Posted in Curriculum, Education, Learning, New Ideas, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

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

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

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

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

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Learning, New Ideas, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Ooohhhmmm: My Mindfulness Unit Plan

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

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

Mindfulness Unit

For the 2017-2018 Academic Year

Day 1: What is Mindfulness?

Day 2: What’s the purpose of mindfulness?

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

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

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

Day 4: How do you breathe mindfully?

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

Day 5: How do you see mindfully?

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

Day 6: How do you show mindfulness?

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

Day 7: How do you reflect mindfully?

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

Day 8: How can you move mindfully?

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

Day 9: How can we avoid distractions mindfully?

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

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

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

Day 11: How can pausing make you more mindful?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 15: How do you reflect mindfully? Part 2

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

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

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

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

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Learning, New Ideas, Planning, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, Student Support, Students, Summer Reading, Teaching, Trying Something New

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Challenges, Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

What’s the Best Method for Helping Students Learn About Music?

In the summer before my fifth grade year of school, a big decision stared me straight in the face?  What instrument should I play in school?  Saxophone?  Clarinet?  Drums?  Students had the option to play an instrument in the fifth grade at my school.  While we didn’t have to do anything, many of my friends were talking about which instrument they were going to choose, and so I felt like I needed to fit in.  I didn’t really want to play an instrument, but I succumbed to peer pressure anyway.  So, I chose the clarinet.  Lets just say that it’s not the sexiest of instruments to play, but I went with it anyway.  After about three weeks, I gave up and stopped playing because the lessons were during recess.  What fifth grade boy wants to miss recess to learn how to play a musical instrument?  Not me.  The lessons were all about repetition and rote memorization.  Everybody had to do the same thing at the same time.  This method of learning about music didn’t work for me.  I do however, to this very day, still wish I hadn’t given up on the clarinet.  I wish I had persevered and stuck with it.  Listening to and enjoying music is a big part of my life, and I wish I knew how to read music or play a musical instrument.  Perhaps, if I had been taught the true value of learning to play an instrument or had a more engaging instructor, I might be playing in the philharmonic orchestra somewhere in the world right now instead of posting a reflection on my awesome day of teaching.  I’m glad I’m where I am doing what I love though.

Teaching is all about engaging students in the content.  While I’m not a music teacher, I do feel obligated to impart some musical knowledge and wisdom to my students.  I want them to understand the power of music.  Music, like a photograph, speaks volumes without saying anything at all.  We can learn so much about people, culture, and history from studying music.  As a teacher, I want to be sure my students understand the great power that music holds.

Today in Humanities class, I lead a foray into the music of the Middle East Region.  We’ve been learning all about the region, forms of government, types of religion, and roles of women in this region of the world.  For our final mini-lesson on this region, I wanted to help the students piece everything we’ve been giving them together, and what better way to do that than through music.  First, I introduced some of the basic instruments used by musicians in the Middle East.  We listened to the sound that each made.  Then I shared three different pieces of music from that region with the students.  The first piece was a traditional piece of Arabic folk music that made use of many of the instruments we discussed in the opening of the lesson.  I then had the boys listen to a modern piece of Arabic pop music.  The final song was a piece of traditional Jewish music from the region.  Following each piece, we discussed what they noticed, similarities and differences.  We didn’t dig into the complexities of music composition or anything deep like that.  Instead, I wanted the students to share their thoughts and feelings on the pieces.  How did the music make you feel?  What can we learn about the culture of the Middle East Region from listening to these pieces of music?  The students provided great fodder for our discussion.  They noticed things that I hadn’t even thought about.  They heard so much more in the pieces than just the music.  It was amazing.  The boys shared the emotions that were conjured up by the pieces.  “This pieces sounds energetic and happy.  It doesn’t sound like it would come from the Middle East region based on what we’ve learned about this part of the world.”  We had a great discussion on a region of the world and its music.  We talked about history, music, religion, and culture all by simply listening to music.  The students were so engaged that I ended up not being able to call on every student who wanted to participate due to lack of time in the period.  We could have spent the rest of the morning talking about music and what it teaches us as they were that into it.

Unlike my horrible experience with music instruction in school, I’m trying to provide my students with opportunities to see music as something more than instruments and reading music.  Sure, some students in my class do play an instrument and take lessons outside of the academic day.  That’s amazing.  I’m so impressed that they have the wherewithal to do that, as I didn’t when I was their age.  I want my students to see the power that music holds as well.  Music is not just about sounds and words, it’s about emotions, feelings, history, culture, dance, and so much more.  Music is an experience, and I feel as though I was able to convey this idea to my students today through our short mini-lesson on the music of the Middle East Region.  They seemed curious and engaged.  Perhaps they will learn more about music outside of class on their own as their appetite for more was awakened in the classroom today.  Maybe, or maybe not.  Perhaps most of my students walked away from class today feeling like they got just enough musical knowledge and will not dig any deeper.  That’s okay too, as long as my students don’t see music as something unfun.  I want them to see that music is about life and can be fun and engaging.  Luckily, I feel like I did that today for most of my students.

Was my method of music instruction the best way to teach students about music?  Maybe not.  Was the way my band teacher tried to teach me the most effective method of music instruction?  Clearly not for me.  What about other methods?  What about other vehicles?  What other engaging ways could we teach music to our students?  Digital music making?  Music history?  Music analysis?  Is one way of teaching students to see the value in music better than others?  Does every method work for every student?  Of course not.  As teachers, we need to try new things and take risks like we want our students to do.  We need to learn, try things, fail, and try something different.  Like teaching any subject or content area, there isn’t just one way to teach, but there is always one outcome that we should be shooting for– engagement.  In order for students to learn, they need to be interested and engaged in the content.  So, whatever we choose to teach, music or any other subject for that matter, we need to remember to make it exciting, relevant, and interesting for our students.

