My Summer Professional Development Plan in Reverse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How My Students Helped Put Things into Perspective for Me

The word perspective is very much like a Transformer.  Yes, I mean those really cool robots in disguise.  What does a word have to do with a toy, you’re probably asking yourself.  My simile is much more figurative in nature than literal, of course.  Although words can have alternative meanings when used in particular situations, their spelling or phonetic composition doesn’t change.  So, here’s where I’m going with this comparison…  While artists view the word perspective one way, teachers of the humanities look at it through a very different lens; however, the nucleus or core meaning stays the same, much like Transformers.  Optimus Prime was a compassionate and kind being in robot and vehicle form.

Whether we’re using the word perspective to discuss the vantage point of a piece of art or how one views the world, it comes down to view point and how one is looking at something.  My view of the world most likely greatly differs with how you all see the world around us and happenings within it.  The same is true of artists, how one painter chooses to create an image for the viewer will be different than how another artist approaches the same task.  Perspective is open to interpretation.  It’s a personal word.  While it’s something we all posses regarding many different topics, it’s different for each person.  Our experiences, history, culture, and language all shape our perspective of the world in many different ways.  Despite these differences though, just like Bumblebee, we all jump into each new adventure life throws at us armed with our perspective, and charismatic wit.

In my Humanities class, Saturdays are devoted to discussing current events in our world.  As our students are the future of our world, it’s important that they are equipped with all of the necessary knowledge to move our world forward and live meaningful lives in a global society.  In order to make decisions in the future, our students need to understand their past and what led to the current state of affairs.  Learning about what’s going on in the world outside of the walls of our school not only broadens our students’ perspective, but it is vital to the success of our students and our world.  If the future leaders of our globe don’t understand how the leaders of North and South Korea came together for a common good, then they may not know how to approach a situation involving the countries or solve problems plaguing that region of the world.  Therefore, I make sure to educate and inform my students about major news events happening around the world.  Although I only give them the Twitter-ized summaries of news stories, I help to foster fruitful discourse amongst my students so that they learn how to view the world through a critical eye in order to solve problems creatively.  I provide my students with the facts and then let them analyze and infer.  What does all of this mean?  How is this story news and relevant to the world?  What can be done to address or solve this problem?  How does this story impact and affect me now and in the future?  To be sure that my students will indeed live meaningful and compassionate lives in our world, it’s important for them to see the world through many different lenses.  They need to see all sides of a story, fact, or current event in order to make informed decisions or draw appropriate conclusions.  I want my students to be like the word perspective itself, adaptable and flexible for every situation, much like a Transformer.

Yesterday during our current events discussion in my Humanities class, we talked a bit about the interesting and provocative quote recently uttered by the musician and artist Kayne West.  “When you hear about slavery for 400 years … for 400 years?” he said. “That sounds like a choice.”  I tried to frame the crux of his statement in a way that would allow my students to draw their own conclusions.  I never want to paint my students into thinking one way or another.  I try to create an open dialogue, free of bias and my own opinions.  So, I didn’t tell my students what I thought about his words, but instead, tried to inspire them to think about them.  Was slavery a choice for black people in America?  Why might Mr. West think that?  As we dug into this story for a brief moment, an international student in my class from Europe asked, “What is slavery?”  So, I used ESL-friendly language to describe what the term means, for this student.  He got it, from my explanation.

This reminded me of what I’ve noticed over the years teaching students from numerous different countries around the globe: They don’t know about slavery because it didn’t happen where they are from.  While all countries have their own sordid stories and histories of how they came to be, most countries in Asia and Europe didn’t experience this same kind of racial slavery and degradation.  The first time I realized that this big, important chunk of American history is so foreign to outsiders, I was perplexed.  How can they not know about something as big as slavery?  Slowly, I started to see that it wasn’t that they didn’t know about it, they just couldn’t wrap their minds around it.  It didn’t make sense to them.  Why would one race of people enslave and mistreat, for so many years, another race of people?  This kind of horrible abuse didn’t necessarily happen in these other countries, or at least not in a racial manner.  They couldn’t fathom how America and its people could allow for such atrocities to take place.  The country was founded by people who fled their former homes in search of freedom, peace, and fairness.  So, why were those same people robbing other humans of their freedom, peace, and fairness because of the color of their skin?  It just doesn’t make sense to many people from other countries learning about American history.  This epiphany helped to open my eyes to a whole new perspective and view on the world.  Just because I understand and know something, doesn’t mean that everyone else has that same perspective.  My viewpoint on the world is very different from that of someone from a different country.  Knowing this, has allowed me to approach the teaching of big events in a more open, broad manner.  Rather than spewing out facts to the students, I pose questions and try to generate empathy for the people involved.  Teaching about slavery is not an easy undertaking for any teacher, but is one that can be interesting to teach to people not from America.

