Posted in Curriculum, Education, Learning, New Ideas, Planning, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, Student Support, Students, Summer Reading, Teaching, Trying Something New

Summer Work: What I’ll Do When It’s Hot Outside

While there are times I miss owning a house and having a place to call my own, I don’t miss mowing the lawn, plucking the weeds, and checking to make sure the basement isn’t flooded, again.  The summer months are the worst for homeowners as there is so much to constantly do and redo again and again.  It’s a never ending cycle of sweaty, back-breaking labor.  No, I don’t miss taking care of a house, especially in the summer.  The summer months are for relaxing, spending time with family, and staying cool inside thanks to artificial air from air conditioners.  What a brilliant invention!  If it weren’t for air conditioners, I’d have to spend every summer at the North Pole with Santa and his elves.  Although it would be super cool to help Santa make presents for all the girls and boys around the globe, I’d miss my wife and son too much.  Luckily though, I get to enjoy the best of both worlds with air conditioning and family fun.

As I spend most of the oppressively hot summer days inside, I’m far from bored.  In fact, my summer vacation is the second busiest time of the year for me.  The most hectic time is definitely the regular school year, of course.  In the summer though, I set lofty goals for what I’d like to accomplish.  Last year, I revised my STEM curriculum, learned how to knit, learned how to solve the Rubik’s Cube, and read a few professional development texts.  This year my goals may be a tiny bit higher as I work each year to grow as an educator and individual.

  • Read Two Professional Development Texts
    • As I never finished the book Educating English Learners that I began at the start of this past academic year, part A of my first summer goal is to complete that.  In order to be sure that I best support, challenge, and care for the non-native English speakers that are sure to fill my sixth grade classroom next year, I want to finish reading this text.  I’m hopeful that it will provide me with many valuable and useful strategies that I can apply in the classroom at the start of the year.  This way, I will be better equipped to help the international students in my class be able to effectively learn and grow as English language learners.
    • The professional development summer reading book I chose from the list provided by my school’s administration is Lost at School by Ross Greene.  Although I never read his immensely popular book about how to help difficult or explosive children, I’m excited to dive into this resource for helping students with behavioral issues feel cared for and supported.  I have sometimes found myself fumbling for the best strategy to use to to help students with chronic behavioral issues.  As I know there is clearly some sort of underlying motivation for their poor choices, I struggled, at times, to best help students who seemed to be “too cool for school.”  I’m optimistic that this resource will provide me with much fodder for next year and beyond.  How do I best help students with behavioral issues in the classroom?
  • Read Three Summer Reading Books my Students May Read This Summer
    • As my new co-teacher and I put together a pretty amazing list of possible summer reading books for our new sixth graders, we wanted to be sure that between the two of us, we have read them all.  As there are nine books on the list and we each read one, I’ll be reading three that interest me and my new co-teacher will read four that she’s excited to read and perhaps utilize in STEM class next year.  I’ll be reading Welcome to Camp Nightmare by R.L. Stine, The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce, and The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang.  As I’m a huge fan of young adult literature, I can’t wait to dive into these treasures.
  • Create Mindfulness Curriculum
    • After attending a workshop on the importance of teaching students how to be mindful in this ever distracting world in which we live, I felt compelled to find a way to implement mindfulness into my curriculum.  Since my new co-teacher and I have three extra periods a week with the sixth grade boys in the fall, we now know how we are going to cover this ever important topic with the students.  Once or twice a week, we want to introduce, explain, and have the students utilize mindfulness practices including meditation, breathing exercises, self-awareness, and much more.  As I haven’t had much opportunity to dig into the many resources available online for teaching this important topic, I’m looking forward to having the time this summer to craft a meaningful and appropriate mindfulness curriculum for our new sixth grade students.
  • Revise Humanities Unit on Community
    • Despite truly loving the community unit my co-teacher and I used this past year, I want to take the time to deeply reflect on it.  Does it cover and address the big ideas I want my students to take away from it?  Is it fun and engaging for the students?  Does it take up too much class time or not enough?  Is every part of the unit interconnected?  Are there too many field experiences or not enough?  Should I stick with just the town of Canaan or cover the entire state of NH?  What’s the best way to instruct a unit on community?  I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel by any means and will probably keep most of what I used last year, but I want to take the time to meaningfully look at the unit and what it entails.  Is there a better way to implement a unit on community in the sixth grade?
  • Learn How to Effectively Utilize a Makey Makey Tool
    • Not only is it fun to say, “Makey Makey,” but it’s also a really cool resource to use to get students learning about computer mechanics and circuitry.  As I was recently given a Makey Makey of my own, I feel compelled to not simply learn how to use it, but to learn how to use it effectively so that I can teach students how to use it in our classroom’s Makerspace starting in September.   As the Makey Makey website includes many great tutorials and resources on how to best utilize them in the classroom, I’m excited about playing with this cool new tool this summer.  I wonder what amazing knowledge I will gain from learning how to use the Makey Makey.  I can’t wait to find out.
  • Research Grading Rubrics and Create Several Different Types
    • As I am moving into year one of my school’s Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan (ITIP) beginning in September, I felt it prudent to choose a topic that I could begin focusing on this summer.  While teacher and student reflection is definitely my jam, I already do it and have seen tangible results because of its utilization in and out of the classroom; therefore, I’ve decided on a topic that will force me to look at how I assess and grade student work.  Although I’ve seen the benefits of using the objectives-based grading model in the sixth grade classroom over the past several years that I’ve used it, grading and assessing student work still proves to be a bit subjective at times.  Is this because the objectives I’ve created are too subjective or open to individual interpretation?  Do these challenges stem from having expectations for my students that are too high or too low?  What is causing the issues that I’ve seen regarding the grading and assessment of student work?  To help me figure out what might be at play here, I’ve decided to focus on the grading tool I use to assess student work.  While I’ve never been a fan of prescriptive rubrics as I feel they steal creativity and problem solving from the students, I’ve only been using a bare-bones list of expectations the students need to meet when completing a project or assignment.  Is this enough for the students to be able to effectively demonstrate their ability to meet or exceed the graded objectives?  Should I use rubrics instead so that the students know how to meet and exceed the graded objectives for a particular task or assignment?  Might that help or would it limit what the students could do because rubrics are so explanatory?  Are there different types of rubrics I should use?  What is the most effective way to introduce an assignment and grade and assess student work using the objectives-based grading model?
    • So, this summer, I want to research grading rubrics and their effectiveness in the classroom.  What type of rubric works best?  Do rubrics work?  What data have teachers and schools collected on assessment that might help me address my ITIP topic?  I also want to create a few different types of grading tools and rubrics that I could utilize in the classroom to collect my own data on assessment.