Posted in Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

Takeaways from a Saturday in the Classroom

Typically, when I post to this blog, I focus on one activity or aspect of my teaching that was either really great or really not great.  This focus allows me to be very reflective and think about my approach in the classroom.  What am I doing well and what do I need to work on?  At the end of almost every day, I find it quite easy to think about just one highlight or lowlight from my teaching day.  Rarely, does more than one idea or topic stick out when I sit down to reflect and post to my blog.  Occasionally though, I have one of those days where two things come to the forefront of my mind as occurrences that I would like to reflect upon.  On those days, I try to focus on the one happening that proved more challenging or difficult so that I can begin to brainstorm solutions on how to approach it if it ever reappears in the classroom.  Those days are usually quite rare.

You’re probably asking yourself, what about those days when lots of occurrences stand out?  What do you do then?  Do you choose just one?  How can you possibly choose just one topic to reflect upon when so many great or awful things happened in the classroom?  Well, luckily, today was one of those incredibly uncommon days where so many amazing things happened that I couldn’t possibly choose just one to write about.  Perhaps, because it is Saturday, magic was in the air this morning in the sixth grade classroom.  Maybe my students were replaced with alien clones last night.  Perhaps there was some sort of strange astronomical happening going on that caused the brains of my students to work in a very focused and creative manner today.  Regardless of the reason, today brought with it many amazing occurrences in the classroom.

  • In Humanities class, we discussed the current state of affairs in Syria regarding the recent chemical attack that took place earlier in the week.  The students had read and annotated the news article from Newsela for homework.  At the start of the activity, I addressed clarifying questions the students had about the article.  What didn’t make sense?  What words did you not understand?  Following a quick recap of the article, my co-teacher and I divided the students into two, small discussion groups.  The group in the classroom with me, had an amazing conversation and discussion for about 15 minutes.  It was completely driven by the students in the Socratic method of discussion.  I merely observed and took notes on how the students participated.  The students posed questions, answered each other’s questions, built upon the ideas previously stated, and clarified statements made as they addressed the guiding question– How should other countries respond to this issue?  I was so impressed by the level of insightful comments made by my students.  They raised great points: Some students disagreed with America’s response while others felt as though we should have done more; some students felt as though a plan should be made to remove the current Syrian president from office; one student said, “If we don’t do anything, more innocent people will die.”  My students were talking about a vitally important current event with gusto, poise, and seriousness.  I was amazed.  Today’s discussion may very well have been one of the best of the entire year as it highlighted how much each and every one of them as grown as students, thinkers, and team members.
  • During the second period of Humanities class today, we began a mini-lesson on religion in the Middle East Region.  We started the lesson with a discussion on religion and its purpose.  Why do people practice religions?  What positive and negative impacts have come as a result of religion?  This then lead into an explanation of the religion of Islam.  We watched a brief video that explained the history and beliefs of Islam.  Following the video, we debriefed the big ideas covered in the Crash Course History video.  The students seemed to understand that Islam, at its core, is a religion of compassion and kindness.  I then explained to the students how the foundation of this religion has been twisted over the years through translations and new supplemental laws and texts that make it appear to be a very harsh, biased, and detrimental religion practiced by terrorists and misogynists.  My co-teacher and I wanted to clear up confusion and make sure that our students have an accurate and true understanding of the religion of Islam and its belief system.  At the close of the period, I asked the students to share how their perception of Islam changed since learning more about it.  Every student called upon explained how they used to once think of Islam as a negative religion associated with terrorists but now see it for what it really is, a different yet compassionate and accepting religion.  Their perspective on Islam and the Middle East Region was broadened today because of the information with which we provided them.  It felt good to help our students open their minds regarding an often controversial topic of discussion in modern society.
  • During STEM class today, the students continued working on their assigned math coursework.  Those students who were working independently got right to work and accomplished more than one of the assigned tasks.  They were so focused.  One student needed a mini-lesson regarding his assigned lesson and so I worked with him one-on-one at the work table in the back of our classroom.  I reviewed a concept he struggled to understand on the check-in assessment before getting into the new skill covered in lesson 3.2.  After helping him understand how to subtract algebraic terms with the same variable, he began working on the assigned practice problems from the lesson.  As he walked back to his seat, he said, “I’m finally understanding algebra now.”  Yes, I thought to myself, he’s getting it.  I was so happy for this student and excited that a lightbulb clearly turned on in his brain as we discussed the concept of simplifying algebraic terms involving subtraction.  He’s growing and maturing while employing a growth mindset.  Mission accomplished, for now anyway.

So yeah, it was a pretty awesome day in the sixth grade classroom today.  My students were focused and worked very well throughout our time together.  They put forth great effort to meet and exceed the objectives covered while also working together as a family to grow and learn.  What a day!

