The Evolution of the Faculty Room

The Teachers’ Room, Faculty Room, Faculty Lounge, or Teachers’ Lounge.  Regardless of its name, shouldn’t the space where teachers gather during free periods or unscheduled time be a safe, positive space in which educators can discuss effective teaching practices and how to grow as teachers?  Teachers need a place where they can ask their fellow colleagues for help or support regrading a challenging student or issue in the classroom.  The Teachers’ Room should be place where educators collect to discuss the art of teaching.  While I know that these spaces have evolved over time from places to make photocopies of worksheets and to grab a cold cup of coffee into smaller spaces to grab a warm cup of coffee and sit for a few moments between classes, it seems as though the pendulum has swung too far in one direction.

When I worked at a small Catholic school in Maine many years ago, the Teachers’ Room was a small space with a bathroom, refrigerator, and microwave.  Teachers did not gather in this space during their free periods due to its limited size.  Instead, teachers sat in their own classrooms and did work or meandered the halls in search of other teachers who were free and wanting to discuss teaching.  I often found myself sharing lesson plan ideas with my colleagues during these free periods or asking for help regarding certain students.  I attempted to effectively utilize these short snippets of time so that I could have very little work to do outside of school.  I also enjoyed learning from more experienced educators, and found myself asking for their suggestions and feedback on situations that occurred in my classroom.   While the traditional Faculty Room was not utilized the way in which it should have been at that school, teachers found spaces to discuss teaching and to grow as educators.

At my current school, the Faculty Lounge as evolved greatly in my 15-year tenure.  It used to be a large space where teachers would gather to grade papers, plan lessons, check their email, and talk to other teachers about students or lesson ideas.  It was a sweet place to hang out and grow as a teacher.  After a few relocations over the years, our current Faculty Room is a very small space where very few teachers can collect.  It’s often hotter than most saunas in that room and I’ve found that many educators find other, cooler spaces in which to collect and talk about teaching and students.  Perhaps due to the extreme temperature of our current Faculty Room, it has transformed into a negative space where teachers come to complain about our school, their classes, their responsibilities, and students.  It’s no longer the welcoming and open place that it once was.  It’s now a place that I try to avoid so that I don’t get sucked into the negative drama happening behind the scenes at my school.  I’m more of a glass half-full kind of guy and I find it difficult to hear so much negativity in one tiny space.  In fact, I rarely visit the Faculty Room anymore despite the fact that it provides easy access to coffee.  I’d rather take the extra steps needed to walk to our dining commons to grab a cup of tasty coffee than wade through more negative comments.  As negativity breeds more negativity, the Faculty Lounge has grown into this black hole of despair.  If I wanted to wallow in bad news, I’d simply click over to and read about the state of affairs around the world. So, to make a short story even longer, I do not even use the room in my school that is devoted to teachers.

A Faculty Room should be a place where educators come to learn, grow, and relax during the academic day.  It should be a safe space in which teachers share effective lessons or ask for help with challenging lessons.  The Teachers’ Room should be a place where people want to flock to, not away from.  Sadly, the Faculty Lounge at my school has turned into a stinky landfill full of negative trash.  Why is that, you ask.  I have no idea.  Maybe it’s because faculty members feel overworked or unsupported.  Perhaps these negative comments stem from the great discord that is felt at the school.  Maybe some of the faculty members don’t really want to be teachers and so they are apathetic toward the entire field of education.  Who knows exactly what caused this horrible transformation to take place, but it has, and the Faculty Room at my school is now a Complaining Room.

