How to Create Just the Right Project for Your Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating the Perfect State Project

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

Procedure

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

Website Requirements

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

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

Graded Objectives

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

Due Date

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

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Making a Lesson, on the Purpose of Government, Engaging

As I was certainly not an engaged nor studious student when I was in school, I retained very little from my history classes regarding civics and government.  Until I began teaching the subject, I could tell you almost nothing about the three branches of American government.  I didn’t think I needed to be aware of this type of information.  It’s not like I was going to run for public office or anything.  Why do I need to know how the judicial branch works?  I was young and naive way back then.  I thought I knew everything I needed to know.  Boy was I ever wrong.

Over the past several years I’ve done much research on the teaching of history and social studies to know that I should have paid much better attention when I was in school.  As citizens of a country, it is our civic responsibility to know how our country and government works.  I should understand how the electoral college works as well as the purpose it serves, but I don’t.  So, over the past few years, I’ve been doing a lot of make-up learning.  It’s been great fun educating myself all about how countries and governments work.  Now that I am equipped with all of this knowledge, I feel powerful, like I could take on the world, or at least run for public office.  Instead though, I’ve realized that with this power comes great responsibility.  I’m sort of like a superhero.  No, even better, a super-teacher.  Therefore, my new superpower is being able to teach my students to understand their civic responsibilities.  I want my students to see the importance in understanding the history of one’s country and government.  I want my boys to be informed citizens, regardless of from where they come.

About three weeks ago, I was speaking with a former student of mine who is now a sophomore at our local public school.  He misses Cardigan and his experience here, but is doing very well at his new school as he felt prepared.  His time at Cardigan helped him learn many vital study skills and much content that is helping him thrive at his new school.  The only road bump on his journey so far has been his history course.  He needed to take a ninth grade civics course instead of the typical tenth grade history class this year, as the state of NH requires all students to complete a civics credit.  Because we don’t have a civics course at Cardigan, he is a bit behind in that area.  In speaking with other students who have graduated from our fine institution, they also echo this one student’s experience.  They feel as though they lack an understanding of civics.  What does it mean to be a citizen of a country?  What are our responsibilities?  They don’t seem to truly grasp these concepts because we don’t cover them in the seventh, eighth, or ninth grades.  Why not?  I have no clue.  Regardless of the reasons why we don’t cover that in the other grades, I took it upon myself two years ago to ensure that all of my sixth graders gain a foundation of civics knowledge.  I don’t want my students feeling confused or unaware of how governments work.  I want them feeling powerful and prepared.  So, while the seventh, eighth, and ninth graders at my school do not, sadly enough, receive any formal civics instruction, I do know that students who come to Cardigan for sixth grade will be prepared for their future lives as global citizens.

As last year was an election year, it was easy to develop a unit to drive my pilot year of providing my students with a background in civics instruction.  We dug deep into the election process, issues that matter, forms of government, and how the American government operates.  It was so much fun.  The boys loved this unit last year.  As I began thinking about how I was going to teach a civics unit this year, I wondered how I would make it fun and engaging like last year’s unit.  So, I spent many hours researching how other teachers help their students understand government and their role as citizens, and that’s when I happened upon iCivics.  What an amazing resource.  I based my unit on the Foundations of Government curriculum found on their website.  It was so helpful in designing an engaging and fun unit for my students.

Last week marked the beginning of our unit.  We started with a fun writing and discussion activity that helped me make sure that all of my students had a strong understanding of what government is.  Today, we jumped into our first lesson on the purpose of government.  Although I wanted to provide my students with much information on the historical theories regarding the formation and purpose of government, this material is quite dense and challenging to understand; therefore, I had to be sure I found a way to make today’s lesson engaging and meaningful for my students.

I began today’s lesson with a silent Gallery Walk activity, during which the students answered, in writing, four different questions that were posted on giant art paper placed in different areas of the classroom.  I had the students respond to the questions in writing and without conversation so that I could assess their ability to think critically about new information, while also making sure that they all firmly understand what we spoke about last week regarding government.  I had them spend two minutes at each station, jotting down answers to the questions.  If there were already answers posted, I had them read through what their peers had written first to be sure that they were building on the silent discussion and not repeating what others had said.  The boys seemed very engaged in this activity.  Once they completed their four rotations, we discussed the big ideas they had written about on the paper.  This allowed me to clarify the difference between control and order.  I want to be sure my students know that the purpose of an effective government is to bring about order and a feeling of safety within its citizens, not to control their every move and tell them how to live their lives.  This physically active hook experience bled right into our class discussion on the ideas of Thomas Hobbes.  We used a handout from the iCivics website entitled Why Government to weave together our discussion.  As we read through the article, I explained and clarified the big ideas being addressed.  I also used this opportunity to assess my students on their ability to properly annotate an academic text.  So, I made sure to spend time at the start, reviewing what it means to annotate an article and what they should be focusing on.  I called on volunteers to help point us in the right direction on what we should be highlighting, underlining, and writing about in the margins as we began digging into the article.  As challenging concepts including State of Nature and Social Contract were introduced in the article, I made sure to detail and explain what these ideas really meant.  I used metaphors and stories to get the point across.  This seemed to help.  The boys asked questions throughout, showcasing their fine ability to think critically about the content being covered.  It also showed me how engaged with the material they were.  I was impressed.

