Supporting Some Students Takes Persistence and Patience

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Ideas for improvement:

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

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

The Moment You Realize Something Amazing Is Happening

It was a cold morning in mid-November.  Early, only about 6:00 a.m.  My wife and I were tired, nervous, worried, scared, and a little excited.  Mostly nervous though.  You see, we were on our way to a meeting to find out if we would be chosen as the forever family for a child we hoped to adopt.  The drive was long and the roads were mostly straight and boring.  Highway driving is no fun when you’re tired or preoccupied, both of which applied in my case.   Would the permanency committee choose us?  Would we finally be able to start a family and become parents?  What if we are not chosen?  What if we are chosen?  Are we ready to be parents?  I couldn’t think straight that morning as questions zoomed around my mind like mosquitos at a campground.  It certainly didn’t take long for negative thoughts to enter my stream of consciousness.  We will never be chosen, I thought.  Why are we even trying?  As this cacophony of questions and thoughts swirled about in my brain, I struggled to stay focused on driving.  While I tried to be an attentive driver, my brain wanted me to ponder so many other things.  As we approached our destination, blue lights erupted in my rear view mirror.  What is going on, I thought.  And that’s when I realized that I was going excessively fast on the highway.  As the police officer told me what I already knew, I didn’t get angry or mad at myself.  Even when he gave me a ticket for $220, I didn’t freak out or go to a negative place mentally.  I saw this experience as an omen.  It was in that moment that I realized that everything was going to work out as it should.  I was filled with a sense of inner peace.  My negative thoughts began to turn positive.  In that brief moment, I realized  that something amazing was going to happen.  And sure enough, when we got to that meeting, we were chosen to be our son’s forever family.  Being pulled over by the police officer woke me up to the truth that the universe already knew.  We were going to become parents that day.  But, because we were so preoccupied with negative and positive emotions and thoughts, we couldn’t see what was right in front of us.  That incident that cost us a large sum of money, was just the thing I needed to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Today in my Humanities class, a similar light appeared to me.  After returning from vacation a little over two weeks ago, our students have been acting a bit differently.  They’ve been more focused, more intuned in the classroom.  They have been coexisting with their peers better than ever before.  They are using a growth mindset to overcome challenges and learn new information with an open mind and broad perspective.  They seem to have applied all of the feedback we’ve been giving them since September to grow and develop as students, thinkers, learners, and people.  It’s been amazing.  What’s weird about it though, is that I didn’t really see the big picture.  It didn’t occur to me that something special was happening in the classroom.  Despite discussing, with my colleagues, the great changes I witnessed in the classroom from my students since their return from winter vacation, I wasn’t able to put the pieces of the puzzle together.  I wasn’t able to see that my sixth grade class had morphed into a dedicated, compassionate, and hard working group of students.  Now, they have always been a remarkable class, don’t get me wrong.  It’s not like they were horrible children before break and miraculously turned into perfect students.  No, they have always been a great group of young men, but something changed after break.  They kicked their student parts into overdrive.  They were now absolutely phenomenal students capable of greatness in every way.  It wasn’t until today, however, that I was able to, once again, see that light at the end of the tunnel.

At the end of my Humanities class today, as my students slowly left the room in preparation for their next class, asking me insightful follow-up questions to what I had mentioned at the close of the lesson, I realized that things weren’t like they were before break anymore.  I’m no longer putting out fires between students.  I’m no longer trying to find new ways to challenge and support the students who refuse to make use of a growth mindset in the classroom.  I’m now able to cover more curriculum and have more fun with the content and lessons because we’ve hit our stride.  Things have really come together for us as a class.  It’s truly amazing.  In that moment, it hit me.  It was like a bolt of lightning had struck me.  As I pondered this epiphany, I began to wonder, How did this happen?  What led to this sudden transformation?  How was this group of students able to overcome adversity and climb to the top of the sixth grade mountain so early in the academic year?  This is the first year that I’ve had a group achieve such greatness so early in the year.  What’s going on?  Is there something funky in the water?  Is it the weather?  I suddenly became very curious.

