Promoting Problem Solving in the Classroom

Helping students learn how to overcome adversity can be challenging.  I find it difficult, at times, to overcome the problems with which I’m faced on a daily basis.  How can I create an interactive lesson on grammar?  How do I change a tire on my car?  Problem solving is a tough skill to teach people in general, let alone fifth graders.  What’s the best way to help students learn the art of solving problems?  Experiences in failure.  Yes, that’s right, I said, let students fail.

I told my students on day one that I want them to fail this year, as that is when the real learning happens.  When people stumble, make a mistake, or fail, they have a choice to make.  They can find a new way to solve their problem or give up.  I want my students to see the power in perseverance and problem solving.  I empower my students to change their perspective, try something new, or take a break when faced with adversity.  The best way to learn to solve problems is through practice.  As a teacher, I find creative ways to help my students encounter problems throughout each and every day.  This way, they have multiple chances to mess up, make mistakes, fail, and then learn.  I use these opportunities as teachable moments.  What do you do now?

A prime example of this strategy in action happened today during Science class.  The students are in the midst of a final project for our unit on physics.  They need to create a pinball machine that applies the concepts of kinetic and potential energy, simple machines, and speed and velocity.  They can only use materials they have access to in our classroom.  As we have lots of “stuff” in our Maker Space, the possibilities are almost endless.

After planning out their designs and creating a blueprint of their pinball machines, they continued working on constructing them in class today.  After the students, working in pairs, set a goal for the period, they got right to work.  At first, the room was filled with activity.  The students were measuring, sawing, re-sawing, remeasuring, taping, gluing, and trying to get the bases of their pinball machines assembled.  Things went swimmingly for the first 45 minutes.  Then, the students started to hit some walls as they encountered problems.  How do you attach the legs of a pinball machine to the machine itself?  How do you make a base wide enough?  How do you attach two pieces of wood together to create legs?


I observed the students as they started bumping into these problems.  While they became frustrated, they never gave up.  They searched for new ways to solve their problems.  One group that was trying to widen their pinball table, connected two pieces of wood together by attaching wooden shingles with nails to the back of the two pieces.  Very creative.  Another group struggled to attach their legs to their pinball machine base with screws, and so they found another way to transform their base into an inclined plane.  They attached a piece of wood to the back.  It was so fun to watch my students face adversity in class today, and then persevere through it to find new solutions to their problems.  I praised the students as they generated new ways to solve the dilemmas with which they were faced.  Providing students opportunities to fail, learn from their mistakes, and then find new solutions to their problems is how genuine learning and growth happens in and out of the classroom.


The Key to Making Mistakes is to Learn from Them

I mess up a lot.  Just ask my wife.  I can barely remember to do half of what she tells me to unless I write it down.  While I’m trying to get better at this, it’s still an area of my life in need of improvement.  The key is is in admitting that I’m not good at remembering what my wife tells me to do.  Through this admission, I’m telling myself that I need to work on it.  My brain then hones in on this issue when my wife next tells me something.  It’s almost like sticky notes for my brain.  By owning my actions and choices, I’m realizing that I need to remedy the situation; therefore, my brain places emphasis on what my wife tells me in the future so that I can pay closer attention to it and not forget to do what she asks of me.

Teaching students to do this as their brains are still myelinating is quite challenging.  The key when working with students regarding this issue is to have deliberate and purposeful conversations with them after mistakes or poor choices are made.  Debriefing the situations and then helping them to understand how to approach a similar situation in the future is vital.  Role playing can help, but timing is key.  You don’t want to discuss things with them directly following the situation as tensions may still be high.  You want to follow up with the student a few hours or a day or two later so that they’ve had time to process what happened and are not operating under the fight or flight protocol.  After many of these types of conversations, students will eventually build the appropriate neurological connections in their brain that will help them learn from their mistakes.  Knowing this, teachers realize that students will continue to make the same mistakes over and over again as their brain grows and develops.