So, that’s it.  That’s my plan for the summer in between chauffeuring my son around to his driver’s education course and football training commitments as well as spending time with my wife and making sure I do as much as I can to help out around the house since I’m quite absent when the academic year begins.  So, bring on the heat as I’ll be keeping cool and busy inside this summer with my epic workload and professional development goals.  Go me!

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Teaching Students to Own their Learning

How many times have we heard students ask us, “Why did you give me a C?”  As if we give out grades like candy.  Do I look like the candyman?  Students earn grades based on their ability to meet the learning objectives covered.  Rather than take ownership of their learning, they blame the teacher for giving them a grade they feel they do not deserve.  If only they accepted responsibility for their actions and choices, they’d be able to see why they earned the grade they did.  Blunt students who ask us about grades are usually the ones who don’t put forth the effort to meet or exceed the standards or objectives assessed.  So, instead of learning from their mistakes and taking the opportunity to redo the task or assignment, they complain and blame.  Teachers don’t give, we guide.  We don’t provide students with answers or grades, we guide them to answers and help them to see how to meet or exceed graded objectives.  Students do the earning.  In a world where many students act entitled and feel as though everything should be handed to them on a platinum platter, as teachers, we need to help our students see the world through a different lense.  We need to teach students self-awareness and ownership.  The more opportunities the students have to see how their actions and choices dictate the outcome, the easier it will be for them once they make it out into the real world and see that one poor choice can cost them a job, relationship, or worse.

While this sounds great and makes complete sense to me as a teacher, how do I do it?  How do I teach students to own their learning?  What can I do to empower the next generation of leaders?  How can I help my students see that what they do impacts what happens to them?  Along with all of the problem based learning projects completed throughout the year, the constant self-reflection we have the students do, and the e-portfolio we have the students maintain, I make sure to put the learning completely on their shoulders.  When they ask me a question about a task or assignment, I usually respond with another question.  “How do I exceed the objective?” a student asked me today.  My response was simple, “That’s a great question, how could you exceed the objective?  What will you need to do to demonstrate mastery of the objective being assessed?”  While my students dislike when I do this, it forces them to do the thinking, problem solving, and learning.  If I gave this student the answer to his question today, I would have stolen a learning opportunity from him.  I would have prevented him from understanding how to solve a problem as well as what it takes to exceed a graded objective.  Approaches like this are one of the ways I have helped to teach my students how to own their learning throughout the year.

Another way is in how I structure the tasks my students need to complete to showcase their learning.  Rather than having them take a final math exam to prove what they have or haven’t learned in the sixth grade this year, I created a final project that puts the onus completely on them.  They have all of the power to determine into which math course they will be placed next year.  After completing a final placement exam, the students self-corrected the test and discovered what gaps still exist in their math knowledge.  What skills proved tricky for them to master?  Upon knowing what skills they still need to work on to be able to be placed into the math course of their choosing, they need to create an action plan for their summer.  What will the students do to fill in the gaps in their learning?  How will they be able to meet the goal they have set for themselves?

In class today, following a mini-lesson on how to create an action plan and what one looks like, the boys generated their own action plan.  The students put much thought and effort into generating a useful plan that they can use to help them prepare for seventh grade math.  The boys were specific in what they will do.  Some of the students are planning to use Khan Academy to review and learn the skills with which they struggle while others are going to have their parents print out worksheets that they will complete.  While each student had a different, individualized plan, they all had one thing in common–much learning should happen this summer.  The students know exactly what they need to do to meet their math goals.  Now, the onus is on them once again.  They need to follow through and do what they have said they will do.  I’m hopeful that many of the students will meet and achieve their goal come September, but I’m also certain that a few students will not do what they have said they will do to meet their goals.  Those are also the same students who are quick to argue about grades.  They aren’t quite ready to take the responsibility needed to showcase their true potential.  Perhaps one day they will discover the power of ownership, but in the meantime, we as their teachers, can keep trying to help them see how important it is to them to own their learning.

