Posted in Education, Humanities, Learning, Reflection, Students, Teaching, Writing

How My Students Help Me Become a Better Teacher

When I was a young lad, I always wanted a rock polisher.  I thought they were the coolest things ever.  You can take an old, nasty looking rock and turn it into a polished stone in a matter of hours.  How awesome is that?  Every year for Christmas I asked for one, and you know what I never got?  Yes, that’s right, a rock polisher.  Now, this isn’t some rant about what I never had growing up.  This rant is all about rocks.  You see, rocks are constantly in a state of change.  The rock cycle causes them to melt, harden, shoot out of Earth, and repeat.  They also become weathered, break down, reform into something else, and then do it all over again.  Rocks are amazing like that.  Although we can never see these processes take place as they happen over long periods of time, I’ve always been in awe about how focused rocks are on changing and growing.  What I always found spectacular about rock polishers is that they can make a process that usually takes years in rivers and on Earth’s surface, to happen almost overnight.  What I love most about rocks is that they are never happy with their current state as they are always longing for improvement and change.  Liquid rock inside Earth is always trying to find a way out to become something a bit more solid and hard, while large chunks of granite rock are always looking to roll into something a bit smaller and more compact.  Rocks are fantastic role models for humans.  We can learn a lot from rocks.  Rocks teach us to value a growth mindset and persevere through problems no matter their size.  Rocks also teach us to look at the world and see the endless possibilities that exist.  Rocks are pretty phenomenal and beautiful naturally occurring objects.

Great teachers, like rocks, are always looking to grow and develop.  How can I become a more effective educator?  Reflection is definitely a huge part of that process of change, but the rest comes in the form of feedback.  Feedback we receive from our colleagues and our students.  The most effective feedback I’ve received over the years, comes from my students.  They know what they like and what they don’t like and they aren’t afraid to tell the world all about it.  Students can be brutally honest, which can be both good and bad.  However, the feedback students have provided me with over the years has allowed me to grow and mature as a teacher.  The implementation of Reader’s Workshop came out of reflecting on feedback received from my students about the books we were reading altogether as a class.  The structure of units and activities used throughout the years is all due to the wisdom I’ve gained from asking my students to comment on what they like and what they would change if they were in charge.  Reflecting on and then using feedback received from my students is why I am the effective teacher I am today.

Humanities class provided me with yet another opportunity to receive two different kinds of feedback from my students today.  As we have come to the end of our first unit on the Canaan Community, I had the students complete a survey, providing me with their thoughts on the unit as a whole.

Questions posed in the survey:

  • What was your favorite part of this unit and why?
  • What fact or piece of information, that you learned throughout the unit, did you find the most interesting or engaging?
  • What did you think about our class read-aloud Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman?
  • What did you like about the Historical Fiction Story Writing Project and why?
  • If you were the teacher teaching this unit, what would you change about it for next year?
  • Using Cardigan’s Effort Grading Scale, grade Mr. Holt on how effectively he taught this unit.

I was impressed with the honest and detailed feedback I received from the students.  Overall, they seemed to enjoy the unit.  I was a bit surprised by their favorite parts though.  While I thought for sure that almost everybody would say, “The archeological dig,” only three students cited that as their highlight of the unit.  Three other students explained how the historical fiction story writing project was their favorite part of the unit.  What?  I don’t think any student has ever cited the final project as their favorite part of the unit, which means that because I focused on helping the students find the fun and excitement in writing, they were actually able to dig into their stories more meaningfully than digging for bottles by the river.   I was happy about that.  I was also pleased that many of the students stated different facts about Canaan’s diverse history that really stuck with them, which means that I didn’t overly discuss or talk about one topic or piece of Canaan’s history too much.  Yah for me.  I also enjoyed learning that the students seem to enjoy our class read aloud novel Seedfolks.  While we don’t spend a ton of time reading and discussing this novel, I’m glad that the students enjoy it and seem to understand how it ties our unit together.  I was worried that this group of students did not like this text because they often seem so disengaged during read-alouds.

While all of the feedback I received from the boys today via this survey is useful to me, the fourth and fifth questions allowed me to extract the most meaningful feedback.  I wanted to determine what aspects of the writing process I have done an effective job explaining and introducing.  Those that I found creative and engaging ways to introduce to the students, I figured, would be their favorite part. I also wanted to know what aspects of the unit the boys did not like and want to see changed for next year.  The answers I received from the students on these two questions will help drive the revisions and changes that I make to this unit for next year.  Their feedback will also help guide me in planning future lessons this year.

Here’s what they had to say:

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It was great for me to learn that many of the students seemed to enjoy writing their historical fiction stories, which means that they found their passion; they found how to make writing fun for themselves.  If that’s all they get out of sixth grade this year, I’ll be happy.  Learning to love the act of writing will help them be successful in almost every area of school life in their future.  I also love that a few of them seemed to enjoy the choice and engagement act of the project.  They liked that I allowed them to write about whatever piece of Canaan’s history most interested them.  As research on the brain tell us, students learn best when they are engaged in the act of working and have the ability to choose the vehicle through which they showcase their learning and understanding.  It’s nice to know that at least a few of my students see the benefit in being provided choice when working.

I wasn’t very surprised by the responses my students provided regarding things they would change about the unit.  I know that in every class I have one student who doesn’t like anything, and so I wasn’t shocked to read that one student found the field experiences boring.  It wasn’t because he truly found them boring, it’s just that he doesn’t know how to utilize a growth mindset and provide meaningful feedback.  I get that.  It is nice to know that the most common response focused on time.  They want more time spent on the really fun parts of the unit.  That makes sense.  I wish we were able to allocate more time in our schedule for those fun field experiences.

Overall, the feedback from the survey will be very helpful for me to think about and reflect upon as I look at revising this unit for next year.  As the students seemed to really enjoy the historical fiction story project I used this year, I think I will stick with that as the final project for next year.  I changed it from last year because many of the students explained how they didn’t like the final poster project they needed to complete as the final project for the unit.

The second piece of feedback I received from the students today, came in the form of a rubric.  The focus for my Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan is on grading rubrics and their effectiveness for introducing and describing graded projects and activities to students, and since the students just completed the historical fiction story project using the grading rubric as a guide, I wanted to know what they thought of the grading tool.  Did the rubric help them in the writing process, and if not, what would have made the rubric more effective?  After a short whole-class discussion on that question, I had the students, working with their table partner, create a new grading rubric that I could use to assess this project next year or assess future writing projects the students complete this year.

I was so impressed with how focused the students were in working with their partner to create a new rubric.  They seemed dedicated to providing me with useful feedback.  Every group gave me some amazing insight and ideas on how to create a more student-friendly grading rubric.

