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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Challenges, Change, Co-Teacher, Conversation, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Student Conferences, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

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.

Posted in Change, Class Discussion, Current Events, Education, Humanities, Learning, Perspective, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

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.

Posted in Challenges, Change, Curriculum, Education, Learning, Professional Development, Standards, Summer Reading, Teaching

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.

Posted in Boy Writers, Boys, Change, Education, Humanities, Sixth Grade, Teaching, Writer's Workshop, Writing, Writing Conferences

Rethinking The Structure of Writing Groups

One of my favorite courses in college was Poetry Workshop.  The class was structured like a big writer’s conference or writer’s workshop session.  Each Wednesday evening, we would meet for three hours and share and discuss our work.  Each student would read his or her poem aloud and then receive feedback from the group.  I loved the discussions best of all because they were a chance to talk about writing and figure out how to improve or change a piece to make it more effective.  The conversations were dialogues, not each person saying, “I liked how you used the word flagrant in your piece.  It was cool.”  Oh no.  The students asked each other questions and discussed word choice and line breaks.  Everything was a give-and-take.  We provided each other with constructive feedback so that everybody in the group could grow and develop as a writer and poet.  I learned more about writing in that four-month class than I ever did in all of my years of elementary school.

As a teacher, I want to inspire my students in the same way.  I want them to like writing and the process of writing as much as I did back then.  I want them to see the value in revision and want to talk about writing for the sake of honing their craft.  While we utilize the writer’s workshop model for literacy instruction in the sixth grade, I do wonder if we are effectively implementing every aspect of it.

Today in Humanities class, the students participated in writing groups as a way to receive feedback from their peers on how to improve upon their poem to make it even stronger.  The goal of writing groups, which we share with the students every time, “is to help your peers improve their piece so that they are able to meet and/or exceed every graded objective.”  We reviewed the protocol with the boys today at the start of class since it has been a while since we’ve had writing groups.  “Each student will share his piece aloud with the group while the other two or three members will take copious notes on noticings and wonderings based on the type of feedback the reader said he is looking for.  Then, the writer will physically remove himself from the group while the other members discuss the author’s piece.  While the writer is listening and taking notes on the feedback provided, he does not participate in the discussion.  He doesn’t ask questions and accepts or declines the suggestions and feedback offered.  The other students will ask each other questions and make suggestions about how the author could improve the piece.”  Although some of these discussions were quite strong today, most of the conversations were more of a “do it to get it done kind of thing” than an actual task and opportunity that is taken seriously.  The writers listened for feedback they liked and ignored the rest while the other students discussing the piece just shared noticings and wonderings and weren’t able to have a genuine conversation about the piece and what the author can do to make it stronger and better.

So then, why do we do it this way?  Why do we structure the writing groups so that the students can’t be involved in the discussion?  My co-teacher from a few years ago took several courses through the National Writing Project and they use this same format for writing groups.  She loved it and so we’ve done it ever since despite noticing how much the students have struggled with the process.  They aren’t mature enough to handle having high-level conversations regarding much critical thinking at the sixth grade level.  The writers want to ask their peers discussing the piece questions about the feedback.  They want to speak for themselves and take ownership of their writing.  They can’t just sit and listen.  But, that’s how we structure it.  And after today’s writing groups experience, I’ve realized that this format needs to change for next year.  It’s not beneficial to all students.  Sure, some students receive helpful feedback, but most are not provided with the kind of feedback that allows them to grow and develop as writers.  Most sixth graders are not able to notice the figurative language and how it builds the scene or foreshadows future happenings.  They get stuck on how their peers read the piece aloud.  “He read it very slowly without emotion.”  How is that specific tidbit of feedback going to help the writer improve his piece?  It’s not.  What if we allowed the writers to engage in the conversation and speak for their piece?  What if we allowed them to explain and discuss the questions raised by the other members of the group?  Wouldn’t that elicit higher-level thinking and discussion?  Wouldn’t that allow the writer to be provided with more valuable feedback?

