Reflecting on my First Year Teaching Fifth Grade

As the end is vividly within sight now, I’m feeling nostalgic.  I still remember the first day of school as if it were yesterday.  My students were so quiet and well behaved because they were so nervous.  They were curious and excited about their upcoming year in the fifth grade.  Then there was our first Marble Party.  I believe that was the Glow Party.  They had so much fun.  The glow in the dark paint is still visible on the walls of my classroom.  I can’t forget our trip to the Sargent Center.  Despite the rain, the students had so much fun playing and exploring together.  The hook they made at the metal forge still hangs in our classroom.  What about the Fifth Grade Science Exposition?  This was the first time the students presented to the entire school.  They were so nervous, but they knocked it out of the park like Ted Williams hitting a baseball.  Then there was the Hopkinton History Expo at the Historical Society.  What an amazing opportunity for the students.  They were able to share what they learned with the greater community in the space where we began our unit back in September.  The way we celebrated the holidays in festive ways.  I’m a sucker for Christmas.  What about our trip to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts?  The kids had so much fun viewing the original pieces of art we looked at on our computers during our unit on Mesopotamia.  Of course, I can’t forget our unit on Astronomy that just happened to coincide with the release of the first images of a black hole.  We watched the press conference and everything.  My students were so into it.  Then there was our trip to the planetarium.  My students were in awe the entire time.  I had to clean up their drool from the floor afterwards because they mouths were open in amazement for the entire show.  Even now, the excitement generated from the Betterment Project is palpable in the classroom on a daily basis.  Awesome experiences aside, my favorite part of the year has been watching and observing my students grow and develop as readers, writers, thinkers, problem solvers, mathematicians, scientists, and friends.  I have loved celebrating their successes with them.  In fact, in school on Friday, I met with each student to do just that.  I went through and highlighted some of the ways in which they have grown throughout the year so that they leave school feeling successful and happy with the progress they made this year.  What a magical year it has been for us in the fifth grade.

Reflecting on my first year teaching fifth grade, it’s difficult not to think about how I’ve grown as an educator throughout the year.  I began the school year very nervous.  Would the students like me?  Would I be in the right dress code?  What happens next in our schedule?  With so many new things to learn, I was sure that I would forget something, but other than forgetting to put my cape on one morning, I didn’t.  I was able to figure everything out at my wonderful new school thanks to my supportive and caring colleagues, my phenomenal and kind headmaster, the amazing Judy, and my silly and compassionate students.

While I’ve always thought that having control over my students, the curriculum, and my classroom was of the utmost importance, I came to realize this year that giving up control and allowing the students to have a voice in the decision making process was far more important.  Instead of trying to make it my classroom, I became open to making it our classroom.  I asked the students for input on classroom organization, and we re-situated the desks and chairs on several occasions throughout the year.  Before we went on any field trip, I had the students vote on whether they wanted to go or not.  In every case, the students unanimously voted to go on our many off-campus excursions, but the point was that it was their decision.  They chose to go.  Letting go of the reigns a bit also helped to foster a mutual respect and a huge amount of engagement from the students.  Before each new unit, I asked the students for their thoughts and ideas on how they would like it to be set up.  What type of activities and projects did they want to complete?  What did they want to learn about regarding the particular topic?  They loved coming to school and learning because we were learning about things that they had said they wanted to learn about.  Our final Betterment Project came out of this concept of giving students ownership.  They chose their project ideas, and the care and time they are committing to completing them shows that they are totally engaged in this project.  I definitely became way more open to becoming the guide from the side instead of the sage on the stage this year.  It felt good to let the students steer our ship.

We trust our students at BHS to do the right thing, and in most cases they do.  When they don’t, we work with them to learn from their mistakes.  Failure is a part of the learning process.  Because we trust our students, I was able to do lots of things with my students this year that very few other schools would ever allow.  My students played with fire and knives as part of our outdoor, Forest Friday program in the fifth grade.  The students learned how to safely start and extinguish a camp fire.  They also learned how to whittle and carve wood.  Aside from some very minor finger scrapes, my students remained injury free throughout the year despite being allowed to use knives and fire in and out of the classroom.  My students were all amazed and very happy that we put so much trust in them.  “At my old school, we were never allowed to use anything sharper than dull, child scissors.  If we ever brought a knife to school, we would have been kicked out.  The school certainly never gave us knives to use in school,” they often shared with me.  The students love feeling trusted and respected.

While my first year teaching fifth grade is about to come to an end, my journey and time at this amazing school is just beginning.  I will be able to continue to watch my students grow and develop as they move into the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades.  I will be able to help inspire more students to reach for the sun and make the most of every moment in the fifth grade.  I will be able to learn even more from my students in the coming years.  Sure, I am very sad to say goodbye to my current fifth graders in a few short days, but I’m also so proud of the wonderful young people they have transformed into this year.  I have learned so much from them.  In the near future, my students will be helping to run the world.  Who knows, I may even have a future president in my class.  What a year it has been.  With five days to go, I’m filled with excitement, sadness, happiness, and love.  I love my students and I love my school.  It doesn’t really get much better than this.

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The Value in Project Based Learning

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

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

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

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

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

The Projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Benefits of Teaching Students Time Management Skills

Let’s take a quick ride in the Way Back Machine to last week’s blog entry….  I wrote all about how I was trying to teach my students the value and benefit in effectively managing their time.  I detailed how I had the students create and maintain a Daily Work Schedule to keep themselves on track for a lengthy project we worked on in Social Studies class.  I explained how I was hopeful that this little activity would help my students.  Now, let’s return to present day…

It’s a bright, sunny, and warm Memorial Day, as I sit and ponder the events from this past week.  My amazing fifth grade class completed their Social Studies project on the Silk Road and finished their Book Reviews in Language Arts class.  It was a banner week filled with much hard work.  But what about the Time Management activity, you ask.  How did that go?  Well, I am happy to report that this activity totally helped teach my students the benefit of managing their time in relevant and meaningful ways.

