The Student Becomes the Teacher

When I was in school, most of my teachers subscribed to the belief that students should be seen and not heard.  They felt as though they were the only ones who should be speaking in the classroom.  Those same teachers thought it was all about feeding students information and making us regurgitate that information in written form on tests.  In those classrooms, students didn’t talk for fear of being yelled at or having to sit in the corner.  Things were different back then.  Luckily, times have changed and a lot of those, what I like to call old-school teachers, have retired or passed away.  Schools are now hiring teachers who believe in a student-centered approach to education.  When the students do the learning, questioning, and teaching, engagement increases exponentially and learning becomes relevant and genuine.  In classrooms around the world, teachers are guiding students by talking less and allowing students to talk more.  This is how all classrooms should be structured and run.  When this approach to teaching and education happens, it’s often hard to tell who learns more on a daily basis, the students or the teachers.  The students teach the teachers sometimes more than what the teachers are trying to convey to the students.  This is what effective teaching is all about.

Today in Humanities class, I was able to experience, first-hand, the value in empowering students to talk, think, question, and reflect in the classroom.  At the close of class today, I provided some time for the students to reflect on what worked really well for them during the mapping activity that we spent the last three days working on.  After I shared some observations with the students about what I noticed regarding their work habits as they crafted their maps in class, I asked them the following question, “What do you need to remember to do when tackling or completing a challenging or lengthy project or activity such as the mapping activity we completed today?”  The students shared some awesome insight with the class: “I need to use a growth mindset when working on projects like this,” “I need to persevere and never give up even when the work seems hard,” “I need to ask questions to be sure I understand what I need to do,” and “I need to focus on my work and not compare myself to others.”  Wow, I thought, they really understand themselves as learners and students.  I was thoroughly impressed by their contributions to the discussion.  However, the best part was yet to come.

First, an aside so that the next part of my story makes sense.  To help my students focus on positive attributes and fully understand what is expected of them, I find that I try to point out what students are doing well so that others who are struggling to meet the expectations might be able to learn from a role model.  This generally helps those students who seem confused, figure out what to do and transition or redirect themselves.  I make sure that I’m also using different students as examples every time so that I make sure not to play favorites.  Until today, I felt as though this strategy was successful and effective.  I’ve used it for years as a way to highlight the good and not point out the negative behaviors.

Now, for the best part.  So, following the class discussion about positive behaviors to utilize when working on a challenging task, a student asked this powerful question, “If you say that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, why do you point out role models in the classroom during transition times?”  Wow, I thought.  That is insightful.  Although I felt put on the spot, I also started to realize that maybe this practice of highlighting the role models in the classroom isn’t an effective practice to help the students focus on themselves.  While comparing and contrasting ourselves to others can be a fruitful task to hold the bar for ourselves high, it can also be detrimental to helping us develop our individuality.  In a society that is constantly bombarded with pictures, chats, and messages, about what everyone else is doing, it’s nice to be able to block out this white noise and focus on us as individuals.  So, my response was this, “You make a valid point.  Perhaps I will have to keep this in mind when I’m trying to help others see and understand what they need to do.  I shouldn’t be forcing you to compare yourself to others.  This is very interesting.  I never thought about it like that.”  I wanted the students to see an example of how one might respond to critical feedback.  I took it in, acknowledged what I had done, and pointed out what I will try to do moving forward.  While I was trying to help teach the students the value in using a growth mindset, persevering, and problem-solving when working on challenging tasks, this one student taught me something about my teaching practices that will cause me to reflect and adapt so that I can best support and help my students grow and develop.  Sometimes I wonder who the real teacher in the classroom is, me or my students.


Impromptu Fun in the Classroom

I’m sure many of you, who can still remember back to your elementary school days, recall playing that super fun but really a big waste of time game called Heads up, Seven Up.  Seven students are chosen and while the remaining students put their heads down on their desks, those seven volunteers walk around and tap other students.  Then, the students tapped stand up and guess who tapped them.  If they guess accurately, they switch spots with their tapper.  It was always fun trying to guess or being the one to carefully tap a student in a way that would prevent him or her from guessing it was you.  The students loved this game.  I even brought it into my classroom on many occasions, with rave reviews.  It’s a fun activity when a break is needed or if you have just a few extra minutes to kill between classes or lessons.

As one of my personal, professional goals for the year is to better close or conclude my STEM class, I’ve been really focused on having the students clean up and finish working five minutes prior to the end of class so that we have time to wrap things up.  Sometimes I end with an Exit Ticket assessment or just a review of the content covered.  On Friday, though, I wanted to try something different, much like Heads Up, Seven Up.

As the students concluded their awesome work period in STEM class on Friday, I didn’t have a concrete plan for how to end class.  What was I going to do?  The students had been working on a series of different activities in class.  Because it was a math day, some students had a mini-lesson with me on angle types and completed a worksheet packet, one student completed his Algebra Test, and the rest of the students completed independent work on the distributive property.  Then, as the students completed their assigned task, they transitioned into working on their Geology packet.  So, as you can see, there were many different concepts and topics worked on in class.  How could I possibly review all of them in five minutes?  Then, it hit me: Take advantage of the wide variety of content covered and turn it into a Grab Bag game.  Sure, not all of the students will know everything because they didn’t necessarily learn it, but that’s okay.  Give them all a chance and make it fun.  So, that’s exactly what I did.

