Helping Students Learn How to be Professional Adults

While I’m in the midst of my school’s March Break vacation, I’m stuck here on my couch recovering from the flu.  Yes, that’s right.  Despite all of my incessant handwashing, healthy eating habits, and attempts to stay hydrated over the past week as the flu epidemic hit my school prior to our vacation, I fell victim to the flu virus.  Being sick is no picnic, but it’s allowed me the opportunity to reflect on my teaching and life: I’m so blessed to have an amazing wife who is helping nurse me back to health, despite my sometimes negative demeanor towards her; I am lucky to have a talented son who is putting forth great effort to achieve his goals even when life gets complicated; I am fortunate to work at a school filled with dedicated and committed colleagues who truly care about the students; I am inspired daily by my sixth grade class that is overflowing with young men who strive for excellence in life and academics.   Although my throat is still quite sore and I’m so congested that I can barely hear the beeping of the microwave oven, I’m feeling mentally amazing.  Life is Beautiful, is not just the name of an Oscar-winning movie, oh no.  It’s also my mantra that keeps me going.  While the great weather prognosticators of our time have predicted a huge snowstorm for the New England area tomorrow and Thursday, the weather outside gives no indication of this impending doom.  It’s sunny and beautiful outside, just as it was in my classroom Saturday morning, on the final day of classes before the big March Break.

As my body was in the beginning stages of breaking down from the flu virus on Saturday morning, my mental facilities were fully intact as my students participated in the Learning Exposition that took place in our classroom.  The boys had been preparing and planning for this since early February.  They chose their topics, became experts on them, and then created engaging and informative presentations to convey what they learned to others.  I crafted this project as a way to engage my students in our unit of study, Africa, review some of the foundational study skills introduced to the students earlier in the academic year, and to help prepare them for meaningful lives in a global society.  While I want my students to enjoy what we are learning and doing in the classroom, I also want my students to understand how to be professional, engage in complex and serious conversations, field difficult questions, and prepare for the unknown.  The research project that the students completed in my Humanities class forced them to create an engaging visual aide, know their self-selected topic as well as they know how to play their favorite video game, and then share what they learned and know with others in a real-world manner.  They dressed for success and presented their knowledge learned to other teachers from our school.  This was a challenge for some of the students as they have never had to complete a task like this before.  Some of my students come from schools where this was not an assessed skill, and so they were very nervous and anxious about having to do it.  As the real-world demands that all people tackle problems and solve them, I want to be sure that my students know how to do so in appropriate, creative, and professional ways.  While sixth grade boys are far from professional adults, they need to learn what professional looks and feels like so that they can one day be ready to live meaningful and professional lives.

This project allowed my students to learn how to solve problems regarding topics that engaged them.  As they researched their topics, some of them ran into roadblocks such as not enough information or lack of interest.  I helped my students troubleshoot these issues as they occurred.  Some students ran into different types of problems that seemed very advantageous such as too much information or interest in another aspect of the topic.  The students learned how to navigate this crazy world of research.  They then had to prepare a meaningful way to showcase or “publish” their knowledge.  This was probably the most important yet most difficult part of the entire project for the students.  While some of them wanted to take the easy way out by creating a slideshow presentation, I challenged them to think about their topics.  Is a slideshow the best tool for you to convey the information learned in a meaningful way?  For most students, this forced them to step outside of their comfort zone and take a risk.  They tried new things and put together relevant presentations.  Although this challenging task proved difficult for all of the students, they preserved, devised innovative and unique solutions to their problems, employed a growth mindset, and got the job done.  Saturday’s Learning Exposition was a remarkable success.  The students nicely highlighted their learning and ability to be professional as they shared what they learned with other teachers and faculty members.  The teachers in attendance were amazed by the quality of the student presentations.  The boys knew their topics very well and shared what they learned in engaging ways.

While my students are far from joining the workforce and going off into the real-world any time soon, I do need be sure they are aptly prepared for their future before tomorrow becomes today.  Helping students learn how to address adults professionally, convey their thoughts in meaningful and relevant ways, and share what they learned in engaging ways, is simply one way I can be sure my students will be well-equipped to live meaningful lives in a global society upon completion of their academic careers.  Projects like the one we just completed allow students the chance to practice what it’s like to be an adult who is in charge.  As I told them, they were the teachers in the classroom on Saturday.  They were the adults who had to navigate the sometimes uneasy waters of life.  What if your computer malfunctions?  What if someone asks a question you can’t answer?  What if the unexpected happens?  This unique and special experience the students went through in my Humanities class over the past three weeks allowed them to think like an adult and be prepared to tackle real-world problems.  It was awe-inspiring to watch my students talk to my fellow colleagues in exciting and professional ways.  They were polite and in charge.  Mission, accomplished.

As my body begins to heal itself with the aid of modern medicine, I’m left pondering all the beauty that life has to offer.  How did I get to be so lucky?  How is it that I am able to work with such a fine class of sixth grade boys who are constantly growing and developing on a daily basis?  I’ll chock it up to good Karma.  Yeah, that’s it.


What Makes an Effective Sixth Grade Program?

As the winter term winds to a close today at my wonderful school, I find myself reflecting and pondering grading, assessment, and our overall academic program.  What makes an effective academic program?  What allows a school to function in a meaningful and relevant manner?  This then led me to contemplate the sixth grade program that I’ve been working on developing over the past 11 years or so…


Going through the adolescent stage of development is like being on a roller coaster without a seat belt.  When you flip upside down, you fall out of your seat unless you are holding on with everything you’ve got.  Each benchmark within adolescence brings new turns, curves, and loops.  Working with adolescent boys is like trying to dodge raindrops.  You can’t avoid the inevitable.  Craziness and chaos will ensue.  But heck, that’s why middle school teachers work with this age group.  We’re a little crazy too because we remember what it was like to be this age.

At Cardigan, we make it our mission to mold young boys into compassionate and mindful young men.  It’s a wild and sometimes frustrating journey, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  Boys who attend sixth grade at Cardigan begin this adventure earlier than most as it is the youngest and smallest grade at our school.  Because of this, we have created a very unique  program that will help our boys foster a family spirit and connection that they carry with them throughout their time at Cardigan; to help provide them with some safety features on the bumpy roller coaster of adolescence.


Brain-based research on how learning really happens reveals that students learn best when they are engaged, motivated, feel safe, are challenged and supported.  The sixth grade program has greatly evolved over the years due to this research and, as sixth grade teachers, we are always trying to find new and innovative ways to inspire and effectively educate and prepare our boys for meaningful lives in a global society.

Our Philosophy: We’re a family, and families take care of each other

The first ten weeks of the academic year are focused on building a strong family atmosphere amongst the students.  One of our biggest goals in the sixth grade is to foster a sense of family within the boys.  We want the students to understand and be able to effectively coexist with one another in a way that celebrates their differences.  First, as teachers, we model the behavior we expect to see from the students.  Second, we spend time each week talking about what makes an effective community.  We have the students share personal information about themselves including interests, hobbies, sports, and social identifiers.  We help the boys examine all parts of their personality that remain hidden to most of the world.  In exploring this, the students begin to think deeply and critically about themselves and how they fit into the world.  They also have a chance to share this information with their peers.  While making them vulnerable, it helps the boys make deep connections with each other.  We provide the students with specific strategies on how to communicate with their peers effectively, how to solve problems amongst themselves, and how to work together as a team to accomplish tasks.  We utilize numerous team building activities as catalysts for these mini-lessons: The boys build spaghetti towers in small groups, create a scavenger hunt with a partner, and solve various tasks that provide opportunities to practice and learn how to be effective teammates.  We want the boys to understand what it takes to be Cardigan community member.  