At the start of each Social Studies class, I had the students review and update their Daily Work Schedule.  Did they finish what they had set out to accomplish for homework the evening before?  Do they need to make any changes to today’s plan?  Then, they got right to work.  During almost every work period, ALL of my students diligently worked on meeting their goals and finishing the work they set out to do.  It was quite remarkable.  This Daily Work Schedule seemed to really motivate my students to work more effectively than ever before.  How did this happen though?  What about the Daily Work Schedule helped motivate them to work harder than ever before?  Was it the fact that they had generated this daily schedule and so ownership was higher?  Did that help make them want to work more effectively?  Or was it something else entirely?  Have my students simply figured out how to be great students?  Or, were they transformed into robots while I left the classroom to print a document?  Interesting thoughts.  While it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly what was at play during the project, having the Daily Work Schedule did seem to really help my students.  It seems that they really do see the benefit in breaking down large tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks.

And talk about the quality of their work.  Wow!  They really stepped it up in this area for this final project.  They went above and beyond.  Students sought me out for feedback on their work multiple times before turning it in to be graded.  I was amazed.  For the previous project, students waited until the day it was due to seek feedback from me on their work, and by then it was too late.  This time, they demonstrated that they had learned from their mistakes.  Students also wanted to make their work look really impressive.  As the students were creating a journal imagining themselves as travelers on a caravan during the time of the Silk Road, they wanted their final product to look authentic.  So, they made tea that they then used to make the pages of their journal look old and worn.  They also crumpled their pages and burned the edges to bring authenticity to their finished journals.  It was so cool for me to observe my students pushing themselves to create their best possible work.  They held the bar for themselves very high.  Because they had managed their time effectively using the Daily Work Schedule, they had time to jazz up their work.  I was so proud of how they persevered through the struggles faced in the previous mapping project to complete quality work for this final project.  Again, I say, failure is so crucial in the learning process.  Because some of my students had failed to effectively manage their time well to complete a quality tri-layered map that met the graded objective, they were able to learn from their mistakes and try again.

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At the close of the project, I had the students provide me with feedback on the entire Social Studies unit.  In one question, I had them consider the usefulness of the Daily Work Schedule, and here is what they had to say about that:

  • “It helped a lot.”
  • “The schedule helped me budget my time.”
  • “Because it helped me to see what I needed to do.”
  • “It helped because I knew how long I had to do something and it also helped me so that I was on task.”
  • “It helped to keep me on track and know what I should be doing.”
  • “It helped because I new exactly what I had to do every day instead of trying to plan the day of.  I had something to look at.”

Clearly, my students saw the benefit in having a plan for how to best utilize their time to accomplish a task or goal.  Mission accomplished.

As the end of our school year is closer than I would like to admit, I do feel confident that my students are prepared for the rigors of sixth grade.  They have the skills needed to be successful in completing quality work in a timely manner.  They know how to overcome obstacles.  They have the problem solving skills needed to tackle any challenge thrown their way.  They know how to think critically and analyze the world around them.  As much as it pains me to start saying my goodbyes to my wonderfully talented, kind, and caring fifth graders, I know that it is time.  They are ready to move on, like young birds.  They are no longer baby birds in need of me chewing up their food and regurgitating for them to consume.  Oh know, they can now eat food on their own without my help.  I’m so proud of how far they’ve come.  Fly little birdies, fly.

How Can Teachers Help Students Gain Important Study Skills?

While this past Tuesday was Teacher Appreciation Day, I look at every day as Teacher Appreciation Day.  Each new day, my students enter my classroom full of excitement, courage, wonder, and perhaps a little anxiety, and I am the lucky one who gets to work with them all day long.  I am able to help them grow and develop as individuals, people, thinkers, readers, writers mathematicians, scientists, and problem solvers.  I see them through their challenges and successes.  I have a student in my class, who at the beginning of the year viewed punctuation as optional.  She would craft an entire paragraph with only one period.  After working with her all year on this skill, she is now able to proofread and edit her own work.  Just last week, she crafted an amazing, properly punctuated paragraph.  I am so proud of how far she has come.  When I celebrated this great accomplishment with her, the biggest smile I’ve ever seen filled her face.  That right there is an appreciation.  It doesn’t get much better than that.  I don’t need a week to receive special gifts from students and their fantastic families because I’m given gifts each and every day.  This week, a student who had been struggling with his multiplication facts all year, had a moment of clarity recently and was able to totally ace his multiplication assessment.  That’s just one of the many gifts my students bring me on a daily basis.  I got into the field of education because I want to help students, because I see the value in making learning engaging and fun.  I got into teaching so that I can help those struggling students overcome their adversity.  I didn’t get into teaching for the money, thanks, or gifts.  So, while having a week in which families and students shower me with donuts and wonderful gifts is nice, I am fortunate enough to receive amazing gifts from my students each and every school day.

