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

Helping Students Understand Why Teachers Do What they Do at Times in the Classroom

When I was in elementary school, I just assumed that all of my teachers lived right at the school.  They were always there before I arrived and stayed long after I had left.  Therefore, they must live at school, I once thought.  While I never saw a bed in the classroom, I figured they just lived in the teachers’ room.  I used to imagine the craziness that would ensue when all of the teachers had a slumber party in the faculty lounge: The kindergarten teachers would start a pillow fight and then get yelled at by the principal while the third grade teachers would read each other bedtime stories.  Ahh, the good ol’ days before my innocence was lost.  When I learned the truth about my teachers, I was shocked.  How can they possibly have their own lives?  They are my teachers!  I felt like someone had stolen a piece of my childhood and hidden it away, never to be found again.

While my sixth graders do know that I don’t live in the classroom, there are certainly plenty of things they don’t know about me, or should I say, don’t think they know about me.  Sometimes, students will hypothesize the motivation behind my actions, and assume they know what is happening.  Unfortunately, these judgement calls are almost always inaccurate as the sixth grade brain is not fully developed and their frontal lobes are far from ready to think critically about why people do the things they do.  While usually, the results of these judgement calls on the part of the students remain unnoticed by me since the students don’t discuss these thoughts and feelings with me, occasionally though, a student will have the courage to share his thoughts with me on something that happened in the classroom.  When this happens, the truth can be revealed to the student, and what began as a misguided attempt to analyze a situation that festered into anger, anxiety, or fear, can be transformed into a teachable moment.

Today during the Reader’s Workshop block in my Humanities class, I worked the students through a mini-lesson on the reading strategy of Back-Up and Reread using our read-aloud text Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman.  As I knew that the ELLs in my class had spent the period prior previewing the chapter of the novel I was reading aloud to them, I made sure to call on them to check for understanding.  These three students struggled on a recent assessment regarding the novel and their comprehension of the story, and I wanted to make sure that they had a strong grasp of what was happening within today’s vignette.  Although I did also call on the other students in the class to answer questions or add their thoughts to the discussion, I did rely heavily on those three ESL learners to carry the conversation so that I could be sure they were comprehending the story at an appropriate level.  While two of those students seemed to have a much firmer grasp on the plot and characters of the story today compared to last week, one student still seemed lost.  His English proficiency is super low while his attention issues make it more challenging for him focus on this new language he is trying to learn.  Knowing this, I made sure to meet with him after class to check in on his comprehension and understanding of what was read in class today.  This helped because he revealed that the person sitting next to him kept purposefully bumping his feet into this student’s chair, making it difficult for him to focus on the story I was reading aloud.  After providing him some strategies on how to address this situation if it pops up again, I felt as though my focus on these ELLs helped me ensure that they are extracting learning from these mini-lessons during our Reader’s Workshop block.

After class, a student came to me, concerned about why I had mostly called upon the ESL students in the class.  He thought it was because I didn’t like him or was ignoring him.  He was upset because he felt as though his inability to participate in the discussion was going to prevent him from earning a good grade in the class.  I then explained to him why I did what I did today in class.  “As some students in our class struggle at times to comprehend English, I want to be sure they fully understand the story the same way you do.  I know, based on the results of last week’s check-in assessment, that you completely understand the story that I am reading aloud to the class.  Therefore, I didn’t call on you every time you had your hand raised to answer a question because I needed to spend more time helping to bring the other students up to speed on the story.  Does this make sense and do you understand why I didn’t call on you every time you raised your hand today?”  This explanation seemed to make sense to the student as he responded, “Oh yes, that makes sense.  Okay, I get it now.”  But, because he was trying to utilize his frontal lobe to analyze the situation and explain my motivation without talking to me first, he wouldn’t have known the truth of the matter unless he had come to speak with me like he did, which I’m so glad that he had.  He left class feeling supported and cared for because he had the courage to share his thoughts and feelings with me.

While it’s not ideal that students try to answer these types of difficult questions for themselves without talking to us, the teachers, first, it’s human nature to try and understand and make sense of the world around us.  This student was trying to figure out why I wasn’t calling on him every time he raised his hand, despite having explained, at the start of the mini-lesson, why I was going to be calling on the ESL students more during today’s read-aloud.  He was trying to solve his own problem, until it became too big for him to deal with.  That’s when he approached me to talk about it.  Helping our students feel safe and cared for so that when issues like this arise they will feel as if they can talk to us about how they are feeling, is more important than any standard or part of our academic curriculum.  No, I don’t sleep at the school like I once thought my teachers did, I do sometimes do things that my students won’t always fully understand.  I’m much like a mysterious fossilized egg or magical bean: You don’t really know what’s going on inside until you peek for yourself.  So, let’s help our students learn to chat with us when things don’t feel quite right for them, because usually, it’s due to the fact that their brain is not fully developed and we need to fill in the gaps for them.

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

What Does Differentiation Look Like in the Humanities Classroom?

While effective teachers have been differentiating their instruction to best support and help all of their students for years, it’s only become known as differentiation in the last 20 years or so.  Before, it was just called good teaching: When a teacher noticed that some students seemed to be grasping the content or curriculum faster or slower than other students, the teacher created alternative tasks or or mini-lessons for those students to help support or challenge them.  Great teachers have always been doing this.  Now, good teaching has been provided a catchy name and seems to be the in-thing to do.  While I’m all in favor of promoting good, evidence-based teaching practices, I wonder if branding differentiation as a new approach to teaching is really the best way to help all teachers see the value in good teaching.  Perhaps, regardless though, differentiation is a good teaching practice for all teachers, at all levels.  Just like snowflakes, no two students are alike, and in order to best help each and every student, we need to treat them as unique individuals.

While I do try to differentiate my instruction at every turn in the classroom, I find that sometimes I struggle to do this with whole-class instruction.  I sometimes treat each student the same and lump them together for instruction that should be differentiated based on ability-level and prior knowledge.  One of my informal goals for the year is to work at differentiating my full-group lessons.  Students who are proficient in English don’t need to participate in a lesson in which I explain, step-by-step, how to complete an assignment or task.  This lesson would not engage students who have a strong understanding of the English language.  Therefore, it would not be in the best interest of my students to force them all to participate in a lesson that would bore them.  This year, I’m working at making sure that I best engage and support all of my students.