As I thought long and hard about what could have caused this amazing transformation in the classroom, I came to one conclusion.  My students have changed into effective learners, thinkers, students, and peers so early in the academic year because my co-teacher and I implemented a unit on mindfulness and the brain at the start of the year.  That’s got to be the reason for the change, as everything else is the same.  The curriculum is basically the same as it has been for the past few years, minus some minor tweaks.  Our approach and program are the same as they have been.  The only difference is that we covered a unit on the brain and learning in our study skills class at the beginning of the academic year.  We talked to the boys about the plasticity of their brain and how it’s possible to learn anything, if you think you can.  We taught the students mindfulness and relaxation techniques.  We explained the power of using a growth mindset in and out of the classroom.  We helped the students understand how they could be the most effective students possible.  This one slight change must be what caused the huge change I’ve seen in my students since their return from vacation.  As they now realize that they can do anything they put their minds to, they are more able to persevere through challenges, ask for help, solve their own problems, and think critically about the world around them.

Is that really what’s going on?  Is that one unit the cause of this awesome transformation?  Perhaps.  Or maybe it’s something else entirely.  Maybe next year when I begin the academic year the same way I started this one, I’ll get the same result, which will confirm my suspicions.  Or maybe I won’t.  Maybe I won’t see this same, rapid transformation in next year’s class.  Despite all of this uncertainty, I am certain that my students have changed into super students, capable of accomplishing great things.  As today made me realize what the universe already knew, I’m able to now notice and make observations that might help me to uncover the truth behind what happened to my students.  I’m just glad, however, that today’s epiphany didn’t cost me $220.

How My Reflection Changed My Students

Having seen the value of individual reflection for many years now, I know the power it holds.  Being a reflective teacher has enabled me to become more effective at helping and supporting my students.  Taking the time to stop and think about what went well or what proved difficult in class on a daily basis has helped me refine my approach to teaching and the field of education.  Teachers are not the givers of information.  We are guides for our students as they journey towards understanding.  We are the flashlights our students use as they navigate their way through the dark world of life and school.  We encourage our students to ask questions.  We help them solve problems encountered.  We empower them to think for themselves in a critical manner.  We show them the path that will lead them towards enlightenment.  We pack their knowledge backpacks full of use study and work skills.  We are beacons of light and power for our students.  We are not libraries full of facts and information.  Reflecting over the past many years on my daily teaching practices has allowed me to see my true role as a teacher.

During the past week, I’ve struggled with feeling as though I am not appropriately helping my students see the value in revising their written work.  Earlier last week, the students seemed unable to focus their effort on making their historical fiction stories better and more effective while also providing their classmates with useful feedback on how they can improve their stories.  The boys seemed to rush through the process to finish and be done with it, rather than really jumping into the task as though they are on a writing journey.  This bothered me because I know that in order to grow and develop as writers, they need to see the benefit in revising their work based on feedback.  They need to utilize a growth mindset to see feedback provided to them as useful.  My students seemed greatly challenged by this phase of the writing process.  They seemed more interested in what they could do when they finished writing.  Very few of the students seemed to take the assignment seriously, and that caused me to pause.

How will they be prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English class if they can’t learn to improve upon their writing based on suggestions provided to them by others?  I reflected on my struggles in this very blog last week, at least twice.  I then incorporated some new thoughts and ideas into my class so that my students would, hopefully, be able to see the vast power that revising their work holds for them as students.  While I did see my students begin to change their thinking regarding the revision step of the writing process, I was skeptical that all of them had revised their thinking on the topic.  I reflected in writing and mentally.  What else could I do to inspire my students to see that they need to take the process of revising their work seriously if they want to grow as writers?

