Posted in Education, Humanities, Language, Learning, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Summer Reading Professional Development Text: Educating English Learners

After a lengthy hiatus brought on by the craziness that is teaching sixth grade at a boarding school, I jumped headfirst right back into Educating English Learners, by Nutta, Strebel, Mokhtari, Mihai, and Crevecoeur-Bryant, now that summer vacation has begun.  While it was quite dense and loaded with vocabulary more geared towards English as a Second Language Teachers, I learned a lot about how to better support and help the English language learners in my class.  I would not recommend this text for light reading as I found myself having to reread several passages because of the syntax and verbosity of the language used.  It’s a great resource for any teacher who works with non-native English students in their classroom.  Although the book doesn’t include neat and easy to use remedies and strategies, it provides the reader with much food for thought and fodder on how to create a caring and supportive environment for all students in the classroom.

My takeaways:

  • English language learners will struggle less when learning English if their native language literacy skills are strong.  While this seems quite simplistic and obvious, when I read this knowledge nugget, I felt as though someone had slung a bag of bricks at my head.  So, the stronger the EL student is in his or her native language, the better equipped he or she will be to tackle the intricacies of the English language.  Knowing this will help me better structure mini-lessons or plans for the ELs in my class.  Talking to parents and looking at student files ahead of time might provide me with the answers I need regarding this issue.
  • To help EL students feel more welcomed and safe at the start of the school year, labelling objects around the room in the native languages represented in the classroom is a good first step in setting up the classroom.  This will help the students know how much I care about them and want them to be successful.  It’s a little thing that is sure to go a long way.  It’s also great for vocabulary development for those EL students in my class.
  • Things that native English speakers take for granted are truly difficult for EL students to learn.  For example, native English speakers know the difference between words when they are used in social contexts or in academic settings.  A party is a social gathering when discussed amongst friends, but in the social studies classroom it refers to a group of people with similar beliefs.  Although the definitions are closely related, to non-native English students, how is it possible that one word can have more than one meaning?  The English language is full of rules, idiomatic expressions, and exceptions to every rule.  Being aware of these challenges will help us better empathize with and support the ESL students in our classroom.
  • If we know that most native English speakers don’t fully grasp why we say what we do and how we say things in English and our ELLs need much help understanding rules of grammar when learning English, why don’t we do more formal instruction in the classroom on the rules and structure of English?  Why don’t we teach the parts of speech and how to use them?  Why don’t we help students learn how to diagram sentences to understand the hows and whys of English?  Why don’t we teach the English language to all of our students?  As I’ve often wrestled with these questions over the years, I’ve suddenly realized that I don’t formally teach grammar and English to my sixth grade students.  Sure, I brush over it at various times when I’m conferencing with students in Writer’s Workshop or helping an ELL in my class; I don’t however, do any full-class instruction on this.  I need to bring back the formal grammar instruction, but I want to make sure I do so in a meaningful, relevant, and engaging way.  Having the students complete worksheets and underline verbs and nouns seems tedious and boring.  I want my students to truly learn English grammar.  I was thinking of starting my Humanities class twice a week with a brain opener activity I would call Grammar Gurus in which I would teach the students about English grammar through fun activities.  It wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes and it would allow me be sure that my students understand the form and function of the English language.  This would also greatly benefit the ELLs in my classroom too.  Nice!
  • Acting out, visually, or through modelling, new or challenging vocabulary terms will better help the EL students in our classrooms understand what we are discussing or asking them to do.  I could use images or diagrams as instructions on worksheets or on our class website to help non-native English speakers better understand what is being asked of them.
  • Much like labelling objects in the classroom in various different languages, having a word wall in the classroom with new vocabulary terms and their definitions in simple English would also help struggling English language learners better understand the content being covered in class.  My co-teacher and I could use this strategy as an introductory lesson for each new unit.  We could introduce the new vocabulary terms that we will cover throughout the unit and help the students generate student-friendly and simplistic definitions for the new words.  Very cool idea!
  • Thematic units or PBLs help ELLs due to the longer exposure to the content and vocabulary terms covered.  If the students are learning about renewable energy in STEM class and also writing about it in Humanities class, the same ideas, concepts, and vocabulary terms will be used in both classes.  The English language learners in the classroom would then be provided with more time to practice understanding the content and processing the new words and concepts.  What a brilliant idea!  I’m going to talk to my co-teacher about crafting more thematic units throughout the year to better support and help the ESL students in our class.
  • While I’ve always known the power in partnering non-native English speakers with native English students, the book made a point to explain the power in pairing students with different languages together when working on a PBL activity that incorporates technology somehow.  The non-native English speaker can receive English support from the native speaker while they are both problem solving in English together.  Not only does this technique help to bridge cultural differences, it also helps both students grow and develop as English language learners.  I need to make sure I continue this tradition of pairing ELLs with native English speakers in the classroom as the evidence and research proves what I’ve known all along.
  • The text discusses the importance of correcting the English language learners in our class in their writing and oral speech.  This goes against my prior knowledge and what I currently do in the classroom.  Rather than correcting the oral speech of the ELLs in my classroom, I work with them one-on-one with their writing.  I provide them feedback on how to improve their written English.  I should do this more consistently and also correct their oral English as well.  The book highlights the importance of doing this so that the students will learn proper English.  If we cottle the ELLs in our classroom, they will not grow and develop as English language learners.  Although this seems like common sense, I’ve never realized the importance of doing so for the ESL students in my class.  I need to do this regularly in the classroom.
  • For ELLs to grow and develop, they need to be receiving direct instruction from an ESL instructor at least once a day along with inclusion in a mainstream class.  The combination of the two will help the students understand the rules and function of the language while also practicing the social and academic rules of English.  In the sixth grade, my ELLs only have ESL class twice a week.  They need to have it every day in order to be appropriately prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English class.  I need to talk with my school’s director of studies to see if this can be changed for next year and beyond.  While ESL class is a regular course in the seventh through ninth grades, it is done differently in the sixth grade.  This needs to be changed.  Perhaps that’s why I see very slow progress from my ESL students over the course of the year.  As I am not a qualified ESL instructor, I can’t help them in all of the ways they need to be supported as they learn the English language.
  • Because my school has almost 50% non-native English speakers, we need more professional development for supporting ELLs in our classrooms.  We need specific strategies, tips, and tricks we can use when working with English language learners.  While reading this book has helped me understand the issue at hand, it is only a tiny piece of the puzzle of working with ELLs.  I’m sure my colleagues would agree when I say that we need much more help and support from our school in working with non-native English speakers.  We need to be taught about teaching ELLs in our classrooms.  We can’t effectively help all of our students if we don’t know how to do so.