To close today’s lesson on the reasons for government, I wanted to be sure every student had a basic understanding of Social Contract and State of Nature.  So, I had the boys stand up and physically act out what being in a state of nature would look like with the absence of a leader or government.  They began shouting at each other, arguing over land, tables, and computers.  They pretended to push and shove one another with angry faces.  It was awesome.  They so got it.  I then had them act out what would happen if I became their sovereign and we entered into a Social Contract.  The boys began being kind to one another and started to pretend as though they were giving me money and respect.  At one point, one of the boys bowed before me.  It was super funny, but highlighted their understanding of these two complex concepts.

I used two physical activities to engage the students and be sure they were moving as they reviewed the purpose of government.  I also made sure to use simple language and stories to ensure that all of my students, including my ELLs, understood the big ideas addressed in our binding article.  At the close of class, the students seemed very excited and happy about today’s lesson.  They seemed to thoroughly like talking about history and the purpose of government.  One student even came to me and said, “Mr. Holt, this was so much fun today.  I love learning about this stuff.  It’s so interesting.”  No more kinder or truer words were spoken today.  That said it all right there.  As many of my students have never learned about government or civics, this is unchartered territory, which can be scary and difficult for some students; however, the boys seemed to really get into today’s lesson because of the different techniques and instructional methods used.  I made what could have been a very boring lesson on government and Thomas Hobbes seem enjoyable and interesting.  Sometimes, it comes down to presentation.  Since I seemed excited discussing the information, my students caught the fun bug and really got into it.  They asked great questions and thought critically about why countries form governments.  It was amazing.  I can’t wait to discuss the ideas of John Locke on Friday.

Learning from Yesterday’s “Failures”

When I was just a wee young lad, the word “fail” was considered almost as bad as other curse words like the “F word.”  If you failed at something, it meant that you were not good and lacked talent.  No one wanted to fail or be thought of as a failure.  It was a Scarlet Letter that you wore with you for the rest of your childhood.

Now, of course, we all know that times have changed and the word failure is synonymous with success.  In order to do something well, you have to fail at it first.  We want our students to fail in order for them to learn how to grow and succeed.  While it’s amazing that our ideas on teaching have progressed so much thanks to technology and research on the neuroscience of education, I do wish that the adults in my world when I was a child would have embraced failing as an essential part of the learning process.  Had I failed more because I was inspired to take more risks with my learning, I wonder how many other things I’d be capable of doing now.  Perhaps I would have learned to stick with playing the guitar.  Maybe I’d be in a band right now, touring Europe.  That would be cool.  I’ve always wanted to see London during this time of year.

As I now see the value in failing on a regular basis because of the learning that comes from the experience, I am more willing to try new things in the classroom as a teacher.  I’m not afraid to try out a new application on the computer or a new instructional strategy in the classroom.  If it works, great; if not, it provides me with a teachable moment in the classroom.  Luckily too, I can also reflect on my failed lessons or activities and learn from them.  While I was not overly happy with the outcome of yesterday’s Humanities lesson on the process of revising writing, I had the chance to reflect on what didn’t go well yesterday.  Then today, I was able to more effectively introduce and explain the purpose of the revision process and the power that it holds.  “Revision is the most important step in the writing process because it provides you with a chance to fix what’s broken with your work.  No writer, regardless of age and experience, is able to craft the perfect piece of writing.  Every writer is in need of fixing and revising their work.  Today, you have a chance to receive feedback from as many people as possible so that you can create an even better story than what you currently have.  You also have the chance to receive such valuable feedback that you will be able to, hopefully, exceed the three graded objective for this assignment.  So, treat today’s revision period with the respect it deserves.”  After feeling as though I did not explain the process of revising one’s writing well yesterday in class, I wanted to be sure that I highlighted the benefits in revising one’s written work based on feedback from others, and I feel like I did that today.  After my introduction and review of what was to happen in class during the work period, I felt quite confident that things would be better today than they were yesterday.

My future-telling skills were clearly right on par today as the work period was phenomenal.  The boys worked so well on providing each other with feedback, revising their work, and growing as writers.  I conferenced with three students and was able to provide them some meaningful feedback that will allow them to make their story far better than it was.  While I didn’t have a chance to observe every student or group as they worked during class today as I was conferencing with students at the back table, the groups I could see and hear seemed to be bleeding greatness.  To conclude class today, I some had students share how the peer editing process went for them in class today.

“Me and my partner worked on helping each other come up with better words to describe the setting in our stories,” one student said.  I praised those two students for the great effort they put into looking at one aspect of their writing.

“My partner helped me fix grammar stuff in my story and I helped him make his story funny and not boring,” one student said, laughing.  “He even said that he’s going to write a whole new story since he doesn’t think he did a good job on his first one.”  He was describing what he and his partner worked on during their peer editing conference.  Awesome!  I then explained how amazing it was that because of feedback, this specific writer will be able to grow and develop his writing skills.

