From Bad to Great: How my Difficult Math Past Has Helped Me Make Math Fun for my Students

“Okay children, take out your math books and turn to page 32.  Today we are going to learn about Long Division.  Who would like to complete problem one on the board for us?”  Direct instruction like this was commonplace in my Math classroom when I was a student in elementary school.  My teachers explained each new math concept by reviewing the material in the textbook.  Did they think we couldn’t read?  Why did they teach us from the book?  They would also have students complete problems on the board, in front of the whole class.  What fourth or fifth grader wants to be embarrassed in front of his or her peers when they incorrectly complete a math problem on the chalkboard?  Certainly not me.

While this style of teaching may have worked for some of my peers, it did not meet my needs as a learner.  I was not the “typical” student in a classroom.  I learned very differently than many of my classmates when I was in school.  I processed new information slowly and needed time to let that new “stuff” mentally simmer.  If I was to genuinely learn something in elementary school, I needed to interact with the material, play with it, and take it out for a test drive.  I didn’t fully learn by simply listening to someone speaking.  Because my learning style did not align with how my teachers taught Math, I struggled to authentically and completely learn numerous mathematics concepts.  Thus, I was always at a disadvantage in class when learning new material, since Math is very much a pyramid-style subject as topics and ideas build upon previously learned content.  How could I possibly learn new concepts in Math when I hadn’t mastered the foundational material needed to comprehend this new skill?  As a result, I earned low Math grades throughout my years in elementary school and gained a dislike for the entire subject.  I despised Math class, as if it were my sister’s Cabbage Patch doll.  I just didn’t get it.  Why are some numbers written with a horizontal line between them while others have a dot separating some numbers from others?  Why can’t all numbers be written the same way?  Why does division need to be so long?  If you mess up on one tiny step, it ruins the whole problem.  I remember telling my parents on many occasions back then, “I hate Math.”

As a Math teacher, I have made it my goal to ensure that students don’t feel lost or confused in my Math class.  I want my students to fully understand material before learning new concepts.  I want my students to see the fun and joy in Math.  Yes, Math can definitely be fun and exciting.  Just watch a group of students trying to beat their teacher at the game “1, 2, Nim.”  The joy is palpable.

After growing up disliking the subject, I went on a mathematical journey of discovery in adulthood.  Learning how to effectively teach Math allowed me the chance to see the subject in a whole new way.  Math is like a beautiful puzzle; when you carefully put the pieces together, they create a work of art that explains something.  Completing a complex algebraic equation is so satisfying for me, now that I have come to view Math with a more open and growth mindset.


While I was not fully satisfied with the way I taught  Math last year, I made sure to focus on changing my game plan for this year.  Instead of jumping right into the curriculum and textbook, my hope was to provide students a chance to see Math through the lens of fun games.  I also wanted to help challenge my students who see themselves as “not Math students.”  I wanted my students to be excited about their year in Math class, not dreading it like I once did.

I believe that, so far (don’t worry, I knocked wood), I have been successful in my quest of helping my fifth graders see Math as fun and enjoyable.  Here is how I’m going about doing that:

  • During the first four days of Math, I taught the students various Math games and puzzles.  I had them interacting with their peers to master “1, 2, Nim” in order to defeat me, the Nim Master.  I challenged them to find a number that didn’t fit for the Math Magic Trick, with which I presented them.  There were no assessments given, textbooks handed out, or worksheets completed.  We laughed together, played together, and saw Math as a series or fun games and experiments.
  • Step two involved helping the students to change the way they view themselves as Math students.  We watched a fun and short video on mindset and read an article on how every student can be a “Math Student.”  I had the students discuss what this means for them.
  • From there, we created a list of steps or things the students should do when learning a new concept or completing a difficult problem in Math class.
    • Step 1: Think, “I can do this.  I’ve got this.  While it may be hard, I will become the master of this concept or problem.”
    • Step 2: Persevere and don’t give up no matter how challenged you may feel.  Work through the mental pain with guidance from your teacher and classmates.
    • Step 3: Try, fail, try again, and keep trying.  Remember, it’s process over product.
  • Then, I had students brainstorm possible strategies they could use when attacking difficult problems in Math.  This then led in to the students creating their own Problem Solving Plan that they can use in Math class throughout the year.  I allowed them to personalize it anyway they wanted as long as it included the three steps discussed in class and at least three strategies they could use to tackle a challenging math problem.  The students used glitter, markers, and so much more to create their own Problem Solving Plan.  They really got into it.
  • The following day, I provided the students with a difficult and multi-step word problem, as a way of testing out their Problem Solving Plans.  Did your plan work?  Were the strategies helpful?  Is there anything you should add to your plan?  I had the students reflect, in writing on how useful and helpful their plan was to solving the problem.  A few students revised their plans based on their reflection.  I closed the lesson by telling the students that their Problem Solving Plan is a living document and may need to be added to or altered during the academic year, as they try it out and use it more.
  • Yesterday, I then introduced the online math program Prodigy to the students.  I explained that they will be using this throughout the year to practice math skills covered in class and to fill in any gaps in their math learning process.  While this is not the main vehicle for math instruction, it is a great support system.  It’s also very interactive and fun for the students.  It game-ifies Math instruction.  They began using it in class yesterday.  They created their characters and worked on the placement exam that is built into the program.  For 35 minutes, they were in the Math Zone.  It was awesome.  Each and every student was completely enthralled by and engaged in showing off their prior math learning.  The following are direct quotes from my students, shared with me during Math class.
    • “Mr. Holt, thanks for making Math fun this year.”
    • “Mr. Holt, I know we don’t have homework over the weekend, but can I work on Prodigy over the weekend?”
    • “This is so much fun.”
    • “Check out the cute little pet I earned in the game.”
    • “Mr. Holt, you are a Miracle Worker for making us like Math this year.”
  • This coming week, the students will be placed into the level of Beast Academy that meets them where they are, mathematically speaking, based on their results from the diagnostic test they completed via Prodigy.  Beast Academy is the Math program I use in the fifth grade.  It is rigorous, yet engaging for the students, as it uses fun monsters and a graphic novel approach to teaching new concepts.  Using this program allows me to individualize and differentiate my Math instruction for each student.  I employ mini-lessons and work with the students during Math class each day as they progress through the Beast Academy curriculum.
  • I will begin or close each Math class with a fun game or activity that reviews concepts covered and provides the students with opportunities to practice using their problem solving skills.

That’s how I do Math in the fifth grade.  After two super fun weeks in Math class, I can’t wait to see how much progress my students make as they continue to see the subject as fun and enjoyable.  I truly believe that each of my students will become a “Math Student” this year because of my approach.  I’ve found a way to transform my horrid Math past into engaging and exciting Math instruction.  It’s all about perspective and mindset.  Just like the “Little Engine That Could,” my students and I are going to work together to overcome challenges and obstacles in Math class this year.

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Staring at the Sun: Reflections on my Summer Work

My parents had a very long “Don’t Do This” list for me growing up: Don’t talk to strangers, don’t stick your tongue on metal in the winter, don’t stare at the sun, don’t listen to music with Parental Advisory stickers (I’m still a little angry at Tipper Gore for making that craziness happen), don’t go swimming right after eating, and don’t shower during a thunder storm.  While some of their demands were reasonable, I mean, who wants to lose part of their tongue or get struck by lightning in a shower, others were just plain silly.

“Why can’t I listen to the new Guns ‘N’ Roses double album?” I asked my parents in complete dismay.

“Because it includes inappropriate lyrics and has a Parental Advisory sticker on it,” my mom said, all matter of fact-like.

This ridiculous rule forced me to secretly save my allowance for a few weeks, which was really hard to do as I loved spending money right away back then.  But, I did it anyway.  I saved my money until I had enough to buy both Use Your Illusions I & II.  Then, when my parents when shopping at Ames, I went over to Coconuts, the record store in our town, and bought both albums on cassette tape and shoved them into my pockets.  My pockets were too small to hold CDs.  I met my parents back at Ames like nothing devious or evil had just occurred.  I got away with my crime, and I do believe that it made the songs on those two albums sound a little bit sweeter.  They forced my hand.  I had to covertly purchase those two albums, as they changed the musical landscape of rock music.  I couldn’t possibly live my life without ever hearing November Rain.  That would be sacrilegious.

