Allowing Re-Dos: Guiding Students Towards Mastery

We currently live in an age of contradictions.  It’s easy-peasy to find an article or study that counters any other article or research study out there.  I’ve read a plethora of articles on the value and benefits of allowing students to work towards mastery of a concept or skill through re-dos.  It fosters a growth mindset and allows for genuine learning opportunities, these articles state.  However, I’ve also perused some research that promotes the counter-point to re-dos, arguing that it fosters a sense of laziness and a lack of preparation within students, since they know they can retake the assessment or redo the work as many times is needed to demonstrate mastery of the objective.  So, where’s the truth?  Somewhere in the middle?  Is allowing students to re-do work beneficial or harmful?  Like anything in life, it all depends on the circumstances and situations.  Teachers who hold their students to high standards and expectations may find benefits in allowing students to re-do work, while teachers who do not embrace the concept of Growth Mindset may not have the same success rate with the re-do process.  Is one method more effective than another?  I believe that when teachers create a sense of care and support in the classroom by teaching the concepts of brain plasticity and Growth Mindset, allowing re-dos is a necessary component in the process of learning.  It teaches students that failure and perseverance are valuable tools students need to be successful while on their journey towards learning.

When I was a student in middle school, my teachers were not a part of the re-do club.  The focus was on being completely prepared for a test, project, or other assessment.  It was all about the one-and-done mentality.  Those students who study and prepare well for the big test, will find much success in school, or so teachers who adhered to that philosophy believed.  What about students like me who suffered from test anxiety?  Or, what about the students who have a history of trauma and high stakes assessments are triggers for them?  How are they supposed to demonstrate their understanding?  If a student has a bad day or is faced with other learning challenges like I had in school, the one-and-done approach will not work.  Students need to know that they will have the ability to re-do work that did not allow them to demonstrate mastery of the concept covered, or, I fear, that the system will fail them and they will become disenchanted by school.  Students who do not fit into the “normal” hole many students are forced to squeeze through, will see school as a negative space that causes frustration and constant struggles if they are not allowed to re-do their work when they have a bad day or are faced with learning difficulties.  Learning is a journey, a process, and school’s are not assembly lines for robots.  Because I was not allowed the opportunity to show what I really know, in many situations and classes, when I was in school, I learned to see school a series of hoops I needed to jump through to escape to freedom.  I completed work that I knew would make my teachers happy, and because of it, most of the effective learning I did occurred in college and out of school.  I wish my teachers had made use of the re-do process when I was a student in their classrooms.

As a teacher, I challenge myself, each and every day, to undo the injustices that I faced as a student in school.  I don’t want my students to see school as a game of trickery and subterfuge.  I want my students to want to come to school and learn because it is engaging and fun for them.  I want my students to see that I care for and support them in their learning adventures.  I want to help my students see the benefit in striving for academic excellence.  I want my students to hold themselves to high standards.  I want my students, many of whom have hurdles they must overcome in the process of learning, to be and feel successful.  I want them to have every opportunity they need to show what they know.  The re-do process is one of the many ways that I can help to support and challenge my students as they learn, fail, grow, and keep working towards mastery in all aspects of their academic lives.

Last week, a student struggled to showcase her understanding of various concepts regarding shapes on a math assessment in class.  Despite working with her one-on-one and assessing her orally during the test, she was unable to meet a few of the graded objectives.  I informed her that I will be looking for ways to check for understanding in the coming days and weeks as she reviews the material.  She seemed happy about that.  A few days later, when we were in the school vehicle on our way to a very cool overnight field trip with the class, I decided to reassess her orally.  It’s important to know that this student struggles with focus and processing information.  Executive functioning skills are at a deficit with this student.  In the very loud van, I asked her some questions regarding the material covered on the test from a few days prior.  Despite the chaos within the van, she was able to demonstrate mastery of the objectives that she had been unable to meet two days before.  Even in a loud vehicle, on our way to the Sargent Center, this student showed me that she knows how to differentiate between the different types of triangles and quadrilaterals.  Amazing!

I shared my excitement regarding this outcome with her.  She smiled and seem pleased with herself.  I told her that she had just improved upon her grades because of her understanding of the concept of shapes.  She was very happy about that, as grades and learning matter to her.  She wants to do her best, but sometimes is unable to do so in certain situations and at particular times.  Assessing her outside of the classroom, without the stress of having to complete a test, allowed her to show what she really knows.  Perhaps she also needed more time to process the information she had been learning in Math class.  Maybe she had a difficult morning at home, prior to coming to school that day, which affected her ability to showcase her mastery of the concepts covered.  Because I subscribe to the concept of re-dos, this student was able to find success when and where she needed it.  What might happen if this student is not allowed to re-do tests or showcase her learning in alternative ways?  Would it affect her self-esteem?  Would it impact how she views school?  Would this “failure” affect her life outside of school?  Although I don’t like to live in what-ifs and fairy tales, I do believe that, if, this student is not allowed to re-do her work when she has a difficult day or needs more time to process a skill or concept, it will greatly affect how she sees herself and school.  If we want all of our students to grow into the best possible versions of themselves, then we must be flexible in how and when we assess and reassess students.  The re-do process must be an option for all students.


How Do We Help Students to Want to Strive for Excellence?

I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist.  Everything I do needs to be as amazing as possible.  I find myself redoing things multiple times on a daily basis, as I am often not proud of the work I complete the first time through.  I hold myself to high standards so that I can be the best version of me possible.  This is both a blessing and a curse at times.  What I do is done really well, but it often takes much longer than if I didn’t have to redo it numerous times.  I find myself rewriting the agenda on my whiteboard at least twice each day, prior to the start of school, because in my eyes, it is crooked.  And we all know that crooked is not a sign of quality work, unless you live in a crooked world like that strange house at Clark’s Trading Post in northern New Hampshire.  I would have so much more free time if I allowed myself to complete sub-par work.  Imagine all the books I could read, poems I could write, television shows I could watch, and quality time I could have with my wife if I didn’t push myself to complete such high-quality work.  So, why don’t I just accept myself for the flawed person that I am?  Why don’t I allow myself to just do something to get it done?  What kind of role model would I be for my students if I didn’t hold the standards high for myself?  I would be a hypocrite.  If I expect my students to do and be their best at all times, then I need to strive for that as well.  No one is perfect, and I’m not expecting perfection, even from myself, but I am looking to be the best me possible.  So, while it might be nice to have spare time to whittle a whistle or paint the next great masterpiece, I am going to use all of my free time to complete my best possible work at all times.