While it took me a bit longer than I had hoped to complete this text, it was totally worth the wait and perseverance.  I now know that I need to be much more deliberate and purposeful in teaching the English language to all of my students, and especially to the English language learners in my class.  I feel as though I am much more prepared now to help support the ELLs in my classroom come September.  Yes, I do still need a lot more help in what specific strategies to use when working with the English language learners in my class, but at least I feel like I have some places to start and ideas for how to improve as an English teacher moving forward.

Posted in Boys, Education, Humanities, Learning, Presentation, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Training Future Generations of Teacher Leaders

My son recently went to prom with a friend of his who happens to be a girl.  No, not his girlfriend, he likes to point out to my wife and I, his friend who is a girl.  The day of the big event, he was quite nervous and a bit grouchy toward his mom and I, which we’re used to as his parents.  While part of me wanted to be frustrated with him, what happened next erased all of those negative emotions.  When we dropped him off at his date’s house, her whole family had gathered to take pictures.  Now, to appreciate the full scope of the story that comes next, there’s something you need to know about my son.  He struggles meeting new people and greatly dislikes having his picture taking it, unless of course, he’s the one taking it.  He takes more selfies in a day than I take breaths.  So, when we arrived at his friend’s house, her entire family came to greet my son.  Instead of retreating into his turtle shell and being all silent, he shook their hands, gave and received hugs, made eye contact, talked to these strangers, and allowed them to take many pictures of him.  Even though he was a bit jerky to my wife and I, he greatly redeemed himself by putting forth his best effort to showcase what a remarkable young man he truly is.  We are so proud of him.  Of course, we’d like to think that his phenomenal behavior was a direct result of how we raised him and trained him to act in front of others.  Who knows?  Maybe that’s what it was or maybe he just knows what to do when interacting with new people.  Regardless, I was a proud poppa that day.  He looked so handsome in his tux.

As a teacher, I have experienced similar proud moments in the classroom with my students: When students have a-ha moments and the lightbulb turns on; when they solve a problem that had been causing them great difficulty; when they put an arm around a peer who is clearly having a rough day; when they apologize for making a poor choice.  The list could go on forever.  It feels good to know that you’ve had a positive impact on another person.  I love it.  In those moments, I’m reminded, yet again why I became a teacher.

Today provided me with one of those proud teaching moments during Humanities class.  For the past few weeks, the students have been preparing elaborate class presentations regarding their I-Search Project.  Some of the boys made documentary movies, others crafted slideshows, and a few made three-dimensional models to help showcase their learning.  The boys began performing their presentations in class today.  While my co-teacher and I didn’t focus too much on how to present the material, we did tell the students that they needed to make their presentations interesting and engaging as we don’t want to fall asleep watching 14 presentations that include the presenter reading from his slideshow.  The students clearly took our advice and ran with it.

The four students who presented today acted more like businessmen and trained teachers than they did sixth grade boys.  They were teaching the class all about Islamic veils, the Hanging Gardens of Babylonia, Buddhism, musical instruments utilized in the Middle East region.  They created amazing documentary movies, presentations using various digital tools, fun and engaging Kahoot quizzes, and interesting speeches on their topics.  I was amazed at how well they presented their project and material.  They were poised, rehearsed, and well-spoken.  It was awesome.  The students in the audience were respectful and asked insightful questions regarding the various presentations.  It was evident that the students were excited to share what they had learned with their peers and their classmates were clearly excited to learn more about the Middle East region.  I could not have been more proud of my students today.  Everything we’ve been trying to instill within them this year was being applied in the classroom this morning during their presentations.  One student even remarked, during his presentation, “It’s so much fun being the teacher.”  Yes, I thought.  It is so much fun being your teacher.

As the last day of classes is but a week away, it’s great to see how much the students have progressed since the start of the academic year.  They have learned a lot about the topics and material covered, gained many skills needed to be successful students, and matured a lot as individual community members this year.  While we are ecstatic to see them to move onto seventh grade next year, we’re also sad to see them go as we’ve had such a blast working with and learning from them this year.  These 14 boys are certainly going to have a huge impact on the world one day.  They will become the next teachers, changemakers, problem solvers, engineers, and everything else inbetween.  Get ready world because here they come…

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Breadth vs Depth: How Much is Too Much?

School for me was like being in a shoe factory where only one type of shoe was made.  Every day was the same: Listen to the teacher talk and take notes or complete a worksheet.  That was basically the formula, day after mundane day.  Learning was the same for every student as we were supposed to all be the same at the end of our experience just as all pairs of shoes need to look the same when coming off of the assembly line.  My teachers just scratched the surface of every topic covered.  While I was sometimes interested in a particular topic covered, we never got to go deep into any one area.  We learned just enough to be able to answer questions on a test or write an essay.  This always frustrated me as a student.  Just as I was becoming engaged in school, the topic changed, causing my interest level to decrease significantly.  Whis was that?  Why did my teachers feel the need to cover so much, but only so deeply?  Why could we not spend a month or more on a topic or unit of study?  Why did we have to rush through the curriculum at such a breakneck speed?  Genuine learning can’t possibly happen when the material and content is taught and assessed over such a short time period.  Brain science tells us that it takes more time than a few days to move information from the working memory to the short term memory and then into the long term memory; therefore, it was not possible for me to learn anything in a meaningful manner when I was in school.  So then, back to my previous question, why did my teachers do it that way?