Then came class today.  Today provided students one final opportunity to revise their historical fiction stories based on feedback provided to them by me, their teacher, and their classmates.  I also had them reflect on the process they used to craft this piece of writing, using an author’s note.  The students needed to respond, in writing at the bottom of their stories, to four questions.  Those students who finished revising their story and crafting an author’s note had two options:

  1. Complete an extra credit, objectively graded task, that involves the students creating a book jacket for their historical fiction story.  They must craft a front and back cover for their stories, being sure to include a title, relevant, hand-drawn image, brief summary of the story, and quotes from others on their story.
  2. Work on the Things to Do When Done list that is posted on one of the window displays in our classroom.  They could fill out their planbook for next week, work on Typing Club, work on homework, check their grades, or work in the Makerspace.

The students quickly got to work.  They seemed very focused on the task at hand.  A few of the students spent a good chunk of their time revising and improving upon their stories.  It was amazing to watch them add details, dialogue, and more effective character descriptions to their stories, on their own.  Some of the other students put forth fine effort into reflecting on their writing process as they crafted their author’s note.  Their responses were detailed and included examples from their writing experience.  It was impressive to see them being so mindful and reflective as they own their work.  The five students with whom I conferenced took the feedback I offered them with open arms.  They asked meaningful questions that allowed them to understand what they needed to do to improve their story.  It was fun to read their stories, praise their phenomenal talents as writers, and challenge them to grow and develop as they improve upon their writing pieces.  Students who had finished their story and author’s note early on in the period, took it upon themselves to help others revise their piece, if help was needed.  They were being truly compassionate community members.

During class today, I only needed to redirect two students who seemed to find focusing on the task at hand, individually, difficult.  Those two students, once redirected, did regroup and got right back to work on growing as writers.  The rest of the students seemed zoned in on improving their skills as writers.  They reviewed the three graded objectives on which their final story will be assessed.  They were committed to exceeding my expectations as they clearly saw the value in the process of revising their work.  I could not have been more proud and impressed by my students today.  They rocked their stories!  I can’t wait to read their final drafts.

So, what did I learn from all of this.  Well, I learned that reflection not only changes me, but it fosters change within my students.  Because I reflected on what didn’t feel right to me last week, I changed my approach to teaching the revision phase of the writing process.  Today, I saw, first hand, how this change impacts my students.  They were completely different writers today than they were last week.  They care about making their stories better, and thus crave feedback.  It’s quite amazing.  They weren’t rushing to finish their stories, they took their time to polish their words and develop their characters.  Because I took the time to think about how I could better support and help my students become better writers, I changed the way I spoke to my students about revising their work.  I didn’t explain the process as a task, but a journey they were going on to transform themselves into better writers.  My personal reflections on revision didn’t just change me, they changed my students too.

How the Novelty of Change Causes Distraction

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

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

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

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

Student Responses:

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

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

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

What’s the Most Effective Professional Development Model for Schools?

When I first started teaching, the schools I worked at had little to no money available for its teachers to pursue professional development opportunities.  While this was certainly not an ideal situation, my colleagues and I made do.  We learned from each other.  If I wanted to learn more about the Reader’s Workshop model of literacy instruction, I talked to the first grade teacher in my school who had been implementing it in her classroom for years.  If a teacher wanted to utilize technology in their classroom, he or she sought me out for guidance.  We capitalized on the resources available to us in-house as an educational institution.  This worked for me as a young and developing educator.  As I grew, learned more, and gained more experience, I craved more than what the teachers at my schools were able to teach me.  I wanted to learn about new teaching practices that no other teacher in my school was aware of.  I wanted to learn how to implement standards-based grading in my class, which no other teacher at my school was doing.  I wanted something more than what my school offered.  At first, I sought out books on the subjects for which I wanted to learn.  Then, I ran out of books.  Luckily for me, as I was growing, so too was the school at which I worked, which meant that there were funds available for professional development.  So, I started attending conferences.  I learned so much from the sessions I attended at the various conferences I went to over the years.  They were so useful.  I felt a bit like a dried up sponge before I started going to teaching conferences.  Then, in a few short years, I was transformed into an overly moist and wet sponge, dripping knowledge from every nook and cranny.  It was awesome!