Posted in Challenges, Curriculum, Education, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Being Flexible with Time in the Classroom

Downward facing dog, no thank you.  Yoga is not for me.  The repetition drives me nuts.  While I wish I was a bit more flexible, physically speaking, I do try and stretch at least once every day.  I find stretching to be therapeutic, unlike yoga.  I rarely have muscle and joint problems because of this stretching and resultant slight flexibility.   Sure, I could work on my flexibility a bit more on a daily basis, but I do feel as though completing my back arches and sunken bridges for ten seconds every morning, Monday through Friday, have made a huge difference.  I can now bend over and touch my toes without bending my knees all the way forward.  Progress, thanks in part to my flexibility and amazing stretching routine.

As a teacher, being flexible in other ways is a crucial skill to possess.  Things don’t always go as planned and students don’t always do what we’d like them to no matter how many reminders with which they are provided.  Life happens and teachers need to be able to go with the flow.  Although I am a creature of habit, I’ve tried in recent years, to be much more willing to just be and accept life and all its craziness for what it is, life.  So, rather than get all bent out of shape, mentally speaking that is as my physical body never falls out of shape due to my rigorous daily stretching routine, when a student doesn’t hand in his homework, I try to find out the root cause of the issue and support the student appropriately while also holding him accountable for the learning.  It’s made a world of a difference in the classroom because I’m making it all about us rather than a students vs the teacher situation.  We’re all in this together and so we need to take care of one another, is the message I am trying to convey to my students by being more flexible with due dates, time, and options.

Today marked the final Reader’s Workshop session in my Humanities class for the academic year.  My goal was to conference, one last time, with each student to review his reading goals and go over his current Humanities class grade.  As next Thursday is the last day of school for my students, I wanted to be able to help them wrap up their reading progress and let them know what they will need to focus on next year, as readers, in the seventh grade.  I figured I would have enough time in the 80-minute block to meet with each student, but I was sorely mistaken.  Some of the conversations went on a bit longer as I wanted to be sure that the students understood the strategies they will need to employ next year to be successful readers.  I also wanted to provide the students ample time to ask any questions they had regarding their grade for the course with only one week remaining before grades close.  Because of this, I ended up cutting into my STEM class by about 10 minutes.

Now, while some teachers might have had a conniption fit regarding this loss of class time, we are all about flexibility in the sixth grade.  From day one, we told the students that the time limits and constraints stated on their class schedules were merely suggestions.  Because my co-teacher and I are with the students for almost every class period on a daily basis, we are able to use more or less time for classes and lessons depending on what is being covered.  The class start and end times are approximations of what we try to shoot for, but we also realize that life happens in the classroom and we want to make sure we allow time for that as well.  The boys have gotten very comfortable with this approach to class times and know that class is over when we transition into the next one.  So, when the official class time had been breached today during Humanities class, no one said a thing.  The students kept right on reading while I finished up conferencing with every student.  It was amazing.  Once I had completed conferencing with every student, I talked to the boys about what had happened.  I praised them for their flexibility and willingness to just go with the flow.  I mentioned how important these conferences were and that I wanted to be able to meet with every student before transitioning into STEM class.  I didn’t look at the time until I had met with every student, I said to them.  One of the students commented, “I didn’t even realize what time it was.  I was having so much fun reading.”  Statements like that one embody the wonderfully caring, compassionate, and engaged class I am so lucky to be working with this year.  They get it.  They understand why we approach things the way we do in the sixth grade.  They all seem to realize that everything we do in the sixth grade is to best support and challenge the students so that they can grow into the best possible version of themselves.

Time shouldn’t be fixed.  It should be flexible to allow for creativity, questioning, deep dives into the material, and anything else that happens to come up.  As time is a human creation, it’s not the end-all-be-all of life.  Effective and great teachers realize that and are flexible with their schedule.  Wouldn’t it be great if all teachers were to take this approach and be open to having less time for a class, lesson, or period one day and then more the next?  Imagine how many more cool things could be accomplished if this were the case.  Imagine how many more insightful questions and discussions would be had in the classroom.  Imagine how many more projects could be completed if all teachers were open to being flexible with time.  Wow, anything could be possible if time was merely a guide and not a wall created to keep life in neat and organized boxes.

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Breadth vs Depth: How Much is Too Much?

School for me was like being in a shoe factory where only one type of shoe was made.  Every day was the same: Listen to the teacher talk and take notes or complete a worksheet.  That was basically the formula, day after mundane day.  Learning was the same for every student as we were supposed to all be the same at the end of our experience just as all pairs of shoes need to look the same when coming off of the assembly line.  My teachers just scratched the surface of every topic covered.  While I was sometimes interested in a particular topic covered, we never got to go deep into any one area.  We learned just enough to be able to answer questions on a test or write an essay.  This always frustrated me as a student.  Just as I was becoming engaged in school, the topic changed, causing my interest level to decrease significantly.  Whis was that?  Why did my teachers feel the need to cover so much, but only so deeply?  Why could we not spend a month or more on a topic or unit of study?  Why did we have to rush through the curriculum at such a breakneck speed?  Genuine learning can’t possibly happen when the material and content is taught and assessed over such a short time period.  Brain science tells us that it takes more time than a few days to move information from the working memory to the short term memory and then into the long term memory; therefore, it was not possible for me to learn anything in a meaningful manner when I was in school.  So then, back to my previous question, why did my teachers do it that way?

