How Much Literary Analysis is Too Much?

“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”  Do you know from what movie that famous line comes?  I’ll give you a hint, it won an Oscar or two and stars Kevin Spacey.  That’s right, American Beauty.  What an amazing film.  It was provocative, inspiring, sad, disturbing, and beautiful all at the same time.  I know it’s a cliche, but that scene with the floating plastic bag gets me every time.  So beautiful!  Having watched this movie more than a handful of times, I noticed something different every time.  When I saw it in the movie theater for the first time, I didn’t fully comprehend the director’s use of the color red.  It took me a few more viewings to really see what Sam Mendes was trying to accomplish in creating this masterpiece.  After the movie was first released, I read several reviews and commentaries on the film that discussed how many different layers one needed to peel away to see what was truly underneath.  The lighting, the use of the color red, the camera angles, the writing, and the final scene were just some of the different aspects critics analyzed when discussing the film.  They went on and on about every tiny little detail of the movie, it seemed to me back then.  Universities and colleges even began offering a film class to study the movie.  While I love the movie and agree with most everything people said about it when it first came out in 1999, I did begin to wonder if people in the industry were overdoing it.  Were the critics over analyzing the movie?  Were they discussing it so much that the film seemed to lose some of its allure or beauty?  One could argue both sides of those questions, but it does make me question if sometimes, popular culture does get over discussed or critiqued in our society.

During Humanities class today, my co-teacher and I continued reading aloud our class novel The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.  We just began the book last week, after returning from March Break.  Upon reviewing the main characters, title, author, and setting of the novel, I began reading it aloud to my students.  The boys were enthralled.  They couldn’t get enough.  When I did stop reading, they begged for me to continue.  I love that.  It means that we chose the right read-aloud text.  I couldn’t be happier, because not only are the students enjoying the book, but it’s also one of my favorite novels to read aloud.  The prose is brilliant and heart breaking while the storyline is simply complex.  The way the author captures the thoughts of a silverback gorilla is breathtakingly bittersweet.  There is at least one line in almost every chapter that I could talk about for hours.  The way Ivan sees humans as wasters of words or the way he views the world with such heart and simplicity.  As I read the novel aloud to my students today, I couldn’t help but stop to reread various lines, asking the students to decipher the message the author was trying to send her readers.  After having analyzed several lines together as a group, I realized that I had spent 10 minutes getting through only three pages.  Was I over analyzing the book?  Were the students really able to get into the story if I kept pausing to discuss so much?  Despite the beauty of the novel, was I overdoing it today in class?  Did I spend too much time discussing and analyzing the author’s words?  As I read, I realized that perhaps I was going into overdrive a little longer than I should have been; and so, during the last ten pages of reading, I merely paused after reading what I interpreted as amazing writing and simply waited in silence for a few seconds or said, “While I would love to discuss this line, I know you are all such great detectives and are able to infer the message the author is trying to convey.”  This seemed to keep the boys happy as I was validating their abilities while also moving forward in the story.  It was difficult for me to control myself during this time because I wanted to ask so many questions.  I wanted the students to dissect what the author was trying to do and why Ivan saw the world the way in which he did.  But, I didn’t.  I kept on reading.

How much is too much analysis?  Should I have continued asking questions while reading?  if I did that, I never would have finished reading the 20 pages I had wanted to complete in class today.  Would that have been an issue?  Should I have been okay with that and kept discussing?  Or, was I right in continuing to read the story aloud?  Did the students miss out on anything because I didn’t give them a chance to analyze and discuss the novel during the final ten pages of the section I read today?  Would they have been able to practice applying other reading strategies that we hadn’t already covered in class had I posed further questions?  I doubt it, as my line of questioning was about analysis and drawing conclusions.  I do think that if I had spent any more time discussing and less time reading, the boys might have gotten a little frustrated.  They seem to really like this book and so the more I read to them, the happier they are sure to be.  It’s much easier to follow a story that is read in a fluid motion like the flow of a river.  I kept damming things ups by stopping to ask questions.

I do think that there is a fine line between analyzing a text and overdoing it.  While we want our students to be able to interpret books, analyze the words the author crafts, and draw their own conclusions, it is important that we don’t beat a dead horse.  If we stop to pose questions and discuss a book too much, we risk losing the students’ interest.  We need to ask just the right amount of questions as we read a book aloud to our students.  Reading and discussing literature is very much a fine art.  It’s a balancing act of beauty and beast.  How much is too much and how much is not enough?  For me, it’s all about knowing my the audience.  Are my students engaged in the discussion or are they bored?  Do they seem to need more time to process and analyze what I’ve read aloud?  Gauging the students during activities like this is crucial.  The better we know our students, the more effective we can make these read aloud and discussion sessions.  Just like Alanis Morissette did to her record company after they released yet another single off of her third studio album Jagged Little Pill, we, as teachers, need to know when to put the brakes on discussion and move back into reading.

