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.

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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!

My Summer Professional Development Plan in Reverse

I read an article recently that explained the power in backwards planning for students.  Now, this isn’t news to me as a teacher, as great teachers have always been planning in reverse.  Start with the desired outcome, project, or assessment and plan your lessons off of it.  That makes a lot of sense, which is why I’ve been utilizing that practice in my teaching for years.  But, what about backwards planning for students?  Does that work too?  According to the research cited in the article read, it does indeed work.  A study was completed recently in which they had one group of students prepare for an exam or essay in the traditional forward-thinking model, while the other group utilized the planning in reverse model of preparation.  What they found, which should come as no surprise to anyone, is that the group who planned in reverse, was more successful and prepared, felt better about the task, and performed better than the other group.  So, backwards thinking isn’t just for teachers to utilize in the classroom; it’s a model of planning that all people should use, all of the time.

As I think about my summer plans, I’m going to put this new information to use.  One of the big things I want to accomplish this summer is to plan out the first units I will cover for my new class.  As I have already put together the social studies and science curricula for the fifth grade program, I feel as though this will be my first focus.  So, now I will plan out, in reverse order, the first integrated unit for my new class.

I want this new unit to employ the Project-Based Learning method of creating a meaningful, engaging, challenging, and authentic learning opportunity for my students.  I’ve done some research this week, including participating in my first LIVE webinar, on PBLs, and realized that I have created multiple projects over the years for my students, but never a truly effective PBL opportunity.  So, I want to use what I’ve learned this week to create my first PBL unit for my new school.  While I know that my first unit will be focused on community, I don’t know much more than that.  So, now what?

  • In reverse, the last step would be to finalize the unit after having revised it based on feedback I received from various colleagues at my new school.
  • Prior to that, I would have put all of the pieces I’ve been working on together into a cohesive unit that would allow my students to demonstrate their ability to meet the learning targets I decided on at the start of this process in a meaningful and engaging manner.
  • Before that, I would figure out the pacing of the unit.  When would we go on our various field experiences versus in class work and learning.
  • Prior to doing that, I would figure out which field experiences we would embark upon during the unit.  As I’m sure that I will find many great places to visit regarding the history of Hopkinton, NH, I also know that I have limited time; thus, choosing the most meaningful and engaging ones would be an important step in the process.
  • Before doing that, I would create the in-class lessons and lab experiences that the students would complete during the unit.  What labs do I want the students to do to help them learn about the scientific method?  How will I go about teaching those lessons?
  • Before that, I would make sure that that the unit is indeed an effective PBL unit.  I would make sure that it includes opportunities for authentic learning, a finished product that would be shared with others, intellectually challenging learning, chances for the students to learn project management skills, group work, and an opportunity for the students to reflect on the entire process.
  • Prior to creating the lessons, I would create a skeletal outline of the unit.  What do I want to cover and how do I want to do it?  This part of the process will be crucial to understanding how everything else is going to come to fruition.
  • Before the unit can even begin to come together, I need to determine the learning targets I am going to use.  What objectives do I want to cover, and how can I transform them into student-friendly language?
  • The first step in the whole process of creating this unit is the planning and research.  What do I want to do?  How might I put it all together?  Who do I need to speak with to learn about the history of this new-to-me town?  How can I create an engaging and challenging unit for my students that will allow them to complete authentic and real-world learning?

That was quite challenging.  While I usually plan my units in reverse order anyway, that wasn’t the difficult part.  It was hard for me to think about the steps involved in the process of getting everything together.  However, it did offer me a chance to think about the entire process of constructing a new unit from a completely different perspective.  I’m not sure I would have created this same list of steps if I had put them together the way I have in the past, starting at the beginning.  I think I may have left out some steps if I did it in the traditional way of planning.  As I worked from the finish to the start, I was forced to contemplate my process from a different angle.  It was kind of cool, and super fun.  As this is a new school for me, in a new town, I have much work to do this summer to learn about the history of Hopkinton, NH.  I just discovered today that it was the first capital of the state.  Who knew?  Not me, for sure.  This process is also fun and exciting, as I realize that I get to meet a whole bunch of new historians and people affiliated with the town.  I get to hear new oral histories and learn a much about a new place.  That really fills me with glee.  I’ve already scheduled my first meeting at the Hopkinton Historical Society.  Yah for me!