As a teacher, I feel that covering so much content and curriculum at such a fast pace is ineffective.  In order for relevant learning to happen, the students need to be provided time to play with the new skills and content learned before they can be assessed on it.  They need to have opportunities to engage in the material, question the information learned, and process it so that they can make connections between the information learned and their prior knowledge.  This approach takes time.  As a teacher, I’m all about depth.  I want my students to jump into the material being covered and swim around for a while rather than simply dipping their toes in, which was my experience as a student.  While I believe, based on my past experience as well as my knowledge and training as an educator, that depth is more important than breadth when it comes to curriculum and content, I do sometimes wonder if my approach is the most effective one.  What if there’s something I’m missing?

In my Humanities class, the students have spent the last month working on a research project regarding a self-chosen topic.  The boys are in the midst of finishing their class presentations.  They are being so methodical with how they present all that they’ve learned about their topic.  They are crafting amazing documentary videos, learning how to use new digital tools, and really trying to think about how they will share their knowledge with their peers so that they will be engaged.  It’s impressive.  None of the students are rushing to finish their work and meet the objectives.  They are enjoying the opportunity to deeply and meaningfully learn about a topic of interest.

Imagine if I had condensed this project into a week or two so that I could cover more material and content.  Would the students be as engaged in their projects and presentations?  Would they have the chance to really get excited about learning if they had to worry about completing their work on time?  Would meaningful learning be happening if the students weren’t provided the ample time needed to delve into their research topics?  I think not.  I think the students would dislike the project if they didn’t have the time to dig deeply, question, process, learn, and play with the material.  For me, helping my students find the joy in learning is all about time.  I want them to have the time necessary to fall in love with the material and learning involved.  It’s all about depth and not breadth.  At the end of the day, knowing how to be a thinker, learner, writer, reader, student, problem solver, and person is so much more important than knowing a lot of useless facts about various topics.

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, Reader's Workshop, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

How to Choose the Best Read-Aloud Novel

When I was in sixth grade, I had an amazing language arts teacher who utilized the workshop model of literacy.  Twice a week, she would read aloud to us from our current read-aloud novel as a way to teach reading strategies.  That’s how I fell in love with Roald Dahl.  After she read us Matilda, I was smitten with Dahl’s prose and word play.  While I don’t recall the other books she read aloud to us, I remember them being great choices.  My year in sixth grade helped direct me towards reading and writing.  My dual major in college was creative writing because of the fire that Mrs. Lacombe lit within my soul in the sixth grade.

Now, although she made it look easy because she had carefully chosen the read-aloud novels ahead of time, there is a fine art to choosing the right book to read aloud to a class.  My teachers from other grades read aloud to the class just like Mrs. Lacombe did, but you see, because they didn’t carefully choose the novels they read aloud, I found myself usually quite disengaged and bored while they read.  This was typically the time I got into a lot of trouble as well because I was so disinterested in the story being read aloud.  Had those other teachers taken the time and put in the effort to carefully choose engaging and fun read-aloud novels, I might have started to enjoy reading at an earlier age.  I also might not have gotten in quite so much trouble either.  Regardless, the moral of the story is that you can’t just pick any old book to read aloud to a class; you have to choose one that is interesting, fun, well written, and engaging.

As I want my students to enjoy reading and see it is an adventurous experience, I make sure to take the time to carefully select just the right read-aloud novels to drive our Reader’s Workshop mini-lessons.  I spend hours online researching engaging books that will also tie our curriculum together.  I then read each book first to be sure I enjoy it because if I’m not into it, then it’s going to be super hard for me to sell it to the students.  Once I choose a read-aloud book, I try it out on a class.  I then seek feedback from the students.  While I usually don’t have to change the books we read aloud to the students unless we are altering our curriculum, I did drop one book a few years ago because the students did not like it.  It’s important that the students enjoy the book being read aloud to them.  Throughout this process of selecting books and trying them out in the classroom, I’m always looking for new books as well.

As today was host to a Reader’s Workshop block in Humanities class, we began the period with our class read-aloud.  Now, about four years ago, I was looking to try a new read-aloud book with the students as Sacagawea by Joseph Bruchac just wasn’t doing it for them anymore no matter how much I liked it and tried to sell it to them.  The boys hated the book.  So, I went on a quest to find a new read-aloud novel.  After much searching and research, I decided to try three and then choose my favorite.  While two of them were fine books and may have actually made good read-aloud options, the third selection, was by far the best choice.  Not only was it one of the best books I had read in a while, the prose was beautiful and heartbreaking all at once.  The story was inspired by true events and took an alternative approach to storytelling.  Instead of going with the typical third person approach or even the first person human method of telling a story, Katherine Applegate decided to tell her story from the perspective of a gorilla.  After reading The One and Only Ivan, I knew that I had found a special book that would remain in my read-aloud library for years to come.  Year in and year out, the students cite that book as being their favorite of our read-aloud texts.  They enjoy the story and the way in which it is told.  Ivan’s character is relatable and it’s easy to empathize with him and the other animals in the mall.  As we are almost 200 pages into the book this year, the students are loving it.  As I close the book to signify that we are transitioning into silent reading and conferences every Monday morning, shouts of “NOOOO!” can be heard for meters and meters.  My students love this book.  They enjoy learning about Ivan and his story.  They laugh at his jokes and the cute way the author tries to get inside the mind of a gorilla.  They just can’t get enough.  They hang on my every word.  One student even tried to find a copy of the book in the library about a week ago so that he could finish it on his own.  Unfortunately or fortunately depending on your perspective of the situation, the library at my school does not have that particular title in stock.