I asked each student, at random by using the popsicle sticks name cup that was held by one of the students, a question.  Some of the questions focused on the Geology concepts we learned in class on Thursday, some of the questions focused on the Distributive Property, and some of the questions focused on angle types.  The students could leave class and move onto lunch when they answered one question correctly.  If they had a question but were not able to answer it properly, their popsicle stick was put back into the choosing cup.  The laughter and excitement in the classroom was phenomenal.  They had so much fun competing with and against one another.  Not only did they have fun and enjoy this impromptu closing activity, it also allowed me to informally assess the students on the concepts covered in class.  I was impressed that most of the students in each of the two main math groups could apply the skills they learned in class to answer the questions posed.  I was a bit surprised that many of the students struggled to name the layers of Earth considering how much time we spent on it in class yesterday and that they also reviewed the topic for homework.  With this in mind, I am tweaking Monday’s class to further review the layers of Earth with the boys.  Hopefully this will help solidify their bedrock of geological knowledge.

Purposefully ending class with a review, fun game, assessment, or introduction of what’s to come is necessary for the students to feel whole and complete.  It also breeds fun and creates formative assessment opportunities.  While I do plan most of my closing activities in advance, prior to the end of class, sometimes, the best happenings in class aren’t planned or scripted, they just happen.

Growing Professionally

When I was five years old, the only things I wanted were to be older and grow taller.  Now, I want to stop growing, or at least prevent my waist from growing any larger, and I want to stop aging.  This morning I found a gray hair on my chest.  Yes, on my chest!  Wow, the circle of life has really come around.  However, the one constant in my life is my desire to grow.  I love learning new skills and taking risks as an educator.  I enjoy reading new novels and professional texts.  I try, each and every day, to become a better teacher and guide for my students.

When I started thinking about professional goals for myself last week and then crafted two yesterday, I realized that I now have a daily guide for myself in and out of the classroom.  Each day, I will think about how I can better end tomorrow’s class.  What can I do better to wrap up the lesson and make it more tangible and engaging for my students?

So, after I posted my goals yesterday, I realized that I should start working on my them right then and there.  So, during Humanities class yesterday, I consciously thought about how to bring closure to each part of the lesson.  Following our current events discussion, I reviewed the purpose for discussing and knowing about current events.  I asked the students, “Why is it important or valuable to learn about current events?”  I got lucky and called on an insightful student.  He said, “So that we can be aware of what’s going on in the world around us.”  Bingo, bango, bongo, I thought.  Wow, I must be doing a great job introducing new concepts and lessons for them to fully grasp their purpose.  I rock!  Before my ego grew too large, I realized that this student also presented me with a new way to end class today.  I could review one of the school’s Habits of Learning that the lesson directly covered.  So, I went to the sign in the classroom that listed our school’s Habits of Learning and pointed out Self-Awareness, reminding them that our goal as teachers is to prepare them to live meaningful lives in a global society.  Being self-aware allows you to be better prepared to handle obstacles and challenges thrown your way.  If you aren’t aware of what’s going on in another country and you contact someone in that country for your business, you could be dealing with problems of which you are unaware.  “Knowing is half the battle,” G.I. Joe taught me growing up.  They seemed to get it.

So, I challenged myself with a goal and began working towards it right away.  After the second block of Humanities, when the students began working on their vignette, I tried a different approach to ending the class.  Eight minutes prior to the end of class, I had the students stop writing and share their vignette with their table partner.  Then, once they had completed that, I asked the class some questions: Who found generating an idea for a vignette challenging and difficult?  and Who found it fun and easy to begin their vignette today?  I also asked the students to use their Thumb-ometer to share their level of engagement and excitement regarding the writing of their vignette.  Most of the students seemed to have a ton of fun crafting their short, short story.  I then reminded the boys that we will be using these vignettes to work through the writing process.  You will be working more on these pieces during the next several weeks.  In fact, next week, you will have a chance in class to spend some more time writing.  They seemed thrilled by that.  Then, I explained what they needed to do to prepare for their next class, praised them for their fine effort, and sent them on their way.  It felt good to close the door on a class and lesson.  In the past, I’ve left class feeling like a hanging chad, and I don’t like feeling like a hanging chad.

Today provided me with one more chance to grow as an educator.  I know I still have plenty of miles to go before I can sleep, as Robert Frost taught me, but I’m feeling like I’m moving up and to the right quite steadily.  Constant progress is all I can ask for.  I can’t wait to see how I end classes tomorrow.  Perhaps I’ll go for the Exit Ticket approach in STEM class to assess their knowledge of Inequalities, a concept we covered last week.  Yeah, that sounds like a plan.  Up and to the right I go.