Once I was finally freed from the controlling wraith of my parents and went off to college, I was filled with thoughts of rebellion.  Freedom tasted like fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, at first.  I stayed up way past my bed time, listened to music with curse words, and went swimming while eating.  It was awesome.  However, this freedom did come at a bit of a cost, as I began to realize that the rules my parents set up for me were done so to keep me safe and healthy.  After several days of staying up very late and waking up early for class, I grew very tired.  I ended up having to skip a few classes to get caught up on my sleep.  Then, when I stared at the sun, my eyes burned for days afterward.  That was so not fun.  While I was unhappy having to live within the confines of the cage my parents built for me, it was exactly the cage I needed.  It just took a few bad experiences for me to see this.


With school beginning next week, I’m filled with excitement and joy, like when I first listened to the Guns ‘N’ Roses Use Your Illusions I & II albums, minus the feeling of betrayal.  I can’t wait to meet my new students and jump into the school year.  I’m looking forward to trying lots of new games in Math class, bringing real substance to our Morning Meetings, and completing a real-world project for my community unit.  As my summer vacation is coming to a close, I feel compelled to reflect on the work I completed over the past two months.  Did I accomplish what I had set out to do this summer?  Am I fully prepared for the upcoming academic year?  Is there more that still needs to be done?  How’d I do in meeting the professional goals I set for myself back at the close of the past school year?

  • Goal 1: I want to switch up the posters and decorations in my classroom– I feel as though I totally rocked the house on this goal.  I put a lot of time, effort, and energy into transforming my room into an educational oasis of sorts.  I reorganized my Maker Space to bring more order and accountability to the space.  I hung the tools on the wall and labelled them all so that I can quickly and easily see what tools are still in use or have yet to be returned.  Plus, every tool now has a specified place.  I like that.  I also added a Tech Space to my Maker Space so that students can learn to code, create video games, or research a project they’re creating in the Maker Space.  I set up the Raspberry Pi computer that I built last year to a spare monitor that had no use last year.  I’m excited about what the students will be able to do at this new space in my classroom.  In addition to the Maker areas in the classroom, I also had one wall painted blue and thought carefully and logistically about the posters I hung on the wall.  I made sure that each poster was directly tied to the curriculum in some way or provided the students with thoughtful words.  I attempted to remove the clutter and disconnected and distracting posters from the wall.  I’m very pleased with what I do have hung up.  I also tried to mount the posters to the wall in a more professional looking manner.  I wanted to make my classroom look more like it was put together by professional classroom designers rather than by a 42-year-old man who doesn’t even match his socks.  I’m also thrilled about the curtains I added to the library area to make it more of a fun and inviting reading cave.  I believe the students will thoroughly enjoy this new touch.  My wife is also in the process of making valences for the windows in my room.  I can’t wait to see how they inject fun and whimsy into the space.  So, mission accomplished with goal one.
  • Goal 2: I want to change-up some of my Social Studies and Science units– While this will be an ongoing journey of mine for this new school year, I haven’t quite met this goal.  I am looking to change some of my Science and Social Studies units, but I haven’t fully realized them yet.  I have been working closely with the Hopkinton Town Administrator to enliven Our Community unit with an engaging and real-world project.  He’s brainstorming some possibilities as I type this entry.  I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with.  I also want to complete some sort of unit on civics and the upcoming presidential election.  I’m not exactly sure what this will look like, but I want to teach the students about how the election process works while they learn about the candidates in the running.  I’m hoping to have the students complete some sort of debate for this unit.  Other than that, I will have to assess the completion of this goal at the close of the 2019-2020 school year.
  • Goal 3: Determine if I will use Classcraft as a tool in my classroom– After much research on the program and time spent pondering my approach to how much screen time my students have on a daily basis, I’ve decided not to utilize Classcraft in my classroom for the upcoming school year.  While this tool may work for some teachers and students, I really want my students to be focused on the entire classroom community rather than themselves as individuals.  I worry that the program would instill a sense of inappropriate competition within the class and force the students to focus too much on approaching school like a checklist.  I want my fifth grade community to operate in a free and organic manner.  So, no Classcraft for me this year.
  • Goal 4: I want to jazz up my Math class a bit– I devoted much time this summer to this one goal.  I researched various math programs that other teachers and schools use.  I read several studies on how to help students see Math as fun and engaging rather than difficult and unnecessary.  I am going to begin the year in my Math class by having the students play a series of math games to help them see the subject as a class on problem solving instead of a class that is problematic for them.  I made use of the numerous resources on the Mathforlove website.  I am going to use  pieces of the curriculum for mini-lessons and fun games in class as well.  I really want to make Math class something the students will look forward to instead of something they will dread.  I can’t wait to see how things go with Math this year.  I’m filled with hope and excitement for what is to come.  Mission accomplished with goal number four.
  • Goal 5: I want to find more engaging games to incorporate into our Morning Meetings for next year– All you have to do is revisit my entry on the first professional development text I read this summer to know that big changes are in the works for our daily Morning Meetings in the fifth grade.  I have the first two weeks of Morning Meetings planned and ready to go.  I can’t wait to get my students sharing, caring, and playing as we build and foster a strong sense of community in the classroom.  D for done on this goal too.

I’d say that I had quite the productive summer as I worked to meet the five goals I set for myself back in June.  I feel confident, inspired, and excited to meet my new students, create a strong sense of community within the fifth grade, have fun, and learn lots.  After this lengthy summer break, I say, bring on the students and let’s get this educational party started, without any sort of Parental Advisory stickers, of course.  Smiley faces, scratch-and-sniff, and motivational quotes are the only kinds of stickers that will be allowed in my classroom.  So, although Axl Rose probably wasn’t talking about a new school year in the song Locomotive, I feel as though it totally relates to this new journey all teachers and students are about to embark upon in the coming days and weeks: “Let it take you where it may, we live and learn.”  See mom, Guns ‘N” Roses do have songs filled with inspirational and thoughtful lyrics.

Summer Time is Learning Time: Part II

I want to begin today’s entry with a story, as stories are an effective way of conveying information to others in a meaningful way.  Just read the fantastic book entitled Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers.  It does a wonderful job explaining the power of stories in teaching and life in general.  So, here is my story for today…

It all started with a hat.  A winter hat in fact.  You see, I never used to be one for wearing hats when I was younger.  When my mother made me wear one to school, I took it off as soon as I was out of her sight.  Hats weren’t considered “cool” back then.  In high school, I did wear a baseball cap to school, as we were allowed to don them at Lebanon High.  I guess I chose to wear one because I could; other than that, I’m not exactly sure why I wore one, as I’ve never really understood the purpose of caps.  They seem like an unnecessary accoutrement, unless you like offering free advertising to big business.  However, living in New England and being mostly bald, winters can be very cold.  After marrying my lovely wife, we moved to Maine, where the winters are especially bitter, snowy, and freezing cold.  To help make my transition a bit warmer and more comfortable, my grandmother bought me a winter hat.  It wasn’t super thick, but it covered my head and kept me warm.  It was blue and gray.  At first, I didn’t really wear it, as I still didn’t see the purpose of the hat, but about a week or so later, my grandmother passed away.  It was quick and sudden.  I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.  As I was very close to my grandmother, her death hit me hard.  I clung to every memory of her like it was gold.  That’s when I remembered the hat she had given me when she had last come to visit my wife and I in Maine.  I put it on that night and never took it off, metaphorically speaking.  I wore it whenever I went out and about, no matter the season.  I wore it all year long, like a lifeline to my grandmother.  While that first, special hat did eventually need to be replaced, I never stopped wearing a similar winter hat all year long.  17 years later, I’m still wearing a winter hat.  Even today while it was 85 degrees outside, I wore my hat when I went out to run some errands this morning.  My hat is like my security blanket and a constant reminder of the many great things my grandmother did for me.  She was my security blanket.