As a teacher, I feel that covering so much content and curriculum at such a fast pace is ineffective.  In order for relevant learning to happen, the students need to be provided time to play with the new skills and content learned before they can be assessed on it.  They need to have opportunities to engage in the material, question the information learned, and process it so that they can make connections between the information learned and their prior knowledge.  This approach takes time.  As a teacher, I’m all about depth.  I want my students to jump into the material being covered and swim around for a while rather than simply dipping their toes in, which was my experience as a student.  While I believe, based on my past experience as well as my knowledge and training as an educator, that depth is more important than breadth when it comes to curriculum and content, I do sometimes wonder if my approach is the most effective one.  What if there’s something I’m missing?

In my Humanities class, the students have spent the last month working on a research project regarding a self-chosen topic.  The boys are in the midst of finishing their class presentations.  They are being so methodical with how they present all that they’ve learned about their topic.  They are crafting amazing documentary videos, learning how to use new digital tools, and really trying to think about how they will share their knowledge with their peers so that they will be engaged.  It’s impressive.  None of the students are rushing to finish their work and meet the objectives.  They are enjoying the opportunity to deeply and meaningfully learn about a topic of interest.

Imagine if I had condensed this project into a week or two so that I could cover more material and content.  Would the students be as engaged in their projects and presentations?  Would they have the chance to really get excited about learning if they had to worry about completing their work on time?  Would meaningful learning be happening if the students weren’t provided the ample time needed to delve into their research topics?  I think not.  I think the students would dislike the project if they didn’t have the time to dig deeply, question, process, learn, and play with the material.  For me, helping my students find the joy in learning is all about time.  I want them to have the time necessary to fall in love with the material and learning involved.  It’s all about depth and not breadth.  At the end of the day, knowing how to be a thinker, learner, writer, reader, student, problem solver, and person is so much more important than knowing a lot of useless facts about various topics.

Posted in Boys, Education, Humanities, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Fidget Tools or Toys?

I used to love playing marbles when I was a youngster in school.  I was the king of marbles at my school.  One time, I used a giant marble my grandfather had given me to win a mini-basketball.  It was epic.  Every recess, my friends and I would bring our marbles outside and have a blast seeing who could get the most in the small dug hole in the ground.  Once recess was over though, if the teachers saw your marbles outside of your backpack, they would be confiscated at once.  No toys of any kind were allowed in the classroom.  Even in the 90s when school counselors and doctors began suggesting that students with attention disorders should use stress balls in their pockets to stay focused, my teachers always said no.  I had a few friends who lost many stress balls that way.  If the teachers saw what they thought was a toy, even if they smelled it, they would take it at once and usually never give it back.  I lost a very rare and valuable Garbage Pail Kids card that way.  Toys of any type, even if they were used appropriately, were considered toys back when I was in school.

As times have changed, the definition of toy has also changed in the classroom.  Counselors and medical professionals around the country are suggesting that students with ADHD use fidget toys in the classroom to help keep themselves focused.  Some of these fidget objects work, when used correctly.  However, most of the times, I find them to be much more of a distraction than an actual helpful tool.  Case and point, the silly fidget spinners that have made their way into schools around the country.  It seems as though many schools have also already begun to ban them.  While students who use them effectively and appropriately do find that they to help keep them focused at times in the classroom, for most students, they are a total distraction.  Students treat them like toys and thus they are used like toys in the classroom.  Although my school doesn’t have a policy on them yet, my classroom policy is that if I see them, I will take them for the period.  If students use them under the table and they are not a distraction to the user or their nearby peers, then I’m fine with them.  I think that only one or two of the seven students in my classroom who use them regularly, use them correctly.  Today alone I confiscated three spinners over the course of three periods.  If students are using them appropriately and they are helping them stay focused in the classroom, then I’m all in favor of these fidget spinners; however, the percentage of students using them effectively is miniscule.  They are much more of a toy than a tool.

However, being the open-minded teacher that I am, I wanted to find out what the students thought.  Are fidget spinners a focus tool or a distracting toy?  If the students could persuade me with hard evidence and facts that they are toys and not tools, then I might be open to allowing them to be used more freely in the classroom.  So, for this past Saturday’s current event discussion, my co-teacher and I found a very interesting article all about these fidget toys that would drive the class discussion.  After reading the article together as a class, we had the students discuss the guiding question posed in the article, Are Fidget Objects Toys or Tools in the Classroom?  Surprisingly, almost every student noted how distracting the fidget spinners and cubes can be.  The boys shared personal stories of how they have used them in the classroom and found them to be more of a distraction than a tool to help them focus.  The boys cited examples of other students they’ve seen use them ineffectively as well as excerpts from the article.  Most of the students agreed with me and felt as though these fidget toys are just that, toys of mass distraction.  Those two or three students who saw the benefit in using fidget spinners in the classroom also agreed with me that the spinners should be used under the table or in a way that is useful to the user while also not distracting their peers.  Those same few students also felt as though teachers should take them away if they are used ineffectively.

So, wait a minute.  Are you telling me that my students, who seem to love using these fidget spinners, agree that they are toys and not tools?  What is going on with the world?  My students know what helps them focus or not?  What?  My students know themselves as learners?  How crazy is that?  Actually, that’s quite amazing and awesome.  I’m proud of my students for taking ownership regarding their learning.  They know what works best for them as students.  I’d like to think that this self-awareness my students possess is because of all the work we’ve put into helping them learn and utilize the crucial habits of learning, skills, and reflection this year in the sixth grade.  Perhaps though, they are just very conscientious and careful students who know what is right and what is wrong.  Nahh, it’s gotta be what my co-teacher and I have done in the classroom this year.  Regardless, I was a bit shocked following this discussion to learn that my students realize these spinners are a distraction.  But, if they do see these toys as toys, why do they still try to misuse them in the classroom on a daily basis?  No matter how much ownership and self-awareness they have, they are sixth grade boys who struggle to sit still on a daily basis and think that the word poop is still super hilarious.