During the first month of school, we take the boys on an overnight trip to our school’s CORE cabin to help build a sense of family and community within the boys.  While the location of the cabin is on our campus, it feels very like it could be miles away.  We build a fire together and then roast marshmallows.  We tell stories, play games, and interact as a family.  If problems arise, we take the time to help the students learn how to work together to solve them.  It’s an amazing experience that helps lay the groundwork for future whole-class experiences we will provide the boys with throughout our year together.


During the first term of the academic year, we spend time helping the students learn how to be present and mindful in the moment.  We teach the students many different mindful practices and strategies including deep breathing, visualization, yoga, and meditation.  The boys learn how to self-soothe and calm themselves during moments of intense emotion so that they are able to get the most out of each learning experience in the sixth grade.  We revisit and review these strategies periodically throughout the year as well so that the boys don’t forget them and are able to see the power they hold in helping them stay focused and in the present moment during class.

Classroom Organization

In order to help foster a sense of engagement in the classroom and to allow our students to feel as though they can focus on the lesson or activity at hand, our classroom is organized in a very specific manner.  

We have a reading nook area for small group work, independent reading, and movie viewing when appropriate.  The boys can sit or lie on the carpet squares in any way that allows them to feel engaged and focused.  We also have a small group work table for those students who need to be sitting to work and stay focused.  The desk table area is towards the front of the classroom near our interactive board and projector.  We use whiteboard tables to allow the students the opportunity to take notes, brainstorm, solve math problems, or just doodle upon them while working or listening.  We also use rocking style chairs at the desk work area to allow those students who need to move and stay focused.  These chairs help create a sense of calm and focus in the classroom during full group instruction lessons.  While every student is rocking, they are able to pay attention and listen intently.

These classroom organizational choices are based on the neuroscience of learning.  Students are able to genuinely learn the concepts and skills covered when they feel safe, engaged, and motivated.  The classroom furniture we use and the spaces we’ve created help our students to learn in a meaningful way.


Our goal is for our boys to feel connected to and engaged with the curriculum we employ in the sixth grade.  We want the students to enjoy coming to classes because they are excited and interested in what is happening.  We are constantly revising and updating what we do and how we do it, and because of this, our curriculum is a living and breathing entity.


In our humanities class, the students develop their critical thinking skills to become community-minded young men with an awareness of the world around them.  We begin the year with a unit on community so that they learn to accept and appreciate differences in others.  Through completing various activities during the first two weeks of the academic year, the students begin to understand how they fit into our sixth grade family as well as the greater Cardigan community.  The boys also learn much about their peers through this first unit.  Everything else we work on throughout the year in humanities class builds upon this foundation we create at the start of the year.  

The humanities class occupies a double block period that covers both the history and English curriculum for the sixth grade.  This integrated approach allows students to see how the big ideas in History and English go hand in hand.  We cover various communities and cultures from around the world so that we can provide the students with a macro view of the world in a micro manner.  Our goal is to help the students understand perspective and how it can change based on many different factors.  We utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction so that a love of reading and writing is fostered within the boys throughout the year.  

For Reader’s Workshop, the students choose just-right (engaging, grade-level and reading-level appropriate) books so that they are interested in what they are reading.  While at the start of the year, several students often seem uninterested in reading, they grow to become voracious and excited readers because the boys can choose books, novels, texts, and e-books that interest and engage them.  

For Writer’s Workshop, the students choose the topics about which they write within the confines of the genre requirements.  The vignette form of writing is the first genre covered in the sixth grade.  Rather than mandate that it be a personal narrative vignette, we allow the students to choose the topic.  This choice and freedom empowers the students.  “I can write a short story about anything?” we often hear our students exclaim.  For boys, writing is generally not something they enjoy doing.  They would much rather go outside and play or explore instead of writing.  We want our students to see writing as something that can be fun and hands-on.  If we allow our students to write about topics that engage them, a sense of excitement develops within them.

Math Class

As math tends to be a loathsome topic for many, we have made it our mission in the sixth grade, to help students see math as fun and meaningful.  We want our students to see how vital the skills they are learning in our math class are to their everyday lives.  While we do follow a book series, we supplement it with projects and activities that allow the students to see the relevance in what they are learning.  For example, to help the students understand the importance in learning how to solve basic computational problems, we complete a unit on the Stock Market, in which the students, working in small groups, invest in the stock market as they learn financial literacy skills.  In order to buy, trade, or sell stocks, bonds, or funds, they need to accurately calculate the costs associated with their particular transaction.  Through this project, the students learn the value of accuracy in solving various computational problems.  

We utilize the Math in Focus: Singapore Math series of books in our sixth grade math course.  We chose this particular math program because of the options it provides students when introducing new skills.  Students can choose one of three ways to solve problems using skills covered.  This versatility and choice leads to better engagement amongst the students as they pick the method that is most relevant to them.  As we often have a wide range of ability in terms of math skills in the sixth grade class each year, we have the flexibility to greatly differentiate our math instruction.  We challenge each student where they are at the start of the academic year.  We have the ability to help students work through a sixth grade, seventh grade, or eighth grade Singapore Math program based on their math capabilities.  This flexibility allows for the students to be actively engaged in the math curriculum as they are being appropriately challenged.

Science Class

Our science class teaches students to persevere.  They learn how to overcome adversity, think differently, see problems from numerous perspectives, communicate effectively, and be curious. We teach students what to do when faced with a new problem. As Angela Lee Duckworth stated in her well-received TED Talk, we need to teach our students how to be gritty. Our sixth graders are provided with opportunities to explore, try new things, fail, try again, talk with their peers, sketch out new ideas, and then do it all over again.

Our science curriculum holds the bar high for our students. Rigor doesn’t mean that we require more work to be done for the sake of doing it, it means that the standards and objectives we are teaching are challenging, specific, and relevant. Our science units challenge students to think creatively and solve problems in innovative ways. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are the foundation of our curriculum. These standards promote rigor and problem solving in fun and engaging ways.

In past years, we have completed units on astronomy, geology, Earth science, weather, ecology, and chemistry.  Every unit incorporates some sort of project or group activity that challenges the students to think critically to creatively solve problems by applying the content information learned.  For example, in our astronomy unit, we had the students work together to solve a problem facing Earth that originated outside of our planet’s atmosphere.  The students then created a space vehicle, using Little Bits, that allowed them to apply their unique solution to the problem.  Teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity are some of the skills learned and practiced throughout the completion of this project.