But, it doesn’t need to stay that way.  Like we empower our students on a daily basis, can’t just one person make a difference?  Can’t I try to foster change at my school?  Couldn’t I try to change the atmosphere of the Faculty Room and bring it back to what it once was and now should become?  Well, the short answer is, Yes, I should.  But, you know me, I’m not one for brevity.  So, here’s the full story…

Today, after quickly ducking into the Faculty Room to add some cold water to my coffee to cool it down a bit, I was filled with a sense of gloom and sadness.  Why do people feel the need to talk so negatively all the time?  Why can’t we spread joy instead of anger and frustration?  After making the long trek back to my classroom, I shared my frustration with my co-teacher.  “Why is the Faculty Room such a negative space?  Why can’t it be a place for teachers to gather and discuss teaching?” I asked her.  She then shared her disdain for the Faculty Lounge.  “I just don’t get it,” she said.  As we talked about this problem facing our school, we both started to realize that we were complaining just like the teachers in the Faculty Room.  And that’s when it hit us, the answer to our problem that is.  We can try to bring about positive change within our Faculty Room.  So, my co-teacher and I designed a little social experiment that we are going to try out tomorrow.  During our free period tomorrow, we are going to visit the Faculty Room and start talking about teaching or some great lesson that we have recently done in class.  We’re hoping that this conversation sparks more talking and sharing amongst the other teachers in the small room, which will then lead to more positive discussions taking place, transforming the space back into a productive and meaningful place where teachers can gather to grow and learn.  Maybe we’re too optimistic, but we feel as though it might work.  But, even if it fails, at least we can say that we tried.  Now, we know that trying this one time will not provide us with the benefits we’re hoping for, and so our plan is to keep at it from now until the start of our March Break.  Hopefully, we are able to create a small wave of positive teacher talk that will eventually build into a tsunami of awesomeness.  Who knows what might happen, but we need to try something because we are both sick and tired of having a Faculty Room that breeds negative thoughts and emotions.  We want to work at a school that helps and supports it teachers by creating a culture of change and development.  Perhaps our social experiment will do just that for our Faculty Lounge.

Learning from My Students

As I stared out onto my empty classroom following my classes, reflecting on my day, I felt a bit uninspired.  Nothing remarkable happened in class today, either good or bad.  My lessons went swimmingly, my students worked hard, and I felt as though I motivated, challenged, and supported my students well.  So, now what?  How can I use what happened in the classroom today to grow and develop as an educator?  How can I better help my students?

Rather than mentally beat myself up over my inability to brainstorm a topic on which I can reflect this afternoon, I decided to get creative.  If I can’t think of anything to reflect upon, why not ask my students for help?  So, I did just that.  During our afternoon advisory period today, I posed a few questions to two of my students.  I told them to be candid, open, and honest.  They were more than willing to help.

What do you like best about the sixth grade program?

“The program is really fun because we can see different things.  We went on field trips to Canaan and had a fun sleepover at the CORE House.  The sixth grade program is really fun and engaging.”

Describe me as a teacher.

“You are really friendly to us and you help us whenever we need help even if you are busy or not teaching the class at that time.  I see you answer students’ questions even when it is not your class.  You have us do great projects too.”

“In the sixth grade, you are a really good teacher because you try to make things fun in the class.  You make students feel loved and you wear a cape.  While that’s a little weird, it’s super cool and fun too.  You move your body around the class and make things fun and not boring.”

What does Mr. Holt need to work on to grow and develop as a teacher?

“Patience.  You need to give us more time and put less pressure on things like being on time to class.  When a few of us came into class late today, you rushed us to get ready and I felt a lot of pressure.”

“Add more things like Weekly News Quiz and Trivia Time.  You can let the students use critical thinking to think about lots of stuff in the world so that they can know more.  You need to teach students with action and less words.  I want to learn more and things like that really help us.”

Does Mr. Holt do a good job managing the class?  Why or why not?

“Well, I understand that you can’t be in more than one place at a time, but when we are working on group projects, sometimes teasing takes place in the groups when you are not watching or observing.  When we are altogether as a class, you do a good job managing the class and making sure everyone behaves well.”

Does Mr. Holt talk to the class in a clear and understandable manner?

“Yes, you explain things very clearly.  We understand what you say.”

What does Mr. Holt do to support or challenge students?

“You talk a lot to us and give us courage.  Whenever we have really big projects, you tell us, ‘I can feel the energy in the air guys.’  You give us extra time to work on projects.”