My takeaways:

  • Students want me to use more simplistic, student friendly words when describing what is being asked of them to meet or exceed the objective.  For example, in the grading rubric I had the students use, I wrote, “The setting is described so well that you feel like you’re there.”  One group suggested that it should read, “You see the picture in your mind.”  I like it.  That’s some quality feedback that I can easily incorporate into the next grading rubric I create.
  • One group thinks that having visual or picture cues would help them better understand what is being expected of them at each level.  As the native language is not English for half of my class, pictures are easier to read than words.  That’s a unique idea I hadn’t thought about for a rubric before.  While they couldn’t provide any concrete examples of how I might do this, I really want to give this idea a try  for the next rubric I create.
  • One group suggested that I need to include a writing standard about not copying ideas or information from other sources in the rubric.  These two students seem to think that originality is important.  I like it, but I’m also aware that sometimes, imitation leads to inspiration and new ideas.  While I’m not sure that I will use this in a future rubric, it’s definitely something worth considering.
  • One group approached the rubric creation from a very different perspective.  Instead of starting out with what it takes to exceed the objective, they began with how not to meet the objective.  Their thought was that if I start with the lowest point value on the rubric, I can easily add more to each one as the point value increases.  They thought that would be easier than starting with the highest point value and subtracting details.  Interesting.  I never thought about this method of creating a rubric before.  Perhaps I’ll try this on a future rubric.
  • Grading rubrics seem to help the students.  Many of them found the rubric to be a valuable guidepost for them along their writing journey.  Here’s what my students had to say about them:
    • That rubric help me a lot. Because that paper tell me every moment, what did I need to improve for my story.
    • I think the grading rubric helped me in a phenomenal way because i new the objectives my story needed to meet like for example when I was trying to write my story at the beginning it helped me get a thought about what i’m supposed to do and how to get a good grade.   
    • Lastly, I have a sheet call the grading rubric, I helped me to complete the story. For example, I can see if my sentences make sense or not or see if my sentences have included everything a sentence need to have.
    • The grading rubric helped me a lot because without it I wouldn’t know what I was doing and what to change. I needed a rubric so I knew exactly what to edit.
    • I think the grading rubric helped me by providing some goals and giving me an idea of what I need to write to get a good grade.
    • I thought the grading rubric helped because it showed me what the expectations were and what exceeding the objective was. It helped me because I just focused on exceeding the objective. For example I saw that I didn’t have enough facts on the rubric so I added more in. Also I saw that I didn’t have enough details so I looked at the rubric and fixed my story.
    • The rubric helped me to put requirements in the story. For example, first I read the grading rubric. After reading it, I started to make story with requirements like five facts, correct grammar, and more.

The feedback I received from my students on the grading rubric will greatly help me as I look to create and design future rubrics.  It’s nice to know that many of my students seem to find them useful.  So, my next big data-gathering event will be when I create a project with just a simple explanation instead of using a detailed rubric.  Will this more simple project introduction better engage the students in asking questions and thinking creatively about how they will showcase their learning, or will it be too confusing for them?  I can’t wait to find out.

Because I seek feedback from my students, I’m able to grow and develop as a teacher, like a giant chunk of obsidian rock.  If I didn’t ask my students for their thoughts and ideas today, I would never really know what they thought about grading rubrics and the Canaan Community unit.  How can I collect data for my Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan if I don’t ask my students for feedback?  I can’t better support and challenge my students if they don’t challenge me by providing me with ways I can improve and grow.  As I told my class today, the best teachers make the best students as they are always looking to learn and improve.

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Posted in Boy Writers, Boys, Challenges, Change, Education, Humanities, Learning, Reflection, Students, Teaching, Writer's Workshop

How My Reflection Changed My Students

Having seen the value of individual reflection for many years now, I know the power it holds.  Being a reflective teacher has enabled me to become more effective at helping and supporting my students.  Taking the time to stop and think about what went well or what proved difficult in class on a daily basis has helped me refine my approach to teaching and the field of education.  Teachers are not the givers of information.  We are guides for our students as they journey towards understanding.  We are the flashlights our students use as they navigate their way through the dark world of life and school.  We encourage our students to ask questions.  We help them solve problems encountered.  We empower them to think for themselves in a critical manner.  We show them the path that will lead them towards enlightenment.  We pack their knowledge backpacks full of use study and work skills.  We are beacons of light and power for our students.  We are not libraries full of facts and information.  Reflecting over the past many years on my daily teaching practices has allowed me to see my true role as a teacher.

During the past week, I’ve struggled with feeling as though I am not appropriately helping my students see the value in revising their written work.  Earlier last week, the students seemed unable to focus their effort on making their historical fiction stories better and more effective while also providing their classmates with useful feedback on how they can improve their stories.  The boys seemed to rush through the process to finish and be done with it, rather than really jumping into the task as though they are on a writing journey.  This bothered me because I know that in order to grow and develop as writers, they need to see the benefit in revising their work based on feedback.  They need to utilize a growth mindset to see feedback provided to them as useful.  My students seemed greatly challenged by this phase of the writing process.  They seemed more interested in what they could do when they finished writing.  Very few of the students seemed to take the assignment seriously, and that caused me to pause.

How will they be prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English class if they can’t learn to improve upon their writing based on suggestions provided to them by others?  I reflected on my struggles in this very blog last week, at least twice.  I then incorporated some new thoughts and ideas into my class so that my students would, hopefully, be able to see the vast power that revising their work holds for them as students.  While I did see my students begin to change their thinking regarding the revision step of the writing process, I was skeptical that all of them had revised their thinking on the topic.  I reflected in writing and mentally.  What else could I do to inspire my students to see that they need to take the process of revising their work seriously if they want to grow as writers?

Then came class today.  Today provided students one final opportunity to revise their historical fiction stories based on feedback provided to them by me, their teacher, and their classmates.  I also had them reflect on the process they used to craft this piece of writing, using an author’s note.  The students needed to respond, in writing at the bottom of their stories, to four questions.  Those students who finished revising their story and crafting an author’s note had two options:

  1. Complete an extra credit, objectively graded task, that involves the students creating a book jacket for their historical fiction story.  They must craft a front and back cover for their stories, being sure to include a title, relevant, hand-drawn image, brief summary of the story, and quotes from others on their story.
  2. Work on the Things to Do When Done list that is posted on one of the window displays in our classroom.  They could fill out their planbook for next week, work on Typing Club, work on homework, check their grades, or work in the Makerspace.

The students quickly got to work.  They seemed very focused on the task at hand.  A few of the students spent a good chunk of their time revising and improving upon their stories.  It was amazing to watch them add details, dialogue, and more effective character descriptions to their stories, on their own.  Some of the other students put forth fine effort into reflecting on their writing process as they crafted their author’s note.  Their responses were detailed and included examples from their writing experience.  It was impressive to see them being so mindful and reflective as they own their work.  The five students with whom I conferenced took the feedback I offered them with open arms.  They asked meaningful questions that allowed them to understand what they needed to do to improve their story.  It was fun to read their stories, praise their phenomenal talents as writers, and challenge them to grow and develop as they improve upon their writing pieces.  Students who had finished their story and author’s note early on in the period, took it upon themselves to help others revise their piece, if help was needed.  They were being truly compassionate community members.

