Allowing Students to Address Social Issues on their Own

Several years ago, I watched a news segment on an evening program about how schools and teachers in Japan help teach their students how to appropriately interact with their peers and navigate social issues that arise.  These teachers featured in the video didn’t just jump right in, proactively, to solve problems for their students.  Instead, they allowed the students to solve their own problems.  Yes, they observed from afar to make sure that no one was getting seriously injured, either mentally or physically, but they provided the students the time and space to figure things out on their own.  In this day and age of helicopter parenting and extreme allergies to everything, it seems as though caregivers and teachers are very quick to react to situations in order to prevent anything that could be remotely construed as “bad” from happening.  While this seems like a good idea to many people as it prevents dangerous or harmful things from happening, it’s actually very dangerous for and harmful to our children.  How do they learn to solve social problems that arise if they are never provided opportunities to practice solving them on their own?  If parents and teachers are always intervening in situations that occur between students, how will students learn what to do in the heat of the moment?  Sure, we can coach them on how to address those situations in the future, but how do we know if they will be able to apply the strategies we’ve provided them with when they are responding from their amygdala?  We need to allow our students to try solving their own problems, and see what happens.  If things get physical or someone is getting hurt in any way, we must definitely jump in and assist, but other than that, we watch.  Then, after the fact, we address the situation with the students involved and provide coaching or positive feedback as needed.  Preparing our students for life in the real-world, means helping them to solve their own problems.  We are not always going to be around our children or students to tell them what to do and how to do it.  They need to figure these things out for themselves.  Teachers and caregivers need to give up control to allow their students and children to grow and thrive in meaningful ways.

Today, at the start of my Humanities class, two students, who happened to be table partners, we arguing over a pencil.

“You took my pencil,” Student A said.

“No, I didn’t,” Student B said.

“Yes you did.  I need it to write in the homework,” Student A said.

“All you have to do is ask, and I will let you use it,” Student B responded.

“I don’t need to ask to use it because it’s my pencil and you took it,” Student A replied as he grabbed the pencil from the hands of Student B.

I watched, closeby, as this situation unfolded.  I didn’t jump in and help.  I simply observed as the students tried to solve the problem themselves.  After Student A snatched the pencil from the hands of Student B, I waited to see if there would be any retaliation from Student B.  Other than a quiet response from Student B about the pencil being his, there was nothing.  As there appeared to be no real conclusion to this situation, I was worried that it would boil over into the work period.  Luckily, the students are partners for the Globe to Flat Map Project, and had plenty of time together to rectify the situation, if needed.  I suggested to one of the students in that group that I would be observing their coexistence and communication during today’s work period because I was a bit concerned by the pencil situation and what might have caused confusion.  The student acknowledged what I said and got right to work with his partner.  I made sure to check-in with the group on numerous occasions throughout the class period and observed them from afar to ensure their safety.  After a quiet start, they worked together as though there was never a problem between them.  They were productive, compassionate, and used kind communication while working on the project in class.  I was a bit surprised by what happened today in class, as these two students have struggled to effectively coexist throughout the academic year.  I thought for sure that they were going to continue arguing while they worked on creating their flat map.  Boy did they prove me wrong.  They worked together better today, following the pencil issue, than they had for this entire project.  I was amazed.

So, what was it that allowed this to outcome?  How were these two students who had a disagreement directly prior to the work period able to work together so well?  How were they coexisting so effectively?  Why weren’t they still angry with one another?  What happened?  Was today’s result due to the fact that I allowed them to solve the social issue that arose between them on their own?  Did that make a difference?  I allowed the situation to completely unfold, which meant that the situation had almost ended when they began working with each other again.  Were they able to work together effectively because I had allowed the issue to be resolved first?  Did that have an impact on today’s result?  Was it the weather or something else so random that I’d never really know what happened in the classroom today?  While I am far from an expert on any subject, I feel as though I can confidently say that the students were able to be productive during today’s work period because they had the chance to solve the social issue that arose between them on their own.  I allowed them to own their actions and the result.  I didn’t step in or debrief the situation at all as I wanted to see what would happen later in the period.  I allowed life to happen naturally.  I didn’t try to control or stop anything.  Emotions were high and I let them diffuse on their own.  While this approach may not work in every setting, situation, or with every student, it was effective in the classroom today.  Perhaps those schools featured in that news clip I watched many years ago were onto something.  If we empower our students to solve their own problems, and offer coaching or help only when required or needed, then it’s possible that we will be properly preparing them to live meaningful lives in a global society.

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Greatness in the Sixth Grade Classroom

I wear a teaching cape to feel like a superhero in the classroom; but really, all I need are my students to feel like a superhero.  They are my metaphorical cape.  They help make the dark days of winter seem like bright summer days in the classroom.  They take the boring and everyday and find a way to make it fun.  Who knew how much fun mixing cornstarch and water together could be for sixth graders?  They loved it.  My students teach me more on a regular basis than I could ever hope to teach them.  They’re the real teachers in the classroom.  I’m just the superhero on the sidelines.

Today’s Humanities class provided yet another opportunity for my students to showcase their greatness as they worked on the Globe to Flat Map Project.  While this task is proving quite difficult for the students, they are utilizing a growth mindset to persevere and find new and creative solutions to the problems encountered.  It’s quite amazing.  One group discovered that writing over permanent marker with a dry erase marker on a plastic beach, erases the permanent marker.  Who knew?  Another group found that hand sanitizer somewhat removes permanent marker from a plastic beach ball.  Not only can Purell clean our hands, it can also take permanent marker off of plastic.  I had no idea.  My grandmother was so right when she used to say, “You learn something new every day.”  Boy do I ever.  So, as the students worked in the classroom today, two very amazing things happened.

