Helping the Families of our Students Feel like a Part of our Classroom Family

Creating a caring and compassionate atmosphere in the classroom, in which students support and look after one another, is the cornerstone of the sixth grade program that my co-teachers and I have created over the years.  Our motto is: “We’re a family, and families take care of each other.”  We instill this way of living within the boys on day one and tie it into almost every discussion we have with the class throughout the year.  We spend the first two months of the school year helping the students learn how to transform this motto into an actionable plan.  At this point in the year, most of the students are able to live our class mantra and make it a part of their daily routine.  They take care of their fellow sixth grade brothers in and out of the classroom.  It’s an amazing thing to see.  Our class of 11 individuals have turned into a family of students working together towards a common goal.

While we pride ourselves on creating this close-knit family of learners in the classroom, we want to be sure that the parents and families of our students feel a part of this community as well.  We want them to feel like extended sixth grade family members.  We want the families of our students to know what’s happening in the classroom on a daily basis.  This is especially vital for our international students, as their families are thousands of miles away in most cases.  We want them to feel as if they are in the classroom with their student, despite being far away.  We provide our families with fodder for which they can use to create meaningful conversations and discussions with their sons.  We don’t want the parents and guardians of our students to feel disconnected from life in the sixth grade.  We want them to feel a part of something greater than just the school to which they send their son.

We create this strong community through a four-pronged approach, which starts and ends with open and honest communication.

  • Prior to the start of the academic year, we contact all of the families over the summer via email.  We provide them with an introductory letter, explaining our sixth grade program in detail.  We also share numerous videos with our students and families, introducing ourselves as their teachers and guides.  We explain a few of the projects and activities we will be doing throughout the year to help foster a sense of excitement within the students and their families.  We want the boys psyched for the academic year to begin.  This constant barrage of communication over the summer helps bridge the gap between the school and the families of our new students as they go into September knowing exactly what they and their son can expect from the sixth grade program at Cardigan.
  • We send out daily updates via the Remind app to our families regarding life in the sixth grade.  We tell them what we’re doing in each of our classes and update them on changes to our schedule, all with the intention of helping keep them connected to what we are doing in the sixth grade.  This constant contact helps facilitate conversations between the families and their sons.  It also provides us, the teachers, with yet another support system for each of our students.
  • We maintain a class website via Shutterfly that we keep updated with pictures of special events and activities, in and out of the classroom, and weekly newsletters.  This is a more broad way for the families to know what’s happening in the sixth grade classroom.  Who doesn’t love seeing a picture of their child engaged and having fun in school?  This communication really allows the parents to feel as if they are in the classroom with us.
  • As my co-teacher and I are also the advisors for the entire sixth grade class, we provide the families with updates on how the students are doing in the classroom, in sports, and in the dormitory setting.  We field all of the questions thrown our way swiftly and in a meaningful, yet honest manner.  We want the families to have an accurate portrait of their son as they see how they nicely fit into our sixth grade family.  This more intimate communication shows that we truly know and care for the students in our classroom, showing the families how important their children are to us.  This final piece of the puzzle, that weaves the families of our students into our sixth grade community, may be the most important piece of all.  The families feel as if they have an advocate on their side and not just teachers trying to tell them what their son is doing in the classroom.

This method of bringing the families of our students into the fold that is our sixth grade program, pays dividends.  The line of communication is wide open before the school year even begins so that the families feel as if they can trust and confide in us.  If concerns or issues need to be raised before or during the academic year, the parents and guardians feel comfortable sharing this information with us.  It’s not an us vs. them mentality in the sixth grade, and we make sure that the families feel as though it isn’t.  We want them to feel invested so that we are able to best help support and challenge their sons.  Teaching is so much more than just what happens in the classroom.  It’s also about connecting the dots to everything else outside of the classroom, as we know that children can’t be raised and prepared by just one person or small group of people.  It takes a kind and caring community to help prepare students to live meaningful lives in a global society.