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, Reader's Workshop, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

How to Choose the Best Read-Aloud Novel

When I was in sixth grade, I had an amazing language arts teacher who utilized the workshop model of literacy.  Twice a week, she would read aloud to us from our current read-aloud novel as a way to teach reading strategies.  That’s how I fell in love with Roald Dahl.  After she read us Matilda, I was smitten with Dahl’s prose and word play.  While I don’t recall the other books she read aloud to us, I remember them being great choices.  My year in sixth grade helped direct me towards reading and writing.  My dual major in college was creative writing because of the fire that Mrs. Lacombe lit within my soul in the sixth grade.

Now, although she made it look easy because she had carefully chosen the read-aloud novels ahead of time, there is a fine art to choosing the right book to read aloud to a class.  My teachers from other grades read aloud to the class just like Mrs. Lacombe did, but you see, because they didn’t carefully choose the novels they read aloud, I found myself usually quite disengaged and bored while they read.  This was typically the time I got into a lot of trouble as well because I was so disinterested in the story being read aloud.  Had those other teachers taken the time and put in the effort to carefully choose engaging and fun read-aloud novels, I might have started to enjoy reading at an earlier age.  I also might not have gotten in quite so much trouble either.  Regardless, the moral of the story is that you can’t just pick any old book to read aloud to a class; you have to choose one that is interesting, fun, well written, and engaging.

As I want my students to enjoy reading and see it is an adventurous experience, I make sure to take the time to carefully select just the right read-aloud novels to drive our Reader’s Workshop mini-lessons.  I spend hours online researching engaging books that will also tie our curriculum together.  I then read each book first to be sure I enjoy it because if I’m not into it, then it’s going to be super hard for me to sell it to the students.  Once I choose a read-aloud book, I try it out on a class.  I then seek feedback from the students.  While I usually don’t have to change the books we read aloud to the students unless we are altering our curriculum, I did drop one book a few years ago because the students did not like it.  It’s important that the students enjoy the book being read aloud to them.  Throughout this process of selecting books and trying them out in the classroom, I’m always looking for new books as well.

As today was host to a Reader’s Workshop block in Humanities class, we began the period with our class read-aloud.  Now, about four years ago, I was looking to try a new read-aloud book with the students as Sacagawea by Joseph Bruchac just wasn’t doing it for them anymore no matter how much I liked it and tried to sell it to them.  The boys hated the book.  So, I went on a quest to find a new read-aloud novel.  After much searching and research, I decided to try three and then choose my favorite.  While two of them were fine books and may have actually made good read-aloud options, the third selection, was by far the best choice.  Not only was it one of the best books I had read in a while, the prose was beautiful and heartbreaking all at once.  The story was inspired by true events and took an alternative approach to storytelling.  Instead of going with the typical third person approach or even the first person human method of telling a story, Katherine Applegate decided to tell her story from the perspective of a gorilla.  After reading The One and Only Ivan, I knew that I had found a special book that would remain in my read-aloud library for years to come.  Year in and year out, the students cite that book as being their favorite of our read-aloud texts.  They enjoy the story and the way in which it is told.  Ivan’s character is relatable and it’s easy to empathize with him and the other animals in the mall.  As we are almost 200 pages into the book this year, the students are loving it.  As I close the book to signify that we are transitioning into silent reading and conferences every Monday morning, shouts of “NOOOO!” can be heard for meters and meters.  My students love this book.  They enjoy learning about Ivan and his story.  They laugh at his jokes and the cute way the author tries to get inside the mind of a gorilla.  They just can’t get enough.  They hang on my every word.  One student even tried to find a copy of the book in the library about a week ago so that he could finish it on his own.  Unfortunately or fortunately depending on your perspective of the situation, the library at my school does not have that particular title in stock.

So, not only are my students loving this book and its story, they are finding enjoyment in reading.  Those students who began the year as reluctant readers are now voracious reading machines.  They love reading and finding new books.  They look forward to Mondays and Reader’s Workshop as much as I look forward to going to concerts.  They love listening to our class read-aloud novel and then curling up with a good book and getting lost, for a few brief moments, in another world.  Helping our students find their love of reading starts with our approach to teaching it.  We need to offer students choice in the books they read, but we also need to choose interesting books to read-aloud to them as these are the vehicles by which we teach the critical reading strategies they will need to grow into mature and careful readers and thinkers.  Choosing the right read-aloud novel requires much time and energy, but pays dividends at the end of the day when the right ones are read aloud to our students.

Posted in Education, Humanities, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Bringing the Research Process to Life For my Students

I used to cringe when my teachers said, “Okay boys and girls, today you are going to choose your research topics.”  NOOOOOOOO! I used to think.  I hated research projects as a student.  Research always seemed like such an evil word that basically meant lots of reading and notetaking.  And on top of all that unnecessary work, I usually had to research a topic that I cared nothing about.  What’s the point?  I just jumped through the hoops to get a grade and didn’t learn anything.  My teachers never taught me how to pull out the main ideas from a text, how to paraphrase information learned to take effective notes, how to properly cite sources, or how to synthesize information learned to write a cohesive essay or report.  It wasn’t until college that I learned how to effectively complete a research project.

To make sure that my students don’t see research in the same way I did when I was their age, I teach the research process like a journey or adventure.  I want my students to see the fun in digging into sources and searching for answers.  It’s like a giant mystery.  In the sixth grade, we use the I-Search approach to teaching the research process.  This method transforms the research process from boring and tedious to engaging and reflective.