Yesterday provided me with an opportunity to work towards meeting my goal of differentiating full-group instruction.  In my Humanities class, five students struggled to meet the objective of being able to write about their reading recently, and so, I had them participate in a mini-lesson on creating effective Goodreads Updates.  I want those five students to completely understand how to think critically about what they read so that they can write about it in an explanatory and interpretive manner.  Now, the rest of the students demonstrated their ability to master this objective on a recent assessment and I felt as though they didn’t need to be a part of this mini-lesson; however, I also didn’t want to exclude them if they felt like they needed more practice on the skill of writing about their reading.  So, at the start of the lesson, I gave the five students who met or exceeded this objective two options: Stay at their desk and participate in our mini-lesson or move to the back table and work on the historical fiction story they began in class yesterday.  All of those students chose to work on their story in the back of the room while I worked with the other half of the class in the front of the classroom.

This differentiation provided me with ample time to help these students who are struggling to write about their reading in a critical manner.  I reviewed the requirements for an effective Goodreads Update by asking the students to list them.  I was impressed by how much they remembered.  Lack of effort isn’t what caused most of these students to struggle with this recent assessment.  They care a lot about completing quality work.  Unfortunately, their English proficiency is limited and so they are unable to fully comprehend what they are reading at grade-level, and thus, they unable to write about it in any sort of meaningful manner.  This differentiated mini-lesson freed me up to work with this small group in a supportive and relevant manner.

I then discussed two examples of exemplary updates other students in the class had crafted.  We talked about what allowed them to exceed the graded objective.  The boys seemed to understand this.  I then went over the next topic on which they will be updating for homework due on Thursday, as setting can sometimes be a difficult concept for ELLs to grasp.  Next, I worked with the students to craft an effective Goodreads Update for a novel one of the students is currently reading.  I had every student in the small group add to the update so that I know they understood the expectations for the graded task.  I closed the mini-lesson by fielding the few questions the students had about how to write about their reading in an appropriate way.  I had these students spend the final ten minutes of class working on their next Goodreads Update so that I could offer assistance and feedback as they worked.  This helped me keep the students focused on the task at hand and allowed me to provide the students with guidance as they began working.

Meanwhile, the other group of students in the back of the classroom were working very well on adding to their historical fiction stories.  They seemed very focused and accomplished quite a bit in the short time they had to work.  When I observed them during the final ten minutes of class, it seemed as though some of them had a hit a writing wall and were in need of some inspiration.  So, I suggested an alternative task that they could work on: “One of you create a shared Google Document and each add two sentences from your story to this new story.  Once all ten sentences are in, work together to revise, restructure, and bring sense and order to this new story.”  While not all five students partook in this new activity, those who did seemed very engaged and excited about it.  This was yet another way I was able to differentiate my instruction to best support and help all of my students.

At the end of the period, I felt as though I had provided the students with just what they needed to be supported and challenged as we work through the Humanities curriculum.  Those students who struggled with the skill of writing about their reading, received the help they needed, while those students who mastered that same skill were able to work on their writing piece, which kept them engaged and challenged in a meaningful manner.  While I know there are many other ways I could have differentiated this lesson, this approach seemed to work for me and my students yesterday.  Moving forward, I want to try this same approach with other mini-lessons or whole group instruction lessons so that I can support those students who need the extra attention while helping those students who master a skill to jump to the next level of understanding.  Like great teachers of the past, I’m just going to utilize the good teaching practice of differentiation as much as possible.  It’s not a passing fad or new trend for me or other great teachers, it’s just good teaching.

Posted in Challenges, Co-Teacher, Curriculum, Education, Learning, New Ideas, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

What Makes Effective Teaching?

This morning, as I perused the various headlines via the News app on my iPhone, a story caught my eye: “Educators: Innovate Less, Execute More” by Kalman R. Hettleman.  The author proposes that teachers need to focus on effectively teaching students rather than trying to find new and novel ways to teach and educate them.  Although the focus of the article is really on how public schools implement RTI, the first few graphs do discuss classroom teachers.  As I first read the article, I found the perspective refreshing after having been inundated for the past several years with books, articles, and conferences on the importance of being an innovative teacher and using innovative technology products and services in the classroom.  Most of these books and conferences all focused on the same issues and ideas, and so they all felt very repetitive; therefore, I was ready for something different.  But, upon further contemplation of this article, I realized that the author was somewhat contradicting himself, as great and effective teachers are always trying to find new and better ways to effectively teach and engage their students.  In order to execute a lesson or activity well, teachers must know and understand how their students learn best so that they can be sure they are reaching each and every individual student in their classroom.  To do this, teachers need to find new and novel ways to hook students.  While being sure that the lesson is executed well is an important part of the teaching and learning process, it’s only a part of the larger educational puzzle.  Teachers must constantly innovate their teaching practices in order to be effective in the classroom.  Great teachers are the best students because they value the importance of knowledge.

As the final three days of faculty meetings begin tomorrow morning at my fine educational institution, I can’t help but get excited for what is going to happen on Friday: Registration Day.  My new students will arrive and get settled into their dormitories and prepare for the start of classes next week.  I can’t wait to meet my 11 new and eager students as we embark upon a journey of curiosity, wonderment, knowledge, failure, and fun.  I can’t wait to introduce Reader’s Workshop to the boys and get them excited about reading.  I can’t wait to have them play and explore with the Makey Makeys we’ve added to our Maker Space this year.  I can’t wait to begin working with my new co-teacher.  I can’t wait to begin implementing the new Brain and Mindfulness units my co-teacher and I crafted this summer.  I can’t wait to put on my teaching cape and get down to business.  I just can’t wait for the new academic year to begin.