At Cardigan, while we weave study skills into every course that we teach, we have one class devoted to supplementing and supporting every other core subject: Personalized Education for the Acquisition of Knowledge and Skills (PEAKS).  The true purpose of the course is to help the students understand how they best learn, metacognition.  We begin the year with a unit on the brain and its amazing plasticity as a way to help the students learn to become self-aware and genuinely own their learning.  The students learn how to change their thinking in the classroom so that they can approach every new task with a growth mindset.  Throughout the rest of the year, the PEAKS class works to provide the students with the vital academic and study skills they need to be successful learners, thinkers, and problem solvers.  If the students are working on a research project in Humanities class, they will learn how to effectively take notes from their sources and practice doing it in PEAKS class.  This course supports and challenges each and every student where and when they need it.


Student engagement isn’t confined within the walls of the classroom.  What the students do or don’t do outside of the classroom can be equally important.  If students aren’t seeing the relevance or value in their homework assignments, then we’ve lost them.  In the sixth grade, we approach homework in the same manner we approach everything.  It’s all about choice and engagement.  We want the students to further practice the skills learned in the classroom in a captivating way that allows them to continue learning and growing as a student.  Homework is not graded and assessed purely for effort.  If we want our students to practice, fail, try again, and continue to practice, then we must not grade this practice work.  Plus, since the students are completing the work outside of the classroom, it is difficult to know who is doing the work and how it is being done.  Are the boys getting assistance from peers, teachers, or parents to complete the work?  While we promote this self-help approach, grading the individual students on work when we don’t know exactly how the work was completed.  Most of the homework assigned is a continuation of what was worked on in class.  

For example, in humanities class, we do much writing and reading.  So, a typical homework assignment is to read from their Reader’s Workshop book for 30 minutes.  As they choose their Reader’s Workshop books based on ability and interest level, the engagement is already there.  Plus, this practice allows them to increase their reading stamina so that they are prepared for the reading demands of seventh grade.  Homework assignments shouldn’t be separate, stand-alone tasks that overly challenge the students.  Developmentally, by the time the sixth graders get to evening study hall at 7:30 p.m. they are exhausted and unable to focus for a long period of time in order to effectively process information and solve problems.  You might say that our homework assignments complement the classroom curriculum the way a beautiful brooch can bring out the colors of a flowing dress.

Project-Based Learning

To prepare students for lives in the global society in which they will live and work, we teach our students how to effectively work in groups to solve open-ended problems with no right or wrong answer. Students need to know how to delegate tasks, lead groups of their peers, follow instructions, ask questions, and solve problems. Project Based Learning ties all of the aforementioned skills together with ribbons of the required curriculum. While the students are engaged with the content and hands-on aspects of the project, they are also learning crucial life skills that will help them persevere and learn to overcome adversity.

Standards-Based Assessment

To help our students adopt learning skills necessary to grow and develop as critical thinkers and problem solvers, we use a standards-based system of grading. The focus is on the standard or objective being assessed. If our curriculum is set up according to the standards, why should we grade the students on anything other than what the curriculum asks? If we are teaching paragraph structure and the standard is, students will be able to craft an original, properly formatted, and complete paragraph, then we should only be grading student work on that one standard using a scale that aligns with the school’s grading criteria? Points must not be taken away for spelling, grammar, or other reasons unless the paragraph is being assessed regarding those standards as well. Rick Wormeli and other leading educational reform leaders have been talking about standards-based grading for years. It is the only way to accurately grade students on what is essential.

In this vein, we also want the students to understand that learning is a process.  Education is like a living organism.  Our students will grow, change, regress, and evolve throughout the year.  As we expect and want our students to meet or exceed all of the objectives covered so that we know they will be fully prepared for seventh grade, we allow students to redo work that doesn’t meet the graded objectives.  The boys are allowed to redo all and any work for a unit until the unit has finished.  They can seek help from the teachers and utilize any feedback we provide to them in order to showcase their ability to meet or exceed the objectives.  This grading system is dynamic and can be changed to allow for the students to employ a growth mindset and truly own their learning.


At Cardigan, we prepare students for an unknown future in a world that will inevitably be very different from its current state.  Because of this, in the sixth grade, we have devised over many years of data collection, research, and practice, to develop a strong and creative academic and social program that engages students in an applicable curriculum that teaches problem solving, critical thinking, coexistence, and how to manifest and utilize a growth mindset.  Students who attend Cardigan Mountain School starting in the sixth grade and then go onto graduate at the close of their ninth grade year receive a meaningful and rich experience.  They grow up together, and, in turn, a family atmosphere and spirit is created within that group of four-year boys.  While it can be challenging at times to be a sixth grade student at Cardigan, our inclusive program helps the boys feel safe and connected within a special family known as the sixth grade.

How Can We Help Students Learn How they Learn Best?

In college, I found myself constantly thinking, Why didn’t I learn this in middle school or high school?  During my Freshman year at Keene State College, I struggled quite a bit with some basic academic skills.  I didn’t know how to take meaningful and relevant notes from a class lecture.  After weeks of trying to write down every word the teacher uttered, I found a method that worked for me.  I also did not know how to effectively prepare for tests and quizzes, which is why I failed most of my assessments during my first semester at college.  It wasn’t until I talked to some of my friends and learned about how they prepared for tests that I found a system that worked for me.  I would have been much more successful during my Freshman year at KSC had I previously learned the crucial skills of note taking and test taking.  Why didn’t I learn those skills in high school?  It was very easy for me to blame my teachers during that first year away from home as I struggled to get through a challenging course load, but the only person who was responsible for not learning those vital academic skills was me.  These skills were taught in my middle school and high school; however, I failed to put forth the effort necessary to practice and genuinely learn them.  I didn’t attempt to learn how to be the best student possible.  While school always came easy to me in high school, I never figured out how I learn best because I was so focused on simply finishing tasks and assignments.  I never learned how to learn well or be an effective student, and that came back to haunt me in college.  Although I have very few regrets in life so far, I do wish that I had put more effort into focusing on how to be the best student possible.  I wish I had learned how to learn in a meaningful way.

As a teacher, I don’t want my students to have this same regret.  I want my students to truly know themselves as learners, thinkers, students, people, and problem solvers.  I want them to know what works well for them in school and into what areas they need to put forth more effort.  For every project, task, or assignment my sixth grade students complete, I make sure they know why they are completing this task and what skills they are learning and/or practicing.  I want them to see the purpose and relevance in everything we do in the classroom.  Once they see the value, for themselves, in what we are doing in the classroom, they will put forth effort to learn the vital academic skill being taught or practiced.  During these times, I make sure that each student finds what works best for them.  For example, if a student is learning how to utilize bullet-style notes to extract important details from an online source, I work with him to help him realize the most effective way for him to complete bullet-style notes.  For some students, they need to use complete sentences when taking this style of notes because it helps them make more sense of the material they are reading or learning about; however, for other students, they may find that pulling out key words or phrases is a more effective method of using this style of notes.  I want my students to find what works best for them.  As every student is different, each student needs to understand how he or she learns and works best.  I make it a priority to help my students learn how they learn best so that they don’t ever have to feel lost or confused like I did in college.