  1. The students choose a topic that interests them.  We make sure that they are in love with their topic before even beginning the finding sources phase of the process.  If they are not thoroughly interested and devoted to their topic, then the process will quickly become banal.  So, we have them brainstorm a list of questions they want to know about their topic.  This helps us understand how engaged they are with their topic.  The more curious they are, the more invested they will be in learning about what they choose.  For many students, this is the easy part of the project as they are often very interested in many different topics regarding our units of study.  Sample topics used by our students this year include the hanging gardens, the rise of terrorism in the Middle East region, Buddhist traditions, and Muslim headscarves.
  2. Once they have their topic, they generate a guiding question or two regarding their topic that will drive their research.  We take the time to teach the students how to create guiding questions.  What makes an effective guiding question?  What question words will allow for a question to have multiple answers?  How can you make sure that your question will allow you to dig deeply into your topic?  This phase can be challenging for some students who struggle to think critically.  With guidance and support, they all eventually have an effective question that will guide them through their research journey.  Some questions students generated this year include the following: How does the parliamentary monarchy form of government affect the country of Jordan?  Are there different kinds of Islamic clothing worn by women, and if so, what do they represent?  How did the religion of Hinduism begin?  What are the different string instruments used in the Middle East region?
  3. What many people commonly refer to as the first stage of the research process only begins once the students have a road map for where they would like to go.  Now, sometimes, that destination changes because they were unaware of the many scenic detours their research journey takes them on.  For the most part though, when the students construct an effective guiding question, they know where they hope to end up when all is said and done.  The third phase of the project involves carefully choosing reputable resources from which they will extract useful information.  We have the students locate two web resources, one book, and one interview source.  The students need to create a proper MLA citation for each source found, after they fully investigate the source.  Is it useful?  Will it help them answer their guiding question?  Is the source reputable and trustworthy?  For each source they choose, they have to answer a series of questions that will help them determine if they have indeed found effective research sources.  In this phase, the students get to apply the skills they learned earlier in the year regarding proper MLA citation, conducting an effective web search, and identifying reputable Internet sources.
  4. Once they have mapped out their research journey, then, and only then, do they begin learning about their topic.  They read pages and pages of information regarding their topic.  As they read, they extract important knowledge nuggets in their own words in their I-Search document.  This allows the students yet another chance to practice paraphrasing information learned, as this is a skill many students struggle to master in the upper middle grades.  Once they finish extracting all they can find from each source, they reflect on the source itself.  Was it as useful as they thought?  Did it give them the information they had hoped it would?  What else do they still need to know and learn?
  5. After they have found the buried treasure they searched so hard for, they then need to create a final, revised treasure map as the map they originally created most likely changed throughout the research process.  What did you learn about your topic and about yourself as a researcher?  They create a What I Learned report all about their research process.  While they do discuss what they learned about their topic and guiding question, they also focus on the various stages of the research process.  What phases of the research process are most important and why?  This turns into a very reflective report regarding their research process.
  6. Once the students have had a chance to learn about themselves as researchers and found many knowledge nuggets regarding their chosen topic, they then get to share their findings with the world?  What did you learn?  Why was it interesting?  The students choose a method in which they will present their process and information learned to the class.  Some students create iMovies and slideshows while others get creative and make posters and dioramas.  The possibilities are endless.  This phase is all about creativity.  How can they make their topic and research process memorable and engaging to others?

The threads that tie the entire process together are the daily reflections the students complete at the end of each work period.  We have the students address two or three questions at the close of every period so that they can stop and think about themselves as a researcher.  What went well and what struggles are they encountering?  They add these reflections to their I-Search document that showcases all of their work.  This document is what we, as the teachers, use to assess their work.  As many skills are being applied in the completion of this project, it is a very large task with many objective grades.

To make this project seem engaging to the students, we introduce it as a journey.  On Tuesday in Humanities class, I strapped on a fancy prospector’s hat and got out a hammer to explain the fourth phase of the I-Search process.  I had the students imagine that they were living on the east coast of the US in the 1800s when word of the California gold rush spread to them.  They of course got the itch to move west in search of money and dreams.  I acted out their journey west and the problems faced as metaphors for the research process.  I then got down on the floor of my classroom and pretended to sift through a river for gold.  I pretended to wipe sweat from my brow as I sifted and sifted for gold with no luck.  I made sure to highlight how I didn’t give up and persevered just like they will have to do when they read through their sources and don’t find the information they are looking for right away.  Then, I pretended to find gold and got all excited, like they will do when they learn about cool information regarding their topic.  After this little dramatization, the students seemed fired up.  They were excited to go on an adventure to mine for knowledge nuggets.  Making the research process come to life for my students helps make this vital life skill more engaging and relevant, thus, allowing for more deeper and genuine learning to take place.  Research isn’t about reading boring information and taking copious notes.  It’s about exploring unchartered territories and learning about new topics.  The research process is an adventure filled with unexpected twists and turns.  Utilizing the I-Search process helps our students see the excitement and fun that can be had when completing a research project.

Posted in Challenges, Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

What’s the Best Method for Helping Students Learn About Music?

In the summer before my fifth grade year of school, a big decision stared me straight in the face?  What instrument should I play in school?  Saxophone?  Clarinet?  Drums?  Students had the option to play an instrument in the fifth grade at my school.  While we didn’t have to do anything, many of my friends were talking about which instrument they were going to choose, and so I felt like I needed to fit in.  I didn’t really want to play an instrument, but I succumbed to peer pressure anyway.  So, I chose the clarinet.  Lets just say that it’s not the sexiest of instruments to play, but I went with it anyway.  After about three weeks, I gave up and stopped playing because the lessons were during recess.  What fifth grade boy wants to miss recess to learn how to play a musical instrument?  Not me.  The lessons were all about repetition and rote memorization.  Everybody had to do the same thing at the same time.  This method of learning about music didn’t work for me.  I do however, to this very day, still wish I hadn’t given up on the clarinet.  I wish I had persevered and stuck with it.  Listening to and enjoying music is a big part of my life, and I wish I knew how to read music or play a musical instrument.  Perhaps, if I had been taught the true value of learning to play an instrument or had a more engaging instructor, I might be playing in the philharmonic orchestra somewhere in the world right now instead of posting a reflection on my awesome day of teaching.  I’m glad I’m where I am doing what I love though.

Teaching is all about engaging students in the content.  While I’m not a music teacher, I do feel obligated to impart some musical knowledge and wisdom to my students.  I want them to understand the power of music.  Music, like a photograph, speaks volumes without saying anything at all.  We can learn so much about people, culture, and history from studying music.  As a teacher, I want to be sure my students understand the great power that music holds.