So, once again, my students helped me to broaden my perspective and see the world in a more open and real way.  Nothing should ever be taken for granted, especially facts or the rights afforded to all human beings, regardless of the color of their skin, religious preference, or any other difference that makes someone special and unique.  My students reminded me of this once again in class yesterday.  I often wonder who the teacher in the classroom truly is, me or my students.

Understanding that Students Learn in Many Different Ways

I am very much a haptic, hands-on learner.  I need to try out something in order to learn it.  I don’t process information auditorily very well at all, unless I write it down.  I need to be doing in order to learn.  I know that about myself as a learner and student.  I don’t learn well by watching others perform a task.  I need to take each new skill out for a test ride before I can add it to my repertoire of skills learned.  That’s how I learn best, but it’s not how everyone learns best.  What helps me learn may actually hinder other people from learning, as everyone learns differently.  What works for one student or person, may not work for someone else.  These differences are what make the world go ’round.  Imagine a world in which everyone learned the same way.  How boring would that be?  I love the challenge of finding just the right way to empower students to become effective learners and students.  This aspect of teaching and education is like putting together a puzzle.  Until you actually study what the puzzle should look in its finished state, you will never be able to see how the pieces fit together.  Supporting students to find out how they learn best requires the same process.  You need to really know the students before you can help them determine what method of learning will best support them.  Understanding that students learn in many different ways is crucial to being an effective and great teacher.

Today’s Humanities class provided me with yet another example of how important it is to really know and understand my students before drawing conclusions or making hypotheses about their ability to meet or exceed the learning objectives.  Despite our best intentions, sometimes, even teachers make mistakes.  Thus was the case for me in the sixth grade classroom today.  While I thought I had the full picture regarding a student’s capabilities, I was mistaken.  I made a mental judgement call about a student’s ability to meet a learning objective before I truly had the whole story.  Like some of my students, I utilized only one, single story to form my opinion.  Although I teach my students about the danger of a single story or viewing through world through only one lense or perspective, I did just that in class today.  Time for me to eat some humble pie and swallow it down with a dose of my own medicine.

In class today, we read and discussed the play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose.  The students read their parts aloud, acting their their lines at points.  It was super fun.  They seemed to be thoroughly engaged throughout the class.  I paused, periodically, throughout the reading to discuss some big ideas, as I want to prepare my students to be able to analyze literature using a critical and creative perspective.  We talked about how the eighth juror is beginning to transform and unravel a bit.  We also spoke about what the words we read tell us about the story and characters.  How can one word say so much?  We dug into that idea a bit today in class.  It was quite exciting.  Towards the end of class, I provided the students with the opportunity to add notes to their worksheet packet on the twelve jurors from the play.  I had volunteers share what they had written in their packets regarding some of the jurors, while other students added details and thoughts to their packets.  Most everyone jumped at the opportunity to be able to work towards exceeding the graded objective of analyzing literature.  As the students worked, I observed.  I looked at what they had written in their packets.  One student had very little written in his packet regarding the jury members.  Even after listening to our discussion on personality traits we know about each member of the jury, he didn’t seem to add much to his packet.  This concerned me.  Does he know what’s going on?  Is he able to analyze the play?  Will he be prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English?  I started to wonder about this student’s ability to think critically.  I wasn’t sure, in the moment, if he could meet this objective.  What do I do?

As I began forming an opinion about this student’s ability to meet a graded objective, the students completed an Exit Ticket assessment on a big idea.  The students needed to explain what the eighth juror is trying to prove to the other members of the jury and why he is doing that.  Following class, I read through the assessments.  Every student seemed to be able to at least meet the objective of being able to analyze a text in written form.  This provided me with much relief, as I was concerned about a few other students during class as well.  I then happened upon this one, particular student’s Exit Ticket, remembering the hypothesis I had made regarding his inability to analyze literature.  Boy, was I wrong.  His response was thorough and detailed and included an example to support his claim.  Wow!  So, even though this student isn’t completely adept at taking detailed notes in a worksheet packet during a class discussion, he is able to think critically about a text when there are no distractions in the room.  What I thought was the truth, turned out to be a misguided and uninformed falsity about this one student.  Just because this student, currently, lacks the executive functioning skills to listen to a discussion and record notes, in his own words, doesn’t mean that he is incapable of analyzing literature on his own, without distractions.  Instead of drawing conclusions about this student, I should have taken the time to genuinely analyze his actions and abilities.

To develop a culture of transparency and honesty amongst my students, I like to model good behavior.  So, after classes today, I met with this student and shared my inaccurate assessment of his ability to analyze literature.  I apologized for my biased opinion, even though it was completely internal and never shared aloud with anyone.  I want him to see how actions do sometimes influence our thoughts and lead to opinions being formed.  He listened and seemed to understand how my false opinion formed.  He then shared with me that it is difficult for him to take notes during class with so many distractions.  He is going to add to his notes packet for homework tonight.  Not only did I have a chance to share my thoughts with this student, but he was also able to shed some light on why his packet seemed so vacant.