I can’t wait to read the revised stories my students will complete by early next week.  They are sure to be far better than what they had typed this week.  And to think that if I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on yesterday’s lesson and thought about how to change things for today’s class, I would not have been able to inspire my students to see the value in revising their writing while also helping their peers make their stories better.  Failure helped me better support and challenge my students to utilize a growth mindset in Humanities class today.  Making mistakes is how genuine learning is fostered.  I need to fail in order to grow.  It seems counter intuitive, but it’s how the brain works.  We are wired to remember things that are tagged with emotion, and so failed experiences stick with us because they don’t make us usually feel very good.  I thought about my “failed” class yesterday for hours, which is why I was able to spend so much time thinking about how to fix the situation in class today.  How could I help my students better appreciate the editing and revising stages of the writing process?  And wallah, I found my answer in class today.  Failure rocks!  I can’t wait to do it again.

Embracing Teachable Moments for Teachers

Teachable moments aren’t solely reserved for students, oh no.  Anyone can experience and learn from a mistake, choice, or action.  You don’t need to be a student in a classroom to learn from something you did.  Think of the greatest minds and innovators of our time: Albert Einstein, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan to name a few.  They all suffered great setbacks early in their lives that they learned from.  Albert Einstein was kicked out of school because of his poor behavior, Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first on-air job, and Michael Jordan didn’t earn a spot on his high school’s varsity basketball team when he first tried out.  Of course, we all know that they learned from their mistakes or learnable/teachable moments and went onto to change the world.  Any person can learn from their past errors, not just students in a classroom.

Today, my co-teacher and I experienced a learnable moment that caused us to completely change our lesson.  Walking to our classroom this morning, my co-teacher and I discussed the lesson we had planned for our first period study skills class.

“So, are you all set for PEAKS class today,” I asked my co-teacher as we left the dining commons to head to our classroom.

“Yeah, I’m all set.  We’re going to finish that worksheet from last time,” she responded.

“Ahh, no.  I did that on Wednesday during your unscheduled morning.  You’re doing the study plan, remember?” I said, concerned that I had messed up and hadn’t informed her of the proper lesson plan.

“Umm, I don’t remember that, but I can fix it,” she quickly responded back as we walked into the classroom.

I then worked with my co-teacher to help her revise the agenda slide to reflect the accurate lesson plan.  As she was typing in the new topic for today’s class, I remembered that the students were going to be taking a test in her math class next week.  So, I said, “That’s cool that we’re discussing making study plans today.  Maybe they could make one for their math test.”

She then responded, “Yeah, that’s right.”

At that point, I was inspired.  “Wait a minute,” I said, “Let’s change things up a bit.  Let’s not use this boring worksheet I created but instead have the students create a study plan for their math test.  Yes.  I will model how to create a study plan and then they will make their own.  What do you think?”

She loved the idea, and so we changed the agenda slide one more time.

Today’s class was a huge success as each student created his very own study plan to prepare for next week’s math assessment.  The students know what they need to do to get ready.  Not only did we teach them a valuable strategy for planning ahead and making good use of their time to properly study for an exam, we also had them apply the skill to practice getting ready for an exam they have in class next week.  Talk about interdisciplinary work.  And to think that this brilliant plan and idea would not have been fostered had my co-teacher had the agenda slide properly completed for class.  Because of some miscommunication between the two of us, we were able to revise today’s lesson and craft a more meaningful and relevant activity based on the nucleus of the original idea.  Making a mistake lead to a Eureka moment for us both.  We better helped the students learn how to enhance their learning and study habits by changing what we had first planned.  The moral of this epic story is that learnable or teachable moments happen for everyone; you just need to be prepared to take in the lesson or learning.

My Professional Goals for the 2017-2018 Academic Year

I used to think that goal setting was dumb.  “No one sets goals,” I used to say, “Who needs goals when you’ve got the present?”  That was the old me, before I became wise and all-knowing.  Then, I discovered the secret to life and was transformed into the handsome sage sitting in front of this very laptop, typing these very words.  You are so lucky to be reading these prophetic words…  Okay, enough of the craziness, now back to reality.

So, anywhoo, I used to view goal setting as one more thing that I didn’t have the time or desire to do.  Then, I learned all about the neuroscience of teaching and how students learn, and came to the realization that for genuine learning and growth to happen for our students, there needs to be relevance and a purpose behind everything we and they are doing in and out of the classroom.  They need to see, for example, that they should learn all about the causes of great wars so that they will understand how countries and nations formed, which will help them earn a high grade on the next history assessment and allow them to meet the goal they set for themselves regarding history test improvement.  Goal setting is a crucial part of the learning process for not just students, but for all learners.

So, knowing what I know about the power of goal setting, I decided that it was time to give my school year a focus and some clarity.  Aside from helping my students grow and develop as individuals, what am I trying to get out of this new school year?  What is my purpose in the classroom?  Why am I here?  Well, that last question is far too big to tackle in some tiny blog entry like this and so I’ll focus on the others instead.