Today in Humanities class, I lead a foray into the music of the Middle East Region.  We’ve been learning all about the region, forms of government, types of religion, and roles of women in this region of the world.  For our final mini-lesson on this region, I wanted to help the students piece everything we’ve been giving them together, and what better way to do that than through music.  First, I introduced some of the basic instruments used by musicians in the Middle East.  We listened to the sound that each made.  Then I shared three different pieces of music from that region with the students.  The first piece was a traditional piece of Arabic folk music that made use of many of the instruments we discussed in the opening of the lesson.  I then had the boys listen to a modern piece of Arabic pop music.  The final song was a piece of traditional Jewish music from the region.  Following each piece, we discussed what they noticed, similarities and differences.  We didn’t dig into the complexities of music composition or anything deep like that.  Instead, I wanted the students to share their thoughts and feelings on the pieces.  How did the music make you feel?  What can we learn about the culture of the Middle East Region from listening to these pieces of music?  The students provided great fodder for our discussion.  They noticed things that I hadn’t even thought about.  They heard so much more in the pieces than just the music.  It was amazing.  The boys shared the emotions that were conjured up by the pieces.  “This pieces sounds energetic and happy.  It doesn’t sound like it would come from the Middle East region based on what we’ve learned about this part of the world.”  We had a great discussion on a region of the world and its music.  We talked about history, music, religion, and culture all by simply listening to music.  The students were so engaged that I ended up not being able to call on every student who wanted to participate due to lack of time in the period.  We could have spent the rest of the morning talking about music and what it teaches us as they were that into it.

Unlike my horrible experience with music instruction in school, I’m trying to provide my students with opportunities to see music as something more than instruments and reading music.  Sure, some students in my class do play an instrument and take lessons outside of the academic day.  That’s amazing.  I’m so impressed that they have the wherewithal to do that, as I didn’t when I was their age.  I want my students to see the power that music holds as well.  Music is not just about sounds and words, it’s about emotions, feelings, history, culture, dance, and so much more.  Music is an experience, and I feel as though I was able to convey this idea to my students today through our short mini-lesson on the music of the Middle East Region.  They seemed curious and engaged.  Perhaps they will learn more about music outside of class on their own as their appetite for more was awakened in the classroom today.  Maybe, or maybe not.  Perhaps most of my students walked away from class today feeling like they got just enough musical knowledge and will not dig any deeper.  That’s okay too, as long as my students don’t see music as something unfun.  I want them to see that music is about life and can be fun and engaging.  Luckily, I feel like I did that today for most of my students.

Was my method of music instruction the best way to teach students about music?  Maybe not.  Was the way my band teacher tried to teach me the most effective method of music instruction?  Clearly not for me.  What about other methods?  What about other vehicles?  What other engaging ways could we teach music to our students?  Digital music making?  Music history?  Music analysis?  Is one way of teaching students to see the value in music better than others?  Does every method work for every student?  Of course not.  As teachers, we need to try new things and take risks like we want our students to do.  We need to learn, try things, fail, and try something different.  Like teaching any subject or content area, there isn’t just one way to teach, but there is always one outcome that we should be shooting for– engagement.  In order for students to learn, they need to be interested and engaged in the content.  So, whatever we choose to teach, music or any other subject for that matter, we need to remember to make it exciting, relevant, and interesting for our students.

Posted in Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

Takeaways from a Saturday in the Classroom

Typically, when I post to this blog, I focus on one activity or aspect of my teaching that was either really great or really not great.  This focus allows me to be very reflective and think about my approach in the classroom.  What am I doing well and what do I need to work on?  At the end of almost every day, I find it quite easy to think about just one highlight or lowlight from my teaching day.  Rarely, does more than one idea or topic stick out when I sit down to reflect and post to my blog.  Occasionally though, I have one of those days where two things come to the forefront of my mind as occurrences that I would like to reflect upon.  On those days, I try to focus on the one happening that proved more challenging or difficult so that I can begin to brainstorm solutions on how to approach it if it ever reappears in the classroom.  Those days are usually quite rare.

You’re probably asking yourself, what about those days when lots of occurrences stand out?  What do you do then?  Do you choose just one?  How can you possibly choose just one topic to reflect upon when so many great or awful things happened in the classroom?  Well, luckily, today was one of those incredibly uncommon days where so many amazing things happened that I couldn’t possibly choose just one to write about.  Perhaps, because it is Saturday, magic was in the air this morning in the sixth grade classroom.  Maybe my students were replaced with alien clones last night.  Perhaps there was some sort of strange astronomical happening going on that caused the brains of my students to work in a very focused and creative manner today.  Regardless of the reason, today brought with it many amazing occurrences in the classroom.