Today during Humanities class, as my students worked on the presentation for their Africa Projects, I was able to meander through the classroom like a magnificent stream running through a beautiful hardwood forest, observing my students.  I watched them work, answered questions they had about the process and requirements, helped them find materials requested, and provided them with feedback on their work.  One student chose a visual aide tool that I knew would be ineffective for him, and so I worked with him to help him realize this on his own.  I empowered him to find a visual aide vehicle that would be more suitable and engaging for him and his topic.  After much brainstorming and a few trials, he settled on creating a poster to highlight what he learned about the government of South Africa.  Another student seemed to be struggling to stay focused on the task at hand throughout the period.  While he wasn’t distracting his peers, he also wasn’t being productive.  I spoke with him about this during class, but saw no change in his work ethic throughout the period.  Emotionally, he seemed to be in a good place, and so I wondered what the problem was.  At first, I thought it was because he chose a presentation method that was not engaging or interesting him in any way.  Then, at lunch, I spoke with him about this, mentioning what I noticed and hypothesized.  He disagreed with me and revealed that he was distracted by a peer that was sitting near him.  While I never saw the distractions themselves, this student felt as though he did not choose the best spot in which to work.  So, he knows for tomorrow, that he needs to find a spot away from this other student in order to stay focused and be more productive and on-task during class.  Although he came to this conclusion on his own, I’ve spent much time during the last few months helping my students learn how they learn best.  They learned the power in choosing the right spot in the classroom for them.  This student clearly learned that and is planning to apply it in class tomorrow.  He knows how he learns best.

Much power exists for students when they learn how to learn.  My students are beginning to understand themselves as students and learners this year, and it has paid huge dividends.  They have made much progress since September due to the fact that they approach every new task or assignment with a growth mindset and much self-awareness.  When I tell my students to get to work, they silently set goals for themselves, find appropriate spots in which to work, spread the necessary materials out in front of them, and work in a focused manner.  When they encounter problems, they attempt to solve them on their own using critical thinking and self-awareness.  If they are unable to figure out their own problems, they quietly ask a peer or table partner to help before seeking help from me.  They know how to help themselves be the best students possible.  It’s quite amazing, and is sure to help them continue to grow and develop as they matriculate through the grades in school.  I’m hopeful, that this foundation I’m helping them to lay this year in the sixth grade will prevent them for being unprepared for their future years of education and schooling.  Knowing oneself as a learner, is vital to one’s future success in life.

Transforming Grampa Grammar Into Cool Uncle Cal

Grammar is like the prim and proper grandfather of the language family.  He wears a fancy sweater vest, which is made entirely of wool from sheep only found in Ireland, underneath his brown plaid blazer.  He has a copious vocabulary of large words, but doesn’t flaunt them often.  He’s quiet, but speaks when necessary.  The other members of the family are scared to ask speak with him as they are worried about the difficult questions he may pose.  What’s the difference between affect and effect?  Should you use lie or lay in the sentence?  He sits in the back of the room, usually in the middle of the couch.  Despite his quiet demeanor, he is the glue that holds the family together.  When trouble strikes, Grampa Grammar is there to save the day.  He adds conjunctions to run-on sentences to prevent them from running amok.  He throws periods and commas into oceans of text, saving many lives from drowning in chaos and confusion.  He is the quiet leader of the language family, despite his need for specificity and accuracy.

Grammar has always struck me as that grandfather-like figure who corrects you when you mistakenly use myself or them in speaking with him.  While no one really likes Grampa Grammar, we need him to know how to properly speak and write in any language.  In high school, I used to despise grammar lessons, as they felt so forced and difficult.  Why do I really need to underline every adjective clause in the 20 sentences on this worksheet?  Is this knowledge every really going to save my life or come in handy in the future?  Pssst, I hate to be that guy, but I’ve never needed to know grammar specifics since graduating from college.  If I’m ever curious about word usage or parts of speech, I look them up online or in the grammar guide I used in college.  Now, just because I don’t find myself needing to identify what type of preposition is in this sentence, doesn’t mean that it’s not important and good to learn all about grammar and what makes language tick.  Grammar can be very fun and interesting.  Diagramming sentences can be a really great way to spend a Saturday night with some friends.  If you incorrectly identify the part of speech of any word, you must drink an entire can of Mt. Dew soda while reciting the alphabet backwards.  What could possibly be more fun than that?  In all seriousness though, grammar should be an essential part of every Humanities or language class; however, how it is taught makes the difference between allowing students to see grammar as the stuffy grampa in the back of the room or the cool uncle that lets you drive his new Camaro.

Over the years, how I have taught grammar in my Humanities class has evolved.  I used to teach it in a way that made my students dislike it as much as I did.  Then, after doing research on grammar instruction over the years, I’ve come to realize that in order for students to really appreciate and see the joy and importance in grammar, I need to teach the topic in a relevant and engaging manner.  Worksheets make grammar seem uncool.  So, I’ve moved towards mini-lessons and novelty instruction.  I’ve tried to find new and intriguing ways to help my students understand why our language works the way in which it does.

Yesterday, I helped my students understand the evils of run-on sentences and how to prevent them from happening in their writing.  I began the mini-lesson with a quick discussion on run-on sentences.  I asked the students to define the term. I explained to the students that run-on sentences are like wild animals running loose in the classroom.  If we’re not careful, they will take over the world.  We need to keep them contained and leashed at all times.  The boys found this image quite humorous, which allowed it to better stick in their minds for future reference.  I’m sure that very few of my students will forget run-on sentences and how to prevent them from happening in their writing any time soon.  I then had the boys, independently, correct two run-on sentences on paper so that they had a chance to individually demonstrate their ability and prior knowledge on the topic.  This short activity then led into a whole class discussion on run-on sentences and how to fix them.  I explained the different types of run-on sentences that they will often see in their writing or the writing of their peers.  I had volunteers correct the sentences they had practiced repairing on their own.  This then brought up many different points including conjunctions, commas, semicolons, and periods.  We laughed and had fun discussing grammar.  The boys seemed thoroughly engaged the entire time.  In about 15 minutes, I helped my students understand how to properly write grammatically correct sentences.  Awesome sauce!

Yesterday’s lesson helped me see the power of novelty and engagement.  I need to find creative and inventive ways to teach my students all about grammar.  Simply providing my students with information on the parts of speech will not help them genuinely learn and remember grammar and how to create grammatically correct sentences.  I need to make grammar sticky for them, mentally speaking, so that they will be able to remember and effectively recall this information at a later date and time.  Today during class, when we were discussing trivia questions and how noone in the class answered a question correctly, one of the students said, “It’s like the run-on sentences taking over the classroom.  Craziness and chaos ensue.”  Yes, I thought to myself.  They get it and remembered it.  Mission, accomplished.

As I reflected on what this student said to me, it made me realize that I need to make all of my grammar lessons memorable, just like that one.  So, my brain began percolating, and ideas started flowing like chocolate from a fountain…

I would start introducing grammar at the beginning of the year by having students interact and play with magnetic poetry words.  I’d have them create super long and interesting phrases and lines of words.  I would then provide them all with a plastic knife that would represent a scalpel and train them to be language doctors.  I wouldn’t even use the word grammar.  I would simply talk about the need for knowing how to fix their own writing and the writing of their classmates.  I would then build on these language doctor lessons throughout the first term using grammar concepts without ever uttering the often evil word “grammar.”