As schools have evolved over time, so too have professional development models.  While most schools have funds available for their teachers to attend conferences, workshops, and the like, some schools have switched back to in-house professional development for most teachers except those going through the self-evaluation process.  Although reflection and self-evaluation are both vital processes to one’s success as a teacher and individual, this model of professional development makes it challenging for other teachers to grow and develop.  So, to help all teachers feel as though they have access to professional development opportunities, some schools invite in speakers and have teachers read and discuss various teaching resources.  This modification definitely helps all teachers feel included.

My school has moved to this model and I like it, for the most part.  What I would like to see is more differentiation within the in-house professional development opportunities.  Like snowflakes, no two teachers are exactly alike in their teaching practices or knowledge base.  Therefore, schools should help meet all teachers at the level they are currently at.  For example, my school recently spent a morning learning all about the neuroscience of education.  A professor from a local college came to speak with us about this topic.  While the information for some of my colleagues was useful, a fair amount of teachers at my school have taken courses in this very subject and are well-versed in how to support all types of learners based on brain science.  For me and a few of my fellow teachers, this speaker did not provide us with new information nor allow us to explore and engage in areas of interest to us.  Because of this, we extrapolated very little from this four-hour session.  While my school was trying to do the right thing, they didn’t think about all of the teachers and their ability levels.  They planned this workshop session for the average teacher.  This seems a bit counter-intuitive to what we should be doing in the classroom as teachers.  If we are expected to differentiate our instruction, then why isn’t the school doing the same for its teachers?

Wouldn’t it be great if professional development at schools was differentiated?  Imagine this…  “The topic for today’s professional development workshop is differentiation.  For those who are new to teaching or unfamiliar with this concept, you will be participating in a session with an engaging presenter who will help you understand the concept and be able to effectively employ it in your classroom.  For those who are already familiar with differentiation and utilize it in your classrooms, you will be attending a session of your choice based on your interest level within the topic.  Option one will provide you the time and resources needed to update your lessons plans so that they all incorporate differentiation of some sort.  Option two will be an interactive session on new technology applications used to differentiate instruction for students in all subject areas.  And option three will be an open forum discussion on differentiation techniques that worked well or didn’t work well.”  Doesn’t that sound amazing and wonderful?  Teachers would receive training and support that is appropriate for the level at which they are currently working.  I would love to be at a school that utilizes this model of professional development as I could more effectively grow and develop as a teacher.  So, my question is, why don’t all schools employ this model of helping teachers grow and develop?  Sure, it takes planning, but that’s what great teachers and schools do.  So, why not try it?  Why not best support and help all teachers at all schools around the globe?  Let’s practice what we preach as teachers and meet students, or in this case educators, where they are so that we can best help them grow and develop as individuals.  Let’s change the way schools help teachers grow and develop professionally.

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.

How to be Flexible with Time in the Classroom

Despite stretching a little bit every day as I climb out of bed and take the three steps needed to get to my bathroom where the magic happens, I am not a very flexible person, physically speaking, that is.  While I enjoy twisting and turning to crack my back or get a kink out of my neck, I don’t spend more than 10-20 seconds a day actually stretching and working to make my body flexible.  I don’t do yoga and I don’t stretch a lot before working out.  I don’t put in the effort needed to make my body pliable because it’s not a skill or something that I really want to master.  I’m okay not being able to do a split or put my legs behind my head.  Sure, it would be pretty awesome to be able to do that as a parlor trick or as part of a Cirque du Soleil show, but I’m also quite content being my inflexible, lumpy self.  It’s who I am and I’m happy with that.

Now, being physically flexible and mentally flexible are two different things.  While I care not to be physically flexible, I do strive towards mental flexibility.  I want to be able to go with the flow, make changes on the fly, and be open to trying new things and taking risks in the classroom.  If my students ask lots of questions regarding a topic being discussed, I want to be able to field their questions and foster a meaningful discussion rather than not allowing them to ask their questions because I feel the need to continue with the lesson and push forward with the curriculum.  I want my students to be curious and engaged, and so, if allowing them to ask questions and chat about a topic holds their attention and is relevant to them, then I am all in favor of it.  Even though I say that in this here blog post, I still do sometimes get stuck in my thinking and will not allow questions to be asked or other activities to be completed because I want to plow through my curriculum.  I’m still always working towards mastering the skill of mental flexibility.  It’s very easy to get caught up in the schedule and lesson plans I worked so hard to put together and forget why I went into teaching in the first place.  I want to help students, inspire students, and allow students to see that school and learning can be fun and engaging.  Being the kind of educator who is open to switching things up in the middle of class, is what I continue to work towards day after day.  I’m far from perfect, but I want to engage my students in the process of learning; being flexible with time and activities is one of the most important strategies I can employ to accomplish just that in the classroom.

