How Will I Grow as an Educator this Summer?

Anger is an emotion I rarely experience.  Frustration and madness, sure, but not anger.  I just don’t find myself getting angry that often.  However, in the last two years, or ever since our sitting president took office, I find myself being brought to the verge of anger on a more regular basis while reading news stories and current events about happenings in our world.  Things just aren’t like they used to be, oh no.  Humans are going a little bonkers.  But this kind of angry is good, because it means that I am paying attention to the world around me.  As some person once said, “If you’re not angry, then you’re not paying attention.”  I watch and observe what is happening in our country and abroad because I care.  I vote, I watch, and I try to make a difference if I’m not liking what I’m noticing.  So, sometimes I do get angry when I’m reading stories on the news app on my phone.  The crazy things that are happening boggle my mind.  It’s as if we are living in a reality television program.

Yesterday, I read a story online that made me a bit angry.  Surprisingly enough though, it wasn’t about the political side of things.  No, it was about something even more near and dear to my heart: Music.  This author had the audacity to proclaim that rock music is officially dead.  What is he talking about, I said aloud to myself while reading this absurd piece.  One of my all-time favorite genres of music is rock.  I listen to rock music on the radio almost daily.  Bands are crafting new rock tunes all the time.  Rock music will never die.  Especially with what’s going on in our world, people need rock music.  Rock is the genre for the counter-culture movements happening globally.  Rock has always provided those invested and knowledgeable angry people with a safe haven, an outlet will you.  Rock music saved my life when I was growing up.  Things were a bit difficult for me as a teen, but fortunately, I had my rock cassette tapes and CDS to comfort me and provide me with an escape when things got too challenging.  I remember listening to Guns N’ Roses’ masterpiece Use Your Illusions I and II so frequently that the tapes eventually broke.  Axl Rose’s lyrics helped me through some tough times.  Then came Pearl Jam’s Ten.  Epic is the only way to describe this album.  Black was my favorite tune from that disc.  Amazing.  As hardcore, metal, punk, and rock evolved in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the landscape of rock music changed as well.  Bands like Coheed and Cambria and Thursday blended genres together and took listeners on a completely new musical journey.  Other bands grew out of this new movement and rock music flourished through the beginning of the 21st century.  New bands and old ones are still crafting and constructing new rock music all of the time.  The author of that ridiculous article clearly has no idea what rock music really is.  You see, in the article, he only referenced bands like Avenged Seven-fold and the Foo Fighters.  While I do like both of those bands, they aren’t the only rock bands around, and they certainly don’t encapsulate the genre.  So, to make this rant come to an end so that I can get on with my blog, this article is completely false and rock music is alive and well, and will always be that way.

Unlike that fictitious article I just referenced, my summer plans are shaping up to totally rock and roll as I prepare for my first year of teaching fifth grade at my new school.  I’m so excited.  I get to set up a new classroom, meet new people, create new curriculum, challenge new students, and be a part of what is sure to be an amazing learning community.  YES!  So, to prepare for all of this awesomeness, I need a plan of action.  So, this summer, I’m going to keep the pedal pushed all the way down to the rocking metal as I work to prepare for the upcoming school year.