I love it.  My idea is based on how some teachers at a school with struggling math students created a new course for them that wasn’t called a math class and the word math was never mentioned until the very end of the academic year.  The students solved problems and learned complex math concepts without even realizing that they were learning math.  My approach to grammar instruction would do the same thing.  I can’t wait to try it next year.  In the meantime, I’m going to keep trying to make grammar fun and exciting for my students this year.  I might even pilot some of my language doctor ideas later in the year to see how they work out.  When grammar becomes boring like the old grampa in the room, students become disengaged.  As grammar is the glue that holds language together, we need to help our students see grammar concepts as vital and important.  We need to empower our students to become language fixers instead of language disaster makers.

Challenging Students Where they Are

As research on learning and the brain has proven over the years, direct instruction is not an effective method of teaching for every student, in every class.  Teacher directed learning engages such a small amount of the population in any given class, and usually leads to disengagement.  Not every student learns in the same exact way, and so treating the classroom as a factory floor does not work when educating the future of our world.  Genuine learning cannot be fostered when the teacher is doing all of the talking, thinking, asking, and active learning.  Teachers need to transform their classrooms into student-centered, hands-on, safe zones.  Students need to be driving the active learning, talking, and thinking in the classroom for tangible growth and development to take place.  It’s all about meeting the students where they are and challenging them from that point.

In the sixth grade, my co-teacher and I meet with each and every student at least once a day to discuss their learning or behavior.  We are constantly providing our students with feedback on how to grow and develop as students and people.  We push them to become the best version of themselves possible.  Conferencing with the students one-on-one allows us the opportunity to ask the boys probing questions while challenging them to think outside the box.  In a teacher-centered classroom, individual conferences are not possible as the teacher dictates what is learned and how that learning must happen.  If we want our students to enjoy the process of learning and truly understand themselves as learners, then we need to empower them to think critically and creatively about what is being learned and how they must show mastery of it.

Today in my Humanities class, the students continued working on their Africa Project.  Almost every student was working on a different phase of the project.  I love how individualized and independent activities like this allow the students to be.  Those students who process information swiftly, have the chance to move quickly through the beginning stages while those students who need more time to assess the content and material, will be provided the opportunity to work at their own pace.  This is student-centered learning in action.  As the boys worked in class today, I observed and provided them all with feedback.  It was so much fun to watch them grow and learn as thinkers, students, and problem solvers.

  • As one student worked on creating his slideshow presentation, I noticed that he had way too much text on each slide, in the tiniest font possible.  So, I suggested that he think about the main message behind the text he had on his slide and summarize it into five or fewer bullets.  As he found this feedback useful, he revised his slides and then created cue cards for what he wants to make sure he mentions during his presentation.
  • One student shared with me that he was going to type out his notes so that when people came to visit his presentation booth at our Learning Exposition, he could hand them his packet of notes to read.  I challenged him to think about how to create a more engaging presentation.  After some thinking and processing, he realized how boring his presentation format would be, and so he decided to create a website instead.  This new presentation vehicle inspired him to think creatively and solve lots of problems as he learned to navigate the Google Sites online application.
  • When one student overheard me mention the idea of adding a Kahoot quiz to another student’s presentation, he was inspired to create a quiz in his presentation; however, he challenged himself to create a different type of quiz that used Google Forms, a tool he is not at all familiar with.  I was so amazed by his ingenuity and problem-solving prowess.
  • As one student chose to create a poster as the visual aide for his presentation, I asked him to think about the layout.  He needed to make a blueprint of what his poster would look like before I provided him with a piece of posterboard.  Before providing him with the material he needed, I shared with him some samples of effective posters students had created last year.  I wanted him to see the caliber of work that he should be expected to hold himself to.  I also wanted to inspire him to make use of the skill of organization when it comes to presenting material learned to others.

These individual student conferences or check-ins allowed me the opportunity to ask my students questions to inspire high-level, critical thinking and creativity today in class.  If I want my students to live meaningful lives in a global society, they need to understand themselves as students and people.  They need to know which strategies work well for them and which do not help them at all.  They need to know how to solve problems encountered.  Student-centered learning with support and scaffolding provided by the teacher allows for exploration and engagement in the classroom.  Students choose how and what they learn while being challenged to step outside of their comfort zone.  Learning must be about our students and not about us as the teacher.  We are the guides from the side while our students are the magicians in the middle.

The Power of Mindfulness with a Dash of Social and Emotional Learning

As the research proves, mindfulness is highly effective in helping students stay engaged and focused in the classroom.  Teaching students to be present in the moment allows them to address their emotional baggage appropriately so that they can be the best students possible inside the classroom.  Earlier this year, my co-teacher and I completed a unit on mindfulness with our sixth grade class.  The students learned how to use various mindfulness techniques to self-soothe and stay focused on the task at hand.  They learned how to experience life in the moment rather than watching it play out in a series of Instagram photographs or Snapchat videos.  Most of our students explained how beneficial this unit was in helping them become more effective and engaged students.  They learned how to calm themselves down when they became overly excited, which prevented them from making poor choices and missing out on learning in the classroom.  My co-teacher and I have observed a dramatic change in the attitudes of our students since completing this unit.  They seem more open to new ideas and changes and are able to better control themselves and their choices during the academic morning.  Teaching our students how to be mindful and why it’s vital to their success as students and people, has made all the difference in the classroom this year.

While we completed this unit during the fall term, we haven’t spent much time revisiting the mindful techniques learned since early November.  Although we haven’t noticed much of a change in their overall demeanor and behavior in the classroom, we were beginning to worry that they may forget some of these useful strategies in the near future.  And then I did some reading, that made it very evident that we need to bring back mindfulness in the classroom.

After reading about how schools in Nashville, Tennessee effectively integrated social and emotional learning into their academic day and curriculum, I was curious.  Could I make a version of this model work in my classroom?  As it incorporates mindfulness practices into helping students learn to be kind and compassionate, I felt as though adding components of social and emotional learning to our class day might help all of our students feel more cared for, able to focus, and engaged in the process of learning in the classroom.  Recently, my co-teacher and I have noticed that a few of our students seem unable to leave their emotional baggage at the door when they enter the classroom, which makes it difficult for them to stay focused on the task at hand.  They often struggle to stay on task in class.  We thought that adding a piece of the SEL curriculum that some Nashville schools use might make a difference for at least those few students who are challenged by the daily expectations of our class.  So, this morning, my co-teacher and I revisited mindfulness while adding in some social and emotional learning skills.