So, not only are my students loving this book and its story, they are finding enjoyment in reading.  Those students who began the year as reluctant readers are now voracious reading machines.  They love reading and finding new books.  They look forward to Mondays and Reader’s Workshop as much as I look forward to going to concerts.  They love listening to our class read-aloud novel and then curling up with a good book and getting lost, for a few brief moments, in another world.  Helping our students find their love of reading starts with our approach to teaching it.  We need to offer students choice in the books they read, but we also need to choose interesting books to read-aloud to them as these are the vehicles by which we teach the critical reading strategies they will need to grow into mature and careful readers and thinkers.  Choosing the right read-aloud novel requires much time and energy, but pays dividends at the end of the day when the right ones are read aloud to our students.

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Learning, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

Helping Students Think Like Scientists

In the current state of our country, it’s amazing to see scientists and citizen scientists coming out in droves to support science and its many fields.  Without scientists observing the natural world and collecting data about it, we would never have realized how much damage we as humans are doing to the globe because we burn and consume so much carbon.  We might not understand how DNA works if scientists hadn’t studied living organisms.  Science is what helps us understand the complex world on a higher level.  We can’t expect to move forward with technology, life, and everything else without science.  As our country’s government ignores science facts and knowledge, it’s important for us as teachers to remember that we have a critical role to play.  We need to educate our students to think like scientists, to question everything, and to understand how vital their role is in making the world a better place for all living things.

One of the many benefits of the farm program we utilize in the sixth grade, is scientific thinking.  The students learn how to observe the natural world and understand it on a higher level because they’re always asking why.  Why is that goat black and the other goat white?  Why do daylilies grow in clumps?  Why do some chickens have puffier tails?  The students have learned to question everything and figure out why it is that way?  This natural curiosity that they are practicing and learning this year on the farm bleeds over into the classroom as well.  The students are asking why do some Muslim women wear headscarves while others don’t?  Why do more men than women attend college in some parts of the world?  What would have happened had Italy’s dictator not been executed during WWII?  The boys are learning to question everything in order to fully piece together a mental puzzle of the world and how it works.

Yesterday for Farm Fun Friday, we headed back to the farm we visited in the fall since it has warmed up enough and all of the snow has finally melted.  The focus for yesterday’s visit was on observations.  Observe the animals, living things, and other components of the farm.  What do they tell us?  What do we know about the sheep and goats because they sat the entire time we were watching them?  Do their feet hurt?  Do they need to have their nails clipped?  What did we notice about the chickens?  Are some developing differently than others, and if so, what does that mean?  The boys made observations in their farm journals as they watched the farm awaken from the dead of winter and blossom into the beautiful spring.  The students were asking many great questions about what they observed.  Why did it seem that one or two daylilies in each bunch seemed to be taller than the rest?  Why are some of the chickens developing tails? Why did my bunny not seem to grow much from our last visit?  What does all of this tell us about the farm and the way the natural world works?

This curiosity the students have gained as a product of our farm program, has helped them to begin developing the critical thinking skills they will need to live meaningful lives in a global society.  Now that they know how to make relevant observations and question things, my hope is that they will be able to go out into the world better equipped to deal with problems encountered.  They won’t just accept adversity when they see it or have it happen to them as they know to question everything.  They will fight for what is right and stand up for things that matter to them.  They won’t allow people in positions of power to take away the freedom of others or say no to science.  Thinking like a scientist has helped my students grow and develop in many ways for their present courses as well as everything the future has in store for them.

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Group Projects, Learning, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

What’s More Important, Skills or Content?

Thinking back on my school experience as a student, I recall very little about the content covered.  I could probably only tell you a few specific facts about each class I took in high school.  I know America fought in several wars, but I couldn’t tell you the specific dates.  Does that mean I didn’t learn anything in school?  Were my teachers ineffective?  No, because they taught me vital skills needed to succeed in life.  I know how to find answers to questions; I know what to do when I am struggling; and I know how to extract the main idea from a text.  I learned crucial skills that have helped me be successful in life.  I know how to study for exams and solve problems.  As a student, knowing how to do school and be a student is so much more important than learning the specific details of a historical time period or the symbolism of a character in a novel.

As a teacher, I make sure to focus on helping my students acquire key skills they will need to live meaningful lives in a global society.  After having a conversation with a colleague this morning regarding content versus skills, I realized how easy it is for teachers to get caught up in teaching content to their students.  “My students must memorize dates and names for battles and historical events,” some teachers might say.  This belief is much like fake news; if you believe it to be true, you begin to spread ignorance and falsities.  In the technological world in which we live where answers and information can be found by clicking a button, content knowledge is no longer what should be driving our curriculum.  Students don’t need to memorize the elements of the periodic table or mathematical formulas as they can quickly look them up online.  Instead, students need to know how to navigate the Internet, how to complete an effective online search, how to take notes and extract the main idea from a text, how to draw conclusions and make inferences from novels, and how to think critically to solve problems.  Of course, those are only some of the ever important skills our students need to acquire.  We need to teach our students how to be lifelong learners, thinkers, problem solvers, and doers.  Knowing a bunch of information will get you nowhere in life if you don’t know how to analyze literature or tackle a difficult math problem.  Teaching is about imparting vital life skills to our students by using the content information as a vehicle.  While my students think they are learning all about the Middle East region, they are really learning how to think critically about the world around them in order to broaden their perspective and be open to multiple stories and ideas.

