Seeing the Treasure in the Trash: Creating a Happy Little Social Studies Unit

High school was a time of discovery and exploration.  Don’t worry, I was a friendly explorer, unlike those wretched conquistadors that caused much suffering and death in the name of freedom and exploration.   I was a happy young man in search of new music, friends, movies, love, fun, and garbage.  Yes, that’s right, I was in search of garbage.  Not the band, oh no, not a fan.  I mean actual garbage that people toss away.  You see, it was in high school that I discovered that one person’s, or in this case one company’s, trash, can truly be someone else’s treasure.

Dumpster diving is the act of rummaging through other people’s garbage in search of that special something.  As there was not much to do in the small town of Lebanon, NH, late at night, my friends and I would scavenge through the dumpsters of various companies and organizations that had offices in our sleepy little town.  Although we usually left our nightly excursions with some small trinkets, we never found anything substantial or exciting, until that one night in late July.  There we were, at about midnight, in the middle of summer, literally jumping into this giant dumpster in search of something worthy of our time and effort.  When my friend pulled out a television remote, our excitement began to grow, as we all new what that meant: There was probably a television near by.  Sure enough, when I pivoted and looked behind me, a very large TV stuck out of the pile of battered electronics.  We shouted for joy, softly, so as to not call attention to ourselves in the middle of the night.  I then had one of my friends help me fish that television out of the dumpster and pack it into our car.  While my parents would freak out if I brought a large screen TV into the house, one of my friends ended up bringing it home.  The most interesting part of this whole vignette is that I never found out if he got the television working.  Perhaps it was a dud and deserved to live out its plastic existence in a landfill somewhere, or maybe, it did work.  I like believing that it was a working treasure, that all of our hard work paid off.  I like to think that good things can happen to good people.  To me, that glass will always be overflowing with clean and cold water.

Like my friends and I discovered in high school, if you look long and hard enough, you will find the treasure and beauty in everything, even something that resembles trash.  Luckily, I had the wonderful experience of doing just that, recently.

As one of my professional development summer goals is to revise and retool the social studies unit that I generally use at the start of each academic year, I decided to dig in and give it a shot.  Although I didn’t have a clear idea of exactly what I wanted the unit to look like when finished, I did have some foggy notions swirling about my beautiful brain.  I knew that I wanted to inject an engaging and fun project into the unit, but was unsure of what the journey to that point might look like; however, I forged ahead regardless.  My first iteration of the revised unit felt clunky and disconnected, like a broken television.  While I had added in the project I wanted to include, the unit felt more like a series of separate, unrelated lessons on different concepts or topics.  It lacked flow and life.  It felt like demo tape that a band releases before getting with a producer to craft a polished and brilliant debut album like Pearl Jam’s 10 or Coheed and Cambria’s The Second Stage Turbine Blade.  While it wasn’t yet the beautiful jewel that I had hoped for, it wasn’t simply trash.  The nucleus of its treasure was hidden deep within it, and I just needed to find it.  I needed to change my perspective so that I could transform this awkward unit into something more, something great and engaging.

So, I took a break from it.  I let the unit sit for a few moments and simmer.  I gathered my thoughts and started thinking about what comes next.  How could I alter this unit to make it more meaningful and relevant for my students?  While I see the value in teaching students about the community of which the school is a part, do I need to spend so much time discussing the concept of community?  Could I just jump right into teaching about the town?  How will I then connect the town to the rest of the country?  I did much thinking before I sat down with the unit one more time.  Then, I cut lessons, chopped discussions, added activities, and found a way to bring about cohesion to this unit.  I subtracted the clunkiness to get to the heart of the unit.  I want the students to see how the town of Hopkinton is connected to the state of New Hampshire, and how the state is a part of something even larger, greater.  And, I managed to do just that.

As our country is in the midst of epic turmoil, it is important to me that I empower my students to become agents of change.  I want them to be able to look at the problems facing our great nation and find solutions to them.  I want them to want to foster change within the world.  I want my students to be able to see how important the upcoming presidential election is for our country.  I want my students to be self-aware and know what is going on around our country and world.  I believe that this new unit is just the bridge I need to make my desires come to fruition in the coming school year.

I call this super unit Understanding our Country and it will be divided into three parts.  Part one will focus on the fundamentals of social studies.  The students will learn about what I’ve aptly called the Big Ideas when learning about a new place: Geography, History, Government, and Culture.  I will be sure they understand what each Big Idea represents and the importance it holds.  I will have the students practice applying these Big Ideas as they learn about our fine town.  Once I feel as though they have a firm grasp on these Big Ideas, they will complete an interactive research project on the US.  It is my hope that this project will engage the students and empower them to truly see our country for what it is, full of possibility and wonder.

Expedition USA Project


The most effective way to learn about a new place, is to travel to that place and explore it.  While, sadly, Mr. Johnson informed me that we cannot go on a cross-country field trip to explore the great United States of America, even if we wear fun masks and ride in separate train cars, we must do so virtually.  So, let the excellent, virtual, expedition begin!


The purpose of this project is two-fold: 

  • Learn more about the great country in which we live through some virtual exploration.
  • Practice crucial study skills including note taking, working with a partner, and using Google Maps.

Part I: Brainstorming

  1. Meet with your assigned partner
  2. Brainstorm ideas
    • Make a list of all the places in the US that you and your partner want to visit
      • You must choose at least 5 different locations around the US to virtually visit:
        • One must be somewhere near the East Coast, Atlantic Ocean
        • One must be somewhere near another country
        • One must be landlocked
        • One must be somewhere near the West Coast, Pacific Ocean
        • One must be a National Park

Part II: Research

  1. For each location you will be virtually visiting, gather online research and take notes on your findings

Part III: Google Maps

  1. Create a New Map in Google Maps that includes the following information:
    • Unique title for your expedition
    • Separate Marker for each location you will virtually visit
      • Details about what you will do while there, in your own words
      • Details about what you will learn while there, in your own words
      • Details about why you want to visit that location, in your own words
      • Picture from your virtual visit, with attribution
    • Lines showing how you traveled from BHS to each location and then back to BHS
      • Details about method of transportation, cost, and time it took
      • Kilometers traveled
      • Picture from your travels, with attribution

Part IV: Presentation

  1. Present your Google Map and expedition to the class

Graded Objectives

Your handwritten notes will be assessed on the following objectives:

  • Students will be able to extract the main idea from an online source in their own words.
  • Students will be able to craft neatly organized notes with separate headings for different sources or topics.

Your finished Google Map will be assessed on the following objectives:

  • Students will be able to paraphrase information learned, in written form, regarding a research topic.
  • Students will be able to utilize the Google Maps app to accomplish a task.

You and your partner will also be assessed on the following objective:

  • Students will be able to collaborate and work with a partner to accomplish a task.

I created this project with lots of wiggle room so that the students can and will ask questions.  I didn’t detail or mandate how the various stages of the project will be completed because I wanted to empower the students to choose.  I want the students to determine how some things are done.  I left the instructions a bit vague on purpose, so that they would be confused and want to ask questions and know more.  Students who are thinking and doing, are learning.

This project will conclude the first part of the unit.  The closing activity will have the students make a list of what they learned about the United States of America in completing this project.  I will again get them thinking in terms of the Big Ideas.  I will have them create a chart showing the Big Ideas that they’ve learned regarding our country.  My hope is that they will notice that they have learned very little about the government and history of the US, as parts two and three of the unit pertain to those Big Ideas.

Part two of the unit will focus on the American Government and will feel very much like a civics unit.  The students will explore the hows and whys of our governmental system.  We will then dig into the big election taking place in November of this year.  We will discuss the political parties in our country and learn about the candidates running for president.  My hope is that during this portion of the unit, the students will be inspired to ask many questions about why things are done a certain way in our country.  I want to provide them with just enough information, that they will want to know and learn more.  I want my students to be curious and wonder.  I want them to question things.  I want them to think freely.  I believe that this part of the unit will get them doing just that.

The final part of the unit will allow the students to learn more about the roots of our culture and history.  Who were the first true Americans?  Were there people living in what we now call the US prior to the Europeans setting foot on the new land?  In this third part of the unit, the students will learn about the native people who took care of and respected this land long before the colonists moved in and took over.  This portion of the unit will conclude with an interdisciplinary project in which the students will research a tribe of Native Americans and then craft a historical fiction story regarding that tribe.  My hope is that this final part of the unit will also inspire the students to ask questions and wonder why things happened the way they did in our country.  I hope that it will empower my students to ask why and also conjure up strong feelings and emotions within them.

I will close the entire unit by having the students fill in any gaps they may have in the Big Ideas chart we started at the close of part one.  Throughout the unit, we will also discuss current events happening in our country.  I want the students to pay attention and be aware of what’s going on around them, as they develop the skill of self-awareness.  I want them to wonder and ask why.  I want to empower my students to see problems affecting the citizens of the US.  I want to get them thinking about possible solutions.  I want to empower my students by providing them with knowledge, information, curiosity, and questions.  I want them to ask why and how.

And that’s the unit.  I structured it this way so that I could create different learning opportunities and activities for the students.  I wanted to find unique ways to teach the crucial study skills they will need to be successful students, as well.  As it is an election year, I want to capitalize on the current event aspect to help them make connections between information learned.  I want this unit to be engaging and fun for the students.  I want to challenge their thinking and broaden their perspectives on our amazing country.  I completely overhauled the unit that I’ve used in past years to make something special and wonderful.