While I will be sure to execute lessons and activities well in the classroom this year, as Mr. Hettleman suggests I should, I will try to also do what he states I shouldn’t do in the classroom, innovate and try new things.  I will take risks and try new approaches to teaching to help best support all of my students.  Great teaching requires a positive attitude, desire to learn, flexibility, creativity, innovation, enthusiasm, and an understanding of effective teaching practices.  So, thank you Kalman, for reminding me what it takes to be an effective teacher.  Thank you for helping stir up my mental pot and prepare for the coming days that are sure to be filled with fun, drama, and lots of questions.

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

The Humanity in Humanities: Revising my Unit on Community

Being an elementary school teacher at heart, I remember learning all about planning and implementing a unit on community in my methods and practicum course in college.  “Young students need to learn the importance of community and how they are all a part of many different communities,” the professors would often preach.  While I used to think it was hokey, in this day and age of technological distractions and social media, it’s crucial that students learn all about the community in which they live while exploring it without a cell phone or portable device.  Students learn through experiences, and so what better way to help them appreciate and understand the community in which they live than to have them dig through an old river bed for artifacts from the town’s history?  Hands-on learning brings the community alive for the students and makes learning engaging and fun.  Through experiences like this, students will learn to appreciate the communities of which they are all apart.  It will also help them to be more open-minded and aware of their surroundings.  If students only knew the history of the towns in which they live, they might be more apt to explore and get out and about in their communities during their free time instead of playing video games or checking their social media applications.

So, to be sure my students learn to appreciate all that the little town of Canaan has to offer, I’m beginning the academic year in my Humanities class with a unit on community.  While I’ve enjoyed the activities completed during this unit in past years and the students have provided positive feedback on the various lessons completed throughout the unit over the past four years, I’ve made a few minor tweaks for this year.  I want to be sure the students have the opportunity to process and debrief each of the field experiences.  Last year, I felt as though we would simply move on after each field experience without making sure the students understood why we did what we did and how that informs their understanding of the Canaan community.  I don’t want to think of this unit as a series of boxes to check off; I want to make this unit an experience that the students will carry with them when they go out into other communities.  I want my students to always be asking why and how?  How did this town come to be a town?  What is my role in this community?  How can I make this community a great place for all people?  I want my students to be changemakers, and in order to do this, I need to provide them with opportunities to ask questions so that they understand the relevance of every piece of this unit puzzle.  In this same vein, I also added a new option for the final project that will allow the students to identify a problem within the community, create a solution to the problem, and then enact their solution.  I want critical thinking and problem solving to be skills the students learn and practice in every class.

I’m super excited about this unit because of the slight alterations I’ve made, but also because of the power it holds.  This unit is the foundation upon which the other units we will complete throughout the year will be built upon.  This unit ties our course together as we revisit the themes and ideas of this unit in every successive unit.  The stage is set for both Writer’s and Reader’s Workshop in this unit as well.  I’m very pleased with the work I’ve done to enhance this unit over the past few weeks, and I’d love any feedback you could provide me with about this unit.  Here is the daily plan for Our Community unit…

Day 1: Reader’s Workshop Introduction

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Trivia Time: Discuss and Explain process
  • Discuss and Explain: What is Humanities class all about?
  • Introduce and Discuss Reader’s Workshop
    • Think-Pair-Share: What is your past experience with reading?  Do you like to read and why or why not?  Have students jot down answers on paper before partnering.
    • Explain Reader’s Workshop
      • Class Read Aloud: First Book Seedfolks  by Paul Fleischman
      • Mini-Lesson on Reading Strategies
      • Silent Reading
      • Book Talks
      • Book Chats
      • Teacher Conferences
    • Choosing Just Right Books
      • Mini-Lesson in small groups
      • Discuss: How do you choose a new book to read?
      • Model and explain 5-Finger Rule using books
      • Have students choose first reader’s workshop book and read silently
      • Conference with students as they choose books
    • Wrap Up: Briefly Explain Habits of Learning and have students share which they used today in class

Day 2: Community Unit Introduction

  • Homework: Write about the Dawn Climb for 30 Minutes
  • On This Day in History: Explain and Discuss
  • Introduce Focus for first Humanities Unit
    • Discuss Community: As a group of students together, what are some other titles we might use to refer to us as?  What does it mean to be a part of a community?  What communities are you a part of?  How does being a part of a community make you feel?  What are you able to do as a part of a community that you couldn’t do if you weren’t?
    • Community Definition: Have students brainstorm a definition for the word Community with their table partner before sharing ideas aloud with the class until we have an agreed upon definition
    • Community Norms: Discuss what an effective community looks like in action before generating a list of how all good communities should function and operate
  • Exit Ticket: Write at least ways all good communities function

Day 3: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Previewing a text
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: Who would like to share what they liked about their book today?

Day 4: Writer’s Workshop Introduction

  • Homework: Continue Working on Quick Write for 30 Minutes
  • Geography Bee: Explain and Discuss
  • Writer’s Workshop Introduction
    • Class Discussion: What do you like about writing and why?  What do you not like about writing and why?  This year, we hope to turn the negatives into positives
    • Writing
    • Mini-Lessons on Writing Strategies
    • Sharing
    • Revising
    • Editing
    • Rewriting
  • Explain Quick Write Protocol
    • Write about provided prompt for 10 minutes
    • Have volunteers share what they wrote
    • Ask students: What are your thoughts on this activity?
  • Wrap-Up: Which Habit of Learning did you use the most in class today?

Day 5: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Trivia Time
  • Review: What makes an effective community and why?
  • Pair-Share Activity: Where are you from and how is it different from Canaan?
  • Discuss: When learning about communities, what do we need to keep in mind?  How do we learn about communities that are unfamiliar to us?
  • List Generation: Make list of what we need to or want to learn about in our unit on the Canaan Community
  • Community Quick Write
    • Create Canaan’s history.  How did the town form and when?
    • Have students share their pieces with their table partner
  • Wrap-Up: How does growth mindset play a key role in learning about a new place?