Posted in Challenges, Change, Co-Teacher, Conversation, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Student Conferences, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

How to be Flexible with Time in the Classroom

Despite stretching a little bit every day as I climb out of bed and take the three steps needed to get to my bathroom where the magic happens, I am not a very flexible person, physically speaking, that is.  While I enjoy twisting and turning to crack my back or get a kink out of my neck, I don’t spend more than 10-20 seconds a day actually stretching and working to make my body flexible.  I don’t do yoga and I don’t stretch a lot before working out.  I don’t put in the effort needed to make my body pliable because it’s not a skill or something that I really want to master.  I’m okay not being able to do a split or put my legs behind my head.  Sure, it would be pretty awesome to be able to do that as a parlor trick or as part of a Cirque du Soleil show, but I’m also quite content being my inflexible, lumpy self.  It’s who I am and I’m happy with that.

Now, being physically flexible and mentally flexible are two different things.  While I care not to be physically flexible, I do strive towards mental flexibility.  I want to be able to go with the flow, make changes on the fly, and be open to trying new things and taking risks in the classroom.  If my students ask lots of questions regarding a topic being discussed, I want to be able to field their questions and foster a meaningful discussion rather than not allowing them to ask their questions because I feel the need to continue with the lesson and push forward with the curriculum.  I want my students to be curious and engaged, and so, if allowing them to ask questions and chat about a topic holds their attention and is relevant to them, then I am all in favor of it.  Even though I say that in this here blog post, I still do sometimes get stuck in my thinking and will not allow questions to be asked or other activities to be completed because I want to plow through my curriculum.  I’m still always working towards mastering the skill of mental flexibility.  It’s very easy to get caught up in the schedule and lesson plans I worked so hard to put together and forget why I went into teaching in the first place.  I want to help students, inspire students, and allow students to see that school and learning can be fun and engaging.  Being the kind of educator who is open to switching things up in the middle of class, is what I continue to work towards day after day.  I’m far from perfect, but I want to engage my students in the process of learning; being flexible with time and activities is one of the most important strategies I can employ to accomplish just that in the classroom.

Today proved to be one of those “finish up work” kind of days.  My students had spent the last several days working on creating a tri-layered map of the Middle East Region as well as crafting an Inspiration map of the three main causes of Climate Change on Earth.  As both assignments are due on Monday, my co-teacher and I wanted to provide the students an opportunity to work on these pieces over the course of today.  So, today during Humanities class, when the students finished their map of the Middle East Region, they worked on their Inspiration map regarding Climate Change.  While most students had completed the Humanities map last night for homework, a few of the students spent the period finishing their map.  That worked for them as they needed more time to process the information and transfer it onto paper in the form of a map.  This task can be cumbersome and challenging for students who struggle with hand-eye coordination and attention to details.  Three of our students needed extra time today in class to complete this task.  The other students worked on finishing their STEM Inspiration map showcasing the causes of Climate Change.  This work period provided the students the opportunity to complete their graphic organizer or receive feedback from my co-teacher or I on their work so that they could revise it before turning it into be formally assessed.  I had some great conferences with the boys on their maps and learning processes.  While most of the students understood the assignment and just needed feedback on how to exceed the two graded objectives, one student needed clarification on the assignment.  He was very confused as to what he should be doing.  Instead of listing facts explaining the three main causes of Climate Change, he summarized each topic into one bubble or part of his web.  I was able to redirect him and help him fully comprehend what was being asked of him.  This really helped him focus his energy and feel successful as he now knows what he needs to do.  I had several other similar conversations and chats with my students regarding their graphic organizers.  It was great to have the time to conference and converse with the students about their work before it was due.

Although Humanities class is usually reserved for working on writing, reading, discussing, and thinking about the world around us, we do like to be open to new possibilities when they present themselves.  Today seemed like one of those opportunities.  Not all of the students needed to work on their map of the Middle East Region for Humanities class and so it seemed silly to press on with the curriculum when I knew that I would not have time in STEM class to meet with the students today to review their Inspiration maps.  So, using Humanities class time to conference with students on their STEM work just made sense.  It’s all about flexibility and being open to trying new things all in the name of better supporting and helping our students.  While I am sure to struggle with being mentally flexible next week in class, at least today provided me the chance to apply the skill of mental flexibility so that I don’t forget the great value it holds.  Life doesn’t unfold in a pretty, scripted manner and so I need to be aware that life in the classroom also doesn’t need to follow a linear, organized path.  I can switch things up from time to time when the changes will best help my students.

Posted in Boys, Challenges, Co-Teaching, Curriculum, Education, Grading, Humanities, Learning, Math, New Ideas, Objectives Based Grading, Reader's Workshop, Reflection, Sixth Grade, STEM, Student Conferences, Student Support, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New, Writer's Workshop, Writing

Why I Love Teaching Sixth Grade

On this day of love, I find myself in a loving and reflective mood.  I am so grateful that I have been allowed to create such a strong sixth grade program over my years here at Cardigan.  Because the administrators at my school have faith in my abilities as an educator, I have been able to take risks, try new things, fail, try other new things, and develop a sixth grade program that best suits the needs of each of my students.  So, to celebrate this great freedom and amazing program I’ve been able to create over the years, I’ve devoted today’s blog entry to discussing the sixth grade program.

Introduction

Going through the adolescent stage of development is like being on a roller coaster without a seat belt.  When you flip upside down, you fall out of your seat unless you are holding on with everything you’ve got.  Each benchmark within adolescence brings new turns, curves, and loops.  Working with adolescent boys is like trying to dodge raindrops.  You can’t avoid the inevitable.  Craziness and chaos will ensue.  But heck, that’s why middle school teachers work with this age group.  We’re a little crazy too because we remember what it was like to be this age.