While it took me a few rounds to get to what I have now, I am pleased with the result.  I found the treasure in the trash.  I can’t wait for the new academic year to begin so that I can implement this new unit.  I can’t wait to watch my students explore and wrestle with US maps.  How does this thing fold?  Do I fold it this way or that way?  It will be like watching me try to assemble a piece of furniture I purchased from Ikea, quite the comedy routine.

The entire experience of creating this new social studies unit empowered me to feel like an explorer, charting a course for new lands and information.  I loved sifting through the online research I discovered throughout the process.  Educators have created some amazing units and posted them online for the world to see.  There is a wealth of information out there on our fine country and how to go about teaching students all about it.  This experience did at times bring me back to my dumpster diving days.  Trash or treasure?  Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, my friend.

In the Battle Between Skills and Content, Who Would Win?

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, blog readers of all ages, genders, and ethnicities, welcome to a match-up for the ages.  (Imagine loud claps and screams of excitement coming from an imaginary audience.)  In this corner, (which could really be any corner you choose as this is a blog and not an actual arena,) we have the ever sturdy and reliable, full of facts and information, Content.  Can I get a woo hoo?  (Picture screams of joy and boos coming from that same imaginary audience.)  Who doesn’t love content?  I mean, it’s the backbone of game shows like Jeopardy.  Can learning really happen without subject area content?  Is this even going to be a fair contest?  (Hear shouts of YES and NO coming from the imaginary audience you’ve been picturing in your head.)  But wait, because in the other corner, (which should just be the opposite of whatever corner you pictured Content in,) we have the trusty, always dependable, super useful and necessary, Skills.  (You should be hearing screams of joy and boos coming from the imaginary audience of really cool and riled up people.)  I mean, can you even learn content knowledge without the skills to do so first?  The skills to work, take notes, and study make it so that you can learn the content.  Shouldn’t Content just throw in the towel right now?  (Screams of YES and NO come from the amazingly imaginary audience.)  Well then, let’s get ready to RRRummmbllle!

Imagine a WWE style wrestling match between content and skills.  How cool would that be?  I would totally pay the exorbitant amount of money to see that pay-per-view match.  It would be epic!  In the end though, I do believe that skills would be crowned the victor.  Sure, content knowledge is important.  I mean, we can’t expect our students to fully digest what they are reading, listening to, or watching in the world around them if they don’t have a strong foundation of background, content knowledge.  However, that sturdy foundation is useless if there are no skills built upon it.  Students must learn how to assess the credibility of websites in order to locate and find trustworthy content knowledge online.  Our students need to know how to attack a textbook and take effective notes on the main idea before they can glean any content from that book.  Skills should be at the heart of what schools are teaching our students using the content as delivery receptacles.  History class shouldn’t really be about learning history.  It should be about the skills of analyzing information, differentiating between fact and fiction, comparing and contrasting events throughout history, understanding the culture and traditions of our diverse and unique world, and being able to view this beautiful crucible around us through the lens of critical thinking.  Class titles should merely be masks, subterfuge for what’s really happening inside classrooms.  Our students should be learning vital skills to become safe, thoughtful, creative, and open-minded global citizens.  Right?  (At this point, you should be excitedly applauding or clicking the tiny X at the top of your browser to close this window.)

As teachers should really be the best students, I make it a priority to stay up to date with current educational research and pedagogy from around the world.  I read several articles and blog entries on a weekly basis to be sure that I am always working towards becoming the best possible teacher for my students.  Each weekend, when I dig deep into the goldmine of educational research, I find articles talking about the importance of content over skills as well as articles all about how skills are more valuable than content knowledge.  So, which articles speak the truth?  Who would win in a battle between skills and content?  Is one more important than the other?  Can you teach students skills without using content knowledge as the delivery vehicle?  Is it possible to regurgitate content class after class without teaching or having the students utilize any skills?

I see it more as a symbiotic relationship.  It shouldn’t be a skills vs. content kind of discussion, it should be a skills and content sort of hybrid discussion.  Our students need to learn content knowledge nuggets in order to navigate this strange and wonderful world in which we live; however, they can’t effectively learn or keep those nuggets of knowledge safely stored in their brains without skills.  Our students need to know how the brain learns and operates so that they can then learn effective ways or skills to effectively store information in their memory banks.  All teachers and classes should be teaching students about the neuroscience of learning.  Our students need to gain important life and learning skills in order to become effective global citizens, and content is the perfect way for teachers to be sure that their students are effectively, and in engaging ways, learning and practicing these crucial skills.  Content and skills go hand-in-hand like sun butter and jelly or red and green.  Students need both to succeed in life.

I’ve recently been contemplating this dual role of content and skills in my classroom.  My fifth graders and I are in the midst of a wonderfully engaging unit on Mesopotamia in Social Studies class.  I’m using the content of this ancient civilization to help my students learn the valuable skills of effective and organized note taking, being able to pick out the main idea over the details in passages of text, comparing and contrasting two different ideas, using specific examples to support their claims, and problem solving and critical thinking as they pertain to particular situations.  On Thursday and Friday, I used the history of writing and the creation of Sumerian Cuneiform as the vehicle for which I could teach my students how to sift through details to get at the main idea as well as how to think critically about a topic in order to answer open-ended questions.  My students were enthralled with the video we watched and were totally engaged in the discussion that grew from the knowledge of how the Sumerians created writing.  It was so cool to observe my students getting excited about ancient history.  They were asking high-level questions and able to comprehend and address the challenging questions and scenarios I posed to them.  It was so much fun.  I thought about the skills and content the students were learning together.  It was pretty remarkable.  It wasn’t about the content or skills, it was about the relationship between them.  My students crave knowledge and content.  They are like sponges in the classroom, always asking why and how.  As they love learning about topics and things, I need them to gain vital skills.  I give them what they want while teaching them what they need to become and grow into successful students and global thinkers.  I need to utilize the content in order to help my students gain the necessary skills they will need as they matriculate into the next grade and so on.

I used to think that teaching was all about the content.  Isn’t that why there are so many different textbook companies in existence?  Then, like a pendulum, I started to see skills as the important part of educating students.  When I focused solely on the skills, I found that student engagement went down.  That’s when I started to see content and skills as a duo and not hero and villain match-up.  They need to be used together to help students learn and grow.  I can’t teach my students necessary learning skills without the attraction of the content area knowledge.  The facts and information are like the bait I use to get students hooked onto the line of learning how to be effective students, thinkers, and individuals.

Instead of a wrestling match, we should be picturing content and skills frolicking through a field of daises and sunflowers, holding hands and smiling at each other, while in the background, soft jazz or elevator music plays as the sun shines down upon our two lovebirds.  Ahh, how cute would that be, right?

How Do We Help Our Students Learn to Like Writing?

When I was in elementary school, I used to dread Language Arts class because it meant that I would have to write.  While I had lots of ideas for really cool stories swirling about in my head, I was not allowed to write them.  Instead, my teachers forced me to write reports about topics I didn’t enjoy or stories based on their ideas.  I could never write what I wanted to write because my teachers always needed to be in control.  This lead to me not liking writing, which was a shame because I had stories and poems festering inside of me, looking for an escape.  For many years, I went about school and life thinking I hated to write.  Fortunately, I did have an amazing high school teacher who saw that I had things I wanted to and needed to write about trapped inside of me.  She allowed me to write what I wanted to write, and because of that experience, I learned to love writing.

As a teacher, I don’t want my students to have the same bad experience I had with writing when I was in elementary and middle school.  I want to be sure that my students like writing from day one.  I want to help those students who already love writing to continue to enjoy the process, and I want to help those students who see writing as I once did, to realize that writing can be a wonderful adventure filled with freedom and choice.  Being a great teacher means giving students ownership over their learning process.  I don’t need to control everything my students do in the classroom to be sure they are learning.  Instead, I need to make sure that my students are engaged in whatever it is we are learning and see it as something that is fun.  Genuine learning takes place when students are engaged, curious, and able to see the “work” as something they want to do.  I give students a choice and a voice when it comes to Language Arts class.  I utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction for that reason alone.  I want my students to want to write because they can write whatever their little hearts desire.  While I do provide parameters for each writing unit used in the classroom, the students can choose the topic.  They can choose what they write about, as I want them to see that they are the ones in control.

Last year, for example, when we learned about various Native American tribes in the Americas, I had the students choose a tribe that they were interested in learning more about, research that tribe using various online resources, and then craft an original historical fiction story based on what they learned about their tribe.  This allowed the students to create unique characters and generate their own plot line based on their ideas.  Many of the students really enjoyed this freedom.  They loved that they could decide the plot of their story.  However, I had two students who struggled a bit with this freedom.  Because I didn’t discuss possible ideas for their story or allow much time for organized brainstorming in class, two of my students didn’t know what to write about.  Even after researching their tribe and learning all about them, these two students felt stuck.  While they did eventually craft stories, they weren’t fully engaged in the process.  So, I knew that something needed to change for this year.  I needed to be sure that I more effectively introduced various writing projects so that the students had more time to get excited and interested in the act of writing itself.