  • I need to set up and organize my new classroom.  I’m happy to know that my new school will be ordering new whiteboard desks and rocking chairs for my classroom.  Those will help the students stay focused, attentive, and engaged throughout the day.  I get to figure out how I’m going to set things up.  My new classroom has so many windows that look out onto rolling fields and scenes of nature.  I can’t wait to try some new ways of putting things together in my new classroom.  I hope to get started on this process in early July, which is great because I have a ton of stuff in storage right now to move over from my old classroom.
  • I need to determine which math book or series I will be going with for the fifth grade program.  The school currently uses the Big Ideas Learning math series for grades six through eight.  While I want to maintain consistency for the fifth grade, I’m not sure this book series would be best for the group of students I will be working with this fall.  Some of my new students have noted that math is a bit of a struggle for them.  So, my goal is to choose a math curriculum that will engage my students in meaningful ways so that they are excited to learn new math concepts and strengthen their foundation regarding computational skills.  The founder of my new school suggested I look at this new program called Beast Academy.  Wow, was about all I could say when I checked it out.  It is a math graphic novel that uses monsters to teach math concepts.  It’s rigorous and challenging, but tackles the topics in new and creative ways.  I think this would be a great curriculum to use.  Now, I just need to talk things over with my new headmaster to find out what he thinks would be best.  Of course, I will support whatever he chooses, but I’m hoping that he will allow me to try out the Beast Academy program for next year.  Fingers crossed.
  • I need to complete my first science and social studies units on community and the scientific method.  As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’ve got a plan for this process.  I’m excited to try new things and dig into some cool ideas and learning.  I have already begun this process, as it requires much behind the scenes work.  I’m sure that this portion of my summer work will last the longest.
  • I need to determine what my daily schedule will be for the fifth grade program.  Sometime in the coming weeks, I will sit down with my new headmaster to hash out the daily schedule in terms of time.  When will specials be?  What time is lunch?  Things like that.  Once I have this finalized, I can then begin the planning for things like Morning Meeting, Passion Projects, and outdoor discovery time.  This will be one of the first things I can check off of my summer list, as I need this to fall into place before I can really dig into the daily planning of my class.
  • My summer reading goal is small right now as I only have one book on it.  I also want to read some young adult books that I might use during Reader’s Workshop lessons in the fall.  I haven’t decided on those titles yet.  The only book I have so far is Quiet by Susan Cain.  I just started it yesterday and am loving it.  As an introvert, I can totally relate to a lot of what she mentions in the novel.  The world seems to favor extroverts, but its the synergy of people working together that really makes the world work.  We need to embrace the introverts in our work places and schools and allow them to develop their skills in appropriate ways.  We can’t try to make introverted people into extroverts, as it will only cause future problems.  I’m excited to learn some tips and tricks on how to best support the introverts that I will inevitably have in my classroom this year.  I’m hoping to finish this book within a couple of weeks.  Then I will gather the young adult books I want tackle next.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for now.  I’m sure that other things will crop up along the way, as they always do.  That’s just part of the process of developing new things and preparing for a new school year.  The fun is in the middle.  So, now I will embark upon my summer journey of rocking hard as I ready things for the next academic year.  Oh, and I’ll be listening to plenty of rock music.  Rock on!

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My Summer Professional Development Plan in Reverse

I read an article recently that explained the power in backwards planning for students.  Now, this isn’t news to me as a teacher, as great teachers have always been planning in reverse.  Start with the desired outcome, project, or assessment and plan your lessons off of it.  That makes a lot of sense, which is why I’ve been utilizing that practice in my teaching for years.  But, what about backwards planning for students?  Does that work too?  According to the research cited in the article read, it does indeed work.  A study was completed recently in which they had one group of students prepare for an exam or essay in the traditional forward-thinking model, while the other group utilized the planning in reverse model of preparation.  What they found, which should come as no surprise to anyone, is that the group who planned in reverse, was more successful and prepared, felt better about the task, and performed better than the other group.  So, backwards thinking isn’t just for teachers to utilize in the classroom; it’s a model of planning that all people should use, all of the time.

As I think about my summer plans, I’m going to put this new information to use.  One of the big things I want to accomplish this summer is to plan out the first units I will cover for my new class.  As I have already put together the social studies and science curricula for the fifth grade program, I feel as though this will be my first focus.  So, now I will plan out, in reverse order, the first integrated unit for my new class.

I want this new unit to employ the Project-Based Learning method of creating a meaningful, engaging, challenging, and authentic learning opportunity for my students.  I’ve done some research this week, including participating in my first LIVE webinar, on PBLs, and realized that I have created multiple projects over the years for my students, but never a truly effective PBL opportunity.  So, I want to use what I’ve learned this week to create my first PBL unit for my new school.  While I know that my first unit will be focused on community, I don’t know much more than that.  So, now what?