Advertisements

Is Modelling the Right Approach When Teaching a New Skill in the Classroom?

In my 17 years of teaching, I’ve often wrestled with the concept of modelling.  While I want my students to understand how to do what is being asked of them, does modelling steal the thinking from them?  If I show my students how to do something through modelling the skill, will they get stuck in their thinking?  Will they be unable to find other ways to solve the problem?  I worry that when I model a new skill or activity, my students will simply regurgitate what I showcased in the work they complete and turn in, and where’s the learning in that?  But, and of course there’s always a but, what if I don’t model or properly explain a new skill or activity?  Will the students be too perplexed or lost to effectively showcase their learning?  If I don’t show them what to do and how to do it, will they be able do it?  Is there a balance in modelling new skills and activities for students in the classroom so that they know what to do but are still able to demonstrate their own, original thoughts and learning?

I’m not sure if I have the exact answer because, as all teachers know, every student is different.  What works for one student may not work for another.  The method that I’ve had luck with recently is the I do, We do, You do approach to modelling a new skill in the classroom.  I start by engaging the students in a discussion regarding the purpose of the new skill they will be learning.  I want them to always understand the why of everything we do in the classroom.  Relevance is a huge part of ownership in the class for our students, according to research on learning and the brain.  I then briefly model the new skill with help from the students, combining the I do and We do steps so that they are actively engaged in the modelling and not passive watchers.  I then provide the students with an opportunity to practice the new skill in the You do step.  During this part of the lesson or activity, I observe the students and provide feedback to each of them on their progress and ability to utilize the new skill.  I then close the lesson by reviewing the big ideas and concepts covered by this new skill learned.  This method seems to be the most effective for me in the classroom.  While I still do need to differentiate my instruction a bit during the You do phase for a few of my students, it does work for the majority of my students.  The You do step is structured in such a way that I’m able to provide extra assistance and help to those students who need it.

Yesterday in my study skills class, I introduced the two-column note taking system to the boys.  I began the lesson with a few discussion questions.  What are two-column notes?  What purpose do they serve?  I wanted to be sure the students understood why they were learning this particular method of taking notes.  I explained to them how this is the most common form of notetaking used in the other grades at our school.  This is a key skill they will need to have in their academic toolbelt in order to be successful students next year and beyond.  They all seemed to understand my explanation.  I then walked the students through the skill itself.  I had them set up their lined sheet of paper with the proper heading as I had done on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom.  I asked a student volunteer to tell me the first step in organizing the paper for two-column notes, as I wanted to be sure that my students were actively engaged in the learning process.  After drawing the line on the board as they drew the line on their paper, I called on various students to determine the importance of information in a passage on the Boreal Forest before paraphrasing it for our notes.  As the students paraphrased the information, I wrote it onto the board and instructed the students to copy it onto their notes.  My co-teacher wondered around the classroom, helping those students who needed more guidance and support.  I then asked other students to tell me if the information paraphrased was effectively paraphrased to be sure that the students understood this skill discussed earlier in the week.  After going through three sentences together as a class, I had the students complete the remainder of the passage on their own.  As the boys worked, my co-teacher and I helped those students who needed extra scaffolding and provided feedback to those students who were completing it effectively on their own.  By the end of the period, it was clear that every student in the class had a pretty firm grasp of how to effectively complete two-column notes using expository research.

