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 Code.org, 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.

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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.

Procedure

  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.

Struggling to Challenge and Support ALL of My Students

Imagine a world in which teachers design their curriculum and lessons for the average-level student in their classroom.  They use one lesson plan to teach all of their students, regardless of the various levels of the students in their class.  They have very little prep time since they are teaching to the middle.  During their free time though, they are forced to research classroom management techniques since the advanced students in their class are often bored and distract the low functioning students in the room.  This then causes chaos and prevents real learning from happening in the classroom.  These teachers tryout the new class management strategies they read about in professional development texts and online resources, but find no change in the overall atmosphere of the class during their lessons and activities.  The students continue to be distracted and distracting while these teachers are teaching.  Nothing seems to work, and the vicious cycle continues and repeats until the end of the academic year.

Now, while we all know that this is a highly ineffective teaching practice, many teachers in public schools around the world, utilized this model of teaching many years ago.  I am a product of this model of teaching in the elementary grades.  It didn’t work for me, which is what caused many of the behavioral issues I had in the classroom as a student.  I was bored or confused on an almost daily basis.  Despite asking questions or seeking help, I continued to struggle as the teacher viewed herself as the sage on the stage and lectured at us from the front of the classroom during most of the academic day.  This model did not work for me and does not work for a majority of our students.  In education, there is no middle.  There are individual students who all have their own strengths and weaknesses.  Great teachers meet each of their students where they are and support and challenge them accordingly. Effective teaching includes differentiation, group work, one-on-one sessions, student conferences, small group instruction, and partner activities.  This model of teaching is truly challenging as it requires separate lesson plans for each student, a creative use of time and space, and much work outside of the class day.  Great teachers spend much of their free time designing unique, creative, and innovative curricula that will help and support every student in their classroom.  Great teachers don’t need to worry about classroom management issues as they are engaging each and every student in their class.  This teaching practice isn’t easy and can be quite cumbersome at times, but is really the only effective way to teach and educate students.  We need to treat our students as individuals and not a whole group.  There is no middle in the classroom, there are only students.

While I have made great strides towards effectively using this model of teaching in the classroom over my 17 years of experience, I still struggle with it at times.  Today was one of those challenging moments.  As I realized last year that I was not properly providing my Humanities students with a foundation of understanding in the area of English grammar, this summer, I brainstormed ways to inject grammar into my classes on a weekly basis.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve reviewed the three basic parts of speech with my students: Noun, verb, adjective.  I briefly discussed each vocabulary term and made sure that they understood what they meant.

Today, I wanted to provide the students with an opportunity to apply this grammar knowledge.  I began class by reviewing the three major parts of speech we already discussed earlier in the year by having the students define each of the words and offer examples.  The boys were able to do this quite easily, which should be the case at this point in their school journey.  A student then explained to the class how he learned this information in third grade and seemed baffled by why we were talking about it in the sixth grade.  So, I explained to him the process we’ll be using to discuss and learn about grammar this year.  “We’re beginning our grammar journey with the three basic parts of speech as a review.  We will then move into grammar workouts in which you will have to fix grammar errors in writing.  This will then bleed into learning about the more challenging parts of speech.  We will end our discussion of grammar in May by diagramming sentences and identifying the various parts of speech.”  This response didn’t seem to help him feel any better or more engaged in what was being discussed.  I also reminded him that in order to move forward with the level of difficulty in the content covered, I need to be sure that all of the students are able to meet the assessed objectives.  I wanted him to realize that today’s discussion is merely a review and introduction into our year-long grammar adventure so that we are all building on the same foundation of knowledge, moving forward.  While I don’t know if this helped him feel any better, I wanted to be transparent with him while also respecting his emotions and thoughts.

This discussion of the three major parts of speech led into an interactive and fun activity in which I was able to informally assess all of my students on their comprehension of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.  I had the students play a fun game of Word Slappers.  Two students came to the board, armed with a word swatter, AKA a fly swatter, and stood next to each other.  On the board were the words Noun, Verb, and Adjective.  I called on individual students to shout out examples of one of the major parts of speech.  The first contestant to slap the correct part of speech with their word slapper, won a point.  The first person to score three points wins the round.  This activity allowed me to know which students struggle with understanding the parts of speech and provided me an opportunity to correct any incorrect prior knowledge the students had regarding the topic of grammar.  I was able to instruct through the use of an engaging, exciting, and educational game.  The students loved it.  They were so into it.  The audience members worked hard to brainstorm difficult examples for the contestants at the board while the student judge watched the two boys at the board very carefully to ensure that our class norms and core values were being followed at every turn.  I closed the activity, reminding them that we will continue this game for a few more weeks before we move into the more challenging grammar workouts.  The boys seemed happy with this.

Although the class discussion portion of this grammar activity seemed wasted on some of the students, I did need to be sure that every student has the same common knowledge regarding these important key vocabulary terms.  Could I have completed this exercise differently?  Perhaps, but it would have probably taken more time had I found a more individualized way to do it.  The discussion portion of the activity only took about 3-4 minutes.  Was it worth it?  Yes, I think so because I now know that all of my students know the difference between nouns, verbs, and adjectives, which means that I can move onto teaching them the more challenging parts of speech.  I do wonder though, moving forward, is there a way to better engage all of my students in this content?  How can I effectively differentiate my instruction to challenge the native English speakers in my class while supporting the ELLs?  I could easily create separate grammar workouts for each student in my class, based on their ability level.  I could also have different levels of the Word Slappers game going on at once in various parts of the classroom.  I could have the advanced students playing a game using adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions while the ELLs could be playing the version of the game we used in class today.  I could also assess each student individually during our next Reader’s Workshop block to be sure that I know the various levels of grammar understanding present in my class.  Perhaps I will try all three of these strategies to make sure that I am challenging and supporting all of the learners in my class.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does Differentiation Look Like in the Humanities Classroom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Makes Effective Teaching?

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

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

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

The Humanity in Humanities: Revising my Unit on Community

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

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

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

Day 1: Reader’s Workshop Introduction

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

Day 2: Community Unit Introduction

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

Day 3: Reader’s Workshop

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

Day 4: Writer’s Workshop Introduction

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

Day 5: Canaan Community

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

Day 6: Writing About Your Reading

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

Day 5: Current Events and Writing About Your Reading

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

Day 6: Reader’s Workshop

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

Day 7: Canaan Community

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

Day 8: Canaan Street Field Experience

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

Day 9: Writer’s Workshop

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

Day 10: Current Events and Writer’s Workshop

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

Day 11: Reader’s Workshop

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

Day 12: Writer’s Workshop and Canaan Community

 

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

 

Day 13: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Finish Canaan Historian Notepad
  • Canaan Field Experience

Day 14: Writer’s Workshop

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

Day 15: Current Events and Writer’s Workshop

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

Day 16: Reader’s Workshop

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

Day 17: Canaan Community

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

Day 18: Writer’s Workshop

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

Day 19: Canaan Community

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

Day 20: Current Events and Canaan Community Project

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

Day 21: Reader’s Workshop

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

Day 22: Canaan Community Project

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

Day 23: Canaan Community Project

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

Day 24: Canaan Community Project

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

Day 25: Current Events and Unit Wrap-Up

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

Here is the Unit Plan document for the unit…

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

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

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

Students will be able to:

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

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

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

Haiku Learning Website

Seedfolks Paul Fleischman

Canaan Community members

Assessments

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

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?

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…