  • Recently, I’ve noticed that one of my ELLs from a European country raises his hand with two fingers extended.  What is that all about?  Is that a cultural norm he learned back home?  Is he trying to be different?  What’s going on?  So, today, when he raised his hand to ask a question while his group worked on the project, I asked him, “Why do you raise your hand in the manner in which you do?”  I was a bit surprised by the answer, “In my country we do this because if we don’t, it looks too much like the Nazi salute, which is very bad.”  Wow, I had no idea.  So it is a cultural thing.  He does it because that’s how he was trained in his country to not accidentally look like he is giving the Nazi salute.  I find it interesting yet important that schools around Europe help their students understand the gravity of WWII and the Nazi party.  Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party had such a horrific impact on the European people, and the world, that modern Europeans raise their children in such a way to honor the victims of the war and ensure that no recognition is given to the Nazi party.  I would not have learned that if I hadn’t have asked this particular student the question that I asked him.  As he tends to try to bring attention to himself on an almost daily basis, I did wonder if it was a new attention getting behavior.  I sure was wrong, and in the process of being wrong, I learned something.  My students make the best teachers.
  • As this Globe to Flat Map Project is one filled with great difficulty, many of the students struggled today in class.  They were challenged by hand-drawing a map of the world onto a plastic beach ball.  They struggled to create an accurate and properly proportioned globe of Earth.  The students found it difficult to place the lines of latitude and longitude in the proper places.  They were perplexed by how to make sure they were effectively drawing an accurate map of the world on their beach ball.  Much problem solving and troubleshooting took place in the sixth grade classroom today.  The boys worked with their partner to find new and creative ways to solve their problems while other groups had to fix mistakes they had made on their globes.  It was quite awesome to see effective coexistence, communication, critical thinking, and problem solving take place.  For one group though, the challenge that faced them proved very troublesome.  Just when they thought they had it all figured out, they realized the error in their judgement.  They realized that they should have cut their globe at an arch instead of straight along the lines of latitude and longitude.  Wanting to showcase their true potential as students, they asked if they could start the entire project over so that they could apply this new solution they had devised.  Now, realize that they have spent about four hours of class time working on creating their globe and making their map since we started this project.  The final map is due by the end of class on Friday and we have only one period of class time remaining.  If they did redo it, they would have to complete the task almost entirely outside of class during their free time.  Knowing these two students, they will put forth the time needed as they want to do well and challenge themselves accordingly.  After being told all about the limited time that they will have, they still chose to redo the task so that they could utilize the new solution they had devised.  I’m proud of them for using a growth mindset and persevering through their problems.  I’m impressed that they are willing to use their free time to redo a challenging assignment.  Everything that my co-teacher and I have been trying to instill within them all year about hard work, perseverance, and problem solving came to light today as this one group showcased all three of these crucial life skills in making the choice they did.  They didn’t have to redo the assignment as they were meeting the objectives covered, but they chose to because they wanted to test out their hypothesis.  Amazing!

Yet again, my students never cease to amaze and teach me on a daily basis.  Greatness, effort, curiosity, discovery, and failure were alive and well in the sixth grade classroom today.  Sometimes I feel like I should make capes for my students to wear in the classroom, as they are the real superheroes.

The Power in Teaching Students to Understand Computer Coding

I love teaching sixth grade, and it’s one of the reasons why I wake up so happy each and every morning.  I love challenging students to think critically.  I love watching my students struggle through problems using perseverance and a growth mindset.  I love guiding students to the metaphorical watering hole of learning and watching them figure out what to do once there.  I love teaching Humanities and our study skills classes.  I love helping students learn how they learn best.  I love helping students broaden their perspective.  I love everything about my role in the sixth grade this year, well, almost everything that is.

Last May when the school needed to hire a new co-teacher to work with me in the sixth grade, I was offered a choice: Teach STEM or teach Humanities?  As I majored in English in college, I feel most qualified to teach the Humanities class; however, I developed the STEM class three years ago and have been the only teacher of the course since its inception.  It’s kind of my thing, but I was never formally trained in teaching math or science and so I always felt like I had to do much learning on my own outside of class.  My understanding of the STEM content was very limited.  While I loved teaching STEM class, I always felt a little in over my head.  So, I chose to stick with Humanities.  While I love teaching my Humanities class, I do miss the hands-on and engaging projects I had the students do last year in STEM class.  Don’t get me wrong, my new co-teacher is doing a fabulous job teaching the STEM course this year, but I do miss all of the fun I had in STEM class the past three years.  It’s very easy to get students excited about a topic when they are able to play with Little Bits to create a working rover.  It’s a lot harder to get students excited about the topic of government in Humanities class, no matter what type of project or activity is used to convey the information.  I miss working with the students in STEM class.

Today reminded me, yet again, of just how much I miss teaching STEM class.  In our study skills class today, I pushed the PAUSE button on our regularly scheduled unit on Academic Integrity so that I could have the students participate in the global Hour of Code event taking place this week.  After showing the students a short video created by the wonderful folks at Code.org, I had the boys choose an activity on the Hour of Code website to complete for the remainder of class, which ended up being about 30 minutes.  The boys had so much fun learning how to create the fun and engaging video games they often play including Minecraft, Flappy Bird, and other such games.  The students persevered through challenges, asked peers for help when needed, used a growth mindset to think critically about their problems in new and unique ways, and had a ton of fun learning how computer coding works.  They learned how if and then statements work as well as how difficult it is to create just one tiny portion of a very complex video game.  They realized how important every space, digit, or letter truly is when coding.  At the end of the period, the boys looked as though they had lost their puppy dog when I had them shut their laptops to close the class.  They didn’t want to stop programming games and having fun.  They didn’t want to stop learning.  A few students remained in the classroom during their free period 90 minutes later to keep working on the coding projects they had started earlier in the day.  The boys had so much fun engaging in an activity that hopefully inspired them to learn more and perhaps made a few of the boys realize where their passion lies.

