Teaching Students How to Manage Large Projects

I’m a list guy.  When I need to make sure that I remember to do something, I write it down.  Well, actually, I type it into a Stickies note on my laptop.  At points during a week, my To Do list will be quite lengthy.  While seeing a formidably long list might put some people on edge, it gives me a purpose.  I always know what I need to be doing to accomplish my work and goals for the week.  When I complete a task or item on my list, I delete it from my laptop.  Now that’s a satisfying feeling.  I love removing items from my list.  It feels good, like therapy or ice cream.  Lists keep me organized regarding work I need to complete.  I manage my life through lists.  Without them, I’d probably be living a very disorganized, chaotic, and stress-filled life, never knowing what is going on or what I need to do.  Lists allow me to live in the moment and enjoy life as I don’t need to stay focused on remembering what I need to do next since I have it recorded somewhere.  Lists are my safety vest as I navigate my way through the tumultuous waters of life.

As a teacher, I try hard to be sure that I’m teaching my students effective organizational skills and strategies.  If I want to effectively prepare my students for meaningful lives in a global society, I need to know that they can manage themselves.  Being organized mentally and physically are crucial to one’s success in life.  Organized students are more able to excel in life and meet their goals as their daily lives are free of stress and clutter.  Teaching students how to be organized is no easy task.  It requires much guidance, practice, and repetition.  I train my students to see the value and purpose in being organized.  This starts at the very beginning of the year as I explain to the boys how and why we do things a certain way in the sixth grade.  So far this year, we’ve covered the following organizational techniques and skills in the sixth grade:

  • Maintain a neatly organized binder with separate tabs for each class.  All papers are properly placed into the correct section.  Every paper or item in the binder has a specific place and purpose.
  • Maintain an updated planbook in which they record daily homework assignments.  This should always be filled out a week ahead so that they are prepared to write in long term assignments.
  • Maintain a clutter free and neatly organized work space at their desk in the classroom.  All materials should be neatly stacked at the top of the table so that the students have plenty of free workspace directly in front of them.
  • Chunk large tasks into smaller pieces so that long term projects don’t seem so daunting.
  • Use a growth mindset to be able to tackle and persevere through any problem encountered.
  • Know that multitasking is a myth.  The students all know that listening to music with words while working is ineffective.  Trying to do more than one mentally demanding task well is impossible because our brains are wired to focus and survive, not split brain power.

Today in Humanities class, I was able to help the students understand the importance in delegating tasks when working with others.  As this is a difficult skill to teach students because they are so self-absorbed in sixth grade, I make sure to introduce it slowly and methodically.  I don’t cover it at the start of the school year because I want the students to learn how to coexist with others before they learn how to work effectively with their peers.  Before the students began working on the Create the Perfect State final project in class today, I reviewed the project requirements and procedure they will utilize to complete this task.  I briefly mentioned how they should talk to their partner about breaking up the task into smaller parts so that they are not both doing the same thing at the same time.  I didn’t say more than this as it is really the first time I’ve discussed this skill with the students.  I wanted to see what they could do on their own first, without assistance or direct teaching.

As the students worked in class today, I observed their behaviors.  How were they working with their partner?  Were they communicating effectively?  Were they delegating tasks?  Were they thinking critically and collaborating effectively?  I noticed many awesome things my students were doing.  They were using creativity to complete the task as they tried out different computer applications and created unique names for their states.  They were sharing ideas with their partner in meaningful ways.  They were actively listening to each other’s ideas as they spoke.  Many of the groups were also delegating tasks well.  This was my favorite part of today’s class as it means that my students are experimenting with the power of relying on and trusting others.  This is no easy feat.  While one person worked on learning about how to use Google Sites, the other student worked on creating a map of their island state.  It was great to see the boys breaking the tasks down into smaller, manageable chunks.  I love it.

At the close of class today, I shared, with the boys, my observations.  I mentioned how I saw lots of delegating happening in the classroom today.  I mentioned specific examples of how one student was working on one part of the website while the other student worked on a different part.  They were breaking the large project down into small parts.  I explained how useful that can be when working in a group or with a partner.  I think many of the students seem to understand the value in delegating tasks.  Tomorrow, the boys will have another chance to practice this important skill as they continue working on the Create the Perfect State project in class.