During class today, I only needed to redirect two students who seemed to find focusing on the task at hand, individually, difficult.  Those two students, once redirected, did regroup and got right back to work on growing as writers.  The rest of the students seemed zoned in on improving their skills as writers.  They reviewed the three graded objectives on which their final story will be assessed.  They were committed to exceeding my expectations as they clearly saw the value in the process of revising their work.  I could not have been more proud and impressed by my students today.  They rocked their stories!  I can’t wait to read their final drafts.

So, what did I learn from all of this.  Well, I learned that reflection not only changes me, but it fosters change within my students.  Because I reflected on what didn’t feel right to me last week, I changed my approach to teaching the revision phase of the writing process.  Today, I saw, first hand, how this change impacts my students.  They were completely different writers today than they were last week.  They care about making their stories better, and thus crave feedback.  It’s quite amazing.  They weren’t rushing to finish their stories, they took their time to polish their words and develop their characters.  Because I took the time to think about how I could better support and help my students become better writers, I changed the way I spoke to my students about revising their work.  I didn’t explain the process as a task, but a journey they were going on to transform themselves into better writers.  My personal reflections on revision didn’t just change me, they changed my students too.

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

How the Novelty of Change Causes Distraction

I crave routine as I am truly a creature of habit.  I wash my body in the same order every time I shower.  I park in the same parking spot on campus every morning, unless someone else takes it, and then I become angry.  I do the same things in the same way, every day.  Knowing what’s coming next and the result is what helps keep my brain happy.  I love having a schedule.  Keeping my life neat and tidy, helps keep my world free of problems and distractions.  However, I have discovered the flaw in my plan over the past many years.  While knowing what to expect is good at times, life is far from scripted and usually the unexpected happens on a daily basis, which causes my best intentions to go up in flames.  Being prepared for everything that life throws my way is a vital life success skill.  Although I’m not a huge fan of change, I do know that being able to live in the present moment will help me better adapt and find mental success in life.  It’s a real challenge, but one that I try to work on regularly.  I’m far from perfect, but every once in awhile I am able to be flexible in my thinking and go where the day takes me.

The problem with change, which is why I struggle with it so very much, is that it’s generally new and unchartered territory.  How do I know what to do in a new situation?  What’s the dress code?  What do I need to bring?  I get very nervous and anxious during times of change because I have no idea what is going on.  I hate that, but it’s healthy for me to work out my brain in this way.

In the classroom, changes cause my students many problems as well.  When a break from the routine presents itself, some of my students struggle to function appropriately.  They forget how to act or what to do when things are a bit unscheduled because they are nervous and anxious, just as I am when faced with change.  It’s a typical response, but one that can cause problems in the classroom.  The goal is to help students learn to be mindful so that when things don’t go as planned, the students are able to live in the moment and not allow change to derail them.  Teaching students to utilize a growth mindset is an easy way to provide them with the needed strategies to successfully navigate changes in the routine or schedule.

My co-teacher and I have made use of a mindfulness curriculum this year to help our students learn coping strategies when life becomes overwhelming or stressful.  We’ve worked with the students and had them practice how to meditate, breathe mindfully, control their bodies in mindful ways, and how to view the world through mindful eyes.  This has helped many of our students address changes thrown their way.  We had the students reflect this morning on the mindfulness lessons covered so far this year, and many of them see the value and benefits associated with being mindful.  Only two students don’t understand how transformational mindfulness can truly be when done correctly.  I’m hopeful that those two students will begin to see its relevance as we continue to practice teaching the students new mindfulness techniques over the coming weeks.

Student Responses:

  • The Mindfulness videos help me calm down if I’m over excited for something or just super hyper.  I feel more Mindful and self-aware from doing the exercises.  I am more mindful and self aware to my surroundings when our class does the “mindful observations.”  Doing the mindfulness exercises helps me be more aware of my surroundings.
  • I think the mindfulness videos help because the voices tone is very relaxing. The voice doesn’t just relax just me, but my brain, and the world becomes clearer.
  • The lessons on mindfulness helped me to focus on one thing. For example, I was not listening to the teacher, but I learned mindfulness. I used mindfulness breathing to learn mindfulness. Mindfulness breathing helped me to focus on one thing, and now I can listen to the teacher very well.  I am now more able to focus on one thing, and understand people very well. Focusing on one thing goes in to mindful, and understanding people goes into self-awareness.
  • I personally think that the lessons on mindfulness have really help me to calm down because they made me more mindful and self-aware.
  • I think that the mindfulness lessons have been mostly helping.
  • I think that lessons on mindfulness helped me be more focused on the class. I can learn more from the class. The mindful lessons really help me a lot in the class and with my homework.

Clearly, our students see the value in being mindful and present.  However, sometimes, they forget the mindful techniques we’ve worked on when in the moment.  Case and point, Humanities class today.  During the second part of class, I conferenced with the students regarding their reading progress.  While I was conferencing with the students individually, most other students were engaged in quietly reading.  Then, I made a change.  I opened the curtains in our classroom to let in some natural light while the boys read quietly.  This change caused the entire dynamic of the room to shift.  Those students who once sat, quietly reading, now became distracting to their peers and unfocused on their book.  Many of the students became unsettled and unable to do what was being asked of them.  Despite several reminders and attempts to refocus the students, a few struggled to recalibrate themselves from the curtains being opened.  This small switch in the physical appearance of the classroom caused quite the distraction.  Several of the boys never fully returned to reading in a focused manner by the end of class.

Even though the students are equipped with strategies to refocus and be mindful, they were unable to be in the present moment, doing what was asked of them.  The interesting part is that a few of the most unfocused students today during Reader’s Workshop are usually the most focused and dedicated students in the class.  These students are usually able to utilize the mindful strategies we’ve been working on in class during other parts of the day if stress or anxiety settles in; however, today was not one of those usual days.  So then, what was different today?  The change in the curtains being opened.  This extra sunlight and view of the mountains seemed to distract many of the students so much that they were unable to recall how to be mindful or that they should be mindful.  Because I rarely open these curtains, this change was very much a novelty.  It was something new and out of the routine.  As my students crave routine, much like I do, this change to the ordinary proved to be too much for them to handle.  I’m hopeful that as they experience more breaks from the routine over the course of the year, they will better be able to go with the flow and live in the moment, mindfully.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Presentation, Students, Teaching, Writer's Workshop, Writing, Writing Conferences

Learning from Yesterday’s “Failures”

When I was just a wee young lad, the word “fail” was considered almost as bad as other curse words like the “F word.”  If you failed at something, it meant that you were not good and lacked talent.  No one wanted to fail or be thought of as a failure.  It was a Scarlet Letter that you wore with you for the rest of your childhood.