So, as I dig into my new PBL unit on Our Community, I’m excited to learn much, try new things, take risks, and push myself as an educator.  Like I will require my students to do all year, I am going to challenge myself to be uncomfortable and put forth great effort to create the most engaging and meaningful PBL unit my new students have ever seen.  Well, maybe I’m setting the bar a bit too high for now.  How about I just try to do my best to create a great PBL unit on community?  That sounds like a more realistic goal for now.  So, off I go to learn, forward now.

Impromptu Superhero Fun in the Sixth Grade Classroom

As we know, our brain loves new and novelty things, which is why infomercials and those wacky Made for TV products are so popular.  Who wouldn’t love an easy way to put on socks or a pan made from copper, I mean, c’mon.  In the classroom, Kahoot! was super fun for my students the first few times I utilized it, and then it became just another activity.  Therefore, trying new things and taking risks in the classroom, helps educators keep their lessons fresh and their students engaged.  What’s really exciting is that this novelty engagement and learning can come in many forms.  Sometimes it can be in the form of a fun activity, new tech gadget or application, super cool project, or something else entirely.  Our students’ brains crave new and exciting images and chunks of information.  As teachers, we need to harness this power as much as possible.

 

Story Time in Verse

Writing in verse

allows me to

subtract the unnecessary

while adding meaning

through carefully

chosen words and images.

Thus, I will share a story

in the form of a poem…

 

Frigid, cold air penetrated

my bones like a scalpel

cutting into flesh.

BBBrrrr, I said as I

walked outside this morning.

Despite the calender telling

me it was April ninth,

everything in my cold car

screamed, WINTER!

Driving to school,

excitement replaced

the coolness in my bones

as I thought about

my Humanities lesson.

As ideas swirled about

my mind like ballerinas

in an antique shop,

the announcer on the radio

broke my concentration

when she said, “Ever

wonder what your superhero

name is?  Well, I’ll tell you

how you can find out

coming up on the morning show.”

What, I thought.  Why

can’t you just tell us now?

I don’t have time to wait

to find out how I can

determine my superhero name.

All of these questions

were quickly swept aside

as I walked to the dining hall.

 

Fortunately, my brain does

most of it’s best work

when I don’t even realize

I’m doing any thinking at all.

Later in the morning,

I remembered what the DJ

had said about superhero names.

While I used to think

that sliced bread was one

of the best inventions ever,

I now believe it is Google.

I Googled “Superhero Name

Generator” and found tons

of online resources.

Curiosity may have killed

the cat, but luckily, I’m no feline.

I ventured into one of these

fun websites and took a quiz

that allowed me to discover

my superhero name,

which happens to be Mr. Sunshine.

Fitting as I tend to be

optimistic and warm like

the sun.

All sorts of figurative

bells and whistles

began going off in my brain

as I started thinking about

how I could incorporate

this fun little activity

into my class.

That’s when it hit me,

take a risk and just

try the activity in class

with no real learning objective

or plan in mind

except to inspire and engage

the students in something

fun and novelty.

And so, I did just that…

 

The Experiment

I decided to wrap up my Reader’s Workshop block a bit early this morning so that I could complete this teenzy little activity with my students.  If a 40-year old man has fun creating a superhero name for himself, just imagine how excited sixth grade boys will be with this same task.  I introduced the activity with a shortened version of my driving to work story, which I shared in verse earlier in this very blog post.  I then shared my superhero name with the class, informing them that I would be perfectly fine if they decided to use my new superhero name, Mr. Sunshine, instead of the bland ol’ Mr. Holt that I usually go by.  They seemed quite amused by this.  Giggles erupted like a Hawaiian style volcanic eruption.  But, I didn’t stop there.  I then said, “But, I can’t have all the fun now, can I?  It’s time for you to determine your superhero name.”  I showed them how to find a superhero name generator online, and then let them run wild.  Laughter and excitement filled the classroom as they began crafting and discovering their superhero personas.  I closed the activity by having each of the students share their superhero name aloud with the class. This was the really fun part.  Some of the names included The Procrastinator, Dasheye, Super Flame, The Grouch, Witty Wonder, and Mr. McDab.  While some of them sounded more like super villain names, the students all seemed to be thoroughly engaged in this fun little break from the routine.