Reflection allows for amazing things to happen.  If I hadn’t stopped to think about this one student and the opinions I was forming of his academic abilities, I never would have thought to speak with him about the issue that led me to think falsely of him.  Reflection is a powerful tool, and one that not enough people wield.  Imagine how much greater the world could be, if everyone took five to ten minutes at the end of each day to reflect and think about the pluses and minuses of their daily experiences.  The crime rate might drop, the divorce rate could dip, and the happiness factor would increase exponentially.  That sounds like a pretty awesome world in which I would love to live.  So, help me out world, and start reflecting today so that tomorrow we will be happy.

 

How Can We Help Our Students Think Beyond Themselves?

According to the great psychologist Jean Piaget, students begin to move from the concrete operational stage of cognitive development to the formal operational stage at around age 12, which is the average age of most of the sixth graders in my class.  While most of my students have begun to make the leap from thinking concretely to thinking abstractly at this point in the year, I do have one student in my class who is very stuck or fixed in the concrete and egotistical stage of development.  He struggles to process information that utilizes high-order thinking skills, and he needs to have questions posed to him in a very simplistic manner. He has no documented learning challenges that seem to explain what is causing him to be unable to mature mentally.  These struggles also prevent him from seeing the world outside of himself.  He is almost always focused on himself.  He doesn’t understand why I call on other students to share their insight with the group during class discussions.  “Why didn’t you call on me?” he often asks me after class.  While I haven’t formally gathered any data on this, I do feel as though I call on him as frequently as every other student.  When I do call on him, he doesn’t simply answer the question so that I can then call on others, he takes over the conversation and talks for long periods of time, sometimes saying the same thing over and over again, using different words.  These instances tend to sway the conversation off track a bit, causing a loss of momentum.  While I want to help support this student, I also need to support and challenge the rest of the students in my class as well.  How do I help him move from the concrete and egotistical to the more abstract and unselfish?  How do I help him see the world beyond himself?

Today provided me with one more example of the struggles this student is facing.  At the close of class he came to me and asked, “Why didn’t you call on me during our discussion on the power of words?”  As I tried to explain to him how I wanted to hear from other students and that he had started our discussion prior to Morning Break, he kept talking about how I didn’t call on him.  As he spoke, I tried to think about how I could tell him, tactfully, that the world doesn’t revolve around him.  I closed the conversation by asking him if it should make a difference or matter if I call on him or not.  As he was so stuck in thinking of himself and how he was feeling in the moment, he was unable to process anything I said.  So then, how can I help him see the power in being compassionate and listening to his peers?  How can I help him learn to be kind and grateful for what others have to say?  As I thought about these questions, I entered his daily effort grade into our Learning Management System, adding a comment, “Nice work raising your hand during class discussions even if you weren’t called upon when you felt as if you should have been.   I want you to work on caring more about what others have to say than what you have to say, as that will help you develop a strong sense of compassion and gratitude.”  I hope he reads this comment and takes it to heart.

My next move is to meet with him privately at some point in the next few days to follow-up on his question to me and my comment.  I want him to see that he needs to stop thinking soley of himself and appreciate all that life has to offer.  With that being said, I truly have no idea how I’m going to do that.  I’m feeling a bit lost on how to help him.  He is the only student in my class who hasn’t made great academic and social and emotional progress over the course of the year.  Why is that and how do I help him moving forward?  I’m, of course, not going to give up on him, but I’m struggling on how to best support him so that he is socially prepared for seventh grade.  I worry that if he goes into the seventh grade with his current selfish behavior and line of thinking, his peers will exclude and alienate him.  What else could or should I be doing to help him?  I have been working closely with his advisor to keep the family informed of issues happening as well; however, since there is a lot going on in their family currently, it is difficult for his parents to really work with him on these behavioral issues.

As I pondered what else I could do to support and help this student, an idea came to me.  What if instead of having him raise his hand and try to get involved in the conversation to show great effort, I have him record positive noticings and words of gratitude and praise for what his peers have to say during class.  His daily effort grade could come from how well he listens and records praise and feedback for his fellow classmates.  This would, hopefully, begin to make him self-aware of what others are saying during class.  He would have to step outside of his comfort zone and just listen.  Ohh, I like this idea.  Perhaps it will help and be a good next step in helping him learn to be compassionate and selfless.  It’s worth a try.  Let’s see how it goes.