  • In Humanities class, we discussed the current state of affairs in Syria regarding the recent chemical attack that took place earlier in the week.  The students had read and annotated the news article from Newsela for homework.  At the start of the activity, I addressed clarifying questions the students had about the article.  What didn’t make sense?  What words did you not understand?  Following a quick recap of the article, my co-teacher and I divided the students into two, small discussion groups.  The group in the classroom with me, had an amazing conversation and discussion for about 15 minutes.  It was completely driven by the students in the Socratic method of discussion.  I merely observed and took notes on how the students participated.  The students posed questions, answered each other’s questions, built upon the ideas previously stated, and clarified statements made as they addressed the guiding question– How should other countries respond to this issue?  I was so impressed by the level of insightful comments made by my students.  They raised great points: Some students disagreed with America’s response while others felt as though we should have done more; some students felt as though a plan should be made to remove the current Syrian president from office; one student said, “If we don’t do anything, more innocent people will die.”  My students were talking about a vitally important current event with gusto, poise, and seriousness.  I was amazed.  Today’s discussion may very well have been one of the best of the entire year as it highlighted how much each and every one of them as grown as students, thinkers, and team members.
  • During the second period of Humanities class today, we began a mini-lesson on religion in the Middle East Region.  We started the lesson with a discussion on religion and its purpose.  Why do people practice religions?  What positive and negative impacts have come as a result of religion?  This then lead into an explanation of the religion of Islam.  We watched a brief video that explained the history and beliefs of Islam.  Following the video, we debriefed the big ideas covered in the Crash Course History video.  The students seemed to understand that Islam, at its core, is a religion of compassion and kindness.  I then explained to the students how the foundation of this religion has been twisted over the years through translations and new supplemental laws and texts that make it appear to be a very harsh, biased, and detrimental religion practiced by terrorists and misogynists.  My co-teacher and I wanted to clear up confusion and make sure that our students have an accurate and true understanding of the religion of Islam and its belief system.  At the close of the period, I asked the students to share how their perception of Islam changed since learning more about it.  Every student called upon explained how they used to once think of Islam as a negative religion associated with terrorists but now see it for what it really is, a different yet compassionate and accepting religion.  Their perspective on Islam and the Middle East Region was broadened today because of the information with which we provided them.  It felt good to help our students open their minds regarding an often controversial topic of discussion in modern society.
  • During STEM class today, the students continued working on their assigned math coursework.  Those students who were working independently got right to work and accomplished more than one of the assigned tasks.  They were so focused.  One student needed a mini-lesson regarding his assigned lesson and so I worked with him one-on-one at the work table in the back of our classroom.  I reviewed a concept he struggled to understand on the check-in assessment before getting into the new skill covered in lesson 3.2.  After helping him understand how to subtract algebraic terms with the same variable, he began working on the assigned practice problems from the lesson.  As he walked back to his seat, he said, “I’m finally understanding algebra now.”  Yes, I thought to myself, he’s getting it.  I was so happy for this student and excited that a lightbulb clearly turned on in his brain as we discussed the concept of simplifying algebraic terms involving subtraction.  He’s growing and maturing while employing a growth mindset.  Mission accomplished, for now anyway.

So yeah, it was a pretty awesome day in the sixth grade classroom today.  My students were focused and worked very well throughout our time together.  They put forth great effort to meet and exceed the objectives covered while also working together as a family to grow and learn.  What a day!

Posted in Education, Humanities, Learning, Sixth Grade, Standards, Students, Teaching

How Do You Motivate Students to do their Best Without Focusing on their Grades?

I was really good at the game I called school once I hit the seventh grade.  I figured out what my teachers wanted and so I gave it to them.  It wasn’t about learning for me, it was about jumping through hoops and meeting the expectations my teachers set.  My English teacher, for example, liked it when students used lots of adjectives and descriptive words in their writing and so I made sure to do just that in each and every written assignment.  For me, the focus was on grades.  My parents bribed me to get good grades by paying me for every A and B I received.  So, I made sure to complete work that would earn me high marks in all of my classes.  It worked.  I earned a spot on my school’s National Honor Society and spent every term on the Honor Roll.  I kicked butt at school because I focused on the grades.  Unfortunately though, if you asked me what I learned back in those days, I would have very little to say as I didn’t retain much.  I was a passive learner.  I regurgitated facts and information and then erased them from my mind.  I wasn’t actively looking to learn as I was so focused on earning high grades.  In retrospect, I wish I had been more interested in the information and skills my teachers were trying to teach me as I feel like I would have gotten so much more out of my school experience.

Learning from my mistakes as a student, I make sure that as a teacher, my students don’t just go through the motions to complete work and earn high marks.  I want my students to see school as a journey and an adventure, not a game they are trying to win.  To do this, I craft meaningful and relevant assignments that allow the students to think critically about the content and skills learned to answer questions, reflect, make or construct something, or simply write.  These engaging, hands-on, and creative assignments force students to think about information learned in new and unique ways that prevent them from simply restating what was discussed in class or learned on a website.  The next big piece that helps me be sure my students see school as an exploration is grading and assessment.  Students don’t earn letter grades or percentages for assignments as we utilize the objectives/standards-based grading system in the sixth grade.  Each assignment may be graded on more than one objective and so they are earning more than one grade for most every assignment.  Our grades are as follows:

  • 4: Exceeds the Objective
  • 3: Meets the Objective
  • 2: Working Towards the Objective
  • 1: Insufficient Data to Assess Ability to Meet or Work Towards Meeting the Objective

The students learn, early on in the academic year, how our system works.  We don’t talk about As and Bs in the sixth grade, we talk about objectives and skills.  This puts the focus on school as a journey towards understanding rather than a game to win.  We also make use of the redo process in the sixth grade.  When a student earns an objective grade that he feels does not display his best effort and work, he can redo it in a timely manner to be reassessed.  This allows the students to strive for success and their best effort in the class at all times.  This restructuring of school by using the objectives-based grading system and making assignments meaningful and challenging for the students helps us change the perception our students have of school.  School then is no longer about jumping through hoops and completing busy work; school becomes a learning process for the students.

Today in Humanities class, the students participated in a writing activity in which they had to write about a picture that showed a woman or women from the Middle East region wearing some sort of head scarf.  The writing task was very open ended: They could write a story explaining what they believed to be the woman’s story; they could write a poem explaining the picture or their thoughts about the picture; they could describe what the image shows; or they could explain their thoughts and feelings about the picture and what it depicts.  The paper on which they were using to record their writing included questions to inspire them as they reflected on the picture.  The students had ten minutes to complete this activity in class.  We want our students to learn to be able to sustain their writing stamina for a long period of time while writing about one topic or idea.  This activity is yet another way for them to practice this skill.  My co-teacher and I had no expectations for what would come from this activity as we just wanted to provide the students with an opportunity to write and reflect on their prior knowledge and perception of women who wear a headscarf.  We didn’t know what would come from this activity.

The result was inline with what we’ve observed from our students during the past few months, and so we were not surprised by the outcome.  Those students who put forth their best effort in everything they do in the classroom, did just that again for this assignment.  They filled at least one page with meaningful and reflective words.  They stayed focused for the entire ten minutes and worked diligently to write as much as possible so that they could showcase their ability to meet or exceed the graded objective.  For these students, doing their best work is just how they live their lives.  They like to be challenged in order to demonstrate their strengths.  We don’t need to discuss the importance of working hard in and out of class with these students.  They get it.