Now, you’re probably all asking yourself, “Where’s the learning in this?”  And, that is a fantastic question.  I’m not sure at this junction, but I wanted to take a risk and try something new.  I wanted to break from my normal routine and mix things up a bit.  Is it possible that learning did come about from this activity today without me even realizing it?  Were the students super excited at the end of class?  Yes.  Did this novelty activity stimulate something within their brain that might come to fruition in the near future?  Possibly.  Could I have the students use these names in some writing they will be doing very soon?  Yes.  In fact, I think I will try just that on Wednesday.  As they create Twitter exchanges using words in new and interesting ways, I will have them use their superhero names as the ones involved in the Twitter dialogue.  That should prove to be quite hysterical and fun.

As student engagement comes in many different forms, I wanted to try this activity with my students this morning to see what would happen.  Well, the good news is that fun happened.  My students had fun changing things up a bit and thinking creatively.  They were engaged as they created and chose superhero names.  Excitement and possibility filled the sixth grade classroom this morning.  Who knows what learning this short little break will inspire in the coming days within my students.  Perhaps nothing will happen, or maybe, something great or grand will crystallize from this activity.  Like great infomercial inventors of the past, I had to take a risk and try.  Maybe like the Flowbee, it will flop.  Or maybe, like the copper pan craze, it will be a huge success.  Only time will tell.

The Power of Being a Role Model for my Students

Staring at the computer screen, my mind wandered…  I thought about thoughts unrelated to my day.  Why is this screen so bright?  Who made this computer?  How did someone come up with the idea to make computers?  Why do we rely on computers so much as a society?  Then I started to think about other innovations and inventions, like the light bulb and sliced bread.  How did they come about as inventions?  Was it one person or many people who pondered those problems?  Were they successful on the first try or did it take multiple attempts?  As we know, the greatest inventions did not come about on the first try.  Great inventors and scientists spent much time trying out ideas, failing, revising their work, and trying again.  The best things in life take lots of practice, hard work, and failure.  Just imagine, though, if people didn’t take risks and try new things, I might be typing this blog entry on a typewriter and submitting it to my local newspaper for publication.  Risks, hard work, failure, and perseverance lead to innovation and change.

As a teacher, I see the value in this problem-solving formula.  If I want my students to live meaningful lives in a global society, then I need to help them see how important risk taking, hard work, and perseverance are to creativity and innovation.  I need my students to know how to solve problems they encounter in new and unique ways.  I want my students to fail so that they learn how to rise up and overcome adversity.  So, I teach my students this process day in and day out.  I constantly challenge my students to think big and ask why.  I want them to always be looking for how they can make this world a better, safer, and more effective place for all to live.  I empower them to question everything.  I want my students to find problems in their world and then devise and create viable solutions for them.  I train my students to be change makers and innovators, because, as I’m always telling them, “One of you could find the cure for cancer or the solution to poverty around the world some day.”  I teach my students to be self-aware so that they can change things and make the world a better place for all people.

One easy way for me to help my students learn these valuable risk-taking skills is by modelling the desired behavior.  If I want my students to take risks and try new things, then I need to do the same.  So today, I unveiled a new grading procedure, with the caveat that it’s something new and it might fail.  It might not work out the way I have intended, but I want to try and see what happens.

