It’s All About Relationships

Driving to my school this morning to help out at an Open House event for prospective fifth grade families, I felt a sense of calm and peace wash over me like glaze on a doughnut.  I was moved to philosophical thought, as I finally had a chance to meaningfully reflect on my teaching.  After an amazing, yet rich and full fall trimester in the fifth grade, I haven’t had much me-time.  I’ve been straight out, pedal-to-the-metal busy planning, teaching, grading, supporting and helping my students, and meeting with families, not to mention all of my responsibilities as a father and husband.  So, this morning, as I made my way south to the wonderful Beech Hill School, I had the opportunity to think poetically about the last three months at my new school…


Like a smooth stone shaped by the current, rolling along a river’s bed,

I’ve been changed and transformed by my school and students over the past few months:

I’ve taken risks and tried new things I never thought possible,

like mindful yoga and a student-driven newscast;

I empowered my students to own their learning,

as if they were the teachers and I the student;

I embraced failure and made it a positive part of our classroom vernacular,

one must fail for learning to be manifested;

My students challenged me to push them forward in new directions,

like ships changing course to avoid icebergs;

I employed new strategies to promote social awareness in the classroom,

we are a family, and families take care of each other, I preached;

I tried new, innovative ways to engage my students in the process of learning,

like Forest Fridays, student choice, a class pet, and bonus points.

 

I thought about the struggles I faced as well,

the challenges that kept me busily searching for possible solutions,

like the Goonies searching for One-Eyed Willy’s lost treasure.

Even after only a short time at my new school, I’ve grown in many ways,

like mountains being formed through tectonic plate movement.

My peaks eroded through the winds of change and new challenges

while my deep valleys began filling in with new information debris.

 

I am a semi-polished piece of granite, floating in the river

that is the Beech Hill School, learning and growing in a

never ending cycle of compassion and commitment.

I can only imagine what the next few months have in store for me.


As I pondered all of my moments of wonder, scenes of serenity, and snapshots of challenge, I started dwelling on what truly matters.  Although, as educators, we are constantly bombarded by articles and blog entries on new pedagogical approaches to teaching and advances in technology, what I began to realize on my early morning trek was that all that fancy stuff, all those bows on the presents of teaching, are meaningless without the gift of relationships inside.  High tech gadgets like interactive whiteboards and hands-on projects are ineffective and useless if we haven’t formed strong bonds and positive relationships with our students.  If our students don’t feel supported, cared for, or safe at school, then their brains will be unable to learn in any sort of meaningful and genuine manner.  Tiny problems that are easily solved because of the strong relationships we have with our students will quickly snowball into giant issues if we do not work to create strong and effective relationships with our students.

Just last week, a student in my class struggled to showcase his learning and reflect in a meaningful way in the ePortfolio he was working to prepare for his student-led conference.  I provided him space to attempt to solve his problem on his own.  While he didn’t openly admit that he was unable to solve his dilemma independently, he sent me a frustrated email that told me he needed help.  Because I have come to understand this student over the past few months and have a great rapport with him, I read through the veneer of anger.  The morning after I received his email, I had a great chat with him about his struggles.  I then worked with him during free periods in our daily schedule to help him display how he has grown and changed since early September.  I re-framed questions, worked with him to put his ideas and thoughts into complete sentences, and helped him transform his thinking onto his laptop.  When all was said and done, he seemed happier and proud of what he had accomplished.  He realized, that when he asks for help, he is able to accomplish the task at hand.

Because I have a strong relationship with this student, I knew that his angry email was a cry for help.  Forming meaningful relationships with our students allows for all of the other puzzle pieces of teaching to fall into place.  When our students feel cared for and understood, they are able to engage in project-based learning and get the most out of interactive learning tools.  Genuine learning happens when our students are able to work from the new, modern portions of their brains responsible for problem-solving and emotion.  My peaceful moments of reflection this morning allowed me to see that all of the awesomeness that happened in my fifth grade classroom this year was as a direct result of the relationships I formed with my students.  Great teachers are great at connecting with their students in just the right ways.

