Teaching Perseverance and Problem Solving

As a student, I continually struggled to learn new material and concepts and overcome challenges I faced.  I usually just gave up or asked the teacher for help.  Rarely did I try to solve my own problems, since I knew my teachers would help me or give me the answer I needed to solve the problem.  I needed to do very little thinking on my own when I was in school and I feel like that is something that hindered me from successfully growing and developing as a student.  Even in college, I found myself asking for help instead of trying to solve my own problems.  If something didn’t make sense, I didn’t review the material, I didn’t ask a peer for clarification, I didn’t do further research to understand the heart of my question and lack of understanding, instead, I immediately asked the teacher, either in class or during office hours.  I didn’t genuinely learn to persevere and think for myself until I became a teacher and needed to solve my own problems as I now was the person students relied upon to know the answer  I wish I had learned how to solve problems I encountered in the classroom and with the academic material on my own when I was in school, but unfortunately I did not.

So, as a teacher, I make it a priority to be sure I empower my students to think for themselves, question the world around them, and solve their own problems.  I provide my students with strategies, tips, techniques, and ideas on how to solve problems facing them.  I also have a rule in my classroom about asking questions: You must ask two before me.  The students need to ask at least two classmates for assistance or clarification prior to asking me for help.  This fosters a sense of teamwork and community within the class.  They become peer teachers for each other.  Many of my students become very great teachers by the end of the year.  I don’t want to be the Master in the Middle, I want to be the Guide from the Side in the classroom.  I want my students to struggle and learn to solve their own problems.  While I often provide feedback and suggestions when necessary, I rarely provide students with answers.  I usually ask the boys questions to ponder when they ask for help.  “Have you asked two of your peers for help?  Did you research your question using reputable resources?  Did you spell the word correctly before typing it into Google?”  The most effective and real learning comes from the struggle the students face.  When they hit a mental wall in the classroom, they learn to utilize a growth mindset to overcome the wall facing them.  When they think about other solutions and possibilities, they are able to overcome the challenges facing them.  In order for those “A-ha” moments to occur though, the students need to struggle a bit first.  Then, comes the learning.

Today in my STEM class, using Little Bits, the students worked on constructing scaled-down versions of the space rover they designed in their small groups.  They figured out how to utilize the Little Bits pieces to create their working rover.  They communicated effectively with their teammates to delegate responsibilities, set a goal for the work period, and build their vehicle.  They coexisted very well in class today.   I was impressed.  Every group was able to meet the goal they set at the start of the class.  While it was fantastic to see the boys utilize the Habits of Learning we’ve been working on all year with them, my favorite part of the class was how the students showcased their ability to solve their own problems and persevere.

At the start of the class year, my students struggled to solve their own problems.  They clearly relied on their teachers for help and the answer, in the past.  They didn’t know how to ask their peers for help or how to see the problem in a new perspective.  They usually stopped working or gave up when they faced a challenge or difficulty.  I spent the first three months of the year teaching the boys strategies on what to do when they are stuck: Ask a classmate for assistance, try different solutions, research the problem online, or take a break and revisit the problem later.  I have the students practice these strategies during the first two units in both Humanities and STEM class.  I provide the boys with feedback on the strategies they’ve used and tried so that they can see what worked and what needs to be improved.  This takes much time and energy but is so important in teaching the students to own their learning, persevere, and solve their own problems.  I want then to see that they don’t need to immediately ask a teacher for help when they encounter a problem.  I want them to see themselves as resources and experts in what we are learning about.

Today, I was able to see the students apply many of these strategies as they worked.  They ran into numerous problems: How to connect the Little Bits together, how to make their rover go over a larger obstacle, how to prevent the front of their rover from dragging, and how to utilize the USB connection.  Instead of asking me for help, they worked together to solve their problems.  They worked together in their small groups of three to four students to find new solutions to the challenges they faced.  One group attached two other wheels they had found in our collection of Lego blocks to prevent the front of their rover from dragging on the ground.  Another group taped the Little Bits pieces to the mounting board to prevent them from falling off.  As I saw groups encounter problems, I watched and observed what they did next.  In one group, the leader said, “Okay guys, what do we do now?  How should we solve this problem?”  Then his group members started generating possible solutions.  After trying a few, they found one that worked. In another group, one of the members researched their problem online.   Every once in a while, a student did come to me, asking for help.  In most cases, by the time I had gotten to their group, they had solved their own problem.  It was awesome.  I didn’t need to provide answers to my students as they provided their own solutions.  I have empowered them to be their own teachers.  Isn’t that what we hope for as teachers?  For our students to persevere and become problem solvers?