This year, instead of starting with historical fiction, which can be a bit tricky for novice writers, our first writing unit is on general story writing.  I’ve found that fifth graders love making up and writing stories of their own creation.  The unit is divided into four parts.  Part one is about oral storytelling, part two is on brevity in writing as the students will craft a 100-word story, part three’s focus is on using words to tell pictures, and part four is on fan fiction.  In providing the students with more specific parameters and guidelines, I’m hoping that unlike those students who felt stuck last year, all of my students will have ideas and inspiration for their writing pieces.  I chose to start with oral storytelling, as we do it all the time anyway.  I ask the students to tell me about their evening activities each morning.  We communicate with one another through the stories we share aloud.  Hearing unique stories told aloud by their peers will also provide them with more fodder and ideas for their future pieces.

Oral Storytelling

I settled on the 100-word story for part two because I want the students to learn the value in brevity and getting to the point without meandering too far off course.  This year’s group of fifth graders love to talk in circles.  Many of them share one idea and then rehash that same idea in slightly different ways, numerous times.  Some of them do this same thing in their writing as well.  To help them break the cycle of repetition, I thought that having a limited number of words in which to tell their story would help them focus on the important words and ideas, while limiting the unnecessary ones.  Although this could be a restraining activity for some, it will also be a productive one for those who need to learn the power of being more succinct.

100-Word Story

Due to the power of social media and apps like Instagram being how this generation of youth communicate, I thought that teaching students to see how effective pictures or images can tell stories would be great for part three.  This year’s group of students also really enjoys graphic novels, and so I thought that having an activity in which they could create a graphic novel if they desired to do so could be fun for them.

Picture Story

Part four is really what this whole project is all about.  This year’s class loves certain books and movies.  I have a few students that are obsessed with Harry Potter.  I wanted to provide a writing activity that would allow me to tap into those interests that they have.  Plus, Fan Fiction is a great genre for those students who struggle to create their own unique ideas because, with Fan Fiction, you base your story on ideas, settings, and characters that already exist.

Fan Fiction

This past week, I introduced the new unit to the students in class on Wednesday and they began working on creating their story to tell aloud to the class on Thursday.  For me, part of fostering a sense of engagement within the students regarding a new project is the introduction.  How a new unit or project is explained or introduced to the students makes all the difference.  While I already know that this year’s group of students love creative fiction writing, I wanted to be sure that they would be equally invested in each phase of this project.  So, instead of simply explaining the first part of the unit, I detailed the entire unit in class on Wednesday.  Shouts of joy and exultation could be heard when I introduced each new part.  The students are excited to write and try some new things this year.

Once I knew that I had engaged them in this new unit, I decided to take them on a little journey into story writing.  That’s when we discussed what makes a great story.  We brainstormed a list on the whiteboard together as a class.  From our discussion, I know that they now understand what makes an effective story.  I then talked about the importance of preparation and brainstorming.  I explained to them that they must know their story as though it’s their best friend.  “You need to understand every aspect of your characters, setting, and plot like you know your best friend.”  There informal homework that night was to begin the brainstorming process.  “Think about a story that would be good to share aloud with the class.  What kind of story would hold the interest of your peers and listeners?”

The next day, I began class by quickly reviewing the requirements of a great story and then shared my own story aloud with the class as an example.  While I had thought long and hard about the story that I was going to use as an example, I ended up choosing a personal and true story about how my best friend was hit by a car when I was in sixth grade.  Because I lived it, I knew this story very well; however, I had never told it to anyone besides my wife before and did not realize how emotional and personal it truly was.  About two minutes into my story I started tearing up as I spoke.  This was not planned, but it worked well in my favor.  The students were glued to me and my words.  They gasped at just the right parts and expressed sadness when I wanted them to.  I debriefed my story with the class reviewing the project requirements.  I then introduced the brainstorming phase of the project.  “To know your story as if it’s your best friend, you need to think long and hard about every aspect of it.  You will be completing this brainstorm worksheet to help you through this process.  I have left blanks for each section of the worksheet so that you can use the space in a way that works for you.  Some of you may want to sketch out your characters, while others may want to simply write about their ideas.  You do what works best for you.”

As the students were already so excited for this unit and beginning part one, I had them in the palm of my hands.  They couldn’t wait to get started with brainstorming their story.  A few of the students had already shared their ideas with me earlier in the day, as they couldn’t contain their excitement.  I then began meeting with each student as they finished the brainstorming process, to discuss their story.  I wanted to be sure that they understood their story very well before they began writing.  I didn’t want any of my students to get stuck like those two from last year did.  The students shared their ideas with me as though they were telling me what they wanted for Christmas.  Smiles and looks of excitement covered their faces as they spoke with me.  When I informed the students that they could begin the writing process once I approved their idea, they literally jumped out of their seats to snatch their computers and begin the drafting process.  It was so cool to witness the joy they were finding in the writing process.  I could not have been more proud in that moment.  Amazing!  I had students working on their stories after school that day.  I even had students ask me if they could work on it for homework.  Let me repeat that once more so you can let it sink in, students asked me if they could have extra homework to work on writing their stories.  What?  Usually students cringe at the thought of homework, and I now had students asking if they could pile more work on top of the already assigned work they had.  Talk about engagement.  Students came into school on Friday ready to share with me what they had written outside of school.  They were fully invested in this new writing unit, and I couldn’t be happier.  Mission accomplished.

While students do need to take ownership over their writing and enjoy the freedom of being able to choose what they write about, some students need a bit more guidance and support during the writing process.  While everyone has stories within them, some people need help extrapolating those stories.  This new writing unit that I began in my classroom this past week allows for student choice and voice while also providing extra parameters and guidance for those students who need it.  It’s really the best of both worlds.  I can’t wait to see what happens in class next week as they continue crafting the stories they will recite aloud for the class.  It’s going to be magical for sure.

Goal Setting: A Recipe for Growing and Improving

While life for kids today is much more challenging and difficult than when we all grew up, beating a video game in these difficult times is as easy as making Oobleck.  You simply go online to some website such as Youtube and learn from others how to defeat the mega boss in the last level.  Or, you can find cheat codes to enter that will allow you to circumvent numerous levels so that you need only to pass the final stage to win the game.  That’s so easy, like taking full-size candy bars from innocent adults on Halloween.  Plus, on top of all the resources available to kids in the twenty-first century to learn how to easily win a video game, these games are made with oodles of helpful tools and hints such as navigational maps showing your location relative to the location of the evil villains or other bad guys in the game.  How is that at all fair?

I read a study recently that shows how playing old-school video games, such as Super Mario Brothers, that lack directional maps, actually helps to increase grey matter in important parts of the brain.  Kids have it so easy playing video games today.  Back in the day, it took days, weeks, or even months to beat the newest Legend of Zelda or Mario game, as we didn’t have easy access to cheat codes or helpful hints.  We had to rely on our problem solving skills, and the limited time that we had to play video games.  Growing up with only one television to which I could connect the game console, greatly reduced my game playing opportunities.  I couldn’t game in the evenings or when my parents wanted to watch TV.  So, when I did play my video games, I had to be very strategic about it.  I often set goals for myself.  “Today I will work on beating the next level in Marble Madness while tomorrow I will get to the next world in Super Mario Bros 2.”  Setting specific goals for myself helped me to advance through my video games at a much faster pace.  As a mature adult, I use the skill of goal setting in more meaningful and effective ways.  “I am going to spend my birthday money on buying an original Nintendo Gameboy system, and then ask for a Nintendo 64 system for Christmas.”  Now that I don’t have to worry about my television time being rationed, I can focus on bigger and better goals.

As a teacher, I use goal setting with my students and for myself.  I cannot expect to grow and improve as an educator if I don’t have goals toward which I am working.  So, each year, I set a few professional goals for myself to help keep me focused on moving up and to the right.  As I have just finished the first month of the new academic year, I feel as though it is time to set some goals for the 2019-2020 school year.  What am I going to focus on this year?  How will I grow and develop as a teacher during the current school year?  What should I strive for this year?