Now, of course, we all know that times have changed and the word failure is synonymous with success.  In order to do something well, you have to fail at it first.  We want our students to fail in order for them to learn how to grow and succeed.  While it’s amazing that our ideas on teaching have progressed so much thanks to technology and research on the neuroscience of education, I do wish that the adults in my world when I was a child would have embraced failing as an essential part of the learning process.  Had I failed more because I was inspired to take more risks with my learning, I wonder how many other things I’d be capable of doing now.  Perhaps I would have learned to stick with playing the guitar.  Maybe I’d be in a band right now, touring Europe.  That would be cool.  I’ve always wanted to see London during this time of year.

As I now see the value in failing on a regular basis because of the learning that comes from the experience, I am more willing to try new things in the classroom as a teacher.  I’m not afraid to try out a new application on the computer or a new instructional strategy in the classroom.  If it works, great; if not, it provides me with a teachable moment in the classroom.  Luckily too, I can also reflect on my failed lessons or activities and learn from them.  While I was not overly happy with the outcome of yesterday’s Humanities lesson on the process of revising writing, I had the chance to reflect on what didn’t go well yesterday.  Then today, I was able to more effectively introduce and explain the purpose of the revision process and the power that it holds.  “Revision is the most important step in the writing process because it provides you with a chance to fix what’s broken with your work.  No writer, regardless of age and experience, is able to craft the perfect piece of writing.  Every writer is in need of fixing and revising their work.  Today, you have a chance to receive feedback from as many people as possible so that you can create an even better story than what you currently have.  You also have the chance to receive such valuable feedback that you will be able to, hopefully, exceed the three graded objective for this assignment.  So, treat today’s revision period with the respect it deserves.”  After feeling as though I did not explain the process of revising one’s writing well yesterday in class, I wanted to be sure that I highlighted the benefits in revising one’s written work based on feedback from others, and I feel like I did that today.  After my introduction and review of what was to happen in class during the work period, I felt quite confident that things would be better today than they were yesterday.

My future-telling skills were clearly right on par today as the work period was phenomenal.  The boys worked so well on providing each other with feedback, revising their work, and growing as writers.  I conferenced with three students and was able to provide them some meaningful feedback that will allow them to make their story far better than it was.  While I didn’t have a chance to observe every student or group as they worked during class today as I was conferencing with students at the back table, the groups I could see and hear seemed to be bleeding greatness.  To conclude class today, I some had students share how the peer editing process went for them in class today.

“Me and my partner worked on helping each other come up with better words to describe the setting in our stories,” one student said.  I praised those two students for the great effort they put into looking at one aspect of their writing.

“My partner helped me fix grammar stuff in my story and I helped him make his story funny and not boring,” one student said, laughing.  “He even said that he’s going to write a whole new story since he doesn’t think he did a good job on his first one.”  He was describing what he and his partner worked on during their peer editing conference.  Awesome!  I then explained how amazing it was that because of feedback, this specific writer will be able to grow and develop his writing skills.

I can’t wait to read the revised stories my students will complete by early next week.  They are sure to be far better than what they had typed this week.  And to think that if I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on yesterday’s lesson and thought about how to change things for today’s class, I would not have been able to inspire my students to see the value in revising their writing while also helping their peers make their stories better.  Failure helped me better support and challenge my students to utilize a growth mindset in Humanities class today.  Making mistakes is how genuine learning is fostered.  I need to fail in order to grow.  It seems counter intuitive, but it’s how the brain works.  We are wired to remember things that are tagged with emotion, and so failed experiences stick with us because they don’t make us usually feel very good.  I thought about my “failed” class yesterday for hours, which is why I was able to spend so much time thinking about how to fix the situation in class today.  How could I help my students better appreciate the editing and revising stages of the writing process?  And wallah, I found my answer in class today.  Failure rocks!  I can’t wait to do it again.

Posted in Boys, Education, Humanities, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching, Writing

What’s the Best Way to Help Students See the Value in Editing and Revising their Work?

As an adult, I love receiving feedback from my colleagues on how I can make my lessons more meaningful, my student comments more effective, and my blog entries more reflective.  I crave input from others as I know that I am far from perfect and am looking to grow as a teacher, thinker, and writer.   I need help from my peers to improve as an individual.  I realize this now as a grownup.  When I was a young student, things were very different for me.  I wasn’t focused on growing and developing my skills as a writer or student.  I was way more focused on having fun.  I rushed to finish every assigned task so that I could have more time to chat and interact with my friends.  I wasn’t focused on growing and making use of a growth mindset as a student, and so when a classmate or teacher provided me with feedback on how I could improve my work, I usually ignored whatever was said or quickly made a single change to the work.  I wanted to be done with my assignments when I was in school.  I operated under the assumption that when I put my pencil or pen down, my work was done.  It had to be perfect because I was finished.  No feedback given to me from anyone could make my work any better than it was in that moment.  And I certainly never went in search of feedback back then, oh no.  I was all about turning my work in and being done.  I definitely made use of a fixed mindset when I was in school.

As a teacher, I understand where my students are at.  I get it as I was once them.  They don’t want me to tell them what to do.  They don’t want me to take away their fun, play time.  They want to do the work and be done.  So, my goal is to change the atmosphere of the classroom.  I need to help my students learn to rewire their brains so that they want to learn and grow.  I need to help my students learn to accept feedback and utilize it to make their work even better.  I try to show my students the importance of using a growth mindset in the classroom.  I want my students to see the value in receiving feedback from their peers and teachers.  I want my students to want to transform into the complete opposite type of student that I was in school.  Now, I know that most middle school boys are not set ready to want to take suggestions on how to improve their work.  This is a learned skill.  I need to help them rewire their brains a bit so that they see the benefit in seeking feedback from their classmates.  This is a year-long process, but one that is near and dear to my heart.  I don’t want my students to be like me back then.  I want my students to be able to grow and develop as students and writers.

Today in Humanities class, my students worked on the self-editing, self-revising, and peer editing processes regarding their historical fiction stories as they work to create a second draft that is far better than their first, sloppy copy.  On Wednesday, I explained the difference between editing and revising and then modelled this process with a story a student of mine had written several years ago.  The boys seemed to understand that these two steps, that sometimes get lumped into one, are individual processes that need to be completed separately.  I even spent time discussing the importance of editing and revising by comparing it to a bike.  “When your bike gets a flat tire, you can’t ride it anymore.  So, what do you do?  You fix the flat tire.  That’s like the editing process.  You fix the little things.  Now, what happens to that same bike after five years of wear and tear?  It gets rusty and probably too small for you.  So, then what?  You have to make some big repairs.  That’s the revision process of writing.  You fix the big things.”  I’m not sure if this helped them better grasp the two concepts, but perhaps it did.  Those who finished their historical fiction stories in class, began the editing and revising processes.  Then, today, I went over the peer editing process by reviewing the difference between editing and revising.  I then modelled this process with a student as I explained the different parts of the worksheet that will guide this step of the writing process.  I explained this process as more of a discussion.  “Tell your partner what you specifically want feedback on so that he can hone in on that as he reads through your story.  Then, after you have both completed the worksheet and read each other’s story, have a discussion.  Talk about what your partner did well and what he needs to work on.  Be specific.”  I reminded them of their goal: To provide your partner with effective feedback so that he is able to revise and edit his story in such a way that he exceeds all of the graded objectives.  I had hoped that this explanation would be enough for my students to understand the process and be able to complete it with little to no issues.  Wow, was I ever wrong.