In STEM class last year, I had the students use the online program Code Combat on a weekly basis to learn computer coding.  The boys had so much fun learning how to make computer games.  I really missed that, until today.  Today gave me a taste of what I was missing, and made me realize that I don’t have to miss it.  Coding isn’t just a STEM topic.  Coding applies to every subject.  Computer coding can be used to help students learn how to be brief and succinct writers in English class.  Coding can be used to help students work through challenging math problems in the form of games.  Coding can be used to help students understand complex ideas such as government.  Coding doesn’t have to be something that is only taught in tech or STEM classes.  Coding could and should be taught or covered in every class.  I could easily use coding programs in Humanities class or our study skills course.  I don’t have to pine away for what once was when I can bring the magic into the classes I am currently teaching.  I can use coding to inject a little more engagement into the classes I do teach.  Coding is the language of the future, and so I should capitalize on this in every way possible.

What’s the Best Way to Promote Problem Solving in the Classroom?

If you give me a recipe for a tasty dessert, I will rock that recipe and create the most delicious cake or cookies you have ever tasted.  If you need help assembling that new bookcase you purchased from IKEA, please don’t hesitate to call me as long as you still have the directions because I will get it put together, perhaps not correctly but together none the less, in no time flat.  When I’m provided with clear directions, I am able to accomplish a job like nobody’s business.  I can get things done under directions.  Now, if you’re having trouble with your computer or need help fixing something that’s broken, I am not the person to seek help from.  I really struggle with solving problems that don’t come with clear directions.  If I encounter a struggle in life, it often takes me a very long time to overcome it.  My brain views the road of life as linear and constant, and so when things happen to cause that line to veer off course in a non-linear and chaotic manner, my brain begins to melt down.  It’s like the blue screen of death on PCs.  Can’t compute…  While I am able to solve problems that I’m faced with, it usually takes much time, failure, retrying, and effort to get to my destination as my brain likes dealing in the simple and concrete when it comes to problems.  I’m not the quickest problem solver in the world.

Now, I could easily blame my inability to effectively and quickly solve problems on my past teachers.  They didn’t equip me with the strategies and tools needed to solve problems encountered in creative ways.  I could just as easily place the blame for my poor problem-solving skills on my parents and their inability to challenge me and allow me to solve my own problems encountered.  I could use a scapegoat to explain away my mental incapacities, but that would be unhelpful to me as a person.  I am the only one to blame for not developing strong problem-solving skills.  While I wasn’t bombarded by teachers who challenged me to think creatively and solve problems, I also didn’t try to struggle through difficult tasks when I was in school.  I usually took the easy way out, and that allowed me to develop into the very slow problem-solver sitting here typing these words you are currently reading.  I do wish that I had been fortunate enough to be in classrooms where Project-Based Learning was used.  I wish I had been exposed to teachers who used the Socratic style of discussion in their classrooms.  I wish that my teachers had encouraged me to face my problems head on and solve them.  I wish that I had been challenged more by my teachers.  Perhaps my mental capacity for solving problems would be much stronger than it currently is had my teachers employed more effective teaching methods in the classroom.  Perhaps I would be more helpful to others if I had attended schools where solving problems, taking risks, and failing was embraced.  Perhaps my life would be very different right now had my teachers employed a different, more hands-on approach to teaching.  But, if that were the case, then perhaps my life wouldn’t be as perfect as it is right now.  I have a smart, funny, and beautiful wife, an amazing and athletic son, and am fortunate enough to work with a phenomenal group of sixth graders who challenge me to be the best teacher possible for them on a daily basis.  Life doesn’t get much better than this.

As an educator, I do realize the importance of teaching students how to solve problems encountered in new and unique ways.  I want my students to embrace risk-taking and failure in the classroom.  I want them to see how important it is to think critically about problems faced so that they are able to solve them in meaningful and relevant ways.  I want to promote problem-solving in my classroom.  One way I do that is through creating challenging assessments that force my students to struggle through problems encountered and solve them on their own without help or direct guidance from the teacher.

Today in my Humanities class, the students completed an assessment on map parts.  Rather than create a multiple choice test or written assessment, I wanted to challenge my students to think critically and creatively.  Therefore, I created a DOING kind of assessment.  The students, working independently, had to hand-draw a map of a self-created island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.  They had coordinates that it needed to be between, but the area was quite vast.  They could only use drawing tools, pencils, a piece of copy paper, and an atlas to complete this task.  Their map had to include the following:

  • Readable and easily understandable writing and drawing
  • Appropriate Map Title
  • Map Legend: Including symbols for boundaries and major cities
  • Scale Bar
  • Correctly placed lines of Latitude and Longitude based on the coordinates listed in the directions.
  • Labels for at least three major cities with unique names