I created a new display in my classroom this year to remind my students of the high standards I set for us all in the fifth grade at our school.  I hung a metal bar above the door in my classroom along with the words “Our Bar of Excellence” and “Now Rise Above it.”  I want my students to see how truly important it is to do our best possible work and strive for excellence in everything we do.  They see this display every time they leave the classroom.  I also reference it at least once a day to remind my class to shoot for the stars.  I want them to work towards being the best version of themselves possible each and every day, in and out of the classroom.  I’ve told them many times, “I want our fifth grade class to be the bar that the other grades in our school hold themselves to.  I want you to be the students to which other teachers compare their students and advisees.”  While I know that perfection is merely an idea and not something obtainable in life, I want my students to constantly challenge themselves to do their best work in all that they do.  By holding high standards, I help my students rise to the occasion.  Instead of simply doing something to get it done, they do it to the best of their ability.  You should see their handwriting after only five weeks, it’s impeccable.  They have grown as students, thinkers, people, writers, readers, and mathematicians so much in the short time that we have been together because I’m constantly reminding them to be and do their best.  I wonder what might have happened had I not held my students to such high standards.  Would they have grown and made the improvements they did had I not had them redo work that I knew was not their best possible work?  Would we be where we are as a class right now if I had allowed my students to go through the motions and complete their work like checking off things on a To Do list?  Although this might come across as being a bit cavalier, I feel that the amazing things my students have been able to accomplish this year is a direct result of me holding them to high standards.

This past Friday was one of those special days in the classroom, where everything just sort of falls into place.  It was quite remarkable.  I was able to witness numerous examples of how holding my students to high standards has helped them to grow and develop into thoughtful, kind, caring, and diligent students.

  • As the students finally filled the Marble Jar for the first time this year earlier in the week, the students chose the theme for our first Marble Party in class on Friday.  They were so careful and creative with the ideas they brainstormed, as they want this celebration to be meaningful.  They worked hard to earn this party.  I held the standard high for earning marbles.  They needed to amaze and wow me to earn a handful of marbles.  Filling the jar was no easy feat.  So, they were mindful to try and create the coolest, most fun party ever.  What I found most spectacular about this whole party-choosing-process was how thoughtful they were.  You see, one of the students in our class recently had knee surgery and is in confined to crutches and a wheelchair.  This means that some of the more “fun” ideas that they could have chosen, were not even brought up because one of their classmates wouldn’t be able to join in on the festivities.  The students worked to develop an inclusive and what is sure to be an epic Marble Party all on their own.  My heart grew a bit bit bigger in that moment.  I am one of the luckiest teachers I know to be working with such a compassionate and considerate group of fifth graders.  Wow, was just about all I could say following that special discussion and choosing activity.  If I hadn’t spent as much time as I had helping the students see the value in and practice being kind and working together during the first few weeks of the school year, would I have seen this same scene play out?  Probably not.  Because I hold my students to high standards regarding how they treat each other and themselves, they have grown into a close-knit classroom family.
  • For our Forest Friday activity this week, I invited two local experts to come and teach the students all about the edible flora in our forest ecosystem.  What can we chow down on while we are building shelters, crafting fires, whittling wood, and having fun together in the wilderness just outside the doors of our school?  Lots of things, that I never knew were edible in the woods, are indeed things we can eat or use in various dishes or drinks.  Twigs from the Black Birch Tree, needles from the Eastern White Pine and Eastern Hemlock Trees, and Wintergreen leaves all make delicious tea.  Acorns can be leeched and ground down to create a tasty flour, while the berries of the Autumn Olive can be enjoyed right off the bush.  I learned so much from our guests.  For me though, the highlight of this activity came from observing my students.  They take so much pride in the work they do that they love showing it off to others.  They all made sure to point out the shelters they have been working on for the past few weeks while they showed our visitors around the forest.  I also asked the students a few questions regarding facts we’ve already learned about the forest, and they impressed me every time with the right answer.  “How do we remember what makes Lichen?”  I asked one of the students.  Her response, “Freddy Fungus took a liking to Alice Algae at the middle school dance.”  Our guests were so amazed with how much knowledge my students had already learned regarding the nature of the forest.  They actually asked the student if they could use that saying with future school groups.  If I didn’t expect my students to learn and retain as much knowledge as they do when we visit the forest weekly, would they have been able to wow our visitors the way they did?  I doubt it.
  • During the time when I conference with each student on Fridays regarding their effort and grades in class, I’m amazed by how well my students are already beginning to know themselves as learners and students.  They know what they need to do to improve during the nest week.  It’s astounding.  I’m always impressed by the deep conversations I have with the students regarding their growth in the fifth grade.  When conferencing with one particular student who struggled on a recent assessment in Language Arts regarding complete sentences and paragraphs, I had the student help me understand the areas of greatest challenge for her while also helping to point out the mistakes she had made.  Following our conversation on this topic, she asked me, without prompting, if she could retake the assessment.  “I know I can do better Mr. Holt.  Can I redo the test?”  This student must have thought I was having some sort of senior moment, as I sat in silent awe, mouth gaping, so proud of this student and the high standards to which she holds herself.  After a few moments, I responded, “Absolutely.”  Because my students know that they can redo any objectively graded assignment on which they did not earn grades that highlight their best possible work, I occasionally have students seeing me to redo tests or projects after or before school or during free time.  While I do hold my students accountable for their learning, they usually perform well on objectively graded tasks, as they turn in what they believe is their best possible work.  However, sometimes students are confused or make mistakes on assessments.  During those times, they can redo their work to show that they can meet and exceed the objectives being graded.  During free time on Friday, this student spent her free time working on redoing the Language Arts assessment.  Talk about high standards and growth.  Would this student have made this same choice if I didn’t allow retakes and didn’t challenge my students to hold themselves to high standards?  At this point, I think you all know the answer to that question.

If I want my students to grow incrementally as learners, thinkers, doers, scientists, readers, mathematicians, and writers in the fifth grade this year, I must hold them accountable, I must challenge them to complete only their best possible work, and I must constantly hold the standards for excellence in the fifth grade very high for my students.  I must also be a role model for them and hold myself to high standards, even if it means using my free time to revise lesson plans or rewrite the next day’s agenda on my whiteboard.  Holding the bar high helps my students to strive for greatness on a daily basis.  “Go big or go home,” a colleague once told me, and I completely agree.  If we’re not trying to grow and improve, we become stagnant ponds of, “Here’s your participation certificate and trophy just for showing up.”  No thank you.  Trophies and awards must be earned through blood, sweat, tears, dedication, practice, failure, and hard work.