Day 6: Writing About Your Reading

  • Homework: Finish Goodreads Update and Read About Current Events for 30 Minutes
  • Mini-Lesson: Writing about your Reading– Part I
    • Ask students: Why is it important to know how to write about what you read in a meaningful and critical manner?
    • Discuss and Explain Requirements of Effective Goodreads Update
    • Share a Goodreads update that meets the requirements and discuss why
    • Share a Goodreads update that does not meet the expectations and discuss why
    • Read chapter from Seedfolks read-aloud novel and have students write, on lined paper, an update focused on the character narrating the piece
    • Have students meet with teacher and peers to receive feedback on their update
    • Exit Ticket: Write two requirements of an effective Goodreads Update

Day 5: Current Events and Writing About Your Reading

  • Homework: Free Write on a Current Event
  • Weekly News Quiz: Explain and Discuss
  • Introduce Current Event Process
    • Have students share current events read about with their table partner
    • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Mini-Lesson: Writing About Your Reading– Part II
    • Have students Review their Goodreads Update
      • Highlight support or example from book
      • Underline Interpretation or analysis
      • Write number of sentences in margin
      • Write and circle number of topics focused on in margin
    • Collect Goodreads Updates and read a few aloud discussing requirements and expectations
  • Wrap-Up: What do we need to remember when crafting a Goodreads update?

Day 6: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 20 Minutes and Update Goodreads on 1 Character
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Reading with a Purpose
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: Who would like to share what they liked about their book today?

Day 7: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Geography Bee
  • Discuss the physical place of Canaan
    • Show students a map of Canaan and have them share noticings and wonderings
    • Ask students: Does the physical space of Canaan have everything a community needs to be successful and why or why not?  Do you think the map of Canaan changed over time and why or why not?
    • Show students different maps of Canaan over time and discuss the changes
    • Ask students: How does the physical place and environment affect a community?  How does Canaan’s location affect the people and place?
    • Tell students: Tomorrow we will be going on a walking field trip of Canaan Street.  You will be taking notes, writing, drawing, and actively participating in the field experience.  Your notes will be graded along with your participation in the field experience.  What kind of notepad do you want to use for tomorrow’s trip?
    • Have students make a notepad for tomorrow’s field experience using supplies in the classroom.

Day 8: Canaan Street Field Experience

  • Homework: Finish Canaan Street Notepad
  • Canaan Street Field Experience

Day 9: Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Finish Dawn Climb Story
  • Collect Canaan Street Notepads
  • On This Day…
  • Writer’s Workshop
    • Have students share their Dawn Climb story with their table partner
    • Ask students: What did you notice about the pieces?  What did they have in common?  What made them different?  What is narrative writing?  What makes an effective narrative story?
    • Have students revise, finish, or rewrite their dawn climb story remembering to include the features of a narrative story
  • Exit Ticket: What makes an effective narrative story?

Day 10: Current Events and Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Weekly News Quiz
  • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Explain Editing and Revising Process
  • Have students edit their dawn climb story
  • Have students revise their dawn climb story
  • Have volunteers share piece with the class
  • Wrap-Up: Which Habit of Learning best helps with the revising and editing process?

Day 11: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 20 Minutes and Update Goodreads on Setting
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Use Prior Knowledge
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: Table Partner Book Share

Day 12: Writer’s Workshop and Canaan Community

 

  • Homework: Finish Revising Piece Based on Peer Edit Feedback
  • Geography Bee
  • Writer’s Workshop
    • Explain and discuss Peer Editing Process
      • Handout worksheet and discuss
    • Have students Peer Edit their dawn climb story with a partner
    • Have students begin revising piece based on student feedback
  • Discuss what we learned about the Canaan community during last week’s field experience
  • Ask students: What else do you still want to know?
  • Have students Create Canaan Historian Field Experience Notepad reminding them that it will be graded
  • Wrap-Up: What questions do you want to ask Mrs. Dunkerton about Canaan tomorrow during our field experience?

 

Day 13: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Finish Canaan Historian Notepad
  • Canaan Field Experience

Day 14: Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read 1 current event and take Bullet Style Notes on lined paper
  • On This Day…
  • Writer’s Workshop
  • Explain Writing Groups Process
  • Have students get into their assigned writing groups and complete process
  • Have students revise their piece based on the feedback received
  • Wrap-Up: What did you find helpful about the writing group process?

Day 15: Current Events and Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Finish Author’s Note
  • Weekly News Quiz
  • Have students share their current event with their table partner
  • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Explain Author’s Note Process
  • Have students complete their Author’s Note at the end of their dawn climb piece
  • Exit Ticket: Why is it important to learn about current events in the world?

Day 16: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 20 Minutes and Update Goodreads on Thoughts About your Book
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Make Connections
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: Why is making connections an important reading strategy?

Day 17: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Rand Estate Tour and Field Experience

Day 18: Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Finish Revising Piece Based on Teacher Feedback
  • Trivia Time
  • Writer’s Workshop
    • Discuss Teacher Feedback and Final Revising Process
    • Have students read the teacher feedback and make changes to their piece based on this feedback

Day 19: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Read 1 Current Event and Take Bullet Style Notes
  • On This Day…
  • Discuss what was learned from Tuesday’s field experience
  • Ask students: What else do we want to know about the Canaan Community?
  • Introduce and discuss Canaan Community Project
  • Have students choose project and begin working

Day 20: Current Events and Canaan Community Project

  • Homework: Work on Canaan Community Project for 30 Minutes
  • Weekly News Quiz
  • Have students share their current event with their table partner
  • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Have students work on Canaan Community Project
  • Wrap-Up: Have volunteers share successes and/or struggles they are having in the project

Day 21: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 20 Minutes and Update Goodreads on Questions you Have
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Questions
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: How does asking questions make you a better engaged reader?