Getting Students to Think like Members of a Jury

Several years ago, I was called for jury duty.  At first I tried to get out of it because I didn’t want to miss time in the classroom with my students, but then I realized that I could use my experience on the jury in our mini-unit on 12 Angry Men.  I could share a real-life experience with my students to help them understand what goes on in a jury room while also getting them to understand the motivation of the eighth juror in the play.  So, I did it.  I was selected to hear a criminal case regarding domestic abuse charges involving adopted children.  Being the father of an adopted son, this case hit home for me.  While I did not allow my prior knowledge, emotions, and biases to cloud my judgment, I did use my background to better understand the case, the facts, and the law that was supposedly broken.  I listened carefully to the facts presented by both sides.  When the jury deliberated, we all agreed that the prosecution did not provide enough evidence to show that any abuse had taken place.  Although the mother of the children emotionally explained her side of the story, there was very little evidence to support it.  Without proof, we could not rule in favor of the plaintiff in this case.  We, as the jury, came back with a “not guilty” verdict based solely on the facts.  While it was hard to listen to the various pieces of testimony in this case, the facts drove our decision.  As a member of the jury, I had to keep an open mind and make my final vote because of what the facts and the laws told me.  It was not an easy case in which to be a part of, but I did my civic duty to the best of my ability based on what was right and just as well as the facts presented.

Freeing one’s mind of bias and possibly inaccurate prior knowledge can be quite difficult, but it is the only way to approach jury duty.  It’s also a great way to broaden one’s perspective when learning new things.  However, it’s also important not to forget what’s right and just as well.  While the facts are the facts and the law is the law, not all laws are right and just.  Helping my students see this fact as they develop a growth mindset in the classroom is crucial.  I try, each and every day, to remind my students of this very fact.  I want them to understand how important it is to look at the facts but to not forget about analyzing the equity of the facts and laws involved when learning new information and developing as a student, person, and thinker.  I want them to question everything.  It’s been especially important as we’ve been digging into the play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose.  I want the students to be able to understand the motivation of the eighth juror.  Why did he do what he did?  Why did he choose to stand alone in a room filled with 11 other men who all seemed to disagree with him?  Why did he take the time to explain his point of view and perspective to a generally close-minded group of individuals?  I want my students to see why Reginald Rose crafted this character the way he did.  The eighth juror calmly reviewed the facts of the case presented by both sides and helped the other jurors see the truth through the veil of their biases.  It is not an easy job for any of the men in the room, especially the eighth juror who has to deal with jurors yelling at him and accusing him of various things.  However, change comes about because of the facts of the case and the courage involved in helping others to see what is right and just.

To help my students practice this same skill employed by members of a jury, I found a current event involving a court case to discuss in class.  The case I used involved the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Native American groups trying to prevent it from going through their land.  As we had already introduced this topic to the boys back in December, they had prior knowledge of the case.  To begin our discussion, I had the students review what the issue was all about.  I then had the students state their opinion and thoughts on the issue.  Which side is “right?”  We then discussed the court case that is still awaiting a final verdict from the judge.  I had the students ask clarifying questions and share their thoughts on the case.  Following this short discussion, I then explained to the students that in order to discuss this current event and the case like members of a jury, they need to free themselves of their judgements and preconceived notions.  They need to look solely at the facts of the case.  So, I handed the students a written explanation of the Trust Responsibility principle used by the Supreme Court to handle issues involving Native American groups and their dealings with the United States of America.  We looked at the part that explained how most tribal land is still controlled by the American government despite the fact that the native groups have sovereignty within the boundaries of the reservations.  I explained to the students how the judge in the case might be using this portion of the principle to make his final decision in the case, which is due this coming week.  While the students seemed to understand the law and what it stated, they were outraged by it.  “The Native Americans were here first.  They are the only true Americans.  We are all immigrants and Europeans.  Why are we controlling their land?  How is that fair?” one student asked.  Another student responded, “This law is unjust and not right.  Why does it seem that nobody cares about this issue?”  My students were angry, like the men in our play.  They were upset with the facts of the case.  We had an amazing discussion.  The students were using examples from history to support their claims as they discussed this case and the issue at hand.  I was so impressed with how insightful and compassionate my students were being.  Even though they understood the law and know that the judge has to rule with the law in mind, they were discussing the facts of the case and how unjust this whole case seems.  I closed this discussion by praising the students for their phenomenal critical thinking.  I told them, “One of the main reasons we discuss current events like this is to make you angry while also empowering you to want to make a difference.  We want you to see how unjust some things in this world can be so that you will want to bring about change within the world.  Perhaps one of you will go onto become a lawyer and fight for the people like these Native American groups who can’t always fight for themselves.”  The students seemed enthralled and motivated.  I can’t wait to see how they change the world in the coming years.

Getting my students to think like members of a jury while also getting them riled up helped them to understand the web Reginald Rose created in his play.  I wanted them to see how difficult it can be to “see” the facts through the haze of issues, biases, and fairness.  What is right isn’t always the law and what is the law isn’t always just.  I want my students to see and understand this concept as we work through this amazing piece of literature created during a turbulent time in American history, just as we seem to be living during another tumultuous time in our country’s history.  Being able to think like a juror while not forgetting everything else is the key to developing a true growth mindset and becoming a changemaker in our world.