Today in STEM class, my students worked on the final project for our unit on climate change.  The students generated unique solutions to the issue of climate change.  How can we reduce carbon emissions?  The boys, working in pairs, brainstormed creative products and ideas for addressing the issue of climate change and are now in the process of building a working prototype of their idea.  One group spent the period cutting and screwing together pieces of wood to build a box that will trap and store heat energy so that it can be recycled and reused by factories, while another group used various parts of a wind turbine kit to construct a working wind turbine that they will innovate for their solution.  Other groups spent the period working with Little Bits to create a solar battery that could be attached to glasses and planting wheat grass in an our aquaponics system that they will use as part of their solution.  The boys were applying numerous skills we’ve introduced and had them practice throughout the year in sixth grade including problem solving, critical thinking, perseverance, asking questions, appropriately using tools, and collaboration.  The students were focused for the entire work period, which lasted about 45 minutes.  It was awesome.

Where’s the content, you ask.  Well, the big ideas came earlier in the unit when the students learned about climate change, its causes, and its affect on Earth.  However, each group is learning tons of specific facts and knowledge nuggets regarding their solution.  One group has had to research all about how wind turbines work and how to construct their own while other groups are learning how electricity works so that they can wire their invention to store solar power, how to create a scaled-drawing, how to manipulate clay and cook it, and how to plant wheat grass.  This content is important to them because they need to learn it in order to create their invention.  I’m not telling my students they need to learn all about wiring and electricity or how to power a wind turbine, they want to learn that information so that they can create a working prototype of their solution.  The engagement with the content they are learning through completing this project is much higher than if I lectured at them and had them take notes.  They don’t always see the relevance in class discussions or knowledge I pass along to them during mini-lessons, but when they want to make a pair of solar powered glasses, they go out of their way to learn how that whole process works.  The learning becomes genuine and real.  So, there was plenty of content being learned in my classroom today, but that was only a by-product of the project.  This project, like every STEM project completed in the sixth grade, is all about the skills.  The students are learning how to work with their peers, solve problems, think creatively and critically about the world around them, and persevere through failure.  This is what classrooms around the world should look like.  They should be student-centered, where the focus is on learning and applying skills they will need to be successful in their lives outside of school.  Information and content can be fun, but if students don’t know what to do with it, that content becomes a roadblock to success and forward progress.

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

Is Collaboration an Effective Strategy for Teaching Math?

Sometimes I wish life came with an instruction manual.  Sure, it could be digital, but it would need to be prescriptive and descriptive, with diagrams.  In fact, it would probably be best in digital form as it would need to be millions of pages long.  I wonder what that might read like…

  1. Breathe.
  2. Cry.
  3. Drink mother’s milk.
  4. Poop.
  5. Pee.
  6. Sleep.
  7. Cry when you want to wake up.

There would truly be an infinite number of steps.  But wouldn’t it be nice to know how to deal with all that life throws your way?  I would really like validation regarding some of the things I’ve done in the classroom or at home as a husband and father.  Am I really doing the right thing?  Should I have done something differently?  Knowing, for certain, what I am supposed to do ahead of time in various situations would definitely help me feel more prepared.  This way I would also know if what I’m doing is the best option.  While I do like the freedom to choose and the excitement that comes from the unknown at times, I often question myself later on.  Did I handle that situation appropriately?  Could I have better addressed that issue?  Knowing what to do and being prepared at all times removes questioning from the equation altogether.  Imagine if you never needed to wonder how to deal with that student or address that issue with your child.  Wouldn’t that be great?

Since life doesn’t, sadly enough, come with instructions, I find myself often wondering if what I’m doing in the classroom is effective.  Is one teaching strategy better than another?  Today in my STEM class, the students worked on their assigned math course.  My co-teacher conducted a mini-lesson for the students in the supportive group while I lead a mini-lesson for the students in the accelerated group.  After the mini-lesson, which lasted about 15 minutes, the students got right to work on their assigned homework.  The students in each of the two groups, huddled together to complete the homework.  I was a bit worried that they would simply copy off of each other, and so I monitored these groups closely.  As we have fostered a strong sense of collaboration and compassion in the sixth grade classroom, the students are great at supporting one another in appropriate ways.  The groups of students seemed to be effectively working together to accomplish the task.  They talked through each problem, mapped it out on the whiteboard tables, and answered each other’s questions.  When one student was confused, another student helped by explaining the process or problem to the student in a meaningful manner.  Each student in both groups seemed to really understand the skill covered in today’s mini-lesson.  It was quite amazing to see this form of effective collaboration in action.  Because the content covered for the accelerated group was a bit challenging as it dealt with word problems, I was worried that two of the students in that group would really struggle to complete the homework as they tend to take much time to process new concepts.  Instead, these students helped their group persevere through the challenging homework problems.  One student who I thought was about to get frustrated and walk away from his group, was in fact, having an a-ha moment and able to help his group solve the particular problem they were working on.  I was so impressed with my students and how they worked together in STEM class today.