Did yesterday’s lesson go so well because there were two teachers in the classroom to help monitor the progress of the students?  Perhaps.  I do think that effective co-teaching makes a huge difference in how our students are able to practice new skills.  If one of us is modelling at the front of the classroom, the other is able to observe the students, and help those struggling students as needed, not slowing down the overall pace of the lesson.  With just one teacher in the classroom, lessons go much slower to allow for help, questions, and differentiation.  This prevents the high functioning students from being effectively challenged.  Co-teaching is a great model for teaching a diverse population of students.  I also feel as though the method of modelling we utilize in the sixth grade classroom helps to support and challenge all of our students.  Those boys who learn quickly are able to see the skill modelled a few times and then try it out on their own, while those students who need more help, are able to receive it during the practice stage of the process.  Having the students help me complete the I do step of the process also allows for more engagement in the classroom.  By cold-calling on the students throughout the modelling process, I can ensure that they actively engaged in the lesson and learning the material.  Every part of this modelling process helps to make sure that I’m not stealing the thinking or creativity from the students while also making sure that they understand what is being asked of them.  So, to answer the question posed in my title, Yes, I do feel as though effective modelling is the right approach to the instruction of a new skill.  The learning process needs to be active and more of a two-way dialogue, not simply direct-instruction from the teacher.  When done well, modelling helps engage, challenge, and support students in the learning process.

Free Professional Development: Talking with Teachers

Some of the best ideas for lessons and solutions to problems I’ve faced in the classroom over the years have come out of discussions I’ve had with my fellow teachers.  When I taught second grade many eons ago, I would often pick the brains of the kindergarten and first grade teachers for advice on how to deal with certain situations involving students.  I began using a discipline method suggested by the kindergarten teacher that really helped my students stay focused on the learning.  In my years of teaching sixth grade, I’ve had many chats with colleagues that led to trying new activities in the classroom.  Recently, I had a great talk with a fellow English teacher on how to best assess student writing and promote creativity and critical thinking throughout the writing process.  He suggested a very fun idea that I used as a learning extension project for the students in my class who had finished the revision process early.  All of this learning that I’ve done over my 17 years of teaching has helped me see that two minds are far better than one.  The best teaching ideas I’ve had came out of talks with my co-teachers.  I don’t know everything and I certainly don’t know what I don’t know.  Talking things through with others and listening to their suggestions has allowed me to grow and develop as a teacher.  While I have gained some useful tools from conferences I’ve attended and professional development texts I’ve read over the years as well, I have found talking to other teachers to be more helpful, and free.

As I’m in the beginning stages of the three-year Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan that all educators at my school continually work through, I’ve been having many conversations with colleagues about teaching.  I’m trying to understand how best to explain and introduce graded projects or activities to students so as to foster critical thinking and creativity skills.  I don’t want to spoon feed my students every last detail of a project so that I steal thinking opportunities from them, but I also don’t want them to be overly confused by an assignment.  So, what’s the best way to start a project?  I tried a differentiated grading rubric for a past writing assignment and felt like my students had very few questions.  They seemed to understand almost exactly what to do.  When I had them reflect on the usefulness of the rubric, almost every student seemed to feel as though the grading rubric helped them revise and make their work better since they used it as a guide post through their writing journey.  So, although the specificity of the grading rubric felt like overkill to me and made me wonder if I wasn’t allowing the students to struggle a bit and overcome challenges, the majority of my students felt like the rubric helped them create effective stories.  Almost every student crafted an amazing and creative story that explored an aspect of our town’s rich and diverse history.  This strange outcome then made me curious.  Was I wrong in my thinking that rubrics with much detail are ineffective ways to promote critical thinking and creativity?  To help me understand this, I began seeking guidance from other teachers at my school.

In the past week, I’ve talked to two teachers about how they introduce projects and use grading rubrics.  The math teacher I spoke with explained how when she used a grading rubric with simple explanations and no specific details, the students asked many clarifying questions on how to complete the task and meet the expectations for the assignment.  Great, I thought.  This is what I was hoping to hear.  We want our students to ask questions.  This gives me hope that my hypothesis is correct.  Then, yesterday I had a chance to speak with a seventh grade English teacher who recently had her students complete a project that utilized a very prescriptive rubric.  She said that the students asked very few questions because the rubric detailed every aspect of the writing process.  She did seem to have the same outcome that I had seen in my class.  The students all seemed to like the rubric because it served as a guide while they worked.  Her students all completed fine essays, perhaps because of the specific rubric with which she had provided them.  This data again goes against my original thought that specific rubrics are ineffective in the classroom.  While I’m okay with being wrong, I’m perplexed by what I’m learning.  I thought for sure that telling students information is a passive learning experience for the students.  In order to promote active learning, we need our students to ask questions and engage in the learning process, and detailed rubrics don’t do this; however, so far I’m finding that detailed rubrics do allow students to be and feel more successful when completing projects and graded assignments.  I wonder if students need specificity and much detail when completing a writing task or project, but need less information and telling from the teacher during the learning process.  Interesting.  I never thought about it like that before.

