Seeing the Treasure in the Trash: Creating a Happy Little Social Studies Unit

High school was a time of discovery and exploration.  Don’t worry, I was a friendly explorer, unlike those wretched conquistadors that caused much suffering and death in the name of freedom and exploration.   I was a happy young man in search of new music, friends, movies, love, fun, and garbage.  Yes, that’s right, I was in search of garbage.  Not the band, oh no, not a fan.  I mean actual garbage that people toss away.  You see, it was in high school that I discovered that one person’s, or in this case one company’s, trash, can truly be someone else’s treasure.

Dumpster diving is the act of rummaging through other people’s garbage in search of that special something.  As there was not much to do in the small town of Lebanon, NH, late at night, my friends and I would scavenge through the dumpsters of various companies and organizations that had offices in our sleepy little town.  Although we usually left our nightly excursions with some small trinkets, we never found anything substantial or exciting, until that one night in late July.  There we were, at about midnight, in the middle of summer, literally jumping into this giant dumpster in search of something worthy of our time and effort.  When my friend pulled out a television remote, our excitement began to grow, as we all new what that meant: There was probably a television near by.  Sure enough, when I pivoted and looked behind me, a very large TV stuck out of the pile of battered electronics.  We shouted for joy, softly, so as to not call attention to ourselves in the middle of the night.  I then had one of my friends help me fish that television out of the dumpster and pack it into our car.  While my parents would freak out if I brought a large screen TV into the house, one of my friends ended up bringing it home.  The most interesting part of this whole vignette is that I never found out if he got the television working.  Perhaps it was a dud and deserved to live out its plastic existence in a landfill somewhere, or maybe, it did work.  I like believing that it was a working treasure, that all of our hard work paid off.  I like to think that good things can happen to good people.  To me, that glass will always be overflowing with clean and cold water.

Like my friends and I discovered in high school, if you look long and hard enough, you will find the treasure and beauty in everything, even something that resembles trash.  Luckily, I had the wonderful experience of doing just that, recently.

As one of my professional development summer goals is to revise and retool the social studies unit that I generally use at the start of each academic year, I decided to dig in and give it a shot.  Although I didn’t have a clear idea of exactly what I wanted the unit to look like when finished, I did have some foggy notions swirling about my beautiful brain.  I knew that I wanted to inject an engaging and fun project into the unit, but was unsure of what the journey to that point might look like; however, I forged ahead regardless.  My first iteration of the revised unit felt clunky and disconnected, like a broken television.  While I had added in the project I wanted to include, the unit felt more like a series of separate, unrelated lessons on different concepts or topics.  It lacked flow and life.  It felt like demo tape that a band releases before getting with a producer to craft a polished and brilliant debut album like Pearl Jam’s 10 or Coheed and Cambria’s The Second Stage Turbine Blade.  While it wasn’t yet the beautiful jewel that I had hoped for, it wasn’t simply trash.  The nucleus of its treasure was hidden deep within it, and I just needed to find it.  I needed to change my perspective so that I could transform this awkward unit into something more, something great and engaging.

So, I took a break from it.  I let the unit sit for a few moments and simmer.  I gathered my thoughts and started thinking about what comes next.  How could I alter this unit to make it more meaningful and relevant for my students?  While I see the value in teaching students about the community of which the school is a part, do I need to spend so much time discussing the concept of community?  Could I just jump right into teaching about the town?  How will I then connect the town to the rest of the country?  I did much thinking before I sat down with the unit one more time.  Then, I cut lessons, chopped discussions, added activities, and found a way to bring about cohesion to this unit.  I subtracted the clunkiness to get to the heart of the unit.  I want the students to see how the town of Hopkinton is connected to the state of New Hampshire, and how the state is a part of something even larger, greater.  And, I managed to do just that.

As our country is in the midst of epic turmoil, it is important to me that I empower my students to become agents of change.  I want them to be able to look at the problems facing our great nation and find solutions to them.  I want them to want to foster change within the world.  I want my students to be able to see how important the upcoming presidential election is for our country.  I want my students to be self-aware and know what is going on around our country and world.  I believe that this new unit is just the bridge I need to make my desires come to fruition in the coming school year.