At the start of class, I explained the directions and fielded all of their questions as I told them that I would not be answering questions while they worked.  As the students will have all different types of teachers next year in the seventh grade, I want to be sure they are prepared to deal with teachers who do not allow questions during work periods.  I told them this was the reason why I was organizing today’s work period the way in which it was set up.  I want them to understand the purpose of why we do things in the classroom while also preparing them for next year.  I spent about 15 minutes addressing questions the boys had about the assessment.  Then, I allowed them to begin working.  I had soft, instrumental music playing, like during all work periods, as they diligently got to work.  They were focused on the task at hand.  They reviewed the directions as they worked, perused their atlas for help, and began drawing their maps.  Each student seemed to take a different approach to the activity.  While a few students jumped right into drawing their island shape onto their paper, others drew on their lines of latitude and longitude first.  Some of the other students didn’t begin drawing right away.  Instead, they looked at the world map in their atlas and reread the directions for the task.  At first, I thought these students were lost or confused, but as I watched them work, I realized, that that was just how they solved problems.  They needed more time to process the information before they began working.  I found that so interesting.  A couple of students seemed frustrated a bit by parts of the task, but persevered through the problem to create a solution that worked for them.  Everyone had a good handle on the task by the end of class.  The atmosphere in the classroom during the last few minutes was one of vast productivity and positivity.  The students were solving problems they encountered.  While I refused to answer any questions about the task that I had previously explained in the directions phase of the activity, many of the boys had unanswered questions that they needed to solve on their own.  This required them to think critically and utilize a growth mindset to solve their problems.  It was awesome because they did just that.  The students were solving their own problems without assistance from me or their peers.  They were getting things done and showcasing great growth as learners and individuals.  I was so impressed and amazed by their performance today.  My students never cease to amaze me on a daily basis.  Wow!

Providing the students with difficult and challenging work that they must complete on their own or in small groups promotes an atmosphere of creativity and problem solving.  Doing hard things requires hard work and lots of learning.  By pushing my students to the edge of their comfort level as it pertains to working and learning, I am enabling them to become innovative problem solvers.  Yes, this requires much training on the part of the students up front because the year does not begin this way.  The students do not enter my classroom in September being able to solve their own problems and think creatively, oh no.  I need to provide them with scaffolding and specific strategies.  I need to help them develop a growth mindset.  This pre-work takes the first three months of the academic year to complete, but then once that is done, the magic can happen.  Today was one of those magical days where everything just started to fall into place.  The boys worked through their problems, struggles, and frustrations because they had the tools to do so.  Earlier this year, I gave them the directions that they used today to complete the task in front of them.  Effective teaching involves a very specific and detailed process.  I could not have given the students the task I did today back in September and expected them to be even remotely successful because they lacked the skills needed.  Now that they have those skills, I need to allow them to practice using them by providing them with difficult and challenging assessments, projects, and tasks.  By the end of the school year, they will be able to tackle any problem thrown at them.  Who knows what they’ll be capable of in a few years because of the skills and practice they are receiving in the sixth grade this year.

Making Grammar Fun for Our Students

In college I had to take, for my major, a class on linguistics, in which all we did for an hour and thirty minutes, twice a week, was diagram sentences.  The teacher, in her dry and quiet monotone voice, helped us to understand the correct part of speech for every word, in every sentence she had written on the chalkboard.  Yes, that’s correct, I was in a class with a chalk board.  On top of being the most boring class I was forced to take in college, it also came with the sound of chalk screeching across a board.  It was a horrible, perfect storm of sorts that made me hate grammar.  While I never really liked learning about grammar in middle school, this college course firmly solidified my stance on the subject.  Grammar is useless and boring.  There are very few jobs on Earth that require a knowledge of grammar and parts of speech, and so, I thought, why do I need to know this stuff?  College definitely turned me off to grammar.

What I didn’t realize at the time, though, is that it wasn’t that grammar is an unnecessary topic to know, it’s that my teachers never found a relevant and engaging way to teach the subject to me and my classmates.  Grammar is, let’s be honest here, a somewhat boring topic.  Who really wants to define the major parts of speech and identify them in sentences?  No one, ever.  So, when teaching grammar, educators need to employ fun tactics to make the material interesting and novel, which my teachers were never able to do.  Teaching grammar at face value is like trying to sell a boat to villagers living in the middle of a desert, pointless.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate and love grammar.  Without grammar, we wouldn’t have exciting sentences filled with loving and beautiful words.  Without grammar, no one could curse.  Living in a world without proper grammar would be like only communicating with people via texting.  Have you ever texted a teenager?  Not only is their spelling atrocious, but they use abbreviations and shorthand for everything.  There is no possible way that everything I say makes my son laugh out loud, yet he starts almost every text to me that way.  Texting language makes me crazy.  Why can’t you take the time to write out the words?  With autofill and autocorrect, it doesn’t even take that long to type out complete words and sentences.  I would never want to live in a world where the only form of communication is texting.  I just can’t take emojis anymore.  What’s the difference between a smiley face and a bigger smiley face?  Don’t they both mean happy?  Why can’t people just type happy?  I feel as though as a society we are reverting back to our cave-drawing ancestors.  I say, let’s bring back proper grammar.

I’m off my soap box now, don’t worry.  Sorry, I can get a little carried away by things, and texting is one of those things that set me off.  Anyway, where was I again?  Oh yeah, grammar.  It’s super important for students to understand the parts of speech and how to properly utilize them in their writing so that they don’t turn into texting zombie-cave-people.  The problem is, the methods with which teachers instruct or cover grammar.  Students need to be interested in the material, and so presentation is everything.

After doing some research this past summer on the importance of teaching grammar to students in a fun and engaging way, I wanted to make sure that I provide my students with a strong foundation of grammar knowledge so that when they get into the eighth grade and spend much time completing numerous grammar worksheets, they will feel prepared and ready for the challenges in front of them.  Prior to Thanksgiving Break, our grammar study began with a short, five minute, review of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.  We then spent seven minutes, once a week, playing a fun and engaging Word Slap game, in which two students stood in front of a whiteboard with the three major parts of speech listed, holding fly swatters, and slapped the appropriate part of speech for the word shouted out by one of their peers.  We played this game thrice times in class over three weeks.  Following the turkey day break, I had the students complete a check-in assessment regarding the three major parts of speech reviewed prior to break and three new grammar terms that some of the students may have learned previously at their former schools.  I wanted to be sure that I was structuring my instruction in a meaningful and relevant way based on what my students know.  While some students had been exposed to the new terms, no student had a firm grasp of adverb, preposition, or conjunction.