Instead, today, a few of the students felt frustrated and as though they didn’t receive any sort of helpful feedback.  Of course, one of those students utilized a fixed mindset going into writing groups and wouldn’t have liked any feedback he received unless it was positive and praised his poem.  But, a few of the students felt like they didn’t receive the sort of suggestions they were hoping for.  The ideas for revision some of the boys received lacked depth and were more like editing marks than deep revision suggestions.  Plus, many of the authors wanted to address the questions brought up by their peers, but because we structure the writing groups in a specific manner, they are not allowed to get involved in the discussions.  This proved frustrating to some of our boys.  So, why not change the format?  Why keep something in the curriculum that is clearly broken?

So, next year, when we introduce and utilize writing groups, they will be structured more like conversations and dialogues.  We want the students to own their work and feel as they though can explain their choices and work.  We want the boys to analyze writing and dig into it instead of just scratching the surface.  Next year, writing groups in the sixth grade will look more like the writing groups I experienced in my college course.  We want to bring the fun and engagement back into writing.  No more staying with the status quo.  It’s time to admit defeat and overhaul the format.  Why keep repeating something that the students clearly don’t enjoy and that doesn’t seem to help them grow as writers in any way?  “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  No more shame will be had in the sixth grade.

Posted in Change, Education, Humanities, Learning, Reflection, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching, Writing

Celebrating Student Growth

After having just returned from a week-long class trip to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I did not have high expectations for classes today.  I figured the students would be exhausted and unable to focus and concentrate.  While I did want to jump right back into the routine for the sake of the students, I also realized that they may not be as productive today in class as they have been in the past, since we had spent the last five days outside learning about the geology and ecology of the Cape Cod region.  And so, because of this, I wasn’t expecting amazing effort or quality work to be completed in class today.  I tempered my expectations or as my headmaster likes to say, “Manage your expectations.”  So, I did just that.  I went into classes today thinking that things would just be, and nothing more than that.  Well, let’s just say, I was quite surprised by what did actually happen in the sixth grade classroom today.

The students were focused and prepared to work diligently on whatever task was thrown their way.  They asked great questions to be sure they understood what was being asked of them.  They worked well independently and were able to stay on task, for the most part, when working with a peer.  I was impressed.  How was this possible?  We spent the week walking, hiking, climbing, talking, and working hard, and yet, they were still able to come to class on Saturday, of all days, and complete great work with fine effort.  Perhaps because my expectations were low, I was amazed by what did take place in class today.  Maybe I should have expected greatness as they are quite the talented group of young men.  Either way, I was tickled tan today by what I observed.

In Humanities class, my co-teacher and I had the students reflect on our trip to Cape Cod.  We generated insightful questions that allowed them to think critically about their experiences on the trip and the learning that took place.  As I had heard that some of our students already reflected on their journey during the previous class, I was sure to differentiate between the more storyboarding reflection that they had already done and the critical thinking reflection we expected them to complete in our class as I explained the activity.  Perhaps this helped motivate them to work harder and in a more focused manner.  Who knows.  All I do know is that their work and reflections were quite phenomenal.  Several of our ELL students who in the past struggled greatly with writing more than a few sentences, crafted two pages of written reflection on our trip and they still weren’t done by the end of class.  They were operating like writing and reflecting machines.  It was pretty awesome.  They cited examples from our adventure and detailed the learning that they experienced.  Maybe they are just getting better at reflecting because we do so much of it in the sixth grade.  Perhaps that’s what caused today’s outcome.  Maybe, but I still wasn’t expecting this level of work after a week away from the classroom.  It was a bit odd yet still very exciting.  Maybe, they are learning and growing like students should.  Perhaps what we saw was all part of the learning process.  Maybe they just needed a week away to allow for the synthesis of our teaching.  Perhaps our trip to Cape Cod allowed the students the opportunity to put together all of the puzzle pieces with which we have been providing them all year.  Maybe that’s what happened.  Yes, I’m sure that’s exactly what happened, he said with sarcasm dripping from his lower lip like autumn leaves falling from trees.  No matter what lead to today’s awesomeness in the classroom, I knew that it needed to be mentioned and celebrated.