Goal Setting: A Recipe for Growing and Improving

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Time for the Important Curriculum in the Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

From Bad to Great: How my Difficult Math Past Has Helped Me Make Math Fun for my Students

“Okay children, take out your math books and turn to page 32.  Today we are going to learn about Long Division.  Who would like to complete problem one on the board for us?”  Direct instruction like this was commonplace in my Math classroom when I was a student in elementary school.  My teachers explained each new math concept by reviewing the material in the textbook.  Did they think we couldn’t read?  Why did they teach us from the book?  They would also have students complete problems on the board, in front of the whole class.  What fourth or fifth grader wants to be embarrassed in front of his or her peers when they incorrectly complete a math problem on the chalkboard?  Certainly not me.

While this style of teaching may have worked for some of my peers, it did not meet my needs as a learner.  I was not the “typical” student in a classroom.  I learned very differently than many of my classmates when I was in school.  I processed new information slowly and needed time to let that new “stuff” mentally simmer.  If I was to genuinely learn something in elementary school, I needed to interact with the material, play with it, and take it out for a test drive.  I didn’t fully learn by simply listening to someone speaking.  Because my learning style did not align with how my teachers taught Math, I struggled to authentically and completely learn numerous mathematics concepts.  Thus, I was always at a disadvantage in class when learning new material, since Math is very much a pyramid-style subject as topics and ideas build upon previously learned content.  How could I possibly learn new concepts in Math when I hadn’t mastered the foundational material needed to comprehend this new skill?  As a result, I earned low Math grades throughout my years in elementary school and gained a dislike for the entire subject.  I despised Math class, as if it were my sister’s Cabbage Patch doll.  I just didn’t get it.  Why are some numbers written with a horizontal line between them while others have a dot separating some numbers from others?  Why can’t all numbers be written the same way?  Why does division need to be so long?  If you mess up on one tiny step, it ruins the whole problem.  I remember telling my parents on many occasions back then, “I hate Math.”

As a Math teacher, I have made it my goal to ensure that students don’t feel lost or confused in my Math class.  I want my students to fully understand material before learning new concepts.  I want my students to see the fun and joy in Math.  Yes, Math can definitely be fun and exciting.  Just watch a group of students trying to beat their teacher at the game “1, 2, Nim.”  The joy is palpable.

After growing up disliking the subject, I went on a mathematical journey of discovery in adulthood.  Learning how to effectively teach Math allowed me the chance to see the subject in a whole new way.  Math is like a beautiful puzzle; when you carefully put the pieces together, they create a work of art that explains something.  Completing a complex algebraic equation is so satisfying for me, now that I have come to view Math with a more open and growth mindset.

While I was not fully satisfied with the way I taught  Math last year, I made sure to focus on changing my game plan for this year.  Instead of jumping right into the curriculum and textbook, my hope was to provide students a chance to see Math through the lens of fun games.  I also wanted to help challenge my students who see themselves as “not Math students.”  I wanted my students to be excited about their year in Math class, not dreading it like I once did.

I believe that, so far (don’t worry, I knocked wood), I have been successful in my quest of helping my fifth graders see Math as fun and enjoyable.  Here is how I’m going about doing that:

  • During the first four days of Math, I taught the students various Math games and puzzles.  I had them interacting with their peers to master “1, 2, Nim” in order to defeat me, the Nim Master.  I challenged them to find a number that didn’t fit for the Math Magic Trick, with which I presented them.  There were no assessments given, textbooks handed out, or worksheets completed.  We laughed together, played together, and saw Math as a series or fun games and experiments.
  • Step two involved helping the students to change the way they view themselves as Math students.  We watched a fun and short video on mindset and read an article on how every student can be a “Math Student.”  I had the students discuss what this means for them.
  • From there, we created a list of steps or things the students should do when learning a new concept or completing a difficult problem in Math class.
    • Step 1: Think, “I can do this.  I’ve got this.  While it may be hard, I will become the master of this concept or problem.”
    • Step 2: Persevere and don’t give up no matter how challenged you may feel.  Work through the mental pain with guidance from your teacher and classmates.
    • Step 3: Try, fail, try again, and keep trying.  Remember, it’s process over product.
  • Then, I had students brainstorm possible strategies they could use when attacking difficult problems in Math.  This then led in to the students creating their own Problem Solving Plan that they can use in Math class throughout the year.  I allowed them to personalize it anyway they wanted as long as it included the three steps discussed in class and at least three strategies they could use to tackle a challenging math problem.  The students used glitter, markers, and so much more to create their own Problem Solving Plan.  They really got into it.
  • The following day, I provided the students with a difficult and multi-step word problem, as a way of testing out their Problem Solving Plans.  Did your plan work?  Were the strategies helpful?  Is there anything you should add to your plan?  I had the students reflect, in writing on how useful and helpful their plan was to solving the problem.  A few students revised their plans based on their reflection.  I closed the lesson by telling the students that their Problem Solving Plan is a living document and may need to be added to or altered during the academic year, as they try it out and use it more.
  • Yesterday, I then introduced the online math program Prodigy to the students.  I explained that they will be using this throughout the year to practice math skills covered in class and to fill in any gaps in their math learning process.  While this is not the main vehicle for math instruction, it is a great support system.  It’s also very interactive and fun for the students.  It game-ifies Math instruction.  They began using it in class yesterday.  They created their characters and worked on the placement exam that is built into the program.  For 35 minutes, they were in the Math Zone.  It was awesome.  Each and every student was completely enthralled by and engaged in showing off their prior math learning.  The following are direct quotes from my students, shared with me during Math class.
    • “Mr. Holt, thanks for making Math fun this year.”
    • “Mr. Holt, I know we don’t have homework over the weekend, but can I work on Prodigy over the weekend?”
    • “This is so much fun.”
    • “Check out the cute little pet I earned in the game.”
    • “Mr. Holt, you are a Miracle Worker for making us like Math this year.”
  • This coming week, the students will be placed into the level of Beast Academy that meets them where they are, mathematically speaking, based on their results from the diagnostic test they completed via Prodigy.  Beast Academy is the Math program I use in the fifth grade.  It is rigorous, yet engaging for the students, as it uses fun monsters and a graphic novel approach to teaching new concepts.  Using this program allows me to individualize and differentiate my Math instruction for each student.  I employ mini-lessons and work with the students during Math class each day as they progress through the Beast Academy curriculum.
  • I will begin or close each Math class with a fun game or activity that reviews concepts covered and provides the students with opportunities to practice using their problem solving skills.

That’s how I do Math in the fifth grade.  After two super fun weeks in Math class, I can’t wait to see how much progress my students make as they continue to see the subject as fun and enjoyable.  I truly believe that each of my students will become a “Math Student” this year because of my approach.  I’ve found a way to transform my horrid Math past into engaging and exciting Math instruction.  It’s all about perspective and mindset.  Just like the “Little Engine That Could,” my students and I are going to work together to overcome challenges and obstacles in Math class this year.