When You’re in Need of a Wake Up Call, Just Stop and Reflect

Sometimes my ego is too big for my body.  While I feel as though I am an effective educator, I am far from perfect.  I do like to toot my own horn, a lot.  Just ask my wife.  She is forced to listen to my rants on teaching and schools on a daily basis.  “Our public school system is broken and until our society values teachers and treats them with the respect they deserve, nothing is going to change,” I often say.  I’m not sure how she puts up with my craziness.  I am truly blessed.  Before I get too far off track, let me get back to my focus.  So, while I do like to constantly grow and develop as a teacher, sometimes, I get a bit hung up on the little things and allow them to cloud my judgement.

Today played host to one of those negative moments.  While my students were in Art class this morning, I took the quiet time to read the current issue of AMLE Magazine.  I’m a huge fan of this publication, and not just because I once had an article published in it, but because it is filled with insightful articles about teaching and education.  So, I was pumped to crack open this brand new issue as I was excited by the headline on the front cover, “Feedback for Students, by Students.”  As I’m going to be presenting at the upcoming NELMS Conference in Providence, RI at the end of March on the topic of teacher and student feedback, I’m always looking for new perspectives on this subject.  Are there other ways to incorporate feedback into the classroom?  As I read through the article, I started growing enraged.  This article is talked about using student input to make class rules, having students peer edit each other’s work, and the power of group work.  This is old news, I thought to myself.  Actually, I think I said that part out loud in my empty classroom.  Why are they printing old news and ideas as something new?  These are basic Ed 101 concepts that all great teachers already know and apply in their classrooms.  Why did they waste the space on this article?  Effective teachers are already doing this.  I want something more.

As I started feeling the anger bubble up within me, I started to realize that not all teachers are or were trained in the same way as I was.  Perhaps some teachers were never informed of the concepts of building a community in the classroom by fostering a sense of communication and respect amongst the students.  Maybe some new teachers haven’t yet heard these ideas and will read this article, inspired to bring about changes in their classroom.  Or, maybe a few veteran teachers who forgot some of the brilliant ideas they once learned in college will happen upon this article and recall how important fostering a sense of family and community within the classroom is to creating strong, compassionate relationships amongst the students.  So, while I got so caught up in my own ego and was blind to all other perspectives regarding this wonderfully written article, I realized the importance of being humble and grateful for the skills I do have.  I shouldn’t look down upon articles or ideas discussing teaching practices of which I may already be aware.  Instead, I need to think of ways I can help others learn from these ideas, because, even though I may already be well-versed in utilizing student feedback in the classroom, other teachers may not be.  I can facilitate discussions with colleagues or present at teaching conferences on such topics.  I can be a catalyst of change by inspiring others to take risks in their classroom, like I once did.  I used to be so afraid of giving up control.  I thought a good classroom was one that was run by the teacher.  Students can’t handle directing their own learning or making decisions.  I needed to have the courage to try something new in order to realize how valuable creating a student-centered classroom is to the success of my students.  My students grow and develop throughout the year because they feel trusted, supported, and challenged.  They learn to solve problems by failing and finding new solutions.  It took me reading a very similar article many years ago on this same topic to realize that I needed to bring about change in my teaching.  Perhaps other educators around the country will read this article and feel the same way I once did.  I just needed to change my perspective a bit.

I am far from perfect and so thinking that I am all that and a cup of tea is only going to prevent me from continuing to grow and develop while helping other teachers grow and mature.  Today, I received a wake-up call from myself.  Thinking negatively about teaching and other teachers only breeds more negativity.  Although I don’t know everything about teaching, I do know quite a lot about effective teaching practices.  I could use what I do know to teach other educators to help them grow and develop.  The power of using a growth mindset in all avenues of life helps foster a sense of self-awareness and understanding.  I just needed to deflate my ego a little bit so that it could fit into this seat and allow me to ponder my teaching and open my perspective for today’s entry.  Sometimes, it just takes a little reflection and a lot of honesty to admit when mistakes are made.  The most effective learning comes through failure and mistakes.  Even though I used a fixed mindset filled with negativity this morning when reading an article on using student feedback in the classroom, because I take time every day to stop, reflect, and learn from my mistakes in this very blog, I was able to broaden my narrow perspective.  Yah for reflection and the AMLE Magazine!

Should We Explore Mature Themes in the Classroom?