So, now that my learning journey as veered off the beaten path that I thought for sure it would stay on, I’m curious.  What next?  Well, I’m trying something completely different for the next two projects I’m completing in my study skills and Humanities classes in the coming weeks.  For the Humanities project, I’m not using a specific grading rubric at all.  Instead, I’m going to describe what they need to do with a series of steps.  I am only going to list the graded objectives without explaining what they need to do to meet or exceed them.  I’m hoping that this lack of detail will allow the students to ask many questions as they try to wrap their heads around the task.  I think that it will also inspire more creativity as I’m being less prescriptive in my explanation of the task.  For the study skills class project that my students will be completing next week, I’ve split the class into two groups.  One group will have a specific grading rubric with much detail on the requirements, while the other group will have just a basic list of steps and the graded objectives, much like I’m doing for the Humanities project.  I want to see which group is promoted to ask more questions and complete more creative, detailed work.  Now that my thinking is beginning to change on this topic of project introductions and assessments, I’m unsure of what the outcome might look like.  I think that the group with the grading rubric will be able to complete more creative projects while the group with the less detailed project explanation will make use of their critical thinking skills more to complete the assignment.

What I’m learning through this process is that if I didn’t talk to other teachers about this topic, I would be stuck in thinking that my way is the only way; and, therefore I would be doing no genuine learning.  In speaking with my colleagues on the subject of rubrics and assessment introductions, I’m realizing that perhaps I’m only partially accurate in how I think about rubrics.  As I gather more data and speak with more teachers, I’m hopeful that this murky pool of understanding will become more clear.  Free in-house professional development is far more useful than any conference or academic text teachers can read, or well, at least it has been for more.

Embracing Teachable Moments for Teachers

Teachable moments aren’t solely reserved for students, oh no.  Anyone can experience and learn from a mistake, choice, or action.  You don’t need to be a student in a classroom to learn from something you did.  Think of the greatest minds and innovators of our time: Albert Einstein, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan to name a few.  They all suffered great setbacks early in their lives that they learned from.  Albert Einstein was kicked out of school because of his poor behavior, Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first on-air job, and Michael Jordan didn’t earn a spot on his high school’s varsity basketball team when he first tried out.  Of course, we all know that they learned from their mistakes or learnable/teachable moments and went onto to change the world.  Any person can learn from their past errors, not just students in a classroom.

Today, my co-teacher and I experienced a learnable moment that caused us to completely change our lesson.  Walking to our classroom this morning, my co-teacher and I discussed the lesson we had planned for our first period study skills class.

“So, are you all set for PEAKS class today,” I asked my co-teacher as we left the dining commons to head to our classroom.

“Yeah, I’m all set.  We’re going to finish that worksheet from last time,” she responded.

“Ahh, no.  I did that on Wednesday during your unscheduled morning.  You’re doing the study plan, remember?” I said, concerned that I had messed up and hadn’t informed her of the proper lesson plan.

“Umm, I don’t remember that, but I can fix it,” she quickly responded back as we walked into the classroom.

I then worked with my co-teacher to help her revise the agenda slide to reflect the accurate lesson plan.  As she was typing in the new topic for today’s class, I remembered that the students were going to be taking a test in her math class next week.  So, I said, “That’s cool that we’re discussing making study plans today.  Maybe they could make one for their math test.”