Day 22: Canaan Community Project

  • Homework: Work on Canaan Community Project for 30 Minutes
  • Geography Bee
  • Work on Canaan Community Project

Day 23: Canaan Community Project

  • Homework: Work on Canaan Community Project for 30 Minutes
  • Trivia Time
  • Work on Canaan Community Project

Day 24: Canaan Community Project

  • Homework: Finish Canaan Community Project
  • On This Day…
  • Work on Canaan Community Project

Day 25: Current Events and Unit Wrap-Up

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Weekly News Quiz
  • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Collect Canaan Community Projects
  • Debrief Unit with Class
    • Have students complete student feedback survey
    • Ask students: What did you learn about communities from this unit?

Here is the Unit Plan document for the unit…

Unit Title: Our Community
Creator: Mark Holt
Grade Level: 6
Timeframe: Fall Term– Wednesday, September 13 – Thursday, October 19 (25 class days, double periods)
Essential Questions

  • What does it mean to be a part of a community?
  • What do we need to learn about a community in order to fully understand it?
  • How does what you learn about a community change your perception of a place?
Habits of Learning

    • Growth Mindset: The students will be challenged to take risks, fail, make mistakes, and try new strategies when writing, reading and discussing.  The students will need to be flexible in their thinking when approaching the strategies covered.  Thinking creatively will allow for new and unique ideas to be generated, which will in turn lead to deeper engagement and more genuine learning.
    • Self-Awareness: The students will need to be aware of their writing and reading abilities when choosing just-right books and crafting pieces of writing.  They will be challenged to move beyond their abilities so as to grow as readers, writers, and thinkers.
    • Coexistence: The students will work collaboratively with their peers when peer editing, discussing current events, discussing community, and discussing their reading.  They will be challenged to overcome obstacles faced when working with their peers.
    • Critical Thinking: The students will think critically when brainstorming writing, revising their writing, peer editing, discussing various topics in class discussions, and reflecting on their reading and writing.  They will be challenged to move beyond the concrete to the more abstract.
    • Communication: The students will need to effectively communicate with their peers and the teacher when writing, reading, and discussing.
    • Ownership: The students will be expected to take responsibility for their learning throughout this unit.  They will be challenged to self-check their work before turning it in to be assessed and graded.  They will need to be honest with themselves and the teachers when choosing appropriate just-right books.
    • Creativity: The students will be expected to craft an original and unique story based on their experiences climbing Mt. Cardigan at dawn and add their own original thoughts to class discussions.
Student Objectives, Skills, and Outcomes

Students will be able to:

  • Write about their reading.
  • Craft an original story, with a beginning, middle, and ending, based on a true account.
  • Revise their writing based on feedback.
  • Participate in class discussions.
  • Participate in field experiences.
  • Understand how a geographical place changes over time.
  • Create a visual representation of their knowledge regarding the Canaan community.
  • Review their work to be sure it includes all required parts.
Cross Curricular Connections

  • PEAKS:
    • Students will learn how to utilize a growth mindset when learning new information.
Instructional Strategies Utilized

  • Identifying similarities and differences
  • Homework and practice
  • Cooperative learning
  • Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback
Materials/Resources/Websites

Haiku Learning Website

Seedfolks Paul Fleischman

Canaan Community members

Assessments

  • To assess students’ ability to write about their reading, we will read and grade their specific reading updates posted on the Goodreads website.  They will complete one update a week and we will spend the first few days of classes explaining and modelling the expectations for an effective update.
  • To assess students’ ability to craft an original story with a beginning, middle, and ending and revise their writing based on feedback, we will read their unique story based on their experiences hiking Mt. Cardigan at dawn, paying close attention to their ability to effectively utilize writing structures and the writing process in terms of editing and revising their work based on feedback from their peers and the teachers.
  • To assess students’ ability to participate in class discussions, we will take copious notes during small group discussions regarding the read-aloud text and current events.  We will spend time at the start of the year explaining and modelling the expectations for effectively participating in class discussions.  We will provide the students with much feedback throughout the unit so that they fully understand what is expected of them regarding this objective as it will be woven into almost every unit covered throughout the year in Humanities class.
  • To assess students’ ability to participate in field experiences, we will grade their performance during our visit to the town museum as well as our Canaan Street walk.  They will be expected to appropriately add their relevant insight, thoughts, and questions to the discussion.  They will also be expected to take relevant notes on important facts and details.
  • To assess students’ ability to understand how a geographical place changes over time, create a visual representation of their knowledge regarding the Canaan community, and review their work to be sure it includes all required parts, the students will complete the Canaan Community Project, which will have them make a creative visual representation of what they learned regarding the Canaan community and it’s history.
Posted in Curriculum, Education, Learning, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

The Brain as a Unit

The brain is an absolutely fabulous work of art created by the trials and tribulations of evolution.  We are a lucky species to be equipped with such an amazing device that allows us to think, deliberate, feel, talk, smell, and so much more.  As the brain is in charge of everything that we as humans do, it’s also really nice that scientists have spent so much time studying this remarkable body part that hangs above our neck like a statue on a pedestal.  Because of this work, we as teachers, know that the brain is what enables or prevents our students from learning and growing as individuals.  So, it just makes sense that we should empower our students with knowledge about this great tool hidden away in our skull under layers of hair and skin.

My co-teacher and I spent several weeks doing research on how to most effectively teach the brain and how it helps students learn.  We bounced ideas off of one another, did some more research, and revised our unit plan until we had what we feel is the best possible unit on teaching the students how they can best utilize their brain in order to be the most effective student in and out of the classroom.  We based most of our unit on the ideas developed by Carol Dweck and the Brainology program her and her team created.  A lot of the activities we have planned came directly from that curriculum.  If you are looking for a dynamic and meaningful way to teach the brain and the concept of mindsets to students, you must definitely check out Brainology.  It is an amazing program.  Enough with the subliminal advertising.  So, my phenomenal new co-teacher and I have created a unit on the brain and how it helps students learn that will engage and educate students so that they can grow into effective and thoughtful students.  We will be implementing this unit at the start of the year as a way to introduce students to this great tool resting on their shoulders.  This unit will run side-by-side our unit on Mindfulness so that the students will see how living mindfully will help them not only be be more peaceful and deliberate, but also more effective students and thinkers.  We feel as though these ideas and concepts need to be integrated for the best result possible.