Helping students to see the importance in organizing how groups work together is something I value highly.  I want the students to see that in the real world, people have to work together.  People work in groups, and the skills those individuals bring to the group will determine the group’s effectiveness.  People who know how to delegate tasks and effectively lead a group, will be much more successful in life than people who don’t understand the value in breaking large tasks down into smaller parts.  Delegation is truly a life skill.  being able to teach students the importance of it now, will help them progress forward in life at a rapid pace.  Large, big tasks can seem scary, unless, you find a way to break them down into smaller pieces and make use of others to get the job done.

What’s More Important, Skills or Content?

Thinking back on my school experience as a student, I recall very little about the content covered.  I could probably only tell you a few specific facts about each class I took in high school.  I know America fought in several wars, but I couldn’t tell you the specific dates.  Does that mean I didn’t learn anything in school?  Were my teachers ineffective?  No, because they taught me vital skills needed to succeed in life.  I know how to find answers to questions; I know what to do when I am struggling; and I know how to extract the main idea from a text.  I learned crucial skills that have helped me be successful in life.  I know how to study for exams and solve problems.  As a student, knowing how to do school and be a student is so much more important than learning the specific details of a historical time period or the symbolism of a character in a novel.

As a teacher, I make sure to focus on helping my students acquire key skills they will need to live meaningful lives in a global society.  After having a conversation with a colleague this morning regarding content versus skills, I realized how easy it is for teachers to get caught up in teaching content to their students.  “My students must memorize dates and names for battles and historical events,” some teachers might say.  This belief is much like fake news; if you believe it to be true, you begin to spread ignorance and falsities.  In the technological world in which we live where answers and information can be found by clicking a button, content knowledge is no longer what should be driving our curriculum.  Students don’t need to memorize the elements of the periodic table or mathematical formulas as they can quickly look them up online.  Instead, students need to know how to navigate the Internet, how to complete an effective online search, how to take notes and extract the main idea from a text, how to draw conclusions and make inferences from novels, and how to think critically to solve problems.  Of course, those are only some of the ever important skills our students need to acquire.  We need to teach our students how to be lifelong learners, thinkers, problem solvers, and doers.  Knowing a bunch of information will get you nowhere in life if you don’t know how to analyze literature or tackle a difficult math problem.  Teaching is about imparting vital life skills to our students by using the content information as a vehicle.  While my students think they are learning all about the Middle East region, they are really learning how to think critically about the world around them in order to broaden their perspective and be open to multiple stories and ideas.

Today in STEM class, my students worked on the final project for our unit on climate change.  The students generated unique solutions to the issue of climate change.  How can we reduce carbon emissions?  The boys, working in pairs, brainstormed creative products and ideas for addressing the issue of climate change and are now in the process of building a working prototype of their idea.  One group spent the period cutting and screwing together pieces of wood to build a box that will trap and store heat energy so that it can be recycled and reused by factories, while another group used various parts of a wind turbine kit to construct a working wind turbine that they will innovate for their solution.  Other groups spent the period working with Little Bits to create a solar battery that could be attached to glasses and planting wheat grass in an our aquaponics system that they will use as part of their solution.  The boys were applying numerous skills we’ve introduced and had them practice throughout the year in sixth grade including problem solving, critical thinking, perseverance, asking questions, appropriately using tools, and collaboration.  The students were focused for the entire work period, which lasted about 45 minutes.  It was awesome.

Where’s the content, you ask.  Well, the big ideas came earlier in the unit when the students learned about climate change, its causes, and its affect on Earth.  However, each group is learning tons of specific facts and knowledge nuggets regarding their solution.  One group has had to research all about how wind turbines work and how to construct their own while other groups are learning how electricity works so that they can wire their invention to store solar power, how to create a scaled-drawing, how to manipulate clay and cook it, and how to plant wheat grass.  This content is important to them because they need to learn it in order to create their invention.  I’m not telling my students they need to learn all about wiring and electricity or how to power a wind turbine, they want to learn that information so that they can create a working prototype of their solution.  The engagement with the content they are learning through completing this project is much higher than if I lectured at them and had them take notes.  They don’t always see the relevance in class discussions or knowledge I pass along to them during mini-lessons, but when they want to make a pair of solar powered glasses, they go out of their way to learn how that whole process works.  The learning becomes genuine and real.  So, there was plenty of content being learned in my classroom today, but that was only a by-product of the project.  This project, like every STEM project completed in the sixth grade, is all about the skills.  The students are learning how to work with their peers, solve problems, think creatively and critically about the world around them, and persevere through failure.  This is what classrooms around the world should look like.  They should be student-centered, where the focus is on learning and applying skills they will need to be successful in their lives outside of school.  Information and content can be fun, but if students don’t know what to do with it, that content becomes a roadblock to success and forward progress.