Adults on the other hand, have much stronger and myelinated neurological connections that should, in theory, allow them to easily learn from their mistakes the first time.  While I do still sometimes repeat the same mistakes over and over again, despite knowing what I should do, as an educator, I do find that once I make a mistake or try something that fails, I don’t repeat that same poor choice.  Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t or won’t mess up or make mistakes, because I do quite frequently.  However, I’ve gotten really good over the years, mostly due to this blog, at learning from what doesn’t go right in the classroom.  Case and point, yesterday’s academic orientation schedule for the sixth grade.

Although I know what great, evidence-based teaching looks like, every once in awhile, I revert back to the sage on the stage mentality of teaching and find that I’m doing way too much of the talking and leading.  I feel as though my co-teacher and I planned a very information-heavy schedule for yesterday’s orientation, day one.  While we do need to impart much knowledge to the students during these opening days, there are clearly more effective and engaging ways to do it than what we did in the classroom yesterday.  We basically talked at the students for several hours.  Sure, we mixed it up a bit with games, activities, and tasks, but for the most part, it felt like we were just overloading the boys with information about our sixth grade program.  We could have and should have structured yesterday’s agenda differently.  We should have talked much less and engaged the students much more.

Now, it did take me quite some time to come to this realization, as I left the classroom yesterday feeling pretty good about what we had done.  I felt like we had accomplished our goals and provided the students with lots of valuable information.  It wasn’t until my co-teacher shared some agenda slides she created for today’s orientation schedule that I came to the realization that what we had done yesterday was hogwash.  Her slides involved the students in the learning process.  She was asking them questions while providing them with crucial information in a very succinct manner.  “Why didn’t we do this yesterday,” I thought as I perused her slides last evening.

Luckily for me, my axons are relatively well myelinated and so I was able to see the errors in my ways to know that we can’t plan next year’s orientation schedule in this same way.  We need to be more purposeful and engaging.  We need to plan more active learning activities for the students.  We need to do what we normally do in our regular classes: Ask questions, engage the students in critical thinking exercises, and promote teamwork and collaboration.  If we can do this on a daily basis in our classes, why was it so challenging for us to plan an orientation schedule in the same style?  Who knows, but what I do know is that this won’t happen again next year.  I will be sure that we plan a relevant and meaningful orientation day one schedule, because unlike some of my students, I can easily learn from my mistakes.  Yah for me!

What Happens When You Rush a Mini-Lesson?

One of my least favorite things to do when I was a kid was cleaning my room.  I hated it.  I was fine living in squalor.  Bring on the dirty clothes and toys all over the floor.  I was fine with the mess, but apparently my parents were not okay with the plastic litter and chaos of my bedroom.  My parents believed that a bedroom should be a sanctuary and sanctuaries are supposed to be clean.  What if your sanctuary is a landfill though, how are you supposed to clean an actual dump?  While saying things like that only made my father angrier, it was fun to mess with my parents.  But, at the end of the day, I did have to clean my room.  So, I did.  I shoved everything into my closet and under my bed.  A few times, this method of cleaning got the thumbs up from my parents as they failed to look in my closet or under my bed.  One day, however, my mom saw something sticking out from under my bed, and this made her bend down to see what it was.  Like a ticking time bomb, the junk heap under my bed had been discovered.  My laziness only brought me more yelling and consequences.  After several years of this, I learned my lesson and thoroughly cleaned my room the proper way.  I realized that laziness was not the answer.  Trying to rush along the process only made matters worse.