I find that collaboration is a challenging skill to teach young students.  For me as a student, collaboration meant that the students next to you would copy from your paper and there was certainly no talking to each other.  Usually one person did all of the the work.  In our current global society, collaboration has taken on a new meaning.  It’s not about doing the work, it’s about talking, discussing, problem solving, and the group think mentality.  This can be difficult for students to understand, especially those from different cultures and academic backgrounds.  For some of our international students, copying is the appropriate way to accomplish certain tasks.  Helping students to learn a new way of collaborating is definitely tough, but very important.  Students need to understand how to support one another and help each other understand concepts and how to solve problems without one person doing all of the work.  As a teacher, I often wrestle with teaching collaboration and group work.  Should I allow the students to work together?  Are they really working together or is one person doing all of the work?  Is effective collaboration really happening?  As teachers, we need to observe and monitor our students.  Conferencing with them one-on-one to assess their understanding of concepts and skills also helps.  If we are teaching them the strategies needed to successfully understand how to work together and collaborate, and we monitor their progress throughout the year, then we will know whether or not they are truly and effectively collaborating and if it work for them.

Posted in Challenges, Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

What’s the Best Method for Helping Students Learn About Music?

In the summer before my fifth grade year of school, a big decision stared me straight in the face?  What instrument should I play in school?  Saxophone?  Clarinet?  Drums?  Students had the option to play an instrument in the fifth grade at my school.  While we didn’t have to do anything, many of my friends were talking about which instrument they were going to choose, and so I felt like I needed to fit in.  I didn’t really want to play an instrument, but I succumbed to peer pressure anyway.  So, I chose the clarinet.  Lets just say that it’s not the sexiest of instruments to play, but I went with it anyway.  After about three weeks, I gave up and stopped playing because the lessons were during recess.  What fifth grade boy wants to miss recess to learn how to play a musical instrument?  Not me.  The lessons were all about repetition and rote memorization.  Everybody had to do the same thing at the same time.  This method of learning about music didn’t work for me.  I do however, to this very day, still wish I hadn’t given up on the clarinet.  I wish I had persevered and stuck with it.  Listening to and enjoying music is a big part of my life, and I wish I knew how to read music or play a musical instrument.  Perhaps, if I had been taught the true value of learning to play an instrument or had a more engaging instructor, I might be playing in the philharmonic orchestra somewhere in the world right now instead of posting a reflection on my awesome day of teaching.  I’m glad I’m where I am doing what I love though.

Teaching is all about engaging students in the content.  While I’m not a music teacher, I do feel obligated to impart some musical knowledge and wisdom to my students.  I want them to understand the power of music.  Music, like a photograph, speaks volumes without saying anything at all.  We can learn so much about people, culture, and history from studying music.  As a teacher, I want to be sure my students understand the great power that music holds.

Today in Humanities class, I lead a foray into the music of the Middle East Region.  We’ve been learning all about the region, forms of government, types of religion, and roles of women in this region of the world.  For our final mini-lesson on this region, I wanted to help the students piece everything we’ve been giving them together, and what better way to do that than through music.  First, I introduced some of the basic instruments used by musicians in the Middle East.  We listened to the sound that each made.  Then I shared three different pieces of music from that region with the students.  The first piece was a traditional piece of Arabic folk music that made use of many of the instruments we discussed in the opening of the lesson.  I then had the boys listen to a modern piece of Arabic pop music.  The final song was a piece of traditional Jewish music from the region.  Following each piece, we discussed what they noticed, similarities and differences.  We didn’t dig into the complexities of music composition or anything deep like that.  Instead, I wanted the students to share their thoughts and feelings on the pieces.  How did the music make you feel?  What can we learn about the culture of the Middle East Region from listening to these pieces of music?  The students provided great fodder for our discussion.  They noticed things that I hadn’t even thought about.  They heard so much more in the pieces than just the music.  It was amazing.  The boys shared the emotions that were conjured up by the pieces.  “This pieces sounds energetic and happy.  It doesn’t sound like it would come from the Middle East region based on what we’ve learned about this part of the world.”  We had a great discussion on a region of the world and its music.  We talked about history, music, religion, and culture all by simply listening to music.  The students were so engaged that I ended up not being able to call on every student who wanted to participate due to lack of time in the period.  We could have spent the rest of the morning talking about music and what it teaches us as they were that into it.

Unlike my horrible experience with music instruction in school, I’m trying to provide my students with opportunities to see music as something more than instruments and reading music.  Sure, some students in my class do play an instrument and take lessons outside of the academic day.  That’s amazing.  I’m so impressed that they have the wherewithal to do that, as I didn’t when I was their age.  I want my students to see the power that music holds as well.  Music is not just about sounds and words, it’s about emotions, feelings, history, culture, dance, and so much more.  Music is an experience, and I feel as though I was able to convey this idea to my students today through our short mini-lesson on the music of the Middle East Region.  They seemed curious and engaged.  Perhaps they will learn more about music outside of class on their own as their appetite for more was awakened in the classroom today.  Maybe, or maybe not.  Perhaps most of my students walked away from class today feeling like they got just enough musical knowledge and will not dig any deeper.  That’s okay too, as long as my students don’t see music as something unfun.  I want them to see that music is about life and can be fun and engaging.  Luckily, I feel like I did that today for most of my students.