As we utilize the objectives-based grading system in the sixth grade, we are often entering grades with meaningful feedback into our grading portal.  The students always know how they stand in terms of meeting the standards in preparation for the seventh grade.  They can check their grades via our online grading system at any time and know how they are progressing towards the graded objectives.  As my school requires that we also grade our students on their effort in class, we also need to assess their effort on a daily basis.  Although I take mental notes on their daily effort in class, I don’t necessarily make note of this anywhere.  I don’t enter their daily effort into our grading system.  I wait until the end of each marking period to enter their effort grades.  For many of our students, this is frustrating.  While they always know their achievement grades, they are always wondering about their effort grades.  “What is my effort grade in Humanities?” my students will often ask.  Sure, I can answer them with a ballpark number and some trite feedback, but I feel as though I can’t provide them with meaningful and relevant feedback that will promote growth and development.  So, this got me thinking…  How can I help my students know the reality of their effort on a daily basis, so that they can make the necessary changes to become the best students possible?

So, I decided to pilot something for the final term of our academic year.  Every day, I will enter an effort grade for each of their major classes, based on their daily effort.  Are they focused and on task during the period?  Are they prepared for class?  Did they complete the homework?  Are they being a good classmate?  Along with the effort grade, I will include specific feedback on their performance.  If they need to improve in certain areas, I will include that in the feedback.  If they do well in other areas, I will also cite that in the feedback.  I want my students to know exactly how they are performing in all areas of academic life so that they know their areas of strength and weakness.  These daily effort marks and feedback comments will help my students see what they do well and what they still need to work on.  I’m hoping that this change will better support my students as they grow into the best versions of themselves.

Now, I don’t know if this change to how I grade and assess the students will work with our grading system.  Perhaps it will mess things up.  Maybe the average won’t work right or explain the reality of their effort to the students.  Maybe the students will be confused by the data that appears in their grading portal.  What if I don’t have time to enter these grades daily?  What if this change doesn’t make a difference for my students?  What if they still keep asking me for more feedback or help in interpreting their grades?  What if this change ends up being a failure?  What if Einstein said, “Oh, this Theory of Relativity stuff is too hard.  I’m just going to give up.”  What if Thomas Jefferson gave up on making the light bulb?  We’d be in the dark right now.  I can’t let the possibility of failure prevent me from trying new things.  If this effort grading trial fails, then I will make some changes and try something else.  I will not let setbacks and failure prevent me from trying things.  Like my students, I will learn from my mistakes and find a new way to solve my problem.  I won’t give up, no matter what.  I’m hopeful that by me modelling this idea of trying new things, taking risks, and persevering, my students will see the value in the problem-solving process.

Transforming Grampa Grammar Into Cool Uncle Cal

Grammar is like the prim and proper grandfather of the language family.  He wears a fancy sweater vest, which is made entirely of wool from sheep only found in Ireland, underneath his brown plaid blazer.  He has a copious vocabulary of large words, but doesn’t flaunt them often.  He’s quiet, but speaks when necessary.  The other members of the family are scared to ask speak with him as they are worried about the difficult questions he may pose.  What’s the difference between affect and effect?  Should you use lie or lay in the sentence?  He sits in the back of the room, usually in the middle of the couch.  Despite his quiet demeanor, he is the glue that holds the family together.  When trouble strikes, Grampa Grammar is there to save the day.  He adds conjunctions to run-on sentences to prevent them from running amok.  He throws periods and commas into oceans of text, saving many lives from drowning in chaos and confusion.  He is the quiet leader of the language family, despite his need for specificity and accuracy.

Grammar has always struck me as that grandfather-like figure who corrects you when you mistakenly use myself or them in speaking with him.  While no one really likes Grampa Grammar, we need him to know how to properly speak and write in any language.  In high school, I used to despise grammar lessons, as they felt so forced and difficult.  Why do I really need to underline every adjective clause in the 20 sentences on this worksheet?  Is this knowledge every really going to save my life or come in handy in the future?  Pssst, I hate to be that guy, but I’ve never needed to know grammar specifics since graduating from college.  If I’m ever curious about word usage or parts of speech, I look them up online or in the grammar guide I used in college.  Now, just because I don’t find myself needing to identify what type of preposition is in this sentence, doesn’t mean that it’s not important and good to learn all about grammar and what makes language tick.  Grammar can be very fun and interesting.  Diagramming sentences can be a really great way to spend a Saturday night with some friends.  If you incorrectly identify the part of speech of any word, you must drink an entire can of Mt. Dew soda while reciting the alphabet backwards.  What could possibly be more fun than that?  In all seriousness though, grammar should be an essential part of every Humanities or language class; however, how it is taught makes the difference between allowing students to see grammar as the stuffy grampa in the back of the room or the cool uncle that lets you drive his new Camaro.