I remember, vividly, as if it were yesterday, when my parents received the letter home from my elementary school explaining how we would be learning about sex and puberty in our fifth grade health class.  I was mortified because then my parents started talking to me about it.  The last person one wants to talk to about sex is their parents.  It’s super awkward.  Then came the actual sex education class.  The boys were separated from the girls and put into different rooms.  The girls apparently talked about girl stuff and the boys learned all about boy stuff.  So, the boys watched this very old and incredibly boring filmstrip; yes, I said filmstrip.  I’m old, well not really.  I’m older than some people on Earth, but as my grandmother liked to remind me, age is just a number; it’s all about attitude.  So, I feel like a 23 year old.  Before I digress too far from my actual point, I should get back on track.  So, we watched this awful filmstrip that showed cartoonish diagrams of male genitalia.  While it was very awkward to watch this and talk about our changing bodies, it was also quite hilarious.  My friends and I couldn’t stop laughing and giggling.  For some reason, boys find talking about male genitalia the funniest thing since the invention of toilets.  Although we talked about a somewhat mature theme in school, it was much more of a laughing matter than something to take seriously.  Not until high school, did my teachers have us explore more mature themes in a serious manner as they knew we would not be able to handle talking about more “adult” issues in the earlier grades.

But, was that right?  I wonder if some mature themes should be discussed in the younger grades so as to expose our students to life in a global society.  Life is filled with both good and bad experiences.  Fortunately, not all people have experienced everything life has to offer and so learning about unfamiliar yet important life occurrences is crucial.  People need to learn more than one story or side of a topic in order to completely understand it in an open-minded manner.  Allowing students to explore mature topics in the middle grades is important if we want our students to have a broad perspective when they enter high school.  Being exposed to topics and ideas regarding all facets of life including the good and bad parts, helps students be open to new information and ideas and not encounter new topics with a fixed mindset filled with biases.

Today in Humanities class, we discussed the country of South Sudan and an issue plaguing that region of the entire continent of Africa: Children being taken or kidnapped and forced into being child soldiers.  I want the students to understand that not all topics we’ll be discussing in our unit on Africa impact only the adults.  Some issues affecting Africa impact people their age or younger.  My hope was to broaden their perspective on the world.  I was also very careful to mention that this is an issue for not just Africa, but all parts of the world.  Children are taken from their families and homes and forced to do things against their will.  While at first, a few of the students struggled to take this discussion and lesson seriously, after reminding them of the fact that this is a mature issue and we need to treat it as such, they were much more focused and mature about it.  After introducing the concept of what it means to be a child soldier and how it is allowed to happen in some parts of South Sudan, we viewed a short news clip about a boy who had been taken from his village and forced to be a soldier.  This video showed, first-hand, what these children have to endure.  It is difficult to watch as it conjures up all sorts of emotions.  Viewers are filled with disgust, anger, sadness, and shock.  Following this video, we debriefed the concept on a more tangible level as the students now had images to put to the facts I had provided them with.  This discussion then lead into a writing activity in which the students needed to imagine that they are a child forced into being a soldier.  What would that experience be and feel like?  While this is a difficult task as it requires students to be empathetic and address serious and real emotions, it is also a great way for the students to apply the skills we’ve been working on all year in Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop.  Although the students definitely had strong emotions about this issue and topic, they seemed to understand the gravity of it as well.  My hope is that it will enable them to more easily learn other issues and topics impacting our world that may not be so easy to comprehend or understand.  A subgoal for this lesson is that learning about this difficult topic will empower my students to want to make a difference to change the world.  Seeing this adversity and indifference, I hope, will inspire them to want to do something about it as they see how awful it is for all people involved.  Helping the boys learn to be empathetic and compassionate at a young age will hopefully allow them to develop into thoughtful and active members of our global community.  We need more changemakers in this world.  Helping my students see the awfulness that exists everywhere, will hopefully motivate them to stand up for their beliefs and make the world a better place for all citizens.

So, while it is challenging to discuss mature themes and issues with students, it’s vital to their social-emotional growth and development.  We want to help our students grow into compassionate and empathetic adults.  Getting students to understand how to discuss and talk about mature and “adult” themes and topics is only better preparing them for the real world.  We can’t shade our students from the brightness of real life forever.  Life is full of both beauty and horror.  Preventing our students from learning the whole story about a topic, issue, or idea will only help them further develop biases and be unprepared for the global society in which they will be living as adults.

Should We Still Be Teaching Cartography to our Students?

Many years ago, in schools around the world, students learned about how maps are made, various map parts, how to read a map, and how to draw maps.  Teachers spent weeks teaching their students all about cartography as they would need to one day learn how to navigate around the world using maps and atlases.  It was a vital skill once upon a time.  Then technology revolutionized maps and cartography and rendered paper maps and atlases almost absolute.  People use their phones and GPS units to navigate the world.  If someone wants to find out how to travel from here to Boston, MA, they whip out their phone and an app tells them exactly what to do.  People rarely use paper maps anymore because of these technological changes.  So, I’m forced to wonder if teaching students about maps and mapping is necessary.  Should we spend time teaching students all about cartography or skip it?  Is cartography still an important life skill?

