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.

Take Risks and Try New Things; if You Fail, Fix Your Mistakes and Try Again

Recently, my school decided to partner with a local community outreach group to better help our students understand gender-based issues.  While we in the sixth grade loved what the group did with our students, I have heard many other teachers vent about how inappropriate and ineffective the special programming was.  Not everyone is going to like everything schools try, but I love the fact that we tried something.  Although it perhaps didn’t work for everybody, I’m hoping that we can learn from this experience and tweak it for next year.  Just because something fails when you try it the first time, doesn’t mean you should give up on it.  We need to learn from this experience so that we can make it better for next year’s students.

Risk taking and failure is how innovation and invention come about.  We can’t expect that every idea we have will succeed.  We are bound to fail, and that’s okay.  What matters is what we do when we fail.  If we use the failed experience to teach us how to not do something, then we will grow and develop.  This same rule applies in the classroom.  When our students take risks and try new things, we need to applaud their effort regardless of the outcome.  If they fail, we need to help them understand how to learn from the experience in order to grow and develop.

As a teacher, I need to practice what I preach.  Today in my Humanities class, I tried a new method of class discussion.  Every Saturday, we discuss current events in the world around us.  For the fall term, I guided the discussion by calling on students.  At the beginning of the winter term, I introduced the concept of Socratic Discussion and had the boys guide their own discussions based on a topic or question.  While I was not involved in the conversations, I observed the discussions and graded them on their ability to participate in a class discussion.  This week, I wanted to provide the students with a bit more choice as a way of engaging them in the topic of current events.  So, I had the students suggest five major topics or news stories that they wanted to discuss, and I listed them on the whiteboard.  I then had the boys self-select a group based on their interests.  While one group being led by a student went swimmingly, the other groups were disastrous.  The boys were mostly unfocused and distracted.  They were not even discussing the topic at hand.  They were loud and made it difficult for the effective group to hear what was being discussed.  At the close of the activity this morning, I shared this feedback with the students.  I also told them that we would be changing the method with which we discuss current events next week as they couldn’t handle the independence and responsibility that came with small group discussions.  While my initial reaction was to never utilize this method of discussion again, once I had time to reflect on the experience, I realize that I just need to make some slight alterations to the activity before making use of it again in the classroom.  I don’t need to throw it out and start over; I just need to fix what is broken.

Ideas for improvement:

  • Allow the students to offer suggestions for the discussion, but then select the best three topics on my own.  Less options might make the decision easier for the boys.  It would also allow me to eradicate ineffective ideas, which I should have done today.
  • Set ground rules for the discussion.
    • Students need to stay in one group for the entire time.
    • Students need to actively and appropriately add to the discussion.
    • The volume needs to be one that is not distracting to the other groups.
    • Students in the group will grade each other on their performance in the discussion at the close of the activity.  This will push the boys to make good choices and utilize the Habit of Learning of Ownership.
  • Have the student who suggested the idea be the facilitator for the discussion.  This will help bring form and function to the discussion.

So, although today’s new discussion method did not go as planned, I am going to use this experience as a learning opportunity.  I’m not going to stop trying new things in the classroom.  I’m going to continue taking risks to better support and challenge my students.  When lessons or activities fail, I’m going to determine what went wrong and fix it so that it can be recycled instead of just throwing it out altogether.  As teachers, we need to be constantly challenging ourselves to grow and develop.  Trying new things in the classroom, allows us to do just that.  We can’t be afraid of failure.  In fact, we need to embrace failure so that we learn as much, if not more, than our students.  I tell my students all of the time, “I’m not sure who the real teacher in this classroom is, you guys or me?”  Isn’t that what we want?  We want to be role models and students ourselves.  So, let’s go out and try new things.

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.


  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.

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.