Two groups had meaningful discussions as they peer edited each other’s stories, talking about writing and what they need to do to make their stories more effective.  It was quite awesome to listen to these discussions as they seemed very meaningful and relevant.

“I think you need to add more detail here,” one student said.

“I sort of already do that here.  Check it out,” he responded as he pointed out what he had already typed on his laptop.  These two groups were really digging into the task of peer editing.  They seemed to really enjoy it.  Perhaps it was because they saw the value in it or maybe it was because they were trying to make their writing better so that they could exceed the objectives.  Either way, great stuff was going on in two of the groups.

Then, one student took almost the entire period to finish writing his story as he hadn’t completed it for homework like he should have.  This meant that one student was unable to have a buddy with which to peer edit.  I stepped in and provided him with feedback, but our conversation was one-sided for the most part as I had no story in need of being proofread.  The other two groups seemed to be more focused on laughing and goofing around than actually accomplishing the job of peer editing.  Despite a few reminders to stay focused and on task, they continued laughing loudly and not providing each other with useful feedback.

So, what happened with those two, ineffective groups?  Why were they unable to complete the peer editing process in the same, meaningful manner as the first two groups I mentioned?  What was the difference?  Did they not care about growing as writers?  Did they not see the value in the editing and revising processes?  Did they just want to be done with the task so that they could do anything else?  While one group was composed of two, low functioning ELLs who struggled to comprehend the task at hand, the other group did not.  So, what was their issue?  Why were they not as engaged in the process?  Did they not see the relevance in it?

As I pondered these questions for quite some time after class, I had an epiphany.  For as much as I want my students to be like the adult me and see the value in revising and editing their written work, they are sixth graders going through this process for the first time.  Developmentally, there shouldn’t be complete buy-in just yet.  They are not able to see the relevance in the important process of revision.  They need more practice before they will see how beneficial it is to them as writers.  In the meantime, I need to remember where they are at developmentally.  Their frontal lobe is not fully developed and so reasoning and critical thinking skills are lacking.  Like me back then, they won’t be able to see the power of revising and editing their work for quite some time.  This means that they also won’t see the benefit of receiving feedback on how to improve their work for a few years.  It doesn’t mean that I should stop them from completing this process.  Oh no.  It just means that I need to be more patient and flexible.  Not every sixth grader in my class is going to desire feedback on their written work like I do.  The more I can provide them with opportunities to practice giving and receiving feedback on how they can better revise and edit their written work, they more that they will able to see how important this process is to their growth as writers.  Writing is a journey, much like teaching.  And so, I need to remember that not every story or student is going to be a polished work of art at first.  It takes much time and energy to foster a sense of valuing the refining process.

In the meantime, is there anything else I could be doing that would better support those students who are struggling to see the value in the revision process?  Are there other activities or methods I could be using?  While the writing group process can work, I don’t want to utilize that activity quite yet as they won’t be able to understand the significance of providing and receiving feedback.  Tackling the task of revising and editing in small groups is a great way to allow students to test the waters to see what happens.  Tomorrow in class I will reemphasize the benefits in providing each other with meaningful feedback as they complete the peer editing process. I will review their goal and hopefully offer them one more chance to practice this difficult task.  While I’d like my students to see the value in the revision process now, I know that their brains aren’t currently ready to tackle such a complex task in a relevant manner.  As I continue to foster a sense of community in the classroom and the students grow to see each other as valuable resources, they will begin to make better use of a growth mindset when approaching the writing and revision processes.  They just need more practice and time.

Posted in Boy Writers, Education, Humanities, Students, Teaching, Writer's Workshop, Writing

Helping Students Find Enjoyment in Writing

Ever since I was in the sixth grade, I’ve loved to write.  I used to write poetry for fun when I was bored in high school.  I even used writing as an emotional outlet.  When I was struggling to accept the death of my grandfather, I wrote about it as a way of processing my feelings.  It really helped me work through a lot of challenging emotions I was facing at the time.  Writing has always been a hobby of mine.  Even now as an adult, I treasure the time it takes to blog on a daily basis, as it allows me to reflect on my teaching in a creative and meaningful manner.  Writing is my way of documenting my life and journey on Earth.  It’s how I can prove that I exist.  I also find much joy in writing.  It makes me happy when I can sit in front of my computer or at a desk with pen and paper and pour my heart, soul, and being out via words and sentences.  What seems such a simple action, provides me with such a cathartic release.  It’s free therapy.  I love it.  It’s like mental Legos.  I get to put letters and words together in new and fantastic ways so as to bleed my emotions and thoughts out.  It’s like bloodletting, without the mess and death.

As a teacher, I make it a personal goal of mine each and every year to inspire my students to find the joy in writing.  While they may not all view writing through the same rainbow-unicorn glasses I use, I want to help them find the peace and fun in writing.  I want them to write stories and poems that make them happy.  I want them to find the passion in writing.  I challenge my students to write pieces that make them want to never stop writing.  I want my students to see writing as an experience and not a task they are forced to do.  Although this is a difficult goal for me to meet on a yearly basis, it is one that I hold near and dear to my beating heart.

There are many ways to help students find enjoyment in writing.  By using the Writer’s Workshop model of writing, I help to engage the students in what they are writing.  Because they can choose what they write about, they have a far better chance of falling in love with their work than if they were pigeonholed into specific writing topics.  I also try to inspire creativity within my students by using various prompts to promote unique thoughts to be born in their minds.  Using Quick Write activities, the students use prompts as springboards into their writing.  These activities aren’t graded and rarely looked at by me.  They are word-vomit activities for the students to begin to find the fun in writing.  They begin to learn to take risks in their writing as they aren’t being graded on these short writing tasks.  While I do teach the students all about the process of writing, I try to make it fun and inviting.  I want them to see feedback as essential to the growth process.  I want them to value the thoughts and ideas provided to them by their peers and teachers.  I want them to think of writing as a never ending journey.  I tell them from the start of the year that writing pieces are never finished.  Even published authors would tell you that they would gladly revise their published books based on new ideas and feedback received.  I hopefully help my students to see writing as something they are able to do that is fun and exciting.