It’s so easy to get caught up in trying to plan the best, most effective, hands-on units possible, when all that really matters is how we interact with our students.  If we know, understand, and care about our students, everything we do plan will be exactly what our students need to help them grow and learn.  Unit planning for me comes down to my students.  What do they need to be successful?  How can I best challenge my students?  What type of project will motivate them to want to know more?  When I start with my students first, I find that the path to growth and learning is always right around the corner.  At the Beech Hill School, we always put our students first, which is why our students love coming to school each and every day.  I even had four amazing students show up today to help out with the Fifth Grade Open House event.  They value their learning and our class community so much that they are willing to give up their free time on a Sunday to help others see the power in being a Beech Hill School student.  If that doesn’t speak to the power of relationships, then I don’t know what does.

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When Students Understand Why We Do What We Do as Teachers

I remember, as a child, cartoon-esque drawings of characters or people having A-Ha moments: A lightbulb appeared over someone’s head as they worked or did something.  The simplicity of the pictures always amazed me.  The idea of a light being turned on when neurons fire and bridge mental connections is a great metaphor.  While it very much simplifies the process, the concept and idea behind what is going on in the brain is conveyed to the viewer.  A-Ha moments are actually very complex, neurological happenings that involve many different chemical reactions.  Genuine learning comes about through these type of grand realizations as connections are being made in one’s brain.  It’s almost like the idea of working through one’s frustration.  Perseverance and resiliency are two great concepts that, for me, lead to these A-Ha moments.  While for some people, new ideas or answers to problems seem to make sense and happen seamlessly, without much thought or struggling, some people need much processing time and practice to come to a conclusion or answer.  I am one of those people.  I need to really ponder something before I’m able to figure it out.  Usually, after much time playing or wrestling with the question or new concept, a solution or realization seems to just sort of pop into my mind.  Those are great experiences.  An easy way to see this process happen is by looking at one’s facial expressions.  The person might start out with a frown or upset face that slowly or quickly changes to a smile as the A-Ha moment occurs.  Learning makes people smile.  How great is that?

As a teacher, I love witnessing these A-Ha moments happen for my students.  After much time spent working with them or watching them struggle and attempt to solve a problem, it is quite rewarding and fulfilling to see them understand what they’ve been working towards.  It’s like finding that missing puzzle piece after minutes of searching for it.  I see it most frequently happen for our ELL students when learning new, to them, concepts in English.  Although they seem confused at first and can’t wrap their heads around what is expected of them or the concept being covered, after asking questions and processing the information, they just get it.  Those are fun moments.  “I get it now!” they usually exclaim with a smile on their face.  Persevering through challenging times is not an easy skill to teach.  It takes lots of practice and reminders.  Rather than jumping in and telling students how to solve problems, I find it much more beneficial to let them struggle through it and ask them probing questions to inspire neurological connections to be made when assistance is required.  For many students, this is all it takes for them to figure things out.

To help prepare our students for the increased level of critical thinking that will be required of them as well as the larger work load they will face next year, we have been working on challenging our students to rise above where they are, mentally, to be better able to solve problems on their own by utilizing the Habits of Learning practiced in the classroom all year.  During the past month, we have been asking students to challenge themselves to do more than just complete an assignment.  At this point in the year, many of the boys are capable of exceeding the requirements and graded objectives.  Rather than just write about their reading, we expect that most of our students will be able to analyze what they read and make inferences using examples from the text.  While we have been using this type of language with them for weeks now, a few of the boys are still struggling to realize why we are asking them to step up and challenge themselves.  They usually get frustrated and start over instead of adding to or altering the nucleus of their work.  While that is certainly one way to approach what we’re asking of them, it is generally not the most productive way to go about challenging themselves.