How Do I Let Go of my Insecurities in the Classroom?

Growing up in a conservative town, the school I attended had many old-school teachers who had been teaching at that same school for decades.  They believed in the completely inaccurate and horrific old adage of, Children should be seen and not heard.  My teachers trained me to raise my hand when I had something to say.  If students shouted out in the classroom, they were sent out of the room, lectured at, beat with a ruler, or sent to the principal’s office.  I learned that the safest way to make it through a school day was to just be quiet.  I rarely spoke in class because of this model of education.  Even now, in faculty meetings, when I have something to say, I raise my hand rather than just speak out.  Old habits die hard.

Because of my life experiences, when I first became an educator several years ago, I believed that children must raise their hand to speak in class.  So, I held my students to this high standard for a few years.  I would penalize or speak with those students who did shout out instead of raising their hand.  I think I did it out of respect.  I felt as though the students should respect me as their teacher by raising their hand to share an idea or thought with the group.  Not raising one’s hand and shouting out seemed disrespectful to me.  So, I followed the mantra my teachers used even though I hated it when I was a student.

Luckily, I was able to break this vicious cycle a few years after taking a course on the neuroscience of education.  I learned how students really learn.  They need to explore, collaborate, communicate, try, share, fail, and try again.  They need to feel safe and supported.  While forcing students to raise their hand in order to speak in class, allows me as the teacher to be in control of the students at all times, it also makes the classroom very teacher-centered, which is not a good model to follow.  The students need to feel like they have ownership over their learning.  They need to be engaged in what they are learning.  Although I do ask my students to raise their hands when they have a question or thought to share with the class, I try not to penalize those few students who do struggle to keep their ideas inside.  I want my students to feel heard, as long as they are doing so in a compassionate and respectful manner.  I no longer think of shouting out as disrespectful towards me, but rather, I don’t want my students to be disrespectful their peers.  This new approach has allowed me to foster a student-centered classroom in which the students feel heard and respected.  They feel like an integral part of the learning process.  It’s no longer about me vs. them, instead, we’re all in this together like one big happy family.

Every once in awhile though, I do find myself falling back into old habits and speaking to the class about not shouting out.  Today felt like one of those days.  One student in particular shouted out on several occasions.  Rather than point him out directly, I said to the class, “Shouting out is disrespectful behavior that needs to stop.  Thank you to those of you who are raising your hand to participate in our discussion.  I really appreciate that.”  While I wasn’t calling the student out in particular, I was highlighting the fact that shouting out is negative behavior.  Now, on occasion today, this student did add his insight and questions without raising his hand, but he did so, at times, in a respectful manner.  Rather than talk over his classmates, he waited for openings in the conversation.  This is perfectly appropriate behavior.  I didn’t comment on those moments.  Instead, I focused on the moments during which he was talking over students, as this is rude disrespectful behavior.  However, I do wonder if this message was made clear to my students.  Do they understand how to appropriately add to a discussion by not raising their hand?  Well, they do because we’ve taught them the Socratic model of discussion.  They have lengthy group discussions run by the students during which no hands are raised.  They wait for breaks in the conversation to add their thoughts.  Perhaps I should speak with them, as a class, about how to appropriately participate in class discussions.  Shouting out while others are talking is not an effective method.  Waiting for breaks in the conversation like our Socratic discussions is the best way to jump into a conversation without raising one’s hand.  After I return from presenting at the NELMS Conference in Providence, RI, I will tell this to the students.  I want them to understand that it’s not disrespectful to appropriately add to a discussion without raising their hand.  I just need to be sure that I hold myself to this line and not fall back into old habits and try to maintain control of the class at any cost.  Sometimes, this insecurity that I posses, causes me to make mistakes and not be the most effective teacher possible.  Writing about it on this here blog helps me name it and understand how I can grow and change for the better.  One of my many goals as teacher is to guide and not lead or control students.  I need to give up control and help my students effectively learn how to be respectful and compassionate citizens.

