Posted in Co-Teacher, Co-Teaching, Education, Math, STEM, Student Support, Students, Teaching

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.

Posted in Boys, Challenges, Co-Teacher, Education, Learning, Professional Development, Teaching

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.

Posted in Challenges, Co-Teacher, Education, Learning, Math, STEM, Students, Teaching

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?

Posted in Challenges, Co-Teacher, Education, Humanities, Students, Teaching

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.

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

How to be Flexible with Time in the Classroom

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

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

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

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

Posted in Challenges, Co-Teacher, Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, Risk Taking, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

Looking Back on the First Sixth Months of the Academic Year

As our lengthy March Break begins tomorrow, it feels like a fine time to reflect on the first two-thirds of the academic year.  It’s hard to believe that when we return from spring break, we will only have about nine weeks until summer vacation.  Where did the time go? It feels like just yesterday we were getting the students acclimated to the world of sixth grade at Cardigan, but alas, they are seasoned veterans on the ways of the classroom and are almost ready for seventh grade and all of the adventures that they will experience next year.  As the end nears, I feel myself getting nostalgic.  Remember when we went to the Sargent Center?  Remember when we had our first Marble Party?  Remember when we first met our bunnies on the farm?  At the same time, though, I’m excited for the fun we still have left and and all of the learning I’m sure to do.

This has been a fantastic year filled with many new experiences:

  • I worked with a new co-teacher this year, who has taught me a lot about teaching and working with students.  While I did have to train her on how our sixth grade program works during the first few weeks and months, she was a fast learner and asked lots of great questions.  I am blessed to have her on my team.
  • I piloted a Farm Program in the sixth grade this year, which the boys love.  They have enjoyed learning how a farm works, raising and caring for bunnies, planting various flora and vegetables, and learning about the importance of caring for the natural world while understanding our place in it.  The boys have learned much as is evident in their weekly journal entries.  This hands on experience was definitely worth all of the hard work that went into planning and preparing for this new program over the summer.  All classes and schools need a Farm Program like ours.  It’s beneficial to the students in numerous ways.
  • I made use of a computer coding online computer program called Code Combat this year.  The students have enjoyed learning all about the Python coding language as they play games and complete various tasks.  It’s helping prepare the students for the technology class they will take as seventh graders.  It’s also opening windows for students who never realized, prior to this year, that they were interested in technology or computer coding.  It’s planting seeds of curiosity within the boys.  I’ve really enjoyed using it and am glad that I happened upon this fun little program over the summer.
  • My mission to have all of my students learn how to solve the Rubik’s Cube fizzled out a bit in the past few weeks.  Earlier in the year, the students would spend ten minutes every week working on learning to solve the cube.  They seemed engaged and excited.  While several students were quick learners and figured out how to solve it within a month or so, there were a few who never really devoted the extra time to figuring it out and have gotten stuck.  No matter how many different ways I try to help those few struggling students, because they are employing a fixed mindset when it comes to this skill, they are unable to figure out how to successfully solve it.  Of course, because our last two units required more in-class work time, the students haven’t had a chance to play with their cubes in almost two months.  I’m hoping to get back into a weekly routine following our long break.  While I don’t want to give up on the challenge I put before myself back in September, I also want to be cautious of not setting myself up for failure.  I’ll have to wait and see what happens in April and May.  Fingers crossed.
  • I utilized Little Bits in my STEM class this year as part of the Astronomy Unit.  The students, working in small groups, had to develop and build a working prototype of a space rover that would help them solve a problem.  The students thoroughly enjoyed this unit.  They loved playing with the circuits and figuring out how to put them together in a meaningful manner.  This new addition was a huge success.  I’m so glad I piloted them in the classroom this year.
  • I restructured our math units so that they were more aligned with the Math in Focus book series we use.  I made sure that the introduction of each new skill was accompanied by a mini-lesson.  I wanted the students to feel successful as they practiced new math skills in preparation for next year.  After a bit of a disastrous math experience last year, I have been very pleased with the outcome I’ve seen so far.  My students are making progress and seem to feel good about math.  Many of my students spend time outside of class working on their assigned Khan Academy course because they want to learn more.  This leads me to believe that the changes I brought about this year in how I taught the math curriculum were successful.