So, clearly, I’ve created an atmosphere of fun and creativity in the classroom.  The students are having fun learning and growing as students.  That’s good news.  I need to work on making sure I’m observing students more effectively during group projects so that my students don’t feel open or able to tease or make fun of others.  This will be tricky as I can’t possibly observe and help everybody at once.  I need to empower the students to help guide their peers in making good choices.  Perhaps I could work this in during our next group project so that the students understand the expectations and their role in helping to foster a sense of community and kindness in the classroom.  Overall, the two students I interviewed, seemed very pleased with the sixth grade program I’ve worked hard to create over the past ten years.  That’s great to hear, very reaffirming.

Despite not having a topic or idea for today’s entry, I was inspired by my students.  When they feel lost or confused, they ask me for help, and so I did the same with them today.  I reached out for some guidance and advice, and received much quality feedback from them.  Again, my students never cease to amaze and impress me.  Wow!

Take Risks and Try New Things; if You Fail, Fix Your Mistakes and Try Again

Recently, my school decided to partner with a local community outreach group to better help our students understand gender-based issues.  While we in the sixth grade loved what the group did with our students, I have heard many other teachers vent about how inappropriate and ineffective the special programming was.  Not everyone is going to like everything schools try, but I love the fact that we tried something.  Although it perhaps didn’t work for everybody, I’m hoping that we can learn from this experience and tweak it for next year.  Just because something fails when you try it the first time, doesn’t mean you should give up on it.  We need to learn from this experience so that we can make it better for next year’s students.

Risk taking and failure is how innovation and invention come about.  We can’t expect that every idea we have will succeed.  We are bound to fail, and that’s okay.  What matters is what we do when we fail.  If we use the failed experience to teach us how to not do something, then we will grow and develop.  This same rule applies in the classroom.  When our students take risks and try new things, we need to applaud their effort regardless of the outcome.  If they fail, we need to help them understand how to learn from the experience in order to grow and develop.

As a teacher, I need to practice what I preach.  Today in my Humanities class, I tried a new method of class discussion.  Every Saturday, we discuss current events in the world around us.  For the fall term, I guided the discussion by calling on students.  At the beginning of the winter term, I introduced the concept of Socratic Discussion and had the boys guide their own discussions based on a topic or question.  While I was not involved in the conversations, I observed the discussions and graded them on their ability to participate in a class discussion.  This week, I wanted to provide the students with a bit more choice as a way of engaging them in the topic of current events.  So, I had the students suggest five major topics or news stories that they wanted to discuss, and I listed them on the whiteboard.  I then had the boys self-select a group based on their interests.  While one group being led by a student went swimmingly, the other groups were disastrous.  The boys were mostly unfocused and distracted.  They were not even discussing the topic at hand.  They were loud and made it difficult for the effective group to hear what was being discussed.  At the close of the activity this morning, I shared this feedback with the students.  I also told them that we would be changing the method with which we discuss current events next week as they couldn’t handle the independence and responsibility that came with small group discussions.  While my initial reaction was to never utilize this method of discussion again, once I had time to reflect on the experience, I realize that I just need to make some slight alterations to the activity before making use of it again in the classroom.  I don’t need to throw it out and start over; I just need to fix what is broken.

Ideas for improvement:

  • Allow the students to offer suggestions for the discussion, but then select the best three topics on my own.  Less options might make the decision easier for the boys.  It would also allow me to eradicate ineffective ideas, which I should have done today.
  • Set ground rules for the discussion.
    • Students need to stay in one group for the entire time.
    • Students need to actively and appropriately add to the discussion.
    • The volume needs to be one that is not distracting to the other groups.
    • Students in the group will grade each other on their performance in the discussion at the close of the activity.  This will push the boys to make good choices and utilize the Habit of Learning of Ownership.
  • Have the student who suggested the idea be the facilitator for the discussion.  This will help bring form and function to the discussion.