My goals for the 2017-2018 Academic Year:

  • I want to gather data on how rubrics and project introductions help promote or reduce the amount of creativity students are able to put into their work so that I can begin to understand how to best introduce a new task or assignment to my students.  I want to understand if specificity in rubrics or explanations of new projects makes a difference in the students’ ability to think critically about the assignment or content covered.  If students are provided with too much information about how to complete a task or project, is there any room for creative, original thought or do the students just do what they’re told to do in order to earn a “good” grade?  So, to work towards meeting this goal over the course of the year, I’m going to create different types of rubrics and project descriptions for the same task so that I can split my class into two groups and try to determine what kind of explanation best promotes the use of creative problem solving skills.  Although my data may be skewed depending on how I group the students, I plan on using different grouping methods each time I conduct this experiment.  While I certainly have a hypothesis on the topic, I have no hard evidence to support my claim, and so I need to collect data this year to determine an accurate result.
  • I want to incorporate ideas and skills covered during our Mindfulness Unit in Team Time and our Brain Unit from PEAKS class into my Humanities class.  I want to help the students understand that if they can be mindful in the classroom during class discussions, they will be better equipped to actively listen to and participate in the current events discussions in Humanities class.  I also want to be sure that when I’m covering a new concept or skill in Humanities class, I’m referencing the ideas of growth mindset and brain parts to explain how they should best be utilizing their hypothalamus to catalogue and store this new information.  Being mindful myself, I hope to be able to better explain the inner workings of, as well as the purpose and relevance behind tasks and assignments throughout the year in Humanities class.  I want my students to be able to see how each separate piece of the puzzle fits together so well: Learning and the Brain, Mindfulness, and Humanities.

With these two goals driving everything I’m doing in the classroom, I’m looking forward to an exciting year filled with transformation and education.  I hope to learn a lot about myself as a teacher as well as the art of teaching.  How can I better support and challenge all of my students in the classroom?  What else could I be doing?  So, now I will jump headfirst into the remainder of my school year, well-equipped with a roadmap to success: Goals.

What’s the Most Effective Professional Development Model for Schools?

When I first started teaching, the schools I worked at had little to no money available for its teachers to pursue professional development opportunities.  While this was certainly not an ideal situation, my colleagues and I made do.  We learned from each other.  If I wanted to learn more about the Reader’s Workshop model of literacy instruction, I talked to the first grade teacher in my school who had been implementing it in her classroom for years.  If a teacher wanted to utilize technology in their classroom, he or she sought me out for guidance.  We capitalized on the resources available to us in-house as an educational institution.  This worked for me as a young and developing educator.  As I grew, learned more, and gained more experience, I craved more than what the teachers at my schools were able to teach me.  I wanted to learn about new teaching practices that no other teacher in my school was aware of.  I wanted to learn how to implement standards-based grading in my class, which no other teacher at my school was doing.  I wanted something more than what my school offered.  At first, I sought out books on the subjects for which I wanted to learn.  Then, I ran out of books.  Luckily for me, as I was growing, so too was the school at which I worked, which meant that there were funds available for professional development.  So, I started attending conferences.  I learned so much from the sessions I attended at the various conferences I went to over the years.  They were so useful.  I felt a bit like a dried up sponge before I started going to teaching conferences.  Then, in a few short years, I was transformed into an overly moist and wet sponge, dripping knowledge from every nook and cranny.  It was awesome!

As schools have evolved over time, so too have professional development models.  While most schools have funds available for their teachers to attend conferences, workshops, and the like, some schools have switched back to in-house professional development for most teachers except those going through the self-evaluation process.  Although reflection and self-evaluation are both vital processes to one’s success as a teacher and individual, this model of professional development makes it challenging for other teachers to grow and develop.  So, to help all teachers feel as though they have access to professional development opportunities, some schools invite in speakers and have teachers read and discuss various teaching resources.  This modification definitely helps all teachers feel included.

My school has moved to this model and I like it, for the most part.  What I would like to see is more differentiation within the in-house professional development opportunities.  Like snowflakes, no two teachers are exactly alike in their teaching practices or knowledge base.  Therefore, schools should help meet all teachers at the level they are currently at.  For example, my school recently spent a morning learning all about the neuroscience of education.  A professor from a local college came to speak with us about this topic.  While the information for some of my colleagues was useful, a fair amount of teachers at my school have taken courses in this very subject and are well-versed in how to support all types of learners based on brain science.  For me and a few of my fellow teachers, this speaker did not provide us with new information nor allow us to explore and engage in areas of interest to us.  Because of this, we extrapolated very little from this four-hour session.  While my school was trying to do the right thing, they didn’t think about all of the teachers and their ability levels.  They planned this workshop session for the average teacher.  This seems a bit counter-intuitive to what we should be doing in the classroom as teachers.  If we are expected to differentiate our instruction, then why isn’t the school doing the same for its teachers?