So, towards the end of Humanities class, I did take the time to reflect orally on what my co-teacher and I had seen in class today.  We were impressed by how much they had written and how focused they were on the task at hand.  Many of them had accomplished more work in the short time we were together today than they had all year.  They applied the Habits of Learning we had been discussing and practicing all year in their written reflections.  They were taking ownership of their learning, and learning from mistakes made.  Wow!  It was phenomenal.  As I shared my reflection on today’s work period, smiles swayed through the classroom like the wave at a sporting event.  Hopefully, the boys understood how proud we are of them and their progress this year in the sixth grade.  It’s important to celebrate victories of any size so that our students can truly reflect upon their learning and growth.

Posted in Change, Education, Humanities, New Ideas, Trying Something New

Learning Through Reflection and Research

Learning is a never ending process, much like that song entitled The Song that Never Ends…  There’s always more to do, review, try…  As a student in school, I struggled to see this process.  To me, back then, learning was a one and done experience.  I tried it once and whatever the outcome, that was my learning.  I did no more work than what was expected.  I didn’t try to see the value or benefit in learning.  I just wanted to get through school with as few scars as possible.  It wasn’t until I became a teacher that I was able to see the importance in the learning process.  If I tried something and failed, I didn’t give up; I found a new way to solve my problem.  In the process of learning, genuine growth and development are generated.

In my last blog post, I detailed the challenges I faced in trying to teach my students about the major religions of the Middle East Region.  My students were plagued by their prior knowledge and perspectives, some of which were inaccurate.  It was kind of a mess.  Prior to today’s follow-up lesson on religion, I wanted to be and feel better prepared to help my students see why we are talking about religion in the classroom.  So, I did a little reading.

I found an issue of Education Week magazine from a few months ago that contained an article all about how to appropriately and effectively teach religion in context.  The article explained the importance of understanding religion as it pertains to the world and its people.  When teaching about the world, current events, or a historical time period, it’s important to explore the religion or religions practiced.  How did they impact the event, place, or culture?  Rather than teaching religion in a vacuum, students need to explore it in context.  Understanding the whys and hows of history includes knowing about the role of religion.  This makes so much sense.  So rather than having the students research individual religions, we should discuss the role the religions play in the Middle East Region.

Instead of devoting much more class time to having the students research their assigned religion, I wanted to provide the boys with ample opportunity to explore and examine religion as a concept and lense through which we study history and its people and places.  Today in Humanities class, the students had only ten minutes to continue researching their religion.  While this seemed short, I prefaced this activity period with an explanation.  “I know you probably won’t finish researching your religion and that’s okay.  For us today, the focus will be on discussing how religion impacts a culture and place.”  After they completed the research phase, each pair of students presented their religion to the class.  These presentations then lead into a conversation on how world religions are connected.  What shared commonalities did the religions you learned about today have?  How were they connected?  While I didn’t tell the students that we would be discussing this aspect of the religions before they listened to their classmates share about various religions, I was impressed by the list they generated.  They extracted much information from the presentations.  Rather than focus on how the religions of the Middle East Region were different, I wanted the boys to see how they are similar.  Making connections and thinking positively allows students to stay focused on the power of religion and not the sometimes false perspectives they take away from current events or news stories online.

The discussion then shifted away from various religions to the idea of religion as a topic or idea.  I asked the students, “What is the purpose of religion?  Why do people practice religion?  Why did civilizations create religions?”  The students started to understand how religion impacts a place and its people.  They shared thoughts like, “It ties communities together, religion gives people a way to live their lives, and provides people with a belief system.”  I was impressed.  They were understanding the big idea of religion.  As they were so focused on the unifying characteristics of religion, I also wanted them to see how religion can divide people and communities.  Religion can causes wars and death.  It is a powerful idea.  I then explained the value in understanding the religion of a place in order to fully understand its history and culture.  The students seemed to grasp this.