So, although today’s new discussion method did not go as planned, I am going to use this experience as a learning opportunity.  I’m not going to stop trying new things in the classroom.  I’m going to continue taking risks to better support and challenge my students.  When lessons or activities fail, I’m going to determine what went wrong and fix it so that it can be recycled instead of just throwing it out altogether.  As teachers, we need to be constantly challenging ourselves to grow and develop.  Trying new things in the classroom, allows us to do just that.  We can’t be afraid of failure.  In fact, we need to embrace failure so that we learn as much, if not more, than our students.  I tell my students all of the time, “I’m not sure who the real teacher in this classroom is, you guys or me?”  Isn’t that what we want?  We want to be role models and students ourselves.  So, let’s go out and try new things.

Fostering Meaningful and Appropriate Discourse in the Classroom

I was educated in a school that believed in the mantra “children should be seen and not heard.”  Class discussions did not happen in many of my classes.  Students were not encouraged to ask questions as they detracted from the teacher’s lecture.  We were not allowed to engage in or interact with the class lesson or curriculum in any way.  We were passive consumers of our education, which turned me off from learning quite a bit.  Luckily, I had an amazing English teacher in my senior year of high school who challenged me to help others and give back to my community.  This experience made me realize that teaching should be active and fun.  It should be hands-on so that students are doing rather than watching and observing.

As a teacher, I have seen first-hand the power of active teaching.  Engaging students in the content and curriculum in meaningful and relevant ways is how genuine learning takes place.  Great teachers don’t lecture the students.  Great teachers pose questions for their students to discuss and debate.  Great teachers pose problems for their students to solve.  Great teachers make learning fun.  As I strive to be a great teacher every day, I make sure that each lesson is filled with lots of doing, asking, and thinking.

While today’s introductory lesson on Africa could have easily been structured as a boring and unfun lecture, I made sure to set it up in such a way that the students were interacting with the material in new and unique ways.  One of my goals for the period was to be sure that my students understand stereotypes, how they form, and how we can prevent them from spreading.  After a quick review of Wednesday’s introduction on stereotypes, I had the students draw an outline map of Africa with their table partner.  Inside the map, they wrote everything they both already know about the great continent of Africa.  They could draw pictures or use words.  The boys did a fantastic job coexisting and communicating throughout this short activity.  Following this activity, I had each student share one fact they already know about Africa.  I jotted their facts down onto the whiteboard at the front of our classroom.  I didn’t respond to their facts in anyway other than to thank them for their contributions.  I didn’t point out the accuracy in what they said.  I made sure not to bias the discussion in any way.

I then asked the students to point out any stereotypes that were listed on the board.  One student said, “Hunters is a stereotype because hunting is not allowed in Africa now.  You have to smuggle out animals if you want to keep or kill them.  That’s a not true fact of Africa.”  I then allowed the student who added Hunters to the list to defend his addition.  He said that he was referring to those who hunt for food and survival, not sport.  The other student then had an A-ha moment and responded to what the student said, “Oh, that makes sense.  I thought you meant hunting for sport.  Yes, there are hunters in Africa.”  Because I foster a sense of community and care within the classroom, the students feel completely comfortable appropriately arguing and disagreeing with what their peers say.  It’s about creating discourse while engaging the students in the lesson.  I want the students to think critically and listen intently to what their classmates say so that they can challenge each other to think even more deeply about the big ideas being discussed.

Creating a classroom culture that fosters an appropriate level of openness and honesty helps students grow and develop into global citizens who will positively impact our world in the near future.  I want students to be active listeners while others are talking.  I want students to question the world around them as a way to more effectively understand it.  Allowing students opportunities to challenge each other and discuss big ideas brought up in class, creates a true classroom community.  Students learn to respect each other and take care of one another as they all learn together.  Allowing students to ask each other questions about their contributions to the class discussion, helps them to develop their critical thinking, communication, and growth mindset skills.  A classroom in which students are driving the content and curriculum is one in which students are actively learning.  I don’t want my students to feel like I did in school.  I want them to enjoy coming to school and learning.  I want them to hunger for knowledge.  Empowering students to debate and discuss big ideas in school will hopefully help them grow into adults who will make powerful differences in their communities.