Preparing Students for their Future, Now

In school, my teachers never told me about how they were preparing me for the next year of school.  I feel as though they were just checking off boxes and trying to get through the required curriculum.  Now, as a teacher, I realize that they were in fact preparing me for what was to come in my future courses, but I wish they had been more deliberate and explicit about how they were doing this.  I would have paid a lot more attention to certain lessons or activities had I known that what I was learning would better prepare me for my future classes.  It’s important that students understand why a particular lesson or skill is being covered.  Brain-based research on education tells us that students are more apt to pay attention, focus, and be engaged in something that they find directly relevant to their lives.  If I had known that my ninth grade history teacher’s lesson on civic duty was going to help me be better prepared for the start of tenth grade history, I might have doodled less and remained more focused.

I try to make sure that I explain the purpose of every lesson, unit, or activity completed in my sixth grade classroom.  I want my students to see the relevance and importance in everything we do.  I want to foster a love of knowledge and curiosity for the future.  I want my students to feel prepared for the seventh grade.

In my Humanities class, I have been spending the last several week’s helping my students transition from simplistic and basic plot summaries to more analytical entries when they write about their reading.  In the seventh grade, the students are expected to be able to read a novel together as a class and analyze its meaning on various levels.  They are also expected to interpret and think critically about the novel in written form.  To help prepare my students for the rigors of seventh grade English, I’ve been challenging them to interpret what they are reading instead of simply stating what they are reading about.  I’ve worked with several students on this skill outside of class during evening study hall.

Today in class, I wanted to up the ante a bit.  As we are in the midst of reading the play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose, it felt like a fine opportunity to discuss the characters and their motivation.  Why does the third juror seem so angry?  Why he is not willing to let things go?  Why is the eighth juror so calm?  Why does the fourth juror only sweat when he is put on the spot?  Since the students need to take notes on each of the jurors, explaining personality and character traits with examples, we reviewed each of the jurors today in class.  I had the students explain why the foreman doesn’t talk a lot even though he should be the leader of the deliberations.  How do we know he is a follower?  What is driving the third juror to stick with his guilty verdict?  Why does the fifth juror seem to be more empathetic than many of the other men in the jury room?  Why is the ninth juror, the second person to vote not guilty?  What is the twelfth juror trying to sell to the other jurors?  We discussed what motivates each member of the jury as we analyzed the symbolism within the play.  The students asked insightful questions, discussed the play showcasing great critical thinking skills, took copious notes on the various jurors, and actively participated in analyzing a work of literature.  I felt like I was in a college-level English class.  It was amazing.  The conversations were rich and fruitful.  I challenged the students to take risks in their thinking and interpretation of what the playwright had written.  It was so much fun to talk about how someone’s occupation reveals so much about their personality.  Every detail and word that the author used serves a purpose, and we dug into this.  Why does Rose tell us, repeatedly, that the eighth juror stares out the window?  What purpose does this serve?  The students shared some brilliant explanations for this happening.  After today’s high-level discussion, I feel confident that my students are ready to tackle more complex novels and analyze literature using a critical eye when they move into seventh grade English in September.

What lead to today’s phenomenal outcome?  Why were the students able to discuss literature on such a high level using great critical thinking skills?  Is it because they are really engaged in this play and love discussing it?  Could that be?  Maybe they just enjoy talking about angry men and love to interpret situations.  Perhaps, but what if what happened today was because of how I explained the purpose of our discussion? What if the students were engaged in thinking critically about the play 12 Angry Men because they want to practice being in seventh grade?  Maybe they want to be sure they are totally ready for next year’s English class.  Being deliberate and purposeful in how we introduce lessons and activities to our students is crucial.  When students understand the relevance in what is being asked of them, they are much more able and willing to meet and exceed our expectations and objectives.  As teachers, we need to make sure that we are always preparing our students for what is next in life as we want to help prepare our students to live meaningful lives in a global society.

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.

Wrestling with Teacher-Directed Instruction

When I first began my life as a teacher many years ago, I believed I had to be the sage up front.  Only after years of practice and research did I realize that by driving the class in that manner, I was preventing my students from developing creativity and problem solving skills.  Effective teachers guide from the side.  Rather than answer questions, we ask more questions to help the students think critically about the task at hand.  A student-centered classroom is the best model for effectively preparing students for meaningful lives in a global society.  When the students drive the class, they learn how to ask purposeful questions, collaborate effectively, solve problems in new and unique ways, and think creatively about the task at hand.  These invaluable life skills are so much more important than any knowledge nugget I could impart to the students by directing the class with my teacher talk.

However, some lessons do need to include teacher talk as a way of introducing a new skill or modelling a particular strategy.  While it is important to limit how much and what we say as the teacher, it is vital that we explain and model new skills for the students so that everyone is on the same page and questions can be addressed all at once.  This is an aspect of education that I wrestle with often.  I don’t like providing students with information as boredom can quickly set in no matter how excited and animated I may be.  I know that some teacher-directed instruction is necessary, but I often find myself wondering if I’ve talked too much or if there is a more effective and meaningful way to convey my message.  Today included one of those inner wrestling matches.