  • In reverse, the last step would be to finalize the unit after having revised it based on feedback I received from various colleagues at my new school.
  • Prior to that, I would have put all of the pieces I’ve been working on together into a cohesive unit that would allow my students to demonstrate their ability to meet the learning targets I decided on at the start of this process in a meaningful and engaging manner.
  • Before that, I would figure out the pacing of the unit.  When would we go on our various field experiences versus in class work and learning.
  • Prior to doing that, I would figure out which field experiences we would embark upon during the unit.  As I’m sure that I will find many great places to visit regarding the history of Hopkinton, NH, I also know that I have limited time; thus, choosing the most meaningful and engaging ones would be an important step in the process.
  • Before doing that, I would create the in-class lessons and lab experiences that the students would complete during the unit.  What labs do I want the students to do to help them learn about the scientific method?  How will I go about teaching those lessons?
  • Before that, I would make sure that that the unit is indeed an effective PBL unit.  I would make sure that it includes opportunities for authentic learning, a finished product that would be shared with others, intellectually challenging learning, chances for the students to learn project management skills, group work, and an opportunity for the students to reflect on the entire process.
  • Prior to creating the lessons, I would create a skeletal outline of the unit.  What do I want to cover and how do I want to do it?  This part of the process will be crucial to understanding how everything else is going to come to fruition.
  • Before the unit can even begin to come together, I need to determine the learning targets I am going to use.  What objectives do I want to cover, and how can I transform them into student-friendly language?
  • The first step in the whole process of creating this unit is the planning and research.  What do I want to do?  How might I put it all together?  Who do I need to speak with to learn about the history of this new-to-me town?  How can I create an engaging and challenging unit for my students that will allow them to complete authentic and real-world learning?

That was quite challenging.  While I usually plan my units in reverse order anyway, that wasn’t the difficult part.  It was hard for me to think about the steps involved in the process of getting everything together.  However, it did offer me a chance to think about the entire process of constructing a new unit from a completely different perspective.  I’m not sure I would have created this same list of steps if I had put them together the way I have in the past, starting at the beginning.  I think I may have left out some steps if I did it in the traditional way of planning.  As I worked from the finish to the start, I was forced to contemplate my process from a different angle.  It was kind of cool, and super fun.  As this is a new school for me, in a new town, I have much work to do this summer to learn about the history of Hopkinton, NH.  I just discovered today that it was the first capital of the state.  Who knew?  Not me, for sure.  This process is also fun and exciting, as I realize that I get to meet a whole bunch of new historians and people affiliated with the town.  I get to hear new oral histories and learn a much about a new place.  That really fills me with glee.  I’ve already scheduled my first meeting at the Hopkinton Historical Society.  Yah for me!

So, as I dig into my new PBL unit on Our Community, I’m excited to learn much, try new things, take risks, and push myself as an educator.  Like I will require my students to do all year, I am going to challenge myself to be uncomfortable and put forth great effort to create the most engaging and meaningful PBL unit my new students have ever seen.  Well, maybe I’m setting the bar a bit too high for now.  How about I just try to do my best to create a great PBL unit on community?  That sounds like a more realistic goal for now.  So, off I go to learn, forward now.

Using Music in the Classroom

Growing up was no easy feat, and being ridiculed and having overbearing parents, did not help one iota.  Luckily, I had a great core group of friends and music to get me through.  Music was my security blanket when I was a teenager.  After having a difficult day at school, I’d come home and blast whatever cassette tape or compact disc that was in my boombox.  The sweet sounds of Guns n’ Roses and Pearl Jam made all of my problems seem a little smaller.  Music was my oasis in the desert that was growing up in a small town.  Shannon Hoon’s vocal stylings helped remind me that everything will be okay in the end.  Music made life bearable, and allowed me to grow into the man sitting at this laptop typing these very words.  Some great people have been quoted saying, “Music soothes even the most savage of beasts.”  And how true that line rings.  Music is, for many people, the safety raft they use to navigate their way through the choppy waters of life.

I see how vital a role music plays in the lives of my students.  When they are having a challenging day, listening to a song or two in between classes helps them to self-soothe and get recalibrated for what comes next.  Music holds great power for all people, regardless of culture, language, socio-economic background, or geographical location.  Music is the tie that binds people together.  One of the first questions I often hear students ask each other at the start of each year is, “What kind of music do you like?”  This matters to them as they try to form their own support group of friends.