My First Week of School: The 2019 Edition

I want to take you all on a little journey right now.  We’re going to step back in time to the Monday evening prior to my first official day of school on this past Tuesday.  Now, join me as we jump into my head almost a week ago…

OMG!  I’m so nervous.  I know I shouldn’t be because I’m a pro at this.  Heck, I’ve been teaching for 18 years.  I know what I’m doing, right?  Maybe I don’t.  What if I mess up?  What if our Morning Meeting game doesn’t go well?  Will my students even like the game?  What if I forget their names?  What about their computers?  What if they don’t work when we are setting up their Google Drive folders? So many things could go wrong.  Wait a minute.  I notice that I am feeling very stressed right now.  I am worried about tomorrow and the first day of school.  I don’t need to worry about tomorrow because I am completely prepared.  I have the agenda already etched upon the whiteboard in my classroom.  I know the names of each and every one of my students: Bodi, Izabelle, Isabella, Rose, Sophie, Dorothy, and Ella.  If something goes wrong tomorrow, I can generate a solution to the problem when it occurs.  I am really good at thinking on my feet.  I have nothing to worry about.  Instead of filling my brain with tiny stress monsters, I should be relaxing and enjoying my evening with my lovely wife.  So that is just what I will do.  I’ve got this…

Later that night/morning…  I don’t have this.  Why can’t I sleep?  I know what to do in class tomorrow.  Everything will work out just as it is supposed to.  Why can’t I fall back to sleep?  My brain is like a complicated puzzle box made my magical beings that hate sleep.

Now, you may carefully step out of my brain and back into reality.  Thanks so much for joining me on this journey.  My brain is quite a scary place, I know.  Despite all of the mental chaos that plagued me before the first day even began, I had a fantastic first day of school.  My first week of school was fabulous.  Sure, problems popped up as they often do, but I managed to solve them quite well.  I love my new class of fifth graders.  They are funny, silly, talkative, creative, intelligent, talented, tricky, and wonderful in many ways.  They made each day during this past week feel like a present from above.  While I definitely miss working closely with my fifth grade class from last year, this year’s group is full of surprises in just the right ways.

My reflections on this first week of school:

  • Despite having started a new school year many times, I do find it easy to forget that routines and class protocols take a while to establish.  I can’t expect a new class of students to read my mind and know just what to do and when to do it.  Wouldn’t that be great though if they did?  It would certainly make things easier, but nothing about teaching is easy, which is why I love being an educator.  Each new day brings with it new challenges and difficulties.  After the first two days of school, I felt a bit disappointed that things in the classroom weren’t going as well as I thought they should be going.  I thought that the students would have realized what the expectations were and started meeting and exceeding them right away.  Why weren’t they?  I realized that my mindset was fixed.  I was operating under the assumption that every new class is an exact replica of my previous class.  Like snowflakes, such is not the case.  Each class is filled with its own unique set of struggles, fun, and wonder.  Each new class of students requires me to think differently.  What worked for last year’s fifth grade may not work for this year’s group.  I need to think of teaching as if it’s an amazing adventure filled with traps, breathtaking landscapes, puzzles, and lots of treasure.  I can’t escape this new adventure unscarred without approaching things differently.  The mazes and puzzles I need to solve are very different from the puzzles and mazes I encountered during last year’s adventure.  I need to think like Indiana Jones and use my wits and magical hat in new ways to survive this fantastic trek.  As I changed my thinking and adjusted my expectations accordingly, I went into the final two days of this past school week energized and ready to make this the best school year yet for me and my students.  I didn’t allow my preconceived notions about how a new school year should begin interfere with the magic that was taking place in my classroom.  I realized that I needed to try some new things to help my students learn the fifth grade ways of Mr. Holt’s class.  By the end of school on Friday, I felt like a happy and successful adventurer who had found the riches and treasure he had been searching for.  I just needed to change my perspective a bit.
  • Providing students with feedback, daily, on their progress in my class helps them learn how to grow and develop as students.  Following each class day, I give each students written feedback via our Google Classroom page regarding their day in school.  I begin by highlighting the wonderful things that they did that day before providing them with suggestions on how to grow as students.  As I told my students on day one, failure is a very important part of the learning process, as nothing or no one is perfect.  We all have lots of room for improvement.  Each morning, I reminded them of this philosophy of effort and growth in hopes that they would employ the feedback with which I provided them to improve and grow as students.  And, wouldn’t you know it, each successive day saw my students improve and work towards making the changes I suggested the day before.  Feedback is critical to the success of my students.  It’s also critical to my success as their teacher as well.  I make sure to ask my students every day, “What can I do tomorrow to make your experience in the fifth grade better?”  If I expect my students to put forth effort to grow and develop, then I need to make sure that I am being an effective role model for them.  As a former colleague of mine would often say, “Teamwork makes the dream work.”
  • While written feedback helps my students to grow and improve, I realize that it’s only one part of the feedback loop.  Each Friday, I meet with every student in my class for individual conversations regarding their progress in the fifth grade.  I want to make sure that my students have understood the written feedback provided to them all week.  I also want to make sure that I spread a message of positivity and joy.  I make sure to focus on the great and positive things the students have done that week.  I then help them think about goals for the coming week.  What do you need to do to grow and develop as a fifth grader?  I close each conference by asking the students for personal feedback on me.  I want to know how I can grow and improve as their teacher.  Friday’s student conferences were amazing.  I felt as though each student left their conversation feeling positive about themselves and knowing what they need to do to improve next week.  Each conference lasted about three to five minutes in length.  It’s not about the time, it’s about the substance.  These conferences could be done differently if teachers have more students.  I realized last year that having the opportunity to check in with my students in a formal manner, weekly, was crucial to the individual success of my students.
  • While I tend not to brag about my personal life and successes, I do love bragging about my students, as I know most teachers do.  I love my students.  They are talented and amazing in numerous ways.  Each day they teach me far more than I could ever hope to teach them.  This past week, I was tasked with having my class create some sort of closing for a special ceremony the school held on Thursday.  On Wednesday morning, I broached the challenge with the class.  I shared my thoughts on what we could do: Each student could share what they like or love about our school.  I then asked the students for their thoughts and ideas.  What do you think we should do?  I love empowering my students to take charge.  They had many brilliant ideas: Singing a song, creating a school cheer, performing a dance.  So cool!  I then had the class vote on the choice they felt would be best for us.  Almost unanimously, the class voted for singing a school song to close Thursday’s ceremony.  Hold on a second, I thought in the moment the vote had been taken, we don’t have a school song and we only have one day to prepare for our presentation.  That’s not nearly enough time, or so I thought.  As I shared this daunting thought with the class, they quickly shrugged it off as if I were being a typical adult who thought kids weren’t capable of the impossible.  Within 30 minutes, they had a song written and were already beginning to practice singing it aloud.  The next morning, we rehearsed the piece for about 45 minutes before the big event.  That was all the time we had, and frankly, all the time we needed.  The students nailed it!  They were amazing.  They sounded like angels serenading the people below.  Was their performance flawless, no, as nothing in life is; however, given the fact that they had one day in which to write a song and then practice it, they sounded pretty darn great to me.  I was blown away.  Check it out for yourselves by clicking HERE

With the first week of school in the books, I feel excited and ready for a new and awesome year of challenges, surprises, successes, failures, and fun in the fifth grade.  No matter what my brain tries to tell me, I simply need to remember to trust in my students.  They are the whip to my Indiana Jones’ hat.