  • I want to help my students learn to see themselves as Math students.  I want the students to find the fun and excitement in Math.  I want them to get excited for Math class because they welcome the challenge.  Using more games in Math class while also altering the way I began the year in Math, I believe, will help to cultivate this change within my students.  In a recent entry, I went into much more detail on my early success with this new approach to Math.  I also saw signs of awesomeness in class on Friday when I taught my students how to play the phenomenal game Prime Climb created by the brains behind the Math For Love website and program.  They really got into the strategies behind the game.  I also had several students ask insightful questions about the way the board is designed.  “Why do some of the numbers have different colors around them?  Why do some numbers have tiny numbers written beneath them?”  Yes, I thought, they are thinking critically and asking questions.  Success.  They are seeing Math as a quest for knowledge and understanding in the world.  I love it!  One student in my class, who made it very clear to me in the first week of school that she hates Math and is not a Math student, asked me in front of the whole class while we played Prime Climb, “Where did you get this game?  I love it and totally want to get it.”  Wait, what?  A student who did not see herself as a Math student at the start of the school year is now finding enjoyment in playing a Math game?  What’s going on?  Again, another success.  Working toward my first new goal of the year is already beginning to pay huge dividends.  I feel like a kid again, defeating Bowser in the final level of Super Mario Bros to rescue the Princess.  So cool!  I’m hoping I will be able to maintain this progress and continue to foster a love of Math within my students. Prime Climb
  • I want to make the final project in our Social Studies unit on community more engaging, relevant, and fun for my students.  After completing this unit last year, the students provided me with much feedback on how they didn’t really like the final project on the unit, which had each student create an oral presentation on something they enjoyed learning about during the unit.  They found it to be a bit boring.  While they liked making the final presentation at our local Historical Society, they did not like all the boring research work that went into preparing for the presentations.  They would have preferred something more hands on and relevant, they shared with me last year.  So, I decided to incorporate their feedback into our unit on community this year.  Instead of having the students create a final presentation, I am having the class complete a community project.  I want to empower my students to see solutions to problems facing our community.  The students brainstormed a list of ways we, as a class, could give back to our community.  Some of their suggestions included collecting items for the local food pantry, helping serve food at the local senior center, and setting up a free Halloween party for the families in our community.  The students voted to take on the Halloween party.  Starting next week, we are going to dig into what that will look like and how we can make it happen.  This project will get the students designing, collaborating, and seeing first hand the benefits of kindness and compassion.  They were so excited last week when I introduced this project.  I can’t wait to see their engagement level increase as we plan it all out and then make it happen in a few short weeks.  My hope is that the students will remember the big ideas learned in this unit because of this new and more engaging final project.
  • I want to be sure I take the time to address the social-emotional issues that arise in class on a regular basis.  Caring over content, is going to be my big push this year.  I need to take the time to allow my students to learn how to self-regulate themselves while coming to terms with their emotional identity.  I want my students to feel and be safe and cared for.  I want them to become comfortable sharing their feelings with each other.  I don’t want my students leaving the fifth grade, afraid to be their true selves.  If social-emotional issues or problems arise in the classroom, I want to provide the students with time to learn how to address and solve them effectively.  Rather than burying their feelings deep with themselves, I want my students to understand the power of “I Feel” statements, emotional check-ins, mindfulness, square breathing, caring, and sharing.  While subject area content is important, and will not be forgotten throughout the year, the skill of managing their emotions and being kind and empathetic classmates is equally important.  If students are feeling sad, angry, mad, or anxious in anyway, their reptilian brain will take over and hijack the thinking parts of their brain.  I want my students to learn how to prevent themselves from being emotionally hijacked in and out of school, as it will have immense benefits.  Case and point occurred this past Friday in the classroom.  As the students were having fun playing the Math game Prime Climb, I realized that a student was in emotional distress.  When one student used an “I Feel” statement to share how he was feeling about what another student was doing, that student responded in a negative manner.  So, we paused the game and dug into this issue as a class.  I asked the student to share what was causing her to respond in such a negative manner.  She then shared how upset she felt about a negative interaction she had with a different student during recess on Thursday.  The student continued talking about their feelings.  As a class, we then discussed the importance of not keeping one’s feelings bottled up inside.  It was an incredibly beneficial and necessary activity and discussion that needed to happen.  That afternoon, the student who was feeling upset, was able to change her thinking and end the day on a very positive note.  Allowing time for her to share her feelings made the difference in that outcome.  I want to continue to provide my class with time to address the social-emotional issues that will inevitably come up in our fifth grade classroom.

While I have but three goals to focus on this year, I want to be sure that I have ample time and energy to focus on accomplishing them this year.  When I take on too much, I find it difficult to come to terms with being unsuccessful in meeting any of the goals I set for myself yearly.  These three aforementioned goals will give me plenty to work on this year, as I continue to grow and develop as an educator.  The Math goal by itself could keep me busy and focused all year long.  Just like the middle school video gamer me, I am going to spend all the time I have working on accomplishing my goals in the classroom this year.  Who knows, maybe I’ll collect enough coins to earn an extra life or find a portal to another dimension.  The possibilities are infinite when I work towards meeting goals I set for myself.

Taking Time for the Important Curriculum in the Classroom

I decided to study teaching in college because I felt like I could connect with students in meaningful ways.  I wanted to change the world for the better, one student at a time.  At the time, that seemed like an awesome task.  I was excited and a bit overwhelmed.  Then, when I actually started studying for my Elementary Education degree, in college I realized that my role as a teacher was more about keeping children safe while filling their brains with information.  I felt like I would need to be the well spring of knowledge from which the students would drink.  I was confused, I thought I would be able to change the world.  Instead, I took what my professors were preaching and viewed my role as educator in a very different way.  I was expected to deliver lessons and knowledge to my students.  I would need to be sure that I covered every standard on the long list of standards for each grade level.  Wow, that definitely seemed overwhelming and unappealing to me.  I didn’t want to be a walking encyclopedia of knowledge for my students.  I wanted to be a guide, someone they could trust to help them feel safe, cared for, and comfortable while engaging in the process of learning.  So, now what, I thought.  My hopes did not match my perception of the reality of being a teacher.  Despite all of the confusion and mixed messages I felt like I was hearing from my college professors, I earned my teaching certificate and began what has transformed into a long, wonderful, challenging, and rewarding career in education.

My first few years in teaching, I followed the model I learned about in college.  I looked at my role as teacher in terms of needing to impart wisdom and knowledge to my students.  I held the elixir of knowledge that needed to be poured into my students.  I focused on content.  Of course, I did ensure that my students were safe and felt cared for, but I spent most of my time preparing lessons that would convey much information and content to my students.  While I was told that this was how great teachers teach, it didn’t feel right to me.  So, after a few years in education, I paused to reflect on my teaching?  How was I doing as a teacher?  Was I changing the world?  Was I helping my students to grow and develop?  I did lots of research at that point in my career and realized that I was not an effective teacher, as I was not empowering my students to learn and want to change the world.  I wasn’t helping my students learn how to manage their emotions or communicate effectively with their peers.  I would hold them accountable when they were rude or disrespectful, but I failed to teach them how they should be communicating and acting.  I was missing the most important curriculum in the field of teaching, the Social-Emotional Learning.

I then went on an epic learning journey of my own, as I started learning what great teachers really do.  I observed examples of effective teaching, researched current pedagogical approaches, and relearned how to be the teacher that I had wanted to when I decided to pursue a life in education.  It was so much fun trying new things in the classroom.  I began giving up control too.  I started asking my students what they wanted to do.  I provided my students with time to share their thoughts and emotions.  I made use of mindfulness in the classroom.  I looked at critical thinking, problem solving, and social-emotional learning as the foundational standards I wanted, no needed, all of my students to master by the time they left my classroom.  I began to see that I needed to help my students learn how to manage their emotions, take responsibility for their actions, solve problems encountered, and see the learning process as fun and engaging.  I now realized that I needed to get my students excited about school.  I began making use of Problem-Based Learning projects and Place-Based Learning units.  I felt like I was growing into the teacher I had wanted to be back when I was 18.  It felt amazing.

While I still have a long way to go, I try to make each school year better than the last, as I continue learning and growing as an educator.  I continually ask myself, my colleagues, and my students, “What can I do to become a more effective teacher for my students?”

Fast forward to this current academic year.  I am fortunate to again be working with a talented and kind group of students.  They are thoughtful and excited about learning.  However, they are only fifth graders and so they have definitely brought their fixed mindsets about learning and school with them.  My goal this year is to help each of my students allow the seeds of learning, kindness, and self-awareness that they all have with them to blossom into something magnificent.  This means that I need to take time to teach my students how to take care of their emotional well being.  We take time during each school day to be mindful and think about how our thoughts, feeling, and actions affect us and others around us.  I also try to create situations that allow my students to practice applying these skills and strategies.  On Thursday, I had my students, work together to attempt to assemble a small puzzle using pieces from two different puzzles.  I purposely left out one piece from each puzzle.  While they managed to mostly accomplish the task, they struggled to communicate effectively with each other.  They were certainly not taking care of each other, like great communities do.  One student was in tears because her classmates were not listening to her.  She had great ideas for how to solve the problem that were being ignored because the students were focusing on the task instead of the process.  So, we took the time then and there to talk about what happened.

What went wrong?  What do we need to work on moving forward?  As we debriefed the activity in class, two students literally and figuratively put their arms around the tearful student.  This helped the student feel cared for and acknowledged.  While assembling a puzzle seems like a task my students should have learned in preschool, the skill of collaborating and communicating effectively are life skills that take much practice to master.  To me, it is more important that my students learn how to work together with their peers in effective ways, solve problems, think critically, become emotionally strong and resilient beings, and be kind and empathetic, than it is for them to learn a bunch of facts.  Yes, I teach my students how to navigate the process of learning, but if they don’t feel safe, cared for, and emotionally strong, then their brains will not allow any knowledge or facts to be stored within that slimy mess resting just beneath their skulls.  Following the puzzle activity, I noticed that my students really were more self-aware and empathetic.  They made sure to help their peers in need and recognize body language that was sending a negative or sad message to the class.  Then, yesterday, things just really came together and reminded me that taking time to help students learn how to navigate their emotions, kindness, and life in general is totally necessary.

So, this story really starts about a week and a half ago.  A student in my class is struggling with a congenital knee issue that has forced her to use crutches to get around since the start of the school year.  While I want her to be and feel like a part of everything we do in the classroom, some tasks or activities are simply too difficult for her to complete while on crutches.  Case and point, Forest Friday.  There is a steep hill to climb up and down in order to access the area of the forest that we use for our outdoor education program in the fifth grade.  She could not navigate this terrain on crutches.  After she missed the first week, I knew that I had to try a different approach to allow her to be included.  So, I told this student how I felt and then asked her for ideas.  A student standing nearby heard us discussing this issue and added, “You could use a sled to pull her up and down the hill.”  The injured student thought this sounded like a wonderful and dangerous idea.  So, like any great teacher, I said, “Let’s do this.”  And, it totally worked.  For the past two Fridays, she has been able to join us outside, and this has helped her feel included and cared for.  Talk about kindness and empathy.  I love it!  This is really only part I of my story.