While I find that I generally remember this little knowledge nugget from my youth on a regular basis, occasionally, I slip back into those bad habits.  Today was one of those days. I needed to leave STEM class early today for personal reasons.  Having known that for a few days, I planned what I thought would be a quick and easy mini-lessson that would allow the students to finish the period by working on the homework packet independently as my co-teacher remained in the room and answered any questions they had.  I had it all set and ready to go.  Then came the execution, which was where I went terribly wrong.  Because I had flipped my agenda around a bit to allow the students time to work with their partner on updating their portfolio on the Stock Market Game website, I only had about 20 minutes for my mini-lesson.  I thought for sure that would be enough time.  Boy, was I ever wrong.  I began the lesson by explaining the benefits and obligations for a company when they decide to go public and sell shares in their company.  This is where it all started to go wrong.  Instead of giving a brief overview of the reasons listed on the handout I had provided to the students, I had the students read the reasons aloud to the class.  I then stopped and explained or clarified each of the points, which was completely unnecessary as the written explanations said all that was needed to understand the point being made.  I then beat a dead horse by addressing questions raised by the students because of my overly specific explanation of each point.  While this portion of the mini-lesson was only supposed to take five minutes, it took me about 20 minutes to get through the handout.  At this point, I should have left the classroom, but I wanted to be sure the students understood the rest of the packet.  So, I had them peruse it to make sure they understood the remaining questions and activities.  This lead to more questions that were unnecessary had I simply provided them time to work and process what was being asked of them.  Instead, I answered their questions with more confusion.  I took one final question before I departed the classroom.  At this point, I knew I had totally botched the lesson, but had to leave.  I felt terrible.

Here’s what I should have done…  I should have began the mini-lesson by asking students why companies would want to go public and sell shares of their company on the stock market as we went over this in class on Monday.  This would have taken about two minutes to do.  I then should have briefly summarized the rest of the items on the handout, without reading them aloud.  This would have taken about another three minutes.  I then should have quickly explained the reading part of the worksheet packet by mentioning the objective on which their answers to the questions would be assessed.  I then could have spent the next 10 minutes solving some sample math problems from the rest of the worksheet packet with the whole class on the board.  This would have created more understanding and less confusion.  It would have also allowed the students time to process this new information.  I would have then had about two to three minutes to answer any final questions the students had before they got to work.  I then would have been able to leave on time.  Instead, I ended up leaving 15 minutes late because I tried to rush a mini-lesson.  While mini-lessons are intended to be short, they should also be clear and concise.  My mini-lesson ended up being long and laborious.  If I had put more deliberate thought into how the lesson should go prior to executing it, I might have been able to prevent the chaos that ensued in class today.  Trying to take the easy way out, only results in more work and consequences for all involved.  For my next mini-lesson, I plan on spending extra time preparing for it to be sure that I am covering the ideas and information in a clear and relevant way.  I want my students to learn and not be confused.  Luckily, my brain is much more developed now than it was when I was seven and so I am sure that I will learn from this mistake and be sure to never repeat it.

Did I Over-Teach my Lesson Today?

When my son was younger, he struggled to follow directions.  I would always have to repeat the directions or chunk them if there were multiple steps for him to follow.  This worked until he grew a bit older.  Then he hated when I would tell him something more than once.  “Dad, you already told me that,” he would say.  So, I tried to give him the directions only once.  Sometimes that worked and other times it failed miserably.  Then I got into the habit of writing things down for him.  I made him cool little checklists to follow when he was doing his chores at home.  This worked very well for him.  He could easily follow the directions at his speed.  It only took about ten years for me to figure out how best to provide my son with directions.  I either said too much or not enough.

There’s a fine line to providing directions to others, especially when they are children.  You don’t want to spoon feed them everything, but you want them to feel supported and safe.  As a teacher, I often struggle with this issue.  Am I saying too much or not enough?  Will they be able to effectively utilize the new skill if they don’t practice first?  It’s challenging to know or figure out what works best for the group of students in the classroom.

Today in STEM class, I introduced the final two sections of the Lab Report: Results and Conclusion.  During our last class, the students began an experiment regarding gummy bears.  What will happen when a gummy bear is placed in water for 24 hours?  We had completed the Problem, Hypothesis, Materials, and Procedure sections together as a class and they conducted the investigation by the close of the last STEM period.  Today, they needed to observe the outcome and record their noticings in the Results section.  This didn’t take too long.  I provided them simple written directions and explained them orally before they got to work.  I gave them 10 minutes to complete this phase.  Things went well here.  The boys were mostly all engaged.  One student was ill during the last class and was unable to complete the investigation.  He was a bit distracted, but I had him work with his table partner to record observations in his Results section for practice.  I then explained the results and why they occurred.  I provided them with the scientific knowledge behind the experiment.  I drew diagrams and everything.  They seemed to understand this well.  Then came time to write the Conclusion together.  I wanted to model how to do it as they were doing theirs so that they had a basic understanding of the expectations.  This is where things went off-track a bit.