Highlights of our unit on the brain:

  • The students will learn all about the plasticity of their brain through various discussions and activities.  Knowing that intelligence is always influx and not fixed will help the students see that everything they do is about attitude and perspective.  They can do almost anything they put their mind to.
  • The students will create and design learning plans to help fictional students utilize a growth mindset and be the most effective student possible.  The hope is that they will be able to apply these ideas to themselves and their learning in and out of the classroom.  It will also be great practice for the final project.
  • The unit will close with a project in which the students will set SMART goals for themselves with a plan for how they will achieve their goals based on ideas and strategies learned throughout the unit.  This will be a graded project that will allow us to teach the students about how to set SMART goals, revise work their work, and utilize feedback in a meaningful manner.  We will also have the students review and update their learning plan every two weeks to make it relevant and meaningful for them.
  • This unit will be implemented in our study skills class while the students learn about the biology of the brain and its parts and their functions in STEM class.  Integrating this unit into our STEM class made sense to us.  The students will learn about how their brain learns in PEAKS class while they learn the science-based aspects of the brain in our science course.  Helping the students put the pieces of the brain puzzle together will allow them to see the hows and whys of this amazing resource that we generally take for granted.

Below is the unit plan we devised:

How Your Brain Learns Unit

Day 1

  • Briefly introduce unit on the brain
    • This unit will help you realize how flexible and plastic your brain is and how you can change how you think about learning and intelligence to become a more effective student and learner.
    • This unit will help students understand how their brain physically changes as they learn new information and how they can affect those changes.
  • Ask students: What do you wonder about this unit?
    • Have them start an OWL (Observations from their past/things they already know, Wonderings, Learning/things they learn from this unit) chart about their brain. They will complete the “L” at the end of the unit.
  • Have students complete the Mindset Assessment Profile
    • Have them score it themselves
    • Have them complete the reflection worksheet

Day 2

  • Have students finish the Mindset Assessment Profile if not completed in class on the previous day
  • Discuss:
    • Are there some subjects in which you don’t feel confident that you can learn and do well?  Why might that be?
    • How do you think it feels to get a bad grade when you learned something really hard?  How did you learn it?
    • Can you think of a time when you learned to do something really hard?  How did you learn it?
    • What would you be willing to work hard at to achieve if you knew it was possible?
    • If you knew that you could develop your intelligence through effort, what goals would you set for yourself?
  • Tell students: In this unit you are going to learn how you can grow your intelligence and do anything you want through hard work and effort.

Day 3

  • Read through and discuss “You Can Grow Your Intelligence” handout together as a class

Day 4

  • Have students complete the Scan your Brain Health self-assessment and then score it
  • Discuss:
    • What do you need to do to move into or stay in the Growth Mindset Zone?

Day 5

  • Tell students: Today we will learn more about the brain and its parts.
  • Ask students: What do you already know about the brain and its parts?
  • Create a list on the whiteboard of what the students already know about the brain.
  • Show students the Youtube Video on the Human Brain
  • Have students complete the Take an Active Approach handout
  • Ask students: What did you learn about the brain today that you didn’t already know?

Day 6

  • Tell students: It seems effortless to do things you like such as playing sports, playing video games, or using your cell phone.  
  • Ask students: What are some of your favorite things to do?  How did you learn to do them?  How can you apply this same tactic to school work or learning anything new?
  • Tell students: Dr. Carol Dweck is a psychologist who studies why people fail.  What she found is that when people believe they failed because of lack of talent or intelligence, they stopped trying.  But, when people believe they failed because they didn’t try hard enough, they persevered and put forth more effort to be successful.
  • Ask students: Have you found this to be true in your personal lives?  Do you try harder when you believe you failed because of a lack of effort?  How does a person’s attitude affect his or her success?
  • Tell students: Sometimes we think we tried hard to learn something and fail so we give up when really it’s because we don’t know how to apply effective effort.  We need to work hard and work smart.  
  • Pass out Effective Effort Rubric Handout to students
  • Tell students: This rubric is a tool for thinking about how hard you tried to learn something.
  • Read and discuss the rubric together as a class.
  • Have the students think of something they tried to learn recently that they didn’t already know how to do.  How much effective effort did they use?  Have them circle the boxes that apply to how they performed.  When they finish, have them write a paragraph explaining how much effort they put forth and what they could work on next time they are learning something new.
  • If time permits, have students share their paragraphs aloud with the class.

Day 7

  • Read and discuss together as a class “John’s History Test” handout.
  • Tell students: Working with your table partner, create a plan to help John achieve his goal of doing well on the upcoming history test.  Write the plan out with specific action items and days of the week.  What should his study schedule look like?
  • Have students share their study plans with the class and discuss.  Is the plan effective and why or why not?

Day 8

  • Discuss Overcoming Challenges handout
    • What obstacles do you think these people experienced early in their lives?
    • What did they do to overcome these challenges and achieve their goals?
  • Have students complete the reflection questions on the worksheet individually.
  • Have students share times they overcame challenges in their lives aloud with the class.
  • Ask students: What can we learn from these people and others like them?

Day 9

  • Discuss stress and how it affects students and their learning.
  • Watch and discuss Youtube Video on How Stress Affects the Brain
  • Read and discuss Emotions and Learning Handout
  • Discuss what students can do to alleviate stress
    • Make list of ideas on the whiteboard
    • Remind them of mindfulness techniques we’re learning

Day 10

  • Read and discuss Alicia’s Presentation handout
  • Activity: Have students work with their table partner to help Alicia learn to not freeze up when performing a class presentation.  Create a plan including specific actions she can do to prevent stress from getting in the way of her life.
  • Have students share their plans and ideas with the class.  Are the plans effective and why or why not?

Day 11

  • Ask students: What are the two types of mindsets people use?
  • Read and discuss Two Mindsets handout
  • Explain to students a time when you felt challenged and talk about what you did to overcome that challenge
  • Have students complete the Two Mindsets Reflection worksheet
  • Have students focus on having a growth mindset as they go through the rest of their day, telling them that they will reflect on their progress in changing their mindset during our next PEAKS class.