Our Hidden Curriculum

When I was in elementary school, looking back on it now, rarely did I feel that my teachers were trying to teach more than just the lesson.  Everything was very compartmentalized.  Social skills were taught by the guidance counselor, social studies was taught in social studies class, and reading was taught in language arts class.  There was no blending or integration of topics or subjects at the schools I attended.  There was no hidden curriculum, hence I was frequently bullied and made fun of.  Teachers taught content and left it at that.  I wish now that my teachers had been more versed in teaching cross-curricularly.  I wish my teachers had better addressed the social issues happening in my classes.  I wish my teachers had cared enough about me and my classmates to genuinely help us all grow and develop as students and people.  If only I had found my mom’s magic lamp back then.

As a teacher, I make it a priority to get to know and care for my students.  I don’t look at myself as a teacher of content and standards.  I teach my students how to be kind, curious, caring, questioning, and creative people.  Knowing when a battle took place or what the stuff inside a cell is called is useless if you don’t know how to communicate with others, ask for help, or solve problems on you own.  I teach my students to be great people.

So, when I teach a unit or lesson, it’s not just about the skills or content, oh no.  It’s about everything else too.  Sure, I want my students to learn lots of valuable knowledge nuggets, but I also want them to learn how to be a good friend or teammate.  There is much hidden curriculum to every unit I teach in the sixth grade.  For example, in my current STEM unit on Astronomy, my students aren’t just learning about the solar system.  They are also learning how to coexist with their peers to solve problems, think creatively and critically about problems encountered, struggle and utilize a growth mindset, and produce professional-grade work.  Now, my students may not always see this hidden curriculum right away, but we do discuss it and are deliberate in how we ensure the students learn these ungraded life skills.  On Thursday in STEM class, as the students worked on the Astronomy Group Project, one group was very confused about the task they needed to complete.  They struggled to accomplish the assignment accurately until I provided them some guidance.  I didn’t give them the answer, I merely clarified the instructions.  I expected them to put the pieces of the puzzle together, mentally, as a group to then complete the task correctly; and sure enough, they did.  They incorporated my ideas into their discussion and were open to the idea that perhaps their original interpretation of the instructions was inaccurate.  They used a growth mindset to see the assignment instructions in a new light.  At the end of class that day, I mentioned this a-ha moment and named it as such: What began as a struggle for one group, led to task completion thanks to their Growth Mindset.

Following today’s amazing class debate, my co-teacher and I debriefed the entire American Presidential Election Process unit with the students.  We asked the students the following questions via a class discussion:

  • What did you learn throughout this unit?
  • What did you enjoy about this unit?
  • What do you wish you could have changed about this unit?

I was blown away by their responses to the first question: What did you learn?  They of course mentioned the big ideas that we had hoped they would extract from this unit, but they also mentioned some of the hidden curriculum in the unit.  They talked about learning how to collaborate and coexist in a group and how to effectively listen to their peers.  I was surprised that they had gleaned all of this from our unit on such a high level that they were able to verbalize it.  I was impressed.  I shared my excitement with the students as well.  “While these ideas weren’t the focus of our unit, they are probably even more important than learning about the electoral college and how the president is elected.  Teachers call this the hidden curriculum.  We don’t always tell you that we’re trying to teach you these life skills, but they are embedded into the instruction.  You guys figured it out.  Great work!”  This group of young men never ceases to amaze us.  They are so bright and talented.  We are very lucky educators.  However, my favorite part of our reflection discussion was hearing what the students enjoyed about the unit.  I certainly wasn’t expecting some of what the boys shared:

  • They enjoyed the Big Debate Project.
  • They liked learning about the presidential candidates.
  • They enjoyed learning about the way leaders are elected in other countries.
  • They liked how much of the unit was student-centered and not led by the teachers.
  • They enjoyed the group work aspects of the unit.
  • They liked learning how to speak in front of a group.
  • They enjoyed using coexistence and critical thinking skills to accomplish various tasks.
  • They liked learning about the issues important to people in our country.

