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.

Should We Explore Mature Themes in the Classroom?

I remember, vividly, as if it were yesterday, when my parents received the letter home from my elementary school explaining how we would be learning about sex and puberty in our fifth grade health class.  I was mortified because then my parents started talking to me about it.  The last person one wants to talk to about sex is their parents.  It’s super awkward.  Then came the actual sex education class.  The boys were separated from the girls and put into different rooms.  The girls apparently talked about girl stuff and the boys learned all about boy stuff.  So, the boys watched this very old and incredibly boring filmstrip; yes, I said filmstrip.  I’m old, well not really.  I’m older than some people on Earth, but as my grandmother liked to remind me, age is just a number; it’s all about attitude.  So, I feel like a 23 year old.  Before I digress too far from my actual point, I should get back on track.  So, we watched this awful filmstrip that showed cartoonish diagrams of male genitalia.  While it was very awkward to watch this and talk about our changing bodies, it was also quite hilarious.  My friends and I couldn’t stop laughing and giggling.  For some reason, boys find talking about male genitalia the funniest thing since the invention of toilets.  Although we talked about a somewhat mature theme in school, it was much more of a laughing matter than something to take seriously.  Not until high school, did my teachers have us explore more mature themes in a serious manner as they knew we would not be able to handle talking about more “adult” issues in the earlier grades.

But, was that right?  I wonder if some mature themes should be discussed in the younger grades so as to expose our students to life in a global society.  Life is filled with both good and bad experiences.  Fortunately, not all people have experienced everything life has to offer and so learning about unfamiliar yet important life occurrences is crucial.  People need to learn more than one story or side of a topic in order to completely understand it in an open-minded manner.  Allowing students to explore mature topics in the middle grades is important if we want our students to have a broad perspective when they enter high school.  Being exposed to topics and ideas regarding all facets of life including the good and bad parts, helps students be open to new information and ideas and not encounter new topics with a fixed mindset filled with biases.

Today in Humanities class, we discussed the country of South Sudan and an issue plaguing that region of the entire continent of Africa: Children being taken or kidnapped and forced into being child soldiers.  I want the students to understand that not all topics we’ll be discussing in our unit on Africa impact only the adults.  Some issues affecting Africa impact people their age or younger.  My hope was to broaden their perspective on the world.  I was also very careful to mention that this is an issue for not just Africa, but all parts of the world.  Children are taken from their families and homes and forced to do things against their will.  While at first, a few of the students struggled to take this discussion and lesson seriously, after reminding them of the fact that this is a mature issue and we need to treat it as such, they were much more focused and mature about it.  After introducing the concept of what it means to be a child soldier and how it is allowed to happen in some parts of South Sudan, we viewed a short news clip about a boy who had been taken from his village and forced to be a soldier.  This video showed, first-hand, what these children have to endure.  It is difficult to watch as it conjures up all sorts of emotions.  Viewers are filled with disgust, anger, sadness, and shock.  Following this video, we debriefed the concept on a more tangible level as the students now had images to put to the facts I had provided them with.  This discussion then lead into a writing activity in which the students needed to imagine that they are a child forced into being a soldier.  What would that experience be and feel like?  While this is a difficult task as it requires students to be empathetic and address serious and real emotions, it is also a great way for the students to apply the skills we’ve been working on all year in Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop.  Although the students definitely had strong emotions about this issue and topic, they seemed to understand the gravity of it as well.  My hope is that it will enable them to more easily learn other issues and topics impacting our world that may not be so easy to comprehend or understand.  A subgoal for this lesson is that learning about this difficult topic will empower my students to want to make a difference to change the world.  Seeing this adversity and indifference, I hope, will inspire them to want to do something about it as they see how awful it is for all people involved.  Helping the boys learn to be empathetic and compassionate at a young age will hopefully allow them to develop into thoughtful and active members of our global community.  We need more changemakers in this world.  Helping my students see the awfulness that exists everywhere, will hopefully motivate them to stand up for their beliefs and make the world a better place for all citizens.

So, while it is challenging to discuss mature themes and issues with students, it’s vital to their social-emotional growth and development.  We want to help our students grow into compassionate and empathetic adults.  Getting students to understand how to discuss and talk about mature and “adult” themes and topics is only better preparing them for the real world.  We can’t shade our students from the brightness of real life forever.  Life is full of both beauty and horror.  Preventing our students from learning the whole story about a topic, issue, or idea will only help them further develop biases and be unprepared for the global society in which they will be living as adults.

Is it Okay to Throw the Lesson Plan Out the Window?