Why am I telling this particularly sad story in the midst of summer vacation, you are probably asking yourself right now.  Well, I’ll tell you.  Even though I know what my winter hat represents and why I wear it year-round, very few other people know or understand my rationale.  So, consequently, I get asked frequently why I’m wearing a hat in the middle of summer.  Some people call me crazy.  Some people think I’m strange.  Some people make fun of me and tell jokes at my expense.  And you know what, it doesn’t bother me a bit.  I try not to waste my precious time on this wonderful Earth worrying about what other people think of me and my actions.  Instead, I try to focus on living and experiencing life.  This same philosophy applies to my teaching, I am always focused on honing my practice so that I can better help, challenge, and support my current and future students.  I don’t let summer vacation, the heat, or my grueling search for a summer job get in the way.  I keep reading, learning, looking, and growing.

This past week, I finished reading the educational text Closing Circles: 50 Activities for Ending the Day in a Positive Way by Dana Januszka and Kristen Vincent.  While I utilized a version of a Closing Circle in my classroom in previous years, I knew that there was more I could be doing, and so I chose to make this book my second summer read.  Although the book is filled with great ideas and activities that I look forward to using in my classroom, because the philosophy behind the Closing Circle and the Responsive Classroom approach to education is not new to me, I didn’t learn any new approaches to teaching from this book.  However, if you are not familiar with the Responsive Classroom approach to teaching or the concept of a Closing Circle, then I highly recommend this book for you.  The Introduction includes an overview of the rationale behind the Closing Circle and how it greatly benefits students.  As all great teachers do, we work tirelessly to create a compassionate community within our classroom, and the Closing Circle is a meaningful and effective way to end each day before sending the students out into the crazy world.  So, while I didn’t learn any new pedagogy from this book, it reaffirmed what I already know and try to do in the classroom.  It did, however, give me lots of nifty ideas that I plan on incorporating into my classroom in several short weeks.

At this point, I plan on using the Around-the Circle Sharing activity during our first Closing Circle of the new school year, as I feel that it will offer the students a safe place in which to push themselves outside of their comfort zone a bit.  The activity asks each student to offer an answer or response to a question the teacher poses.  A question I might use on day one would be, “What’s one new thing you learned today?”  The open-ended nature of the question allows for creativity and variety in responses.  It also encourages a community of openness, new things, and learning.  While it may be difficult for some students to be put on the spot, with the smaller class size that I will have this year, I will have the time and space to support all of my students.  In a larger class, you could allow students to pass if they are struggling to think of something to share.  However, I would recommend that you push all of your students to share, even if it is something short and simple like, “Math.”  One word responses provide a foundation for future growth and learning to take place.  Safety and care are the base of the pyramid of fun and happiness in the classroom.  Our students need to feel safe and cared for, and sometimes during the first few days, students are testing the waters of safety and care.  By allowing students options and choice, they feel empowered and cared for, which is the beginning of lasting relationships in the classroom.

Like an infant, seeing the world for the first time, I love learning new ways to approach teaching.  This wonderful book provided me much fodder for growth and learning as a teacher.  If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, I highly suggest it.  You may also want to read the Responsive Classroom’s book on Morning Meetings, if you want more cool ideas on how to foster a strong sense of community within the classroom.  My previous blog entry detailed my thoughts on this amazing text, not that I’m self-promoting, but if you are bored and have a spare few minutes, check it out.  Now, I will continue my educational journey to grow and develop as a teacher, all while donning the memory of my grandmother upon my balding head.

When One Door Closes, Look Ahead for Another to Open

On this cloudy Father’s Day morning, I can’t help but revel in the wonder of two night’s ago: my son graduated from high school on Friday night.  Wwwhhhooo-hhhooo!  If I had some fireworks available to me and wasn’t afraid of shooting them off, I would totally do that right now too.  After many years and months of trying to help him see the light, he got to the end of the tunnel.  He made it, with much help and support from his teachers and aide.  While the ceremony was long, as his class was quite large, the speeches were phenomenal and Mother Nature kept the rain monsters at bay.  After the big event, he was beaming with pride.  He also seemed a bit surprised that he had successfully graduated.  My father turned to him at one point and said, “I’m surprised you did it,” and my son replied, “Yeah, me too.”  It was a very special moment.  In the car ride to his graduation dinner celebration, he said, “Now onto Milford Academy and then college.”  On graduation night, he was already looking ahead to the Post-Graduate school he will be attending before going to college.  He’s already set his sights on his next goal.  I love it!  He’s definitely got my energy for goal-setting.  So, to my son, I say, “Congratulations young man.  You did it!  Now, keep kicking butt as you look ahead to your next challenge.”

Much like my son, I’ve begun to think about my next school year.  As my fifth graders officially became sixth graders on Friday morning, our last day of school at BHS, I’m already thinking about changes I’d like to make in my classroom for next year.  Although I felt as though this past academic year was highly successful, I don’t ever want to stop growing, thinking, and reflecting.  There is always room for change, as I told my students this year, “Nothing or no one is perfect, not even your amazing teacher.”  As the door on the 2018-2019 school year has closed, it’s time to find the next door to open.

Things I want to tweak or change for the 2019-2020 academic year:

  • I want to switch up the posters and decorations in my classroom.  While things looked good this past year, I didn’t super love the way I hung stuff on the walls.  I feel as though I can do better.  I want to strive for making it look more professional.  I want to create a fun sign for the Reading Nook and Maker Space in my classroom.  I want to attach the posters to the wall in a more avant-garde way.  I want conjure up the emotion and rawness of Jackson Pollack while still maintaining the elementary feel of a Harry Allard book.  I’m not sure exactly how I will do this, but I am going to bring some change to the decor of my classroom this summer.
  • I want to change-up some of my Social Studies and Science units.  Will I still do a unit on the Native Americans?  I’m not sure.  With the Community Unit that kicks off the school year, I dig into the native tribes that once resided on the land that we now call Hopkinton.  Is it overkill to then follow up that unit with another one on the same topic?  While the students seemed to enjoy that unit, I feel as though I could also use that time to teach them a unit on civics and what it means to be a citizen of the US.  With a pivotal election on the horizon, helping students understand what it means to be a citizen seems to make a lot of sense to me.  I also plan to make some minor changes to the other units I will update for next year based on the feedback I received from my students this year.
  • While the history teacher uses the online application Classcraft to help motivate students, I’m not sure if I want to make use of it in the fifth grade.  While the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders seemed to enjoy using it this past year, I worry that it tied them to their computers too much.  In this techno-verse in which we live, it’s very easy for people to zone out and stay connected to a screen, and I don’t want that to happen to my students.  While Classcraft does seem really cool and offers some amazing features, I feel as though I need to spend some time this summer really contemplating the decision to utilize it or not for the fifth grade.
  • I want to jazz up my Math class a bit.  As I had much success with the games I used in class, I want to dig even deeper into that concept for the upcoming year.  I want to investigate the cool Math For Love curriculum to see if it would be an appropriate supplemental curriculum for next year.  I want to find even more math games to use in the classroom.  I want to begin each Math class with an activity, problem, or game.  I want to help my students see how much fun Math can be.
  • I want to find more engaging games to incorporate into our Morning Meetings for next year.  The students loved the activities I used towards the end of the year, and I want to find even more games that help foster problem solving and critical thinking while allowing students to develop their social-emotional skills.

I think that’s it for now.  My summer vacation is still young and so this list may grow as September draws closer.  I’m excited to challenge myself this summer and continue to grow and develop as an educator.  Although the end of a school year is filled with bittersweet emotions, it is also a wonderful time to reflect and think ahead.  So, like my son is already doing, I am looking forward to next year’s wonderful class.  Big it on, I say.