As I drafted the first several sentences of the Conclusion section on the board, the boys copied what I had onto their Lab Report.  However, some students process information at different rates and so while most of the students were able to keep up, three students wrote very slowly.  Instead of moving on as I had intended after five minutes of waiting for them to copy what was on the board, I had to pause even longer.  The students seemed restless.  Those who needed more time worked hard while those students who had finished, were distracting others.  Finally, I was able to move on and continue working on the Conclusion section of the Lab Report.  I added a few more sentences, but then needed room on the board for the rest.  So, I erased what I had already typed.  This made it difficult for those methodical students as they were still writing what I had erased.  Some of them started to stress out immediately.  I quickly came to their aide and provided them with a strategy to solve their problem.  This helped, but it took away from the rest of the class.  I wasn’t able to move on and challenge those quick workers as soon as I would have liked to.  They continued to be distracted and distracting as they waited.  A few of the boys made a wise choice while they waited and read quietly, but many others did not.  I praised the students who were making good choices to try and inspire others to follow suit.  It worked a bit.  Then, as we were finishing the final few sentences, two students who had gone to the hospital earlier in the day arrived back and were very lost.  They then distracted their peers instead of figuring out what was going on and following along.  I then had to redirect them and guide them to the correct choice.  After settling everybody down, I then started collecting finished lab reports.  Those students who had finished, could make a quiet choice at their seat.  However, other students started doing the same even though they weren’t finished the task at hand.  I then had to take myself away from helping those students who wanted help to redirect those students who were struggling to follow directions.  This continued for several more minutes.  Finally, I collected the final lab report and had everybody’s attention.  I closed class reviewing why we utilize lab reports and the scientific method in the sixth grade.  I wanted to be sure they understood the purpose behind what we were doing.  I then highlighted some of what I saw in the classroom.  “Some of you struggled to keep up and got frustrated when I had erased work you still needed to copy down.  However, you persevered and solved your problem.  Failure and frustration can lead to genuine learning that will be remembered in the long term memory portion of the brain.  Making mistakes and learning from them is a crucial part of the learning process.”

Things certainly didn’t go as planned today and I felt a bit helpless.  I needed the boys to understand how to properly create a lab report, but was having them all practice together necessary?  Could I have structured the lesson differently?  Was there another way to get the job done?  Could I have allowed those students who felt comfortable to go at their own pace, following the details on our class Haiku Website, while I helped those struggling students?  Would that have been a more viable option?  What if the students who felt like they knew what they were doing didn’t actually know what they were doing?  Then they would have created an incorrect lab report and would have had to start all over again.  But wouldn’t they have then learned from their mistake and never again think they know more than they do?  What about having those students who finished early support those boys who needed help?  That would have made my role in the classroom a bit less cumbersome today.  There are clearly many other ways to accomplish the same goal I set out to do today in class.  I need to be more mindful of this when trying to do something similar in the near future.  I could have better differentiated my instruction to help all of the learners in my class.  While today’s lesson felt like a failure, it was actually a great learning experience for me and one that I can use to grow from.  I now know how not to teach the skill of lab reporting in the future.  So, today’s bomb of a lesson wasn’t all for not.  At least I learned something from class today.

When Students Understand Why We Do What We Do as Teachers

I remember, as a child, cartoon-esque drawings of characters or people having A-Ha moments: A lightbulb appeared over someone’s head as they worked or did something.  The simplicity of the pictures always amazed me.  The idea of a light being turned on when neurons fire and bridge mental connections is a great metaphor.  While it very much simplifies the process, the concept and idea behind what is going on in the brain is conveyed to the viewer.  A-Ha moments are actually very complex, neurological happenings that involve many different chemical reactions.  Genuine learning comes about through these type of grand realizations as connections are being made in one’s brain.  It’s almost like the idea of working through one’s frustration.  Perseverance and resiliency are two great concepts that, for me, lead to these A-Ha moments.  While for some people, new ideas or answers to problems seem to make sense and happen seamlessly, without much thought or struggling, some people need much processing time and practice to come to a conclusion or answer.  I am one of those people.  I need to really ponder something before I’m able to figure it out.  Usually, after much time playing or wrestling with the question or new concept, a solution or realization seems to just sort of pop into my mind.  Those are great experiences.  An easy way to see this process happen is by looking at one’s facial expressions.  The person might start out with a frown or upset face that slowly or quickly changes to a smile as the A-Ha moment occurs.  Learning makes people smile.  How great is that?