Why All Schools Should Have an Orientation Day to Begin the New School Year

When I was a bit younger, and had hair on my head, I remember being so excited for the release of a new CD from a band or artist I enjoyed listening to.  I was so disappointed when my parents wouldn’t let me go to the midnight opening of our local record store to purchase the new Smashing Pumpkins double-disc Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness because it was a school night.  Even in college, I took time out of my hectic schedule to purchase new CDs from bands I loved on the day they were released.  I just couldn’t wait to listen to new music.  I often felt like a kid at Christmas time, barely able to wait to rip open the decorative paper covering the gifts with my name etched upon the wrapping paper.  Then, I grew up and became an adult.  Being an adult is hard work.  Who knew that adults had so many worries and tasks to do on a daily basis, including paying bills, going grocery shopping, filling the car with gas, vacuuming the house, plunging clogged toilets, and changing light bulbs.  All of this stuff leaves very little time for thinking about new music, and so, as the years progressed, I stopped getting excited about when new music was being released.  Tuesday was just another day in the week for me, until, that is, I found out through a delightful app on my smart phone that one of my favorite metal bands of all time was releasing a new album.  After not releasing a new record in a few years, Slipknot had gone back into the studio to record their new album We Are Not Your Kind.  I had the opportunity to read about the new album and how it was going to be very heavy and hard like their first two records.  I even heard the first single from the album Unsainted.  Wow, it sounds like the Slipknot I fell in love with back in college, I thought when I first heard it.  As soon as I found out about the release date, I was pumped.  I felt like I was back in high school again, waiting for new music to come out.  On the release day, I went to a big box store only to find that they had sold out of the CD.  Luckily, my town has a phenomenal little record store.  So, I called them, hoping they still had a copy remaining on the shelves.  With fingers and toes crossed, I waited for the clerk to check.  Sure enough, they had two copies left.  I had him hold a copy for me, as I safely but quickly made my way to downtown Concord.  Luckily, I had 10 cents for the parking meter.  I ran in and grabbed the CD.  The owner was nice enough to unwrap and open the disc for me after I purchased it, as he could see the glimmer of excitement in my eyes.  He knew that I was running back to my car to listen to it.  And indeed, I did just that.  You know that feeling you get when you’re scratching off a lottery ticket, hoping that you won something, and then you see that you matched three numbers to win $20, that’s how I felt.  Goose pimples covered my skin even though it was about 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside.  I had the windows down and blared my new CD like I didn’t have a care in the world.  It was amazing!

As a teacher, I am fortunate enough that I get to experience a similar excitement every August when school begins.  The first day of school is filled with fun, joy, excitement, and a bit of nervousness, for me and the students.  The students come to school all dressed up in new clothes and brand new sneakers or shoes with a fancy new backpack on their back like they are ready to take on the world.  It’s so much fun to begin a new school year.

One of the many things I love about The Beech Hill School is that we don’t start school like most every other school in the country with full days, jam-packed with classes and work.  No, we ease our students back into school with a purpose.  We have a half-day orientation program for all students on the Wednesday prior to Labor Day Weekend.  It’s all about getting the students excited for the start of a new school year along with the opportunity to meet their new classmates or hang out with old friends.  The schedule for the day is very low-key and stress free.

In the fifth grade, I started our morning with a fun name game before sharing the fifth grade ways with my new students.  I talked about upcoming field trips and the always exciting Marble Jar and Marble Parties.  The hit of the morning, of course, was meeting our class pet, Beans the hamster.  We then played another game before I introduced the students to the Dialogue Journal.  I talked about this cool new tool I’m using in the classroom this year.  It’s a great way for me to learn more about the students in a more informal, ungraded way.  The first entry they completed in class yesterday was their introduction to me.  I wanted them to tell me anything and everything they thought I should know about them as students and people: How do you learn best?  What are your hobbies?  What’s your favorite subject in school?  What’s your least favorite subject in school?  What’s your favorite movie and book?  They really got into this activity.  One student wrote almost two pages, and would have continued had we not needed to transition into our next task.  Today, I responded to their journal entries with a letter back to them.  It was so much fun reading all about what they had to tell me.  I have an amazing class filled with thoughtful, creative, and excited students.  We are going to have an awesome year together!


Then, after the students wrote in their Dialogue Journals, we took a short break for snack.  During this time, the students chatted with one another as they learned about their classmates and some of the things they have in common.  Many of the students love animals and talked about their various pets.  Following snack, the students decorated their super hero capes.  Quick back story on this activity.  I wear a teaching cape and refer to my students as super heroes, as they are super in every way.  So, each year, I have them decorate super hero capes that they can wear in the classroom if they so desire.  Last year, I had one student who wore his cape at various times throughout the year.  So cool!  The students brainstormed their super hero name, symbol, and power, as they transformed a plain cape into something super awesome.  They had so much fun sharing their thoughts and ideas with their peers as they creatively decorated their capes.  Super hero theme music played in the background while they worked.  After the students finished decorating their capes and cleaning up the classroom, I had each of them share their super hero name and power with the class.  I then wrapped up the day by reminding them of what they need to bring with them on Tuesday, our first official day of school, and fielding any final questions they had.  All of my students left the school that day excited to return on Tuesday and happy about being in the fifth grade.  It was amazing!

That’s what the first day of school should be like for all students and schools.  Every school should have an Orientation Day that gets students excited for the year to come without the stress of working or listening to teachers and administrators drone on and on about the rules and expectations of the school or classroom.  Imagine if every school began with a short Orientation Day that left students feeling super pumped to return for the first full day of school.  Wouldn’t that be something?  While I realize that different schools have different ways of doing things, a fun Orientation Day just makes sense to me.  Start school early if need be in order to fit the day in.  Provide students a chance to get to know their new classmates and teachers and get excited about school.  Talk about some of the cool activities and projects the students will be doing in a fun and stress-free manner.  It’s a short day that doesn’t require much of our students.  If you’re reading this entry and your school doesn’t begin a new year with an Orientation Day, talk to your administrators and try to bring about a change for next year.  You won’t be disappointed, trust me.