Following last week’s ungraded pre-test, I completed the first of three mini-lessons on the three new parts of speech.  Last week we started with adverbs.  I introduced these new vocabulary terms as members of the grammar gang that I had met over Thanksgiving Break.  I told a short story about my interactions with Mr. Adverb and how he talked slowly and moved carefully.  I then asked student volunteers to define the term adverb.  They provided a basic definition, which I then built upon to be sure the boys understood what this part of speech was really all about.  I then had the students, working with their table partner, create a story using only five complete sentences and five adverbs.  They had to underline the five adverbs.  I then had students share their stories and adverbs with the class.  I had the boys help their peers fix any adverbs problems.  This short but effective mini-lesson seemed to work because today when I reviewed adverbs, every student was able to explain what an adverb is and provide examples.  I was very impressed.

Following this review of adverbs, I then introduced the next member of our grammar gang, Ms. Preposition.  She is a superhero who loves to fly high around things.  I then I asked a volunteer to define the term preposition.  One student provided a brief explanation of the term that I elaborated on so that the boys could all make sense of this often confused part of speech.  I then asked the students, “What can Ms. Preposition do to the clouds as she flies high in the sky saving the world?”  I called on students to provide preposition examples.  The boys did a fine job providing creative and specific examples.  Once I felt as though every student had a firm comprehension of the newest member of our grammar gang, I had the students begin the short partner task, in which they had to make a list of every adverb they could think of using a chair as the noun.  They worked with their partner to generate a list of adverbs.  One student wrote the list while the other student practiced doing things to the chair such as going over it, under it, below it, and etc.  It was very entertaining watching them move around the chair and discuss different prepositions.  One student said, “Mr. Holt, my partner says you can go through a chair.  Tell him that’s wrong.”  I asked the partner to explain why he said that it was possible to go through the chair.  He was unable to support his original claim with a demonstration.  Then I asked him if it was possible to put his arm through the top hole in the chair, and sure enough it was.  His partner seemed very surprised when he realized that it was possible to put one’s hand through the chair.  The boys seemed to have a lot of fun with this short activity.  I gave them three minutes to work.  The group that had the longest, correct list of adverbs received a special treat.  This activity seemed to really make learning prepositions fun and meaningful for the boys.

Thanks to this unique method of teaching grammar, not only do my students now think of the parts of speech as superheroes, but they also realize how much fun learning about the somewhat boring and complex subject of grammar can be.  Grammar shouldn’t be taught over a long period of time or through the use of mundane worksheets.  Grammar should be taught through fun, hands on activities that get the students working together and moving.  I don’t want my students to dislike grammar the way I did in college and school.  Grammar should be fun for our students, and it’s our job as educators to make it that way.

Fostering Learning in the Classroom Through Challenge and Struggle

Some of the most meaningful learning that I’ve experienced in my life began with great struggle, challenge, and turmoil.  Learning to read proved quite difficult for me and led to numerous bouts of crying when I was just a wee lad.  After months of struggling, I did finally learn to read in the second grade, and it felt awesome.  Last summer, I was teaching myself how to solve the Rubik’s Cube to no avail.  After watching a video for about two hours and struggling to follow along, I realized that I had been holding my cube incorrectly the entire time I was watching the video.  In that moment, the learning happened, and it was only a matter of minutes before I had mastered the step I was on.  Real, meaningful learning is a messy journey filled with bumps and turns.  Nothing great comes without much struggle and difficulty.

As a teacher, I realize this on a daily basis.  I have found that my students learn best when I leave them to stew and struggle.  Instead of providing them with answers or guiding them to the solution, I like to ask more questions and allow the students to work through the challenge.  After much frustration and struggling, the boys are finally able to master the skill and showcase their learning.  Today provided me with yet another example of how effective this method of teaching truly is.

In Humanities class today, I introduced the concept of lines of Latitude and Longitude as they pertain to mapping and location.  I began the lesson by asking the students to imagine a world in which maps had only land masses and geographical landforms on them.  I then posed a situation to them: “So, my friend from Europe called me on my celly and said, ‘Yo, dude.  I’m coming to visit you.  Where do you live?’  I told him that I live in America.  So then he took the plane to the only airport in America.  He then called me on my celly once again and said, ‘Dude, where are you?  I’m at the airport waiting for you.’  I told him that I live in Canaan and that the airport is in the middle of America, thousands of miles away from me.  So then my friend asked, ‘So, where exactly do you live?’  How can I help my friend know how to get to where I am?”  The students all seemed to understand that those invisible lines on the map help with precise location.  We then watched a video on the topic.  I had students take notes and make observations on their whiteboard tables during the short video.  The first period of class ended with a discussion about what they learned from the video regarding lines of latitude and longitude.  They all seemed to understand the concept quite well.  Following the short break between periods, I displayed a blank outline map on the interactive whiteboard that had the Prime Meridian and Equator marked and labelled.  I then reviewed the concept with them, posing questions to various students.  They all seemed to understand the different hemispheres, cardinal directions, and lines of latitude and longitude.

At that point, I issued the challenge to them: “Using a blank map, draw and label the Prime Meridian, Equator, and lines of Latitude and Longitude in 30 degree intervals.”  This prompted a few questions, of course.  The students then got right to work.  While half of the students seemed to fully understand the concept and challenge in front of them, the other half seemed a bit confused or lost as they worked.  Three students needed to redo their maps as they switched, in their minds, the lines of latitude and longitude when labelling them on the map.  Two other students were very confused when I explained to them how they had incorrectly completed the task.  I didn’t tell them what to do, I merely asked them some questions.  Are those the lines of latitude or longitude?  How many degrees should be between each line?  For one student, these questions helped, for the other student, these questions only seemed to further confuse him.  Rather than give him the answer, I told him to leave it be for now and work on it during evening study hall tonight.  I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.  I do believe that he is on the verge of understanding the concept and just needs more processing time.