Now for part II.  So, this injured student is going into the hospital for surgery on her knee this coming Monday.  She will be out of school for quite some time.  When she does return, she will most likely be in a wheelchair to help with the healing process.  So, on Thursday afternoon, during our Closing Circle, I shared that the next day, Friday, would be this student’s last day with us in the class for a while.  Sadness seemed to spread among my students as they all started looking at this student with puppy dog eyes.  Then, several students declared that we need to make her last day memorable and special.  So, I asked them how we might do that.  This lead into a fantastic discussion on being kind and caring.  The following day, Friday, which was yesterday in reality, the students came to school equipped with gifts and cards for this student.  They wanted her to know that they care about her and will miss her while she’s gone.  I had the students sign a group card from the class.  We shared special treats that this student likes and had a wonderful day together.  The students even created a special cheer for the end of our Closing Circle yesterday.  It all felt so magical and surreal.  Thinking back on how kind, thoughtful, and caring ALL of my students were yesterday, tears began to well up in my eyes.  I am so lucky to be working with such a special group of students in the fifth grade this year.


What this two-part story taught me is that the kind of people my students learn to grow into in my classroom is far more important than how much knowledge I can cram into their brains.  Don’t you worry though, I find sneaky ways to convey much information and knowledge to my students on a daily basis.  However, they can always find answers to questions using their smart devices, but they can’t learn how to be kind, empathetic, caring, and strong emotional humans from technology.  They need ample opportunity to practice it in a safe space, like the fifth grade classroom at BHS.

When One Door Closes, Look Ahead for Another to Open

On this cloudy Father’s Day morning, I can’t help but revel in the wonder of two night’s ago: my son graduated from high school on Friday night.  Wwwhhhooo-hhhooo!  If I had some fireworks available to me and wasn’t afraid of shooting them off, I would totally do that right now too.  After many years and months of trying to help him see the light, he got to the end of the tunnel.  He made it, with much help and support from his teachers and aide.  While the ceremony was long, as his class was quite large, the speeches were phenomenal and Mother Nature kept the rain monsters at bay.  After the big event, he was beaming with pride.  He also seemed a bit surprised that he had successfully graduated.  My father turned to him at one point and said, “I’m surprised you did it,” and my son replied, “Yeah, me too.”  It was a very special moment.  In the car ride to his graduation dinner celebration, he said, “Now onto Milford Academy and then college.”  On graduation night, he was already looking ahead to the Post-Graduate school he will be attending before going to college.  He’s already set his sights on his next goal.  I love it!  He’s definitely got my energy for goal-setting.  So, to my son, I say, “Congratulations young man.  You did it!  Now, keep kicking butt as you look ahead to your next challenge.”

Much like my son, I’ve begun to think about my next school year.  As my fifth graders officially became sixth graders on Friday morning, our last day of school at BHS, I’m already thinking about changes I’d like to make in my classroom for next year.  Although I felt as though this past academic year was highly successful, I don’t ever want to stop growing, thinking, and reflecting.  There is always room for change, as I told my students this year, “Nothing or no one is perfect, not even your amazing teacher.”  As the door on the 2018-2019 school year has closed, it’s time to find the next door to open.

Things I want to tweak or change for the 2019-2020 academic year:

  • I want to switch up the posters and decorations in my classroom.  While things looked good this past year, I didn’t super love the way I hung stuff on the walls.  I feel as though I can do better.  I want to strive for making it look more professional.  I want to create a fun sign for the Reading Nook and Maker Space in my classroom.  I want to attach the posters to the wall in a more avant-garde way.  I want conjure up the emotion and rawness of Jackson Pollack while still maintaining the elementary feel of a Harry Allard book.  I’m not sure exactly how I will do this, but I am going to bring some change to the decor of my classroom this summer.
  • I want to change-up some of my Social Studies and Science units.  Will I still do a unit on the Native Americans?  I’m not sure.  With the Community Unit that kicks off the school year, I dig into the native tribes that once resided on the land that we now call Hopkinton.  Is it overkill to then follow up that unit with another one on the same topic?  While the students seemed to enjoy that unit, I feel as though I could also use that time to teach them a unit on civics and what it means to be a citizen of the US.  With a pivotal election on the horizon, helping students understand what it means to be a citizen seems to make a lot of sense to me.  I also plan to make some minor changes to the other units I will update for next year based on the feedback I received from my students this year.
  • While the history teacher uses the online application Classcraft to help motivate students, I’m not sure if I want to make use of it in the fifth grade.  While the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders seemed to enjoy using it this past year, I worry that it tied them to their computers too much.  In this techno-verse in which we live, it’s very easy for people to zone out and stay connected to a screen, and I don’t want that to happen to my students.  While Classcraft does seem really cool and offers some amazing features, I feel as though I need to spend some time this summer really contemplating the decision to utilize it or not for the fifth grade.
  • I want to jazz up my Math class a bit.  As I had much success with the games I used in class, I want to dig even deeper into that concept for the upcoming year.  I want to investigate the cool Math For Love curriculum to see if it would be an appropriate supplemental curriculum for next year.  I want to find even more math games to use in the classroom.  I want to begin each Math class with an activity, problem, or game.  I want to help my students see how much fun Math can be.
  • I want to find more engaging games to incorporate into our Morning Meetings for next year.  The students loved the activities I used towards the end of the year, and I want to find even more games that help foster problem solving and critical thinking while allowing students to develop their social-emotional skills.

I think that’s it for now.  My summer vacation is still young and so this list may grow as September draws closer.  I’m excited to challenge myself this summer and continue to grow and develop as an educator.  Although the end of a school year is filled with bittersweet emotions, it is also a wonderful time to reflect and think ahead.  So, like my son is already doing, I am looking forward to next year’s wonderful class.  Big it on, I say.

The Value in Project Based Learning

For teachers, it’s totally normal to get nostalgic and a little sad during this time of the year, as the end is near.  Our amazing school year that began back in 2018 is two weeks away from being over.  Our remarkable and wonderful students have made so much progress and now it’s time for them to move on.  I still remember the first day of school as if it were yesterday.  It was about 95 degrees in my classroom and I had sweat through my shirt by 9:30 that morning.  My students were nervous and excited.  In fact, they made up a new word to describe just that very emotion.  They call it “nerited.”  My nerited little sponges were full of curiosity and wonder.  Now that the close of another school year is within sight, I am feeling nerited.  Did I prepare them effectively for their next steps?  Are they truly ready to move on?  I think the bigger question is, am I ready to let them move on?  This being my first year at the Beech Hill School, I feel so very lucky to have had such a wonderful and amazing class of fifth graders.  Each and every one of them are remarkable in numerous ways.  I don’t want the fun to come to an end, but as Robert Frost wrote in one of his most famous poems, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way,” time stops for no one and my little fifth graders aren’t so little anymore.  They are ready for their next journey, their next path.  (Wiping away tears as I reflect on my wonderful year.)  But hold on, while the end is indeed near, it’s not here yet, oh no.  We still have two glorious, and what I’m sure will be, crazy weeks to go.  Although it may be easy to look out onto the horizon and see June 14, my energy is focused on the present, the now.

To keep my students focused on the now, and to help them hold back any tears that may be welling up inside, this past week, I introduced the final, cumulative assignment to my class.  It’s the project to end all projects.  It’s the Big Kahuna of Kahunas.  This is the project that will make all other projects seem like just another day in the dentist’s chair.  We’re talking major project here.  In fact, this isn’t simply another project.  This is something far different.  You see, this is a cross-curricular, integrated, behemoth, project of epic proportions.  This, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is, wait for it…  The BHS Betterment Project!  That sound you hear is the thunderous applaud and screams of amazement.  While I have utilized Project Based Learning in the past, this is the first large-scale project that I have ever created.  This project has its tentacles reaching into our Language Arts curriculum, our Social Studies curriculum, our Science curriculum, and our Social-Emotional Learning curriculum.  This is the big time now folks.  I feel a bit like that person in the circus that steers the show, tells funny jokes, and explains all of the various acts.  Yeah, I feel a bit like a circus clown.

Before I get too carried away with my silly antics, I should get back on track.  So, the project involves the students creating some way to leave their mark on our wonderful little school.  What could they do that would enrich the lives of our school’s community members?  How could they make our campus and school even better than it currently is?  Once they brainstorm their idea, they begin constructing it.  Click here to learn more about this phenomenal project.

This week past week, I introduced the project to my class.  Excitement was definitely in the air.  They were pumped for this project.  Immediately, almost every pair of students had an idea for their project.  The first step was to flesh it out, bring it to life a bit more.  I had them complete a project proposal via Google Forms to allow them time to really think about their idea.  How will it benefit our tiny little school?  What materials will be needed?  Are we invested in this project enough to work outside of school if the need arises?  I then met with each group to discuss their idea with them.  I posed questions to each partnership to help them truly think through their idea.  The positive energy was amazing.  The students were so excited to jump into this project.  They loved it.  On the first day, I asked the students what allowed them to work so well and stay so focused during the various work periods we had for this project.  Their response, “Because this project is awesome.  It’s real.  We are actually doing something that makes a difference.  We’re changing our school for the better.”  At hearing their responses, I almost jumped out of my skin and ran around the classroom jumping for joy.  I felt like that guy from that movie about baseball.  “If you create the right project, they will work and love it,” I believe one of the characters said at one point in the film.