Today in Humanities class, the students worked on crafting an original poem utilizing the poetic device of personification.  While a few of the students got right to work and crafted brilliant stanzas filled with metaphors and alliteration, a few of the students struggled to begin their poem or choose an object.  One student had his idea right away and wrote his first two lines with ease.  He was so excited about his work that he shared his poem with me.  While he was on the precipice of critical thinking, he was using vague words and simplistic lines to craft his poem.  So, I said, “I see what you are trying to do, but I challenge you to use more specific and carefully chosen words in a more complex manner.  I challenge you to create lines of poetry that don’t begin in the exact same manner.  I challenge you to think more critically about your object as you write your poem.”  While I could easily tell that he was a bit deflated after hearing my feedback, he didn’t give up.  He began erasing his lines as I conferenced with another student.  My co-teacher then approached him in the act of erasing and asked him what he was doing.  His response, “Mr. Holt is challenging me to think more critically about my object.  So, I’m going to start over and see if I can use more specific words to describe light in a personified way.”  I stopped working with the other student with whom I was conferencing and stood up for a brief moment when I heard him utter those words.  I almost began to weep.  Wow, I thought, he gets it.  He totally understood what I asked him to do.  He was challenging himself to grow and develop as a student and critical thinker.  Amazing!  So all of these weeks of reminding the students to put forth more effort into thinking critically and creatively about problems and the world around them totally paid off.  They now realize why we have been doing what we’ve been doing in the classroom as their teachers.  They too want to grow and learn more.  They want to be better able to solve problems and think about new topics or concepts.  I was blown away.

While it can be very easy to get caught up in the routine of teaching and not see the bright lighthouses littering the coasts of our classroom, they are there.  Our students are listening and growing and applying the skills we’ve been teaching them all year.  They are not solid bricks but moldable pieces of clay.  It can be frustrating at times when they come across as chunks of solid granite when in fact they are very soft shale sitting at the bottom of the pond that is our classroom waiting for knowledge to build up and push them closer to Earth’s mantle where they can metamorphize into slate or what we might see as able-bodied seventh graders.  It’s great to be able to take opportunities like this to reflect on the great work we and our students have done all year and celebrate it.  All is not for nothing.  They are learning and growing and changing.  Mission accomplished, for now, but our work as their teachers is far from done.

March Break Mindfulness

While I miss being in the classroom and working with my students, I do so enjoy the respite offered by my school’s March Break.  We have three weeks to rest, relax, read, travel, reflect, and etc.  It’s quite awesome.  Last year during this break, my family took a vacation to Florida to visit Universal Studios.  The Harry Potter worlds were phenomenal.  It felt like we were in the movies.  Amazing!  As funds are tight this year, there will be no travelling for me during March Break, which I’m not upset about.  Sometimes I feel like I need a break from my vacation.  Travelling can be very exhausting, especially when it involves air travel.  I’m excited to stay home and do nothing this year.  Well, actually, nothing isn’t quite accurate.  Since my school’s schedule is demanding and rich and full as our headmaster likes to say, my son and I have very little time to see the doctor and do those routine things like visit the dentist and get new glasses.  So, this week has been filled with appointments.  It’s good to get outside of the compound we call school though.  Plus, I’ve had plenty of time to enjoy some great shows on Netflix and movies from the local video rental store.  Yes, it’s hard to believe for many I’m sure, but my town still has a thriving video rental shop.  It’s nice and handy.  In between movies, appointments, and family time, I’ve also had much time to reflect and think about my teaching.

While I do feel as though this has been my best year of teaching yet, I am always looking for ways to improve.  My kind and talented Science Department Chair purchased me some coding gadgets to play with to find out how I might be able to incorporate them into my STEM curriculum for next year.  I can’t wait to dig into my Arduino Board.  I need to work with my school’s tech department to get the right servers installed on my laptop first though.  That’s on my agenda for next week.  This week though, I’ve been feeling contemplative.  Maybe because I’ve had a lot to think about.  My son is going through the roller coaster ride known as the secondary school choice process.  Yesterday was the big reveal day.  Did he get accepted?  Did we get enough financial aid?  It was an emotional day in our household.  There was frustration, confusion, and excitement all within a few hours of each other.  Crazy.  Now, my family needs to begin thinking about what the next chapter of our lives will look like.  Do we stay rooted at my current school and find the best school for my son to attend or do we rip out our stakes and find a new place to call home?  Will I find a job?  Will my wife find a job?  What might that look like?  Can we really move?  Would it work?  So many questions.