One of my most treasured gifts as an educator is when students learn valuable study and life skills in my class.  As my small, yet wonderfully caring and supportive school begins in the fifth grade, I have the terrific task of helping my students prepare for the rigors of life in sixth grade and beyond.  My job is challenging because I have to find a way to marry fun and engaging learning activities with high-level study skills.  I need to help students see the value and benefit in properly completing homework.  I need to help students learn that proper typing form will only make life easier for them as they matriculate into high school and need to type 10+ page research papers.  I need students to be self-motivated to want to complete high-quality work.  This is a year-long process.  As many students began the year in my fifth grade class not having to complete much homework, never having typed more than a few sentences, and never having had the quality bar held very high for them at their past schools, I had to help them transform themselves into students who see that homework helps them grow as students, that proper finger placement on the Home Row keys helps them become faster, more effective keyboardists, and that taking pride in the work they complete will help them grow into the best possible version of themselves.  Being witness to my students growing and developing is one of my favorite aspects of teaching.  I love when a student comes into my classroom in the morning, so excited to share with me the work that he or she completed outside of the classroom for homework the evening before.  It’s so awesome to see them value hard work.

As I know that my students will be receiving a bit more homework in the sixth grade than they do for most of the year in fifth grade, I have ratcheted up the homework load since May 1.  I want my students to practice learning how to best manage their time effectively now so that they are much better at it by the time they move into the sixth grade in September.  I’d much rather have my students fail, make mistakes, and not be able to complete their homework this year, so that I am able to work with them to find ways to help them be successful before they graduate from the fifth grade.

This week in Social Studies class, the students had to finish reading a handout on the Silk Road and completing notes from it for homework.  We began the task in class.  At most, this task would have taken an hour to complete outside of class.  While we haven’t had too many lengthy assignments like this for homework over the course of the year, I know that they will be expected to complete tasks like this on a more regular basis next year.  So, I wanted to see how they would do.  While three students were unsuccessful in attempting the assignment, everybody else was able to complete the homework.  Because the task was tied to an in-class assessment, those three students who did not complete the homework, did end up not being able to meet two graded objectives.  I could tell this was unsettling for those students, as they value success.  That evening, the students had another night of challenging homework.  They needed to work on their Tri-Layered Map of the Silk Road region.  I made sure to touch base with each of the three students who struggled to complete the homework from the evening before, prior to them leaving.  I stressed the importance of learning from their mistakes and making amends.

The next day, only one student came to class unprepared with his homework not done.  The other two students put forth the effort, as they saw the value in hard work and completing their homework.  I made sure to praise those two students for their effort.  They seemed very pleased and proud of themselves.  A little positivity and meaningful praise goes a long way.  While I did have one student who still struggled with the task of completing his homework this week, I had what felt like a very good conversation with him on Friday.  I talked to him about how this lack of effort is affecting his grades and ability to be prepared for sixth grade.  I got the impression that he understands why this is an area on which he still needs to work.  I’m giving this one student another chance to practice the skill of completing work outside of class this weekend.  While I don’t assign homework over weekends or vacations, this student clearly needs to practice this skill.  As he has much more free time on the weekend, I am hopeful that he will be able to work on his map for 30-45 minutes with still plenty of time to play and relax left over.  So, I made sure he left school yesterday with all of the required materials to work on his map outside of class.  I also made sure to ask him what he needed to work on over the weekend with his mother present.  Because I have worked hard to form strong partnerships with the school and families, I am confident that this information will also elicit a few conversations between the student and his parents over the course of the weekend.

Helping students learn vital study and life skills in a supportive, caring, and low-stakes  environment will allow them to move into the sixth grade more prepared and ready to attack almost any task thrown their way.  For me, it’s all about the journey.  My students begin the year excited, but lack some important academic skills.  As their teacher, I need to provide my students with quests or opportunities for them to practice and gain these skills that they will need in order to be successful in all that the future holds for them.  My many gifts to my students are these skills that will greatly benefit and empower them with knowledge and know-how.  In turn, I receive the gift of transformation from each of my students.  Looking back on where my students were in September to where they are now, I am filled with happiness and joy.  They are effective, fifth grade critical thinkers and problem solvers.  While a few of my students still have some work to put in to fully transform into effective sixth graders, they are making progress with each new day.  I can’t wait to see what Monday brings.

The Evolution of a Meaningful Classroom Activity

I used to be very much a creature of habit.  I did the same things, the same way, every day.  I craved routine and loved it.  Perhaps it was more about control for me.  I liked feeling that I was in control of my life and destiny.  The way I looked at it was, that if I am able to make things in my life go the way I want them to go, then my life will turn out just as it is supposed to.  That strange theory once made a lot of sense to me, until I realized that I am not in control.  When I saw that my ideal life was slipping through my fingers, great stress fell upon me.  I began living life in a very fearful way.  “I shouldn’t do that because then this horrible thing might happen,” I constantly thought.  I got to a point where I wasn’t able to focus on everyday life because I was so afraid of everything.  It was no way to live my life.

So, I made some mental changes.  First, I realized that I need to live life on life’s terms.  I gave up trying to control every little thing.  I thought of myself as a tiny stone in a river’s bed.  I couldn’t control what other people did no matter how hard I tried.  Instead, I focused on controlling my choices, thoughts, and actions.  I allowed the river of life to take me along for a ride.  I turned when one side of my beautifully bumpy rock got a bit too smooth of course, but I tried very hard to just let life happen.  Because of this huge mental switch, I’m much happier than I ever was.  I’m no longer filled with stress and worry because the parking spot I usually take was filled with someone else’s car.  I don’t allow the actions or reactions of others to cause me discomfort.  I realize that everyone is their own rock in this giant river of awesomeness.  I can’t control what other rocks do, but I can control what I do and how I view what these other rocks do.  I used to allow what others did to frustrate me or cause me great stress.  Now, I just go with the flow and enjoy the ride, and what a beautiful journey it is.  Life is so wonderful, beautiful, amazing, sad, and joyous all at once.  It’s like that painting in a museum you once saw that left you transfixed and in a state of awe and wonder.