I call this super unit Understanding our Country and it will be divided into three parts.  Part one will focus on the fundamentals of social studies.  The students will learn about what I’ve aptly called the Big Ideas when learning about a new place: Geography, History, Government, and Culture.  I will be sure they understand what each Big Idea represents and the importance it holds.  I will have the students practice applying these Big Ideas as they learn about our fine town.  Once I feel as though they have a firm grasp on these Big Ideas, they will complete an interactive research project on the US.  It is my hope that this project will engage the students and empower them to truly see our country for what it is, full of possibility and wonder.

Expedition USA Project


The most effective way to learn about a new place, is to travel to that place and explore it.  While, sadly, Mr. Johnson informed me that we cannot go on a cross-country field trip to explore the great United States of America, even if we wear fun masks and ride in separate train cars, we must do so virtually.  So, let the excellent, virtual, expedition begin!


The purpose of this project is two-fold: 

  • Learn more about the great country in which we live through some virtual exploration.
  • Practice crucial study skills including note taking, working with a partner, and using Google Maps.

Part I: Brainstorming

  1. Meet with your assigned partner
  2. Brainstorm ideas
    • Make a list of all the places in the US that you and your partner want to visit
      • You must choose at least 5 different locations around the US to virtually visit:
        • One must be somewhere near the East Coast, Atlantic Ocean
        • One must be somewhere near another country
        • One must be landlocked
        • One must be somewhere near the West Coast, Pacific Ocean
        • One must be a National Park

Part II: Research

  1. For each location you will be virtually visiting, gather online research and take notes on your findings

Part III: Google Maps

  1. Create a New Map in Google Maps that includes the following information:
    • Unique title for your expedition
    • Separate Marker for each location you will virtually visit
      • Details about what you will do while there, in your own words
      • Details about what you will learn while there, in your own words
      • Details about why you want to visit that location, in your own words
      • Picture from your virtual visit, with attribution
    • Lines showing how you traveled from BHS to each location and then back to BHS
      • Details about method of transportation, cost, and time it took
      • Kilometers traveled
      • Picture from your travels, with attribution

Part IV: Presentation

  1. Present your Google Map and expedition to the class

Graded Objectives

Your handwritten notes will be assessed on the following objectives:

  • Students will be able to extract the main idea from an online source in their own words.
  • Students will be able to craft neatly organized notes with separate headings for different sources or topics.

Your finished Google Map will be assessed on the following objectives:

  • Students will be able to paraphrase information learned, in written form, regarding a research topic.
  • Students will be able to utilize the Google Maps app to accomplish a task.

You and your partner will also be assessed on the following objective:

  • Students will be able to collaborate and work with a partner to accomplish a task.

I created this project with lots of wiggle room so that the students can and will ask questions.  I didn’t detail or mandate how the various stages of the project will be completed because I wanted to empower the students to choose.  I want the students to determine how some things are done.  I left the instructions a bit vague on purpose, so that they would be confused and want to ask questions and know more.  Students who are thinking and doing, are learning.

This project will conclude the first part of the unit.  The closing activity will have the students make a list of what they learned about the United States of America in completing this project.  I will again get them thinking in terms of the Big Ideas.  I will have them create a chart showing the Big Ideas that they’ve learned regarding our country.  My hope is that they will notice that they have learned very little about the government and history of the US, as parts two and three of the unit pertain to those Big Ideas.

Part two of the unit will focus on the American Government and will feel very much like a civics unit.  The students will explore the hows and whys of our governmental system.  We will then dig into the big election taking place in November of this year.  We will discuss the political parties in our country and learn about the candidates running for president.  My hope is that during this portion of the unit, the students will be inspired to ask many questions about why things are done a certain way in our country.  I want to provide them with just enough information, that they will want to know and learn more.  I want my students to be curious and wonder.  I want them to question things.  I want them to think freely.  I believe that this part of the unit will get them doing just that.