I was amazed.  They really seemed to like this unit for more than just the final debate project.  They liked learning about content that is not usually covered in schools today.  It was so great that they noticed how student-focused we tried to make this unit.  I was floored that they were able to pick that out of everything.  Again, this goes back to the hidden curriculum.  My students are learning to think for themselves and answer their own questions without the help of a teacher.

Lessons and units in school need to do more than just convey knowledge to students; they need to teach students how to be effective students and good people.  One easy and sometimes tricky way to do this is by imbuing it into the curriculum covered in the classroom.  While the students are learning about the battle of Gettysburg, they are also learning how to work with a partner to create a map of the battlefield using various materials.  Integrating vital life skills with the content is crucial in helping to prepare our students for meaningful lives in a global society.

The Importance of Teaching Group Work Skills

Working with others, I’ve found as I age and mature like a great cheese or fine wine, is a crucial life skill.  Whether it is working with a spouse or partner or working with people at a job, being an effective teammate or group member is vital to the success of the partnership or business.  If I don’t communicate with my co-teacher and provide her with feedback or important information she needs to know, then we would not have a sixth grade community that functions like a well-oiled machine.  Being a team player is a very important skill that all people must learn.  However most schools and businesses do not teach the skill of being an effective member of a group; instead, institutions expect that people know how to work together.  Many people do not know how to work as a group or team without practice.  They need to be taught how to be a group member.  Most people need to learn and practice effective communication, patience, compromise, delegation of tasks, and teamwork in order to be an effective team player.  Just like all great athletes or authors, people need to learn how to and practice being effective group members.

In the sixth grade, we take pride in the fact that we teach our students how to work together effectively as a team.  They learn how to communicate effectively, delegate responsibilities, be patient with one another, and compromise when necessary throughout the course of the year.  After a full term of learning the basics of teamwork and practicing these skills in various groups without the pressure of being graded or assessed, we have them complete two group projects in both Humanities and STEM class.  One project is done in a larger group with six of their classmates, while the other group project is completed in smaller groups consisting of three to four students.  The goal is for the students to practice applying the skills we spent all fall learning about.  Our school’s counselor worked with the boys on a weekly basis during the fall term learning how to communicate and compromise effectively when interacting with one another.  They also practiced how to delegate tasks through the group activities they completed with the counselor.  Only once the boys had solidified a foundation of teamwork skills did we have them complete more extensive, graded group projects.  This process seems to have worked much better than in year’s past.  The students are more effectively tackling and completing these group projects as they have already learned how to work together as a group.  It’s quite amazing.

Today in Humanities class, the students put the finishing touches on the big debate project they will be presenting tomorrow in front of students and faculty members.  The boys will perform issue stance reports in hopes of convincing the audience members why their group’s presidential candidate would be a more suitable choice to lead our country.  During the last few days, the students have revised their speeches and practiced rehearsing what they would say.  Today they had one final chance to rehearse their speech and discuss, as a group, the expectations they have for the big debate.  What will the dress code for their group be?  What will they need to do outside of class tonight to prepare for tomorrow’s big show?  The boys provided each other feedback on how to best recite their speech aloud to the audience.  They read over each other’s speech to be sure their points were accurate and powerful.  They made sure they were ready for tomorrow.  It was epic to watch them work together to accomplish various tasks.

Had we not taught the boys the importance of leadership, collaboration, delegation of tasks, and effective communication, would they have been able to work a well as they did on this project?  Would they be able to execute what is sure to be an amazing class debate tomorrow without understanding how to work together as a group?  No.  Students need to learn how to do something before they are expected to practice or apply the skill.  We should not expect that our students have learned teamwork skills in their previous schools or grades.  We should start from scratch and help them create a strong foundation of teamwork skills.  Our boys worked so well on this project because it was engaging and because they knew how to function as a group.  Group work skills must be taught, like anything in life.  Just as I can’t expect that my son will know how to drive the first time he gets behind the wheel of a car, I can’t expect that my students know how to work with others effectively when they enter my classroom in the fall.