Wouldn’t it be great if professional development at schools was differentiated?  Imagine this…  “The topic for today’s professional development workshop is differentiation.  For those who are new to teaching or unfamiliar with this concept, you will be participating in a session with an engaging presenter who will help you understand the concept and be able to effectively employ it in your classroom.  For those who are already familiar with differentiation and utilize it in your classrooms, you will be attending a session of your choice based on your interest level within the topic.  Option one will provide you the time and resources needed to update your lessons plans so that they all incorporate differentiation of some sort.  Option two will be an interactive session on new technology applications used to differentiate instruction for students in all subject areas.  And option three will be an open forum discussion on differentiation techniques that worked well or didn’t work well.”  Doesn’t that sound amazing and wonderful?  Teachers would receive training and support that is appropriate for the level at which they are currently working.  I would love to be at a school that utilizes this model of professional development as I could more effectively grow and develop as a teacher.  So, my question is, why don’t all schools employ this model of helping teachers grow and develop?  Sure, it takes planning, but that’s what great teachers and schools do.  So, why not try it?  Why not best support and help all teachers at all schools around the globe?  Let’s practice what we preach as teachers and meet students, or in this case educators, where they are so that we can best help them grow and develop as individuals.  Let’s change the way schools help teachers grow and develop professionally.

What Makes Effective Teaching?

This morning, as I perused the various headlines via the News app on my iPhone, a story caught my eye: “Educators: Innovate Less, Execute More” by Kalman R. Hettleman.  The author proposes that teachers need to focus on effectively teaching students rather than trying to find new and novel ways to teach and educate them.  Although the focus of the article is really on how public schools implement RTI, the first few graphs do discuss classroom teachers.  As I first read the article, I found the perspective refreshing after having been inundated for the past several years with books, articles, and conferences on the importance of being an innovative teacher and using innovative technology products and services in the classroom.  Most of these books and conferences all focused on the same issues and ideas, and so they all felt very repetitive; therefore, I was ready for something different.  But, upon further contemplation of this article, I realized that the author was somewhat contradicting himself, as great and effective teachers are always trying to find new and better ways to effectively teach and engage their students.  In order to execute a lesson or activity well, teachers must know and understand how their students learn best so that they can be sure they are reaching each and every individual student in their classroom.  To do this, teachers need to find new and novel ways to hook students.  While being sure that the lesson is executed well is an important part of the teaching and learning process, it’s only a part of the larger educational puzzle.  Teachers must constantly innovate their teaching practices in order to be effective in the classroom.  Great teachers are the best students because they value the importance of knowledge.

As the final three days of faculty meetings begin tomorrow morning at my fine educational institution, I can’t help but get excited for what is going to happen on Friday: Registration Day.  My new students will arrive and get settled into their dormitories and prepare for the start of classes next week.  I can’t wait to meet my 11 new and eager students as we embark upon a journey of curiosity, wonderment, knowledge, failure, and fun.  I can’t wait to introduce Reader’s Workshop to the boys and get them excited about reading.  I can’t wait to have them play and explore with the Makey Makeys we’ve added to our Maker Space this year.  I can’t wait to begin working with my new co-teacher.  I can’t wait to begin implementing the new Brain and Mindfulness units my co-teacher and I crafted this summer.  I can’t wait to put on my teaching cape and get down to business.  I just can’t wait for the new academic year to begin.

While I will be sure to execute lessons and activities well in the classroom this year, as Mr. Hettleman suggests I should, I will try to also do what he states I shouldn’t do in the classroom, innovate and try new things.  I will take risks and try new approaches to teaching to help best support all of my students.  Great teaching requires a positive attitude, desire to learn, flexibility, creativity, innovation, enthusiasm, and an understanding of effective teaching practices.  So, thank you Kalman, for reminding me what it takes to be an effective teacher.  Thank you for helping stir up my mental pot and prepare for the coming days that are sure to be filled with fun, drama, and lots of questions.

Making our Makerspace Even More Maker-Friendly with the Makey Makey

While the name is certainly fun to say, I feel as though it doesn’t truly encapsulate the awesomeness and possibilities provided by the Makey Makey.  It’s a toy, tool, new gadget, game pad, circuit board, keyboard, and so much more.  It’s a small box filled with endless projects and solutions.  After happening upon this fun little resource a few years back, I thought that it was high time to really learn more about it and find useful ways to incorporate it into our sixth grade curriculum, which is why one of my professional goals for the summer was to become better versed in using this learning tool.  So, I spent many hours tinkering, trying new things, and exploring the online tutorials in order to fully grasp what’s possible with this fun little tool called the Makey Makey.

While we will be adding several Makey Makeys to our classroom Makerspace for this upcoming academic year, this resource could also be utilized in Humanities, PEAKS, and STEM classes.  There are so many possibilities that exist with this tiny little gadget.  Combined with other elements including materials and the coding program Scratch, the Makey Makey could be used as a solution to a problem, project possibility, or almost anything else our students can dream up.  I’ve even thought about having the students use this resource during our unit on the brain in PEAKS class as they explore growth mindset and the plasticity of the brain.  The Makey Makey Website is filled with creative ideas and possible uses of this innovative learning tool.  I can’t wait to see what the students create and design with the Makey Makey come September.