The final part of the unit will allow the students to learn more about the roots of our culture and history.  Who were the first true Americans?  Were there people living in what we now call the US prior to the Europeans setting foot on the new land?  In this third part of the unit, the students will learn about the native people who took care of and respected this land long before the colonists moved in and took over.  This portion of the unit will conclude with an interdisciplinary project in which the students will research a tribe of Native Americans and then craft a historical fiction story regarding that tribe.  My hope is that this final part of the unit will also inspire the students to ask questions and wonder why things happened the way they did in our country.  I hope that it will empower my students to ask why and also conjure up strong feelings and emotions within them.

I will close the entire unit by having the students fill in any gaps they may have in the Big Ideas chart we started at the close of part one.  Throughout the unit, we will also discuss current events happening in our country.  I want the students to pay attention and be aware of what’s going on around them, as they develop the skill of self-awareness.  I want them to wonder and ask why.  I want to empower my students to see problems affecting the citizens of the US.  I want to get them thinking about possible solutions.  I want to empower my students by providing them with knowledge, information, curiosity, and questions.  I want them to ask why and how.

And that’s the unit.  I structured it this way so that I could create different learning opportunities and activities for the students.  I wanted to find unique ways to teach the crucial study skills they will need to be successful students, as well.  As it is an election year, I want to capitalize on the current event aspect to help them make connections between information learned.  I want this unit to be engaging and fun for the students.  I want to challenge their thinking and broaden their perspectives on our amazing country.  I completely overhauled the unit that I’ve used in past years to make something special and wonderful.

While it took me a few rounds to get to what I have now, I am pleased with the result.  I found the treasure in the trash.  I can’t wait for the new academic year to begin so that I can implement this new unit.  I can’t wait to watch my students explore and wrestle with US maps.  How does this thing fold?  Do I fold it this way or that way?  It will be like watching me try to assemble a piece of furniture I purchased from Ikea, quite the comedy routine.

The entire experience of creating this new social studies unit empowered me to feel like an explorer, charting a course for new lands and information.  I loved sifting through the online research I discovered throughout the process.  Educators have created some amazing units and posted them online for the world to see.  There is a wealth of information out there on our fine country and how to go about teaching students all about it.  This experience did at times bring me back to my dumpster diving days.  Trash or treasure?  Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, my friend.

The Yin and Yang of Distance Learning

Isaac Newton’s Third Law of motion states, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  If I am trying to balance an egg on my head, gravity is trying to prevent me from doing so, as it is pulling the egg downward, toward it’s center.  This scientific principle can be seen almost anywhere you look.  Even as I type on this computer, opposite reactions are happening.  When I press a key on my keyboard, it gets pushed downward, and when I release the pressure on the key, it pops back up.  That’s pretty cool stuff right there.  As I often tell my students, science is everywhere.  However, I believe that this scientific law also applies to everyday life.  The words I use when conversing with someone will produce a reaction within the person to whom I am speaking.  If I use kind words, then the person might feel happy, relieved, or some other type of positive emotion.  Hopefully, in turn, that person will then spread their happiness to other people as they go about their day.  Check out this video to see how kindness can spread.  If I, however, use unkind words or do not stop to think before I speak, then I could cause the person to feel all sorts of negative emotions, which will in turn, cause them to spread negativity as they go about their day.  Every action we commit has a reaction.

In uncertain times like these, it can be very easy to focus on the negative aspects of life.  “I have to stay cooped up inside all day.  I’m so bored.  I just want to do something,” some people might think or say, which is completely understandable.  It is difficult to stay put and not be able to live life like we once did.  It is what we need to do right now though for the health and well-being of all humans on earth.  I say, let’s try to flip the coin and perceive life through positivity.  “I get to stay home and clean my house.  Yes, I haven’t had a chance to do that in weeks”  OR  “I had so much free time today that I learned a new card trick.”  OR  “I found a way to help the cause because I had so much time on my hands.”  We choose how we act.  Like Newton’s great Third Law, every action will have a reaction.  If we choose to be negative, then negativity will find it’s way back to us.  If we choose to be positive, then positivity will seek us out.  It’s like Karma.  When you do something good for someone else, something good will come to you.