How Might I Appropriately Apply Academic Pressure in the Classroom?

In the sometimes cutthroat world in which we live, I wonder how some of my students will survive if they don’t learn to persevere and work under pressure.  To solve problems and grow, one needs to be able to think quickly and react to changes in their environment. It’s like evolution but on a much, much faster scale.  When I graduated from college, I applied to about 25 different teaching jobs and only had two interviews.  From those two, I didn’t get one job offer.  I put great effort into my resume, cover letter, and follow-up conversations, to no avail.  Nothing I did seemed to matter.  This troubled me.  I was putting forth much time and energy into this process and saw no benefits.  It was a bit depressing.  Everything I had worked for seemed to be falling apart despite what I did to try and make it come to fruition.  Finally, I did get offered a job late that summer, but it was only because I was employed by the school as part of their summer program.  They needed to see me in action to fully appreciate my qualifications.  The moral of this story is that perseverance and great effort in the face of adversity and pressure are needed to grow and develop and make one’s dreams become a reality.

The big question for me as an educator is, How do I help my students realize this?  How can I best support yet challenge my students to see that no matter what challenges they face in the future, they will need to utilize all of the strategies and tools available to them to overcome this adversity?  Sure, I have shared my stories of struggle and hardship with them and my co-teacher and I have provided them with a multitude of strategies to use when faced with academic problems.  But is that enough?  Is there more that we could be doing to best help prepare our students for meaningful lives in a global society filled with stress and challenges?

These questions filled my head yesterday following my STEM class.  The students had one final class day to finish working on the balsa wood bridges they have been building for two weeks.  Tuesday is the big test day and so they needed to utilize today’s double-block period effectively in order to complete the task at hand.  While a few of the groups were on target to finish at the start of the class, two groups had barely begun the building process.  To inspire the students, I reminded them of the importance of using today’s class time wisely.  I also had them reread the reflections they wrote at the end of our last bridge building period so that they could reflect upon the goals they set for themselves and the Habits of Learning they felt they will need to use to be successful today in class.  I thought I was setting them up for a successful work period.  I projected the time remaining on the board as a timer so that the boys could see how much time they had left to finish their bridge.  I thought this might help keep them focused.  Throughout the period, several of the partnerships struggled to coexist and communicate effectively.  I heard some negative talk while they worked: “Stop it!”  “What are you doing?”  “That’s stupid.”  You’re not doing anything to help me.”  When I heard these unkind words, I worked with the students to troubleshoot the problem.  What was going on to cause this frustration?  In almost every situation, one of the students blamed the other instead of owning their actions and choices.  In every case, I reminded the boys that they can’t control the behavior of others, but they can control their own actions.  I doubt they fully processed these words as I have said them on several occasions in the past.

While some of the groups came very close to finishing their bridge by the end of class on Saturday and have vowed to use time during Monday’s afternoon study hall to finish working on them, the two groups that had little done at the start, still had very little done by the end of the period.  I reminded those two groups of what they could do to solve their problems and hopefully they will take advantage of the afternoon study hall on Monday to come and finish, but I’m not 100% certain that they will.  Is there anything else I could have done to better support and help those two struggling groups?  Did I apply too much pressure to them?  Did they feel overstressed by the task at hand because I had the time remaining projected on the board?  Could I have given them any other strategies that might have made them more successful in class on Saturday?  I am worried about the four students in those two groups because I have seen this inability to work under pressure or in the face of adversity from them in the past.  Two of them generally become defiant or shut down and the other two become silly and seem to not care about their work.  Will they eventually outgrow these behaviors?  Are there other things I could be doing to help assist them in this process of learning how to overcome challenges?  I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but I would like to dig into this subject a bit more.  How do I help difficult or stubborn students learn to cope and overcome adversity?

Perhaps these two groups will completely surprise me and make good use of their time in afternoon study hall on Monday.  Maybe both groups will finish their bridge and be able to participate in the testing activity in class on Tuesday.  I like to think that anything is possible.  I believe in my students and I have seen them do amazing things in the past.  Maybe this is just another hurdle they will quickly leap over.  Perhaps these struggles are part of the learning process.  Maybe they needed to hit this wall yesterday in class in order to be successful tomorrow.