Those students who struggle to process information, had the same trouble with this task.  They wrote nothing on their paper despite helpful hints, ideas, and reminders.  They were so stuck in one way of thinking or processing the information, that they couldn’t write anything at all.  While we have seen much progress from these students since September, tasks like the one we did today in Humanities class do still challenge them.  To help motivate these students, we work with them independently, ask them questions, provide them extra support outside of the class day, and remind them of the graded objectives they need to meet or exceed.  In some instances, these strategies we employ work and the students are able to showcase their best effort and work.  On some tasks though, like the one we did today in class, the two students who had nothing written on their paper aren’t motivated by the typical strategies we use.  The only way to motivate these two students to work and display their best effort on assignments that challenge them is to focus on the grade they will receive.  “If you don’t complete this task, you will earn a 1/4 for this graded objective.  This low score will cause your overall Humanities grade to go down quite a bit,” are the the lines we are forced to use from time to time with these two students.  As my co-teacher and I don’t like to focus on grades in our classroom, we don’t like having to stoop to this level.  However, it seems to be the only way to inspire them to work.

Are there other strategies we could be using that would not focus on grades and help motivate these two students to accomplish a task they find quite difficult?  Are we missing something?  We know that they can write and be creative as we’ve seen it in the other courses and on many other assignments they’ve completed this year.  So, what’s the issue?  Should we just let them fail at the task if it means we have to focus on grades to motivate them?  I don’t have an answer to this question, but it does make me wonder how I can inspire and motivate students to do their best work and put forth their best effort without focusing on grades.  Is it possible?  In a world driven by grades, money, and success, the way we have organized our class to not focus on these big ideas seems as though we are creating a counterculture within the classroom.  Is that okay?  Should we be trying to break free from the constraints society places on people or fall in line like every other school or classroom around the world?  As I have always strived to be a bit different from the mainstream, I’m completely okay going against the norm if it means I can help my students grow and develop into free-thinking adults who see life as a journey.

Posted in Challenges, Co-Teacher, Education, Humanities, Students, Teaching

Why Do Simple Tasks Seem Complex to our Students?

I still remember the first time I had to assemble a piece of furniture from a box.  It was quite the comedy routine.  I had the left side on the right side and put the screws in from the wrong side.  I was missing parts and pieces, and the instructions were about as useful as a speck of sand in the desert.  Looking back on it now, the experience was pretty much a disaster.  What I thought would be a simple task, ended up taking several hours to complete.  I find it so interesting that what I usually think is an easy thing to do ends up being a lot more complex than I originally thought.  Why is that?  Perhaps it’s our perception of the task.  Because we don’t fully analyze what we need to do ahead of time, we go in unprepared.  If we spend more time preparing and fully understanding the task we face, perhaps we might be able to better approach and complete it.  This same rule applies in the classroom as well.  I find that when I plan new lessons that I think will be quite successful, they end up failing because I don’t fully think them through before executing them in the classroom.  If I spend more time preparing for the lesson and think about any shortcomings or challenges ahead of time, I might have more success.

Yesterday, my co-teacher and I planned what we thought would be an interactive and engaging activity for the students.  We planned it out and prepared guiding questions in preparation for today.  The only thing we forgot to do was figure out our delivery.  How would we present this activity to the students?  We failed to discuss this one tiny piece of the puzzle, which ended up proving to be a mistake.  While the lesson and activity did not bomb by any means, I do wonder if the explanation could have gone smoother had my co-teacher and I put more time into thinking about how we would explain the task to the students.

The assignment seemed simple enough to us:

  • Choose a form of government and a country in the Middle East Region that utilizes that form of government.
  • Using reputable online resources, research your form of government.
  • Create a fictional character that might reside in the country you chose.
  • Make a trading card, using a sheet of paper, for your fictional character.  Draw his or her picture on the front and be sure to include his or her name.  On the back, answer a series of questions regarding the character’s life and thoughts on living in the country you chose. Be sure to answer them as though you are the character.  Use first person.  Base your answers off of your research and character development.

That’s it.  The students needed to create a trading card for a fictional character they created that might live in the country they chose.  The task seemed simple enough.  I went over it quite explicitly as well.  Then came the questions and confusion.  A few of the students didn’t understand how they were supposed to answer the questions as both themselves and their fictional character.  What?  So, I reviewed the instructions and task again.  Then, another student asked about how they were supposed to answer questions about the leader of their chosen country if they were only researching the form of government.  Oh my goodness, I thought.  What?  They are confused.  So, once again, I clarified the assignment for the class.  These questions continued for several minutes.  Why is this task that seemed so simple to my co-teacher and I causing such confusion amongst the students?  Did I not explain it well?  Maybe.  I could have modeled the process involved in completing the activity for the students so that they would know exactly what to do.  That might have helped.  I sometimes wonder though, if I show or explain a task too much, am I taking creativity and problem solving opportunities away from the students?  If I had spent more time planning out how I was going to introduce this activity, perhaps my students would have been less confused.

Despite the mass confusion during my explanation of the activity, once the students got to work, they were very focused and completed quality work that showcased their understanding of the assignment.  They had very few questions while they worked.  Maybe they needed to ask numerous questions to allow their brains to process the task I had put in front of them.  Even though the many questions they posed seemed to lead me to believe that they were confused by what I was asking them to do, perhaps they just needed the time to understand the task.  Maybe this was all part of the learning process.  In order to make sense of simple tasks, perhaps my students needed to complicate matters first in order to get to a place of understanding.  Interesting.  If I had explained the task in a more descriptive and clear manner, would they have been able to understand it better or would they have been more confused when they started working?  Perhaps I will take this other approach the next time I introduce an assignment to the boys and see what happens.  Who knows, maybe I will collect contradictory data or maybe I’ll confirm what I think right now.  Either way, I feel that it would be great to know what method of explaining and introducing a task to my students is most effective for them.