I loved watching the immense learning take place in the sixth grade classroom today.  The boys engaged in the material, struggled a bit, and then overcame their challenges.  Utilizing a growth mindset, they found a solution to the puzzle of understanding how to correctly label the lines of latitude and longitude on a blank world map.  If I had force-fed the students the information or provided them with a pre-labelled map of the world, would the learning they experienced today have been as meaningful?  Would they really understand how lines of latitude and longitude work?  I don’t think so.  I do feel that they needed to struggle with this complex task to effectively learn how lines of latitude and longitude are placed on maps.  This activity is a fine precursor to map drawing that we will do during our first region of study following the holiday break.  Allowing students to struggle, practice, and find new solutions to their problems is how stronger, neurological connections are built in their brains.  Real learning happens through experiencing great difficulty.  Hard things take hardship to accomplish.  The sixth grade classroom is a place where our students can safely, and with compassion and respect, struggle through challenges to get to the light at the end of the dark tunnel that leads to learning.

Why Do We Allow Time to Steal Learning from Our Students?

Time is a fickle, fair-weather friend.  When we want time on our side, it seems to fly by like a jet in the sky; but when we want time to quickly pass us by, it seems as though our lives are in slow-motion.  What is up with that?  Why can’t time do what we want or need it to do?  I often wish I had more time to spend with my family.  Why is it that time controls us?  Why can’t we be the master of our own time?  Why are we forced to live our lives according to time?  Why can’t we just do what we need or want to do when we need to or want to do it?  Why is time allowed to rule the world?  Why can’t we be the master of our lives?  Why must we live our lives according to the laws of time?  While I understand the need for control and harmony in the world, I do often wonder what life on Earth would be like if we all lived by our own schedule.  What if there was no time?  Imagine the possibilities.  Sure, there’s always the possibility of chaos, but that possibility exists even within the constraints of time.  So, why not try it?  Why not throw time out the window and live our lives the way we want to, without being controlled by time?

Although I realize the great anarchy that would ensue if we all just lived our lives, ignoring time, I do often find that time is more of a hinderance and an enemy than it is a helpful friend.  Especially in the classroom.  As a teacher, I find it terribly difficult to plan my lessons according to time and its boundaries.  Great teachers know that lessons never go as planned.  Students ask questions and teachable moments pop up like pimples on middle school students.  That’s what we love about teaching.  We love when the students drive the instruction.  We want them to be curious and ask questions.  We want to guide them to the knowledge, but we often can’t because we are bound by time.  Most schools have a set and structured schedule that forces teachers to contain the fun and adventure of learning to a set time.  How is that right or just?  How can we expect our students to fully engage in the material when we have to stop in the middle and send them onto their next class or commitment?  The research tells us that students learn best when they have time to practice and explore the material they are learning.  So, why do schools have such structured and time bound schedules?  Why are we stealing the fun of learning from our students?

I had what I thought was a pretty sweet lesson all lined up for my study skills class today.  I felt like my lesson allowed for more than enough time to cover the material, allow students to practice, and assess the students on their understanding of the skill covered.  But then of course, life happened.  As my study skills class is the first period of the day for my students, I wanted to remind the boys that today was the start of the winter term and a chance to hit the reset button on their grades.  I also wanted to remind them about what little time we have before our next vacation.  Of course, this inevitably led to several questions from the students, which I love.  I love when my students are actively thinking and engaging in what is being discussed.  Being mindful is a key skill we’ve been trying to help them learn since September.  Then, all of a sudden, I realized that I only had about 30 minutes of class time left to cover my lesson.  I started with my hook activity, which took longer than I thought it would as the students seemed to really be into it.  Discussing the heart of the lesson and learning took about eight minutes, which meant that I only had about three minutes left for the students to practice the skill of completing an effective Google Search.  What about the assessment?  What about going over the practice activity?  What about the closing discussion on the importance of knowing how to complete an effective Google Search?  I had no time for everything else because I needed to send my students onto their next class.  Yes, I’m going to cover what was missed during tomorrow’s class, but that’s not the point.  The point is, I had to stop the learning process midway, creating much interference in their brain.  Very little retention comes when so much interference occurs.

While every course we offer at my school is equally important, I find it very frustrating to limit the learning, exploration, curiosity, critical thinking, investigating, and fun.  Why can’t we have more time for class?  Why do we have just 40 minutes per class?  Why can’t we have a more flexible schedule that would allow teachers to have longer periods on certain days?  What about a block schedule, with longer periods per class?  What about stretching our academic day by a few hours?  Do we really need three hours of athletics?  What if we have sports go later into the evening?  What if we think about what works best for our students and create a schedule around that?

While time and the prison in which it binds us will never disappear, schools need to find more effective ways to educate students.  We can’t expect students to love learning and school when labs, activities, and lessons have to end early because the students need to move onto their next commitment.  We need to find a way to create flexible schedules for students and teachers.  We need to provide teachers with the time to dig into the content and skills because what is happening now at many schools around the world is clearly not working.  Students are missing out on learning opportunities and teachers are feeling stuck because there just never seems to be enough time.  We need to create schools that focus on the learning process and not a series of courses and classes.  We need to make learning fun and enjoyable for our students and their teachers.  We need to steal back time and return it to our schools.