Today proved to be one of those “finish up work” kind of days.  My students had spent the last several days working on creating a tri-layered map of the Middle East Region as well as crafting an Inspiration map of the three main causes of Climate Change on Earth.  As both assignments are due on Monday, my co-teacher and I wanted to provide the students an opportunity to work on these pieces over the course of today.  So, today during Humanities class, when the students finished their map of the Middle East Region, they worked on their Inspiration map regarding Climate Change.  While most students had completed the Humanities map last night for homework, a few of the students spent the period finishing their map.  That worked for them as they needed more time to process the information and transfer it onto paper in the form of a map.  This task can be cumbersome and challenging for students who struggle with hand-eye coordination and attention to details.  Three of our students needed extra time today in class to complete this task.  The other students worked on finishing their STEM Inspiration map showcasing the causes of Climate Change.  This work period provided the students the opportunity to complete their graphic organizer or receive feedback from my co-teacher or I on their work so that they could revise it before turning it into be formally assessed.  I had some great conferences with the boys on their maps and learning processes.  While most of the students understood the assignment and just needed feedback on how to exceed the two graded objectives, one student needed clarification on the assignment.  He was very confused as to what he should be doing.  Instead of listing facts explaining the three main causes of Climate Change, he summarized each topic into one bubble or part of his web.  I was able to redirect him and help him fully comprehend what was being asked of him.  This really helped him focus his energy and feel successful as he now knows what he needs to do.  I had several other similar conversations and chats with my students regarding their graphic organizers.  It was great to have the time to conference and converse with the students about their work before it was due.

Although Humanities class is usually reserved for working on writing, reading, discussing, and thinking about the world around us, we do like to be open to new possibilities when they present themselves.  Today seemed like one of those opportunities.  Not all of the students needed to work on their map of the Middle East Region for Humanities class and so it seemed silly to press on with the curriculum when I knew that I would not have time in STEM class to meet with the students today to review their Inspiration maps.  So, using Humanities class time to conference with students on their STEM work just made sense.  It’s all about flexibility and being open to trying new things all in the name of better supporting and helping our students.  While I am sure to struggle with being mentally flexible next week in class, at least today provided me the chance to apply the skill of mental flexibility so that I don’t forget the great value it holds.  Life doesn’t unfold in a pretty, scripted manner and so I need to be aware that life in the classroom also doesn’t need to follow a linear, organized path.  I can switch things up from time to time when the changes will best help my students.

Getting Students to Think like Members of a Jury

Several years ago, I was called for jury duty.  At first I tried to get out of it because I didn’t want to miss time in the classroom with my students, but then I realized that I could use my experience on the jury in our mini-unit on 12 Angry Men.  I could share a real-life experience with my students to help them understand what goes on in a jury room while also getting them to understand the motivation of the eighth juror in the play.  So, I did it.  I was selected to hear a criminal case regarding domestic abuse charges involving adopted children.  Being the father of an adopted son, this case hit home for me.  While I did not allow my prior knowledge, emotions, and biases to cloud my judgment, I did use my background to better understand the case, the facts, and the law that was supposedly broken.  I listened carefully to the facts presented by both sides.  When the jury deliberated, we all agreed that the prosecution did not provide enough evidence to show that any abuse had taken place.  Although the mother of the children emotionally explained her side of the story, there was very little evidence to support it.  Without proof, we could not rule in favor of the plaintiff in this case.  We, as the jury, came back with a “not guilty” verdict based solely on the facts.  While it was hard to listen to the various pieces of testimony in this case, the facts drove our decision.  As a member of the jury, I had to keep an open mind and make my final vote because of what the facts and the laws told me.  It was not an easy case in which to be a part of, but I did my civic duty to the best of my ability based on what was right and just as well as the facts presented.