At Cardigan, we make it our mission to mold young boys into compassionate and mindful young men.  It’s a wild and sometimes frustrating journey, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  Boys who attend sixth grade at Cardigan begin this adventure earlier than most as it is the youngest and smallest grade at our school.  Because of this, we have created a very unique  program that will help our boys foster a family spirit and connection that they carry with them throughout their time at Cardigan; to help provide them with some safety features on the bumpy roller coaster of adolescence.

Rationale

Brain-based research on how learning really happens reveals that students learn best when they are engaged, motivated, feel safe, are challenged and supported.  The sixth grade program has greatly evolved over the years due to this research and, as sixth grade teachers, we are always trying to find new and innovative ways to inspire and effectively educate and prepare our boys for meaningful lives in a global society.

Our Philosophy: We’re a family, and families take care of each other

The first ten weeks of the academic year are focused on building a strong family atmosphere amongst the students.  One of our biggest goals in the sixth grade is to foster a sense of family within the boys.  We want the students to understand and be able to effectively coexist with one another in a way that celebrates their differences.  First, as teachers, we model the behavior we expect to see from the students.  Second, we spend time each week talking about what makes an effective community.  We have the students share personal information about themselves including interests, hobbies, sports, and social identifiers.  We help the boys examine all parts of their personality that remain hidden to most of the world.  In exploring this, the students begin to think deeply and critically about themselves and how they fit into the world.  They also have a chance to share this information with their peers.  While making them vulnerable, it helps the boys make deep connections with each other.  We provide the students with specific strategies on how to communicate with their peers effectively, how to solve problems amongst themselves, and how to work together as a team to accomplish tasks.  We utilize numerous team building activities as catalysts for these mini-lessons: The boys build spaghetti towers in small groups, create a scavenger hunt with a partner, and solve various tasks that provide opportunities to practice and learn how to be effective teammates.  We want the boys to understand what it takes to be Cardigan community member.  

During the first month of school, we take the boys on an overnight trip to our school’s CORE cabin to help build a sense of family and community within the boys.  While the location of the cabin is on our campus, it feels very like it could be miles away.  We build a fire together and then roast marshmallows.  We tell stories, play games, and interact as a family.  If problems arise, we take the time to help the students learn how to work together to solve them.  It’s an amazing experience that helps lay the groundwork for future whole-class experiences we will provide the boys with throughout our year together.

Towards the end of the first term, we put our teamwork and family to the test with a three-day trip to an outdoor center in southern New Hampshire.  The focus of the trip is teamwork.  The students work together to solve problems, accomplish tasks, and have fun learning about how to survive in the wilderness.  It’s always one of the big highlights for the sixth grade boys.  They will never forget how they overcame their fears and learned to help and support their classmates in new and fun ways.

Co-Teaching

While our class size fluctuates from one year to the next, in recent years we’ve had a smaller sixth grade class.  A tight-knit team of two lead teachers is the most effective method for our program.  We plan, grade, and teach together.  Having another person to bounce ideas off of allows for more ideas to come to fruition.  As units are developed, we work together to generate engaging lessons.  With two people working together to complete this process, ideas can be built upon and added to.  Good ideas become great ideas.  Grading together allows for conversations about objectives and work.  How can we create objective objectives that don’t allow room for interpretation?  Having two teachers in the room for classes allows the students to be fully supported, and those students who need one-on-one time have the chance to receive it with two teachers in the classroom.  We can conference with students more effectively during humanities class and the boys are able to safely conduct investigations in STEM class.  We constantly model effective teamwork skills for the boys so that they see what we expect from them.  Co-teaching has fostered a sense of compassion in the classroom.  In order to create a family atmosphere amongst the students, we need to be able to effectively care for them, and  with two trained educators in the room, we can more effectively challenge, support, and ensure the safety of each and every sixth grade student in our class.

Classroom Organization

In order to help foster a sense of engagement in the classroom and to allow our students to feel as though they can focus on the lesson or activity at hand, our classroom is organized in a very specific manner.  

We have a reading nook area for small group work, independent reading, and movie viewing when appropriate.  The boys can sit or lie on the carpet squares in any way that allows them to feel engaged and focused.  We also have a small group work table for those students who need to be sitting to work and stay focused.  The desk table area is towards the front of the classroom near our interactive board and projector.  We use whiteboard tables to allow the students the opportunity to take notes, brainstorm, solve math problems, or just doodle upon them while working or listening.

We instituted this change just this year and it has made a huge difference.  We also use rocking style chairs at the desk work area to allow those students who need to move and stay focused.  These chairs help create a sense of calm and focus in the classroom during full group instruction lessons.  While every student is rocking, they are able to pay attention and listen intently.

These classroom organizational choices are based on the neuroscience of learning.  Students are able to genuinely learn the concepts and skills covered when they feel safe, engaged, and motivated.  The classroom furniture we use and the spaces we’ve created help our students to learn in a meaningful way.

Curriculum

Our goal is for our boys to feel connected to and engaged with the curriculum we employ in the sixth grade.  We want the students to enjoy coming to classes because they are excited and interested in what is happening.  We are constantly revising and updating what we do and how we do it, and because of this, our curriculum is a living and breathing entity.

Humanities

In our humanities class, the students develop their critical thinking skills to become community-minded young men with an awareness of the world around them.  We begin the year with a unit on community so that they learn to accept and appreciate differences in others.  Through completing various activities during the first two weeks of the academic year, the students begin to understand how they fit into our sixth grade family as well as the greater Cardigan community.  The boys also learn much about their peers through this first unit.  Everything else we work on throughout the year in humanities class builds upon this foundation we create at the start of the year.  