We began by explaining why we were doing this activity at the start of class, as we always want our students to understand the purpose behind what we are doing and asking of them in the classroom.  Then, as the students took three mindful breaths, we had them think about all of the distracting, worrisome, exciting, and other thoughts that seemed to be clouding their brains.  Having them focus on these mental clotting factors, allowed them to be mindful of what they were really thinking about.  The students then shared these thoughts with their table partner, focusing on releasing them as they spoke them aloud.  We concluded this first part of our activity by having the boys take two more mindful breaths, focusing on being in the present moment.  We asked them to pay attention to the sounds they heard, sights they saw, and things they felt as they took their two breaths.  We had volunteers share their observations after completing the final mindful breathing exercise.  For phase two of our SEL activity, we had the students focus on appreciations.  What have their sixth grade Cardigan brothers done to help them recently?  How have their peers supported them in or out of the classroom?  What have their classmates done to help them?  We had several students share their noticings.  The boys had very nice, complimentary words to say about their fellow sixth graders.  It was amazing to listen to their kind and caring words as they spread happiness and joy throughout the sixth grade classroom.  We closed the activity, by reminding them to stay self-aware and present in this joy and mindfulness throughout the remainder of the period.

The results of today’s mindfulness and social and emotional learning activity were numerous:

  • The students were much more focused and on-task while working on their Africa Project today than we’ve seen since the start of the project.  They were engaged in what they were doing and learning about.
  • One student who frequently struggles to hear and accept feedback from the teachers, almost immediately changed his mindset and began making the changes suggested to him.  I was thoroughly impressed by how quickly this change took place.  He seemed to understand why he needed to make the change and did so of his own free will.
  • The students were far less distracting than they were yesterday, as they were committed to completing the task at hand.
  • There seemed to be a peaceful atmosphere about the classroom during the work period.  The boys seemed happy and content living in the present moment.  It was very cool.
  • Later in the morning, I asked the students to provide me with some feedback on the SEL activity we completed during first period.  Every student who shared with the class, noted how this activity seemed to help them be more focused and better utilize a growth mindset while working.

The moral of this story is short and sweet, teaching students how to be mindful in the classroom holds much power.  It literally changes their mindset and helps them focus on the learning and not all of the other distractions filling their minds.  So, if you are not incorporating mindfulness techniques into your classroom or curriculum, I highly suggest you give them a try with your students.  A huge plus in all of this is that I have found myself being more mindful and self-aware than in past years.  When I’ve felt overwhelmed in the past few months, I’ve tried some of the breathing techniques I taught my students, and found that I was able to calm myself down and focus on the present moment.  Not only can mindfulness help your students, but it can also help you grow and develop as a teacher and person.

Is Hand Drawing a Map Still a Useful Skill We Should Be Teaching our Students?

Many years ago, in schools around the world, students learned about how maps are made, various map parts, how to read a map, and how to draw maps.  Teachers spent weeks teaching their students all about cartography as they would need to one day learn how to navigate around the world using maps and atlases.  It was a vital skill once upon a time.  Then technology revolutionized maps and cartography and rendered paper maps and atlases almost obsolete.  People use their phones and GPS units to navigate the world.  If someone wants to find out how to travel from here to Boston, MA, they whip out their phone and an app tells them exactly what to do.  People rarely use paper maps anymore because of these technological changes.  So, I’m forced to wonder if teaching students about maps and mapping is necessary.  Should we spend time teaching students all about cartography or skip it?  Is cartography still an important life skill?

In my Humanities class, I still teach my students the importance of mapping and cartography.  I see it as more a lesson in perspective, hand-eye coordination, perseverance, and growth mindset, rather than just a defunct skill that students no longer need to learn about.  My students recreate three different maps over the course of the year, to practice the skill of hand drawing a map.  In class yesterday, my students worked on their tri-layered map of Africa.  They persevered through challenges and difficulties encountered as they created their hand drawn masterpieces.  A few of the students had to completely redo their maps because their proportions were off.  Now, I didn’t tell them to redo their maps, oh no.  You see, when they sought feedback from me on their maps, they realized, on their own, how inaccurate their maps truly were.  They then asked if they could redo their maps.  My response was, “That is one way to solve your problem.”  Other students learned to trust in their own abilities as they created their maps, improving upon their hand-eye coordination from their first map back in December.  A few students seemed to even be enjoying this activity of hand drawing a map.  They liked being able to recreate something just by looking at it.  For each student, this activity of hand drawing a map teaches so much more than just the act of recreating, by hand, a map.  Students are able to truly practice and apply a growth mindset through this activity, as it is equal parts effort and accuracy.

So, while students may no longer need to know how to read an atlas or locate a specific place on a map, they will always need to learn how to persevere through challenges, use a growth mindset when encountering new information or experiences, and use their hands to create or make something.  Learning about the art of cartography and mapping is merely the vehicle I use to help students learn how to be effective thinkers, problem solvers, and creators.

The Power in Teaching Students to Understand Computer Coding

I love teaching sixth grade, and it’s one of the reasons why I wake up so happy each and every morning.  I love challenging students to think critically.  I love watching my students struggle through problems using perseverance and a growth mindset.  I love guiding students to the metaphorical watering hole of learning and watching them figure out what to do once there.  I love teaching Humanities and our study skills classes.  I love helping students learn how they learn best.  I love helping students broaden their perspective.  I love everything about my role in the sixth grade this year, well, almost everything that is.

Last May when the school needed to hire a new co-teacher to work with me in the sixth grade, I was offered a choice: Teach STEM or teach Humanities?  As I majored in English in college, I feel most qualified to teach the Humanities class; however, I developed the STEM class three years ago and have been the only teacher of the course since its inception.  It’s kind of my thing, but I was never formally trained in teaching math or science and so I always felt like I had to do much learning on my own outside of class.  My understanding of the STEM content was very limited.  While I loved teaching STEM class, I always felt a little in over my head.  So, I chose to stick with Humanities.  While I love teaching my Humanities class, I do miss the hands-on and engaging projects I had the students do last year in STEM class.  Don’t get me wrong, my new co-teacher is doing a fabulous job teaching the STEM course this year, but I do miss all of the fun I had in STEM class the past three years.  It’s very easy to get students excited about a topic when they are able to play with Little Bits to create a working rover.  It’s a lot harder to get students excited about the topic of government in Humanities class, no matter what type of project or activity is used to convey the information.  I miss working with the students in STEM class.

Today reminded me, yet again, of just how much I miss teaching STEM class.  In our study skills class today, I pushed the PAUSE button on our regularly scheduled unit on Academic Integrity so that I could have the students participate in the global Hour of Code event taking place this week.  After showing the students a short video created by the wonderful folks at, I had the boys choose an activity on the Hour of Code website to complete for the remainder of class, which ended up being about 30 minutes.  The boys had so much fun learning how to create the fun and engaging video games they often play including Minecraft, Flappy Bird, and other such games.  The students persevered through challenges, asked peers for help when needed, used a growth mindset to think critically about their problems in new and unique ways, and had a ton of fun learning how computer coding works.  They learned how if and then statements work as well as how difficult it is to create just one tiny portion of a very complex video game.  They realized how important every space, digit, or letter truly is when coding.  At the end of the period, the boys looked as though they had lost their puppy dog when I had them shut their laptops to close the class.  They didn’t want to stop programming games and having fun.  They didn’t want to stop learning.  A few students remained in the classroom during their free period 90 minutes later to keep working on the coding projects they had started earlier in the day.  The boys had so much fun engaging in an activity that hopefully inspired them to learn more and perhaps made a few of the boys realize where their passion lies.