Teaching Teamwork

Thinking back on my numerous years of schooling, I don’t recall ever having more than one or two group projects.  My teachers veered away from group work.  I think that they were afraid of what might happen when three to five students get together to accomplish a task.  Perhaps chaos would ensue.  Or maybe it was because they didn’t really know how to teach effective collaboration and teamwork.  Teachers can’t just assign group projects without some sort of scaffolding or guidance regarding how to work together as a team.  It would be like giving a group of 24 students a rugby ball and saying, “Now go play rugby.”  They would probably have no idea what to do.  Plus, rugby can be a very dangerous sport if you don’t know how to play it safely.  Teachers need to guide students through group projects.  But, how?  How do you effectively teach teamwork?  That is the big question.

Today in STEM class, the students worked on the Synthesis Group Project portion of our Astronomy Unit.  Despite explaining how to effectively coexist in a group, some of the students still struggled in class.  They’ve been learning and practicing teamwork strategies for the past several weeks in Leadership and PEAKS classes.  We’ve also discussed effective collaboration skills in STEM class.  So, what’s the problem?  Why are some students struggling to figure out how to work together effectively?  Working in a group is difficult and challenging.  It requires compromise, a growth mindset, patience, delegation, leadership, listening skills, and so much more.  These aren’t skills that develop over night.  These skills and techniques need to be practiced again and again.  Teaching students how to utilize a growth mindset once in class doesn’t mean they’ve mastered the skill.  They need constant remodeling and reminders.

During class today, one group worked effectively and accomplished the assigned work quite well.  But even that group struggled a bit.  Not every team member was actively participating.  Two groups really struggled in class today.  One of those groups had much internal strife.  We’ll call that group, Group B.  Two members of Group B stuck together and argued with the third group member.  They refused to compromise and argued about their roles and duties.  The leader was the main culprit in all of this turmoil.  Group C began the work period on a strong note, but then started to fall apart when the leader delegated work to the other two members.  Those two members were lethargic and uncooperative.  They accomplished very little during class.  This upset the leader a lot.  He then started complaining and arguing with his other group members.

Replaying the double block in my head, things were a bit crazy in class today.  However, this is all part of the process.  It was time for the groups to start having problems.  No group is perfect.  Issues and problems will arise.  It’s what the group members do when those problems arise that will make all the difference.  How do they react to their peers?  How do they communicate their emotions and concerns?  Does the leader facilitate or add fuel to the fire?  During all of this, I roamed around and asked each of the groups some probing questions.  I didn’t tell them what to do to solve their problems, but I wanted them to think about alternative solutions to the problems they faced.

Yelling and arguing was getting Group B nowhere.  So clearly, they needed some guidance.  I gave the leader some instructions as to what his role should look like and things improved over the course of the class.  By the end of the period, they were sitting near each other and collaborating effectively.  They just needed some support and help.  Odds are that they would not have been able to troubleshoot things on their own.

Group C had social issues that needed to be addressed after class.  One of the unproductive students needed to be told how to effectively communicate with his peers.  Instead of using his words, he just didn’t do anything.  That one student realized the error of his ways and will hopefully be able to change his behavior next time.

While I didn’t step in and solve every issue that arose in every group, I did need to guide them to the light a bit with questions and suggestions.  The students need to be reminded again and again how to work together in order to learn how to do so.  While they do need to figure out how to solve their own problems, the boys are only in sixth grade and so some problems are out of their sphere of understanding, which is why I stepped in when I did.  During other times, I let them figure things out on their own.  Critical thinking is a crucial habit of learning that students need to practice applying.

Another key to helping students learn to effectively coexist is reflection.  The students need a chance to reflect on their actions and behaviors.  So, prior to the end of class, I took a few minutes to have students self-assess their ability to coexist and create a goal for the next group project work day.  This provided the students with the opportunity to think about what went well and the struggles they faced and how to solve some of these problems next time.  What did they learn today?  Then, I had conversations with each of the students regarding their reflection.  Most of the boys were very honest and self-aware.  They know what they need to do to improve and be more productive and effective group members.

Teamwork is not a skill that can be introduced once and then assessed.  It needs to be practiced again and again in a supportive environment.  Teaching effective coexistence isn’t easy and requires perseverance, but when done well, will forever help the students become responsible global citizens.