In STEM class today, we began our new math unit on problem solving.  Since my co-teacher and I noticed how much the students seemed to struggle when tackling word problems throughout the first two units of the year, we thought that we better equip them with some key strategies that will help them better approach and solve word problems.  During today’s class, I introduced the new unit and explained the four-step problem solving process we will be using throughout the unit.  I wanted to be sure that all of the students fully understood the four steps and had a chance to ask clarifying questions.  As the students perused the worksheet I handed out to them, I went through the four steps, adding details and information to help them better grasp the concepts involved.  They asked some questions that allowed me to shed more light on certain parts of the problem solving process.  While most of the boys seemed engaged and followed along, three students were very fidgety and almost seemed bored or uninterested during the discussion.  This is always my fear when it comes to teacher-directed instruction.  I want to be able to engage all of my students and me talking at them doesn’t always foster engagement.  However, if I did not review the steps of the process and field questions together as a group, those “bored” students might have asked the same questions separately when working on the homework. Or worst yet, they might have misinterpreted the steps of the process and completed work incorrectly.  So while a few students didn’t seem to be fully invested in my instruction, they needed to hear it and most likely did despite what their body language said.

Now, here comes the but.  Could I have approached this explanation in a more engaging manner?  Was the worksheet enough to help give the visual learners cues they needed while my oral instructions met the needs of the auditory learners in my classroom?  Could I have asked more questions?  Could I have allowed the students to explore the steps on their own and see how they interpreted them before I provided more specific instruction on the process?  Might that have been more engaging to all of my students?  Perhaps.  I do like this idea.  I might try it next year when I complete this unit.  Empowering the students is a valuable tool in the classroom that can lead to strong relationships.  I could wrack my brain for new ideas and methods on how to guide a teacher-directed lesson for hours and still not have one perfect solution.   It’s a case-by-case issue.  Some approaches will work better than others regarding certain topics or lessons.  Taking the time to really think about how my teacher-directed instruction lessons are structured is key.  I need to be sure I explore all avenues before settling on the approach I use.  Only then can I know that I employed the best methods.  However, I still might question my approach then too.  Oh well, I guess that’s a good thing that I’m always looking for the next great approach to teacher-directed instruction.  Striving for greatness is what will lead to progress and change.

Containing my Excitement in the Classroom

As a teenager, I tried very hard not to show any emotion when I was around my parents.  I didn’t want them to think I was having fun.  I wanted to be all broody and emotionless like all teenagers, except of course when I was mad.  It was totally acceptable to show anger and frustration to our parents.  In fact, you weren’t a real teenager unless you argued and yelled at your parents at least once a day.  But showing happiness or excitement was a big no-no.  When my parents took my sister and I to Disney World when I was 16, the last thing I wanted to do was be in Disney World with my family.  In every photo from that trip, I look sour and sullen.  Did I have fun?  Heck yeah, I mean it’s Disney World, who wouldn’t have fun.  But I made sure not to ever show that I was having fun.  My parents would ask me, “How was the ride?”  My response was always the same, “It was okay.”  No emotion.

Now, as a father, husband, and teacher, emotion and excitement are the names of the game.  Embracing happiness and fun is what life’s all about now.  I cry whenever I watch a Hallmark Channel movie, I laugh at everything even if it’s not funny, and I get excited for even the little things like having a weekend off or having to work the weekend.  Showing emotion is how I can be a role model for my son and students.  I’m a happy guy and I like to show it.  I wear a teaching cape and jump around the classroom like my toes are on fire, which when you have athlete’s foot like I did once, it’s just what you do to get by.