Now that I have given up trying to control things, I’m very happy and at peace.  As a teacher, it has allowed me to create an open classroom that is flexible and student-centered.  The students are involved in most of the classroom decisions.  They choose where they sit and how the tables and chairs are organized in the classroom.  Before I plan any field experience, I ask for their input.  While I have generated a curriculum for each subject, it is not rigid nor set in stone.  If I ever feel as though my students need more time with a particular concept, I can put the rest of my activities on hold to review and re-cover that challenging topic or concept.  I have come to realize over the years that if my students are not engaged in what is happening in the classroom, then no genuine learning is taking place.  Being able to craft an individualized and fluid curriculum for my fifth grade class has allowed me to become a better educator and support system for my students.  As my number one goal is always to help my students feel safe as they grow and develop into the best possible version of themselves, I am completely open to making changes to my schedule or daily lessons.  Even the morning of, as I write the daily agenda on the whiteboard in my classroom, I think about each lesson.  How can I make it more engaging, meaningful, or tangible for my students?  Nothing is ever fixed.  Like how I now live my life, I allow my students, classroom, and lessons to take me on daily adventures.  I don’t ever go into a day thinking I know how it’s going to turn out, because I truly have no idea until the end of that particular day.  While it’s a bit scary living like this, it’s also so much fun, as I’m open to all possibilities.

This past Friday, I drove to school thinking about my plan for that day’s Morning Meeting.  What was my goal for the meeting?  What did I want the students to gain from that morning’s meeting?  I knew that I wanted to provide the students an opportunity to share their thoughts on Bucket Filling, but I wasn’t completely certain how I wanted this to look.  Did I want to simply engage the students in a discussion on how they have filled the buckets of others?  Or, did I want something more than that?  As I parked my car that morning, I still hadn’t decided how I wanted this activity to unfold.  Knowing that my brain does it’s best work when I don’t even realize it’s doing anything, I began my morning by sweeping and vacuuming my classroom.  This mundane task would allow my brain to keep mulling over the best way to approach the Bucket Filling activity I wanted to complete in class that morning.  By the time I began etching the daily agenda onto the whiteboard in my classroom, I knew what I wanted to do.

I grabbed 8 differently colored pieces of paper and wrote the name of a student on each one.  I then drew a very simple picture of a bucket onto the paper.  I taped these “buckets” onto the front board in my classroom.  They added a nice splash of color to the board.  As the students entered the classroom, that was one of the first things they noticed.  Many of them asked, “What are these for?”  Like any great teacher, I responded with, “That’s a great question.  You’ll have to wait and see.”  Students do not like that response, but it kept them thinking and wondering, which is what I wanted them to do.

When it was finally time for the Bucket Filling activity, I explained the activity to the students after a quick review of Bucket Filling: “Each of you will be given three small pieces of paper.  On each piece of paper, you will write one thing that someone has done to fill your bucket or one character trait that you respect and appreciate about that person.  You will then tape that slip of paper to the person’s bucket.  If you want more paper, feel free to grab extra slips from my desk.  Like you usually do, be mindful as you are writing and filling each other’s buckets.  Make sure that everybody’s bucket has at least one slip attached to it by the end of the activity.  Spread the love.”  I then addressed questions the students posed.  One student was a little confused by the activity, and so I clarified it in a way that helped her understand what she needed to do.  Another student then asked about a bucket for a student who wasn’t in class at that point.  “Shouldn’t we make a bucket for him too?” he asked.  And so, I did add a bucket for that student.  I love how compassionate my students are, thinking about others.  Then, another student suggested that I should also have a bucket.  While I did intend for this to be an activity for the students to be filled with joy and happiness, I did add a bucket for myself.  Why not?  I can never have too much joy.  My favorite question during this time had to do with the activity itself.  “Could we do this activity during our Closing Meeting instead of the Gratitude Wall each afternoon?” he asked.  Oh, I thought.  What an interesting idea.  “Let’s see how this all plays out first, and then we can talk more about it,” I responded.  I was amazed that this student could already see the value in this activity before it even started.  Wow!

What I thought was going to be a very quick activity, turned into something much greater.  As the students began taping their positive comments and thoughts of thankfulness for their peers to the various buckets, they saw that not everyone had the same amount.  So, they all grabbed more slips of paper to balance the buckets.  While I thought for sure that I’d be recycling the extra thirty slips of paper I had made that morning, each and every extra piece of paper was taken and used by the end of the activity.  Smiles covered the faces of my students as though they had just been told there would be no homework for the remainder of the school year.  They seemed so happy filling the buckets of their peers with kind words.  I was bewildered yet again.  My students never cease to amaze me on a daily basis.  What could have been a quick task that would have allowed them to move into the reading of their Reader’s Workshop book within a minute or two, transformed into a very special 10-minute activity of awesomeness.  Seriously, I am such a blessed and fortunate educator.  Not only do I get to work at an amazing school like BHS, but I am able to wake up each morning and learn from a group of amazing fifth graders.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

After the students had literally filled each other’s buckets on the board with caring words of kindness, I then read the slips of paper aloud to the class.  The positive energy filled the classroom like helium in a balloon.  It felt wonderful.  I then asked the students how they felt after having been a part of this activity.  One student said, “It feels good to know that our classmates appreciate what we are doing.”  Another student said, “While it was hard at first to think of something to write for one student, it became easier, and then I couldn’t stop filling buckets.”  Another student said, “It felt good to make other people feel good.”  I then closed the activity by asking the students if they would like to replace the Gratitude Wall with this activity each afternoon.  All but one student wants to complete this activity in place of the Gratitude Wall during our daily Closing Meeting.  As this is a version of a Gratitude Wall, we aren’t really losing that wonderful activity;  instead, we are replacing it with something more specific and special.  I can’t wait to see how our Bucket Filling activity goes Monday afternoon.