As music is so important to the lives of our students, why does it seem that many teachers are not tapping into this potential?  Why are they not using music in the classroom?  Why do many teachers not allow students to listen to music in class?  As a music lover, I see the power and value in music for my students.  I begin every class with soft music playing as the students enter the classroom and prepare for whatever class is happening next.  I use more acoustic or gentler music during these transition times, as I want to set a quiet and reflective mood in the room.  I’m able to create an atmosphere of serenity and preparedness in the classroom through the use of music during these times of the academic day.  I also play instrumental music when the students are working, independently, in the classroom.  I choose reflective and soothing music during these times, as I want to inspire my students to stay focused and be creative.  With this soft music playing, the students are generally very productive and on-task during these times.  I also allow my students to listen to their own music, with headphones, during class transitions.  This allows the students the downtime they need to process information learned in the previous class and to prepare for what the future holds.  Class is able to begin smoothly and without incident during these times.  Music allows me to set the tone in the classroom and inspire a particular behavior.  It’s mental medicine for my students.

As we began discussing poetry in my Humanities class on Friday, I wanted my students to see poetry as something more than just words.  I wanted them to see that poetry is everywhere, all around them.  So, yesterday, I began a discussion in class with my students on music as poetry.  I asked them if they thought that music is poetic.  We had a great discussion about song lyrics and what makes a song poetry or not.  I then had the students spend class time, individually, listening to their own, personal music.  Is the music they usually listen to poetic?  As they listened to their music, they took notes on poetic lines they heard.  I closed the lesson by having the students share some of the lines they extracted from what they listened to.  They pulled out some great and poetic examples of figurative language.  It was awesome.  They were so engaged and excited by this activity, and a bit surprised that I would allow them to listen to their own music during class.  They were really into the activity, as they started to discover that poetry isn’t just words on a page, but that it can come in many forms, including music.

As teachers, we need to find new, fun, and creative ways to engage our students in the classroom.  As music is the lifeblood for so many of our students, it just makes sense to find ways to incorporate it into the curriculum of our classes.  As music saved my life, I want to give back to the world of music and help future generations of teachers, thinkers, problem solvers, doctors, and flight attendants find the power in music.  Who knows how the music I’ve played in the classroom over the years, for my students, has inspired them.  Maybe a student, who didn’t really give much thought to music prior to being in my class, began listening to music that changed their life for the better.  Or perhaps, some song I played while the students worked in the classroom inspired them to craft a brilliant poem, story, or expository essay.  Music, like life, works in mysterious ways sometimes.  If we let it, music can change the world.

Reflecting on my March Break

As the sun sets over the hills, I’m feeling very reflective.  You see, today marks the end of my lengthy March vacation. During the first week, I lived on my couch as I recovered from the flu.  Being sick is horrible. I felt so helpless. Thankfully, I am blessed to have an amazing wife who took care of me and nursed me back to health.  During the second and third weeks of break, I did much school work. It was a ton of fun. I love planning new units, learning about new teaching practices, and finding out what other teachers do to help their students find success in and out of the classroom.  In between all of this work and healing, I spent tons of time with my family. We watched basketball and had fun together. That was my favorite part of the entire vacation. I felt alive again. I wasn’t just going through the motions like a robot, instead, I was experiencing life.  It felt amazing!

While on vacation, I did much research, reading, and thinking about teaching, and more specifically, learning about my research topic.  You see, this year I’ve focused my energy on gathering intel and data on how best to introduce and present new activities and projects to students.  Are rubrics the most effective way to do this? What makes an effective grading rubric? Do rubrics prevent students from being creative and solving problems?  So, I’ve devoted the past 10 months to trying to uncover the answers to the many questions I have about rubrics and project introductions. And what I’ve discovered isn’t too surprising, but has allowed me to think more closely about how I craft units and projects.

Throughout the course of this year, I’ve tried out numerous rubrics and project introductions to determine what works best.  I’ve even engaged my students in a discussion on the topic, explaining my research project to them. My conclusion is this, grading rubrics and project introductions only do so much.  Those students who strive for academic success, will triumphantly complete any task thrown their way with or without a grading rubric or project overview sheet. They will do well no matter what, because they want to do well.  Those students who struggle academically don’t often reference the rubrics while working because they haven’t found their passion yet, in most cases. So, spending the time to craft a relevant and useful rubric is futile as most of the students don’t even give rubrics a second glance while working on a project or task.  So really, rubrics and project introductions make no difference in how the students perform on various projects and activities.