Sometimes, however, it’s important that I temper my excitement.  For example, today, in Humanities class, my co-teacher was leading the class discussion on a current event she had chosen to discuss with the boys.  I was merely the silent observer and notetaker.  I wasn’t really supposed to contribute to the discussion, emphasis on the “wasn’t really supposed to.”  But hey, when she picks an article about students suing the federal government for having helped cause and fail to prevent climate change from happening at such a rapid pace, what did she really expect from me?  That I would be able to contain my excitement about such an important issue?  Well, if I acted more like my age and less like my shoe size, I would have easily been able to keep silent and let her lead the discussion with the boys.  Unfortunately, I find it challenging to keep my ideas and knowledge to myself.  I want to spread knowledge like wildfire so that everyone can be equipped with the tools to change the world for the better.  I want my students to know how important the issue of climate change is to our world.  I want them to see that this is an issue in dire need of being addressed in a major way.  So, after one of the students asked a clarifying question about greenhouse gasses that my co-teacher quickly and accurately addressed, I could no longer keep my knowledge bottled up inside.  I felt as if I needed to explain the ideas of global warming and climate change to the students.  While the discussion was moving along just fine without my two cents being thrown in, I felt as though I needed to impart some knowledge onto the boys.  So, I politely asked my co-teacher if I could explain something to the students.  Being a kind and wonderful person, she obliged and I took over, briefly.  I explained how the greenhouse effect works and leads to global warming that causes all sorts of other problems and issues for our world.  This lead to several questions from the students.  While I knew that I had said too much already, I let my co-teacher take over and field the questions.  However, since she doesn’t have a strong background in this area, she looked to me to address the questions the boys asked.  So, I answered them and this lead to more hands being shot up into the air.  The students were curious, inquisitive, and had a lot to say about this topic.  I fielded several other questions and thoughts on the topic of climate change before my co-teacher then redirected the discussion back to the current event at hand.  I felt bad that I had temporarily derailed the conversation, but I do feel as though imparting accurate knowledge onto the students about such a big global crisis is important and necessary.  The students grew very excited when I started sharing knowledge with them.  Although they were engaged prior to my interruption, they seemed much more invested after I jumped into the discussion.  Should I have added my thoughts and knowledge to today’s discussion?  Probably not, but it felt good to get the boys excited about such a hot topic like climate change.  I wanted the students to understand how relevant this topic is to their future lives.  So yes, I should have kept my mouth shut and let my co-teacher drive the car today in Humanities class, but I couldn’t contain my excitement about such an interesting topic.

The bigger thought still lingering in my mind though is, what do I do next time a situation like this arises?  How do I keep quiet and contain my excitement?  I’m sure my co-teacher was going to take the discussion down an engaging path without my insight and I should have let her do so.  Perhaps next time, I will leave the room while she runs the show so that I’m not tempted to jump into the conversation and prevent her from driving the show forward.  Or maybe I’ll just put duct tape over my mouth to keep quiet.  In all seriousness though, it’s hard to keep knowledge to myself sometimes and I know that about myself as a person and teacher.  I need to work on this.  I don’t always need to be the guide for the class.  I need to let my co-teacher work her magic as well.  I will try harder to remember this the next time she is in charge.  It’s our class, not my class.

Learning by Being a Role Model

My son is a huge sports nut.  Not only does he love playing all different types of sports, but he also enjoys watching and learning about them.  When the television in our house is turned on, it is usually tuned to ESPN.  He enjoys finding out how his favorite teams or players fared in games and competitions.  His love of sports generally keeps him quite active and in shape.  He’s also been trying to eat healthier foods too.  I think it’s great.  There is clearly a lot of good benefits that can come from this for him.  My only concern though is the role models he has.  It’s challenging to read the news headlines and not come across a story about an athlete making a bad choice or getting in trouble with the law.  These are some of the role models my son has, and frankly, I don’t like it one bit.  As a father, I make sure that I have conversations with my son about the mistakes athletes make and highlight the bad character they are demonstrating by making these poor decisions.  My hope is that my son will value the positive attributes of the athletes he admires and realize that the bad choices they make are not to be celebrated in anyway.

As a teacher, I am always striving to be a positive role model for my students.  In a world where we celebrate people doing dumb things or committing epic fails as my son often calls them, it’s important that our students and children have positive examples of how to live meaningful lives in a global society.  I make sure to greet my students daily and ask them how things are going.  I want them to see the importance in making genuine connections with others.  I also make sure to point out when I make mistakes, own them, apologize for them if need be, and then rectify the situation as I expect my students to do the same when indiscretions are made.  If I expect my students to hold themselves to high standards of behavior, then I need to make sure I am doing the same or better at all times.

Today during Humanities class, I had a chance to showcase a positive behavior that I would love to see my students embrace.  The funny thing is though that I didn’t mean for it to happen.  It was a bit of a happy accident.  As today was our first official day of classes since returning from the recent holiday break, my co-teacher and I wanted to ease the students back into the routine.  So, during Humanities class today, we had the boys participate in Reader’s Workshop, which they loved.  When one student came in and read the agenda for the period on the whiteboard, he exclaimed, “Yes!”  Our students love to read and talk about the books they’ve read.  It’s awesome.  After the students began reading, my co-teacher and I conferenced with each of the students.  Reading conferences are one of my favorite parts of the week as they provide me the ample opportunity to check-in with the students about life in general as well as what they’re reading.  I asked the boys about their vacation and they shared wonderful vignettes with me about the fun they had away from school.  These conversations give me one more way to connect with my students and form valuable relationships that I can use to help them grow and develop as thinkers, makers, mathematicians, and students.