You Taught Your Students What?: Highlights from Last Week in my Fifth Grade Classroom

While last week did feel a bit chaotic and busy at times at my wonderful little school, as we prepared for the big April vacation taking place this week and had to input Progress Report grades, there was also a sense of serenity, gratitude, and excitement in the air.  The temperatures outside began to rise, the snow had finally melted from our rolling fields, and spring was beginning to take hold in central New Hampshire last week.  Despite the craziness of finishing up a unit, cleaning the school, and preparing for the final two months of the academic year, numerous wonderful things took place in my fifth grade classroom last week.  In no particular order, here they are…

Mindfulness Yoga

Looking back on when I came up with this grand idea of having a Yoga instructor come into my classroom once a month for the entire year to teach my students the power of Yoga, mindfulness, and relaxation, I wasn’t even sure it would be possible.  It seemed like a utopian construct that would never work in reality.  Would I be able to find an instructor crazy and brave enough to be a part of such an ambitious undertaking?  Then, my school’s headmaster gave me the name of a wonderful Yogi who is also the mother of two BHS students.  Would she want to help out?  Could she help out?  Would her schedule allow her to lead such a class?  In early August, I received an excited and hopeful email from Lisa Garside, owner of a local Yoga studio.  She would love to work with me and my class throughout the year, she responded.  The ideal time that I had in mind totally worked with her schedule.  The stars were aligning.  I couldn’t wait for the academic year to begin.  But then, would my students be into it?  Would they be engaged in such a different type of mindful instruction?  When I informed my students of the first session way back in September of 2018, you would have thought that I had told them they had no homework for the rest of the month.  They couldn’t wait for our first class.  What seemed impossible became achievable because I persevered and ran with a kooky idea.

Now, as I think about the fact that we have but one final Yoga session left in this school year, I am feeling bittersweet about it all.  I am ecstatic that it was so well received by my students.  They have loved our monthly Yoga sessions and have really gained much focus, relaxation, and calming strategies over the course of the year.  I am so grateful that Mrs. Garside was able and willing to give us the gift of her time, wisdom, and kindness.  She has been absolutely amazing with my students.  Yoga days are the most relaxed days each month, as we begin them in such a peaceful and calm manner.  I am also sad to think about the end being so near.  Our last Yoga session will take place in May, and serve as another reminder of just how close the end of the school year truly is.  We have been so fortunate this year to have Mrs. Garside work with us month after month.

This past week, Mrs. Garside led my students through our April Yoga session.  The focus for this month was on a different style of Yoga that included quick and fast breathing.  The students learned more about how to focus their energy on breathing and moving, instead of dwelling on their inner thoughts regarding this more challenging form of Yoga.  It was quite amazing to observe my students practicing the concept of mindfulness, as they worked very hard to hold difficult poses for long periods of time.  A sense of awe and wonder washed over me as I watched my students engage in this wonderful Yoga session.

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I believe that every school and class should incorporate some form of Yoga in their routine, as I have witnessed the amazing benefits first hand.  My students are able to be more present in the moment, aware of their breathing, and understand the power of their bodies from partaking in our monthly Yoga classes.  Imagine how much more compassionate, kind, and aware ALL students could be if Yoga was incorporated into the curriculum or routine in some way in ALL schools.  Perhaps instances of bullying and violence in schools would decrease if ALL students were provided the opportunity to stop, relax, focus, breathe, and stretch at least once a month.  Just imagine the possibilities.

Rover Presentations in Science Class

After weeks of great effort, much failure, perseverance, overcoming adversity, trying new things, taking risks, and rebuilding based on feedback, the three student groups presented their space rovers to two judges this past Friday during Science class.  Each group began their presentation by explaining the problem that their solution and rover could solve.  One group tackled the trash and plastic issue plaguing Earth, while another group chose to mine asteroids for frozen water.  The third group had wanted to mine asteroids for their materials.  They were very specific in identifying their problem and solution.  Each group then showcased how their rover works.  They detailed how they built their rover, the problems encountered as they worked and how they overcame that adversity, and how their rover operates.  It was quite impressive to hear the students share their ideas, thoughts, and facts regarding what they had learned throughout our Astronomy Unit.  Amazing!

The highlights for me were three-fold:

  • Talk About Preparation: The students were so rehearsed and ready for Friday’s presentations that you would have thought we were live streaming the event for the world to see.  They spoke with poise and clarity, unlike what I normally see and hear during class discussions or chats.  They avoided the dreaded ums, ahhs, and likes as if they were evil incantations uttered by the Teletubbies or Barney.  The students didn’t skip a beat between speakers either.  Each group just knew when to pass the metaphorical baton.  It was awesome.  I was so proud of them.  The judges were in awe of their brilliant performances.  In times like these, I have to remind myself that my students are only in the fifth grade because they often act as though they are gifted graduate students studying to take over the world.
  • Problem Solving in Action: As one group readied to demonstrate how their rover worked for the judges, nothing seemed to happen.  They toggled the on switch back and forth, and still nothing.  Instead of giving up and continuing on with their presentation, they stopped for a few moments to solve their problem.  After fiddling with a few of the Little Bits pieces, they got their rover rolling.  They could have easily given up and not fixed the problem encountered, but they did not and did.  They persevered and reached the top of the mountain of awesomeness.  It was so cool to watch this play out.  Everything we’ve worked on all year was on display in those few brief moments.  I could not have been a more proud teacher.
  • To Judge or Not to Judge: Rather than have me assess the students on their presentations, pose questions, and provide the students with feedback, I brought in two very qualified judges to be a part of the big event in class on Friday.  Earl Tuson, a mechanical engineer who once worked for NASA and Aubrey Nelson, one of the science teachers from my school were absolutely wonderful.  They asked the students high-level questions and kept them on their toes the whole time.  I do believe that having such quality judges helped inspire the students to be so prepared for their presentations.  It’s nice to bring in other community members for the students to interact with throughout the year.

Empathy and Compassion Aren’t Simply Trendy Catch Phrases

As I read many educational blogs and articles found in all parts of the inter-web, it seems as though teaching students the concepts of empathy and compassion are and have been hot topics for quite some time.  How do we best help students learn the power of empathy?  Why does it seem that our students are so entitled in the classroom?  How can we help our students learn to be compassionate citizens?

Like all great teachers, I have tried, over the course of this school year, to instill these ideas of caring and kindness within my students.  We often talk about how to communicate in compassionate ways with each other in the classroom.  Compassion is one of our class norms.  However, it sometimes feels like I’m simply doing lip service to some big, grandiose, and utopian idea that is not really achievable in the classroom.  Is all of this work for not?  What I witnessed this past week in my classroom definitely tells me otherwise.

This past Wednesday, one of my students had his lunch taken, accidentally, as he had left it out of his lunch box during the all-school lunch period.  He came back to the classroom seeming very upset and hungry.  He shared what had happened with me and the other students in the classroom prior to the start of our next class.  Immediately, two students got extra food they had leftover in their lunch boxes to share with this student.  Despite the student saying, “No thanks,” they gave him the food anyway.  He then gratefully enjoyed this gifted food during our class read-aloud.  I shared what had unfolded with the entire class prior to starting to read aloud from our class novel, as I wanted everyone to celebrate the kind deeds in action.  The most happy-tears part of the whole situation was that the students who gave their leftover food to the student who had none, didn’t even pause to think about their choice or actions; they simply got their food out and gave it to the student, as though that is just what you do to help members of your community.  Wow, was just about all I was thinking in that moment.  Perhaps those lessons and all that talk of compassion and empathy did have an impact on my students.

Astronomy Unit Reflection

Going into this Astronomy Unit in Science class way back in mid-March, I felt quite confident that I was providing students with the learning and education on space that they had requested prior to starting the unit.  They gave me some great insight as to what specific topics regarding astronomy that they wanted to study and cover over the course of our unit; and so, when I crafted the unit, I made sure to include what they had asked for and not what topics they had already learned about in the past.  For this reason, I was very hopeful that the students would really enjoy this unit.