Wow, I thought, how or why did today’s lesson go so much more smoothly than Wednesday’s introduction to religion?  Did they just need time to process everything and two days was enough for that?  Or was it because I changed my approach due to the reflection I wrote on Wednesday and the reading I did to change my perspective?  The students seemed so much more receptive and open to taking in new ideas regarding religion as a concept instead of focusing on individual religions.  Also, I didn’t allow for the students to ask many questions following the group presentations.  I didn’t want them trying to poke holes in other religions or being confused by false information.  I think this probably helped make things go more smoothly as well.

Learning from one’s mistakes and then applying new knowledge to solve similar problems differently is what being a great teacher is all about.  Had I continued teaching the lesson in the same, misinformed manner I used on Wednesday, the students would not have been able to effectively comprehend the ideas discussed.  I realized, after class on Wednesday, that things did not go well in Humanities class.  It was a bit of a train wreck and so I worked at altering my perspective and teaching approach.  Clearly it paid off today in the classroom as we had an amazing discussion regarding the value in understanding the religion of a place being studied to fully appreciate and comprehend its history and culture.

Posted in Change, Co-Teacher, Education, Humanities, New Ideas, Students, Teaching

Impromptu Fun in the Classroom

Some of my favorite memories in and out of the classroom stem from last minute changes in the routine or plan.  Several years ago, when I first took the sixth grade class to Cape Cod for a week to learn about the geology and ecology of the region, the group running the program asked my co-teacher and I, late one afternoon, if we wanted to take the boys for ice cream following dinner.  We didn’t have money in the budget but thought it would be a fun activity.  So, we made it happen last minute and have continued with this tradition every year since.  The boys love it.  It was a slight change that happened quickly but made all the difference.  While I am a creature of habit and do struggle with change, because I was flexible in my thinking that afternoon, a fun, impromptu activity was manifested.  Sometimes, going with the flow can pay off.

Today, directly prior to the start of Humanities class, my co-teacher and I chatted about the lesson we had planned.  She expressed her concern that she didn’t want the class discussion to take too much time because she was worried that the students might then grow bored or unengaged.  As I started the class, I thought about how I could vary my instruction to make it more engaging and less focused on one mode of teaching.  Following a short discussion on how the geography of the Middle East region impacts the people, culture, and place, I decided to shake things up a bit.  While I’m not a sporty kind of guy, I am aware of some sports metaphors that sound pretty cool.  For example, in football, when something that I don’t know about happens in football, it’s called an audible.  Today in class, I called an audible that seemed to have a really awesome outcome.  Yah for me!

I had the students, with their table partner, discuss where in the Middle East region would be the best place to start a civilization and why.  They had a blast identifying just the right spot to call home.  They talked about the importance of access to water for planting and travelling and close proximity to mountains for protection.  It was great.  Then, I had each pair share their ideas with the group.  After the first group identified their spot, I threw a curveball into the activity.  I put a sticky note on the map covering the spot that the first group had claimed as their own and said, “No other group may choose this spot as the first group has already claimed it.”  The other groups all had similar locations and so this threw them for a bit of a loop, but they persevered through it and solved the problem.  Each successive group chose a different spot that also seemed quite appropriate for a civilization to form, but they had to think on their feet in order to change their spot quickly.  Some groups mumbled amongst themselves to choose a new spot while others took it upon themselves to make the change when they arrived at the map.

At the close of the activity, the students moved into a break period and couldn’t stop talking about the activity.  They were fired up about it.  Some students talked about taking over the other civilizations through force or war while other students looked for alternative locations to build a civilization.   While I came up with this activity at the last minute, it proved to be engaging and inspiring for the boys.  They really got into it.  It also allowed us to vary our method of instruction so that the students stayed focused and engaged throughout the period.  What began as a problem of how to keep the students engaged during class, turned into a fun opportunity for learning.