The humanities class occupies a double block period that covers both the history and English curriculum for the sixth grade.  This integrated approach allows students to see how the big ideas in History and English go hand in hand.  We cover various communities and cultures from around the world so that we can provide the students with a macro view of the world in a micro manner.  Our goal is to help the students understand perspective and how it can change based on many different factors.  We utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction so that a love of reading and writing is fostered within the boys throughout the year.

For Reader’s Workshop, the students choose just-right (engaging, grade-level and reading-level appropriate) books so that they are interested in what they are reading.  While at the start of the year, several students often seem uninterested in reading, they grow to become voracious and excited readers because the boys can choose books, novels, texts, and e-books that interest and engage them.

For Writer’s Workshop, the students choose the topics about which they write within the confines of the genre requirements.  The vignette form of writing is the first genre covered in the sixth grade.  Rather than mandate that it be a personal narrative vignette, we allow the students to choose the topic.  This choice and freedom empowers the students.  “I can write a short story about anything?” we often hear our students exclaim.  For boys, writing is generally not something they enjoy doing.  They would much rather go outside and play or explore instead of writing.  We want our students to see writing as something that can be fun and hands-on.  If we allow our students to write about topics that engage them, a sense of excitement develops within them.

STEM Class

An effective way to bring science to life is to create a Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) class.  Students have difficulty seeing how the different math and science puzzle pieces fit together.  They also struggle with the math concepts when they aren’t applied in realistic ways that make sense to them. Helping the students build neurological connections between prior knowledge and what they learn in our classroom is one of the many ways we make our program meaningful for our students.

Our STEM class teaches students to persevere.  They learn how to overcome adversity, think differently, see problems from numerous perspectives, communicate effectively, and be curious. We teach students what to do when faced with a new problem. As Angela Lee Duckworth stated in her well-received TED Talk, we need to teach our students how to be gritty. Our sixth graders are provided with opportunities to explore, try new things, fail, try again, talk with their peers, sketch out new ideas, and then do it all over again.

Our STEM curriculum holds the bar high for our students. Rigor doesn’t mean that we require more work to be done for the sake of doing it, it means that the standards and objectives we are teaching are challenging, specific, and relevant. Our STEM units challenge students to think creatively and solve problems in innovative ways. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Common Core Math Standards (CCSS) are the foundation of our STEM curriculum. These standards promote rigor and problem solving in fun and engaging ways.

PEAKS Class

At Cardigan, while we weave study skills into every course that we teach, we have one class devoted to supplementing and supporting every other core subject: Personalized Education for the Acquisition of Knowledge and Skills (PEAKS).  The true purpose of the course is to help the students understand how they best learn, metacognition.  Through self-inventories and mini-lessons on learning styles and the multiple intelligences at the start of the year, the boys begin to become self-aware of their own learning styles and preferences.  Much reflection is also completed throughout the year so that the boys have a chance to observe their strengths and weakness and set goals to work toward.  They also document this learning process in an e-portfolio that they continuously update throughout the year.  Beginning the year in this way, allows the students to focus on the process of learning and how being self-aware will help them grow and develop.  During the winter term, students learn about brain plasticity and how their working memory functions as a way to build upon their self-awareness and genuinely own their learning.  This course supports and challenges each and every student where and when they need it.

Homework

Student engagement isn’t confined within the walls of the classroom.  What the students do or don’t do outside of the classroom can be equally important.  If students aren’t seeing the relevance or value in their homework assignments, then we’ve lost them.  In the sixth grade, we approach homework in the same manner we approach everything.  It’s all about choice and engagement.  We want the students to further practice the skills learned in the classroom in a captivating way that allows them to continue learning and growing as a student.  Homework is not graded and assessed purely for effort.  If we want our students to practice, fail, try again, and continue to practice, then we must not grade this practice work.  Plus, since the students are completing the work outside of the classroom, it is difficult to know who is doing the work and how it is being done.  Are the boys getting assistance from peers, teachers, or parents to complete the work?  While we promote this self-help approach, grading the individual students on work when we don’t know exactly how the work was completed.  Most of the homework assigned is a continuation of what was worked on in class.  

For example, in humanities class, we do much writing and reading.  So, a typical homework assignment is to read from their Reader’s Workshop book for 30 minutes.  As they choose their Reader’s Workshop books based on ability and interest level, the engagement is already there.  Plus, this practice allows them to increase their reading stamina so that they are prepared for the reading demands of seventh grade.  Homework assignments shouldn’t be separate, stand-alone tasks that overly challenge the students.  Developmentally, by the time the sixth graders get to evening study hall at 7:30 p.m. they are exhausted and unable to focus for a long period of time in order to effectively process information and solve problems.  You might say that our homework assignments complement the classroom curriculum the way a beautiful brooch can bring out the colors of a flowing dress.

Project-Based Learning

To prepare students for lives in the global society in which they will live and work, we teach our students how to effectively work in groups to solve open-ended problems with no right or wrong answer. Students need to know how to delegate tasks, lead groups of their peers, follow instructions, ask questions, and solve problems. Project Based Learning ties all of the aforementioned skills together with ribbons of the required curriculum. While the students are engaged with the content and hands-on aspects of the project, they are also learning crucial life skills that will help them persevere and learn to overcome adversity.