As we did not have a read-aloud portion to our Reader’s Workshop block today due to the fact that we are waiting to start a new book until next week once we begin our new unit on Africa, I had more than enough time to meet with my group of students.  In fact, I had about 20 minutes of class time remaining after I finished my last student conference.  To be a good role model for my boys, I picked up my current reading book and spent the final chunk of class time reading.  As I was reading, I realized that I was learning a new strategy for helping ESL students in my classroom.  In addition to differentiating the visual text ELs are exposed to, I need to also make sure that I am deliberate and thoughtful when delivering messages and information to my students orally.  I find that I sometimes use difficult vocabulary terms, complex sentences, and much figurative language when talking to my students as a way to challenge them to think critically.  For my ESL students, this is useless as they are only able to understand about 10% of what I’m saying.  I need to be sure I use gestures, visual cues, and clearly define new vocabulary words I use when speaking to the class.  While this seems like common sense, it hadn’t dawned on me to try this.  As one of my professional goals for the year is to learn how to better help and support my ESL students, this seemed like a valuable knowledge nugget.  But, what shall I do with this information, I thought to myself.  Store it in my brain and utilize it in the classroom?  Well, that makes sense.  Wait a minute, I thought.  What if I share what I learned from reading my book today in class with the students as a way to inspire them to perhaps share what they learned while reading today?  What a brilliant idea.  I never cease to amaze even myself.  So, for my class closing today, I shared the chunk of information I learned from my book before asking the students to share what they learned from their book today.  Three volunteers shared some very interesting and stimulating knowledge nuggets.  One student who is reading a book about how video games impact our society shared a statistic he read about today that surprised him.  Another student shared a philosophical quote that he had synthesized from his book.  The final volunteer shared an inspirational quote that he had gleaned from his reading book.  It was amazing.  My closing remarks focused on how books provide us with so many opportunities, from entertaining to learning.  My hope is that my students see the value in reading and all that being an active and voracious reader can teach them.

So, while my plan at the start of the period did not include ending class with a discussion on what books can teach us, because I made use of a growth mindset, was open to new ideas, and jump at the opportunity to be a role model for my students, I was able to leave my students thinking and wondering about what they learned from their book today.  What can books teach us?  How do books impact us?  How does what we read shape us?  Because I went with the flow of the class today, I was able to shed some new light on the importance of books and reading.  Sometimes, the best planned lessons and activities end up being disasters and sometimes, the impromptu discussions and lessons that evolve during class end up being the most fruitful and valuable.  Being a curious role model allowed me to help guide my students on their wonderful journey towards understanding and growth.

The Art of Calling on Students

I used to sit in the back of the classroom when I was in high school because I didn’t want my teachers to call on me.  It worked for almost every class.  Luckily, I had a teacher or two who made sure to call on ALL of the students in the class, and so where you sat in the classroom made no difference.  I also had one teacher who arranged the desks in a giant circle and so there was no back of the room.  These teachers forced me to pay attention and stay focused.  While back then, I didn’t like it at first, those teachers became some of my favorite because I knew they cared about me.  They didn’t want me to slip through the cracks.  They made sure I was paying attention.

As a teacher, one easy way to show my students I care is to make sure I’m holding them all accountable for understanding the material and paying attention during class.  I can do this by calling on all of my students, not just the ones who raise their hand, during a lesson.  Also, my classroom is organized in an inclusive manner that makes every student feel like a part of the classroom family.  This way, the students feel like they are a part of something greater than just being in school because they have to be according to truancy laws in our country.  They want to be engaged and learn to be a part of the classroom community.  By trying to call on each student during a class period when there are class discussions or teacher-directed learning taking place, I am able to formatively assess my students.  Do they understand the material?  Are my ESL students understanding how I am explaining a topic or concept?  Are my slow processing students able to take in everything I’m saying to make predictions or draw conclusions?  I usually try to make sure that I call on students not raising their hand during class discussions as a way to redirect unfocused students and check for understanding in my introverted students.