Awesome Sauce: When Learning Happens in the Classroom

Being a teacher has its many perks and rewards:

  • Observing students really “get” stuff and have A-Ha moments in the classroom.
  • Being able to decorate your classroom anyway you want with no one telling you, “Those drapes clash with that carpet.”
  • Helping students grow and develop.
  • Challenging students to change their perspective on life.
  • Halloween.  Need I say more?
  • Celebrating a furry brown creature who lives in the ground with songs, poems, and fun.
  • Meeting new students on the first day of school.
  • Running into past students in strange places and taking a stroll down memory lane.

I bet that some of you thought snow days and summer vacation were going to be at the top of my list.  While we, as teachers, do love our time off, we’d much rather be in the classroom with our students molding minds and helping create the next generation of leaders, thinkers, and doers.

Another thing teachers really love about their lifestyle choice is seeing that their students are actually learning.  Yes, it’s great to see the moment when they understand something like a lightbulb going off in their brain, but seeing students apply that new knowledge they learn is even cooler.

Over the years, I’ve wrestled with how to help students see the power of the peer editing process.  How do I help students understand the value in providing their peers with meaningful feedback that will help them effectively revise their written work?  How can I best teach students to be effective peer editors?  Each year I feel as though teaching students to be great peer editors is like what early American settlers went through when they journeyed west in search of land, an arduous and long journey.  It takes many students the entire year to really be able to master the skill of providing their peers with useful feedback.  I get it.  Having a careful eye and providing constructive feedback to others is not an easy thing to do.  It’s hard to effectively help others to make their writing better.  I sometimes struggle with this skill myself, and I’m an adult.  I understand that this journey to becoming an effective peer editor can be bumpy and filled with unexpected twists and turns, which is why I don’t expect my students to be able to meaningfully help others revise their written work until later in the academic year.

Now, while I’ve heard that miracles do happen, I have yet to see any in my short life.  Wait a minute, I take that back: My teenaged son once woke up in a pleasant mood.  That was definitely a miracle.  Inside my classroom, I was fortunate enough today to see another miracle: My students effectively peer editing each other’s written work.

Today’s class began much like any other.  The boys wrote down the homework and completed a Brain Puzzle activity altogether as a class.  Nothing special or miraculous happened.  The boys did what was expected of them.  Then, I introduced the peer editing activity that the students would be completing in class.  I reviewed the difference between editing and revising and made a list on the board of the various writing features they should be looking to comment on regarding their partner’s Learning Goals Plan.  I went over the steps of the process and made sure they understood what was expected of them.  As I was definitely employing a fixed mindset going into today’s class, I was certain that they would have time to peer edit with at least three different students since they usually only provide their partner with superficial feedback on how they can improve their work.  Then came the miracle.

The students got right to work.  No, that wasn’t the miracle.  While I have had previous classes struggle with this skill, this year’s group is great at getting right to work.  The miracle came when they started to work.  The students were asking each other questions like, “How will you use a growth mindset?  What do you mean here?  Could you explain more here?”  I was amazed.  They were really trying to provide their partner with constructive feedback.  They were focusing on the big features of their written work and not the little, nit picky stuff like spelling or grammar.  They were trying to help their partner become a better, more effective writer.  They posed great questions and provided each other with effective and meaningful feedback.  It was awesome.  They were completing the peer editing process in a real and genuine manner.  They weren’t just going through the motions like classes in the past have done, oh no.  They were taking the time to really dissect their partner’s work so that he could put it back together in a more effective way.  I was amazed.  They spent so long working with one partner, that they only had time to provide feedback to one student prior to the end of class.  Wow!

How were they able to accomplish this task so early in the year?  No other group has demonstrated mastery of this skill so soon in the school year.  What allowed or helped my students to be successful during today’s activity?   Was it because we’ve been focusing on helping our students utilize a growth mindset while working?   Was that it?  Or was it that I explained what they needed to do in a way that made sense to them?  Perhaps it was because I reminded them that I will be grading them on their ability to provide their partner with effective feedback.  Maybe the sunny weather motivated them to buckle down and really work in class today.  Who knows what it was, as there were so many variables at play.  I don’t feel as though I taught the skill of peer editing any differently this year than I did in past years, and so I’m not sure what it was that helped them all showcase their ability to peer edit their partner’s work in a meaningful way.  I do know that something special happened in the classroom today.  If my students apply the feedback with which they were provided today, they will all certainly be able to exceed the two graded objectives for this task.  I can’t wait to read the final draft of their Learning Goals Plan on Friday as they are sure to be “legen- wait for it- dary.”

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.

How to Create Just the Right Project for Your Students

Creating an engaging project that promotes critical thinking while also allowing students to showcase their learning regarding various objectives covered throughout a unit is quite the challenging task.  It can feel like planning a wedding in two weeks or finding out two days before Thanksgiving that you’re hosting the holiday for 25 people.  Ahhh!  It’s overwhelming and a bit scary, but after you take a few deep breaths, realize that you can do anything, solutions will come.

As teachers, we work tirelessly to engage and excite our students.  We want them to love coming to our class.  We want them to love learning because it’s fun.  While not every unit we cover can make use of a project or activity that excites our students, we are always looking for some feature to our units that will help bring the learning to life.  We want our students to want to learn and accomplish tasks because they are having fun.  Competitions of all types can do this, but sometimes, at the cost of compassion and integrity.  So then, how can we create the perfect project for our students?