Day 12

  • Ask students: How did it go trying to utilize a Growth Mindset when working or interacting with others?  Have volunteers share their experiences.
  • Have students complete the Scan Your Mindset worksheet and self-score it before having them work on the Growth Zone worksheet.
  • Have students share their plans for staying in the growth zone with the class.

Day 13

  • Activity: Students working with their table partner will read the assigned research brief before completing the worksheet.
  • Have students share how their research impacts the human potential.

Day 14

  • Ask students: What needs to happen for effective learning to take place in the brain?
  • Discuss: What are the two types of mindsets people can use?  What happens if we find ourselves in a fixed mindset?  What can we do?
  • Have students complete the Two Mindsets Part 2 worksheet
  • Discuss each of the scenarios on the worksheet and have the students share what they would do to use a growth mindset

Day 15

  • Ask students: How can you be sure you are using a growth mindset in the classroom?  What might that look like?
  • Read and discuss the five BRAIN acronym handouts
  • Ask students: How can you apply these ideas and strategies in the classroom to become a better student?

Days 16-18

  • Ask students: What have we learned about the brain throughout this unit?
  • Finish the KWL chart started at the beginning of the unit
  • Discuss with students: Now what?  You learned all about how you can best utilize your brain to learn and be the most effective student possible.  How can we be sure that you will apply this knowledge and information throughout the year in all of your classes?
  • Have the Students Complete a Learning Goals Plan
    • Discuss SMART goals and how to set them
    • Have the students set at least one SMART goal for each of their major courses: STEM, PEAKS, Humanities, Language, and Gates
    • For each goal, have them create a plan for what they will do to work towards their goal.  They will need to include at least one strategy or idea learned in the unit.
    • Discuss Peer Editing and have the students peer edit with each other
    • Have the students revise their Learning Goals Plan
    • Every Tuesday in PEAKS class, the students will update their progress in this same document
  • Ask students: What did you enjoy about this unit?  What would you change if you were in charge?
Posted in Curriculum, Education, Learning, New Ideas, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

Making our Makerspace Even More Maker-Friendly with the Makey Makey

While the name is certainly fun to say, I feel as though it doesn’t truly encapsulate the awesomeness and possibilities provided by the Makey Makey.  It’s a toy, tool, new gadget, game pad, circuit board, keyboard, and so much more.  It’s a small box filled with endless projects and solutions.  After happening upon this fun little resource a few years back, I thought that it was high time to really learn more about it and find useful ways to incorporate it into our sixth grade curriculum, which is why one of my professional goals for the summer was to become better versed in using this learning tool.  So, I spent many hours tinkering, trying new things, and exploring the online tutorials in order to fully grasp what’s possible with this fun little tool called the Makey Makey.

While we will be adding several Makey Makeys to our classroom Makerspace for this upcoming academic year, this resource could also be utilized in Humanities, PEAKS, and STEM classes.  There are so many possibilities that exist with this tiny little gadget.  Combined with other elements including materials and the coding program Scratch, the Makey Makey could be used as a solution to a problem, project possibility, or almost anything else our students can dream up.  I’ve even thought about having the students use this resource during our unit on the brain in PEAKS class as they explore growth mindset and the plasticity of the brain.  The Makey Makey Website is filled with creative ideas and possible uses of this innovative learning tool.  I can’t wait to see what the students create and design with the Makey Makey come September.

I created an enticing little Screencast O Matic video of my fun time with the Makey Makey to inspire and ignite the spark of learning within my future sixth graders.  A big thanks goes out to the amazing, skilled, and innovative thinkers at MIT for creating such amazing learning tools such as the Makey Makey and Scratch.  I can’t wait for my students to learn all about circuits and computer coding through the use of these fine tools.  I wish I could use the Makey Makey to create a fast forward button so that I could skip ahead to September to watch my students build, explore, fail, try something new, and have fun learning with the Makey Makey.  Perhaps my wish could indeed come true if I just keep tinkering and playing, as I’m sure there is some way I can use alligator clips to manipulate time and space.  Anything’s possible…

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

Ooohhhmmm: My Mindfulness Unit Plan

Sitting on the edge of the couch that used to belong to my grandmother before she passed away, I’m filled with thoughts and feelings.  There is an itch on my left leg, behind my knee.  I can hear the gurgling of the carbonation leaving my bottle of tasty seltzer water.  One of my dogs is stretched out behind me on the old couch filled with memories of sleepovers at gram’s house.  I can hear my son in the living room gobbling up the new, healthy popcorn I just purchased for him at the grocery store.  I see my wife’s crafting materials neatly spaced around the room we call the office.  As I record these sensory experiences, I’m trying to live in the present moment and think about the now.  I’m trying to be more mindful and not allow the future or past to cloud my thoughts and emotions, but it’s difficult.  However, I’ll persevere and keep trying.  Mindfulness is a journey, much like anything in life.  It takes time, patience, and practice.

So, as I try to live more mindfully, I’ve created what I hope will be a very beneficial and meaningful mindfulness unit for my sixth graders.  I want to begin on the first day of classes so that my co-teacher and I can set our students up to have a successful year in our sixth grade class.  So, here it is in draft form:

Mindfulness Unit

For the 2017-2018 Academic Year

Day 1: What is Mindfulness?

Day 2: What’s the purpose of mindfulness?

  • Show TED Talk Video and Discuss Purpose of Mindfulness
  • Closing Question: Why should you learn how to be mindful?

Day 3: How do you focus on the present moment?

  • Review: What is mindfulness and why might it be important to learn how to be mindful?
  • Have the students make a list of all the thoughts going through their head
  • Ask students: How can you possibly focus on any one thing well when you have so much going on?  What can we do to remedy this situation and be in the present moment?  What is meditation?  How can we do it?  What do we need to remember when trying something new and being mindful?
  • Have the students participate in a Guided Meditation
  • Discuss: How did it go?  How do you feel now?  Do you still have as many thoughts swirling around your head?  How might you use meditation to help you live in the present moment?