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

When Life Throws a Curveball, Be Ready to Swing that Bat

Technology in the classroom is a very new and modern concept.  When I was in school, I thought film projectors with sound were cool, new technology.  Now, if a classroom doesn’t have an interactive board or screen of some sort, we wonder why.  Times have changed and we rely so much on technology that I often find myself wondering, What happens when technology fails?  Then what.  Sure, Google tools are awesome and interactive and laptops allow for some amazing work to happen, but what do teachers and schools do when something prevents that technology from being useful in the classroom?

That question was shoved in my face and the faces of my colleagues today when we came to breakfast and realized that our school had no power and would most likely not have any power for a day or so.  What do we do?  Do we cancel classes?  Do we move classes to the dining hall, the only building on campus with limited power?  That was a great idea, until even the dining hall lost complete power.  It was a cloudy and rainy morning.  There was very little light to shine through the windows of our numerous classrooms.  And what about the classrooms that have no windows or very few windows?  Then what?  We can’t possibly have classes today, we all thought.  But no, we stayed the course and went about our morning as normally as we possibly could.  Classes started at the same time and in the same places as always.  The only difference being that there was no power.  No lights, no projectors, no interactive boards, no laptops, no sound, nothing.  We had to rely on ourselves as teachers and students to be the class.  Just when I thought it wasn’t possible, we made it happen.

The first two periods went off without too many hitches.  My co-teacher planned an interactive nutrition lesson for her study skills class.  The students looked at the nutrition facts for various foods.  They seemed to enjoy this activity.  Second period, our sixth graders traveled to their invention class.  All was well there too.  Then they returned to the classroom for Humanities class.

Our original lesson plan involved almost no technology and so tweaking it slightly was all it took to make it work.  The boys entered the room more loudly than usual because there was no soft music playing and it was filled with light as we had to open the curtains to have any sort of light source in the classroom.  After a few minutes, they quieted right down.  Then, class began.  We reviewed the homework and daily agenda that we had written on a non-interactive whiteboard.  We also told the boys how proud we were of them for being flexible and going with the flow on such a strange day without power.  I was hopeful that this would hold the bar high for what was expected of them in class today.  We then moved into the central lesson for the class and the students got right to work.  For the most part, they were focused and on task.  Those students who were generally distracted when the routine was normal were the same ones who were distracted in class today.  Nothing new there.  Everyone else was hard at work on their tri-layered map of the Middle East Region.  The boys worked diligently to complete their maps.  The class went off without a hitch.  Then came STEM class.

Now, I was a bit worried for this period because my original plan had included much technology use.  What would I do instead?  How could I alter the plan?  I spent most of the morning contemplating this.  It wasn’t until class started that I actually had a back-up plan.  This concerned me.  What would happen?  How would it go?  Would the students be engaged?  Would learning happen?  I just rolled with it.  Instead of showing the students a video on the rock cycle, I explained the cycle with images I drew on the whiteboard and examples I gave to the students.  We then turned our classroom into an interactive rock cycle.  Each student was provided a rock sample.  They needed to determine what type of rock it was to figure out where in the classroom they needed to stand.  The metamorphic rocks stood in the center of the room, representing Earth’s mantle.  The igneous rocks blew out of volcanoes and stood near the walls of the classroom, representing the crust.  The sedimentary rocks also stayed towards the outside of the classroom, as they had been created on Earth’s crust.  I then proceeded to explain various geological happenings and had the student transform from one type of rock to another based on the process involved.  The students were moving and breaking apart as wind and weather eroded them down while other students moved about the mantle under extreme pressure and heat.  Then volcanoes spewed out other students as igneous rocks.  The room was alive with geological activity.  It was awesome.  The students then returned to their seats where they had to explain what type of rock they had turned into and why.  They almost all demonstrated their understanding of the content covered.  It was so much fun.  As we were about to transition into the main activity period of the class, the power came back on.  We celebrated for a moment before returning to work.  Everything returned back to normal quite quickly after the electricity had been restored.