Freeing one’s mind of bias and possibly inaccurate prior knowledge can be quite difficult, but it is the only way to approach jury duty.  It’s also a great way to broaden one’s perspective when learning new things.  However, it’s also important not to forget what’s right and just as well.  While the facts are the facts and the law is the law, not all laws are right and just.  Helping my students see this fact as they develop a growth mindset in the classroom is crucial.  I try, each and every day, to remind my students of this very fact.  I want them to understand how important it is to look at the facts but to not forget about analyzing the equity of the facts and laws involved when learning new information and developing as a student, person, and thinker.  I want them to question everything.  It’s been especially important as we’ve been digging into the play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose.  I want the students to be able to understand the motivation of the eighth juror.  Why did he do what he did?  Why did he choose to stand alone in a room filled with 11 other men who all seemed to disagree with him?  Why did he take the time to explain his point of view and perspective to a generally close-minded group of individuals?  I want my students to see why Reginald Rose crafted this character the way he did.  The eighth juror calmly reviewed the facts of the case presented by both sides and helped the other jurors see the truth through the veil of their biases.  It is not an easy job for any of the men in the room, especially the eighth juror who has to deal with jurors yelling at him and accusing him of various things.  However, change comes about because of the facts of the case and the courage involved in helping others to see what is right and just.

To help my students practice this same skill employed by members of a jury, I found a current event involving a court case to discuss in class.  The case I used involved the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Native American groups trying to prevent it from going through their land.  As we had already introduced this topic to the boys back in December, they had prior knowledge of the case.  To begin our discussion, I had the students review what the issue was all about.  I then had the students state their opinion and thoughts on the issue.  Which side is “right?”  We then discussed the court case that is still awaiting a final verdict from the judge.  I had the students ask clarifying questions and share their thoughts on the case.  Following this short discussion, I then explained to the students that in order to discuss this current event and the case like members of a jury, they need to free themselves of their judgements and preconceived notions.  They need to look solely at the facts of the case.  So, I handed the students a written explanation of the Trust Responsibility principle used by the Supreme Court to handle issues involving Native American groups and their dealings with the United States of America.  We looked at the part that explained how most tribal land is still controlled by the American government despite the fact that the native groups have sovereignty within the boundaries of the reservations.  I explained to the students how the judge in the case might be using this portion of the principle to make his final decision in the case, which is due this coming week.  While the students seemed to understand the law and what it stated, they were outraged by it.  “The Native Americans were here first.  They are the only true Americans.  We are all immigrants and Europeans.  Why are we controlling their land?  How is that fair?” one student asked.  Another student responded, “This law is unjust and not right.  Why does it seem that nobody cares about this issue?”  My students were angry, like the men in our play.  They were upset with the facts of the case.  We had an amazing discussion.  The students were using examples from history to support their claims as they discussed this case and the issue at hand.  I was so impressed with how insightful and compassionate my students were being.  Even though they understood the law and know that the judge has to rule with the law in mind, they were discussing the facts of the case and how unjust this whole case seems.  I closed this discussion by praising the students for their phenomenal critical thinking.  I told them, “One of the main reasons we discuss current events like this is to make you angry while also empowering you to want to make a difference.  We want you to see how unjust some things in this world can be so that you will want to bring about change within the world.  Perhaps one of you will go onto become a lawyer and fight for the people like these Native American groups who can’t always fight for themselves.”  The students seemed enthralled and motivated.  I can’t wait to see how they change the world in the coming years.

Getting my students to think like members of a jury while also getting them riled up helped them to understand the web Reginald Rose created in his play.  I wanted them to see how difficult it can be to “see” the facts through the haze of issues, biases, and fairness.  What is right isn’t always the law and what is the law isn’t always just.  I want my students to see and understand this concept as we work through this amazing piece of literature created during a turbulent time in American history, just as we seem to be living during another tumultuous time in our country’s history.  Being able to think like a juror while not forgetting everything else is the key to developing a true growth mindset and becoming a changemaker in our world.