As a teacher, I love witnessing these A-Ha moments happen for my students.  After much time spent working with them or watching them struggle and attempt to solve a problem, it is quite rewarding and fulfilling to see them understand what they’ve been working towards.  It’s like finding that missing puzzle piece after minutes of searching for it.  I see it most frequently happen for our ELL students when learning new, to them, concepts in English.  Although they seem confused at first and can’t wrap their heads around what is expected of them or the concept being covered, after asking questions and processing the information, they just get it.  Those are fun moments.  “I get it now!” they usually exclaim with a smile on their face.  Persevering through challenging times is not an easy skill to teach.  It takes lots of practice and reminders.  Rather than jumping in and telling students how to solve problems, I find it much more beneficial to let them struggle through it and ask them probing questions to inspire neurological connections to be made when assistance is required.  For many students, this is all it takes for them to figure things out.

To help prepare our students for the increased level of critical thinking that will be required of them as well as the larger work load they will face next year, we have been working on challenging our students to rise above where they are, mentally, to be better able to solve problems on their own by utilizing the Habits of Learning practiced in the classroom all year.  During the past month, we have been asking students to challenge themselves to do more than just complete an assignment.  At this point in the year, many of the boys are capable of exceeding the requirements and graded objectives.  Rather than just write about their reading, we expect that most of our students will be able to analyze what they read and make inferences using examples from the text.  While we have been using this type of language with them for weeks now, a few of the boys are still struggling to realize why we are asking them to step up and challenge themselves.  They usually get frustrated and start over instead of adding to or altering the nucleus of their work.  While that is certainly one way to approach what we’re asking of them, it is generally not the most productive way to go about challenging themselves.

Today in Humanities class, the students worked on crafting an original poem utilizing the poetic device of personification.  While a few of the students got right to work and crafted brilliant stanzas filled with metaphors and alliteration, a few of the students struggled to begin their poem or choose an object.  One student had his idea right away and wrote his first two lines with ease.  He was so excited about his work that he shared his poem with me.  While he was on the precipice of critical thinking, he was using vague words and simplistic lines to craft his poem.  So, I said, “I see what you are trying to do, but I challenge you to use more specific and carefully chosen words in a more complex manner.  I challenge you to create lines of poetry that don’t begin in the exact same manner.  I challenge you to think more critically about your object as you write your poem.”  While I could easily tell that he was a bit deflated after hearing my feedback, he didn’t give up.  He began erasing his lines as I conferenced with another student.  My co-teacher then approached him in the act of erasing and asked him what he was doing.  His response, “Mr. Holt is challenging me to think more critically about my object.  So, I’m going to start over and see if I can use more specific words to describe light in a personified way.”  I stopped working with the other student with whom I was conferencing and stood up for a brief moment when I heard him utter those words.  I almost began to weep.  Wow, I thought, he gets it.  He totally understood what I asked him to do.  He was challenging himself to grow and develop as a student and critical thinker.  Amazing!  So all of these weeks of reminding the students to put forth more effort into thinking critically and creatively about problems and the world around them totally paid off.  They now realize why we have been doing what we’ve been doing in the classroom as their teachers.  They too want to grow and learn more.  They want to be better able to solve problems and think about new topics or concepts.  I was blown away.