This idea of perception is so crucial to Distance Learning in which schools and children around the country are participating.  Parents could view it as another thing to worry about at home, or choose to see it as an opportunity to connect with their children in new and different ways.  Teachers could see remote learning as one more hardship in front of them, or view it through the lens of a wonderful new challenge they are able to overcome.  While distance learning could never replace the connections made and relationships forged in the classroom, it can be something meaningful and real that will allow students to continue to learn and grow while being at school is not an option.

My first full week of distance learning was fantastic, overall.  Were there challenges to overcome?  Oh yeah.  Did everything work out the way I had intended?  Oh no.  Were my students able to connect virtually with their peers and I in meaningful and engaging ways?  Most certainly.  Did genuine learning happen for my students?  Indeed it did.  While there were definitely struggles to my first week of remote learning, the positive totally outweighed the negative.  What excited me the most about this past week of distance learning was the amazing, symbiotic relationship between families and schools.  The families of my students worked so hard behind the scenes to help keep our students focused on the schedule.  Despite all of the extra work, I’m sure, they had to deal with at home, they made it a priority to help their children make the virtual lessons on time and complete the assigned work.  I want to give a huge shout out to all of the families out there supporting their children.  YOU ROCK!  Thank you so much for making this transition almost seamless.  This piece of it all allowed for the phenomenally positive outcomes I saw this week.

Here are some of the other positive puzzle pieces that came together during my first week of distance learning:

  • I had time to address some academic issues with students that I don’t normally have the time to do being physically at school.  I was able to virtually connect via Google Meet with students, one-on-one and put plans in place to help them continue to grow and develop as readers, writers, thinkers, and students.  I worked with one student on her reading prior to the official start of our academic day this past week.  We worked together to implement a plan to help her work on decoding words and adding to her vocabulary repository.  I worked with another student on using complete sentences in his writing.  While he knows how to write in complete sentences, he sometimes chooses not to do so.  I helped him see the value in using proper grammar when writing.  I enjoyed having the flexibility to meet with students outside of our academic day to work on areas in need of improvement.
  • Every Friday, we usually discuss current events altogether as a class.  We complete the New York Times Weekly News Quiz for Students and chat about the issues mentioned in the questions.  It’s a highlight for many of the students, as they can share their thoughts and feelings on events that we are all living through.  Knowing that I wanted to bring some aspect of this to our remote learning program, I was concerned that it would be challenging to do so in any sort of meaningful manner.  Then, as I allowed my brain to process this dilemma while focusing on other issues, I came up with a plan that ended up being a huge success.  I called it: Current Event Roulette.  I assigned small groups of students to separate Google Meet Hangouts.  In those groups, they discussed the news quiz as well as any other current event that moved them.  The trick was, they did not know who they were going to be working with until they got to the Google Meet session.  Then, they got to work.  I popped into the separate meetings periodically throughout the 30 minutes to observe what was happening.  I was so impressed, once again, with my students.  They were discussing current events.  They were debating the answers to questions and genuinely sharing their thoughts and opinions with each other.  It was so cool.  We closed our current events discussion with a whole-class discussion via Google Meet.  The students really enjoyed this format for discussing current events.  Check out this video of our wrap-up discussion.
  • The students challenged themselves to maintain really high standards throughout the week.  When I provided each student with feedback regarding their Daily Effort in Google Classroom, the students utilized that feedback and made the suggested changes in successive days.  If a student hadn’t been writing in complete sentences when documenting their work for the day, the next day, that student used complete sentences when updating their Done Journal.  If a student was late to a Google Meet session during a day, they did not miss another meeting after that.  While my students are usually really great about exceeding my expectations and making changes to grow and learn as students, I did worry that this would be difficult for them to do on their own, virtually.  However, they are totally doing it.
  • The feedback I’m receiving from the parents is very positive.  They are happy with our schedule and like the workload.  They are amazed with how focused and independent their children are during our academic days.  I have one family who has a student in my class and students at other local public schools in the town in which they live, and she is pleasantly surprised by the amount of contact I have with the students and the amount of focus that her child is committing to to our remote learning program.  She loves it!