It has truly been an epic year in the sixth grade.  I’ve been pleased with how our classroom community has developed since September.  All of the students seem to really like each other.  They are kind and compassionate and go out of their way to help each other.  It’s quite amazing to see this in action.  They are a fun and insightful group that have made huge strides in many ways.  Our ELLs have made tremendous growth regarding their English writing, reading, and speaking.  Their vocabulary has grown exponentially.  Our shy students have blossomed into social butterflies and our class leaders have become even stronger.  Because we put so much time and energy in during the first two months of the academic year to help our students hone their social skills and develop their emotional intelligence, our students have been able to grow and mature in so many other ways at such a rapid pace.  Fostering a sense of care, trust, and safety in the classroom is crucial to helping support and challenge students.  Our year has been so great in the sixth grade because of the effort and dedication my co-teacher and I put in early on.  I can’t wait to see what excitement and fun will be had during the final two months of the school year when we return from break in late March.

Posted in Co-Teacher, Curriculum, Education, Learning, STEM, Students, Teaching

Using Brain Research in the Classroom

Back in the early 2000s, I used to think that brain-based research about teaching was just a fad.  Why do I need to understand the brain in order to become a better teacher?  It all sounded like a bunch of hooey to me, like laserdiscs and beta players.  It wasn’t until a former co-teacher convinced me to take an online class with her on the neuroscience of teaching that I saw the light.  It was one of the greatest professional development experiences of my career.  Understanding how the brain learns, and how we as teachers can use that information to improve our teaching and lessons, was eye opening.  After gaining this knowledge, I totally changed the way I approached teaching.  The focus should be on the students.  I should not be the voice up front talking all the time.  Instead, I should create a student-centered classroom that puts the students in charge of their learning.  So, I did, and I have seen such drastic changes within me as a teacher and from the students I have worked with since taking that course.  They are much more self-sufficient and able to creatively solve problems encountered in unique ways because of the changes I made in my classroom.  It is crucial that all teachers learn about how our students learn.  I wish I had understood this idea a lot sooner than I did, but at least I now know how to engage, support, and challenge my students in relevant and meaningful ways in the classroom.

For the final presentation portion of a research project my students are working on in STEM class, they have to memorize a unique expository paragraph that they craft themselves.  While memorization isn’t used in schools as much anymore, it is still an important skill to expose my students to as I know they will need to apply it in their future English classes.  While I introduced the assignment to the students yesterday in class, they will be learning all about the brain science behind memorization in PEAKS class this week and next with my co-teacher.  She is going to explain the many different strategies used to memorize various chunks of information.  She is then going to provide the students ample time to practice applying the different strategies to memorize their paragraph.  This is a perfect closing for the brain unit she has been working on with the students in this study skills class.  The boys learned all about how their brain works and functions.  They learned about the plasticity of their brain and the ideas of growth and fixed mindsets.  This activity on memorization will allow them to apply this information to STEM class.  How can their brain help them remember things?  When the students understand of what their brain is capable, they are able to do so much more because they believe they can.  Most students tend to think of the brain as a filing cabinet with limited space.  When they learn about brain science, they begin to see their brain as this amazing machine that can do almost anything.  The possibilities are endless.  Teaching students the neuroscience of learning is crucial for their growth and development as students.  If we want our students to be able to tap into their full potential as thinkers and learners, they need to know how to do that as well as realize that it is possible.

In STEM class yesterday, to help introduce the skill of memorization, I showed the boys a short video on how to use the Mind Palace technique of memorization that is thousands of years old.  Shakespeare used it with his actors to help them memorize their lines.  Introducing the students to a completely new technique like this that they have most likely not learned previously, seemed like a fine way to open my lesson on memorization.  I then answered any questions the boys had about this new method of memorizing something before asking the students what strategies they have used in the past to memorize something.  They named some of the basic techniques such as chunking, walking and talking, reading, and listening.  I then provided the students a chance to practice memorizing their piece in class using one of these methods.  Today in PEAKS class, they will dig into many more memorization strategies that will allow them to make use of how their brain learns best.  Knowing about how the brain works though, is crucial when having students learn new information or a new skill.  When students understand how powerful the tool in their skull truly is, they can do anything.