In the sixth grade Humanities class, we teach a short unit on mapping and cartography under the guise of teaching students about the idea of perspective.  While we focus on how inaccurate flat maps are, we do cover map parts and atlas use.  We want the students to understand how GPS systems work and how they locate specific places on Earth.  To do this, we teach the students about lines of latitude and longitude and map projections.  However, our main focus is on helping students learn to interpret the world around them.  We want the students to understand the idea of perspective, how their perspective is greatly influenced by their prior knowledge, and how sometimes, what they learned about a topic may be inaccurate.  We want to help our students broaden their perspective about the world around them.  We want to squash stereotypical views our students have about various topics or parts of the world.  We want to challenge our students to utilize a growth mindset when learning new material or a different way of looking at something they already know.  Teaching students how inaccurate flat maps are, is one easy way to introduce the concept of perspective before we dig into our first culture and region study.  Although we know that students will most likely never use maps or atlases again in their lives, they will need to be aware of their perspective and how it can skew how they learn new material or view the world.  Mapping and cartography is the vehicle we use to teach our students about perspective.  So, while many students no longer learn about maps and cartography in school anymore, our sixth grade students learn all about maps as they pertain to perspective.  It puts the idea of how they view the world on a level they can understand, using maps as a tangible symbol.

Is there another way we could teach our students about the idea of perspective and how important it is to be aware of how their perspective forms and changes?  Do we still need to teach students about atlases and map parts or should we stick to just teaching students about how inaccurate flat maps are?  What really matters to our students?  What will help them live meaningful lives in a global society?  Mapping, being able to read a map, and understanding cartography will probably not help our students live more effective lives after school.  So, do we drop the mapping portion of our perspective unit or keep it for next year?  What makes the most sense?

David Walbert, author of many articles on helping teachers learn how to teach various historical concepts, tells us that being able to effectively read maps is a crucial step in helping students develop their visual literacy skills.  Students need to learn how to “read” and interpret pictures, diagrams, and images they are constantly bombarded with.  Much learning comes from pictures, and so, if students don’t know how to properly intake information visually, they will miss a lot of learning opportunities facing them daily.  Teaching students how to interpret, read, and analyze maps is the first step in helping students develop their visual literacy skills.  So, while it may no longer be necessary to teach a full, lengthy unit on mapping and cartography, teaching the basics of map reading is still needed to help our students learn and grow.

Helping Students Think Critically About Global Issues

I remember being passionate about certain issues when I was in high school.  I used to read the local newspaper in my town, The Valley News, each morning before heading off to school.  While it wasn’t the world’s best publication by any means, it gave me fodder for thinking.  It allowed me to stay current with what was happening around the world, and it also helped me to think critically about important issues that matter to all people.  It was during this time that I took an interest in politics and the government.  I started forming opinions on certain issues that were being debated in Congress.  It felt good to stay informed and educated.  I felt like I knew what was going on.  Knowledge is power, after all.  It felt good to be in the know as well as to ponder meaningful ideas such as our two-party system and partisanship.  Sometimes I wondered how much more productive our country’s government would be if we eradicated our two-party system and went to a multi-party system that was more about the issues than a set of predetermined characteristics.  Being informed on current events and having the ability to think critically about the information is not only fun but vital to my role as an effective global citizen.

To help my students learn to live meaningful lives in a global society, we discuss current events on a weekly basis.  I challenge my students to stay abreast with what’s happening around the world during the week so that they can ace the New York Time’s weekly news quiz we compete in class each Saturday.  Some of the questions asked are quite challenging, but inevitably, each and every week, a few of the boys know the answers as they followed the news throughout the week.  That is always so exciting.  However, my favorite part of our current events activity is the class discussion.  I love allowing the students to debate and argue a guiding question based on a recent news event.  Last week, we discussed the legality and ethics of taking voting booth selfies.  The students were so engaged in the discussion that it was sad to have to end it when class came to a close.  They all had such insightful thoughts and opinions on the topic.

Another way I’ve been able to help my students think critically about issues that should matter to them as students and citizens, is through our current Humanities unit on the American Presidential Election Process.  Not only are we discussing the current state of affairs in our country regarding a pivotal moment in history, we are also engaging in a discussion of our world and how it works.  What matters to us as people?  What big ideas should we care about and why?  I want to empower my students to care about the world around them so that they want to bring about change and make a difference for the betterment of society.  I tell them time and time again my favorite Ani Difranco quote, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”  I want them to have heated debates in class regarding important issues and topics.

Today in class, we began an activity in which they started learning about major election issues including gun control, the refugee crisis, and healthcare.  The boys chose a topic of interest to them and started reading articles regarding their self-chosen topic on the wonderful website Newsela.  As they read an article, they completed a Guiding Questions worksheet to help them identify the main idea of the article while also reflecting on how their perspective is changing regarding the issue.  The students seemed quite enthralled by this activity.  They were engaged in the articles and had some phenomenally insightful responses on their worksheets.  As I observed the students working today, I paused to ask them follow-up questions regarding what they were learning.  Why should people under the age of 18 not be allowed to handle or use guns?  Why are foster kids not allowed to keep their medicaid coverage if they move to a different state?  Why is the Afghanistan conflict bad for our country?  I was amazed by how my students responded.  They thought critically about the questions I asked them and responded carefully and thoughtfully.  It was so much fun to discuss big issues and ideas with my students.  I felt like a professor in a college course.  My boys seemed to really care about what they were learning about.  For some of them, they were learning this new information for the first time. They were beginning to form opinions and thoughts on global issues relevant to all people.  They were curious and critical thinkers.  It was so much fun to watch them learn, question, grow, and think about the world around them as they journey towards becoming effective global citizens.