Fast forward a month to the end of the unit and I still feel the same way.  The students seemed engaged and curious throughout our unit.  They seemed to like every part of it, including the test.  So, when I asked for feedback on the unit this past Friday, as we closed the door on this fine masterpiece of learning, I had my fingers crossed that my thoughts would align nicely with the students’ perspective on our Astronomy Unit.

The big takeaways for me were that the students did really enjoy this unit, overall.  While there are always going to be outliers in an activity like completing a feedback form, almost every students felt like I had covered what they wanted to learn in a way that worked for them.  This felt really positive.  Asking for thoughts and ideas before the unit, helped me to generate a very meaningful and engaging unit on an often fun topic for students.  Asking the students for help in creating an engaging and fun curriculum totally helps.  Student buy-in was great throughout this unit, as they had helped to shape it.  I love it!

Here are some direct quotes from the Google Form the students completed regarding their thoughts on our astronomy unit:

  • In answering the question, “Is there anything(s) that you wish we had learned about space that we did not cover during this unit?” one student responded: No, I feel like I was informed of everything I wanted to learn.
  • In addressing this question, “If you were the teacher, what would you change about the Knowledge Phase, including mini-lessons and test?” one student wrote: Nothing. I thought that you handled them very well.

McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center Field Trip

As I’m sure we can all attest to, we may not remember many of the specific topics covered when we were students in school, but we sure do recall, vividly, the experiences we had in school.  I will never forget the field trips I took to Fort Number Four in fourth grade, an outdoor science center in sixth grade, and Washington D.C. in ninth grade.  Those opportunities brought the learning to life for me.  I remember the fun times with classmates, cool science facts, and the amazing exhibits in the museums we visited.  As teachers, we realize this fact, and try to imbue our class and curriculum with engaging and enjoyable experiences.

This past Tuesday, as a way to wrap up our Astronomy Unit, I took my class to visit the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery in Concord, NH.  The students enjoyed the hands-on exhibits in the discovery center.  They loved trying to land the space shuttle and experiencing the different types of waves.  We concluded our visit with a very cool planetarium show on Black Holes.  After partaking in the unveiling of the Black Hole images from two weeks ago, my students were so into learning more about Black Holes.  It was awesome.  Throughout the show, I heard my students say, “Wow,” “That’s so neat,” and “I didn’t know that.”  It was awesome.  While they may not remember every last fact we learned about space throughout our unit, I’m hopeful that they will never forget our class trip to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center.

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All that stuff happened in just one week?  Whoa, that was a very rich and full week.  As I wax nostalgic on all the fun I’ve had with my class this year, it’s comforting to know that I still have almost two more months with them before they matriculate into sixth grade.  How much more fun can be had?  Well, we are sure to find out starting next week.

The Key Ingredients Needed to Make Learning Fun in the Classroom

While I tend to be a creature of habit in most aspects of my life, when it comes to cooking, I love to wander off the downtrodden path and improvise.  Recipes, shmeshipes I say.  I cook from the heart, and stomach.  What do I think will taste good in this dish?  That question drives me when I’m in the kitchen.  I love chocolate chips, and so even though most recipes do not call for them, I love to throw them in.  Chocolate makes everything better.  As my son can’t consume high quantities of salt, I usually discard that ingredient from recipes when cooking something that he may enjoy.  I get a little funky and try new things when baking or cooking.  It’s a great release for my creativity.  A dash of this, a pound of that, and lots of chocolate chips.

Over my years in education, I’ve tried to adopt this same improvisational approach to my teaching.  I like to take risks, try new things, and engage my students.  This often means that I need to think on my feet, adapt a lesson or activity in order to meet the needs of my students, and revise my plans frequently.  As the large body of research on learning and the brain tells us, students learn best when they are engaged.  To engage my students, I work to make learning fun.  How does one make learning fun, you are probably asking yourself right now.  Although schools have changed over time, if your experience was anything like mine, there was very little fun to be had during the class part of your school day.  The fun came at recess, lunch, and snack.  Learning was rarely fun for me when I was in school.  Fortunately for our students, schools and the world of education have evolved much over time.  Fewer schools and teachers are using textbooks, and teacher-directed instruction is now only a small part of each lesson or activity.  As teachers, we now have the flexibility to make use of project-based activities and hands-on learning.  We are working to make learning fun for our students.

So, what’s the secret to making learning fun?  Well, that’s just it, there is no tried and true formula for making learning fun, as every student and school is different.  What might be fun for one student may not be enjoyable for another.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic wand to give you that will allow you to make learning fun for your students; however, I do have some tips and tricks.  You see, while there is no set recipe for fun in the classroom, if you start with a few key ingredients, you may find that fun happens.

First, as the neuroscience research tells us, it starts with safety.  The students need to feel safe, respected, and cared for in the classroom.  You need to create a welcoming space for the students to enter each and every day.  Setting up your classroom in such a way that the students have options for how they learn is crucial.  Not all students learn best sitting in a chair at a desk.  Some students like to get comfortable in a bean bag or on the floor.  Organizing your classroom with different types of spaces is vital to helping students feel respected and cared for.  The other key component for students to feel safe in your classroom is the social-emotional curriculum.  Do you address the anxiety levels of your students?  Do you provide students with a safe space to share their feelings?  Do you make use of mindfulness strategies?  Do you begin each morning by warmly greeting your students and engaging them in conversation?  If not, you will want to dig into each of those areas so that you are creating a culture of care and compassion in the classroom.  Only when students feel safe can genuine learning happen.

The second key ingredient required to make learning fun is a sense of humor.  Being able to laugh at yourself in front of the students and make really awesome Dad Jokes, as my students like to call them, helps to create an atmosphere of trust and silliness in the classroom.  When the students see that they don’t need to be so serious all the time, they let their guard down, they open up, they share their feelings, they laugh, and they have fun.  Each Morning Meeting in my fifth grade classroom includes a pun.  For example, the pun I used on the last day of school prior to the holiday break was, “How do Christmas Trees keep their breath smelling so fresh?”  Any ideas?  My students guessed things like their pine scent, which were chili pepper ideas, but incorrect.  The answer, “Orna-mints.”  Hilarious, I know.  Beginning the day with silly jokes and riddles helps the students see that learning and school can be fun and enjoyable.

The third key ingredient needed for fun to spontaneously break out in the classroom is, wait for it, novelty.  Trying new things, taking a different approach to an old concept, and making things fresh for the students helps to trigger their brains to pay attention.  Our brains crave new things, and so when we teach a concept in a unique way, our students will pay close attention because their brains are telling them to do so.  For example, instead of using those mundane grammar worksheets we all grew up having to complete, I teach grammar through stories.  I tell my students the story of how this gang of super heroes saved my life one night.  I explain how I was being accosted in the alley by some villains when out of seemingly no where comes this group of superheroes to save the day.  Super Noun Man uses his hands, super strength, and super speed to help, while Super Verb Lady uses her many super actions to intercede on my behalf.  I create this elaborate tale all about how each part of speech gets involved in saving my life.  When I shared this story with my students this year, one student asked, “I notice that each super hero helped you using examples of the part of speech they are.”  Exactly!  Students love new and fun things.  So, trying to find different and cool ways to teach a concept or introduce a new unit is paramount for fun to be had in the classroom.

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The fourth ingredient has to do with the activities or lessons themselves.  Are the students doing something?  Are the students working with their peers?  Is there hands-on learning taking place in the classroom?  Students crave social interactions with their peers.  They love talking to the other students.  So, making use of carefully constructed group projects or partner activities allows for this to happen in meaningful ways.  Students also learn best when they are doing something.  Rather than spewing information at them, allow them to experiment with a new concept and investigate how it works.  After briefly explaining how speed differs from velocity, I had the students, working in pairs, create a marble track that maximized speed while also having at least two changes in velocity.  This was a challenging but super fun task for the students.  It allowed them to tinker and find solutions on their own.  As the students worked, I asked each partnership probing questions about the concepts to be sure they understood the difference.  And they did.  They got it, and had a ton of fun doing so.