Was my method of music instruction the best way to teach students about music?  Maybe not.  Was the way my band teacher tried to teach me the most effective method of music instruction?  Clearly not for me.  What about other methods?  What about other vehicles?  What other engaging ways could we teach music to our students?  Digital music making?  Music history?  Music analysis?  Is one way of teaching students to see the value in music better than others?  Does every method work for every student?  Of course not.  As teachers, we need to try new things and take risks like we want our students to do.  We need to learn, try things, fail, and try something different.  Like teaching any subject or content area, there isn’t just one way to teach, but there is always one outcome that we should be shooting for– engagement.  In order for students to learn, they need to be interested and engaged in the content.  So, whatever we choose to teach, music or any other subject for that matter, we need to remember to make it exciting, relevant, and interesting for our students.

Posted in Challenges, Curriculum, Education, Learning, Risk Taking, STEM, Teaching, Trying Something New

Why Do We Need to Teach Our Students to Be Creative Problem Solvers?

Problem solving was not a skill taught when I was a student in school many eons ago.  School back then was all about rote memorization, following directions, and doing exactly what the teacher told you to do.  There was no wiggle room when I was in school.  If the teacher said you needed to use complete sentences to answer the questions, you failed the assignment if you did not use complete sentences, even if you answered the question correctly and used support to back your claim.  Creativity and problem solving were not skills we were ever introduced to or had a chance to practice. In fact, when we did get creative or showcase our ability to problem solve as students, we were penalized. “That’s not what I told you to do.  You need to write an essay explaining why America got involved in WWII, not create a poster.  You are so very wrong.  Now you must redo this assignment by tomorrow morning or you will fail the course.”  It was all or nothing back then.  School for me seemed to be more about falling into line and being a drone than it did learning anything useful.

As a teacher, I’m trying to break free from the constraints of what our society once thought school should be.  School is a place to learn, engage and interact with the content and skills, practice failing and solving problems, and be creative and take risks.  Great, effective classrooms encourage creativity and foster a student-centered approach to education.  The students are provided options and choice to showcase their learning and growth as students.  There is no one way to complete a task or meet an objective.  School is a fun-filled adventure where anything is possible and dreams come true.

If we want our students to be able to live meaningful lives in a global society that is rich in pollution, crime, unpredictable weather due to climate change, and many other problems, then we need to equip our students with the necessary tools.  People no longer have a use for memorizing information as we can access it with the touch of a button.  People need to know how to find creative solutions to problems and think critically about the world around them.  We are living in an ever-changing world and we need to prepare our students accordingly.

In STEM class today, my students began working on the final project for our unit on climate change.  Understanding what climate change is, how it came to be a serious issue, and how it is impacting our planet, it is not enough for my students.  I want them to see beyond the information and content.  I want them to apply this knowledge to creating a solution that addresses the issue of climate change.  What can humans do to make a difference and help slow down or reduce our human impact on Earth?  So, the students, working in pairs, brainstormed possible ideas and solutions to the global problem of climate change.  The students used their critical thinking skills to the max today as they sketched ideas, researched information, and created some creative and unique solutions.  I was so impressed.

Some of the ideas my students brainstormed today included:

  • Attach tiny solar panels to the side pieces of eyeglasses that will collect the sun’s energy and store it in a small USB battery device that would be attached to the end of the ear piece.  This battery could then be used to charge electronic devices.  This solution would help reduce the amount of electricity needed to power gadgets, thus reducing the amount of carbon being released into our atmosphere.
  • Create a small-scale greenhouse within a large tube that would be attached to the top of smokestacks of factories.  The pollution being released from the factories would be filtered through various carbon-absorbing plants.  The air and gas would then be released into the atmosphere, containing a lot less carbon and other harmful greenhouse gasses.
  • Build a robot that would float around in the world’s oceans, sensing salt levels.  When the salinization level becomes too low, the robot would release salt into the water to help maintain a healthy balance of salt within the sea water.  This invention would hopefully help to keep sea life healthy and safe.

Wow!  My students are brilliant.  These ideas were certainly not the first creations they devised today in class.  The students would come to me with their ideas and I would ask questions, probing them to think about the feasibility of their idea.  Most of the initial ideas the students brought to me today were not the ones they are using to complete this project.  By challenging the students to think critically and complete more research, they were able to devise new and exciting ideas and solutions.  Perseverance was alive in the sixth grade classroom this morning.  The students worked with their partner to find a way to make the world a safer and better place for all living organisms.  Not only were the students engaged in this activity and having fun, they were creating real solutions that could one day be in use around the globe to help reduce our human impact on climate change.

In almost every STEM project or activity my students complete, I empower them to solve problems and think creatively.  I don’t need them to regurgitate information learned onto a worksheet or poster, I need them to synthesize what they are learning to answer questions and solve problems.  As the students of today will become the leaders of tomorrow, I need them to know how to encounter problems, solve them, fail, try again, and persevere.  Our world isn’t about knowing information any longer.  Although knowledge is power, if people don’t know how to think critically to solve problems, then our world is sure to fall apart within the next century.