I created an enticing little Screencast O Matic video of my fun time with the Makey Makey to inspire and ignite the spark of learning within my future sixth graders.  A big thanks goes out to the amazing, skilled, and innovative thinkers at MIT for creating such amazing learning tools such as the Makey Makey and Scratch.  I can’t wait for my students to learn all about circuits and computer coding through the use of these fine tools.  I wish I could use the Makey Makey to create a fast forward button so that I could skip ahead to September to watch my students build, explore, fail, try something new, and have fun learning with the Makey Makey.  Perhaps my wish could indeed come true if I just keep tinkering and playing, as I’m sure there is some way I can use alligator clips to manipulate time and space.  Anything’s possible…

Ooohhhmmm: My Mindfulness Unit Plan

Sitting on the edge of the couch that used to belong to my grandmother before she passed away, I’m filled with thoughts and feelings.  There is an itch on my left leg, behind my knee.  I can hear the gurgling of the carbonation leaving my bottle of tasty seltzer water.  One of my dogs is stretched out behind me on the old couch filled with memories of sleepovers at gram’s house.  I can hear my son in the living room gobbling up the new, healthy popcorn I just purchased for him at the grocery store.  I see my wife’s crafting materials neatly spaced around the room we call the office.  As I record these sensory experiences, I’m trying to live in the present moment and think about the now.  I’m trying to be more mindful and not allow the future or past to cloud my thoughts and emotions, but it’s difficult.  However, I’ll persevere and keep trying.  Mindfulness is a journey, much like anything in life.  It takes time, patience, and practice.

So, as I try to live more mindfully, I’ve created what I hope will be a very beneficial and meaningful mindfulness unit for my sixth graders.  I want to begin on the first day of classes so that my co-teacher and I can set our students up to have a successful year in our sixth grade class.  So, here it is in draft form:

Mindfulness Unit

For the 2017-2018 Academic Year

Day 1: What is Mindfulness?

Day 2: What’s the purpose of mindfulness?

  • Show TED Talk Video and Discuss Purpose of Mindfulness
  • Closing Question: Why should you learn how to be mindful?

Day 3: How do you focus on the present moment?

  • Review: What is mindfulness and why might it be important to learn how to be mindful?
  • Have the students make a list of all the thoughts going through their head
  • Ask students: How can you possibly focus on any one thing well when you have so much going on?  What can we do to remedy this situation and be in the present moment?  What is meditation?  How can we do it?  What do we need to remember when trying something new and being mindful?
  • Have the students participate in a Guided Meditation
  • Discuss: How did it go?  How do you feel now?  Do you still have as many thoughts swirling around your head?  How might you use meditation to help you live in the present moment?

Day 4: How do you breathe mindfully?

  • Ask students: How can breathing make you more mindful?
  • Discuss different breathing techniques students use to calm themselves or relax
  • Show Youtube video on 4-7-8 breathing technique and have students practice it
  • Closing Question: How do you think mindful breathing could help you in or out of school?

Day 5: How do you see mindfully?

  • Show students several objects on a table and tell them they need to memorize as many as possible in 20 seconds
  • Have students try to list as many of the objects as possible
  • Ask students: What worked well for you?  What struggles did you face?
  • Have students complete two minutes of 4-7-8 breathing
  • Show students the objects once again and have them memorize as many as possible in 20 seconds
  • Have students write down as many of the objects as possible
  • Ask students: How was this attempt different for you and why?  Did the mindful breathing help you better focus on the task at hand?
  • Ask students: How can you make sure you are focusing on the present moment?

Day 6: How do you show mindfulness?

  • Ask students: What is body language?  How does your body show how you feel?
  • Have the students show an angry pose, happy pose, mad pose with a partner.
  • Have the partner provide the student with feedback on what his body language tells his partner
  • Have the partners switch and repeat
  • Ask students: Why does it appear that we wear our feelings all over our body?  Is that good or bad?  What if we always seemed calm and peaceful?  
  • Show the students a short guided meditation video
  • Ask students: How could being mindful of how your feeling help you when interacting with your peers or teachers?  What could you do the next time you feel anxious, overwhelmed, or angry?

Day 7: How do you reflect mindfully?

  • Begin with 2 minutes of 4-7-8 breathing
  • Have the students reflect in writing, on their e-portfolio on Haiku, on the following questions:
    • What is mindfulness?
    • Why is it important to be mindful in and out of school?
    • How has your focus in school changed since we began our unit on mindfulness?
    • What positive differences have you noticed within yourself since we began our unit on mindfulness?
    • What do you need to do to be more mindful in and out of school?

Day 8: How can you move mindfully?

  • Our Strength and Conditioning Coach will work with the boys on mindful Yoga techniques they could do on their own
  • Ask students: How might you use Yoga to help you be more present and mindful?

Day 9: How can we avoid distractions mindfully?

  • Show students the Youtube Video What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and discuss
  • Ask the students: What can you do to avoid these distractions?
  • Make a list of ideas on the board
  • Have the students choose one strategy to try over the next few days until our next class to see if they noticed a difference.
  • Close with 2 minutes of 4-7-8 breathing

Day 10: How can we avoid distractions mindfully?  Part 2

  • Begin with a guided body scan meditation video
  • Have students share how things went with the strategy they tried to avoid digital distractions
  • If they found success, have them share that and if they struggled, try to brainstorm possible strategies they could try
  • Closing Question: To be mindful outside of the classroom, what do you need to be sure you do?