Yesterday during Humanities class as I was recording myself teaching, I felt a bit off and did not call on every student.  In fact, I called mostly on students raising their hand.  This prevented me from being sure all of my students understood the new ideas being introduced.  So, today, I made a concerted effort to call on every student during the discussion parts of the lesson.  This was challenging to do, but I made sure that I tried.  I called on students who didn’t seem to be paying attention as a way to redirect their focus or check their attention.  I also made sure to be call on my ESL students to check for comprehension.  I wanted to ensure that they were understanding the ideas of latitude and longitude introduced in class today.  When I was reading questions from the whiteboard aloud, it was difficult to remember which students I needed to call on to answer the question.  But, rather than guess which student I still needed to call on, I waited to call on a student until I was able to look out at the class to be sure I called on the student I needed to call on.  I didn’t want to keep calling on the same students.  Sometimes it’s a struggle to not call on those students closest to us, which is one of the reasons why I walk around the horseshoe desk formation to be sure that I am close to all of the students.  Today I felt as though I did call on every student at least once during our class discussions.  I made sure my ESL students understood the material and refocused those students who I felt needed to be redirected. At the end of today’s lesson, I felt as though every student had participated in class at least once.  I like that.  It helps to foster a sense of community within the students.

Often times, calling on students in class does seem like an art form.  I want to be sure I don’t keep calling on the same students, make sure I call on all of the students, check-in with my struggling learners, and keep all of my students focused.  This is hard to do in class while also trying to be engaging, stay on track with the lesson, and manage any behavioral issues that arise.  I’ve gotten much better at this over my years of teaching, but I still try to be very cognizant of how I call on students so that I meet my goal of including everyone in class discussions, somehow, on a daily basis.

The Benefits of a Silent Discussion

In early November, I attended the New Hampshire Council for the Social Studies annual conference in Manchester.  It was a wonderful day filled with useful workshops and great discussions with colleagues.  I learned a lot that day; however, one of the most valuable nuggets of knowledge I learned was the silent discussion.  What is a silent, discussion you ask?  How can a discussion be silent, you’re probably thinking to yourself?  A silent discussion is much like a round-robin writing activity.  The students respond, in writing, to a guiding question regarding a discussion topic.  They discuss the topic in writing for a given amount of time.  Then, the students pass their papers onto another student, read what the previous student read on this new paper, and then add to the current discussion started by the previous student.  It allows those quiet and shy students a better chance to get involved in the discussion and showcase their learning.  This idea seemed cool to me at the time.  I thought I might try it in my classroom.  Perhaps, I thought, it might allow some of my ESL students more processing time and thus, better allow them to demonstrate their ability to meet the class discussion objective.

So, this past Saturday, during our final Humanities class prior to Thanksgiving Break, I had my students participate in a silent discussion as a way to discuss a current event I introduced to the boys.  Usually, on Saturdays in class, we discuss a current event topic in small groups.  While this has been effective for most students, some of the boys haven’t been as involved as I feel their potential shows.  Perhaps they are nervous or shy or maybe they need time to think before sharing their ideas.  Why not try something new, I thought to myself?  Our topic was President-elect Donald Trump’s plan for education.  We read an article from Newsela together as a class.  I clarified a few points that I thought might be confusing for our ESL students, but did not allow for questions during this time as I wanted them to save their thoughts and ideas for the silent discussion.  Our guiding question was, Should President-Elect Donald Trump focus on School Choice and Vouchers or the Public School System in America when he takes office in January?  After handing out paper to each student, the boys got right to work.  Many of the students vigorously etched onto their paper for about two minutes while one or two students struggled to write more than a few words.  Perhaps they were taken by surprise with the short time limit and those students who wrote very little would write more following the first switch, I thought.  Then they passed their papers onto the next student, read what was there, and had two more minutes to add to the discussion.  Almost every student seemed more focused during this second chunk of writing time.  I was impressed.  Then, they switched one final time to add to one more discussion.  When time ended on the last writing period, the boys started switching their papers again as they wanted to keep going.  They seemed to like this silent discussion method, I thought.  Yah!

I wrapped up class by reading a few of the discussions aloud.  They were pretty darn good.  I was impressed.  The students used examples from the article and their own ideas to take a stance on the issue of education in our country.  Wow!  I shared these thoughts with the boys before I asked for their feedback on this method of discussing a topic.  What did you think of this way of discussing current events compared to a whole group or small group oral discussion?  Most of the boys seemed to like all three methods equally, but one or two students did like this method of a silent discussion better because they felt as though they had the opportunity to genuinely share their thoughts with others.  They did wish we had more time to switch with every student so that the discussions could have grown into something greater though.  No one seemed to think that the oral method of discussing a topic was better than the silent discussion strategy.  Nice!  I might use this again later in the year when there is more time to really dig into our discussion topic.