Day 4: How do you breathe mindfully?

  • Ask students: How can breathing make you more mindful?
  • Discuss different breathing techniques students use to calm themselves or relax
  • Show Youtube video on 4-7-8 breathing technique and have students practice it
  • Closing Question: How do you think mindful breathing could help you in or out of school?

Day 5: How do you see mindfully?

  • Show students several objects on a table and tell them they need to memorize as many as possible in 20 seconds
  • Have students try to list as many of the objects as possible
  • Ask students: What worked well for you?  What struggles did you face?
  • Have students complete two minutes of 4-7-8 breathing
  • Show students the objects once again and have them memorize as many as possible in 20 seconds
  • Have students write down as many of the objects as possible
  • Ask students: How was this attempt different for you and why?  Did the mindful breathing help you better focus on the task at hand?
  • Ask students: How can you make sure you are focusing on the present moment?

Day 6: How do you show mindfulness?

  • Ask students: What is body language?  How does your body show how you feel?
  • Have the students show an angry pose, happy pose, mad pose with a partner.
  • Have the partner provide the student with feedback on what his body language tells his partner
  • Have the partners switch and repeat
  • Ask students: Why does it appear that we wear our feelings all over our body?  Is that good or bad?  What if we always seemed calm and peaceful?  
  • Show the students a short guided meditation video
  • Ask students: How could being mindful of how your feeling help you when interacting with your peers or teachers?  What could you do the next time you feel anxious, overwhelmed, or angry?

Day 7: How do you reflect mindfully?

  • Begin with 2 minutes of 4-7-8 breathing
  • Have the students reflect in writing, on their e-portfolio on Haiku, on the following questions:
    • What is mindfulness?
    • Why is it important to be mindful in and out of school?
    • How has your focus in school changed since we began our unit on mindfulness?
    • What positive differences have you noticed within yourself since we began our unit on mindfulness?
    • What do you need to do to be more mindful in and out of school?

Day 8: How can you move mindfully?

  • Our Strength and Conditioning Coach will work with the boys on mindful Yoga techniques they could do on their own
  • Ask students: How might you use Yoga to help you be more present and mindful?

Day 9: How can we avoid distractions mindfully?

  • Show students the Youtube Video What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and discuss
  • Ask the students: What can you do to avoid these distractions?
  • Make a list of ideas on the board
  • Have the students choose one strategy to try over the next few days until our next class to see if they noticed a difference.
  • Close with 2 minutes of 4-7-8 breathing

Day 10: How can we avoid distractions mindfully?  Part 2

  • Begin with a guided body scan meditation video
  • Have students share how things went with the strategy they tried to avoid digital distractions
  • If they found success, have them share that and if they struggled, try to brainstorm possible strategies they could try
  • Closing Question: To be mindful outside of the classroom, what do you need to be sure you do?

Day 11: How can pausing make you more mindful?

  • Have the students brainstorm questions they still wonder about mindfulness with their table partner
  • Have each partnership ask their question aloud
  • After the first group asks their question, begin responding immediately without thinking or pausing
  • After the second groups asks their question, pause for 10 seconds before responding
  • Ask the students: Did you notice a difference in the two responses?  Which was more mindful and effective in conveying the point and why?
  • Have one of the teachers pick a fight with the other without pausing when responding in the heat of the moment
  • Then replay the role play with pauses
  • Discuss what the students noticed
  • Goal for the next session: Try using the pausing technique before responding to teachers or peers when emotions are involved

Day 12: How can pausing make you more mindful? Part 2

  • Begin with 2 minutes of 4-7-8 breathing
  • Have students share how the pausing technique worked for them
  • Discuss how they might use pauses in and out of the classroom
  • Ask students: How might pausing before responding help you to be more mindful?

Day 13: How can you read and listen more mindfully?

  • Begin with 2 minutes of 4-7-8 breathing
  • Have the students think about what they did last night while the teacher reads a section of a text about mindfulness aloud to the class
    • Read the first paragraph quickly
    • Read the second paragraph in monotone
    • Read the third paragraph mumbling
  • Ask the students: Did everybody understand that?  Why or why not?
  • Ask the students comprehension questions:
    • Why isn’t most of what we call learning not useful, according to the author?
    • What does mindful learning cultivate?
  • Ask students: What’s important to remember when talking or reading aloud to the class like you will be doing a lot this year?

Day 14: How can you read and listen more mindfully? Part 2

  • Begin with a guided meditation that the students choose from one we’ve done already in this unit
  • Have the students read a page aloud from their read aloud novel in different ways to their table partner: Angry, sad, excited
  • Have their table partner provide them feedback on their reading
  • Then switch and repeat
  • Have students share what they liked about what their partner did and said while they read aloud, ensuring that they are noticing good active listening strategies
  • Ask students: What’s important to do when speaking aloud or listening mindfully?

Day 15: How do you reflect mindfully? Part 2

  • Begin with 2 minutes of 4-7-8 breathing
  • Have the students reflect in writing, on their e-portfolio on Haiku, on the following questions:
    • How has your focus in school changed since you last reflected on your mindfulness growth?
    • What positive differences have you noticed within yourself since we began our unit on mindfulness?
    • Set a goal or two regarding mindfulness that you will work towards by the end of the fall term.

Day 16: How can you maintain mindfulness throughout the year?

  • Ask students: What did you learn about yourself as a person and student during this unit?  Why is mindfulness important and how can it help make you a better student?  What do you need to do to be able to maintain your mindfulness throughout the year now that our unit is done?
  • Have the students share their mindfulness goals with their table partner and discuss how they will work towards them.
  • Closing questions: What could we do better next time with this unit?  How could we make this unit more effective for students?

I’m feeling quite good about the curriculum I’ve put together.  I’m excited that my co-teacher and I will be able to help our students be more mindful and engaged students as they learn to control the many thoughts and distractions facing them on a daily basis.  I can’t wait for September.  In the meantime, I’m going to continue practicing being mindful so that I can be a positive role model for my students as we work through the mindfulness curriculum together.

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.