  1. Pour over the content and objectives you are looking to cover in a unit.  What are the big ideas and essential questions?  How can you turn those essential questions into an exploration or project for the students?  Extracting the big ideas from an upcoming unit will help inspire you to create that one perfect project.
  2. Know your students.  What excites them?  Do they like hands-on projects?  Do they like group projects?  Do they like to talk and discuss?  Knowing what your students enjoy, will help you to design and construct a meaningful project for them.
  3. Begin laying out your unit.  Map it out using whatever information systems management software your school uses.  My school makes use of PowerSchool.  Put everything together and map out your daily lessons.  As you start to see it all come together, a project idea may smack you right in the frontal lobe.
  4. Create the best project or final assessment that you are able to at the time.  You may not like your first few ideas, and that’s okay.  As you process the information and your ideas, a better, more fun idea is bound to come into your mind.  In order to get something new, you must start with something old first.
  5. If you’ve created your entire unit and still have no ideas for the perfect project, don’t stress or worry.  Talk to colleagues.  What projects or activities do they use in their classroom that engage their students?  How can you tweak those ideas to fit your unit?  Go online and see what other teachers are doing.  Imitation is the best form of flattery, someone very wise once said.
  6. If you’ve come to the end of your unit and your students completed the original project or assessment you created, don’t fret and feel like a failure.  Use the experience as a learning opportunity.  Ask the students what they thought.  Have them complete a reflection on the unit and final project.  Ask them for ideas.  Our students are often like untapped sugar maple trees, full of syrupy goodness.  They may have ideas and suggestions for us.  Some of my best ideas have come from feedback I received from my students.
  7. Revise your unit for next year, based on all of the feedback and ideas you’ve gathered during the implementation phase.  By this point, you should have created a very perfect, engaging project for next year, and already been thinking about future projects you can do with this year’s class.  Reflective teaching allows for growth and development to happen at a swift pace.

As I was putting together a recent unit on the foundations of government, I felt the pressure of creating the perfect project.  I wanted to engage my students in the learning process.  Nothing I brainstormed seemed appropriate or fun.  So, I designed my unit with what I felt was the best possible final assessment idea, and then just let it be.  After a few days of processing all of the thoughts and ideas swirling about my head, the perfect idea finally came to me.  So, I revised my unit before I began utilizing it in the classroom.  It felt good to put together something that I was excited about it.  Positive energy is contagious, much like common colds are in the classroom.  If we are excited about something as teachers, we will present it to our students in a way that will hopefully energize them as well.

Yesterday, I introduced the final project to the students, with much fanfare.  They were excited to get started.  Not only did they love the idea that it was a partner project, but they seemed super jazzed about the fact that they had total creative license over almost every aspect of the project.  They had very few questions after I explained the project and went over the digital version of the project that I had put together on PowerSchool.  Was that a bad thing?  No, because I’m sure questions will come up as they work, and I will field them then.  They couldn’t wait to get started.  The creative and positive energy flowing around the classroom was palpable.  The boys had smiles on their faces as they designed flags for their utopian state.  The students had deep and meaningful conversations about where in the world their state should be located based on natural disasters, closeness to the equator, and other factors.  They were thinking critically and creatively about the task at hand.  I could not have been more proud or excited than I was yesterday.  When I informed the students that it was time to pick up and prepare for their next class, you could feel, the energy level change.  They were disappointed that they could no longer work on this project.  Then, after class had ended, a few students were in the hallway discussing their plan for working on the project this weekend, outside of the classroom.  They are so excited about completing this learning task and doing well on it that they are creating a plan to work during their only chunk of free time.  Wow!  I think that says it all right there.  I created the perfect project for my students and the unit.  It took time, energy, and much thinking and searching, but I was able to do it.  Sometimes it comes down to perseverance and growth mindset.  As we teach our students the value of utilizing a growth mindset, it’s important that we remember to employ one ourselves as we are working and teaching.  Anyone can create the perfect project for their students and the unit being covered.

Below is the project description for the perfect project I introduced to my students in class yesterday:

Creating the Perfect State Project

Once you have learned all about the purpose of government, the roles of government, the features of a state, and the types of government, you will have a chance to apply that knowledge and create your own, perfect state and government.  What will your state’s territory look like on a map?  What will be the features of your population?  What form of government will your country utilize?  Be creative and have fun as you create a utopian place for all to live in harmony.

Procedure

  1. Choose a partner that you feel you will be able to work with effectively, and report your selection to Mr. Holt.
  2. Create a unique, fictional island state, complete with government and population.
  3. Complete the Sovereign State worksheet with your partner.
  4. Watch Google Sites Video Tutorial to Learn how to use the Google Sites application.
  5. Create a Google Sites website to promote your country and inform others about its features.
  6. Share your website with at least two faculty members in order to receive meaningful and useful feedback that you can use to revise and improve your website.
  7. Finalize website and share it with the world.

Website Requirements

Your finished and neatly organized Google Sites website must answer and address the following questions about your unique and fictional but effective state:

  • Where in the world is your state located and what are its borders?
  • What form of government will your fictional state utilize and why?
  • What are the features of your population, including level of wealth, level of education, cultural traditions, and where people live, and why did you decide upon them?
  • How are the leaders of government and assembly selected and voted upon, and why?
  • How do elections happen in your state, and why?
  • How is your state protected, and why?
  • How are laws made in your state, and why?
  • What are the roles citizens and how are citizens protected in your state, and why?
  • What is the process by which someone who is not born in your state can become a citizen of your state, and why?
  • Why should and would outsiders want to live in or visit your state?

Graded Objectives

  • Students will be able to identify and describe the four features of a state.
  • Students will be able to explain how the four roles of government impact a place and its people.
  • Students will be able to synthesize and apply knowledge learned regarding the roles of government and the four features of a state to create a fictional but effective country.
  • Students will be able to utilize the program Google Sites appropriately to create a working web site.

Due Date

Your finished website must be posted and made live for others to view by the end of class on Friday, November 17.