Click here to learn more about Dialogue Journals.

Click here to view more pictures from Orientation Day in my fifth grade classroom.

Staring at the Sun: Reflections on my Summer Work

My parents had a very long “Don’t Do This” list for me growing up: Don’t talk to strangers, don’t stick your tongue on metal in the winter, don’t stare at the sun, don’t listen to music with Parental Advisory stickers (I’m still a little angry at Tipper Gore for making that craziness happen), don’t go swimming right after eating, and don’t shower during a thunder storm.  While some of their demands were reasonable, I mean, who wants to lose part of their tongue or get struck by lightning in a shower, others were just plain silly.

“Why can’t I listen to the new Guns ‘N’ Roses double album?” I asked my parents in complete dismay.

“Because it includes inappropriate lyrics and has a Parental Advisory sticker on it,” my mom said, all matter of fact-like.

This ridiculous rule forced me to secretly save my allowance for a few weeks, which was really hard to do as I loved spending money right away back then.  But, I did it anyway.  I saved my money until I had enough to buy both Use Your Illusions I & II.  Then, when my parents when shopping at Ames, I went over to Coconuts, the record store in our town, and bought both albums on cassette tape and shoved them into my pockets.  My pockets were too small to hold CDs.  I met my parents back at Ames like nothing devious or evil had just occurred.  I got away with my crime, and I do believe that it made the songs on those two albums sound a little bit sweeter.  They forced my hand.  I had to covertly purchase those two albums, as they changed the musical landscape of rock music.  I couldn’t possibly live my life without ever hearing November Rain.  That would be sacrilegious.

Once I was finally freed from the controlling wraith of my parents and went off to college, I was filled with thoughts of rebellion.  Freedom tasted like fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, at first.  I stayed up way past my bed time, listened to music with curse words, and went swimming while eating.  It was awesome.  However, this freedom did come at a bit of a cost, as I began to realize that the rules my parents set up for me were done so to keep me safe and healthy.  After several days of staying up very late and waking up early for class, I grew very tired.  I ended up having to skip a few classes to get caught up on my sleep.  Then, when I stared at the sun, my eyes burned for days afterward.  That was so not fun.  While I was unhappy having to live within the confines of the cage my parents built for me, it was exactly the cage I needed.  It just took a few bad experiences for me to see this.

With school beginning next week, I’m filled with excitement and joy, like when I first listened to the Guns ‘N’ Roses Use Your Illusions I & II albums, minus the feeling of betrayal.  I can’t wait to meet my new students and jump into the school year.  I’m looking forward to trying lots of new games in Math class, bringing real substance to our Morning Meetings, and completing a real-world project for my community unit.  As my summer vacation is coming to a close, I feel compelled to reflect on the work I completed over the past two months.  Did I accomplish what I had set out to do this summer?  Am I fully prepared for the upcoming academic year?  Is there more that still needs to be done?  How’d I do in meeting the professional goals I set for myself back at the close of the past school year?

  • Goal 1: I want to switch up the posters and decorations in my classroom– I feel as though I totally rocked the house on this goal.  I put a lot of time, effort, and energy into transforming my room into an educational oasis of sorts.  I reorganized my Maker Space to bring more order and accountability to the space.  I hung the tools on the wall and labelled them all so that I can quickly and easily see what tools are still in use or have yet to be returned.  Plus, every tool now has a specified place.  I like that.  I also added a Tech Space to my Maker Space so that students can learn to code, create video games, or research a project they’re creating in the Maker Space.  I set up the Raspberry Pi computer that I built last year to a spare monitor that had no use last year.  I’m excited about what the students will be able to do at this new space in my classroom.  In addition to the Maker areas in the classroom, I also had one wall painted blue and thought carefully and logistically about the posters I hung on the wall.  I made sure that each poster was directly tied to the curriculum in some way or provided the students with thoughtful words.  I attempted to remove the clutter and disconnected and distracting posters from the wall.  I’m very pleased with what I do have hung up.  I also tried to mount the posters to the wall in a more professional looking manner.  I wanted to make my classroom look more like it was put together by professional classroom designers rather than by a 42-year-old man who doesn’t even match his socks.  I’m also thrilled about the curtains I added to the library area to make it more of a fun and inviting reading cave.  I believe the students will thoroughly enjoy this new touch.  My wife is also in the process of making valences for the windows in my room.  I can’t wait to see how they inject fun and whimsy into the space.  So, mission accomplished with goal one.
  • Goal 2: I want to change-up some of my Social Studies and Science units– While this will be an ongoing journey of mine for this new school year, I haven’t quite met this goal.  I am looking to change some of my Science and Social Studies units, but I haven’t fully realized them yet.  I have been working closely with the Hopkinton Town Administrator to enliven Our Community unit with an engaging and real-world project.  He’s brainstorming some possibilities as I type this entry.  I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with.  I also want to complete some sort of unit on civics and the upcoming presidential election.  I’m not exactly sure what this will look like, but I want to teach the students about how the election process works while they learn about the candidates in the running.  I’m hoping to have the students complete some sort of debate for this unit.  Other than that, I will have to assess the completion of this goal at the close of the 2019-2020 school year.
  • Goal 3: Determine if I will use Classcraft as a tool in my classroom– After much research on the program and time spent pondering my approach to how much screen time my students have on a daily basis, I’ve decided not to utilize Classcraft in my classroom for the upcoming school year.  While this tool may work for some teachers and students, I really want my students to be focused on the entire classroom community rather than themselves as individuals.  I worry that the program would instill a sense of inappropriate competition within the class and force the students to focus too much on approaching school like a checklist.  I want my fifth grade community to operate in a free and organic manner.  So, no Classcraft for me this year.
  • Goal 4: I want to jazz up my Math class a bit– I devoted much time this summer to this one goal.  I researched various math programs that other teachers and schools use.  I read several studies on how to help students see Math as fun and engaging rather than difficult and unnecessary.  I am going to begin the year in my Math class by having the students play a series of math games to help them see the subject as a class on problem solving instead of a class that is problematic for them.  I made use of the numerous resources on the Mathforlove website.  I am going to use  pieces of the curriculum for mini-lessons and fun games in class as well.  I really want to make Math class something the students will look forward to instead of something they will dread.  I can’t wait to see how things go with Math this year.  I’m filled with hope and excitement for what is to come.  Mission accomplished with goal number four.
  • Goal 5: I want to find more engaging games to incorporate into our Morning Meetings for next year– All you have to do is revisit my entry on the first professional development text I read this summer to know that big changes are in the works for our daily Morning Meetings in the fifth grade.  I have the first two weeks of Morning Meetings planned and ready to go.  I can’t wait to get my students sharing, caring, and playing as we build and foster a strong sense of community in the classroom.  D for done on this goal too.