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The fifth and final necessary ingredient needed for fun to be fostered in the classroom, is, yes, you guessed it, love.  It seems hokey, but so very important.  You’ve got to love what you are doing in the classroom.  If you don’t love your lesson, activity, unit, or read-aloud novel, then the students will see through your fake smile and know that what they are doing is not fun.  This is probably one of the most difficult ingredients to get right for learning to become fun.  It’s not easy to make paragraph writing engaging and fun; however, if you think about the other key ingredients for fun and engagement to happen in the classroom, then it’s totally doable.  Finding ways to love everything you do in the classroom ties the other four ingredients together like wonderful wrapping paper.  When you love what you are doing in the classroom, the students will see it and start to love it as well.  Positivity and excitement are contagious.  When you share with the students the marble track you made on the wall of your classroom because you want to jump in on the fun they are sure to have, the students get pumped.  Then, when you have a student stand underneath the end of the marble track you have mounted on your wall and say, “Okay, now I need someone to stand right about there and face the opposite direction,” the students raise their hands as if you are giving away a new computer or phone.

Although there is no secret recipe for bringing about fun in the classroom, there are five key ingredients that will make fun possible: Creating a safe learning environment, having a sense of humor, novelty, hands-on learning and group projects, and having a love of what you are doing in the classroom.  When you mix equal parts of those five ingredients together, fun is bound to happen in your classroom.  Learning doesn’t have to be boring.  In fact, it can easily be engaging and fun, if you take the time to knead each lesson or unit into just the right shape.  When the students are having fun learning new concepts or applying old concepts to new ones, you are creating lifelong learners.  What students learn when they are having fun will not soon be forgotten, unlike those ridiculous grammar worksheets from your eighth grade English class.

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Student-Centered Learning: How Does it Impact Student Engagement in the Classroom?

I read an interesting article last week about the landmark book The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik.  The article summarizes the metaphor the author uses to suggest how children should be raised in modern society.  While the article is geared towards parents, I do wonder if the same concept could apply to education as well.  Should we be trying to build students that do what we think as educators is best, or should we be cultivating a positive classroom culture that promotes teamwork, reflection, mindfulness, critical thinking, compassion, problem solving, and creativity so that students can develop and bloom into their own person?  As we are no longer preparing students to go out into a world of industry that is driven by factories in which all people need to be doing the same thing and following the same directions, logic leads me to believe that we should not be trying to craft students to fit into a particular mold.  Instead, schools and teachers should be helping students to find themselves while providing them opportunities to learn the useful and necessary skills they will need to be effective global citizens.  Teachers should be empowering students and handing the reigns of control over to them.  Students need to learn how to solve problems and think for themselves.  If schools employ a curriculum that forces students to follow a prescribed set of directions to complete a required task, how will students learn to be responsible citizens in our world?  Schools need to realize that times have changed.  We are no longer preparing students for factory life.  We are preparing students to think critically about the world around them in order to solve problems in creative and compassionate ways.  Schools that have evolved over time are the ones that are most helping students and our world.  Because I teach at a school that sees the power in creating learning opportunities for students in order to help them thrive and blossom into all sorts of beautiful, free-thinking organisms, I am able to implement a meaningful curriculum that focuses on inspiring students.

From day one in my fifth grade classroom, I’ve tried to focus on how I teach.  Rather than seeing myself as a carpenter, I’ve put forth much energy to be more of a guide or gardener.  Instead of telling my students what they need to do to show mastery of a particular concept, skill, or objective, I provide them with options or ask for their input.  I’m trying to foster a sense of autonomy and responsibility among the students in my class.  My goal is for them to see what is important and valuable, and then begin steering the classroom ship in that direction.  Although this manner of teaching does seem to make the most sense to me based on the reality in which we live, it’s not easy to break myself of old habits.  In college, I was trained to think that my role as a teacher is to ensure that my students do what I say according to the rules of how to do it.  As a young and naive educator and college student, I accepted what my professors told me.  They know what is best, I thought.  Years later, I realized that what I once thought was the right way to teach was in fact not at all accurate.  So, I’ve been doing much research on teaching and learning over the past few years.  I’ve changed my teaching style to adapt to what I’ve discovered along the way.  It’s challenging for me to think that I should not be the one in charge of the learning in the class.  I have to give up control, I thought.  But I am a control freak and need everything to go just so.  How can I possibly give up control and expect that everything will be okay?  It’s not about control, it’s about managing my expectations.  If I want students to leave my classroom being curious, responsible, self-sufficient, creative, compassionate, and mindful young people, than I need to change the way I think about teaching and living in general.  So, I’ve been doing that.  This year, in particular, I’ve been very thoughtful and purposeful in everything I say and do in the classroom.  I want to inspire my students to learn and grow as individuals and fifth grade family members. I want what I do in the classroom to be about them, which is why I’m trying to create a student-centered approach to learning in the classroom.

  • In my last entry I wrote about a brilliant idea one of my students had for a writing project.  So, I ran with it and implemented it in the classroom this week.  After explaining the project and task to them, I allowed the students to brainstorm the story idea, characters, and chapter assignments.  I observed from the side as they got into a great discussion.  They bounced ideas off of one another and came up with a very unique story idea in which seven superhero children travel to the Atlantic ocean to help pick up trash that the super villain Squid Man has been dumping into the ocean.  They had so much fun coming up with ideas and choosing roles.  I didn’t intervene once.  While it seemed chaotic at first, with many students talking at once, one student interjected and said, “It’s really hard to hear each other’s ideas when we are all talking at once.  Why don’t we have one person call on people who are raising their hands?”  A student raised her hand to be the leader and the rest of the conversation went swimmingly.  It was so awesome.  If I had jumped in and tried to control the situation like part of me wanted to do, I would have prevented opportunities for growth and learning from taking place.
  • After completing a scientific investigation together as a class to model and teach the steps of the scientific method, I wanted to provide the students with a different investigation in which they could practice and apply what they learned.  While I had plenty of ideas in mind, my only stipulation was that they had to use corn starch and at least one other material to create an investigation.  Some students chose glue or clay, while others chose water of some sort.  It was so cool to observe them all taking risks, trying new things, and learning about themselves as science students.  They seemed to have so much more fun than groups of students I’ve worked with in the past that did not have the freedom to choose their materials or type of investigation.  My fifth graders were excited and engaged.  It was amazing!
  • During the first week of classes, we watched a news-like video in Math to help the students begin to see that Math is about a mindset and not how one is born.  After watching the video, a student raised her hand and said, “We should do a news video like that and present it to the whole school during Community.”  I loved the idea so much, as did the other students in the class, that we are going to do just that tomorrow.  The students spent last week gathering pictures, interviews, and video footage of the school and other students during their free time.  Tomorrow we will spend the day putting the video together.  The students will assign roles, record the newscast, and then lay it out on the computer.  I can’t wait to see what the students create.  They are so creative.  I was however, at first, hesitant to try something like this as it meant that I would not be in control.  What if it doesn’t go right?  What if the students make mistakes?  What if…  The list could go on and on.  Just like with the story project, I need to allow the students to solve their own problems and take responsibility for their learning outcomes.  If it doesn’t work out or fails, even better.  That way, the students will have the ability to think critically, problem solve, and try something new.

These examples simply highlight a few of the ways I’ve tried to create a student-centered classroom in the fifth grade this year.  I’m super excited and happy with how things are going thus far.  I can’t wait to see how the future unfolds.  For me, it’s all about trying new things as a way of empowering my students and helping them to learn real-world skills that will allow them to transform and bloom into effective global citizens.

My Students Have the Best Ideas

For years, whenever I showered, the best ideas came to me like epiphanies.  It was amazing.  Almost every day, great ideas about how to solve problems I faced popped into my brain almost like magic.  Was I the reincarnation of Houdini?  Or was the water tainted with some strange chemical that caused my brain to work in strange ways?  Or perhaps it was a chemical reaction caused by the water mixing with my perspiration.  Well, for years, I couldn’t explain this bizarre phenomenon any other way than to say that the water inspired me.