In STEM class last year, I had the students use the online program Code Combat on a weekly basis to learn computer coding.  The boys had so much fun learning how to make computer games.  I really missed that, until today.  Today gave me a taste of what I was missing, and made me realize that I don’t have to miss it.  Coding isn’t just a STEM topic.  Coding applies to every subject.  Computer coding can be used to help students learn how to be brief and succinct writers in English class.  Coding can be used to help students work through challenging math problems in the form of games.  Coding can be used to help students understand complex ideas such as government.  Coding doesn’t have to be something that is only taught in tech or STEM classes.  Coding could and should be taught or covered in every class.  I could easily use coding programs in Humanities class or our study skills course.  I don’t have to pine away for what once was when I can bring the magic into the classes I am currently teaching.  I can use coding to inject a little more engagement into the classes I do teach.  Coding is the language of the future, and so I should capitalize on this in every way possible.

How to Create Just the Right Project for Your Students

Creating an engaging project that promotes critical thinking while also allowing students to showcase their learning regarding various objectives covered throughout a unit is quite the challenging task.  It can feel like planning a wedding in two weeks or finding out two days before Thanksgiving that you’re hosting the holiday for 25 people.  Ahhh!  It’s overwhelming and a bit scary, but after you take a few deep breaths, realize that you can do anything, solutions will come.

As teachers, we work tirelessly to engage and excite our students.  We want them to love coming to our class.  We want them to love learning because it’s fun.  While not every unit we cover can make use of a project or activity that excites our students, we are always looking for some feature to our units that will help bring the learning to life.  We want our students to want to learn and accomplish tasks because they are having fun.  Competitions of all types can do this, but sometimes, at the cost of compassion and integrity.  So then, how can we create the perfect project for our students?

  1. Pour over the content and objectives you are looking to cover in a unit.  What are the big ideas and essential questions?  How can you turn those essential questions into an exploration or project for the students?  Extracting the big ideas from an upcoming unit will help inspire you to create that one perfect project.
  2. Know your students.  What excites them?  Do they like hands-on projects?  Do they like group projects?  Do they like to talk and discuss?  Knowing what your students enjoy, will help you to design and construct a meaningful project for them.
  3. Begin laying out your unit.  Map it out using whatever information systems management software your school uses.  My school makes use of PowerSchool.  Put everything together and map out your daily lessons.  As you start to see it all come together, a project idea may smack you right in the frontal lobe.
  4. Create the best project or final assessment that you are able to at the time.  You may not like your first few ideas, and that’s okay.  As you process the information and your ideas, a better, more fun idea is bound to come into your mind.  In order to get something new, you must start with something old first.
  5. If you’ve created your entire unit and still have no ideas for the perfect project, don’t stress or worry.  Talk to colleagues.  What projects or activities do they use in their classroom that engage their students?  How can you tweak those ideas to fit your unit?  Go online and see what other teachers are doing.  Imitation is the best form of flattery, someone very wise once said.
  6. If you’ve come to the end of your unit and your students completed the original project or assessment you created, don’t fret and feel like a failure.  Use the experience as a learning opportunity.  Ask the students what they thought.  Have them complete a reflection on the unit and final project.  Ask them for ideas.  Our students are often like untapped sugar maple trees, full of syrupy goodness.  They may have ideas and suggestions for us.  Some of my best ideas have come from feedback I received from my students.
  7. Revise your unit for next year, based on all of the feedback and ideas you’ve gathered during the implementation phase.  By this point, you should have created a very perfect, engaging project for next year, and already been thinking about future projects you can do with this year’s class.  Reflective teaching allows for growth and development to happen at a swift pace.

As I was putting together a recent unit on the foundations of government, I felt the pressure of creating the perfect project.  I wanted to engage my students in the learning process.  Nothing I brainstormed seemed appropriate or fun.  So, I designed my unit with what I felt was the best possible final assessment idea, and then just let it be.  After a few days of processing all of the thoughts and ideas swirling about my head, the perfect idea finally came to me.  So, I revised my unit before I began utilizing it in the classroom.  It felt good to put together something that I was excited about it.  Positive energy is contagious, much like common colds are in the classroom.  If we are excited about something as teachers, we will present it to our students in a way that will hopefully energize them as well.

Yesterday, I introduced the final project to the students, with much fanfare.  They were excited to get started.  Not only did they love the idea that it was a partner project, but they seemed super jazzed about the fact that they had total creative license over almost every aspect of the project.  They had very few questions after I explained the project and went over the digital version of the project that I had put together on PowerSchool.  Was that a bad thing?  No, because I’m sure questions will come up as they work, and I will field them then.  They couldn’t wait to get started.  The creative and positive energy flowing around the classroom was palpable.  The boys had smiles on their faces as they designed flags for their utopian state.  The students had deep and meaningful conversations about where in the world their state should be located based on natural disasters, closeness to the equator, and other factors.  They were thinking critically and creatively about the task at hand.  I could not have been more proud or excited than I was yesterday.  When I informed the students that it was time to pick up and prepare for their next class, you could feel, the energy level change.  They were disappointed that they could no longer work on this project.  Then, after class had ended, a few students were in the hallway discussing their plan for working on the project this weekend, outside of the classroom.  They are so excited about completing this learning task and doing well on it that they are creating a plan to work during their only chunk of free time.  Wow!  I think that says it all right there.  I created the perfect project for my students and the unit.  It took time, energy, and much thinking and searching, but I was able to do it.  Sometimes it comes down to perseverance and growth mindset.  As we teach our students the value of utilizing a growth mindset, it’s important that we remember to employ one ourselves as we are working and teaching.  Anyone can create the perfect project for their students and the unit being covered.

Below is the project description for the perfect project I introduced to my students in class yesterday:

Creating the Perfect State Project

Once you have learned all about the purpose of government, the roles of government, the features of a state, and the types of government, you will have a chance to apply that knowledge and create your own, perfect state and government.  What will your state’s territory look like on a map?  What will be the features of your population?  What form of government will your country utilize?  Be creative and have fun as you create a utopian place for all to live in harmony.


  1. Choose a partner that you feel you will be able to work with effectively, and report your selection to Mr. Holt.
  2. Create a unique, fictional island state, complete with government and population.
  3. Complete the Sovereign State worksheet with your partner.
  4. Watch Google Sites Video Tutorial to Learn how to use the Google Sites application.
  5. Create a Google Sites website to promote your country and inform others about its features.
  6. Share your website with at least two faculty members in order to receive meaningful and useful feedback that you can use to revise and improve your website.
  7. Finalize website and share it with the world.

Website Requirements

Your finished and neatly organized Google Sites website must answer and address the following questions about your unique and fictional but effective state:

  • Where in the world is your state located and what are its borders?
  • What form of government will your fictional state utilize and why?
  • What are the features of your population, including level of wealth, level of education, cultural traditions, and where people live, and why did you decide upon them?
  • How are the leaders of government and assembly selected and voted upon, and why?
  • How do elections happen in your state, and why?
  • How is your state protected, and why?
  • How are laws made in your state, and why?
  • What are the roles citizens and how are citizens protected in your state, and why?
  • What is the process by which someone who is not born in your state can become a citizen of your state, and why?
  • Why should and would outsiders want to live in or visit your state?