Posted in Challenges, Co-Teacher, Conversation, Education, Learning, Students, Teaching

Teachers Talking about Teaching

Aside from spending time with my son and wife, one of my favorite things to do is talk with other educators about teaching.  What works well for you?  What’s your thought on the Common Core?  How do you help struggling students in your classroom?  I love getting all deep into the philosophy of teaching.  Why do we have schools?  What purpose do they really serve?  If we are moving towards a student-directed approach to teaching, do we even need teachers in schools?  Do we even need physical school buildings anymore?  I truly enjoy being challenged to think about the big picture while also trying to challenge others to see the minutia that can’t be overlooked when it comes to teaching and educating our students.

Today, as my co-teacher and I sat in the sixth grade classroom during our Team Meeting discussing future lessons and graded objectives, we started to question our entire sixth grade program.  What’s it all about?  What is our focus?  What should our study skills class really be covering and teaching?  It began innocently enough when my co-teacher asked for my input on the assessments she wants to use in the sixth grade study skills course.  She wondered if the objectives were more applicable to our Humanities course than the study skills class, “If we have already graded the students in Humanities on this objective, should I be grading them on this objective again in PEAKS class?”  My initial thought was, Yes, “We want the students to see how connected the various classes and skills are.  We want the boys to understand the value in learning how to extract the main idea from a text.  I think you should definitely grade them on this objective again in PEAKS class.”  She felt like this was confusing, “How can I include these objectives in my unit plan for the brain?  Do I just add them to the list?  It seems confusing to me.  When I go back to prepare for next year and look at my plans, I worry that I won’t remember what I did because I have so many other unrelated objectives listed.”  I tried to explain to her that the unit plan is merely a guide and doesn’t need to include every objective covered during that time frame.  This still seemed confusing to her.

She then reminded me of a conversation we had a few weeks back about how I used to teach the studies skills class.  I didn’t have a separate curriculum for the course, I merely spoke to the other content area teachers and asked what skills they wanted me to cover.  I then taught the students those skills while they were working on applying them in their other courses.  For example, in history class, the students needed to take notes on a topic, write an expository paragraph, and include a works cited page for a project they were doing regarding famous Americans.  I taught the study skills in my class and had them practice applying them using this history project.  I gave them class time to work on the project so that they could demonstrate their ability to take effective bullet-style notes, write a properly formatted paragraph, and complete a properly formatted works cited page.  This approach to the course was highly successful.  The other teachers loved how integrated I made the course and the students enjoyed having the extra time and support to work on their other coursework.  My co-teacher reminded me of this conversation and asked me how I graded the students when I taught the course.  “I graded the students on the applicable study skills while the other teachers graded their work regarding the content-specific skills and objectives,” I said, suddenly realizing that this approach helped prove my point.  She should be grading the students on the study skills in PEAKS class while assessing the Humanities skills for Humanities class even though they are completing the task and work in PEAKS class.  While this seemed confusing for us both to grasp, we finally realized how much sense it made.

This confusion and A-Ha moment led us to then question the entire PEAKS class.  Why do we implement a separate curriculum for this study skills course?  Why don’t we use the class as a way to help the students practice and apply the essential study skills they will need throughout their academic career?  Doesn’t that make more sense, we thought.  Instead of spending months on academic integrity, spend a week or so introducing the major concepts involved so that the students have a basic understanding of what it means to be academically honest.  Then, later in the year, while we are working on a research project in Humanities class, the students could spend time in PEAKS class working on reviewing the skills of finding reputable sources, note taking, and citation.  This seems to make so much more sense to us both.  So, we closed our Team Meeting conversation with plans for my co-teacher to talk to the PEAKS Department Chair at the end of the year about changing the sixth grade PEAKS curriculum for next year.  So exciting!  Who knows what might happen.  He could say, “No way!” or “That sounds great.”  We just don’t know, but we need to try something because clearly what we are currently doing is just not working for us or our students.

Posted in Challenges, Co-Teacher, Students, Teaching

Helping Students Develop a Growth Mindset

It’s very easy for me to get stuck in how I perceive the world.  As I watched President Obama’s farewell address last evening, my first thought was anger.  I am angry that the president-elect is going to be taking office very soon because I am incredibly worried about the negative changes he will bring to our country.  Having this fixed mindset of anger towards Donald Trump will only lead to more negative thoughts.  I need to change the way I look at the situation.  While I may not agree with a lot of what Mr. Trump spoke about during the recent presidential campaign, I do need to realize that many Americans seem to think his ideas will help move our country forward.  Although I do not need to celebrate or agree with his ideas and the ideas of his supporters, I do need to support our country and my fellow Americans.  Continuing to be angry over the outcome of the presidential election will only lead me down a horribly negative path.  I can’t have that.  I need to be open to new ideas, ways of thinking, and a new president.  While the next four years may not be filled with rainbows and unicorns, I need to be open to possibilities.