Throughout the week, the students worked on their different projects, making the school and our community better.  Each group is totally invested in their project and tasks.  It’s amazing, and I get to observe it all.  On Friday, I walked around the school in awe, watching my students work like busy little BHS Beavers working on their projects.  I didn’t have to remind anyone to stay focused on the work at hand.  I was able to bask in the glory of their hard work and awesomeness.  It was amazing!

The Projects

  • One group is making a community garden in an area that at one time did have a garden on it, but has since turned into a grassy meadow.  They spent much of this past week trying to cut down the grass and get to the dirt of the matter.  As we have a landscaping company take care of mowing and trimming the grass, we don’t have many garden tools or lawn care items available to us at the school.  However, this did not stop that group of dedicated young ladies.  Oh no.  On the second day they were outside and the grass became too long for them to simply pull out of the ground by hand, they asked for the mother of all grass cutting tools.  “May we use the scissors to cut the grass,” they asked with authority.  Holding back laughter, I replied, “Of course.  Give them a try.  That is one way to cut grass.”  Later that same period I went outside to check on them.  While I thought for sure that they would be complaining about how the scissors are useless and not really making a dent in cutting down the grass, they were hard at work on their hands and knees snipping the grass with the scissors.  They seemed incredibly content cutting the grass with small little scissors.  Their perseverance was phenomenal.  Knowing that we had two weeks and not two months to complete this project though, I brought in a weed whacker for them to use the very next day.  Although they liked that the weed whacker got the job done much more quickly than the scissors, they almost seemed to miss the quiet nature of cutting the grass with scissors.


  • Another group decided to create and operate a school store.  As our school is but seven young years old, we don’t have any sort of school store for the students to purchase things like snacks, pencils, or school swag.  Two dedicated fifth grade boys want to change that.  Their goal is to grow this store into something that will sell all sorts of fun things like that to the students on a daily basis.  However, they do realize that they need to start small in order to become a giant like Amazon.  They worked diligently to create a spreadsheet that will document their earnings and expenses, make posters advertising the new school store, and research and then select the few items they will start selling first.  This past Friday marked their first day of business.  They were so excited to open that they spent the entire work period prior to the Grand Opening, setting up the store, reorganizing the price tags, and making sure that everything was just right.  It was so fifth grade.  They raked in about $20 on day one, and were planning to buy new items this weekend so they could reopen again on Tuesday of next week.


  • The third group wanted to find an easier and more student-friendly way to organize the books in our class library.  While the students can use the 5-finger rule for finding a new book, these two students wanted to make it even easier for future fifth graders to find books on their reading level.  So, they found a system for labeling the books that they liked and began re-shelving our class library this past week.  They went with the Accelerated Reader system of classifying books.  They used colored stickers on the spines of the books to denote their level.  They created a key for the students to use as well.  But, they didn’t stop there.  No, they took it a level further.  They then organized the books by genre.  So, each genre shelf or section is organized by reading level as well.  If you’re looking for a historical fiction book that is above the fifth grade reading level, they’ve got several for you to choose from.  It’s so cool.  I can’t wait to unveil this system for my new students in September.


  • The final group wanted to do something that would help more than just our school community.  They wanted to help our local town community too.  As we spent a lot of time at the start of the school year learning about the town of Hopkinton and it’s rich history, the students seem to be more aware of things outside their immediate zone of proximity.  This partnership decided to build a free community lending library that would be housed near the road, but on our property, for all to use.  We will stock it with donated books first and see how the community takes to it.  This week, they designed and started constructing the small library house.  As our town has zoning laws that must be adhered to, I sent the students to Town Hall to find out what they might need to do in terms of fees or paperwork.  It turns out that, as long as the structure is on the school’s property, no paperwork or fees are required.  That was good news.  This experience was a valuable one for the students to understand and realize that things don’t simply, magically happen, there is much procedural work that takes place behind the scenes.  Being an adult is hard work.


While class projects are wonderful and fun for the students, the engagement factor usually fizzles out after a day or so.  However, with this real-life project that has genuine outcomes for the school community and beyond, the students remain 100% invested and engaged because it isn’t just a fun thing to do, it’s the real-world.  They are doing something that matters and will make a difference in our community.  They are gardening, earning money, learning about zoning laws, and determining how to better help future students.  They are doing adult things like adults do, and I think that is the piece that is engaging them and keeping them motivated.  Project Based Learning allows for students to learn real-world skills as well as grade-appropriate skills in an engaging and fun manner.  Most of the learning that happens in projects like the one my students are working on now is hidden from the students.  The group running the school store doesn’t realize that they are practicing math skills as well as the economics of supply and demand while developing a store and selling snacks and drinks to their peers.  PBL experiences weave the learning discretely into the project itself so that the students don’t fully comprehend how much learning and school work they are actually doing.  It’s all about subterfuge, baby.

Instead of spending the last few weeks of school finishing chapters in our Math textbook or reviewing what was learned this year, I’m engaging the students in an exciting project that will help them give back to our school and greater community.  I want my students leaving the fifth grade feeling like they made a difference, learned a lot, made life-long friends, and created memories that will stick with them for a lifetime.  Before I start sobbing again, I’ll wrap up this week’s blog entry with a quote from one of my students, “They looked gross at first, but then I tried them and realized they were super soft and chewy.”  Here’s the big question, was he referring to an actual food product or sticks he found outside during Forest Friday?  Ponder that.

Lessons for Learning in my Fifth Grade Classroom

When I was just a wee young lad with luscious red hair, completing homework was a hoop I had to jump through in order to go outside and ride my bike or watch television.  Homework always came first in my house.  Once I got home from school, I sat down and did my homework.  Because I viewed it as a hurdle to having fun, I rarely devoted great effort or care to the completion of my homework.  I did it to get it done.  In school, my teachers graded homework on the check system: A check minus meant that it did not meet the expectation, a check meant that it was done, and a check plus meant that it was done very well.  Therefore, I made sure that I put forth just enough effort to earn checks consistently.  That was good enough for me.  My teachers never took time in class to discuss the importance of effort or what quality work looked like, and so it took me quite some time to learn the value of hard work and great effort.  Not until college did I start to understand that I should care about the work I completed as it is a reflection of who I am as a person.  I wish my elementary and middle school teachers had taken time to help me learn the value of effort and taking pride in my work.  I wish I had cared more about the quality of work I completed when I was younger, as I feel it could have helped me grow into a stronger student sooner rather than later.

As a teacher, I try exceedingly hard on a daily basis to make sure that I provide my students with the best possible educational program so that they can more rapidly transform into the best versions of themselves.  I don’t want my students feeling the way I do in 30 years because I didn’t support them in meaningful ways when they were in the fifth grade.  I want my students to see the value and benefits in completing quality work in a timely manner.  I want my students to constantly be challenging themselves to grow and develop as thinkers, problem solvers, mathematicians, and individuals.  I want my students to leave my fifth grade classroom in June feeling as though they know how to be effective and successful students in sixth grade and beyond.  I want my students to value the vital study skill of time management.  I want my students to understand what quality work looks like.  I want my students to strive for excellence in all areas of their life, because they are worth it.

One of the many ways I can help challenge my students to grow and develop in the classroom is to be mindfully aware of every opportunity for learning.  This past week was filled with teachable moments for my students.  On Tuesday, my students had a large assignment due.  They had been working on it since the middle of the previous week.  They had to hand-draw a tri-layered map of the Silk Road region.  As they had already completed a similar assignment during a prior Social Studies unit, my students knew how this complex assignment was to be completed.  Before the previous weekend, I had informed a few students that they would need to spend some time over the weekend working on the task so that they would not have hours of homework on Monday evening.  I contacted parents to let them know what I had asked of them, as fostering strong school-family relationships is crucial.  On Tuesday morning, only three students turned in their completed maps at the start of class.  At first, I felt frustrated.  Why did many of my students not complete the only homework assignment they had last night?  After I processed my feelings of anger and frustration during our mindful meditation in Tuesday’s Morning Meeting, I had an epiphany.  My students are only fifth graders.  How can I expect fifth graders to be perfect and do everything just so?  The fifth grade is a year filled with growth and opportunities to practice study skills.  As I began to accept the fact that my students need to fail in the fifth grade in order to learn vital study and life skills so that they are more effectively prepared for the sixth grade, a sense of serenity consumed me.  I shouldn’t be frustrated, but instead, I should feel elated that I have another opportunity to help my students learn the value of time management and great effort.

So, instead of beginning Social Studies class that day lecturing my students on the value of hard work and how disappointed I am that many of them did not complete the homework, I started class by explaining how fifth grade is a time of learning and development.  “I expect that many of you will fail in certain ways throughout the year so that you have the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and grow as a student,” I told them.  This seemed to shock a few of the students, as their eyes grew big.  “Why is this crazy man telling us that he wants us to fail,” they were probably thinking.  I then had students share why they were unable to complete the homework assignment.  I listed their many reasons on the board.  I made sure to explain to the students that while this year I am referring to their rationales for being unable to complete the map task as reasons, the sixth grade teachers will view their reasons as excuses next year.  “Use this opportunity as a chance to learn the importance of budgeting your time effectively,” I said to my students.  I then had the students brainstorm possible ways they could prevent these same reasons allowing them to not complete their homework in the future.  The students suggested wonderful ideas such as asking for help, making a plan or time schedule of how and when they would accomplish various parts of a task, and using their free time more effectively.  It was a very insightful discussion, which I feel benefited the students well.  They seemed to all understand the importance of completing their work by pre-set due dates.  Later in the week, I gave the students another chance to practice this skill of time management.