Standards-Based Assessment

To help our students adopt learning skills necessary to grow and develop as critical thinkers and problem solvers, we use a standards-based system of grading. The focus is on the standard or objective being assessed. If our curriculum is set up according to the standards, why should we grade the students on anything other than what the curriculum asks? If we are teaching paragraph structure and the standard is, students will be able to craft an original, properly formatted, and complete paragraph, then we should only be grading student work on that one standard using a scale that aligns with the school’s grading criteria? Points must not be taken away for spelling, grammar, or other reasons unless the paragraph is being assessed regarding those standards as well. Rick Wormeli and other leading educational reform leaders have been talking about standards-based grading for years. It is the only way to accurately grade students on what is essential.

In this vein, we also want the students to understand that learning is a process.  Education is like a living organism.  Our students will grow, change, regress, and evolve throughout the year.  As we expect and want our students to meet or exceed all of the objectives covered so that we know they will be fully prepared for seventh grade, we allow students to redo work that doesn’t meet the graded objectives.  The boys are allowed to redo all and any work for a unit until the unit has finished.  They can seek help from the teachers and utilize any feedback we provide to them in order to showcase their ability to meet or exceed the objectives.  This grading system is dynamic and can be changed to allow for the students to employ a growth mindset and truly own their learning.

Conclusion

At Cardigan, we prepare students for an unknown future in a world that will inevitably be very different from its current state.  Because of this, in the sixth grade, we have devised over many years of data collection, research, and practice, to develop a strong and creative academic and social program that engages students in an applicable curriculum that teaches problem solving, critical thinking, coexistence, and how to manifest and utilize a growth mindset.  Students who attend Cardigan Mountain School starting in the sixth grade and then go onto graduate at the close of their ninth grade year receive a meaningful and rich experience.  They grow up together, and, in turn, a family atmosphere and spirit is created within that group of four-year boys.  While it can be challenging at times to be a sixth grade student at Cardigan, our inclusive program helps the boys feel safe and connected within a special family known as the sixth grade.

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Learning, Math, New Ideas, STEM, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

Do Brain Gym Exercises Work?

As teaching practices and pedagogical approaches change faster than clothing trends, it’s important that as teachers, we be selective in utilizing any of these new ideas and strategies.  We should do plenty of research to be sure that the new approach is based on sound evidence that makes sense to us before we try it in the classroom.  We shouldn’t change our teaching practices as often as we change our socks just because a new idea that sounds great comes down the pipeline.  We need to be sure that this new approach or practice will better help or support our students.  Think about how much has changed in regards to literacy instruction over the years.  Ideas and practices that were once used got thrown out the window quicker than last week’s leftovers until they came back as new ideas.  We shouldn’t jump on the new teaching practices band wagon without inspecting it first.  Are all the wheels securely attached to the body of the wagon?  Is it safe?

While I do sometimes try new technology tools in the classroom once or twice without too much research or practice, I do take the time to understand and learn about a new teaching practice when making any big changes to how I teach a subject or skill as I want to be sure this new idea will be best for me and my students.  Over the past few years, I’ve done a lot of research on the Brain Gym exercises developed by the Dennison’s over twenty years ago.  At first, I thought the whole idea of exercising in the classroom seemed counterintuitive.  I don’t have time in my day to let my students work out in class, I thought.  They would probably just become distracted and unfocused anyway.  Then, after learning all about the neuroscience of education and learning, I realized that there is great value in this kind of approach to helping students focus and ready themselves to learn and work hard in the classroom.  So, over the past two years, I’ve implemented a few of the Brain Gym exercises into my classes.  While I didn’t collect any hard data on how the students performed after completing these exercises versus how they performed when the Brain Gym exercises were not incorporated into the class, many of the students seemed to feel as though these exercises helped them be more focused during assessments.  Since these exercises seemed to have a positive impact on my students in the past, I decided to try using them again this year in my class.

So, today in STEM class, before the students completed the chapter two assessment, I worked the students through a series of Brain Gym exercises using a Youtube video I found online.  I began the activity by explaining the rationale for using these exercises in the classroom.  I want to be sure the students understand the purpose of everything we do so that they can see its value and the benefits involved.  I explained how these exercises were designed as a way to reduce stress, help people release excess energy, and connect the parts of the brain and body.  Increasing one’s heart rate helps to pump blood throughout the body and brain.  I then had the students follow along with the video.  Most of the boys seemed very engaged and excited by this opportunity.  They worked hard and seemed to truly enjoy themselves.  Following the exercises, I provided them with some information on the math assessment before having them begin.  The students seemed very focused and attentive throughout the period as they solved various math problems.  They were much less fidgety than they were during the first math assessment of the year. Perhaps this was as a result of the Brain Gym exercises.  At the close of the class, I asked the students to raise their hand if they felt as though the Brain Gym exercises helped them feel more focused during the assessment.  Six students raised their hands.  I then asked how many of the students felt as though it didn’t seem to have any impact on them during the assessment.  Three students raised their hands at that point.  One student felt as though the exercises had a negative impact on him.  He said, “I felt like I knew the information before we did the exercises and then got all confused during the test.”  This was an interesting and unexpected response.  I’m not too sure what caused him to feel this way.  Maybe too much blood went to his brain and cleaned out all the neural connections he had recently made, or perhaps it was just how he felt.

