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.

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 II

I want to begin today’s entry with a story, as stories are an effective way of conveying information to others in a meaningful way.  Just read the fantastic book entitled Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers.  It does a wonderful job explaining the power of stories in teaching and life in general.  So, here is my story for today…

It all started with a hat.  A winter hat in fact.  You see, I never used to be one for wearing hats when I was younger.  When my mother made me wear one to school, I took it off as soon as I was out of her sight.  Hats weren’t considered “cool” back then.  In high school, I did wear a baseball cap to school, as we were allowed to don them at Lebanon High.  I guess I chose to wear one because I could; other than that, I’m not exactly sure why I wore one, as I’ve never really understood the purpose of caps.  They seem like an unnecessary accoutrement, unless you like offering free advertising to big business.  However, living in New England and being mostly bald, winters can be very cold.  After marrying my lovely wife, we moved to Maine, where the winters are especially bitter, snowy, and freezing cold.  To help make my transition a bit warmer and more comfortable, my grandmother bought me a winter hat.  It wasn’t super thick, but it covered my head and kept me warm.  It was blue and gray.  At first, I didn’t really wear it, as I still didn’t see the purpose of the hat, but about a week or so later, my grandmother passed away.  It was quick and sudden.  I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.  As I was very close to my grandmother, her death hit me hard.  I clung to every memory of her like it was gold.  That’s when I remembered the hat she had given me when she had last come to visit my wife and I in Maine.  I put it on that night and never took it off, metaphorically speaking.  I wore it whenever I went out and about, no matter the season.  I wore it all year long, like a lifeline to my grandmother.  While that first, special hat did eventually need to be replaced, I never stopped wearing a similar winter hat all year long.  17 years later, I’m still wearing a winter hat.  Even today while it was 85 degrees outside, I wore my hat when I went out to run some errands this morning.  My hat is like my security blanket and a constant reminder of the many great things my grandmother did for me.  She was my security blanket.

Why am I telling this particularly sad story in the midst of summer vacation, you are probably asking yourself right now.  Well, I’ll tell you.  Even though I know what my winter hat represents and why I wear it year-round, very few other people know or understand my rationale.  So, consequently, I get asked frequently why I’m wearing a hat in the middle of summer.  Some people call me crazy.  Some people think I’m strange.  Some people make fun of me and tell jokes at my expense.  And you know what, it doesn’t bother me a bit.  I try not to waste my precious time on this wonderful Earth worrying about what other people think of me and my actions.  Instead, I try to focus on living and experiencing life.  This same philosophy applies to my teaching, I am always focused on honing my practice so that I can better help, challenge, and support my current and future students.  I don’t let summer vacation, the heat, or my grueling search for a summer job get in the way.  I keep reading, learning, looking, and growing.

This past week, I finished reading the educational text Closing Circles: 50 Activities for Ending the Day in a Positive Way by Dana Januszka and Kristen Vincent.  While I utilized a version of a Closing Circle in my classroom in previous years, I knew that there was more I could be doing, and so I chose to make this book my second summer read.  Although the book is filled with great ideas and activities that I look forward to using in my classroom, because the philosophy behind the Closing Circle and the Responsive Classroom approach to education is not new to me, I didn’t learn any new approaches to teaching from this book.  However, if you are not familiar with the Responsive Classroom approach to teaching or the concept of a Closing Circle, then I highly recommend this book for you.  The Introduction includes an overview of the rationale behind the Closing Circle and how it greatly benefits students.  As all great teachers do, we work tirelessly to create a compassionate community within our classroom, and the Closing Circle is a meaningful and effective way to end each day before sending the students out into the crazy world.  So, while I didn’t learn any new pedagogy from this book, it reaffirmed what I already know and try to do in the classroom.  It did, however, give me lots of nifty ideas that I plan on incorporating into my classroom in several short weeks.

At this point, I plan on using the Around-the Circle Sharing activity during our first Closing Circle of the new school year, as I feel that it will offer the students a safe place in which to push themselves outside of their comfort zone a bit.  The activity asks each student to offer an answer or response to a question the teacher poses.  A question I might use on day one would be, “What’s one new thing you learned today?”  The open-ended nature of the question allows for creativity and variety in responses.  It also encourages a community of openness, new things, and learning.  While it may be difficult for some students to be put on the spot, with the smaller class size that I will have this year, I will have the time and space to support all of my students.  In a larger class, you could allow students to pass if they are struggling to think of something to share.  However, I would recommend that you push all of your students to share, even if it is something short and simple like, “Math.”  One word responses provide a foundation for future growth and learning to take place.  Safety and care are the base of the pyramid of fun and happiness in the classroom.  Our students need to feel safe and cared for, and sometimes during the first few days, students are testing the waters of safety and care.  By allowing students options and choice, they feel empowered and cared for, which is the beginning of lasting relationships in the classroom.

Like an infant, seeing the world for the first time, I love learning new ways to approach teaching.  This wonderful book provided me much fodder for growth and learning as a teacher.  If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, I highly suggest it.  You may also want to read the Responsive Classroom’s book on Morning Meetings, if you want more cool ideas on how to foster a strong sense of community within the classroom.  My previous blog entry detailed my thoughts on this amazing text, not that I’m self-promoting, but if you are bored and have a spare few minutes, check it out.  Now, I will continue my educational journey to grow and develop as a teacher, all while donning the memory of my grandmother upon my balding head.