I’d say that I had quite the productive summer as I worked to meet the five goals I set for myself back in June.  I feel confident, inspired, and excited to meet my new students, create a strong sense of community within the fifth grade, have fun, and learn lots.  After this lengthy summer break, I say, bring on the students and let’s get this educational party started, without any sort of Parental Advisory stickers, of course.  Smiley faces, scratch-and-sniff, and motivational quotes are the only kinds of stickers that will be allowed in my classroom.  So, although Axl Rose probably wasn’t talking about a new school year in the song Locomotive, I feel as though it totally relates to this new journey all teachers and students are about to embark upon in the coming days and weeks: “Let it take you where it may, we live and learn.”  See mom, Guns ‘N” Roses do have songs filled with inspirational and thoughtful lyrics.

Summer Time is Learning Time: Part IV

Last night, as I stood next to my wife dancing away to the music of the Goo Goo Dolls and Train, a sense of true happiness and love washed over me as if I were a pebble in the ocean of positivity.  While thousands of other music fans sat quietly or stood motionless listening to great live music, I felt the music and was moved by it, literally.  The music took me on an amazing journey as I wiggled, danced, moved, or whatever you’d like to call what I was doing, to some of the biggest pop songs of the past two decades.  I danced like no one was watching because I lived in the serenity of the moment.  I didn’t think about people snapping videos of me on social media or what others might think or label me as, I just danced and enjoyed the evening with my phenomenal wife.  It was one of the best night’s I’ve had in a while.  I allowed my emotional thoughts on the music control my body.  I listened to my soul while ignoring the social constructs that tell me to stand still or bob my head slowly to live music.  I was like a flame in a beautiful fire.  I moved like a work of bad art, and I didn’t care what anyone thought.  It was legendary.

Like my reckless dancing from last night, our emotions have immense power over us and our actions.  While I was in a controlled setting and realized that no real harm would come to me or others because of my radical dancing, aside from a neck cramp, sometimes, our emotions or feelings hijack our sense of right and wrong or what is socially acceptable.  Being self-aware of our emotions and the pull they have over our actions is crucial for success and happiness in life.  We need to find that balance between what our emotions want us to do and what our prefrontal cortex realizes we should do.  Learning self-control is one of the many keys to being an emotionally intelligent human being.  The opposable thumbs isn’t the only difference between us and monkeys.  We feel and react before we think and decide what the most effective course of action is.  However, with training, practice, and the power of redos, we can learn to be thoughtful, empathetic, and kind in how we respond to challenging or emotional situations.

Although I struggled to get through my final professional development text of the summer due to the intense density of the book, I learned much from Daniel Goleman’s seminal resource on emotional intelligence.  Sure, it could have been pruned down to about 100 pages, because like most scientists or great thinkers of our time, Goleman loves to spend pages and pages repeating the same thing over and over again using different words.  Aside from the density and repetition of the text, it reminded me of the huge and important responsibility we as educators and adults have to help teach future generations of students how to be emotionally in charge of their lives.  It’s possible that many horrible crimes and even lesser offenses in which other people were hurt either emotionally or physically may have been prevented had those involved individuals been more emotionally intelligent.  Stop, recognize, and reframe is a great strategy for being able to respond instead of reacting to situations.   When we push the pause button on our emotions and actions, and realize that we are feeling a strong emotion, we can then begin to change our thoughts and choose the best recourse to solve issues or situations in more thoughtful and caring ways.

While all great educators already realize the importance of teaching students how to be emotionally intelligent people, it’s valuable to hear it constantly repeated in books, articles, or discussions with colleagues.  Now more than ever, a resource like Emotional Intelligence is just what we need to be reminded of the huge job we have as teachers, parents, and caregivers.  We need to be sure that our children learn how to be self-aware, empathetic, and thoughtful human beings.  This text hit that point home like nothing else.  Despite the fact that it reads like a college psychology text for graduate students, the core message is meant for everyone: Think before you respond or act.  How simple is that?  But, wow does it make sense.  Imagine how many issues or disagreements we’ve all had that could have been handled more effectively had we not allowed our emotions to take over and drive the mother ship.  A lot, right?  It’s so very easy to allow our feelings to hijack our prefrontal cortex or the more modern portion of our brain, while it’s much more difficult to control our emotions and respond thoughtfully without reacting in an out-of-control manner.  This book reminded me of how important the social and emotional learning curriculum truly is.  We can’t expect our students to learn when we haven’t addressed their basic needs including safety, shelter, clothing, and food.  I can’t wait for the school year to begin so that I can help my new students to be the best possible and emotionally intelligent versions of themselves.

Here are just a few realizations or thoughts I had on this invaluable resource, all of which I jotted down in the margins.  A book can’t genuinely be digested unless you interact with it.  Reading is, after all, a physical activity.

  • Being able to accurately read the body language and facial expressions of others is crucial to being an emotionally intelligent person.  When we are able to recognize the physical signs of sadness, anger, happiness, or any other emotion, we can then use empathy to validate the other person’s feelings and then respond to the situation at hand.  I want to be sure that I teach my students how each of the big emotions manifests themselves on the bodies and faces of humans.  Much of our communication takes place without the utterance of any words.  While I’ve known this idea for years, it still smacks me in the head like a ton of bricks every time I revisit it.  We say so much without saying anything at all.
  • As teachers, we need to be specific and thoughtful with our feedback to students.  Rather then telling a student that their answer or work is wrong, we need to provide students with kind words while also helping them learn how to grow and improve as writers, mathematicians, scientists, or any other type of great thinker or doer.  While it’s much easier to say to a student, “That is wrong, now go fix it,” feedback of that type only negatively impacts our students.  We need to lift while we climb.
  • I used to think that acting out or role playing traumatic or violent events was harmful to people.  Wow, was I ever wrong.  It turns out that when kids act out or play games that seem violent or inappropriate after having survived a traumatic event, they are safely and effectively processing what they went through.  It’s the brains way of dealing with powerful memories, experiences, and emotions.  I guess the old adage of “never judge a book by its cover” remains true.
  • Our brains are plastic and changeable.  Nothing is fixed, unless we think it is.  We can change our mind, our attitude, and our outlook on life through practice, training, teaching, and sometimes counseling.  Having a growth mindset in life helps one to be emotionally literate.  If we are having a bad day, we need not allow negative emotions impact how we view what comes next.  We can choose to be happy or choose to be miserable.  I choose happy.
  • We need to help students learn how to express and talk about their emotions in effective and meaningful ways,  This can be done through various activities, but it needs to happen in our classrooms.  We can’t teach students about the gas laws if they don’t know how to process the negative emotions they are feeling regarding an interaction they had with a peer in the hallway prior to Science class.  Teaching students how to be emotionally intelligent is far more important than teaching them how to properly use a comma.
  • Many schools prevent students from feeling any sort of negative emotion much like the community in Lois Lowery’s dystopian novel The Giver.  How can we expect students to learn how to process and deal with negative feelings or emotions if we don’t teach allow them to experience them?  We can’t shield students from life.  What we can do, however, is help teach students strategies for dealing with, processing, and responding to emotions.  It is not good to shield students or people from feeling sad, angry, or mad, as then they will never learn what to do when they actually do encounter those emotions.  We can guide, help, and teach students, but we should not try to manipulate or control situations so that students are always in a constant state of happiness.  We need to experience all emotions to better appreciate life in all its magnificent glory.