While teaching students how to persevere and solve their own problems is challenging and takes much time in the classroom, it is crucial to creating and fostering a sense of community and learning inside the classroom.  Teaching the strategies students need to solve problems, persevere, and overcome adversity facing them requires a deliberate approach.  We need to give students specific strategies to use when they encounter a problem.  What do they do?  We then need to have them practice using these strategies in various activities and classroom projects.  We also must observe how they use these strategies and give them feedback on how they can improve using the strategies to solve problems they encounter.  We then have to move into giving them more control and autonomy as the year progresses.  We, of course, support the students when necessary, but want to give them plenty of opportunities to practice using the various strategies we’ve taught them.  Teaching students how to solve problems they face is a vital life skill they will need to have in their repertoire of tools in order to live meaningful lives in a global society.

The Importance of Teaching Group Work Skills

Working with others, I’ve found as I age and mature like a great cheese or fine wine, is a crucial life skill.  Whether it is working with a spouse or partner or working with people at a job, being an effective teammate or group member is vital to the success of the partnership or business.  If I don’t communicate with my co-teacher and provide her with feedback or important information she needs to know, then we would not have a sixth grade community that functions like a well-oiled machine.  Being a team player is a very important skill that all people must learn.  However most schools and businesses do not teach the skill of being an effective member of a group; instead, institutions expect that people know how to work together.  Many people do not know how to work as a group or team without practice.  They need to be taught how to be a group member.  Most people need to learn and practice effective communication, patience, compromise, delegation of tasks, and teamwork in order to be an effective team player.  Just like all great athletes or authors, people need to learn how to and practice being effective group members.

In the sixth grade, we take pride in the fact that we teach our students how to work together effectively as a team.  They learn how to communicate effectively, delegate responsibilities, be patient with one another, and compromise when necessary throughout the course of the year.  After a full term of learning the basics of teamwork and practicing these skills in various groups without the pressure of being graded or assessed, we have them complete two group projects in both Humanities and STEM class.  One project is done in a larger group with six of their classmates, while the other group project is completed in smaller groups consisting of three to four students.  The goal is for the students to practice applying the skills we spent all fall learning about.  Our school’s counselor worked with the boys on a weekly basis during the fall term learning how to communicate and compromise effectively when interacting with one another.  They also practiced how to delegate tasks through the group activities they completed with the counselor.  Only once the boys had solidified a foundation of teamwork skills did we have them complete more extensive, graded group projects.  This process seems to have worked much better than in year’s past.  The students are more effectively tackling and completing these group projects as they have already learned how to work together as a group.  It’s quite amazing.

Today in Humanities class, the students put the finishing touches on the big debate project they will be presenting tomorrow in front of students and faculty members.  The boys will perform issue stance reports in hopes of convincing the audience members why their group’s presidential candidate would be a more suitable choice to lead our country.  During the last few days, the students have revised their speeches and practiced rehearsing what they would say.  Today they had one final chance to rehearse their speech and discuss, as a group, the expectations they have for the big debate.  What will the dress code for their group be?  What will they need to do outside of class tonight to prepare for tomorrow’s big show?  The boys provided each other feedback on how to best recite their speech aloud to the audience.  They read over each other’s speech to be sure their points were accurate and powerful.  They made sure they were ready for tomorrow.  It was epic to watch them work together to accomplish various tasks.

Had we not taught the boys the importance of leadership, collaboration, delegation of tasks, and effective communication, would they have been able to work a well as they did on this project?  Would they be able to execute what is sure to be an amazing class debate tomorrow without understanding how to work together as a group?  No.  Students need to learn how to do something before they are expected to practice or apply the skill.  We should not expect that our students have learned teamwork skills in their previous schools or grades.  We should start from scratch and help them create a strong foundation of teamwork skills.  Our boys worked so well on this project because it was engaging and because they knew how to function as a group.  Group work skills must be taught, like anything in life.  Just as I can’t expect that my son will know how to drive the first time he gets behind the wheel of a car, I can’t expect that my students know how to work with others effectively when they enter my classroom in the fall.

Building a Class Community Takes Time

Growing up, my family took many vacations.  We traveled throughout the New England area and up and down the east coast in our car.  There were moments of fun and moments of horror.  On our trip to Florida, my sister was ten and I was 16.  We shared the backseat.  I drew a dividing line down the middle of the empty seat to mark our territories.  Every five seconds, she reached over the line of demarcation and poked me.  Of course, I then poked her back.  The result: “Mom, Mark reached over the line and poked me.”  I got in trouble for her actions.  In what kind of crazy, messed up world do we live?  Many of our road trips were like awful repeats of our trip to Florida.  As each minute of every trip seemed to last an eternity, I was regularly confused by the passing of time and would often ask my dad, “Are we there yet?”  His response was always the same, “Be patient.  Rome wasn’t built in a day.”  What?  Who cares about Rome; I’m in a hot car with my baby sister.  It took many family trips and multiple decades for me to finally understand what my father meant.  Life takes time; be patient.