While it can be very easy to get caught up in the routine of teaching and not see the bright lighthouses littering the coasts of our classroom, they are there.  Our students are listening and growing and applying the skills we’ve been teaching them all year.  They are not solid bricks but moldable pieces of clay.  It can be frustrating at times when they come across as chunks of solid granite when in fact they are very soft shale sitting at the bottom of the pond that is our classroom waiting for knowledge to build up and push them closer to Earth’s mantle where they can metamorphize into slate or what we might see as able-bodied seventh graders.  It’s great to be able to take opportunities like this to reflect on the great work we and our students have done all year and celebrate it.  All is not for nothing.  They are learning and growing and changing.  Mission accomplished, for now, but our work as their teachers is far from done.

New Students, New Challenges, and New Mistakes

Each new year is full of excitement, wonder, and challenges.  I love meeting my new students and helping them feel like a part of our classroom family.  I enjoy getting to know how to best support and help my students.  However, the challenges might be my favorite part of a new academic year.  I find enjoyment in figuring out how to help a struggling student or encourage a reserved student to come out of his shell.  These challenges are what keep me going and longing for each new year.

Working with a new co-teacher this year, I’m trying to figure out how we can best help and support each other as well.  Things are off to a great start.  She is positive and runs the classroom very much like I do.  However, she comes from a very different independent day school where the students are fluent in English, talk about social issues, and are already connected to each other as they’ve been together in school since Pre-K.  While her background has prepared her to teach diversity and other social issues that our boys need to understand, she hasn’t had a lot of experience dealing with a class that is full of new students, many of whom do not speak the same language.  This challenge is new to her.

Yesterday during Humanities class, she had her first wake-up call of how different this class is compared to what she was used to.  She taught a lesson on the eight social identifiers.  She started with an image of an iceberg showing how most of who we are is hidden to the world.  The outside world only sees a tiny part of our personality.  The hard work, effort, persistence, and failures are not revealed to many people.  We keep them inside.  She shared this picture with the class as a way to stimulate conversation regarding the deeper, more vulnerable parts of who we are as people and individuals.  The boys added some great insight to the discussion.  Then she introduced the eight social identifiers and briefly explained what each meant.  Some of the words were difficult and our international students had a hard time understanding what they meant.  She tried to make the definitions tangible, but some of the ideas are abstract and challenging.  It’s not that this lesson was too difficult for our students to comprehend, it’s just that some of the ideas take more processing time.  So, to allow for this extra time, she then had the students brainstorm student-friendly definitions for each of the terms by working with their table partner.  This is where things got a bit out of hand.  The students didn’t fully understand the directions and so they started mapping out how each of the identifiers applied to them.  Then, once we rexplained the directions, they got back on track.  However, some of the groups still wrestled with the language of the terms.  Luckily, at this point, we were able to send the boys to Morning Break for 15 minutes.  This gave my co-teacher and I a chance to chat about what was going on.

She was very frustrated.  She didn’t understand why they weren’t understanding the words or directions.  She explained how she had done this activity at her last school and had no issues.  I reminded her how different this group is.  She wasn’t sure how to proceed following break.  So, I gave her some suggestions.  You should go through each word, one by one, and have each student share their definition with the group to be sure that every student understands what they mean.  This may take a while, but it is vital to the activity.  She seemed to understand what she needed to do and the changes she needed to make.

Once the students returned from break, she did what I suggested.  She reviewed the words slowly and carefully so that each student fully comprehended their meaning.  I then took notes on the whiteboard, synthesizing the definitions into simplistic language.  Although this discussion took the full period, the students clearly needed the extra time to process the eight terms in order to understand them.  I also explained to the boys why we were discussing these terms.  As we learn about other cultures and countries this year, we will use these terms to define and discuss them.  It is important to have a strong understanding of the terms.  I hope this clarification helped.

Today, when we reviewed the terms prior to having the students create their social identity wheel piece, they recalled much from yesterday’s discussion, highlighting the success of spending a lot of time discussing the terms.  For me, yesterday’s class was a way to help my co-teacher grow and see her teaching and the class from a different perspective.  It’s so important to have someone else to work with so that these conversations and opportunities can take place.  Had I not witnessed the lesson, I would not have been able to provide her with any feedback, and then she may have struggled with the second portion of the lesson following break.  While mistakes are part of life, being able to learn from them is the most vital part.