning and growing was happening during this activity.  I then, transitioned this independent activity into a group activity.  The students, using their envelope of words as inspiration, had to create a Twitter-style dialogue exchange between two or more of the superhero personas we created in class on Monday.  The topic of the exchange was music.  Each group was given a different theme or atmosphere to create within their dialogue.  The boys had a ton of fun with this, as they realized how challenging it can be, to be succinct at times.  The highlight of this second activity was the sharing.  I read each exchange aloud to the class in the style of their theme or atmosphere.  Giggles and laughter filled the room like purple dancing mushrooms on parade.


Dasheye: Tonight the devil howled information about musical math.  Musical power held the bald man hostage.

Super Flame: Never put in a win-this devil.  Put a tear in it.

The Mightmare: Power never opens information about musical math.  The heart brings you tremendous soul.

Super Flame: My mom got into a spaceship crash.  We need some music for the funeral.

Captain Sarcasm: Thank you for communicating with me.  This sounds verrry important.  I’m verrry sorrry for you.

Captain Sarcasm: T suggest, “Ground control to Major Tom” by David Bowie.

Super Flame: Thank you.  I will be there.  Ground control to Major Tom out.

What a day it was in the sixth grade.  I really am the luckiest man in the world.  Not only am I married to an intelligent, amazing, and beautiful woman and have a terrific son, I also am fortunate enough to work with talented groups of students every year.  Waking up with a smile on my face is super easy.  Despite the daily broccoli I must consume, there is plenty of ice cream to go on top.  Plus, without the broccoli, the ice cream wouldn’t taste nearly as delicious.

How Can We Help Our Students Think Beyond Themselves?

According to the great psychologist Jean Piaget, students begin to move from the concrete operational stage of cognitive development to the formal operational stage at around age 12, which is the average age of most of the sixth graders in my class.  While most of my students have begun to make the leap from thinking concretely to thinking abstractly at this point in the year, I do have one student in my class who is very stuck or fixed in the concrete and egotistical stage of development.  He struggles to process information that utilizes high-order thinking skills, and he needs to have questions posed to him in a very simplistic manner. He has no documented learning challenges that seem to explain what is causing him to be unable to mature mentally.  These struggles also prevent him from seeing the world outside of himself.  He is almost always focused on himself.  He doesn’t understand why I call on other students to share their insight with the group during class discussions.  “Why didn’t you call on me?” he often asks me after class.  While I haven’t formally gathered any data on this, I do feel as though I call on him as frequently as every other student.  When I do call on him, he doesn’t simply answer the question so that I can then call on others, he takes over the conversation and talks for long periods of time, sometimes saying the same thing over and over again, using different words.  These instances tend to sway the conversation off track a bit, causing a loss of momentum.  While I want to help support this student, I also need to support and challenge the rest of the students in my class as well.  How do I help him move from the concrete and egotistical to the more abstract and unselfish?  How do I help him see the world beyond himself?

Today provided me with one more example of the struggles this student is facing.  At the close of class he came to me and asked, “Why didn’t you call on me during our discussion on the power of words?”  As I tried to explain to him how I wanted to hear from other students and that he had started our discussion prior to Morning Break, he kept talking about how I didn’t call on him.  As he spoke, I tried to think about how I could tell him, tactfully, that the world doesn’t revolve around him.  I closed the conversation by asking him if it should make a difference or matter if I call on him or not.  As he was so stuck in thinking of himself and how he was feeling in the moment, he was unable to process anything I said.  So then, how can I help him see the power in being compassionate and listening to his peers?  How can I help him learn to be kind and grateful for what others have to say?  As I thought about these questions, I entered his daily effort grade into our Learning Management System, adding a comment, “Nice work raising your hand during class discussions even if you weren’t called upon when you felt as if you should have been.   I want you to work on caring more about what others have to say than what you have to say, as that will help you develop a strong sense of compassion and gratitude.”  I hope he reads this comment and takes it to heart.

My next move is to meet with him privately at some point in the next few days to follow-up on his question to me and my comment.  I want him to see that he needs to stop thinking soley of himself and appreciate all that life has to offer.  With that being said, I truly have no idea how I’m going to do that.  I’m feeling a bit lost on how to help him.  He is the only student in my class who hasn’t made great academic and social and emotional progress over the course of the year.  Why is that and how do I help him moving forward?  I’m, of course, not going to give up on him, but I’m struggling on how to best support him so that he is socially prepared for seventh grade.  I worry that if he goes into the seventh grade with his current selfish behavior and line of thinking, his peers will exclude and alienate him.  What else could or should I be doing to help him?  I have been working closely with his advisor to keep the family informed of issues happening as well; however, since there is a lot going on in their family currently, it is difficult for his parents to really work with him on these behavioral issues.

As I pondered what else I could do to support and help this student, an idea came to me.  What if instead of having him raise his hand and try to get involved in the conversation to show great effort, I have him record positive noticings and words of gratitude and praise for what his peers have to say during class.  His daily effort grade could come from how well he listens and records praise and feedback for his fellow classmates.  This would, hopefully, begin to make him self-aware of what others are saying during class.  He would have to step outside of his comfort zone and just listen.  Ohh, I like this idea.  Perhaps it will help and be a good next step in helping him learn to be compassionate and selfless.  It’s worth a try.  Let’s see how it goes.

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.