After grading the assessments, I noticed that only 50% of the students need to complete Test Redos, whereas 75% of the students needed to complete the Test Redo process for the first test of the academic year.  Is this outcome because I had the students complete the Brain Gym exercises prior to the boys completing this assessment?  Maybe, or maybe it was because yesterday’s review session was much more detailed and thorough.  Perhaps the students already felt more prepared for today’s assessment because of yesterday’s review period.  As there were many variables between this assessment and the prior assessment, it’s really hard to tell if the Brain Gym exercises had any sort of meaningful or positive impact on the students and their results.  I will try to prepare the students for our next math assessment in a very similar way to how I approached this assessment but will not use the Brain Gym exercises prior to the assessment to see what will happen.  Maybe the Brain Gym exercises really did help my students feel and be more mentally focused and aware today.  Or maybe, they didn’t.  However, I do feel as though the exercises did have some sort of positive impact on my students today.  I guess I will have to wait until the next assessment to collect more data to find out if the Brain Gym exercises really do help students be more focused in the classroom.

Posted in Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

How the Nacirema People Changed my Life

I don’t remember much about my many years of schooling, but I do vividly recall my junior high school years.  I had an awesome English teacher who inspired me to love writing.  Mrs. Sylvester also taught me one of the longest words in the English language, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.  To this day, I can still spell, define, and accurately pronounce it.  She made language arts fun and engaging.  Then there was my history teacher.  While I never liked learning about the history of our country prior to seventh grade, he made me want to know the causes of the American Revolutionary War.  One of my favorite and most memorable lessons from his class was when he taught us about this strange and eccentric culture of people called the Nacirema.  They had these bizarre rituals that involved making the human form less ugly.  The women in the tribe would stick their heads in ovens to bake their hair while most every member of the group would visit a holy mouth man who would stick sharp objects in their mouths to cause them to bleed.  Crazy, right?  That’s what I thought back then.  This group of people seemed so strange and foreign to me.  At that point in the lesson, the teacher dropped a knowledge bomb on my class.  Nacirema is American spelled backwards.  The author, Horace Miner, an anthropologist, crafted the article as a way to help people understand how important having an open mind is when learning about new cultures and people.  My mind was blown.  Because I took what my teacher told me as truth and fact, I perceived the Nacirema people in a very different light and was unable to truly infer what the anthropologist was trying to tell readers.  This eye-opening experience helped me broaden my perspective as it pertained to learning new information.  This turning point in my life shaped how I view the world and lead me down the path on which I am currently on.  And to think it all started in my eighth grade history class.

So, to honor and celebrate my junior high school history teacher, I used a modified version of the Nacirema article in my sixth grade class today to help my students understand the importance of broadening their perspective when learning about new and different cultures.  Well, I suppose that was part of the reason why I used the same article I was exposed to in middle school, but there was a lot more to it than that.  It all started before our winter break…

Now is the time we step into our way-back machine.  Well, maybe not the way-back machine, perhaps the back machine would work just fine as we’re really only talking about a few weeks.  So, put on your safety goggles and helmet as we head back to mid-December…

Prior to winter break, I was helping my students expand their perspective regarding the accuracy of flat maps.  After a short unit that culminated with the students transforming a globe into a flat map of the world, my co-teacher and I discussed how the distorted perspective they have when looking at flat maps relates to how they view the world.  You need to have a growth mindset when learning new information.  Despite the many discussions we had, the self-reflection survey we had the students complete on the final day of the unit displayed that many of the boys did not seem to synthesize this knowledge nugget from the unit.  What do we do now, we thought.  That’s when my brain kicked in and reminded me of the strange Nacirema people.  That’s it, I thought.  We can read and discuss this article to help them understand how important having a broad perspective can be when learning about new cultures.

Fast forward to today…  No need to strap on the safety goggles as going ahead in time is much less messy than going backwards.  It’s kind of like riding a bike in mud.  While your front side remains mostly clean and free of mud, your backside gets covered.  Now to 2017 we go…

Today in Humanities class, we briefly the discussed big ideas we had hoped the students would have extracted from the Globe to Flat Map Project.  We asked the students a few questions and were amazed by their responses.  With very little prompting, the boys demonstrated that they did indeed learn how important keeping an open mind can be when it comes to learning about new and different things.  They got it.  Maybe they just needed the holiday break to process the huge ideas discussed in the project.  Perhaps that’s why today’s result was different from what they showcased back in December.  To help the students practice keeping an open mind when learning about new cultures and information, we had them read and learn about the Nacirema people.  They were shocked and flabbergasted by this strange group of people, much like I was back in middle school.  They couldn’t understand why this tribe of people thought the human form was ugly.  When we discussed and debriefed what they had learned and read about, none of the students had any ide that this article was about more than just a strange group of people.  Despite beginning the activity by telling the boys that this was a practice run for utilizing a growth mindset when learning about new information, they still accepted everything we told them as fact and did not think that we would be trying to fool them in any way.  So, when I dropped the knowledge bomb on them, they were just as dismayed as I was back in eighth grade.  What, they all exclaimed.  How can this be?  Wait a minute, I see it now, some of them said.  Laughter and signs of surprise and ahh were heard throughout the classroom.  This activity then lead directly into a whole class discussion on stereotypes and the importance of learning all about a new topic or group of people instead of judging something by only looking at one tiny portion or side of the story.  The old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” comes to mind.  The students displayed a strong understanding of this concept throughout the discussion.  They got it.  They really understand how valuable it is to learn everything about a topic or group of people before making any assumptions or judgements.  We closed the lesson by telling them how important this growth mindset will be when we dig into Africa starting tomorrow in class.