The students began working on the final project for our unit on the Silk Road in class on Wednesday.  Before they began working in class, I had each student create a daily schedule of the work they will complete so that they can be sure they are finished by the deadline of next Thursday.  I had the students briefly write what part of the project they will work on each day in class and for homework outside of class.  On Thursday and Friday, I began and concluded each Social Studies class by having the students review and update their daily work schedule.  Did the students complete what they had intended to do for homework the night before or in class that day?  If not, they revised their schedule to reflect the reality of the situation.  This has seemed to really help many of the students stay on track with this complex and large final project.  No one is falling behind, as they had on the previous mapping task.  I am hopeful that this time management task will help the students be and feel successful next week when their final project is due.  I intend to debrief the entire project and schedule task with the students in class next Thursday so that they are able to see the value in effectively managing their time regarding academic tasks and assignments.

As I assessed the mapping assignment when all of my students had finally completed and turned in their work, I realized that many of the students failed to meet the graded objective.  Why is that?  Were they rushing?  Did they not understand what to do?  As they had all been able to meet this same objective a few months ago with a similar assignment regarding ancient Mesopotamia, I knew that they understood how to complete the assignment.  So, was it that they were not as engaged or didn’t care about this unit?  They seemed to really like learning about the Silk Road when we began this unit, and so I don’t believe that engagement was an issue.  Then what was it that caused many of the students to turn in work that lacked effort and did not display fine quality?

During Thursday’s Morning Meeting, I took time to share my findings with the class.  I explained how the quality of work that many of the students completed was low and lacking effort.  I discussed the value of holding the bar high for themselves and completing only work of which they are proud.  I reminded them that while they have the opportunity to redo work in the fifth grade, they may not have this same opportunity in sixth grade and beyond.  I want my students to value hard work and put forth more effort in reviewing their work against the requirements before turning it in so that they are handing in their best possible work.  They seemed to understand what I was saying, but only time will tell.  Plus, they are only fifth graders and have plenty of time to continue learning the value of completing quality work.

I’m hopeful that these two mini-lesson chats helped my students begin to see the benefits in completing quality work in a timely fashion.  Next Thursday will be telling; however, even if not every student turns in a high-quality final project on time, I am confident that they are still learning and working out the kinks of the challenging skill of time management.  Learning to be an effective student is an on-going journey full of failures and successes.  While my journey to understanding the value in effective time management and challenging myself to complete quality work took longer than I wish it had, I did eventually learn these vital skills, as all of my students will too one day.

You Taught Your Students What?: Highlights from Last Week in my Fifth Grade Classroom

While last week did feel a bit chaotic and busy at times at my wonderful little school, as we prepared for the big April vacation taking place this week and had to input Progress Report grades, there was also a sense of serenity, gratitude, and excitement in the air.  The temperatures outside began to rise, the snow had finally melted from our rolling fields, and spring was beginning to take hold in central New Hampshire last week.  Despite the craziness of finishing up a unit, cleaning the school, and preparing for the final two months of the academic year, numerous wonderful things took place in my fifth grade classroom last week.  In no particular order, here they are…

Mindfulness Yoga

Looking back on when I came up with this grand idea of having a Yoga instructor come into my classroom once a month for the entire year to teach my students the power of Yoga, mindfulness, and relaxation, I wasn’t even sure it would be possible.  It seemed like a utopian construct that would never work in reality.  Would I be able to find an instructor crazy and brave enough to be a part of such an ambitious undertaking?  Then, my school’s headmaster gave me the name of a wonderful Yogi who is also the mother of two BHS students.  Would she want to help out?  Could she help out?  Would her schedule allow her to lead such a class?  In early August, I received an excited and hopeful email from Lisa Garside, owner of a local Yoga studio.  She would love to work with me and my class throughout the year, she responded.  The ideal time that I had in mind totally worked with her schedule.  The stars were aligning.  I couldn’t wait for the academic year to begin.  But then, would my students be into it?  Would they be engaged in such a different type of mindful instruction?  When I informed my students of the first session way back in September of 2018, you would have thought that I had told them they had no homework for the rest of the month.  They couldn’t wait for our first class.  What seemed impossible became achievable because I persevered and ran with a kooky idea.

Now, as I think about the fact that we have but one final Yoga session left in this school year, I am feeling bittersweet about it all.  I am ecstatic that it was so well received by my students.  They have loved our monthly Yoga sessions and have really gained much focus, relaxation, and calming strategies over the course of the year.  I am so grateful that Mrs. Garside was able and willing to give us the gift of her time, wisdom, and kindness.  She has been absolutely amazing with my students.  Yoga days are the most relaxed days each month, as we begin them in such a peaceful and calm manner.  I am also sad to think about the end being so near.  Our last Yoga session will take place in May, and serve as another reminder of just how close the end of the school year truly is.  We have been so fortunate this year to have Mrs. Garside work with us month after month.

This past week, Mrs. Garside led my students through our April Yoga session.  The focus for this month was on a different style of Yoga that included quick and fast breathing.  The students learned more about how to focus their energy on breathing and moving, instead of dwelling on their inner thoughts regarding this more challenging form of Yoga.  It was quite amazing to observe my students practicing the concept of mindfulness, as they worked very hard to hold difficult poses for long periods of time.  A sense of awe and wonder washed over me as I watched my students engage in this wonderful Yoga session.


I believe that every school and class should incorporate some form of Yoga in their routine, as I have witnessed the amazing benefits first hand.  My students are able to be more present in the moment, aware of their breathing, and understand the power of their bodies from partaking in our monthly Yoga classes.  Imagine how much more compassionate, kind, and aware ALL students could be if Yoga was incorporated into the curriculum or routine in some way in ALL schools.  Perhaps instances of bullying and violence in schools would decrease if ALL students were provided the opportunity to stop, relax, focus, breathe, and stretch at least once a month.  Just imagine the possibilities.

Rover Presentations in Science Class

After weeks of great effort, much failure, perseverance, overcoming adversity, trying new things, taking risks, and rebuilding based on feedback, the three student groups presented their space rovers to two judges this past Friday during Science class.  Each group began their presentation by explaining the problem that their solution and rover could solve.  One group tackled the trash and plastic issue plaguing Earth, while another group chose to mine asteroids for frozen water.  The third group had wanted to mine asteroids for their materials.  They were very specific in identifying their problem and solution.  Each group then showcased how their rover works.  They detailed how they built their rover, the problems encountered as they worked and how they overcame that adversity, and how their rover operates.  It was quite impressive to hear the students share their ideas, thoughts, and facts regarding what they had learned throughout our Astronomy Unit.  Amazing!

The highlights for me were three-fold:

  • Talk About Preparation: The students were so rehearsed and ready for Friday’s presentations that you would have thought we were live streaming the event for the world to see.  They spoke with poise and clarity, unlike what I normally see and hear during class discussions or chats.  They avoided the dreaded ums, ahhs, and likes as if they were evil incantations uttered by the Teletubbies or Barney.  The students didn’t skip a beat between speakers either.  Each group just knew when to pass the metaphorical baton.  It was awesome.  I was so proud of them.  The judges were in awe of their brilliant performances.  In times like these, I have to remind myself that my students are only in the fifth grade because they often act as though they are gifted graduate students studying to take over the world.
  • Problem Solving in Action: As one group readied to demonstrate how their rover worked for the judges, nothing seemed to happen.  They toggled the on switch back and forth, and still nothing.  Instead of giving up and continuing on with their presentation, they stopped for a few moments to solve their problem.  After fiddling with a few of the Little Bits pieces, they got their rover rolling.  They could have easily given up and not fixed the problem encountered, but they did not and did.  They persevered and reached the top of the mountain of awesomeness.  It was so cool to watch this play out.  Everything we’ve worked on all year was on display in those few brief moments.  I could not have been a more proud teacher.
  • To Judge or Not to Judge: Rather than have me assess the students on their presentations, pose questions, and provide the students with feedback, I brought in two very qualified judges to be a part of the big event in class on Friday.  Earl Tuson, a mechanical engineer who once worked for NASA and Aubrey Nelson, one of the science teachers from my school were absolutely wonderful.  They asked the students high-level questions and kept them on their toes the whole time.  I do believe that having such quality judges helped inspire the students to be so prepared for their presentations.  It’s nice to bring in other community members for the students to interact with throughout the year.

Empathy and Compassion Aren’t Simply Trendy Catch Phrases

As I read many educational blogs and articles found in all parts of the inter-web, it seems as though teaching students the concepts of empathy and compassion are and have been hot topics for quite some time.  How do we best help students learn the power of empathy?  Why does it seem that our students are so entitled in the classroom?  How can we help our students learn to be compassionate citizens?

Like all great teachers, I have tried, over the course of this school year, to instill these ideas of caring and kindness within my students.  We often talk about how to communicate in compassionate ways with each other in the classroom.  Compassion is one of our class norms.  However, it sometimes feels like I’m simply doing lip service to some big, grandiose, and utopian idea that is not really achievable in the classroom.  Is all of this work for not?  What I witnessed this past week in my classroom definitely tells me otherwise.