“And that’s all I have to say about that,” Forrest Gump once said.  Like I did last evening at the concert in which I was an attendee, we need to help our students assess various situations and respond appropriately.  Emotions are wonderful things to experience, as long as we remain in charge of our actions and respond in kind and thoughtful ways.  Dancing crazy-like at a concert is socially acceptable behavior, while dancing at a funeral is not.  Goleman’s fine book reminds us that we need to help our students navigate their emotions, thoughts, and feelings.  Life is hard and fun and silly and unfair and beautiful all at once.  It’s like looking at a Jackson Pollack painting, we feel so many different things all at once, like controlled chaos.  So, to you fine followers of my blog, I say, go dance like no one is watching, as long as you are not at a funeral or a golf tournament.

Summer Time is Learning Time: Part III

For some odd reason, I feel the need to provide all you with a glimpse into my thought process for a moment.  Warning, my mind is a scary place.  Feel free to leave this entry and move onto something a little less bizarre and crazy.  If you’re still reading this, you are a brave soul, and for that, I thank you.

What to name today’s entry?  Hmmmmmm…  I could continue with the title sequence that I began using two entries ago, but that feels stale and boring to me.  Who really wants to read yet another article in a series of articles?  Won’t that title turn away readers?  Plus, how will my readers have any idea of what I am writing about it if I title the entry in such a banal manner?  Won’t blog viewers simply skip right over my post because it sounds like a bad sequel?  Then I got thinking about movie sequels.  Most movie sequels are horrible.  Case and point, Speed 2.  We’re supposed to believe that Sandra Bullock is Keanu Reeves?  Really?  She looks nothing like him.  You can’t switch actors in a movie series.  That is a big no-no.  Then there was Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd.  Again with the new actors.  Will Hollywood ever learn?  I doubt it, as they keep making awful movies like Armageddon and Gods of Egypt.  So, anyway, back to today’s title.  If most movie sequels blow chunks, then why would I want to continue with that tradition in naming today’s entry?  Well, hold on for a second.  Let’s “stop, collaborate and listen, ice is back with my brand new invention.”  I miss Robert Van Winkle.  Remember when he tried to do that rock/rap crossover album?  OMG, that was atrocious.  What I am trying to say is, maybe I’m forgetting something.  Perhaps there are great movie sequels or part threes that totally rock.  Oh yes, indeed there are.  Back to the Future III was by far the best movie in the entire series.  It doesn’t get much better than the wild west, c’mon.  Then there’s the Nightmare on Elm Street series.  Several of the films in that series totally kicked the original’s butt.  So, maybe this entry could totally rise to the occasion and lift my prior two entries up a bit.  Yes, perhaps.  But, what if today’s entry is a complete flop like Batman and Robin?  I can’t afford to let a bad entry ruin sequels for me and blog readers everywhere.  It’s just not fair.  Oh this a real conundrum.  What shall I do?  Well, as I am a creature of routine, I feel obligated to continue my summer learning sequence.  So that is what I will do.  I don’t love the idea, but I’m also getting really hungry and I made a deal with myself that I won’t prepare dinner until after I finish writing today’s entry.  So, part III it is.

While I’m sure you didn’t really need to know the thinking that I put into titling my blog entries, but perhaps it will help you better appreciate the finer things in life, like a beautiful sunrise or a tasty milkshake.  Now, onto the real meat of today’s entry.  Wow, I am getting really hungry.  Some raw meat would be good right about now.

This past week, I began digging into my final professional development summer reading text, and I think I’m liking it.  I mean, yeah, it’s super dense, as it is written by a science reporter; he really gets down to the nitty gritty of things, but there are a lot of great takeaways for me so far.  The book is Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman.  The first few chapters read more like a neurology textbook, as he explains the inner workings of the brain and the value of being able to effectively harness the power of our emotions.  There’s a lot there.  I do like how he uses stories to begin new chapters or sections.  He clearly knows how the brain works and remembers things.  While I’m only on chapter five, I’m enjoying the way my brain is interpreting everything it’s reading.  As I read, I’m always thinking, How can I use this in the classroom?  So far, I’ve gotten two cool ideas.

  • As I teach the students about the power of mindfulness and how it can help them gain control over their emotions and thinking, I want to share data on how IQ isn’t the sole predictor of success in life.  I want my students to understand that “being smart” is really about knowing one’s self and understanding how to own and regulate your emotions, rather than how well you did on a recent math assessment.  I’m hopeful that this information will empower my students to want to fully practice and apply the various mindfulness techniques they will learn throughout the school year.
  • I also want my students to understand what happens in the body when you are experiencing particular emotions.  I loved how the author detailed exactly what is going on physiologically when we become angry.  I think that this information may help my students be more self-aware as they start to learn how to appropriately express their emotions.

Although I feel as though I am quite knowledgeable on the subject of Emotional Intelligence and place much emphasis on the importance of Social and Emotional Learning in the classroom as an educator, I am loving that there is still much I don’t know about the ins and outs behind this big topic of Emotional Intelligence.  I am very much a student when it comes to fully understanding the power of our emotions, and it’s quite humbling.  I do wish that the author didn’t go about writing this book in such an academic manner, as the writing style is somewhat dry and verbose.  Perhaps he could create an edition for teachers that is written in a more fun-to-read manner.  I don’t need a graphic novel, but maybe not harping on the same thing over and over again for pages, could make it a little easier to digest.  At times I feel as though I’m reading a Stephen King novel.  Despite the stuffy nature of the text, I’m still extracting much useful information from this fine novel written before many people were really talking about SEL or tweeting about mindfulness.

As I prepare my evening meal in a few brief moments, I will be sure to think about how my reptilian brain really just wants to eat, while my prefrontal cortex wants to analyze every move I make to be sure that it puts me in front of food sooner rather than later.  Until part IV, over and out my amazing readers, if you’re still reading this that is.