Teaching students about the ideas Carol Dweck developed and writes about is the easy part.  The students quickly grasp the concepts of fixed and growth mindsets.  They understand the difference between the two and can provide examples of each.  However, teaching students how to apply a growth mindset to their daily lives is a completely different story.  That poses a real challenge.  How do you teach students to use a growth mindset when they grow frustrated or give up?  While this is certainly a doable task, it’s a lot more difficult than getting students to understand the concept of growth mindset.

Yesterday in Humanities class, the students began creating a tri-layered map of Africa.  The boys began working on the first layer of the map in class yesterday.  The students needed to accurately draw and label the lines of latitude and longitude and proportionately hand-draw the continent of Africa with all of the countries labeled on a piece of copy paper.  They could only use the atlas we provided them with as a resource.  They could not trace their map and needed to creatively utilize color in someway.  This was a challenging task as it required much planning, orienteering, neatness, patience, and hand-eye coordination.  Several of the students struggled with this activity yesterday in class.  Prior to the mid-period break yesterday, my co-teacher discussed with the students what we had observed while the students worked.  She mentioned the fixed mindsets that some of the boys seemed to be employing.  She then asked the students to visualize how they would return from break and begin working on their map using a growth mindset.  This seemed to help for most of the students as they came back from break more open to feedback and willing to tackle the task with renewed vigor.  There were still two students, however, who struggled to effectively work at accomplishing the task, even after our discussion and break.  One student was stuck in thinking that he had to write the name of each of the countries onto the map despite how illegible it was looking when he did it this way.  After providing him feedback on how he might want to approach the task on three separate occasions throughout the period, he continued to create a very hard to decipher map.  Another student, who is a perfectionist, was unable to start drawing the outline of his map for quite a while because he was afraid that he would be unable to do it well.  When he finally did get the outline drawn, he needed to use whiteout to cover the mistakes he had made.  Aside from these two students though, the other boys were able to employ a growth mindset during the final half of the class.  At the end of the class, my co-teacher asked the students to share how they had used either a fixed or growth mindset when working today.  This sharing elicited a great discussion on the power of using a growth mindset when working on difficult tasks such as the one we began in Humanities class yesterday.

Today in Humanities class, all of the students quickly got right to work on their maps.  They were focused and made use of a growth mindset throughout the double-period block.  They asked questions when they encountered problems, fixed mistakes when they were discovered, and utilized feedback provided to them by their teachers and peers.  Even the two students who struggled yesterday during class were able to turn things around today.  It was amazing.  One of the struggling students from yesterday came to me at the start of class today to share what he had done last evening during study hall to fix his mistakes.  He was so proud of his ability to eventually utilize a growth mindset.  His new map was much more accurate, proportional, and neat.  Wow!  At the close of class today, I asked the students to share how they were able to use a growth mindset while working.  Some of the students mentioned perseverance and not giving up while others said fixing their mistakes when they noticed them made a difference.  One student said how valuable asking questions was for him today.  I was impressed.  The boys were applying the skills and strategies we’ve been teaching them all year.  They were utilizing a growth mindset to accomplish a challenging assignment.  I could not have been more proud of my students today.  They rocked it!  Now, did this outcome occur because we had made note of how some of the students used a fixed mindset in class yesterday and then discussed how important employing a growth mindset is to accomplishing a difficult task?  Did this deliberate discussion and naming of behaviors make a difference?  Had we not had these discussions yesterday and today, would we have observed the same working habits today in class?  While it’s always hard to hypothesize answers to big questions like that, we do think that talking about growth mindset, and the power it holds, with our students did make a difference in how the boys worked today versus yesterday.  Although it is very challenging to teach students how to use a growth mindset in the classroom, taking the time to explain to the students when we see examples of both fixed and growth mindsets used and discussing how to change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset does really help students develop an effective mindset for them.

Posted in Challenges, Class Discussion, Co-Teacher, Co-Teaching, Humanities, Students, Teaching

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.