She then responded, “Yeah, that’s right.”

At that point, I was inspired.  “Wait a minute,” I said, “Let’s change things up a bit.  Let’s not use this boring worksheet I created but instead have the students create a study plan for their math test.  Yes.  I will model how to create a study plan and then they will make their own.  What do you think?”

She loved the idea, and so we changed the agenda slide one more time.

Today’s class was a huge success as each student created his very own study plan to prepare for next week’s math assessment.  The students know what they need to do to get ready.  Not only did we teach them a valuable strategy for planning ahead and making good use of their time to properly study for an exam, we also had them apply the skill to practice getting ready for an exam they have in class next week.  Talk about interdisciplinary work.  And to think that this brilliant plan and idea would not have been fostered had my co-teacher had the agenda slide properly completed for class.  Because of some miscommunication between the two of us, we were able to revise today’s lesson and craft a more meaningful and relevant activity based on the nucleus of the original idea.  Making a mistake lead to a Eureka moment for us both.  We better helped the students learn how to enhance their learning and study habits by changing what we had first planned.  The moral of this epic story is that learnable or teachable moments happen for everyone; you just need to be prepared to take in the lesson or learning.

What Makes Effective Teaching?

This morning, as I perused the various headlines via the News app on my iPhone, a story caught my eye: “Educators: Innovate Less, Execute More” by Kalman R. Hettleman.  The author proposes that teachers need to focus on effectively teaching students rather than trying to find new and novel ways to teach and educate them.  Although the focus of the article is really on how public schools implement RTI, the first few graphs do discuss classroom teachers.  As I first read the article, I found the perspective refreshing after having been inundated for the past several years with books, articles, and conferences on the importance of being an innovative teacher and using innovative technology products and services in the classroom.  Most of these books and conferences all focused on the same issues and ideas, and so they all felt very repetitive; therefore, I was ready for something different.  But, upon further contemplation of this article, I realized that the author was somewhat contradicting himself, as great and effective teachers are always trying to find new and better ways to effectively teach and engage their students.  In order to execute a lesson or activity well, teachers must know and understand how their students learn best so that they can be sure they are reaching each and every individual student in their classroom.  To do this, teachers need to find new and novel ways to hook students.  While being sure that the lesson is executed well is an important part of the teaching and learning process, it’s only a part of the larger educational puzzle.  Teachers must constantly innovate their teaching practices in order to be effective in the classroom.  Great teachers are the best students because they value the importance of knowledge.

As the final three days of faculty meetings begin tomorrow morning at my fine educational institution, I can’t help but get excited for what is going to happen on Friday: Registration Day.  My new students will arrive and get settled into their dormitories and prepare for the start of classes next week.  I can’t wait to meet my 11 new and eager students as we embark upon a journey of curiosity, wonderment, knowledge, failure, and fun.  I can’t wait to introduce Reader’s Workshop to the boys and get them excited about reading.  I can’t wait to have them play and explore with the Makey Makeys we’ve added to our Maker Space this year.  I can’t wait to begin working with my new co-teacher.  I can’t wait to begin implementing the new Brain and Mindfulness units my co-teacher and I crafted this summer.  I can’t wait to put on my teaching cape and get down to business.  I just can’t wait for the new academic year to begin.

While I will be sure to execute lessons and activities well in the classroom this year, as Mr. Hettleman suggests I should, I will try to also do what he states I shouldn’t do in the classroom, innovate and try new things.  I will take risks and try new approaches to teaching to help best support all of my students.  Great teaching requires a positive attitude, desire to learn, flexibility, creativity, innovation, enthusiasm, and an understanding of effective teaching practices.  So, thank you Kalman, for reminding me what it takes to be an effective teacher.  Thank you for helping stir up my mental pot and prepare for the coming days that are sure to be filled with fun, drama, and lots of questions.