This past Wednesday, one of my students had his lunch taken, accidentally, as he had left it out of his lunch box during the all-school lunch period.  He came back to the classroom seeming very upset and hungry.  He shared what had happened with me and the other students in the classroom prior to the start of our next class.  Immediately, two students got extra food they had leftover in their lunch boxes to share with this student.  Despite the student saying, “No thanks,” they gave him the food anyway.  He then gratefully enjoyed this gifted food during our class read-aloud.  I shared what had unfolded with the entire class prior to starting to read aloud from our class novel, as I wanted everyone to celebrate the kind deeds in action.  The most happy-tears part of the whole situation was that the students who gave their leftover food to the student who had none, didn’t even pause to think about their choice or actions; they simply got their food out and gave it to the student, as though that is just what you do to help members of your community.  Wow, was just about all I was thinking in that moment.  Perhaps those lessons and all that talk of compassion and empathy did have an impact on my students.

Astronomy Unit Reflection

Going into this Astronomy Unit in Science class way back in mid-March, I felt quite confident that I was providing students with the learning and education on space that they had requested prior to starting the unit.  They gave me some great insight as to what specific topics regarding astronomy that they wanted to study and cover over the course of our unit; and so, when I crafted the unit, I made sure to include what they had asked for and not what topics they had already learned about in the past.  For this reason, I was very hopeful that the students would really enjoy this unit.

Fast forward a month to the end of the unit and I still feel the same way.  The students seemed engaged and curious throughout our unit.  They seemed to like every part of it, including the test.  So, when I asked for feedback on the unit this past Friday, as we closed the door on this fine masterpiece of learning, I had my fingers crossed that my thoughts would align nicely with the students’ perspective on our Astronomy Unit.

The big takeaways for me were that the students did really enjoy this unit, overall.  While there are always going to be outliers in an activity like completing a feedback form, almost every students felt like I had covered what they wanted to learn in a way that worked for them.  This felt really positive.  Asking for thoughts and ideas before the unit, helped me to generate a very meaningful and engaging unit on an often fun topic for students.  Asking the students for help in creating an engaging and fun curriculum totally helps.  Student buy-in was great throughout this unit, as they had helped to shape it.  I love it!

Here are some direct quotes from the Google Form the students completed regarding their thoughts on our astronomy unit:

  • In answering the question, “Is there anything(s) that you wish we had learned about space that we did not cover during this unit?” one student responded: No, I feel like I was informed of everything I wanted to learn.
  • In addressing this question, “If you were the teacher, what would you change about the Knowledge Phase, including mini-lessons and test?” one student wrote: Nothing. I thought that you handled them very well.

McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center Field Trip

As I’m sure we can all attest to, we may not remember many of the specific topics covered when we were students in school, but we sure do recall, vividly, the experiences we had in school.  I will never forget the field trips I took to Fort Number Four in fourth grade, an outdoor science center in sixth grade, and Washington D.C. in ninth grade.  Those opportunities brought the learning to life for me.  I remember the fun times with classmates, cool science facts, and the amazing exhibits in the museums we visited.  As teachers, we realize this fact, and try to imbue our class and curriculum with engaging and enjoyable experiences.

This past Tuesday, as a way to wrap up our Astronomy Unit, I took my class to visit the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery in Concord, NH.  The students enjoyed the hands-on exhibits in the discovery center.  They loved trying to land the space shuttle and experiencing the different types of waves.  We concluded our visit with a very cool planetarium show on Black Holes.  After partaking in the unveiling of the Black Hole images from two weeks ago, my students were so into learning more about Black Holes.  It was awesome.  Throughout the show, I heard my students say, “Wow,” “That’s so neat,” and “I didn’t know that.”  It was awesome.  While they may not remember every last fact we learned about space throughout our unit, I’m hopeful that they will never forget our class trip to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center.

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All that stuff happened in just one week?  Whoa, that was a very rich and full week.  As I wax nostalgic on all the fun I’ve had with my class this year, it’s comforting to know that I still have almost two more months with them before they matriculate into sixth grade.  How much more fun can be had?  Well, we are sure to find out starting next week.

Is Our Focus on Social Emotional Learning in Schools Detracting from Academic Learning?

As I prepared for my big presentation at the New England League of Middle School’s annual conference in Providence, RI, this past week, I asked my students for some help.  “I’m feeling very anxious and nervous about my presentation tomorrow.  Any ideas on what I could do to help alleviate this release of cortisol in my brain?”  I was expecting silly answers like, “Picture everyone in their underwear,” but instead I received some very thoughtful responses that amazed me.

  • “You could do some mindful breathing before you start, like we do in the classroom,” one student said.  I love that they see the value in the mindful activities we utilize in the classroom.  It filled my heart with joy to hear this response.
  • “You could do some gambling before your presentation,” one student said, with a smile on his face.  I was hoping for at least one laughable suggestion; however, it does make me wonder what goes on at home that made him think this was something that people do.  Hmmm…
  • “You could picture all of the teachers in the audience as your fifth graders.  Like, don’t call them our names, but imagine you are teaching us,” one student suggested.  Ahh, be still my heart.  I love my students.  They always know just what to say.

Equipped with this sage advice from my students, I made my way into my workshop session on Thursday hopeful, calm, and a bit richer.  I felt ready to take on the world.

My workshop session was on the power of social emotional learning in the classroom.  My main goal was to help teachers and administrators see the genuine value and importance of focusing on educating the whole child.  I began my session by having the 30 attendees participate in a guided meditation, as a way of taking care of themselves.  I referred to it as my gift to them.  Many of the audience members seemed to get a lot out of this short activity.  I then attempted to engage the participants in a discussion regarding their prior knowledge of SEL, and you would have thought that I was asking for volunteers to recreate that final dance scene from the movie Dirty Dancing.  The large room was silent, with no hands going up.  Ohh teachers, we can be a strange bunch sometimes.  eventually though, the group warmed up to the fact that audience participation will enrich the session.  It could be that about three minutes after I asked them the question that fell on deaf ears, I had them participate in a pair-share activity that got the audience members out of their seats and moving around.  At that point, the overall energy level in the room did increase.

As we debriefed this partner activity, a school counselor added this interesting knowledge nugget to the discussion, “It feels to me that we are focusing too much on the social emotional aspects of teaching and moving away from the academic learning.  I’ve noticed that students at my school are struggling on tests and assessments more so than ever before.  I wonder if it is because we are spending so much time on mindfulness, conflict resolution, and other social apsects of learning.”  After she finished speaking, I heard people muttering under their breath in disbelief.  Did she really just say that?  I then thanked her for her input and posed a wondering of my own to the group “I wonder what will happen to those students who come into our classrooms filled with anxiety, stress, or some other negative emotion if we don’t provide them the space and place to relax, mentally unload, reflect, and release those strong emotions that will cause the release of cortisol in their brains.  Will they be able to really learn anything that we teach them?  Won’t it just go in their ears and back out again?  Don’t we need to prepare our students for academic learning opportunities before we jump right into them?”  Several other participants chimed in after me, echoing my sentiments.  People were trying to help this person understand the power of the social emotional aspects of learning.

But, was she getting at something?  Do we spend too much time on the “touchy-feely” aspects of teaching?  Are we moving too far away from academic learning?  Are our students graduating from high school less prepared for the rigors of the real-world now than ever before?  As our nation has been dealing with far more acts of school violence than most other countries in the world in recent years, schools around the country have been trying to address the reasons behind this violence.  Organizations and school districts have been implementing social emotional learning programs in schools across the nation to help curb the issues they believe are causing this influx of violence in schools.  Are these programs helping?  Are they making a difference?  Has there been a reduction in school violence since schools began putting these programs in place?  Should we just focus on academic learning in schools instead, and hope for the best?

While it is always important to view conversations and big ideas like this one from all perspectives, taking in all view points; however, at the end of the day, we do need to rely on our what our hearts tell us.  Great teachers know that our students won’t be able to learn if they are under stress.  And, if we allow this stress to fester and grow within our students and classrooms, it will lead to far bigger issues.  We cannot ignore the fact that many of our students are carrying around much emotional baggage with them when they enter our classrooms.  We need to provide our students with safe places to share their feelings, process their thoughts, become mindful and aware of the world around them, gain empathy, and feel cared for.  Only once our students are able to release some of the stress plaguing them, will they be able to begin the academic learning process.  Our students are humans, not robots.  We can’t expect them to compartmentalize their feelings and emotions so that we can shove our “important curriculum” into their brains.  The process of learning doesn’t work like that.  Brain science reaffirms this.  Our brains cannot intake new information if they are in a state of stress or under the spell of the “fight or flight” mechanisms in our brains.  As teachers, we need to focus on the social emotional aspects of learning before we can even begin to get into the process of academic learning.  Now more than ever, it is crucial that we spend time addressing the social and emotional issues affecting our students, because, if we don’t, future generations of students will be graduating with far fewer academic skills than those who have recently graduated.  Students need to feel and be safe and cared for before any sort of genuine learning can take place.  Thus, in some schools, we aren’t taking enough time to address the social emotional learning of our students.  As a nation, we need to better prepare our students to be kind, compassionate, resilient, emotionally attuned, and empathetic.

As I finished my workshop session on Thursday morning, feeling pretty good about how it went, something magical happened.  That same school counselor who posed the heavy-weighted question to the group during my presentation, came up to me to as I was packing away my materials to thank me for a wonderful session.  She told me that she now realizes and sees the value in focusing on the social emotional aspects of learning.  It took this session to wake her up a bit to the reality of the world in which our students live.  And this is why more teachers need to present sessions at conferences like NELMS and AMLE.  We need to get the word out about issues including SEL, brain science, and so much more.  So, to this school counselor who took a chance on my session, I say, “Thank you.”