This then got me thinking…  So, how can I help engage all of my students in a way that allows them to see the relevance in what we’re doing in the classroom?  How can I create projects and assignments that get my students excited about the prospect of learning and doing? How can I help all of my students see the value in learning and growing in school?  Simple, it comes down to the project or task itself. Is it interesting? Is it engaging? Is it relevant to my students? Will it be fun for the students? Will it challenge students while also providing support for those who need it?  

So, during the month of February, my students worked on a research project regarding Africa.  I constructed it in a manner that provided the students with much choice and flexibility. Here’s what that project looked like for the students…

What’s This New Project All About?

Hey, do you remember how at the start of the year we talked about the purpose of PEAKS class?  How it’s the most important class you will take while at Cardigan? How it will help you learn and understand the basic, foundational skills you will need to be a successful student at Cardigan and beyond?  Well, here is a prime example of how PEAKS class can and will support you as a student…

Now that you understand the importance of using an open mind when learning about new people and places to prevent the use and creation of stereotypes, it’s time for you to venture out into the world of the unknown regarding Africa.  What do you wonder about the continent of Africa? What do you want to know more about? Sure, you know about the basic geography of Africa, but what about the specifics of the Nile River or how the Atlas Mountains impact northern Africa?  What about the people of Africa and the forms of government used in the numerous countries within the great continent? So, go forth, challenge yourself, and learn more about the amazing and mysterious continent of Africa.

What Now?

  1. This is a solo project, which means you will be embarking upon this adventure on your own.
  2. Start by creating a New Document in the Humanities Folder of your Google Drive.  Title it Africa Project and share it with Mr. Holt. You will use this Google Doc to record your research process.
  3. Choose a lense through which you want to study Africa: People, Government, or Geography.  Record in Google Doc.
  4. Choose a specific topic, about Africa, that you want to learn more about regarding the lense you chose.  Examples: Nile River’s Impact on Eastern Africa, How the Government of Sudan Led to War in the Country, Compare and Contrast Governments of Zimbabwe and South Africa, Tribes of the Sahara, etc.  Record in Google Doc.
  5. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be sure you’ve chosen a challenging and appropriate topic.
  6. Find at least three reputable sources regarding your topic.  Your sources could be print sources, online sources, or interviews.  Record in Google Doc.
  7. For each source, explain how you know it will provide you with the information you are looking for.  Record in Google Doc.
  8. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be assessed on your ability to choose reputable resources.
  9. Create an MLA-style Sources Used page in your Google Doc for your three sources.
  10. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be assessed on your ability to utilize the MLA format when documenting sources used.
  11. Now you’re ready to start digging for knowledge nuggets.
  12. Choose a note taking form to record your findings: Bullet-Style or Two-Column Style.
  13. Take notes from each of your sources.  Be sure to include lots of fun, interesting, and important information regarding your topic.
  14. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be assessed on your ability to extract information from a source.
  15. Here comes the really fun part of the project.
  16. How do you want to present what you’ve learned about your topic?  Poster, Trading Cards, Speech, Historical Fiction Story, Play, Report, Diorama, etc.
  17. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be sure you’ve chosen an appropriate vehicle to present your research findings.
  18. Create your visual aide.
  19. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be assessed on your ability to think critically and be creative.
  20. Now, here comes the hard part.  Get ready for the challenge of your life.
  21. Participate in the first-ever Learning Exposition, in which you will present your visual aide and what you’ve learned about your topic and research process to visitors.  Be prepared to answer difficult questions, wow the visitors, and teach others about your unique and engaging topic.
  22. Reflect on your learning process.

On What Am I Being Graded?

PEAKS Class Graded Objectives

  • Students will be able to choose reputable resources regarding a research topic.
  • Students will be able to utilize the MLA format for citations when documenting sources for a research project.
  • Students will be able to extract important facts and information, in written form, from various resources.
  • Students will be able to convey information orally to an audience regarding a specific topic.

Humanities Class Graded Objectives

  • Students will be able to think critically about a topic in order to compile relevant and appropriate notes.
  • Students will be able to utilize creativity when making a relevant yet unique visual aide regarding a research topic.
  • Students will be able to design an engaging presentation for an audience regarding a specific topic.

When is Everything Due?