Creating a Culture of Conversation within the Classroom

I was never much of a talker when I was a younger student.  I pretty much kept to myself.  Sure, I had some friends, but not many.  I was very much a quiet, introverted individual.  I didn’t like talking in front of my classmates or other people at all.  As I matured with age, like tasty cheese, I became much more comfortable with speaking in front of and to others.  I now feel much more confident in my ability to chat it up with strangers.  I wouldn’t say that I’m a talker now, but I am more willing to and open to speaking with others than I was many years ago.  I’ve come to realize the power in conversation and discussions.  Much can be learned from talking to others.  I’ve grown most as a person by talking to my wife and bouncing ideas off of her.  I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for her.  Talking with her has made me a better person.  I’ve also grown as an educator from talking to and working with my various co-teachers.  We planned lessons and graded work together.  My co-teachers helped me to change my perspective on teaching.  Two voices are far better than one.  Becoming an individual who converses with others, shares ideas, and listens to what other people have to say has been transformational.  The power of conversation is amazing.  I wish I had been courageous enough as a student to see that.  I wish I had been in classrooms in which the teachers promoted conversation and group work.  I can’t even imagine how my life would be different if I had been more of a talker when I was in school.  It’s crazy to think about.

As a teacher, I see the value in talking and conversation.  I embrace it.  I want my students to share their ideas with the class and others.  I want them to ask questions and think critically.  I want them to appropriately challenge others.  Over the years, I’ve created a culture of conversation in the sixth grade.  Our students complete group projects on a regular basis so they can utilize the power of collective thinking.  We teach our students how to discuss controversial ideas in meaningful and appropriate ways.  We promote question-asking and curiosity in every class.  The students have table partners that they can work with or talk to as they work and grow as students.  We want them to see the power that comes from talking with others.  So much can be learned by asking questions and listening to the ideas and thoughts of others.  We want our students to see the value in this.  While this can be challenging for many of our students and different from what they are used to, by the end of the year, they all grow into talkers who can carry on conversations and discussions that promote growth and great thinking.

Today in class, the students were provided several different opportunities to think critically, grow, learn from others, listen, and talk.  In our study skills class, the students had a popcorn discussion with a peer they don’t typically work with in the class.  They discussed the purpose of being able to assess the reputability of online sources.  Why is it important to be able to judge the credibility of websites?  Many insightful discussions took place.  This then led into a whole-class discussion on the topic that allowed their ideas to bloom with meaning and power.  Later in that same class, the students worked with an assigned partner to complete an activity that allowed them to practice the skill of assessing the reputability of online sources.  They worked together to investigate a website and complete a worksheet.  They coexisted with each other to accomplish a common goal.  Later in the day during Humanities class, the students discussed cartography and questions about maps with a table partner to open our unit on mapping and perspective.  These short partner discussions bled into a large group discussion on the purpose of maps and how the students use maps in their daily lives.  The boys shared some great ideas that provided much fodder to jumpstart our unit.  The boys were engaged in the discussions, which allowed them to become interested in the topic of mapping that can sometimes be a mundane or boring topic for students.  The big activity for the period involved the students, working in small groups, in observing four different kinds of maps.  They discussed what they noticed and saw.  How were the maps different from each other?  What did the maps show?  What do the maps mean?  The students discussed the accuracy of the maps as they pointed out interesting observations they were making.  It was very cool to watch the students learn and explore maps.  I closed Humanities class with a final discussion on what was learned from the various maps they observed.  How were they different from one another?  Which map was most accurate and why?  The students all seemed to have different thoughts on these questions, which allowed for some interesting discussion and further questions to be asked.  So much learning took place in the sixth grade classroom today through conversation.  The students shared ideas, listened to their peers, and processed information learned to formulate their own new ideas.  It was awesome.