Today offered me the chance to provide a few students in my class with feedback that will hopefully help them better find the joy in writing.  As my students worked on their historical fiction stories, I meandered around the room like a Brook Trout searching for shade on a warm summer’s day.  I observed the students as they extracted thoughts and ideas from their brains.  I watched them play with words in order to tell a story that intrigued them.  This observation time allowed me to help two students who seemed stuck.

The first student sat at his desk in front of his laptop, tapping away on the table, not his laptop.  His body language told me that he was bored.  So, I stopped to chat with him.

“It seems as though you are stuck.  Can I offer you some help?” I said to him as he stared longingly into his computer screen.

“Yes,” he responded.

So, I read what he had typed and provided him with some feedback, “While you do a fine job explaining facts about Canaan’s history, this piece reads more like a list of things that happened than a story.  How can you transform this into a story that reads more like the books you love reading?  How can you bring life into this piece?”

He seemed a bit mystified and so I shared some examples of how I might begin a piece based on his topic.  As I didn’t want to steal too much thinking from him, I walked away at that point.  A few minutes later, I noticed that he had deleted everything he had previously written and was starting from scratch.  While he didn’t have much time to start a new story before class ended, he seemed inspired to write something that made him happy.  I can’t wait to read his sloppy copy.

Then, another student said to me, “Mr. Holt, I’m almost done my story and it’s quite long, but I’m getting bored with it.  What should I do?”

“Shall I take a look at what you’ve got and see if I can provide you with some ideas or suggestions on how to move forward?” I responded.  He seemed to like this response.  So, I sat with him and read over what he had already written.  He had crafted a unique story about the destruction of the Noyes Academy.  He approached it from an interesting angle, but he wasn’t having fun with it anymore and it showed.  I was bored just reading his piece.

“While this is a fine story and will allow you to meet the objectives covered, I can totally see why you are bored with it.  You know how the story is going to end.  You have the timeline etched onto your brain already.  There are no surprises or possibilities for fun.  I think you need to find a new story.  I think you need to start from scratch,” I told him.

He agreed with me and quickly began working on a whole new story that made him happy.  He wanted to find his passion in the writing and it wasn’t in his first piece.  While I’m glad he spoke with me about this, I wish he didn’t feel like he needed my permission to start over.  I want my students to write with joy and passion.  I tell them every time we write that they should stop and restart if they are not in love with their piece.  “If you aren’t having fun, you’re doing it wrong.”  This student saw that in himself today and then made a change.  He knew what he wanted to do, but he wanted my blessing and feedback.  When I gave it to him, he seemed relieved.  It was a pretty cool experience.

Like the two students I helped today, I hope I am able to inspire all of my students to find the joy in writing.  I want them to see writing as an experiment.  Try something new to see what happens.  If you get the result you want, great, and if not, then try again.  Don’t be afraid to fail.  Embrace the challenge of failure so that you can find the soul within your writing.  Great writing allows you to transfer your beating heart into the piece.  Great writing is alive with description, vivid details, risque topics, and remarkable settings.  I hope that my students leave the sixth grade next year able to see what fun writing can be.  I hope that I am able to help my students find enjoyment in writing this year.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Humanities, Learning, Students, Teaching

How to Have a Growth Mindset When Dealing with Challenges in the Classroom

When my son was young, one of his favorite books was Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes.  He would sometimes beg my wife or I to read it aloud to him, especially if he was having a difficult day.  It got to a point where he had memorized some of the lines and would jump in as we read the story to him.  The phenomenal children’s book tells the story of Lilly, a young mouse, who acquires a new purse that she brings to her class for show and tell.  Despite being told to not play with her new purse, she does and consequently gets into trouble.  That afternoon, her teacher, and that night, her parents, remind her that even though today was a difficult day, tomorrow will be better.  My son seemed to like the idea of a clean slate when he woke up each morning.  Even now, at the age of 16, my wife and I will remind him of the moral from that story, and he chuckles.  Sometimes, we all need to be reminded to learn from our mistakes, but then to start fresh, moving forward.  While many children struggle with this skill, I find that even as a teacher and an adult, I sometimes struggle to follow Kevin Henkes’ sage wisdom.  How do I stay mindful living in the moment and not allow past happenings, thoughts, or actions to invade my present state of being?  While I am much better at this skill now than I once was, I still sometimes find myself challenged by being able to hit the restart button on a lesson, colleague, class, or student.

Luckily for me, today offered yet another chance to practice this skill of not allowing the past to sway my current thoughts and actions.  During my first period study skills class this morning, one of my ELL students struggled to understand what he needed to do regarding a new project we began in class today.  This is the same student that displayed many negative behavioral issues during the first week of classes, and will still occasionally show disrespect towards faculty members.  Although much of this behavior is due to his low English proficiency, it was still difficult to witness and be a part of it in the moment.  After introducing and explaining the project aloud to the class orally, with visual clues and a written handout, he was still unsure of what he was being asked to do.  However, he never asked any questions while I described and modelled how to complete each step of the process and the purpose behind the project.  He also shared his struggle to understand in a very broad manner, which he knows not to do since we can only help and support him if we know specifically what is proving to be challenging for him.  While I tried to help him understand what he needed to do to complete the task of reflecting on his learning since the start of the year, I felt myself struggling to help him in a meaningful and patient manner.  As I was never formally trained on how to support and work with ELLs, I found myself fumbling for words when trying to explain the directions to him.  I didn’t know how else to tell him ‘to answer the questions on the sheet’ so that he could comprehend the words and understand the task at hand.  I also noticed that I was becoming impatient with him every time he asked a question during the work period.  While I always assisted him when he needed help, I felt as though I wasn’t being mindful and open to helping him in a relevant and appropriate manner.  I felt like I was reminded of the poor choices he used to make in the classroom when I worked with him.  I felt frustrated and annoyed that I couldn’t help him and that he didn’t seem to want to help himself.  Fortunately for me and him, the class ended and off he went to ESL class.

During this break, I expressed my concern to my co-teacher that I am unable to effectively help this particular student as I am not formally trained to help ELLs.  I feel bad that I can’t better support him as he works to grow as a student.  Then came third period.  This same student returned to the classroom, displaying much more focus and effort.  He took copious notes during our class read aloud, asking questions when he was confused.  He also spent much time redoing an annotation assessment to demonstrate his ability to meet the graded objective.  He was focused on working hard and completing fine work.  He seemed, almost, like a different student as he didn’t allow his frustration or anger cloud what he needed to do and how he worked.  He seemed to treat second period, when he was away from the classroom, as a reset button.  He was showcasing his true potential during this third period class, unlike what I saw from him during first period.  I allowed this new behavior to paint a new picture of this student for me, mentally.  The frustration that I once felt regarding this student seemed to vanish once he walked into the classroom after being in another class for 40 minutes.  I gave him a chance to start over and display his true potential as a student.