Over the past few years, I’ve been doing a lot of learning regarding neuroscience and the brain.  How do my students learn?  I wanted to know how to best teach my students so that they could effectively and genuinely learn what I was teaching them.  In this self-learning process, I came to understand that most of the work, in terms of thinking, that our brain does happens when we don’t even realize it’s going on.  When we are doing something that does not require a ton of focus like showering, our unconscious brain is trying to help us solve some of the problems we encountered earlier that day.  A great example of this is when you try to name the song currently playing on the radio and you seem unable to do so, despite having heard the song many times before.  Later in the day when your conscious brain is doing something that doesn’t require a lot of brain work, your unconscious brain finds the answer for you and slips it into your conscious train of thought.  I’m sure you have all experienced this phenomena before.  The brain is such an amazing tool.

Sometimes though, ideas and solutions come to me in other ways, outside of my being.  A great example of this occurred in my classroom yesterday during the first day of school.  My students worked on an activity that had them decorating a superhero cape with facts about themselves through the lens of superheroes.  Instead of simply plastering their name on the back of their capes, they had to generate a unique superhero name, super power, and other fun facts about themselves.  All of my students were super engaged in this activity as they created interesting superhero personas for themselves.  One student named himself Burger Boy because he enjoyed eating tasty cheeseburgers.  I was excited that the students were so enthralled with this activity.  While planning this Orientation Day task, I hoped that the students would enjoy it as much as I assumed they would, but we all know what happens when one assumes.  So, watching the awesomeness unfold during the execution of this activity filled me with joy.

While my students worked on crafting creative and colorful capes that helped to tell their life story, one student made a most magnificent suggestion.  She said, “Mr. Holt, we should write a class graphic novel all about our superheroes fighting crime at our school.”  Wow, came to mind as she uttered those words.  My response, “That is a most amazing idea.  I think we might have to try that on for size during Language Arts this year.”  The other students chimed in, noting that it is a great idea.

For the rest of the day, I thought about this amazing idea that one of my students had generated during class.  I love it.  I think it would be an epic way to get my students working together as a community of learners, creators, and writers.  I could have the students completely own this writing task.

  • They could brainstorm ideas for a story theme.  Perhaps they want the story to be about a series of crimes or one larger crime.
  • They could then map out the story, as they find a way to somehow incorporate each of their superheroes into the story.
  • They could then assign roles and tasks for writing and illustrating the story.  Each student would required to write and illustrate at least one part of the story.
  • We could then submit their story to one of those online bookmaking services to have it transformed into a fancy, bound graphic novel.  We would be sure to order enough copies for each student to have one.  We’d order an extra copy to donate to our local public library.
  • The students could even host a special superhero night at the library where they read their book aloud to other children.

I love, love, love how this idea is metamorphosing into so much more as my unconscious and conscious brain dwell on it.  I do believe that this will be our first Language Arts project of the year.  I had something else planned, but this seems to be a way cooler idea that will better engage my students.  I’ll still be able to cover similar writing strategies through this task, and so, it’s not like I’d be losing any “teaching” time.  I’d still be covering the curriculum and writing objectives that my students will need to master by the end of fifth grade.  I feel like it’s going to be awesome.  I can’t wait to jump into this project sometime during the first few weeks of school.  I’m so excited.

To think that this idea came from one of my students.  Seriously, my students are brilliant.  Just when I thought I had good ideas, one of my students blows me away.  I love it.  This one of the many enjoyable aspects of teaching: When students become so engaged in a task or topic that they generate innovative new ideas.  Amazing!

Can Quiet be Showy?

Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I went on a little adventure to check out this bog that is known for having some very beautiful plants growing within it.  While the weather outside was a bit cool and gloomy, we needed to get outside and breathe in some delightful and fresh summer air.  So, we made our way through several back roads to this bog nature preserve in Hartland, VT.  Numerous other cars littered the tiny parking area and neighboring shoulders.  Do fairies live in this special place, I thought to myself as I pondered why so many people would be checking out a wetland on a gloomy Sunday.  Walking upon the well-maintained boardwalks, you could hear the chirping birds and singing insects perfectly.  Despite the many people that filled this small area, the sounds of nature were the only ones we could hear.  We saw lots of green things from ferns to leaves, and even a few bushes.  Who knew there were so many different kinds of ferns.  We even saw an Ostrich Fern.  What?  Ostriches don’t live in New England.  How did that plant get here?  Perhaps it’s named for its ostrich-like shape.  Oh, that makes way more sense than being food for ostriches.  As we slowly made our way through the meandering boardwalk, the reason for the many cars and people visiting this beautiful place became very evident to me: Showy Lady Slippers.  Imagine a small plant with a green, black, and white flower that grows in a most peculiar manner.  One part of it appears to look like a small shoe-like holding pouch, which is perhaps how this amazing specimen received its name.  These plants were more than just beautiful.  They offered serenity in the often turbulent times of early summer.  They proved a brilliant distraction in a sea of green and browns.  They stood out, but not in a showy way as their name suggests.  They stood almost at a downward angle, shadowed by the nearby trees and bushes.  They weren’t trying to be noticed, they just happened to be the picture of absolute beauty.  They offered quiet in a naturally loud and slowly flowing bog area.  While they looked completely different from every other species around them, they weren’t trying to out do the other flora samples.  They were just trying to be themselves, quiet and beautiful.  In a world filled with loud distractions, crazy schedules, and tumultuous current events, it’s nice to see that evolution has created some beautiful organisms to remind us to take a deep breath and experience the quiet world around us from time to time.

Having recently finished reading the novel Quiet by Susan Cain, I feel as though I am much more attuned to and aware of the introverts in our world.  I myself feel akin to her explanation of an introvert.  I feel much more at peace when I am alone or in a small group of close friends.  I do my best work in solitude and silence.  As I’m writing this entry, I’m sitting, alone, on my couch, staring out the window at a ginormous eastern white pine tree and listening to the birds talk it up.  No other distractions plague me.  If the television was on or another person in the room, my brain would be unable to contemplate the beauty of life.  Unfortunately though, in our world, it’s the extroverted qualities that are often embraced and rewarded.  I feel as though I was taught from an early age that being quiet and working or living in solitude are bad things.  I’ve been forced to, at times, be something I’m not because I was told by society that I had to.  Cain’s book shows us that while outgoing and extroverted personality traits are more recognized and celebrated, those more quiet, introverted people should be allowed to be who they are.  Introversion isn’t a disease, it’s something one is born with.  In the novel, the author whittles the difference between extroverts and introverts down into its simplest form, biology.  People are born with different levels of sensitivity regarding their temperament, which causes them to be extroverted or introverted.  Introverts can’t help being introverted and extroverts can’t help being extroverted.  It’s completely acceptable and fine to be who you really are.   If, like the showy lady slipper and me, you are a unique introvert that shows your creative beauty in more outward, visual ways, that is a-okay.  Be who you are and be happy with that.  Society should not force people to be something they are not, she states throughout the book.

She did mention something that struck me in her novel, as I’ve often wrestled with the kind of person I am.  I tend to, at times, come across as more extroverted and outgoing.  Does that mean I’m an extrovert?  Her answer was simply, No.  However, sometimes, introverts find that their passion requires them to utilize and display more extroverted qualities; therefore, it is completely acceptable to fake it a bit and pretend to be different than how you truly are if what you like to do requires that.  As a teacher, I am talkative, outgoing, and extroverted because that’s what makes me a great teacher.  Because I love teaching, I step outside my comfort zone to do what feels right and good to me.  Much like the professor she referenced in her book, I too need my down time after a long day of faking it.  I need to come home and veg out, watching television with my wife or talking to my son about his day.  I need a mental break.  This novel helped me see myself for how I truly am.  It’s given me the courage to remain quiet when appropriate.  I now feel confident owning my choices.