Helping students to think critically about vital issues and topics concerning all people is crucial in our world today.  If we want our students to go onto live meaningful lives in our world as leaders, then they need to understand how the world works and how major issues impact people.  Teaching our students to care about global and national issues should be a high priority for all educators.  While we want our students to understand current happenings in the world, we also want them to be able to think critically about them to formulate opinions and plans on how to address the issues.  Having students learn about and reflect on major issues impacting our world is one easy way to foster a sense of global curiosity within them.

The Power of Studying a Culture Through its Artwork

One of my favorite classes in college was an art history elective I took.  It was a general elective course on the history of art through the years.  It was a purely lecture-based course with an essay and written assessment at the end.  I loved it because of the way the professor presented the information.  He didn’t just tell us about each piece, he explained and analyzed the piece and what it told us about the culture and history of the people living in that time period.  One of my favorite knowledge nuggets from that class was regarding the Venus of Willendorf, a clay statue of a robust and large women.  At first glance, the piece seemed primitive to me as a naive college student.  Then as the professor explained how it was, back when it was sculpted, considered to be beautiful and showcased the epitome of beauty for women, I was hooked.  How could that be?  Magazines today show us overly skinny women as being beautiful.  How could a large women be considered the picture of beauty?  It turns out that the larger a woman was, the more childbearing-able she was.  The more offspring a woman could produce for her mate or husband, the better wife and person she was.  Child bearing hips and large proportions were what humans considered beautiful back then.  Boy, things sure have changed.  I found that to be so interesting.  It wasn’t just a strange statue of a large women, it was a beautiful sculpture that revealed a bit about the history of a civilization.  I thought that was so cool.  I loved his class.  He made art come alive.  I learned more about history and the people who lived it in that art history class than I learned in all of my history courses in college and high school.  Art brought history to life for me.

Today, in my Humanities class, I taught a lesson on the art of the Middle East Region.  I began the discussion with a question: What purpose does art serve and what does it tell us about a civilization?  I wanted the students to understand the purpose of today’s lesson and discussion.  I also wanted to help them see art as more than just art, but history.  I then shared various pieces of Islamic art with the students.  We discussed features of art from that region of the world.  I pointed out the intricacies in the various pieces as well as the fact that Islamic art is forbidden to showcase the human form as it goes against religious beliefs.  The students asked great questions and made insightful noticings and observations.  I was very impressed.  They were analyzing the art on a high level.  We weren’t just talking about paintings and rugs, we were examining the history and culture of a region.  Middle Eastern art wasn’t made to be ornate or intricate just because, it served a religious purpose.  The artists from this region made art as a way to celebrate their religion and beliefs.  The artists poured their heart, soul, and time into every piece.  These pieces also served a dual purpose though.  These pieces weren’t just art to be noticed or viewed, they were everyday objects like a beaker or rug.  The art of the Middle East region reveals much about the culture of the people and their rich and diverse history.  I pointed that out through questions and discussions.  The students seemed intrigued and wanted to learn more as we examined each piece.  They were engaged in the conversation.  It was quite an awesome class.

At one point, I was so enthralled in the discussion and questions the students were asking that I forgot that I was teaching a class.  It felt like more than that.  It felt like discourse or a college course.  I was professor Friedman telling my students all about the history of the Middle East region through the artwork the citizens created.  I was bringing art to life for my students today.  It felt great.  I was totally in the zone.  The boys also seemed very engaged.  I felt bad that I had to cut off questions at one point so that we could begin the hands-on activity portion of the lesson.  To me, I was educating my students on the art of the Middle East region; I was providing my students with a lense into the past of a region that is generally negatively portrayed in the media.  I was bringing stories to the pieces of history that couldn’t speak for themselves.  I was helping my students to see that Arabic writing is beautiful and breathtaking and not something to be scared of, as we discussed calligraphy from the region.

To help our students broaden their perspective of the world, we need to introduce them to new things in new ways.  Art isn’t just art, it is history and life.  Every piece of art, no matter where in the world it is from shares a story about the time period in which it was created, it tells us about the people who lived during that time.  It tells us the pain and beauty that existed in the world at the time in which it was made.  Art reveals the story of life in all it’s complexities and beauty.  And today, I got to provide my students with a deep look into a region that can sometimes be misinterpreted or misrepresented.  Today, I helped broaden the perspective of my students through the artwork of a place.