Despite the craziness and changes in the daily routine, the boys rolled with the day very well.  They were flexible and utilized a growth mindset when the agenda was altered.  I was impressed with how my co-teacher and I were able to switch up the lessons for the day to make them work without the use of technology or power.  I generally have a difficult time going with the flow, but today I did it.  I thought on my feet and created a very fun game to show the students, first hand, how the rock cycle really works.  Yah me!  When life throws us lemons, we need to be prepared to suck all the juice out before throwing them back at life and demanding apples.  And today in the sixth grade, we did just that.

Posted in Change, George Ella Lyon, Where I'm From Poem

Change Can Be a Good Thing, Sometimes

I’m very much a creature of habit.  Change has always been difficult for me to handle.  I don’t like change.  I like to keep things the same.  Routine is important to me.  Starting this school year has been incredibly difficult because the co-teacher who I worked with for five years left at the end of the last academic year, which meant that I would be working with a new teacher.  While she is doing a fine job, it’s not the same.  I feel weird and different about things this year because of it.  Everything is a bit off.  I’m working towards coming to grips with change, but it’s challenging.  Sometimes, I force change upon myself as a way to practice.  I’m hopeful that as I mature, so will my ability to deal with change.

Today in Humanities class, we completed a writing activity based on George Ella Lyon’s Where I’m From Poem.  While we did this activity last year, I felt like we spent too long on it.  Things felt discombobulated and cumbersome when we did this lesson last year.  So, I changed it up a bit this year, and I think, it was totally worth it.

I began the lesson by explaining why we are completing it.  What’s the purpose of writing a Where I’m From poem?  As our first unit is Community, it is important that we help to build and foster a sense of community within our class.  This activity does just that.  After the students understood the purpose of the activity, we jumped right in.  I started by sharing the original Where I’m From poem by Lyon.  We quickly discussed it but not at length because most of the language is too advanced for our students.  However, I wanted the boys to see the original mentor text.  Then, I shared the Where We’re From poem our sixth grade class crafted last year.  We did go into depth when we discussed this piece because the language was far more accessible.  The students shared noticings, and I pointed out the figurative language the students had used.  I then shared the first Where I’m From poem I wrote two years ago when I took a class on Place-Based Writing.

Following these examples, my new co-teacher explained the purpose of brainstorming and how to apply it to this activity.  We also informed the students that if they struggled crafting their poem, we had a template worksheet they could use to stimulate ideas.  No one took us up on this offer during class though.  Then, I reviewed the expectations and told the boys how long they had to craft their Where I’m From poem.  I also explained the assignment in a different way, hoping to inspire students.  “Picture where you’re from in your head like a photograph.  Then, put that image into words to create your poem.”  I then instructed them to begin their poem with “I’m from…”  At this point we addressed any final questions they had before we let them get to work.  They had 30 minutes to write in class today.

Wow, was just about all I could say about the outcome.  Some of the students started brainstorming by writing out ideas on their whiteboard tables or jotting down a list in their Writer’s Notebook while the rest of the students got right to the poem.  They were focused for a majority of the time, writing their poem.  It was quite amazing.  My co-teacher and I even had a chance to write our own Where I’m From poem.  It was so much fun.  However, the real fun came when we had interested students share their work.  It was amazing.  They used figurative language and captured their story so well.  It was awesome.  Their poems were brilliant and they aren’t even done yet.  I can’t imagine how phenomenal their future drafts will be.

I was so impressed with how today’s activity went.  They worked well and created amazing work.  Was it because of how we introduced the activity?  Did they craft such epic pieces because of the examples used?  Or was it the brainstorming techniques my co-teacher explained?  What allowed today’s activity to go so well compared to last year’s?  Now, don’t get me wrong, this activity was also quite successful last year, but seemed clunky and took way more than one double block to complete.  We accomplished all of this in 80 minutes today.  So, clearly, the changes I made to this lesson made a huge difference.  I can’t wait to see how tomorrow goes when we put together our class Where We’re From poem.  I hope it’s as great as the poems they wrote today.  The moral of the story: Change can bring about positive results.