Wow, I thought at the end of class today.  They really got it.  Despite being unable to explain how viewing the world with a skewed perspective can be harmful and dangerous prior to our winter break, the boys really did know how important keeping an open mind is when learning about new information.  I was so excited and relieved, as I was worried that I had not adequately explained or detailed the big ideas from our mapping unit back in December.  Now, did using the Nacirema article really help the students understand the importance in having a broad perspective of the world?  Maybe or perhaps it simply solidified what we had covered in the Globe to Flat Map Project.  Regardless, they did seem to really enjoy the sleight of mind trick we played on them today.  It was an a-ha moment for many of them.  It just goes to show you that any little thing you learn or experience can change your world or allow you to see the world through a completely different lense.

Posted in Class Discussion, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Reader's Workshop, Student Conferences, Teaching

Learning by Being a Role Model

My son is a huge sports nut.  Not only does he love playing all different types of sports, but he also enjoys watching and learning about them.  When the television in our house is turned on, it is usually tuned to ESPN.  He enjoys finding out how his favorite teams or players fared in games and competitions.  His love of sports generally keeps him quite active and in shape.  He’s also been trying to eat healthier foods too.  I think it’s great.  There is clearly a lot of good benefits that can come from this for him.  My only concern though is the role models he has.  It’s challenging to read the news headlines and not come across a story about an athlete making a bad choice or getting in trouble with the law.  These are some of the role models my son has, and frankly, I don’t like it one bit.  As a father, I make sure that I have conversations with my son about the mistakes athletes make and highlight the bad character they are demonstrating by making these poor decisions.  My hope is that my son will value the positive attributes of the athletes he admires and realize that the bad choices they make are not to be celebrated in anyway.

As a teacher, I am always striving to be a positive role model for my students.  In a world where we celebrate people doing dumb things or committing epic fails as my son often calls them, it’s important that our students and children have positive examples of how to live meaningful lives in a global society.  I make sure to greet my students daily and ask them how things are going.  I want them to see the importance in making genuine connections with others.  I also make sure to point out when I make mistakes, own them, apologize for them if need be, and then rectify the situation as I expect my students to do the same when indiscretions are made.  If I expect my students to hold themselves to high standards of behavior, then I need to make sure I am doing the same or better at all times.

Today during Humanities class, I had a chance to showcase a positive behavior that I would love to see my students embrace.  The funny thing is though that I didn’t mean for it to happen.  It was a bit of a happy accident.  As today was our first official day of classes since returning from the recent holiday break, my co-teacher and I wanted to ease the students back into the routine.  So, during Humanities class today, we had the boys participate in Reader’s Workshop, which they loved.  When one student came in and read the agenda for the period on the whiteboard, he exclaimed, “Yes!”  Our students love to read and talk about the books they’ve read.  It’s awesome.  After the students began reading, my co-teacher and I conferenced with each of the students.  Reading conferences are one of my favorite parts of the week as they provide me the ample opportunity to check-in with the students about life in general as well as what they’re reading.  I asked the boys about their vacation and they shared wonderful vignettes with me about the fun they had away from school.  These conversations give me one more way to connect with my students and form valuable relationships that I can use to help them grow and develop as thinkers, makers, mathematicians, and students.

As we did not have a read-aloud portion to our Reader’s Workshop block today due to the fact that we are waiting to start a new book until next week once we begin our new unit on Africa, I had more than enough time to meet with my group of students.  In fact, I had about 20 minutes of class time remaining after I finished my last student conference.  To be a good role model for my boys, I picked up my current reading book and spent the final chunk of class time reading.  As I was reading, I realized that I was learning a new strategy for helping ESL students in my classroom.  In addition to differentiating the visual text ELs are exposed to, I need to also make sure that I am deliberate and thoughtful when delivering messages and information to my students orally.  I find that I sometimes use difficult vocabulary terms, complex sentences, and much figurative language when talking to my students as a way to challenge them to think critically.  For my ESL students, this is useless as they are only able to understand about 10% of what I’m saying.  I need to be sure I use gestures, visual cues, and clearly define new vocabulary words I use when speaking to the class.  While this seems like common sense, it hadn’t dawned on me to try this.  As one of my professional goals for the year is to learn how to better help and support my ESL students, this seemed like a valuable knowledge nugget.  But, what shall I do with this information, I thought to myself.  Store it in my brain and utilize it in the classroom?  Well, that makes sense.  Wait a minute, I thought.  What if I share what I learned from reading my book today in class with the students as a way to inspire them to perhaps share what they learned while reading today?  What a brilliant idea.  I never cease to amaze even myself.  So, for my class closing today, I shared the chunk of information I learned from my book before asking the students to share what they learned from their book today.  Three volunteers shared some very interesting and stimulating knowledge nuggets.  One student who is reading a book about how video games impact our society shared a statistic he read about today that surprised him.  Another student shared a philosophical quote that he had synthesized from his book.  The final volunteer shared an inspirational quote that he had gleaned from his reading book.  It was amazing.  My closing remarks focused on how books provide us with so many opportunities, from entertaining to learning.  My hope is that my students see the value in reading and all that being an active and voracious reader can teach them.

So, while my plan at the start of the period did not include ending class with a discussion on what books can teach us, because I made use of a growth mindset, was open to new ideas, and jump at the opportunity to be a role model for my students, I was able to leave my students thinking and wondering about what they learned from their book today.  What can books teach us?  How do books impact us?  How does what we read shape us?  Because I went with the flow of the class today, I was able to shed some new light on the importance of books and reading.  Sometimes, the best planned lessons and activities end up being disasters and sometimes, the impromptu discussions and lessons that evolve during class end up being the most fruitful and valuable.  Being a curious role model allowed me to help guide my students on their wonderful journey towards understanding and growth.