This fatherly adage applies to more than just road trips.  Patience is a virtue that allows one to be happy and seek inner peace.  In theory, patience is fabulous.  Who wouldn’t want to be happy, daily?  It makes a ton of sense.  However, like Communism, patience is great in theory but not always as excellent in practice.  It’s hard to be patient all the time.  Sure, my philosophy of “fake it ’til you make it” helps, but let’s be honest, does anyone like waiting in a long line at the grocery store after a difficult day at work?  Patience has it’s benefits, but they can sometimes take much time to reap, especially in the classroom.

Since September, we’ve been working on helping our sixth grade class build a community within the classroom.  We’ve discussed and practiced social skills development as well as teamwork strategies.  We incorporated teamwork and problem solving skills into our curriculum in every way possible.  We explained the purpose and great value in working together as a family.  We took two field trips to allow them all types of different experiences to help the students figure out how to work together as a community.  The result: Nothing.  The boys still struggled to effectively communicate and coexist with one another.  Despite hours, days, weeks, and months of effort and planning, the boys never seemed to gel as a community.  It was frustrating to my co-teachers and I because there are only 10 students in the sixth grade.  How hard can it be to get along with nine other students?  When you use a fixed mindset and refuse to be compassionate, everything is impossible.  As a teacher, I felt defeated, like I didn’t really help my students.  Then, came today.

It began as an ordinary Thursday.  The students, dressed in their formal wear as it was Chapel Thursday, came to class somewhat prepared and energetic.  They greeted us warmly and Humanities class began.  They worked diligently, for the most part throughout the period on the final project of the year.  They were in the midst of crafting visual presentations regarding the Middle Eastern countries they had researched.  Some of the boys painted dioramas while others typed text or blueprinted their poster design.  It was a productive period for the students.  With about six minutes to go in the period prior to the end of class, we instructed the students to clean up, like always.  Nothing new or out of the ordinary happened, yet.

As the two-minute time limit lapsed, the students began to work more diligently to clean the classroom.  They ran around, some raised their voices, like always.  Others worked harder to accomplish the task.  Then, something magical happened.  All of the students began to work together to finish cleaning the room.  They communicated effectively and compassionately.  They took leadership and helped one another.  When I mentioned that one of the posters had been knocked off of the wall, a student quickly put it back up.  Almost every student was in the back library nook area cleaning, organizing, and working together.  It was amazing.  My co-teacher and I almost cried.  “Although it took until May for them to come together, at least they finally did,” my co-teacher noted.  Wow!  It was amazing.  Perhaps they were listening all year to our advice, strategies, and reminders.  It just took them some time to process everything and make sense of it.  Like my dad always said, “Be patient.”  And sure enough, today I reaped the rewards of all of our hard work.  Our sixth grade class came together as a family today.  Who cares that we only have a few class days left until the end of the year; at least they were able to put aside their differences and work together.  I couldn’t be more proud of my students.  They did it!

The Honeymoon Phase is Over in the Classroom

While driving to Prince Edward Island in Canada for our honeymoon, our car began making strange noises and sputtering quite a bit.  It finally became difficult to drive.  It turned out that the transmission was shot.  So, we had to cancel our honeymoon to have the car fixed.  For my wife and I, our honeymoon phase never happened, or did it never end?  In the classroom each year, there is a phase of calm and serenity that lasts anywhere from a day to a few weeks.  This is the time of the year when the students try to figure out what they can and can’t do.  They are nice and kind to each other and the teacher.  They don’t generally test the boundaries during this period.  It’s a really awesome time for teachers.  But, we know what follows and so we cautiously wait for the ball to drop and the storm to arrive.

Today marked the end of the sixth grade honeymoon phase.  The boys began to show their true colors today.  They started to realize how much they dislike some of their peers.  They weren’t afraid to shout out or share their negative feelings.  Today, the peace ended, and reality set in.  Not everything smells like roses and camp fires.

During Humanities class, we saw the storm begin to take form.  Two students sitting next to each other at a table, continued to bicker with each other during the lesson.  One student turned to the other and said, “Stop it!” several times.  The other student moved his chair away from that student and began taking off his shoes and playing with them.  This too upset that other student who continued to share his frustrations aloud while my co-teacher spoke.  Then, two other students began to join in on the twister of confusion.  One student kept saying, “Stop!” to his table partner.  Then, the other student raised his hand and called me over during the lesson.  He refused to use words and just pointed to his partner’s chair.  Apparently it was too close to his.  Really?  That’s a big deal?  What about the starving people around the world?  What about the wars and abuses people are facing everywhere?  Aren’t those the big issues over which we should complain?  No, today, in the classroom it was about a chair that was about to cross a line.  This bickering continued throughout the class.

While both groups of students were addressed and the issues dealt with, this little nit picky stuff is a sure sign that the honeymoon has ended.  After a month of beautiful weather, ironically, it rained today, perhaps to signify the beginning of the normal school year.  Ohh, how I miss the honeymoon stage of the academic year.  For a week or so, I believed I had the perfect class.  While perfection doesn’t exist, it’s nice to think that things are going smoothly for at least a little while.  But not anymore.  Now begins the challenging process of teaching the boys how to appropriately coexist.