  • You must choose your lense and topic by the start of class on Saturday, February 10.
  • You must choose your three reputable sources by the start of class on Wednesday, February 14.
  • You must complete your MLA Sources Used page by the end of Humanities class on Wednesday, February 14.
  • You must have your notes completed by the start of class on Friday, February 23.
  • You must have your visual aide finished by the start of class on Friday, March 2.
  • Learning Exposition will take place on Saturday, March 3.

That’s it.  Nothing more specific than that.  No formal grading rubric, just an overview of the project.  That’s all I equipped the students with. I introduced the project in a way that highlighted the freedom and choice with which they were provided.  While I didn’t go into detail about each aspect of the project, I did answer all of the questions the students had about the expectations of the project.  Throughout the project, I made sure to do that. I didn’t give information unless they asked for it, and even then, I generally answered their question with a question.  I want my students to learn how to solve their own problems by using creativity and perseverance.

The result?  The boys loved it.  They had so much fun with this project.  Almost every student when above and beyond my wildest dreams and expectations.  Although they only had to create one visual aid, many of them had numerous pieces to share with the audience members during the exposition in the class.  The advanced students in my class challenged themselves to learn as much as possible while creating an engaging and relevant presentation, and the students who sometimes struggle in class, challenged themselves to learn much and step outside of their comfort zone.  They all worked so diligently on this project in and out of the classroom. They asked for feedback and used much of their free time to exceed any expectation they felt I had set for them. It was amazing. I created an engaging and relevant project that allowed all of my students to meet and exceed the objectives.  Even without a specific and detailed grade rubric, my students rocked this project like it was a concert.

This experience helped me to prove and solidify what I had hypothesized after collecting much data earlier in the year.  It’s not about what you tell the students in terms of the expectations for a project or task, it’s about the task or activity itself.  Is it engaging and fun? If it is, the students will learn much, utilize their problem-solving and creative skills, ask questions when confused, and meet or exceed the graded objectives.  As teachers, it’s not about how clear and specific we are with the graded expectations of an assignment. It’s about getting the students excited without telling them too much. Let them wonder and make noticings on their own.

As I came to this grand realization, I found myself thinking about how I can transform my curriculum for the remainder of the year to make it more engaging and fun for the students.  How can I get them DOING the learning? Over the course of my school’s March Break, I spent much time creating a brand new Humanities unit that will have my students talking with and to each other, discussing big ideas, writing poetry and plays, playing with words, acting out a play, creating new words, discussing the power of words, and learning the ins and outs of the English language.  After I mapped out the unit in a day by day format, I looked at what I want and need the students to learn regarding figurative language. I thought about each lesson, activity and project in terms of engagement. Will these tasks and lessons engage my students? Will they be learning relevant skills and content that they will be able to apply to their future English and history courses? Will they enjoy the activities and have fun learning about words and the power they hold?  This exercise and experience wasn’t about creating strict and detailed expectations on how the students will be graded and assessed, oh no. It was all about making sure that my students will be engaged in the learning process. If they are interested in what they are learning about, their brains will do the rest.

For me, this year has been transformative.  I’ve realized that rubric or not, it’s about the lesson and learning task itself.  I need to create units and lessons that will intrigue and challenge my students in new and unique ways.  I need to get them excited about what we are learning. If I can do that, then the rest will easily fall into place.  After a productive and restful March Break, I feel more alive about teaching and education than I have in a long time.  I’m ready to engage my students in the learning process in relevant and meaningful ways. I’m ready to challenge them to think critically, ask difficult questions, take risks, be creative, try new things, fail, and have fun as we embark upon the final nine weeks of the academic year.  No more feeling like a robot. It’s time for me to think like my students and find ways to ensure that I am reaching and engaging all of my students so that they can reach their full potential in the sixth grade.

Helping Students Learn How to be Professional Adults

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

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

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

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

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

What Makes an Effective Sixth Grade Program?

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

Introduction

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

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

Rationale

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

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

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

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

Mindfulness

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

Classroom Organization

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

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

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

Curriculum

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

Humanities

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

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

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

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

Math Class

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

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

Science Class

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

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

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

PEAKS Class

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

Homework

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

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

Project-Based Learning

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

Standards-Based Assessment

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

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

Conclusion

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

How Can We Help Students Learn How they Learn Best?

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

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

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

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

Transforming Grampa Grammar Into Cool Uncle Cal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenging Students Where they Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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