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Because I allowed this activity to unfold as it did, it grew into something unexpected and remarkable.  What I thought would be a short discussion on Bucket Filling, turned into a heartwarming activity that further united my class together.  Had I not been open to the possibility of this brief little discussion becoming something more, then my students and I would have missed out on a very special opportunity.  Allowing life to take me where it will in the classroom, has made me a more effective teacher.  I just need to have faith that things will work out as life intends.

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

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

Mindfulness Yoga

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

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

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

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

Rover Presentations in Science Class

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

The highlights for me were three-fold:

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

Empathy and Compassion Aren’t Simply Trendy Catch Phrases

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

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

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

Astronomy Unit Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center Field Trip

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

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

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

Providing Students with Opportunities to Give Thanks to Others

A few weeks ago, while we were discussing current events in our world during Social Studies class, one of my students asked, “Why is all the news so negative and about horrible things happening?”  What an insightful question, I thought.  It does seem as though most of the news we read about online or in newspapers is focused on the negative things happening around the world.  Just look at the main stories on CNN.com. What about all the good stuff that is happening?  Unfortunately, our brains are wired to survive, and thus, we focus on negative pieces of information that may help better prepare us to fight and survive.  While we no longer live in caves and need to worry about giant predatory cats attacking us, our brains still crave bad news.  It’s why we can’t look away from car crashes when we see them on the side of the road.  As the news media know this knowledge nugget as well, they focus on the negative aspects of life.  I constantly remind my class that we have to retrain our brains to see the good in the world.  It is our duty to focus on the positive things that are happening around the globe.  Websites like Positive News help us to do just that.  Although I want my students to view the world from multiple perspectives, we don’t have to focus solely on the awful things taking place in our country and beyond.  We can also appreciate the amazing people who are making wonderful things happen globally.  Our world is much like an onion.  At first glance, the state of affairs seems a bit depressing: People are dying, lawmakers are fighting, and terrorists are attacking.  It’s like the outer skin of an onion, most people find it unpleasant to look at it and generally tear it off immediately.  Once you dig deeper in the world though, you find stories about citizens protesting for their rights and freedom, Katie Bouman helping to create the algorithm that allowed us all to see the first-ever pictures of a black hole, and how terror attacks are decreasing around the world.  Just like in an onion; once you peel back that outer skin, you get to the tasty, zesty parts of the onion that make our omelettes and burgers that much more delicious.

Because I see how much negativity my students are constantly bombarded with in our world, I make it a personal goal of mine to spread positivity in my classroom.  I want my students to value kindness and compassion.  I want my students to be grateful and appreciative.  I want my students to see how being positive and focusing on the good in the world can make you a happier, kinder person.  I do this in multiple ways.  I bring positive energy into the classroom with me each day so that I can make learning and developing fun and engaging.  I greet my students warmly as they enter the classroom each day.  I play happy or energetic music in the morning, before school officially begins, to help put smiles on the faces of my students.  I write a pun or silly joke on the board each morning that usually inspires my students to say, “Oh, that is a very bad dad joke Mr. Holt.”  I close each day by having students share something they are grateful for that day on our Gratitude Wall.  This discussion brings about positivity and helps my students to see how small acts of kindness go a long way.  I love that this experience fosters such joy and happiness.  Smiles spread throughout the classroom during this time of day.  Tiny acts like the ones I do each day in my classroom to bring about a positive atmosphere, spread joy and kindness, despite the negativity that is constantly staring many of my students in the face when they turn on their laptops or look in the newspaper.

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Another simple way I help to teach my students the importance of being thankful and kind to others is through letter writing.  When a special guest visits our class, our headmaster arranges for a fun day of skiing, or community members help our class in some way, I have the students sign a thank you card that we give to that person.  Through modelling this kind of behavior, I’m hopeful that my students will see how important doing something like this is and how much it means to the person.  When our headmaster received our thank you card, he immediately came to our class to thank us for making his day.  He was grateful that people appreciated his little gesture.

I also have the students craft and send personal emails to other teachers and students in the school, periodically throughout the school year.  Not only, does this allow me the opportunity to teach the students how to craft and format a formal email, but it presents the students with the chance to spread a little joy to someone else.  Who doesn’t find themselves smiling when they receive an email from a co-worker or peer thanking them for something they did?  It makes a difference.  Here are some of the messages my students have sent to faculty members and other students at our amazing little school:

  • “Thank you for playing outside at recess with me. You make it very fun. When you come out I have a lot of fun. Thanks again for giving me the opportunity to have fun with you.”
  • “It has been my pleasure working with you on the group science project. You have done lots of work to improve the rover and other things like quests. Also, your perseverance is so amazing!  When you get frustrated, you push through even if a problem is so big that you think you can’t handle it! Not only that but any other group projects I have done with you are so fun and you make all of them very interesting! Thank you for being a great friend!”
  • “Thank you for swinging with me and hanging out with me every
    day. it is really fun. See you tomorrow.😁
  •  “I would just like to thank you for helping me during drama. You kept track of my cloak during drama. You also helped me with homework when we had some free time. “
  • “Tonight the fifth grade had a homework assignment to write to a facility member on something that they have done that I am Grateful for. I picked you because, when I joined The Beech Hill School, I wanted to be in Yearbook! I knew It was a little late to join but you excepted me in. Also, you taught me how to use Entourage Yearbooks and maneuver through all the difficulties. I was so happy you showed me all of that! So once again thank you so much for your help.”
  • “I’m thankful that you come into my class and teach us Spanish. I like learning Spanish from you more than I did at my old school. I also want to thank you for having the upper classes hold Empanada Day. It was fun trying all of the different recipes and judging all of them. Thank you for all that you do.”
  • “Hello! I just wanted to thank you for helping the actors in drama get it together. I also wanted to thank you for directing the play. Some of us were pretty spooked about going onstage. Again, thank you for your leadership skills and helping the actors get scripts onto the stage.”