Then, at lunch today, this same student came to me to let me know how he did on the math exam during the final period of the day, “I did well on the math part of test, but not so good on English terms.  I should have made flashcards last night like you said.”  We both laughed together as he realized that I was right regarding my advice to him last night.  Despite being frustrated with me last night and earlier this morning during PEAKS class, he was able to start fresh and learn from his mistakes.  We laughed about the challenges we both faced.  Because we changed the way we viewed the situation and tried to look at the latter part of the morning as a clean slate, we were able to both live in the moment and grow from what had happened in the past.  We didn’t allow our negative thoughts to permeate our current state of mind.  We just rolled with it all.  Although going with the flow tends to be something I struggle with, I’m trying very hard to do just that this year.  I’m trying to practice what I preach to the students about being mindful and self-aware in the moment, and it seems to be working.  Yah for me!  However, even more reason to celebrate is the fact that this student is also able to live in the moment and not allow our past interactions to prevent him from moving forward and growing as a student.  He’s able to be mindful and live in the present without having the past distract him.  It’s quite an amazing feat, given that he is only 12 years old.

Like Lilly taught my son and I, no matter how difficult past moments may have been, we always get a second chance to try again.  Now, I hope that I’m able to continue living in the moment and not be persuaded to act or think in a particular manner because of what happened in the past.  I will keep working at being mindful as I grow and develop as an educator so that I don’t get stuck using a fixed mindset.  Being open to possibilities is what helps us to grow and mature as people, teachers, students, and individuals.  Today, a student of mine and I made use of a growth mindset to be sure that we were able to improve in areas in which we both struggle.  It was like a whole new day for us even though only 40 minutes had lapsed since our challenging interaction.  Having a growth mindset doesn’t take much time, just lots of effort and commitment.  We clearly both wanted to do well, and it showed this morning.

Posted in Education, Humanities, Learning, Presentation, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

The Stress of Being Observed by a Colleague

After having been teaching for over 16 years, you’d think I’d be comfortable when peers or mentors join my classroom to observe me, my students, and my teaching in order to provide me with feedback to help me grow and develop as an educator.  You’d think that, but unfortunately, that’s not the case.  I still get a case of the jitters every time a fellow teacher observes me.  Despite knowing that their purpose and goals are all positive and coming from a helpful place, I still get nervous and anxious whenever I’m being observed by a colleague.  I couldn’t tell you why I’m filled with such worry every time someone tries to provide me with constructive feedback on how I can grow as a teacher.  Maybe I’m worried that I will mess up and embarrass myself or perhaps I’m scared that I won’t demonstrate effective teaching practices.  Maybe I’m thinking that I might lose my job if I mess up.  While these are all possibly true worries, I can’t allow them to penetrate my brain while I’m teaching and being observed.  I need to separate my worries from the present.  I need to apply the mindful techniques I’m teaching to my students, to me.  I need to be present in the moment and focus only on that, and nothing else.  I need to learn to not hold onto my worries or fears as let them eat away at me.  I need to forget that I’m being observed and focus on teaching my students.

Yesterday provided me with yet another opportunity to practice living in the moment and being mindful when I’m being observed by a fellow teacher.  A colleague of mine came to observe me today as part of the three-year teacher development process of which I’m in the midst.  I knew he was coming and so made sure that I was very prepared.  I had photocopies made, a relevant agenda slide prepared, and lots of specific ideas on how to execute today’s lesson with poise and precision.  I felt completely ready to go.  Then, my fear and anxiety took over, and all of the great ideas and precise words and phrases I had intended to use were lost.  I didn’t freeze up or totally mess up the lesson, but I just felt off.  Things didn’t seem to go as I had planned them in my mind.

My plan for Saturday’s lesson introducing the historical fiction story final project…

  • Tell a story about how Mrs. Dunkerton contacted me after Wednesday’s field experience to issue a challenge to the students.
  • Remind the students that this project is like the big game for our unit on Canaan.
  • Discuss and explain the project overview and rubric sheet to the class.
  • Field questions the students have.
  • Explain what the students will do to begin working.
  • Meet with small groups of students to discuss the grading rubric and be sure the students feel completely comfortable with the expectations.
  • Observe the students as they work.
  • Have volunteers share lines or parts of their story aloud with the class.

Instead, because concern and worry wormed its way into my brain as class began, things got slightly off track…

  • While I told the story about Mrs. Dunkerton contacting me regarding a writing challenge for my students, I didn’t properly explain why she wanted us to do this.  I focused more on the conversation with her and not on the meat of the story itself.  I was trying to draw the students into the project with a fictional story writing contest but felt as though I didn’t explain it well at all.  My explanation felt verbose and clunky.  The message seemed lost.
  • I then jumped right into the project overview sheet without reminding the students how this project is like the big game for our Canaan unit.  I explained the process in an awkward and overly specific manner.  It didn’t feel right to me.
  • I then fielded the very few questions the students had, which I would usually take as a good sign, but it felt strange in the moment.  As I worried that I didn’t explain the project and expectations well, I was sure the students were confused, but there were only one or two questions.  I wondered how well they will be able to work on this project.
  • I then explained how the students will begin the writing process, again in a very verbose manner.  When I get nervous, I tend to repeat myself and over talk.  I probably said way too much.
  • I then met with my students in three separate, small groups.  The first group contained my ELLs.  I wanted to meet with them first so that I knew they completely understood what was being asked of them and how they were being assessed.  I went over each part of the rubric, having one of the students read the sentences aloud.  I then explained what that meant to the group.  A few of the students asked some clarifying questions.  One student seemed a bit confused, but his English proficiency is so very low.  He did eventually seem to get it and was working in a meaningful manner.  The second group contained two students who tend to struggle processing information in oral form.  I went over the rubric with them and explained each part.  They seemed to get it and asked only a few follow-up questions.  The final group I met with included my advanced English students.  For this group, I had them read over the rubric individually and then fielded any questions they had.  They had only one question.
  • I then walked around the classroom, observing the students as they worked.  They all seemed quite focused and engaged in the project.  However, because I had spent too much time earlier in the period explaining the project, I had only about two minutes to monitor the students as they worked.
  • I had no time to have students share their writing aloud with the class.  So, instead, I asked a question, “How many of you are loving your story and how it’s coming together?”  Many of the students raised their hands for this one, which felt promising.  I then reminded the students of their homework and what we’d be doing after Morning Break.  I do regret not having time for the students to share their work aloud with their peers, as this tends to be something they love doing.