Day 11: How can pausing make you more mindful?

  • Have the students brainstorm questions they still wonder about mindfulness with their table partner
  • Have each partnership ask their question aloud
  • After the first group asks their question, begin responding immediately without thinking or pausing
  • After the second groups asks their question, pause for 10 seconds before responding
  • Ask the students: Did you notice a difference in the two responses?  Which was more mindful and effective in conveying the point and why?
  • Have one of the teachers pick a fight with the other without pausing when responding in the heat of the moment
  • Then replay the role play with pauses
  • Discuss what the students noticed
  • Goal for the next session: Try using the pausing technique before responding to teachers or peers when emotions are involved

Day 12: How can pausing make you more mindful? Part 2

  • Begin with 2 minutes of 4-7-8 breathing
  • Have students share how the pausing technique worked for them
  • Discuss how they might use pauses in and out of the classroom
  • Ask students: How might pausing before responding help you to be more mindful?

Day 13: How can you read and listen more mindfully?

  • Begin with 2 minutes of 4-7-8 breathing
  • Have the students think about what they did last night while the teacher reads a section of a text about mindfulness aloud to the class
    • Read the first paragraph quickly
    • Read the second paragraph in monotone
    • Read the third paragraph mumbling
  • Ask the students: Did everybody understand that?  Why or why not?
  • Ask the students comprehension questions:
    • Why isn’t most of what we call learning not useful, according to the author?
    • What does mindful learning cultivate?
  • Ask students: What’s important to remember when talking or reading aloud to the class like you will be doing a lot this year?

Day 14: How can you read and listen more mindfully? Part 2

  • Begin with a guided meditation that the students choose from one we’ve done already in this unit
  • Have the students read a page aloud from their read aloud novel in different ways to their table partner: Angry, sad, excited
  • Have their table partner provide them feedback on their reading
  • Then switch and repeat
  • Have students share what they liked about what their partner did and said while they read aloud, ensuring that they are noticing good active listening strategies
  • Ask students: What’s important to do when speaking aloud or listening mindfully?

Day 15: How do you reflect mindfully? Part 2

  • Begin with 2 minutes of 4-7-8 breathing
  • Have the students reflect in writing, on their e-portfolio on Haiku, on the following questions:
    • How has your focus in school changed since you last reflected on your mindfulness growth?
    • What positive differences have you noticed within yourself since we began our unit on mindfulness?
    • Set a goal or two regarding mindfulness that you will work towards by the end of the fall term.

Day 16: How can you maintain mindfulness throughout the year?

  • Ask students: What did you learn about yourself as a person and student during this unit?  Why is mindfulness important and how can it help make you a better student?  What do you need to do to be able to maintain your mindfulness throughout the year now that our unit is done?
  • Have the students share their mindfulness goals with their table partner and discuss how they will work towards them.
  • Closing questions: What could we do better next time with this unit?  How could we make this unit more effective for students?

I’m feeling quite good about the curriculum I’ve put together.  I’m excited that my co-teacher and I will be able to help our students be more mindful and engaged students as they learn to control the many thoughts and distractions facing them on a daily basis.  I can’t wait for September.  In the meantime, I’m going to continue practicing being mindful so that I can be a positive role model for my students as we work through the mindfulness curriculum together.

Summer Work: What I’ll Do When It’s Hot Outside

While there are times I miss owning a house and having a place to call my own, I don’t miss mowing the lawn, plucking the weeds, and checking to make sure the basement isn’t flooded, again.  The summer months are the worst for homeowners as there is so much to constantly do and redo again and again.  It’s a never ending cycle of sweaty, back-breaking labor.  No, I don’t miss taking care of a house, especially in the summer.  The summer months are for relaxing, spending time with family, and staying cool inside thanks to artificial air from air conditioners.  What a brilliant invention!  If it weren’t for air conditioners, I’d have to spend every summer at the North Pole with Santa and his elves.  Although it would be super cool to help Santa make presents for all the girls and boys around the globe, I’d miss my wife and son too much.  Luckily though, I get to enjoy the best of both worlds with air conditioning and family fun.

As I spend most of the oppressively hot summer days inside, I’m far from bored.  In fact, my summer vacation is the second busiest time of the year for me.  The most hectic time is definitely the regular school year, of course.  In the summer though, I set lofty goals for what I’d like to accomplish.  Last year, I revised my STEM curriculum, learned how to knit, learned how to solve the Rubik’s Cube, and read a few professional development texts.  This year my goals may be a tiny bit higher as I work each year to grow as an educator and individual.