Imagine what would have happened in class today if conversation and talking was not the vehicle used to promote learning.  Would the students have been as engaged in the topics being learned?  Would they have generated such insightful and unique thoughts and questions?  Would they have had as much fun?  Would as much learning have happened?  While I can’t say with 100% certainty that the answer to my previous questions would be, “No,” I do hypothesize that very little genuine learning and fun would have happened in the classroom today if conversations and discussions did not take place.  Talking and listening are crucial life skills that lead to growth and maturity.  Without talking or sharing ideas, where would our society be right now?  We need to prepare our students for meaningful lives in a global society, which involves teaching them the power of conversation.

How Much Literary Analysis is Too Much?

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

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

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

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

How 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.

Preparing Students for their Future, Now

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Processing Through Preparation

I tend to be much more of a kinesthetic learner.  I need to try something in order to learn it.  I can’t learn a new math skill by watching someone else do one on the board.  I need to actually do the problem myself in order to practice and master that new skill.  That’s just how my brain works.  Luckily, I know that about myself as a learner.  Unfortunately, some students and adults don’t always know or realize how they learn best.  I feel bad for those people as I feel empowered knowing how I learn best.  I know that I need to physically do something to learn a new skill.  As a teacher, I try to help my students realize how they learn best so that they can be and feel empowered as they mature and develop as students and learners.

Today provided me the opportunity to help my students see how important preparation is to learning something new.  Having time to process information or a new skill is crucial to all learning styles.  As many of my students do not seem to understand this concept, I wanted to try and help them realize it on their own.  So, to prepare for today’s current event discussion, I provided the students with the article that served as the basis for our discussion in class today.  For homework last night, they needed to read and annotate the article.  At the start of class today, I allowed the students to ask any clarifying questions they had about the facts of the current event.  I was surprised that there were not more questions.  The students seemed to understand the topic and concepts addressed in the article.  Usually, my students ask many questions about the current events we are discussing, but today they had none.  I wonder if this was because the students had a chance to process the information and annotate it last evening for homework.  Perhaps this extra time allowed them to fully comprehend the messages contained within the news article. I then broke the students up into two groups so that they could discuss this article using the guiding question as the foundation on which to build the conversation.  I was so impressed with the group I observed.  They were adding their insight to the discussion in appropriate ways, using examples from the article, and building upon each other’s contributions to the discussion.  It was awesome.  They were also truly compassionate and kind throughout the conversation.  They made sure everyone had a chance to add their thoughts to the discussion at least twice.  They executed an effective and purposeful plan to be sure that everyone’s voice was heard in a timely manner.  I was overly impressed with how they handled themselves as well as the level of discussion.  They analyzed the details of the article, showcasing their ability to draw conclusions regarding a written text.  They were discussing the guiding question using great critical thinking.  Amazing.  This was by far, the best current events discussion we’ve had all year.

Following the discussion I asked the students for feedback on this new method of preparing for a current events discussion.  Did they like or dislike having the article the day before the discussion?  Did this help them feel or be more prepared for the discussion?  The feedback they shared was overwhelmingly positive.  Every student who shared his insight felt that having the time to prepare for the discussion, understand the content, process the concepts covered, and take notes on the topic was beneficial and helpful to them.  They all felt that having the chance to prepare for the discussion helped them feel and be more successful today in class.  They loved it.

While I don’t like to brag, it does feel good being right.  I knew that my students needed time to prepare for the discussions we’ve been having in class, but they clearly didn’t realize this fact on their own.  Allowing them to see how much more productive and prepared they can be when they have the opportunity to process new information, helped them to see the value in preparation.  Well, at least I hope it did.  Many of the students seemed in much better spirits than normal following today’s discussion.  Perhaps that was because they felt prepared and successful.  While we won’t always structure our current events discussion in this manner because we want the students to drive the discussion based on news topics they find engaging and interesting, we will revisit this method of preparing for a discussion later in the academic year.  We want the boys to see how important preparation is to learning something new.  It is key.  Even though some people and students learn differently and at different paces, everyone needs time to process and think about new information and how it fits into their perspective or mindset.  What does it mean to me?  We must ponder this question when learning something new and having the allotted time to do so makes the learning more genuine and meaningful.  Preparation leads to processing and processing leads to learning.  Therefore, preparation leads to learning.