Personal Summer Reading Part I

Now that I’ve finished my required summer reading text, I’m onto one final book that a colleague let me borrow back in February.  I meant to read it sooner but never got around to it.  What better time than now.  So, before I get into learning how to knit and working on my first STEM and Humanities units for the new academic year, it’s time to increase my knowledge base.

Creative School by Sir Ken Robinson is a book about how to create effective and great schools that allow students to embrace their passions and curiosities while also challenging themselves.  Although it contains some great ideas for big, sweeping changes to education, I haven’t snatched up any knowledge nuggets just yet.  It’s more about the need for changes from the top.  It’s a book about the philosophy of education and how to bring about and foster schools that will empower students to grow and change the world.  He uses vignettes to support his thesis that the educational system in the world is defunct and in need of a complete overhaul.  We need to rethink how schools are structured and eliminate a set curriculum based on random standards.  Trying to fit students into a one-size-fits-all education is like trying to put a size 10 boot on an infant.  It just won’t work.  As we are no longer preparing students for life in the industrial age where everyone is expected to do the same thing, trying to educate students in this manner is futile.  Students are bored, dropping out of school, causing problems because they are disengaged, and complaining about school and their teachers.  It’s time to break the cycle, he laments.

Reading this book does lead me to wonder if school leadership might be in my future.  I would love to start or lead a school that is built upon the ideas Robinson discusses in the text.  Imagine a school where students can explore, play, work together to solve problems, learn what intrigues or interests them, and be excited to come to school every single day.  That’s the kind of school I would love to be a part of.  With all of the research on the need for change to come to education in our country and the world, it’s baffling to me why more schools aren’t changing or adapting to better meet the needs of their students and the world in which they will live.  Most schools in this country are still bound by standards and time.  There is a structure for everything.  Schools are failing students and nothing is being done about it.  Then, I worry that if I leave the classroom I might miss it and the direct contact with the students.  Leading a school is more about politics and direction than it is working with the students.  I don’t want that.  I want to be in the trenches helping to inspire students and trying to bring about change in my classroom that others will hopefully see and want to replicate.  But is that enough?  If I don’t reach for the stars, will any real change actually happen?

For now, I will let Sir Ken Robinson impart his knowledge upon me as I think about how to foster change in my school.

  • Flexible Grouping: Should students be grouped by ability or age?  Does it matter?  What about having stronger students paired with struggling students?  Would that make any difference?  Having the ability to fluidly group students throughout the year would help to empower students.
  • Longer Class Chunks: Should we have a set daily schedule for every grade or allow the teachers to tailor the schedule for their team or group of students?  Do we need 40 minute classes every day?  Is that really enough time to dig into the learning?  Providing students with longer chunks of time to learn, explore, and play would help to engage students in the educational process.
  • Make Learning Meaningful: Does there need to be a set curriculum or set of standards?  What about rethinking the curriculum and creating a flexible map that students would follow to help them gain the skills they will need to be successful members of a global society in the 21st century?  How often do you need to recall basic facts you learned in 8th grade science?  For me, it is rarely.  That should be a wake-up call right there.
  • Teachers as Guides: Who should be driving the classroom forward, teachers or students?  How fun is it to listen to your colleagues talk about something in a faculty meeting for 20 or more minutes?  Perhaps your brain functions differently than mine, but I grow bored quickly.  I want to be doing the learning myself.  I want to talk to my fellow teachers and bounce ideas around.  I don’t want to sit, listen, and take notes.  And I would imagine that our students feel the same way.  Teacher-directed instruction isn’t going to help prepare our students for meaningful lives in a global society.

Change needs to come fast or we will continue to fail future generations of students.  Then what?  Who will help to save humanity from rising ocean levels, increased levels of pollution, and limited access to food and water?  If we don’t inspire or better challenge and support our students now, we, as the human race, will be in serious trouble in 10-20 years.