  • Read Two Professional Development Texts
    • As I never finished the book Educating English Learners that I began at the start of this past academic year, part A of my first summer goal is to complete that.  In order to be sure that I best support, challenge, and care for the non-native English speakers that are sure to fill my sixth grade classroom next year, I want to finish reading this text.  I’m hopeful that it will provide me with many valuable and useful strategies that I can apply in the classroom at the start of the year.  This way, I will be better equipped to help the international students in my class be able to effectively learn and grow as English language learners.
    • The professional development summer reading book I chose from the list provided by my school’s administration is Lost at School by Ross Greene.  Although I never read his immensely popular book about how to help difficult or explosive children, I’m excited to dive into this resource for helping students with behavioral issues feel cared for and supported.  I have sometimes found myself fumbling for the best strategy to use to to help students with chronic behavioral issues.  As I know there is clearly some sort of underlying motivation for their poor choices, I struggled, at times, to best help students who seemed to be “too cool for school.”  I’m optimistic that this resource will provide me with much fodder for next year and beyond.  How do I best help students with behavioral issues in the classroom?
  • Read Three Summer Reading Books my Students May Read This Summer
    • As my new co-teacher and I put together a pretty amazing list of possible summer reading books for our new sixth graders, we wanted to be sure that between the two of us, we have read them all.  As there are nine books on the list and we each read one, I’ll be reading three that interest me and my new co-teacher will read four that she’s excited to read and perhaps utilize in STEM class next year.  I’ll be reading Welcome to Camp Nightmare by R.L. Stine, The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce, and The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang.  As I’m a huge fan of young adult literature, I can’t wait to dive into these treasures.
  • Create Mindfulness Curriculum
    • After attending a workshop on the importance of teaching students how to be mindful in this ever distracting world in which we live, I felt compelled to find a way to implement mindfulness into my curriculum.  Since my new co-teacher and I have three extra periods a week with the sixth grade boys in the fall, we now know how we are going to cover this ever important topic with the students.  Once or twice a week, we want to introduce, explain, and have the students utilize mindfulness practices including meditation, breathing exercises, self-awareness, and much more.  As I haven’t had much opportunity to dig into the many resources available online for teaching this important topic, I’m looking forward to having the time this summer to craft a meaningful and appropriate mindfulness curriculum for our new sixth grade students.
  • Revise Humanities Unit on Community
    • Despite truly loving the community unit my co-teacher and I used this past year, I want to take the time to deeply reflect on it.  Does it cover and address the big ideas I want my students to take away from it?  Is it fun and engaging for the students?  Does it take up too much class time or not enough?  Is every part of the unit interconnected?  Are there too many field experiences or not enough?  Should I stick with just the town of Canaan or cover the entire state of NH?  What’s the best way to instruct a unit on community?  I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel by any means and will probably keep most of what I used last year, but I want to take the time to meaningfully look at the unit and what it entails.  Is there a better way to implement a unit on community in the sixth grade?
  • Learn How to Effectively Utilize a Makey Makey Tool
    • Not only is it fun to say, “Makey Makey,” but it’s also a really cool resource to use to get students learning about computer mechanics and circuitry.  As I was recently given a Makey Makey of my own, I feel compelled to not simply learn how to use it, but to learn how to use it effectively so that I can teach students how to use it in our classroom’s Makerspace starting in September.   As the Makey Makey website includes many great tutorials and resources on how to best utilize them in the classroom, I’m excited about playing with this cool new tool this summer.  I wonder what amazing knowledge I will gain from learning how to use the Makey Makey.  I can’t wait to find out.
  • Research Grading Rubrics and Create Several Different Types
    • As I am moving into year one of my school’s Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan (ITIP) beginning in September, I felt it prudent to choose a topic that I could begin focusing on this summer.  While teacher and student reflection is definitely my jam, I already do it and have seen tangible results because of its utilization in and out of the classroom; therefore, I’ve decided on a topic that will force me to look at how I assess and grade student work.  Although I’ve seen the benefits of using the objectives-based grading model in the sixth grade classroom over the past several years that I’ve used it, grading and assessing student work still proves to be a bit subjective at times.  Is this because the objectives I’ve created are too subjective or open to individual interpretation?  Do these challenges stem from having expectations for my students that are too high or too low?  What is causing the issues that I’ve seen regarding the grading and assessment of student work?  To help me figure out what might be at play here, I’ve decided to focus on the grading tool I use to assess student work.  While I’ve never been a fan of prescriptive rubrics as I feel they steal creativity and problem solving from the students, I’ve only been using a bare-bones list of expectations the students need to meet when completing a project or assignment.  Is this enough for the students to be able to effectively demonstrate their ability to meet or exceed the graded objectives?  Should I use rubrics instead so that the students know how to meet and exceed the graded objectives for a particular task or assignment?  Might that help or would it limit what the students could do because rubrics are so explanatory?  Are there different types of rubrics I should use?  What is the most effective way to introduce an assignment and grade and assess student work using the objectives-based grading model?
    • So, this summer, I want to research grading rubrics and their effectiveness in the classroom.  What type of rubric works best?  Do rubrics work?  What data have teachers and schools collected on assessment that might help me address my ITIP topic?  I also want to create a few different types of grading tools and rubrics that I could utilize in the classroom to collect my own data on assessment.

So, that’s it.  That’s my plan for the summer in between chauffeuring my son around to his driver’s education course and football training commitments as well as spending time with my wife and making sure I do as much as I can to help out around the house since I’m quite absent when the academic year begins.  So, bring on the heat as I’ll be keeping cool and busy inside this summer with my epic workload and professional development goals.  Go me!