This bombardment of questions got me thinking.  Which came first, questions or answers?  Did early humans start tinkering with the natural world and then ask questions or did they ask questions immediately, before playing with rocks and trees?  Did the first question come from an answer or curiosity?  Can answers and solutions come without questions?  Do I need to ponder and reflect in a questioning manner in order to reach a conclusion?  Can I find the answer by trying new things and taking risks or is it human nature to wonder?  When did that come into existence?  Have humans always been curious?   This then lead me to wonder, what’s more important: Questions or answers?  Can I learn more by asking questions that lead to more questions or must I have knowledge and information to grow and develop my line of thinking?

In the classroom, questioning is a higher order thinking skill.  In order to think critically about something, my students need to be able to question and wonder.  They can easily locate answers online, but will that allow them to fully comprehend a topic or idea?  They need to be able to dissect that answer, make connections, and wonder what else they can learn from it.  They need to extend their thinking by asking more questions.  This is true for my students, which is why I constantly push them further.  Ask more questions.  And when they ask more questions, I pose even more questions.  What does that mean?  How are those two ideas connected?  Now what?  They are challenged to think critically about the world around them in order to grow and develop into meaningful global citizens.

With two weeks of March Break left, I can’t wait to see what grandeur is in store for me.  Who knows?  Maybe all the answers my family is searching for will be revealed?  Wouldn’t that be nice.  Regardless, I still have plenty of time to reflect and relax.  Go me!

The Power of Conversation

In the words of my greatest mentors, “Sometimes, all you need to do is listen.”  Wow, were they ever right.  To fix difficult situations, help students, ease nerves, solve problems, bring about peace, and so much more, all you need to do is listen.  This idea became brightly evident to me in the classroom today.

After three weeks of vacation, classes resumed this morning.  Many of the boys were tired and seemed a bit out of it.  Homesickness already started to permeate the campus campus before classes even started.  In Humanities class today, we wanted to ease the boys back into the swing of academia.  So, Reader’s Workshop filled our time together this morning.  The students love to read and so we figured, what better way to get them hooked back into class than to give them what they love.  Our focus for student conferences today was goal setting for the spring term.  We wanted the students to set a reading goal for themselves as we head into the final nine weeks of school.  Not an overly lofty agenda, but we still wanted to accomplish something.

I like to use this conference time as a chance to catch up with the students and converse with them for a bit about non-reading, life stuff.  So today I asked each of the seven students I met with, “What was a highlight from your Spring Break?”  A simple question that allowed for the students to share what they wanted to.  Many of the students talked about all the fun things they did over break.  Some of the students had gone on trips to places with much warmer temperatures than NH.  They shared their stories before we got into the meat of the conference.  This helped to set the stage for productive conversations.  The students seemed much more open to brainstorming specific and SMART goals.  Was this because they had a chance to talk about what was really on their mind?  Did they feel more comfortable and at ease?  Perhaps, or maybe they have just gotten so good at goal setting over the course of the year that creating new goals is second nature.  Whatever the reasons, things went smoothly in the sixth grade classroom today.

Coming back from a break presents a vital opportunity to reconnect with our students.  By asking them questions about their vacation, they feel respected and cared for.  After classes today, two students lingered behind before heading to lunch.  So, I asked those two students, who I hadn’t conferenced with today, about their March Break.  One of them shared about his trip to Arizona and the Grand Canyon.  This then lead into the other student talking about a similar trip he had gone on a few years back.  Connections were made between the students.  Plus, it seemed to really help lift their spirits.  They seemed happier as they walked to lunch conversing about their trips.

Asking questions and creating an open dialogue with students is so important in building relationships.  We need to make numerous deposits in our relationship banks with students so that they trust us and feel safe and cared for.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that in order for learning and thinking to happen, the basic needs of our students must be met.  Conversations are an easy and quick way to foster care and engagement.  We need our students to feel supported and safe in our classroom so that learning and growth can happen.