Graded Objectives

  • Students will be able to identify and describe the four features of a state.
  • Students will be able to explain how the four roles of government impact a place and its people.
  • Students will be able to synthesize and apply knowledge learned regarding the roles of government and the four features of a state to create a fictional but effective country.
  • Students will be able to utilize the program Google Sites appropriately to create a working web site.

Due Date

Your finished website must be posted and made live for others to view by the end of class on Friday, November 17.

Making a Lesson, on the Purpose of Government, Engaging

As I was certainly not an engaged nor studious student when I was in school, I retained very little from my history classes regarding civics and government.  Until I began teaching the subject, I could tell you almost nothing about the three branches of American government.  I didn’t think I needed to be aware of this type of information.  It’s not like I was going to run for public office or anything.  Why do I need to know how the judicial branch works?  I was young and naive way back then.  I thought I knew everything I needed to know.  Boy was I ever wrong.

Over the past several years I’ve done much research on the teaching of history and social studies to know that I should have paid much better attention when I was in school.  As citizens of a country, it is our civic responsibility to know how our country and government works.  I should understand how the electoral college works as well as the purpose it serves, but I don’t.  So, over the past few years, I’ve been doing a lot of make-up learning.  It’s been great fun educating myself all about how countries and governments work.  Now that I am equipped with all of this knowledge, I feel powerful, like I could take on the world, or at least run for public office.  Instead though, I’ve realized that with this power comes great responsibility.  I’m sort of like a superhero.  No, even better, a super-teacher.  Therefore, my new superpower is being able to teach my students to understand their civic responsibilities.  I want my students to see the importance in understanding the history of one’s country and government.  I want my boys to be informed citizens, regardless of from where they come.

About three weeks ago, I was speaking with a former student of mine who is now a sophomore at our local public school.  He misses Cardigan and his experience here, but is doing very well at his new school as he felt prepared.  His time at Cardigan helped him learn many vital study skills and much content that is helping him thrive at his new school.  The only road bump on his journey so far has been his history course.  He needed to take a ninth grade civics course instead of the typical tenth grade history class this year, as the state of NH requires all students to complete a civics credit.  Because we don’t have a civics course at Cardigan, he is a bit behind in that area.  In speaking with other students who have graduated from our fine institution, they also echo this one student’s experience.  They feel as though they lack an understanding of civics.  What does it mean to be a citizen of a country?  What are our responsibilities?  They don’t seem to truly grasp these concepts because we don’t cover them in the seventh, eighth, or ninth grades.  Why not?  I have no clue.  Regardless of the reasons why we don’t cover that in the other grades, I took it upon myself two years ago to ensure that all of my sixth graders gain a foundation of civics knowledge.  I don’t want my students feeling confused or unaware of how governments work.  I want them feeling powerful and prepared.  So, while the seventh, eighth, and ninth graders at my school do not, sadly enough, receive any formal civics instruction, I do know that students who come to Cardigan for sixth grade will be prepared for their future lives as global citizens.

As last year was an election year, it was easy to develop a unit to drive my pilot year of providing my students with a background in civics instruction.  We dug deep into the election process, issues that matter, forms of government, and how the American government operates.  It was so much fun.  The boys loved this unit last year.  As I began thinking about how I was going to teach a civics unit this year, I wondered how I would make it fun and engaging like last year’s unit.  So, I spent many hours researching how other teachers help their students understand government and their role as citizens, and that’s when I happened upon iCivics.  What an amazing resource.  I based my unit on the Foundations of Government curriculum found on their website.  It was so helpful in designing an engaging and fun unit for my students.

Last week marked the beginning of our unit.  We started with a fun writing and discussion activity that helped me make sure that all of my students had a strong understanding of what government is.  Today, we jumped into our first lesson on the purpose of government.  Although I wanted to provide my students with much information on the historical theories regarding the formation and purpose of government, this material is quite dense and challenging to understand; therefore, I had to be sure I found a way to make today’s lesson engaging and meaningful for my students.

I began today’s lesson with a silent Gallery Walk activity, during which the students answered, in writing, four different questions that were posted on giant art paper placed in different areas of the classroom.  I had the students respond to the questions in writing and without conversation so that I could assess their ability to think critically about new information, while also making sure that they all firmly understand what we spoke about last week regarding government.  I had them spend two minutes at each station, jotting down answers to the questions.  If there were already answers posted, I had them read through what their peers had written first to be sure that they were building on the silent discussion and not repeating what others had said.  The boys seemed very engaged in this activity.  Once they completed their four rotations, we discussed the big ideas they had written about on the paper.  This allowed me to clarify the difference between control and order.  I want to be sure my students know that the purpose of an effective government is to bring about order and a feeling of safety within its citizens, not to control their every move and tell them how to live their lives.  This physically active hook experience bled right into our class discussion on the ideas of Thomas Hobbes.  We used a handout from the iCivics website entitled Why Government to weave together our discussion.  As we read through the article, I explained and clarified the big ideas being addressed.  I also used this opportunity to assess my students on their ability to properly annotate an academic text.  So, I made sure to spend time at the start, reviewing what it means to annotate an article and what they should be focusing on.  I called on volunteers to help point us in the right direction on what we should be highlighting, underlining, and writing about in the margins as we began digging into the article.  As challenging concepts including State of Nature and Social Contract were introduced in the article, I made sure to detail and explain what these ideas really meant.  I used metaphors and stories to get the point across.  This seemed to help.  The boys asked questions throughout, showcasing their fine ability to think critically about the content being covered.  It also showed me how engaged with the material they were.  I was impressed.

To close today’s lesson on the reasons for government, I wanted to be sure every student had a basic understanding of Social Contract and State of Nature.  So, I had the boys stand up and physically act out what being in a state of nature would look like with the absence of a leader or government.  They began shouting at each other, arguing over land, tables, and computers.  They pretended to push and shove one another with angry faces.  It was awesome.  They so got it.  I then had them act out what would happen if I became their sovereign and we entered into a Social Contract.  The boys began being kind to one another and started to pretend as though they were giving me money and respect.  At one point, one of the boys bowed before me.  It was super funny, but highlighted their understanding of these two complex concepts.

I used two physical activities to engage the students and be sure they were moving as they reviewed the purpose of government.  I also made sure to use simple language and stories to ensure that all of my students, including my ELLs, understood the big ideas addressed in our binding article.  At the close of class, the students seemed very excited and happy about today’s lesson.  They seemed to thoroughly like talking about history and the purpose of government.  One student even came to me and said, “Mr. Holt, this was so much fun today.  I love learning about this stuff.  It’s so interesting.”  No more kinder or truer words were spoken today.  That said it all right there.  As many of my students have never learned about government or civics, this is unchartered territory, which can be scary and difficult for some students; however, the boys seemed to really get into today’s lesson because of the different techniques and instructional methods used.  I made what could have been a very boring lesson on government and Thomas Hobbes seem enjoyable and interesting.  Sometimes, it comes down to presentation.  Since I seemed excited discussing the information, my students caught the fun bug and really got into it.  They asked great questions and thought critically about why countries form governments.  It was amazing.  I can’t wait to discuss the ideas of John Locke on Friday.