I found this silent discussion method beneficial for almost every student.  Most of the ESL students in my class seemed to like this method better because they felt like they had time to collect their thoughts and write.  My weakest ESL student still struggled to convey any sort of coherent ideas or thoughts on this topic, much as he has done during previous small group oral discussions.  He doesn’t seem to be understanding the conversation or ideas on a level that makes sense to him or his peers.  The ideas he jotted down on paper were basic and just reiterating what was already discussed by the previous student.  I was hoping that this method of discussion would help him as he felt that he wasn’t able to jump into the small group discussions in the past weeks because he felt like everyone was hogging the conversation.  Despite having two solid minutes to add to the discussion in writing, he failed to showcase any sort of learning or understanding.  This student’s issues are much greater than just not being able to add his insight to a class discussion.  Overall though, this silent method of discussing a current event topic proved beneficial to my class.  I send a shout-out to the professor from Plymouth State University who shared this idea with me and others. Thanks for the idea and support.  #yahforteachersharing

Helping Students Think Critically About Global Issues

I remember being passionate about certain issues when I was in high school.  I used to read the local newspaper in my town, The Valley News, each morning before heading off to school.  While it wasn’t the world’s best publication by any means, it gave me fodder for thinking.  It allowed me to stay current with what was happening around the world, and it also helped me to think critically about important issues that matter to all people.  It was during this time that I took an interest in politics and the government.  I started forming opinions on certain issues that were being debated in Congress.  It felt good to stay informed and educated.  I felt like I knew what was going on.  Knowledge is power, after all.  It felt good to be in the know as well as to ponder meaningful ideas such as our two-party system and partisanship.  Sometimes I wondered how much more productive our country’s government would be if we eradicated our two-party system and went to a multi-party system that was more about the issues than a set of predetermined characteristics.  Being informed on current events and having the ability to think critically about the information is not only fun but vital to my role as an effective global citizen.

To help my students learn to live meaningful lives in a global society, we discuss current events on a weekly basis.  I challenge my students to stay abreast with what’s happening around the world during the week so that they can ace the New York Time’s weekly news quiz we compete in class each Saturday.  Some of the questions asked are quite challenging, but inevitably, each and every week, a few of the boys know the answers as they followed the news throughout the week.  That is always so exciting.  However, my favorite part of our current events activity is the class discussion.  I love allowing the students to debate and argue a guiding question based on a recent news event.  Last week, we discussed the legality and ethics of taking voting booth selfies.  The students were so engaged in the discussion that it was sad to have to end it when class came to a close.  They all had such insightful thoughts and opinions on the topic.

Another way I’ve been able to help my students think critically about issues that should matter to them as students and citizens, is through our current Humanities unit on the American Presidential Election Process.  Not only are we discussing the current state of affairs in our country regarding a pivotal moment in history, we are also engaging in a discussion of our world and how it works.  What matters to us as people?  What big ideas should we care about and why?  I want to empower my students to care about the world around them so that they want to bring about change and make a difference for the betterment of society.  I tell them time and time again my favorite Ani Difranco quote, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”  I want them to have heated debates in class regarding important issues and topics.

Today in class, we began an activity in which they started learning about major election issues including gun control, the refugee crisis, and healthcare.  The boys chose a topic of interest to them and started reading articles regarding their self-chosen topic on the wonderful website Newsela.  As they read an article, they completed a Guiding Questions worksheet to help them identify the main idea of the article while also reflecting on how their perspective is changing regarding the issue.  The students seemed quite enthralled by this activity.  They were engaged in the articles and had some phenomenally insightful responses on their worksheets.  As I observed the students working today, I paused to ask them follow-up questions regarding what they were learning.  Why should people under the age of 18 not be allowed to handle or use guns?  Why are foster kids not allowed to keep their medicaid coverage if they move to a different state?  Why is the Afghanistan conflict bad for our country?  I was amazed by how my students responded.  They thought critically about the questions I asked them and responded carefully and thoughtfully.  It was so much fun to discuss big issues and ideas with my students.  I felt like a professor in a college course.  My boys seemed to really care about what they were learning about.  For some of them, they were learning this new information for the first time. They were beginning to form opinions and thoughts on global issues relevant to all people.  They were curious and critical thinkers.  It was so much fun to watch them learn, question, grow, and think about the world around them as they journey towards becoming effective global citizens.

Helping students to think critically about vital issues and topics concerning all people is crucial in our world today.  If we want our students to go onto live meaningful lives in our world as leaders, then they need to understand how the world works and how major issues impact people.  Teaching our students to care about global and national issues should be a high priority for all educators.  While we want our students to understand current happenings in the world, we also want them to be able to think critically about them to formulate opinions and plans on how to address the issues.  Having students learn about and reflect on major issues impacting our world is one easy way to foster a sense of global curiosity within them.