Over the years, how I have taught grammar in my Humanities class has evolved.  I used to teach it in a way that made my students dislike it as much as I did.  Then, after doing research on grammar instruction over the years, I’ve come to realize that in order for students to really appreciate and see the joy and importance in grammar, I need to teach the topic in a relevant and engaging manner.  Worksheets make grammar seem uncool.  So, I’ve moved towards mini-lessons and novelty instruction.  I’ve tried to find new and intriguing ways to help my students understand why our language works the way in which it does.

Yesterday, I helped my students understand the evils of run-on sentences and how to prevent them from happening in their writing.  I began the mini-lesson with a quick discussion on run-on sentences.  I asked the students to define the term. I explained to the students that run-on sentences are like wild animals running loose in the classroom.  If we’re not careful, they will take over the world.  We need to keep them contained and leashed at all times.  The boys found this image quite humorous, which allowed it to better stick in their minds for future reference.  I’m sure that very few of my students will forget run-on sentences and how to prevent them from happening in their writing any time soon.  I then had the boys, independently, correct two run-on sentences on paper so that they had a chance to individually demonstrate their ability and prior knowledge on the topic.  This short activity then led into a whole class discussion on run-on sentences and how to fix them.  I explained the different types of run-on sentences that they will often see in their writing or the writing of their peers.  I had volunteers correct the sentences they had practiced repairing on their own.  This then brought up many different points including conjunctions, commas, semicolons, and periods.  We laughed and had fun discussing grammar.  The boys seemed thoroughly engaged the entire time.  In about 15 minutes, I helped my students understand how to properly write grammatically correct sentences.  Awesome sauce!

Yesterday’s lesson helped me see the power of novelty and engagement.  I need to find creative and inventive ways to teach my students all about grammar.  Simply providing my students with information on the parts of speech will not help them genuinely learn and remember grammar and how to create grammatically correct sentences.  I need to make grammar sticky for them, mentally speaking, so that they will be able to remember and effectively recall this information at a later date and time.  Today during class, when we were discussing trivia questions and how noone in the class answered a question correctly, one of the students said, “It’s like the run-on sentences taking over the classroom.  Craziness and chaos ensue.”  Yes, I thought to myself.  They get it and remembered it.  Mission, accomplished.

As I reflected on what this student said to me, it made me realize that I need to make all of my grammar lessons memorable, just like that one.  So, my brain began percolating, and ideas started flowing like chocolate from a fountain…

I would start introducing grammar at the beginning of the year by having students interact and play with magnetic poetry words.  I’d have them create super long and interesting phrases and lines of words.  I would then provide them all with a plastic knife that would represent a scalpel and train them to be language doctors.  I wouldn’t even use the word grammar.  I would simply talk about the need for knowing how to fix their own writing and the writing of their classmates.  I would then build on these language doctor lessons throughout the first term using grammar concepts without ever uttering the often evil word “grammar.”

I love it.  My idea is based on how some teachers at a school with struggling math students created a new course for them that wasn’t called a math class and the word math was never mentioned until the very end of the academic year.  The students solved problems and learned complex math concepts without even realizing that they were learning math.  My approach to grammar instruction would do the same thing.  I can’t wait to try it next year.  In the meantime, I’m going to keep trying to make grammar fun and exciting for my students this year.  I might even pilot some of my language doctor ideas later in the year to see how they work out.  When grammar becomes boring like the old grampa in the room, students become disengaged.  As grammar is the glue that holds language together, we need to help our students see grammar concepts as vital and important.  We need to empower our students to become language fixers instead of language disaster makers.