The Benefits of Working with a Co-Teacher

When I first started teaching, I used to think I could and had to do it all.  I would arrive to school early and stay late just so that I could accomplish everything.  I would never think to ask for help and certainly never accepted it when offered as I thought it was a sign of weakness.  I was an island unto myself and I liked it that way.  Little did I know how harmful it was to me and my teaching.  By not talking to other colleagues and bouncing ideas around with them or asking for help, my teaching became very stagnant very quickly.  I figured that everything I did was great as I had no one to say otherwise, and so I kept doing the same thing year after year.  Then, I worked with a co-teacher and everything changed.  I realized that I was far from perfect and needed to change my approach in the classroom.  So, I did.  I grew and became a better teacher because I had someone who could provide me with feedback and offer help and support at every turn.  My first co-teacher became one of my best friends as we worked so closely together.  I offered her suggestions on her teaching and life and she did the same for me.  We both grew and became effective educators because of this collaboration.  Working with someone else who can offer me advice, feedback, support, and help is one of the greatest things that has happened to me in my professional life.

Today’s STEM class provided me with yet another prime example of how vital and important a co-teacher can truly be.  My students are in the midst of a project that will allow them to understand where they stand mathematically,  Are they ready for seventh grade math?  If not, what gaps still exist in their learning that need to be filled?  Are they ready for pre-algebra or algebra I?  This project is all about helping them figure out what they need to do over the summer to prepare for the math course that they would like to be in next year.  In class today, the students were working on filling in their learning gaps by watching videos, working with a peer, or asking the teachers questions.  It also meant that I needed to be available to provide them with practice problems and worksheets.  As I was busy setting the students up with practice activities, my co-teacher fielded questions the boys had and monitored their work habits to be sure they were focused and working to prepare for Thursday’s final placement exam.  We worked together like a well-oiled machine.  It was phenomenal.  The boys were all on track learning new skills and reviewing old ones.  While there was a lot going on in the classroom, it was very controlled and focused.

Today’s class went so smoothly because my co-teacher was in the room providing support and help to the students while I was busy creating their practice assignments.  If she wasn’t there to help, chaos would have ensued very quickly.  The students would have been yelling and screaming for help and perhaps even swinging from the lights.  Our STEM class works so smoothly on days like today because of our co-teaching model.  We support one another and the students very well.  It’s great.  I can’t imagine trying to do what I did today without her support.  It would have been nightmarish.  Having extra help in the classroom, a person to provide you with feedback, and a creative sounding board are just some of the amazing benefits of working with a co-teacher.  While I realize that it’s just not feasible for every classroom or teacher to have a co-teacher with whom to work, when complex projects are being worked on, it is hugely helpful for both the teachers and the students to have a co-teacher in the classroom.

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

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

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

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

The Dangers of Independent Math Work

As a product of growing up in the 1980s, I’m surprised that I’m not more paranoid than I currently am.  It was a decade filled with horrors and dangers, or at least that’s what I was lead to believe.  My parents taught me not to talk to strangers as they just want to kidnap you, stay away from white vans as those are the vehicles kidnappers use, don’t use lick and stick tattoos as they are filled with LSD, and don’t eat unwrapped Halloween candy as it is filled with razor blades.  To this day, I still get chills when I see a white van.  Although nothing awful or atrocious ever happened to me or any of my friends or family members, the dangers were real, my parents would tell me.  These things could happen to me, I always thought, and so I lived my childhood and young adulthood in a constant state of fear.  Heck, even as an adult, I’m a very nervous Nelly, always thinking that the worst will happen.  The dangers are lurking just around the corner, I know it.

While I try to keep my crazy paranoia and worry out of the classroom, occasionally I see glimpses of happenings that do harken me back to my dangerous childhood.  Well, that might be a bit of an overstatement, but my nervous past does allow me the opportunity to plan ahead and foresee danger or other negative outcomes.  I’ve gotten very good at thinking through all of the problems that could arise from certain activities or lessons and so when I finalize lessons, units, or activities, they generally are free of the hiccups that some teachers run into in the classroom: Not enough time, too much time, students aren’t engaged, or classroom organization causes problems, to name a few.  Typically, planning for instruction in the classroom is my jam.  I love thinking about all of the what ifs and possibilities.  Being a bit of a worrisome individual helps me to think about all of the ways a lesson or activity could fail or go awry.