Although negativity spreads like the wretched, common cold, positivity can have the same effect.  I feel as though my students have become more thankful and kind over the course of the year because of these minor acts.  While they are assigned to complete these tasks, I have noticed them going out of their way to say “thank you” in other situations.  The students are also quick to remedy situations in the class that seem unkind.  When they notice that someone is feeling upset or sad, they will talk to that person and find out how they can help that person feel better.  It’s really quite amazing.  My class truly is like one big, happy family that takes care of each other.

Lessons in Learning from a Mechanical Engineer

Teachers are the best students, as we must never stop learning and growing.  Educators are always in search of new lessons, new ways to approach a concept in the classroom, and new ways to engage our students.  Teachers are like great adventurers on magical quests for knowledge, understanding, and a bright future for our students.  While most of this learning does generally happen outside of the walls of our classrooms, we also learn a lot from our students.  Each day I’m in the classroom with my students is like Christmas all over again; I keep unwrapping magical gifts of wonder and excitement.  I often ask my students, “I wonder who’s doing more learning today, me or you.”  Our students teach us how to be kind, how to approach and solve problems, how to speak what’s on our mind, how to be curious and wonder, how to care for others, and how to see the world through rainbow-colored glasses of awesomeness.  Joe Dirt was right, life really is a garden.

Although my students provide me with many lessons on a daily basis, I often find myself learning from my colleagues as well.  My school’s headmaster is an amazingly kind, caring, and thoughtful man whose heart is filled with never-ending support and love.  He goes out of his way to help and support the teachers and students of our amazing school on a daily basis.  The other teachers in my school community are some of the wisest and most wonderful educators I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting and working with.  The English teacher directs our students in plays that rival those I’ve seen on Broadway, while our Math teacher is pretty much the smartest person I know.  Her ability to solve problems is phenomenal.  Our Science teachers make a dynamic duo of chemistry and physics.  They engage our students in cool projects and know more about squid than the creatures themselves.  Our History teacher is compassionate and filled with energy like a hot air balloon of love, archeology, geology, and art history.  She seems to know history better than those who have written textbooks on the subject.  My learning journey never ends due to my amazing students, fellow teachers, and all of those special guests I invite into my classroom.

Wednesday morning, Earl Tuson, a mechanical engineer, farmer, father, husband, and so much more, spoke to my students about solving problems while working for NASA.  He told great stories about the importance of being open to all ideas and listening to others.  He was once on a team that had to create a device or machine that would carry astronauts from one part of the International Space Station to another, outside of the giant craft.  While his team had been working on this problem for quite some time, they were stuck.  He came on board and suggested they think about it like a bicycle.  As the team was very fixed in their mindset, they were unable to hear Mr. Tuson’s brilliant and simple solution to their problem.  In the end, they crafted this complex machine that fell apart in space.  If only his team members had listened to all of the ideas put forth before choosing one, perhaps NASA would not have had yet another problem to solve.  The students were engaged in what Mr. Tuson had to say and asked many great questions about our Astronomy Project.  One student asked about the best material to protect a space craft from the harmful rays of the sun, while another student bluntly asked if her group’s idea for a solution to the problem of trash on Earth was realistic or viable.  Rather than directly respond to her question, he asked her to think about if the trash on Earth is indeed trash at all.  Couldn’t we reuse the plastic?  Can we use the rotting food as compost?  Is their really trash that cannot be somehow repurposed?  This response caused her to rethink her group’s approach to the problem.  As Mr. Tuson spoke to my class, I felt inspired to learn and grow as well.

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After his talk with my students, I picked his brain a bit further.  I asked him more directly about how he approaches problems.  Do you draw things out before you begin building?  How do you plan out solutions?  I was a bit surprised by his response.  He said, “I tinker and play until the pieces seem to come together.  Through doing, I am better able to be inspired and think critically.  I can’t draw out a solution without first trying to put things together.  The process doesn’t work like that.  Those who create a blueprint before actually constructing a product, end up having to spend much time revising their design because theories and ideas don’t always end up working the way we’d like them to in life.”  This got me thinking.  So, I then asked him, “Should I revise the project steps a bit to allow the students to tinker and play with the materials they will use to build their space rovers before having them create a blueprint?”  He felt as though providing the students with a chance to play and experiment first, would lead to better results and more engagement.  I then changed the stages of the project to allow students time to play with the Little Bits pieces before they crafted a blueprint.  And was I ever thankful I did that.

Thursday and Friday of this week, the students began the design phase of the group project in class.  After brainstorming their solutions, I gave them time to learn how to use the Little Bits STEM Kits.  I wanted them to see the possibilities and learn how they work.  As the students tinkered and played, they talked about ideas.  “Oh, we could use this to make our rover do that,” many of the students said as they snapped the circuit pieces together.  They were so into this tinkering process.  Their faces lit up when they discovered something new that they could do.  The buzzer button was one of their most favorite pieces.  Shockingly enough, I wasn’t bothered by the constant buzzing as much as I thought I would be.  The other students were the ones telling their classmates to refrain from using the buzzer for more than a few seconds.  That was pretty neat.  After the students determined the ins and outs of the Little Bits pieces, they began sketching out their rover ideas.  Their blueprints were much more detailed and thorough than they would have been had I not allowed them to tinker and play first.  Mr. Tuson was right, allowing students to engage with the pieces and materials first leads to more unique and specific ideas and solutions.  My grandmother was so right, I really do learn something new every day.