I’m not suggesting, in my title, that I use a real window because my classroom only has one, tiny window that actually opens to the outside and that has a screen on it that can’t be removed.  So, even if I wanted to throw something out a window, I couldn’t.  Heck, I can’t even throw something out a door that leads to the outside in my classroom.  The one door in my classroom that does lead right outside to a beautiful porch overlooking my school’s name sake, Cardigan Mountain, is locked shut as I’m told the deck is too unsafe to walk on.  So really, the best I could do with a lesson plan is recycle it.  No, I don’t mean I can just put it away to reuse next year.  I mean, basketball-throw it into the recycling bin that will be brought to our local recycling plant to be turned into new copy paper or toilet paper.  Is that possible?  Can copy paper be recycled to produce toilet paper?  That’s cool because I do often write stuff that some people might consider excrement.  So that’s fitting.  Anyway, my title wasn’t meant to be taken literally because that would be littering.  I’m merely asking if it’s okay to veer from one’s original plan when teaching.  Can I scrap my first plan and try something new?  Do I have to follow my lesson plan like a script or can I adlib a bit?  Is it okay to try something new and different in the classroom if it seems to work?  As a teacher, can I model a growth mindset while teaching or do I need my students to see how to persevere through insanity?

My original plan for Humanities class today was to introduce our new unit on the American Presidential Election Process.  I had intended to give the students an overview of the unit before digging into the election process in our country.  My goal was to get a discussion going around the American election process.  I want my students to understand how we elect leaders in our country.  Originally, I had intended to close class with a little free writing activity.  I thought it would help to vary my instructional strategies a bit throughout the period.  It seemed like a solid plan.  I was pumped and excited.  Then came reality and a little thing I like to call, flexibility.

Everything seemed to be going according to plan, at first.  We wrapped up our previous unit on the Canaan Community.  I collected their final projects due today before having the students complete a feedback survey for my co-teacher and I.  I always like to ask the students for feedback on how a unit went.  What did you like or dislike and why?  What went well?  What should we change if we repeat this unit next year?  It was a simple questionnaire.  The students completed that before we broke them into small groups to continue reading our class read aloud novel Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman.  The boys were really into the book today.  After I finished one vignette, they wanted me to keep reading even though it was snack time.  They seemed very engaged in the story.  It was awesome.  Then, I introduced our new unit by describing the various stages of it.  The boys seemed pumped and upbeat about it.  I was feeling good.  Then we watched a short video detailing the American presidential election process.  At this point, everything had gone just as I had intended.  It was like I was following a script, a well-written script that is.

Then, following the video, I asked the students some follow-up questions regarding the video.  What are the stages of the presidential election process in our country?  I called on a few students to recap the big ideas discussed from the video.  And that’s when I noticed that my students hadn’t extracted the main ideas from the video in a meaningful and relevant way.  So, I began clarifying the primary election process.  I detailed and explained how the primary election process in our country works using student-friendly language.  Then came the questions.  The students were curious.  But aren’t there other candidates running besides just a democrat and a republican?  Aren’t there other parties?  So, I began fielding their questions.  My answers and explanations only lead to more questions.  It’s not that they were confused.  They simply wanted to know and learn more.  They were processing the information and trying to make sense of it all.  They were thinking critically about the content.  I was very impressed.  I then went through the rest of the election process as I answered more questions.  At that point, I looked at the clock and noticed that there were only 15 minutes of class left.  Man, I thought, I need to move onto the free write.  But, there were still so many more questions.  The students wanted to know about the branches of government, why we need a president, and how the members of the legislative branch are selected.  So, I faced a bit of a crossroads.  No, not that horrible movie with Britney Spears.  I needed to make a decision.  Do I keep on addressing their questions or move on in my script?  I can’t veer from the plan, I thought.  But the students are so engaged in our discussion.  I don’t want to stifle the development of their critical thinking skills.

As I glanced at the clock and then back out onto the sea of smiles and raised hands, I called an audible.  I decided to keep the discussion going.  I answered more questions and provided the class with more information on the American government and political system.  What was supposed to be a short discussion on how we elect a new president ended up transforming into a civics lesson.  It was phenomenal.  The boys were so into the topic and discussion.  In fact, I had to end the discussion as hands were still in the air because class had finished.  They didn’t want it to end.  I’m pretty sure that we could have kept our discussion going for at least another hour.  They were curious, engaged, and excited talking about how America elects new leaders.  I left class feeling energized and relieved.  They were way more focused on the lesson today than I thought they would be.  Civics tends to be a bit boring for students.  I mean, I like it, but I do remember hating it when I was a student.  It seemed so dry and banal.  For some reason though, my students loved it today.