Therefore, when I planned my most recent STEM unit, I was very thoughtful in how I arranged the math component of the unit.  As I wanted to provide the students with a bit more choice and freedom in how they work and showcase their understanding of the math objectives covered, I created two options for how they could complete the math work in class.  After they completed a pretest at the start of the unit, they were placed into one of three tracks based on their performance on the pre-assessment.  From there, they could choose to participate in a mini-lesson taught by my co-teacher or I before beginning the assigned set of problems they would need to finish for homework.  During the mini-lesson, the concepts covered in the practice problems are explained, modeled, and reviewed.  The students also have the chance to ask my co-teacher or I any questions regarding what they will need to do for homework.  These mini-lessons range in time but usually last no more than 15-20 minutes in length.  Once the mini-lesson is finished, they return to their workspace in the classroom and start the homework.  If they need help or support while they work, they must ask two peers from their assigned group before seeking help from my co-teacher or I.  We utilized this same method of math instruction earlier in the year and so the students are very familiar with it.   Two to four students from the lower two math groups generally choose this option when working in STEM class on the math component of the unit.   The second option offers the students a bit more freedom and independence.  Rather than sitting through a mini-lesson that they might not need, those students who feel a bit more advanced when it comes to their math skills can choose to fly solo.  They do need to, however, watch a pertinent and relevant video resource and read the assigned introductory pages in their math textbook before beginning the assigned set of homework problems.  This way, they are sure to know and understand the skill they are practicing for homework.  If they have questions while they work, they may seek help from peers in their assigned math group.  We introduced this second option for the math component of this unit to prepare the students for the teaching styles of some of the seventh grade math teachers at our school.  They make use of a blended learning or flipped classroom approach to help the students better own their learning.

While this second option has been more engaging for the students who chose it and has allowed them to work at their own pace, it has also created some challenges that we saw first hand in the classroom today.  We begin every math work period with a check-in assessment regarding skills covered from the previous class period.  The students complete 5-10 problems that make use of the skill they had practiced in class the previous day.  It’s an easy way to formatively assess the students on their understanding of the math objectives covered.  What we found today is that those students who chose the more independent second option for working during the math work periods, struggled to answer questions regarding the specific math vocabulary terms covered.  While they could easily apply the skills learned to complete math problems, they could not define or explain the vocabulary terms.  The students who chose to participate in a mini-lesson prior to completing the homework problems, easily completed this portion of the assessment.

So, the question, of course, is, why did this happen?  Why were the students who were working independently unable to define the math vocabulary terms?  When I asked those struggling students, after they turned in their check-in assessment, if they had watched the assigned video or read the assigned pages in their math textbook before beginning the homework, they all responded, “No.”  Despite being able to simplify algebraic terms and expressions and solve linear equations, they could not explain why subtraction is different from addition or what the difference between consistent and inconsistent linear equations is.  They didn’t take the time needed to fully comprehend the skill and associated vocabulary terms.  While independent work definitely has its positive benefits, it also has a few drawbacks.  The students jump headfirst into solving problems rather than previewing sample problems or understanding the vocabulary words affiliated with the skill covered.

At the close of class today, I made sure to mention this incident to the class and asked them what could be done to prevent this outcome from happening again.  The funny part is, that they all seemed to know what they should do, but they just aren’t doing it.  Perhaps this teachable moment will help those students who choose to work independently to do so more thoroughly and carefully in the future.  I’m curious to see the results of our next check-in assessment.  Will they be able to define and explain the associated math vocabulary terms, or will they still have no clue because they rushed through the required foundation-building pre-work?