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How Are You Able to Be Mindful in the Classroom?

Life seems to come at us from every direction sometimes.  Do this, do that.  Now, take care of this issue.  Oh, and don’t forget to complete that task by tonight.  Then, of course, emergencies and unexpected crises seem to pop up when you are so not prepared for them.  It can often feel like a lot is resting on our shoulders at any given time.  How can we possibly juggle every ball that is thrown our way?  How will we ever accomplish every task on our list?  Stress and a strong sense of overwhelmingness washes over us on an almost daily basis with the numerous things we need to do, address, or get done.  Just when we think we’ve reached a calm in the ocean of life, a storm sweeps through, disrupting everything.  So, how do we do it?  How do we get everything done while also holding onto just a tiny fragment of our sanity?

For me, it’s about living in the present moment.  I try very hard to be mindful of what is happening at any given time.  I try not to dwell on my never-ending “To-Do” list or think about the future.  I try to focus on what is happening at that very second.  What sounds do I hear?  What am I doing?  How am I feeling?  Sometimes, when I feel the weight of everyday life pushing down upon me as if a giant giraffe were jumping on my head, I stop moving and doing, close my eyes, and take a few deep, mindful breaths.  I wipe distractions to the left and push my focus to the right.  I only think about the present.  Once I open my eyes and resume what I was doing, my body and soul feel a bit lighter, as if my cortisol levels decreased.  I feel more prepared to tackle life once I’ve taken a moment to reset myself and mentally recalibrate.  Mindfulness techniques make a difference for me in my daily life.  They help me deal with the many jabs life takes at me.  Being present and aware in the moment allows me to duck, dodge, and dive a little easier than I would have been able to if I allowed my distractions and the future to take hold.

As I see the power and value in being mindful, I make use of a lot of these strategies and approaches in my classroom.  I have my students participate in various mindfulness practices on an almost daily basis.  When we transition from one class or activity to the next, I allow the students the opportunity to stop, recalibrate, breathe, and be more mentally present in the moment.  Just this past Thursday, a local Yoga instructor worked my students through our monthly mindfulness Yoga activity.  The focus was on body visualization this month.  The students were way into it and very engaged.  They love having the chance to stop, move around, and focus on themselves during these monthly experiences.  I feel as though these mindfulness techniques and strategies have helped my students feel and be more aware, present, and focused during class.  Namaste, and thank you Lisa Garside for leading these monthly sessions.

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A big component of being mindful is that I am able to notice when the atmosphere of calmness and serenity becomes replaced with a sense of unease or negative energy.  Following lunch this past Wednesday, when I returned to the classroom, I noticed that some of the students were huddled together, talking quietly.  In my experience, when a group of people are gathered together and speaking softly, it generally means that they are talking about something that they don’t want others to know about.  In a school setting, this is usually not an indication that the students are planning a big party to celebrate their awesome teacher, oh no.  As I approached the group, I overheard students saying things like, “She said that she has a crush on…” and “He doesn’t even like her.”  I then made a blanket statement to the class that talking about people when they are not present is disrespectful and goes against our class norms.  “There is no place in this classroom for rumors or gossip,” I said.  Once the entire class was present and we were about to move into Language Arts class, I took a few minutes to address this issue in a more formal way.  For those students who were unaware, I explained the concepts of rumors and gossip to the class.  I then talked about how our brains, evolutionarily, are wired to hear and pay attention to negative pieces of information as a way for us to stay alive and survive.  “We need to now retrain our brains to focus on the positive and avoid negative things like gossip and the spreading of rumors.  Rumors tend to be untrue and are hurtful towards others.  If you are concerned about someone or something that you feel they have done that is upsetting to you in some way, address them individually and compassionately.  Don’t talk about people behind their backs,” I shared with the class.  I reminded the students that gossip and the spreading of rumors has no place here at our school or in our classroom.  “If you wish to continue with this behavior, which I would highly suggest you not do, you need to not do so in this classroom,” I said.  I then ended the conversation by asking if students had any questions or comments they would like to share with the class.  No hands went up.  And that was that.

I do believe that my students heard what I had to say and understood the messaging, as I have not been witness to any further issues of these negative behaviors in the classroom.  As my fifth grade students are still learning and growing, conversations like the one I had with them on Wednesday afternoon are crucial in helping them understand what behaviors are socially acceptable and compassionate.  I also want them to be aware that it is human nature to want to spread rumors and gossip, and so it is vital that we work hard to counter this tendency.  The students seemed to get it.

Because I was mindful and aware of what was happening in the present moment when I walked into my classroom that afternoon, I was able to address this issue with my students when it happened.  Had I not been focused and mentally aware, I wonder if I would have noticed what was happening.  Perhaps I would have been thinking about tomorrow’s lesson or all the things I needed to do after school, and would have completely missed the teachable moment.  I wonder what would have happened later in the day or the following day had I not stopped to address the issue of gossip and rumors.  Perhaps, some of my students would have had their feelings hurt.  Maybe, the emotional state of my students would have been heightened because of this negative energy circulating around the classroom.  I do believe that nothing good would have come about had I not talked to my students about this issue.  Being mindfully aware and present in the moment allows me to seize teachable moment opportunities like this one.  While addressing the social and emotional needs of my students does take time away from the “academic curriculum,” my students would not be mentally prepared to process or learn any new information if they felt unsafe or anxious and stressed in any way.  Taking the time to deal with issues as they arise in the classroom allows for the students to grow in numerous ways and feel and be safe, respected, and cared for.  Taking care of my students and fostering a sense of community within my classroom means that I have to earn the trust of my students.  They have to feel as though they are supported and feel heard.  Being mindful and living in the present moment allows me to do just these things on a daily basis.  What about you?  How do you take care of yourself in order to care for others?

