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.

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

Breadth vs Depth: How Much is Too Much?

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

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

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

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

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

How to Choose the Best Read-Aloud Novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helping Students Think Like Scientists

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

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

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

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

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

What’s More Important, Skills or Content?

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

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

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

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