So, I changed things up a bit today in class.  I took the road less travelled by and boy did it feel good.  I love venturing into unchartered territory from time to time.  It feels empowering and exciting.  My adrenalin was pumping.  The boys were thinking critically about today’s topic and wanted to know more.  Wow!  Imagine if I had stayed the course and stopped the discussion so that we could complete the free write activity I had planned.  The students would have been frustrated and upset.  They wanted answers not a writing assignment.  I know how I feel when I have a question that goes unanswered, and I didn’t want my students to have to deal with that feeling in the classroom.  I want my students to feel heard and to be engaged, and my change in the plan definitely allowed both of those goals to be met today.  Sometimes it’s good to go with the flow and let the amoeba that is a class discussion or lesson evolve in real-time and not in a predetermined manner.  My students were thrilled to be discussing a topic that engaged them.  They wanted to know more about the branches of government and the process we use to elect a new president.  There was an electricity in the classroom today and it felt amazing.  Who doesn’t like a good jolt of energy or shock to the system every once in awhile?

The Power of Studying a Culture Through its Artwork

One of my favorite classes in college was an art history elective I took.  It was a general elective course on the history of art through the years.  It was a purely lecture-based course with an essay and written assessment at the end.  I loved it because of the way the professor presented the information.  He didn’t just tell us about each piece, he explained and analyzed the piece and what it told us about the culture and history of the people living in that time period.  One of my favorite knowledge nuggets from that class was regarding the Venus of Willendorf, a clay statue of a robust and large women.  At first glance, the piece seemed primitive to me as a naive college student.  Then as the professor explained how it was, back when it was sculpted, considered to be beautiful and showcased the epitome of beauty for women, I was hooked.  How could that be?  Magazines today show us overly skinny women as being beautiful.  How could a large women be considered the picture of beauty?  It turns out that the larger a woman was, the more childbearing-able she was.  The more offspring a woman could produce for her mate or husband, the better wife and person she was.  Child bearing hips and large proportions were what humans considered beautiful back then.  Boy, things sure have changed.  I found that to be so interesting.  It wasn’t just a strange statue of a large women, it was a beautiful sculpture that revealed a bit about the history of a civilization.  I thought that was so cool.  I loved his class.  He made art come alive.  I learned more about history and the people who lived it in that art history class than I learned in all of my history courses in college and high school.  Art brought history to life for me.

Today, in my Humanities class, I taught a lesson on the art of the Middle East Region.  I began the discussion with a question: What purpose does art serve and what does it tell us about a civilization?  I wanted the students to understand the purpose of today’s lesson and discussion.  I also wanted to help them see art as more than just art, but history.  I then shared various pieces of Islamic art with the students.  We discussed features of art from that region of the world.  I pointed out the intricacies in the various pieces as well as the fact that Islamic art is forbidden to showcase the human form as it goes against religious beliefs.  The students asked great questions and made insightful noticings and observations.  I was very impressed.  They were analyzing the art on a high level.  We weren’t just talking about paintings and rugs, we were examining the history and culture of a region.  Middle Eastern art wasn’t made to be ornate or intricate just because, it served a religious purpose.  The artists from this region made art as a way to celebrate their religion and beliefs.  The artists poured their heart, soul, and time into every piece.  These pieces also served a dual purpose though.  These pieces weren’t just art to be noticed or viewed, they were everyday objects like a beaker or rug.  The art of the Middle East region reveals much about the culture of the people and their rich and diverse history.  I pointed that out through questions and discussions.  The students seemed intrigued and wanted to learn more as we examined each piece.  They were engaged in the conversation.  It was quite an awesome class.

At one point, I was so enthralled in the discussion and questions the students were asking that I forgot that I was teaching a class.  It felt like more than that.  It felt like discourse or a college course.  I was professor Friedman telling my students all about the history of the Middle East region through the artwork the citizens created.  I was bringing art to life for my students today.  It felt great.  I was totally in the zone.  The boys also seemed very engaged.  I felt bad that I had to cut off questions at one point so that we could begin the hands-on activity portion of the lesson.  To me, I was educating my students on the art of the Middle East region; I was providing my students with a lense into the past of a region that is generally negatively portrayed in the media.  I was bringing stories to the pieces of history that couldn’t speak for themselves.  I was helping my students to see that Arabic writing is beautiful and breathtaking and not something to be scared of, as we discussed calligraphy from the region.

To help our students broaden their perspective of the world, we need to introduce them to new things in new ways.  Art isn’t just art, it is history and life.  Every piece of art, no matter where in the world it is from shares a story about the time period in which it was created, it tells us about the people who lived during that time.  It tells us the pain and beauty that existed in the world at the time in which it was made.  Art reveals the story of life in all it’s complexities and beauty.  And today, I got to provide my students with a deep look into a region that can sometimes be misinterpreted or misrepresented.  Today, I helped broaden the perspective of my students through the artwork of a place.

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.