How Do You Provide Students with a Voice in the Classroom?

In this incredibly digital and intensely social world in which we live, it’s very easy for anyone to have a voice online.  You can like posts that speak to you, love pictures that poke at your soul, follow people who intrigue you, and receive instant feedback from people around the world.  But isn’t it all a little superficial?  Do you really love that picture of your second cousin’s, half-sister’s, best friend’s uncle’s new car?  Isn’t it just a car?  Love is supposed to mean something more than just approval.  Love is powerful.  The online, social world in which many people seem to live is not so much about having a voice as it is keeping up with the Smith’s or that cool new blogger.  The choices offered to you online are not genuine or real, they are there to fool you into thinking that your thoughts and ideas really do matter.  If these so-called choices did make a difference, then perhaps that person who received 10,000 dislikes on a picture or post might actually care enough to take it down.  This feedback provided to others online is less about growth and more about connection, jealousy, and numerous other emotions.

Real feedback and choice come about in face-to-face interactions between invested people.  When someone asks you what you think of the picture he or she shows you, you will think before responding and, hopefully, provide an insightful and accurate response that could elicit growth from the photographer.  “I really liked your use of light and color, but the background was a bit fuzzy.  Was that intentional?”  This sort of meaningful feedback is how people can grow as individuals, thinkers, and so much more.  It’s thoughtful, compassionate, and real.  It’s not trying to get a rise out of someone or boost someone’s ego unnecessarily.

How do you provide students with choices and a voice in the classroom?  Do you allow them to choose their reading materials for Language Arts?  Do you let them choose partners for a group project?  Do you allow them to choose the topics covered in your curriculum?  Do you allow your students to help set up the classroom?  Do you allow the students to take care of your class pet?  How do you allow the thoughts and ideas of your students to be heard?  I’ve noticed that when students feel as though they have a voice or choice, investment in the class, project, or task is so much higher.  Students love to feel heard and respected.  They like to know that their teachers really do want to know how and what they think.  It empowers them.  It makes them want to work harder, be kinder, and grow as students.

In my fifth grade class, I try to provide my students with options and choices on a daily basis.  If the students want to reorganize the tables and chairs after a Yoga session, I let them have at it, as long as they work together as a class and come to a consensus on the choice made.  They tend to stay more focused when they are able to decide how the classroom is organized.  We have tried about 10 or so different configurations just this year.  My students choose their reading material for Language Arts based on their reading level and interest.  I want my students to find pleasure and enjoyment in reading.  Utilizing the Reader’s Workshop approach to reading instruction helps students grow as readers in ways that whole-class instruction through one novel or basal readers can’t.  I allow the students to determine where they sit in the classroom each day.  They pride themselves on trying to vary the place in which everyone sits on a daily basis.  They try to make sure that two people do not sit next to each other two days in a row.  It’s very cool to watch them layout the desk tags at the end of each day in preparation for the next one.  I allow my students to take turns caring for our class hamster each weekend or over each break.  The students really love being able to have a part in caring for Beans.  It also helps to socialize our hamster.  It’s win-win for everyone.  Providing my students with choices helps them feel as if they are a part of something greater and more important than just a class.  They take responsibility in how the classroom looks each day.  They bring their thoughts and ideas to our Morning Meeting in order to make our class community better, stronger.

Prior to our most recent vacation this past week, I asked the students for their thoughts on our next Science unit.  I wanted to know what the students had previously learned about space so that I didn’t repeat information and bore some of them.  I also wanted to know about any topics that they want to learn about during our unit.  So, I had the students complete a Google Form, on which they provided me feedback regarding our upcoming unit on Space.

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I want my students to feel as though they have a voice and that it really matters.  As I knew that I was going to finalize the unit during the short break, I wanted to ensure that I would be covering information that my students cared about, in a way that mattered to them.  I didn’t want to just teach them information they had already learned in a way that didn’t engage them.

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Based on this feedback, I knew what I had to focus on for the mini-lessons as well as hands-on activities.  As most of my students had learned at least the basics of space including planets and stars, I chose to skip those foundational topics and move onto higher-level  concepts in which they had indicated they were interested.  I’ll be covering exo-planets, other galaxies, NASA, life cycle of a stars, and the possibility of colonizing Mars.  I also crafted activities within the mini-lessons that utilize the work-style many of the students seem to prefer.  I made sure that almost every mini-lesson will make use of some sort of partner or group work.  I’m hopeful that throughout our unit on Space, my students will see that I incorporated their feedback, and feel respected and heard.

It’s important to me that my students have choices and a voice, because it is not my classroom, it is our classroom.  I want them to take ownership and be completely invested in what is happening in our class.  I want my students to know that I trust them and care about their opinions.  I want them to be heard.  In this often tumultuous, online world in which many of our students live, it is easy for them to be fooled into thinking that their voice and choice matters.  So, no matter what happens outside the walls of our amazing schools, our students should feel respected, heard, and be provided the chance to have a genuine voice that does make a difference and have an impact on the world in our classrooms.