As I reflect, in writing, on this process, it doesn’t seem that it went as poorly as originally thought.  The students seemed engaged in the writing process and seemed to understand what they were being assessed on.  Despite not introducing the project exactly as I had wanted to, I feel like I still did a pretty good job introducing and selling the students on the project.  I liked that I met with my class in smaller groups to go over the grading requirements as they had a chance to ask questions and feel at ease with what was being asked of them.  This process went very well.  While I do wish that I hadn’t been as mentally preoccupied as I was with being observed yesterday, the lesson went well overall.  I think I may have rushed to the conclusion that the lesson didn’t go well, which just goes to show how important the reflection process is.  Because I reflected on yesterday’s lesson in writing today, I was able to see that things didn’t go as poorly as I had thought.  I would like to work on better controlling my thoughts and emotions when being observed though.  That is one thing that never changed in how I thought about my lesson from yesterday.  I was overly stressed about being observed by a colleague.  Hopefully when I’m observed again, I won’t be quite so nervous.  I just need to work on being more mindful, like I’m asking of my students on a daily basis.  I now need to practice what I preach.

Posted in Co-Teacher, Co-Teaching, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Presentation, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

Embracing Teachable Moments for Teachers

Teachable moments aren’t solely reserved for students, oh no.  Anyone can experience and learn from a mistake, choice, or action.  You don’t need to be a student in a classroom to learn from something you did.  Think of the greatest minds and innovators of our time: Albert Einstein, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan to name a few.  They all suffered great setbacks early in their lives that they learned from.  Albert Einstein was kicked out of school because of his poor behavior, Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first on-air job, and Michael Jordan didn’t earn a spot on his high school’s varsity basketball team when he first tried out.  Of course, we all know that they learned from their mistakes or learnable/teachable moments and went onto to change the world.  Any person can learn from their past errors, not just students in a classroom.

Today, my co-teacher and I experienced a learnable moment that caused us to completely change our lesson.  Walking to our classroom this morning, my co-teacher and I discussed the lesson we had planned for our first period study skills class.

“So, are you all set for PEAKS class today,” I asked my co-teacher as we left the dining commons to head to our classroom.

“Yeah, I’m all set.  We’re going to finish that worksheet from last time,” she responded.

“Ahh, no.  I did that on Wednesday during your unscheduled morning.  You’re doing the study plan, remember?” I said, concerned that I had messed up and hadn’t informed her of the proper lesson plan.

“Umm, I don’t remember that, but I can fix it,” she quickly responded back as we walked into the classroom.

I then worked with my co-teacher to help her revise the agenda slide to reflect the accurate lesson plan.  As she was typing in the new topic for today’s class, I remembered that the students were going to be taking a test in her math class next week.  So, I said, “That’s cool that we’re discussing making study plans today.  Maybe they could make one for their math test.”

She then responded, “Yeah, that’s right.”

At that point, I was inspired.  “Wait a minute,” I said, “Let’s change things up a bit.  Let’s not use this boring worksheet I created but instead have the students create a study plan for their math test.  Yes.  I will model how to create a study plan and then they will make their own.  What do you think?”

She loved the idea, and so we changed the agenda slide one more time.

Today’s class was a huge success as each student created his very own study plan to prepare for next week’s math assessment.  The students know what they need to do to get ready.  Not only did we teach them a valuable strategy for planning ahead and making good use of their time to properly study for an exam, we also had them apply the skill to practice getting ready for an exam they have in class next week.  Talk about interdisciplinary work.  And to think that this brilliant plan and idea would not have been fostered had my co-teacher had the agenda slide properly completed for class.  Because of some miscommunication between the two of us, we were able to revise today’s lesson and craft a more meaningful and relevant activity based on the nucleus of the original idea.  Making a mistake lead to a Eureka moment for us both.  We better helped the students learn how to enhance their learning and study habits by changing what we had first planned.  The moral of this epic story is that learnable or teachable moments happen for everyone; you just need to be prepared to take in the lesson or learning.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Learning, New Ideas, Reflection, Students, Teaching

My Professional Goals for the 2017-2018 Academic Year

I used to think that goal setting was dumb.  “No one sets goals,” I used to say, “Who needs goals when you’ve got the present?”  That was the old me, before I became wise and all-knowing.  Then, I discovered the secret to life and was transformed into the handsome sage sitting in front of this very laptop, typing these very words.  You are so lucky to be reading these prophetic words…  Okay, enough of the craziness, now back to reality.

So, anywhoo, I used to view goal setting as one more thing that I didn’t have the time or desire to do.  Then, I learned all about the neuroscience of teaching and how students learn, and came to the realization that for genuine learning and growth to happen for our students, there needs to be relevance and a purpose behind everything we and they are doing in and out of the classroom.  They need to see, for example, that they should learn all about the causes of great wars so that they will understand how countries and nations formed, which will help them earn a high grade on the next history assessment and allow them to meet the goal they set for themselves regarding history test improvement.  Goal setting is a crucial part of the learning process for not just students, but for all learners.

So, knowing what I know about the power of goal setting, I decided that it was time to give my school year a focus and some clarity.  Aside from helping my students grow and develop as individuals, what am I trying to get out of this new school year?  What is my purpose in the classroom?  Why am I here?  Well, that last question is far too big to tackle in some tiny blog entry like this and so I’ll focus on the others instead.

My goals for the 2017-2018 Academic Year:

  • I want to gather data on how rubrics and project introductions help promote or reduce the amount of creativity students are able to put into their work so that I can begin to understand how to best introduce a new task or assignment to my students.  I want to understand if specificity in rubrics or explanations of new projects makes a difference in the students’ ability to think critically about the assignment or content covered.  If students are provided with too much information about how to complete a task or project, is there any room for creative, original thought or do the students just do what they’re told to do in order to earn a “good” grade?  So, to work towards meeting this goal over the course of the year, I’m going to create different types of rubrics and project descriptions for the same task so that I can split my class into two groups and try to determine what kind of explanation best promotes the use of creative problem solving skills.  Although my data may be skewed depending on how I group the students, I plan on using different grouping methods each time I conduct this experiment.  While I certainly have a hypothesis on the topic, I have no hard evidence to support my claim, and so I need to collect data this year to determine an accurate result.
  • I want to incorporate ideas and skills covered during our Mindfulness Unit in Team Time and our Brain Unit from PEAKS class into my Humanities class.  I want to help the students understand that if they can be mindful in the classroom during class discussions, they will be better equipped to actively listen to and participate in the current events discussions in Humanities class.  I also want to be sure that when I’m covering a new concept or skill in Humanities class, I’m referencing the ideas of growth mindset and brain parts to explain how they should best be utilizing their hypothalamus to catalogue and store this new information.  Being mindful myself, I hope to be able to better explain the inner workings of, as well as the purpose and relevance behind tasks and assignments throughout the year in Humanities class.  I want my students to be able to see how each separate piece of the puzzle fits together so well: Learning and the Brain, Mindfulness, and Humanities.

With these two goals driving everything I’m doing in the classroom, I’m looking forward to an exciting year filled with transformation and education.  I hope to learn a lot about myself as a teacher as well as the art of teaching.  How can I better support and challenge all of my students in the classroom?  What else could I be doing?  So, now I will jump headfirst into the remainder of my school year, well-equipped with a roadmap to success: Goals.