Summer Time is Learning Time: Part I

As last week’s Summer Solstice marked the official start to the season of warmth and outdoor fun for those of us living in the northern hemisphere, it also reminded me that my season of learning and growing has also begun.  While I try to stay abreast to current trends and research in education throughout the academic year, I find it difficult to tackle any serious new learning projects or professional development texts when school is in session.  Summer vacation is my time to learn and attack new projects regarding my classroom or curriculum.  I sincerely value the large blocks of time to sit down and read a new book on educational pedagogy or revise my unit plans for the following year.  I feel like a kid at Christmas during summer vacation, as I am able to do my best work to prepare to make the next school year the best one ever for my students.  As Christmas in July begins on the Hallmark Movies and Mysteries television channel today, I jumped into my summer work feeling very festive and jolly, if not a bit hot too, as it’s almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit in central New Hampshire.

As the bright slices of sunlight cut through the trees outside my window, I reflect on the first of several professional development texts I have chosen to tackle this summer to grow as an educator and allow my students to blossom and transform into the best possible version of themselves.  Book one on my leaning tower of literature filled me with brilliant ideas and excitement for the upcoming school year.  The Morning Meeting Book by Roxann Kriete and Carol Davis is chock full of stellar ideas and simple ways to incorporate Social-Emotional Learning into each and every day in the classroom.  While I utilized the Morning Meeting format many years ago when teaching second grade, I wanted to review the structure and learn some new activities and ways to effectively incorporate this practice into my fifth grade classroom.  I mean, I did conduct my version of a Morning Meeting in the classroom this past year, but it was a hodgepodge of ideas and activities that did not follow the structure put forth by the Responsive Classroom folks.  We occasionally discussed serious topics and played some games during that time, but there was no routine or consistency to it.  Knowing how much fifth graders crave and need routine and structure, I decided to brush up on the proper Morning Meeting procedure.

It was so refreshing to be reminded of the importance of each part of the Morning Meeting process.  Skipping parts takes away from the integrity of the concept.  Sure, teachers can adapt the stages of the Morning Meeting to fit their schedule and needs, as long as the entire process is completed in some sort of routine manner.  Reading the Introduction and seeing the structure of Morning Meeting laid out in print form, I, at first, balked at the four steps.  “I teach fifth grade,” I thought to my self, “I don’t really need to start with a greeting.  That’s so childish.”  However, as I delved deeper into this treasure trove of a book, I began to realize that providing students with a safe place to feel like they matter and are seen on a daily basis is so crucial to their emotional and cognitive growth as humans.  So, I changed my perspective on the greeting and will be incorporating this component into my Morning Meeting.  Because of the specific research and anecdotes the authors included in the book, I was able to see the importance of each phase of Morning Meeting.

The big takeaways for me…

  • I will begin each class day with Morning Meeting following the whole-school Community gathering that takes place at my wonderful little school.  I want to provide my students with a safe place to have a voice and be recognized and appreciated for the diversity and perspective they bring to the class community.  I will start each meeting with a formal greeting activity of some sort.  I have decided to begin the first day of school with the same fun and insightful greeting I utilized last year: The Spiderweb Greeting.  It’s a tangible way for the students to learn each other’s names while also beginning to see the interconnections that exist in our fifth grade class.  The activity is short and simple: I would begin with a ball of yarn, introduce myself to the class, choose a person in the circle to greet with a “Hello” or “Good morning,” and then pass the ball of yarn to them, while still holding onto the start of the yarn.  Once everyone has introduced themselves and greeted a classmate, the circle resembles a knotty spiderweb.  I would then engage the students in a discussion about the story that this strange tangle of yarn weaves.  What can we learn from this knotted mess?  What’s the metaphor?  Like last year, I hope that this opening greeting will be a wonderful springboard into the richness of conversation and discussion that will be had all year.
  • After not setting expectations for sharing at the start of this past year during my Morning Meeting, I needed to occasionally cut off students when they spoke so that we’d be able to have more than five minutes of Math class.  Reviewing the chapter on Sharing reminded me of the vital importance of setting clear expectations for sharing during Morning Meeting.  It starts with modelling and a discussion that will allow students to observe and notice what is expected of them.  I want the students to learn the value in being succinct and respectful of others.  Having clear rules and a protocol for how students will share during Morning Meeting will make the process valuable and effective for us all.
  • The sharing component of Morning Meeting is a truly effective and easy way to allow students to practice and learn how to effectively listen, question, and be empathetic when interacting or conversing with others.  As children and tweens are stuck in that very selfish stage of cognitive development, it’s crucial that teachers provide their students with opportunities to learn how to look outside of themselves.  Teaching students how to ask effective questions that will elicit a meaningful response from the speaker, be mindful and caring listeners, and empathize with the speaker in insightful ways will help the students learn how to be compassionate humans.  Research tells us that negativity spreads like the flu virus, but so to does positivity.  If we can create a culture of kindness in our classrooms through the purposeful teaching of listening and responding, we will be helping our students while also making the world a better, nicer place in which to live.
  • I loved learning about all the fun class activities that I can now use in my Morning Meeting.  The book was full of engaging and fun ideas.  While I had previously heard of a few of them and even used some in the classroom last year, many of the activities mentioned in the text were new to me.  I can’t wait to start the year with A Warm Wind BlowsThis interactive game will get students moving and learning about their classmates on day one.  I love it!

Although summer vacation just began, I can’t wait for the first day of school after having read this amazing book.  I want to jump right into my first Morning Meeting.  Unfortunately, I have some time to wait before I can do that, but on a positive note, I also have much more time in which I can learn and grow as an educator.  Yah for me!  So, as I turn on my air conditioner and cozy up with a warm cup of hot cocoa with mini marshmallows while watching a classic Christmas movie on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, I wish you all a happy summer filled with much learning, growing, and festive fun.

When One Door Closes, Look Ahead for Another to Open

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

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

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

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

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