Why Do Simple Tasks Seem Complex to our Students?

I still remember the first time I had to assemble a piece of furniture from a box.  It was quite the comedy routine.  I had the left side on the right side and put the screws in from the wrong side.  I was missing parts and pieces, and the instructions were about as useful as a speck of sand in the desert.  Looking back on it now, the experience was pretty much a disaster.  What I thought would be a simple task, ended up taking several hours to complete.  I find it so interesting that what I usually think is an easy thing to do ends up being a lot more complex than I originally thought.  Why is that?  Perhaps it’s our perception of the task.  Because we don’t fully analyze what we need to do ahead of time, we go in unprepared.  If we spend more time preparing and fully understanding the task we face, perhaps we might be able to better approach and complete it.  This same rule applies in the classroom as well.  I find that when I plan new lessons that I think will be quite successful, they end up failing because I don’t fully think them through before executing them in the classroom.  If I spend more time preparing for the lesson and think about any shortcomings or challenges ahead of time, I might have more success.

Yesterday, my co-teacher and I planned what we thought would be an interactive and engaging activity for the students.  We planned it out and prepared guiding questions in preparation for today.  The only thing we forgot to do was figure out our delivery.  How would we present this activity to the students?  We failed to discuss this one tiny piece of the puzzle, which ended up proving to be a mistake.  While the lesson and activity did not bomb by any means, I do wonder if the explanation could have gone smoother had my co-teacher and I put more time into thinking about how we would explain the task to the students.

The assignment seemed simple enough to us:

  • Choose a form of government and a country in the Middle East Region that utilizes that form of government.
  • Using reputable online resources, research your form of government.
  • Create a fictional character that might reside in the country you chose.
  • Make a trading card, using a sheet of paper, for your fictional character.  Draw his or her picture on the front and be sure to include his or her name.  On the back, answer a series of questions regarding the character’s life and thoughts on living in the country you chose. Be sure to answer them as though you are the character.  Use first person.  Base your answers off of your research and character development.

That’s it.  The students needed to create a trading card for a fictional character they created that might live in the country they chose.  The task seemed simple enough.  I went over it quite explicitly as well.  Then came the questions and confusion.  A few of the students didn’t understand how they were supposed to answer the questions as both themselves and their fictional character.  What?  So, I reviewed the instructions and task again.  Then, another student asked about how they were supposed to answer questions about the leader of their chosen country if they were only researching the form of government.  Oh my goodness, I thought.  What?  They are confused.  So, once again, I clarified the assignment for the class.  These questions continued for several minutes.  Why is this task that seemed so simple to my co-teacher and I causing such confusion amongst the students?  Did I not explain it well?  Maybe.  I could have modeled the process involved in completing the activity for the students so that they would know exactly what to do.  That might have helped.  I sometimes wonder though, if I show or explain a task too much, am I taking creativity and problem solving opportunities away from the students?  If I had spent more time planning out how I was going to introduce this activity, perhaps my students would have been less confused.

Despite the mass confusion during my explanation of the activity, once the students got to work, they were very focused and completed quality work that showcased their understanding of the assignment.  They had very few questions while they worked.  Maybe they needed to ask numerous questions to allow their brains to process the task I had put in front of them.  Even though the many questions they posed seemed to lead me to believe that they were confused by what I was asking them to do, perhaps they just needed the time to understand the task.  Maybe this was all part of the learning process.  In order to make sense of simple tasks, perhaps my students needed to complicate matters first in order to get to a place of understanding.  Interesting.  If I had explained the task in a more descriptive and clear manner, would they have been able to understand it better or would they have been more confused when they started working?  Perhaps I will take this other approach the next time I introduce an assignment to the boys and see what happens.  Who knows, maybe I will collect contradictory data or maybe I’ll confirm what I think right now.  Either way, I feel that it would be great to know what method of explaining and introducing a task to my students is most effective for them.

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.