The author did a fantastic job explaining the difference between extroverts and introverts, and used stories, anecdotes, and much research to support her claims.  She also gave introverts like me the extra boost we need to realize that we don’t have to pretend to be an extrovert in a world that celebrates extroversion.  I can be me, a quiet, thoughtful, introvert.  Even though our world has come to rely on extroverted personality traits, it’s the introverts who have really shaken things up over time.  Some of the best inventions or ideas have come from introverts.  Without them, it does make me wonder if our world would be what it is today.  Cain provides much food for thought in her well-articulated text about quiet people.  She offers many suggestions on how people might embrace their inner introvert or help others seize their introversion.  She also explains how parents and educators can help introverts harness their true potential as individuals without having to fit into a certain box.  I found it to be eye-opening as an introvert and teacher.  Rather than push my quiet students to be more extroverted, I need to celebrate their introversion while also helping them to see that we do indeed live in a loud, extroverted world.  Sometimes, you do need to be a bit more extroverted if your passion requires it.  I am now equipped with new knowledge on how to best support all of my students thanks to Susan Cain’s brilliant book.

While some introverts, like me, do like to be a bit showy or loud in how we dress or act, at times, it doesn’t mean that we crave attention or are trying to be something we’re not.  We are simply trying to be ourselves in a world that often tries to fit us into holes that are meant to steal our creativity, individuality, beauty, and introversion.  Cain’s novel reminded me of just that.  It’s not an us versus them world.  I’m not trying to show up the extroverts in my life by standing out, I’m just trying to be me.  I’m trying to show others that I am comfortable in my skin, happy with the quiet person I am.  Like the showy lady slippers, some people are different and like to embrace that in a world that seems to crave uniformity.  It’s okay to be quiet or loud, as long as you are true to yourself.

How Will I Grow as an Educator this Summer?

Anger is an emotion I rarely experience.  Frustration and madness, sure, but not anger.  I just don’t find myself getting angry that often.  However, in the last two years, or ever since our sitting president took office, I find myself being brought to the verge of anger on a more regular basis while reading news stories and current events about happenings in our world.  Things just aren’t like they used to be, oh no.  Humans are going a little bonkers.  But this kind of angry is good, because it means that I am paying attention to the world around me.  As some person once said, “If you’re not angry, then you’re not paying attention.”  I watch and observe what is happening in our country and abroad because I care.  I vote, I watch, and I try to make a difference if I’m not liking what I’m noticing.  So, sometimes I do get angry when I’m reading stories on the news app on my phone.  The crazy things that are happening boggle my mind.  It’s as if we are living in a reality television program.

Yesterday, I read a story online that made me a bit angry.  Surprisingly enough though, it wasn’t about the political side of things.  No, it was about something even more near and dear to my heart: Music.  This author had the audacity to proclaim that rock music is officially dead.  What is he talking about, I said aloud to myself while reading this absurd piece.  One of my all-time favorite genres of music is rock.  I listen to rock music on the radio almost daily.  Bands are crafting new rock tunes all the time.  Rock music will never die.  Especially with what’s going on in our world, people need rock music.  Rock is the genre for the counter-culture movements happening globally.  Rock has always provided those invested and knowledgeable angry people with a safe haven, an outlet will you.  Rock music saved my life when I was growing up.  Things were a bit difficult for me as a teen, but fortunately, I had my rock cassette tapes and CDS to comfort me and provide me with an escape when things got too challenging.  I remember listening to Guns N’ Roses’ masterpiece Use Your Illusions I and II so frequently that the tapes eventually broke.  Axl Rose’s lyrics helped me through some tough times.  Then came Pearl Jam’s Ten.  Epic is the only way to describe this album.  Black was my favorite tune from that disc.  Amazing.  As hardcore, metal, punk, and rock evolved in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the landscape of rock music changed as well.  Bands like Coheed and Cambria and Thursday blended genres together and took listeners on a completely new musical journey.  Other bands grew out of this new movement and rock music flourished through the beginning of the 21st century.  New bands and old ones are still crafting and constructing new rock music all of the time.  The author of that ridiculous article clearly has no idea what rock music really is.  You see, in the article, he only referenced bands like Avenged Seven-fold and the Foo Fighters.  While I do like both of those bands, they aren’t the only rock bands around, and they certainly don’t encapsulate the genre.  So, to make this rant come to an end so that I can get on with my blog, this article is completely false and rock music is alive and well, and will always be that way.

Unlike that fictitious article I just referenced, my summer plans are shaping up to totally rock and roll as I prepare for my first year of teaching fifth grade at my new school.  I’m so excited.  I get to set up a new classroom, meet new people, create new curriculum, challenge new students, and be a part of what is sure to be an amazing learning community.  YES!  So, to prepare for all of this awesomeness, I need a plan of action.  So, this summer, I’m going to keep the pedal pushed all the way down to the rocking metal as I work to prepare for the upcoming school year.

  • I need to set up and organize my new classroom.  I’m happy to know that my new school will be ordering new whiteboard desks and rocking chairs for my classroom.  Those will help the students stay focused, attentive, and engaged throughout the day.  I get to figure out how I’m going to set things up.  My new classroom has so many windows that look out onto rolling fields and scenes of nature.  I can’t wait to try some new ways of putting things together in my new classroom.  I hope to get started on this process in early July, which is great because I have a ton of stuff in storage right now to move over from my old classroom.
  • I need to determine which math book or series I will be going with for the fifth grade program.  The school currently uses the Big Ideas Learning math series for grades six through eight.  While I want to maintain consistency for the fifth grade, I’m not sure this book series would be best for the group of students I will be working with this fall.  Some of my new students have noted that math is a bit of a struggle for them.  So, my goal is to choose a math curriculum that will engage my students in meaningful ways so that they are excited to learn new math concepts and strengthen their foundation regarding computational skills.  The founder of my new school suggested I look at this new program called Beast Academy.  Wow, was about all I could say when I checked it out.  It is a math graphic novel that uses monsters to teach math concepts.  It’s rigorous and challenging, but tackles the topics in new and creative ways.  I think this would be a great curriculum to use.  Now, I just need to talk things over with my new headmaster to find out what he thinks would be best.  Of course, I will support whatever he chooses, but I’m hoping that he will allow me to try out the Beast Academy program for next year.  Fingers crossed.
  • I need to complete my first science and social studies units on community and the scientific method.  As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’ve got a plan for this process.  I’m excited to try new things and dig into some cool ideas and learning.  I have already begun this process, as it requires much behind the scenes work.  I’m sure that this portion of my summer work will last the longest.
  • I need to determine what my daily schedule will be for the fifth grade program.  Sometime in the coming weeks, I will sit down with my new headmaster to hash out the daily schedule in terms of time.  When will specials be?  What time is lunch?  Things like that.  Once I have this finalized, I can then begin the planning for things like Morning Meeting, Passion Projects, and outdoor discovery time.  This will be one of the first things I can check off of my summer list, as I need this to fall into place before I can really dig into the daily planning of my class.
  • My summer reading goal is small right now as I only have one book on it.  I also want to read some young adult books that I might use during Reader’s Workshop lessons in the fall.  I haven’t decided on those titles yet.  The only book I have so far is Quiet by Susan Cain.  I just started it yesterday and am loving it.  As an introvert, I can totally relate to a lot of what she mentions in the novel.  The world seems to favor extroverts, but its the synergy of people working together that really makes the world work.  We need to embrace the introverts in our work places and schools and allow them to develop their skills in appropriate ways.  We can’t try to make introverted people into extroverts, as it will only cause future problems.  I’m excited to learn some tips and tricks on how to best support the introverts that I will inevitably have in my classroom this year.  I’m hoping to finish this book within a couple of weeks.  Then I will gather the young adult books I want tackle next.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for now.  I’m sure that other things will crop up along the way, as they always do.  That’s just part of the process of developing new things and preparing for a new school year.  The fun is in the middle.  So, now I will embark upon my summer journey of rocking hard as I ready things for the next academic year.  Oh, and I’ll be listening to plenty of rock music.  Rock on!