Here are some challenges I faced during this first week:

  • I found it very difficult to have the students peer edit and revise each other’s writing.  While they are all familiar with using Google Docs, as that is how we do most of our writing in Language Arts, they struggled to connect with each other via email when they shared their documents.  They did not check the email with the shared document link or did not make any comments in the document for the other student.  I had to make some changes to this process later in the week based on this outcome.
  • Technology is both wonderful and awful at the same time.  The Internet is a bevy of excellent resources for students and teachers; however, it is also full of inappropriate content that students or teachers should not be viewing.  Google Meet was a bit glitchy at times throughout the week.  The students did begin to figure out how to address these challenges throughout the week.  If a student couldn’t see or hear the rest of us, they ended the call and then rejoined it.  if a student had trouble hearing me or their peers, they turned on captions.  We found workarounds, but it was still a challenge that we all needed to overcome.

As my first week of distance learning was filled with positive outcomes, there were some equal and opposite reactions that proved troublesome at times.  However, all in all, it was a fantastic and meaningful first week.  The students seemed engaged, interested, happy to be connecting with each other, and excited to be learning.  That’s a pretty swell week in my eyes.  As the theme song for the television show The Facts of Life taught us, “You take the good; you take the bad; you take them both, and there you have, the facts of life.”

Fun in the Fifth Grade: Tidbits from my Week in the Classroom

Growing up and living in states adjacent to the Canadian border, I have had the amazing luxury and treat of visiting a Tim Hortons coffee shop on several occasions.  While the coffee is quite excellent and tastes, like coffee, the doughnuts were always the real draw for me.  They are warm, soft, fluffy, and taste like I imagine all food tastes in heaven, angelic.  No matter what time of day, the doughnuts are fresh and delicious.  I once happened upon a Tim Hortons at around 9 p.m.  While there were no Boston Cream doughnuts left on the shelf, the kind and caring doughnut and coffee customer service representative went in the back and made me a fresh one.  If that’s not fresh and love all rolled into one greasy ball of goodness, then I guess I don’t really understand those two concepts at all.  While it’s only been a few months since my last visit to a Timmy H’s, I find myself longing for the squishy dough treats that I have come to adore.  Most other doughnuts and coffee shops simply aren’t even on the same playing field as Tim Hortons.  Well, until fate sends me north once again, I at least have my fond memories of the red and white place of food magic to provide me with hope and respite.

Although this week’s blog entry will not be nearly as satisfying as a box of Timbits, I’m hopeful that it will shed some light on the magic that happens in my fifth grade classroom on a somewhat routine basis.

As my wonderful, little school was not in session this past Monday due to our mid-winter break, last Tuesday was the start of our shortened academic week.  While I love returning to school after even a day, things felt a bit off for me on Tuesday.  I wasn’t feeling completely in the teaching zone, perhaps because of the long weekend.  My internal energy level was at about 75% and I felt a bit hazy throughout the day.  Because we had an early release that day due to some winter weather, our schedule was off kilter.  The students seemed a bit thrown by this curve ball and so their energy level was very high, which appeared to cause their focus to dip a bit.  They didn’t seem fully invested in what we were doing in class that day.  Things just felt a bit “meh” to me at the end of our snowy Tuesday.  Rather than dwell on my negative thoughts, I decided to allow the falling snowflakes to inspire reflection.  As I stared out the window of my classroom after the academic day had ended, I allowed my mind to wander and process all that happened during that very short and funky day.  How could I make tomorrow better for me and my students?

And that’s when it hit me.  It was my mindset.  The day wasn’t by any means a difficult or bad day, I just perceived it that way.  Lots of wonderful and amazing things happened in the classroom throughout the day.  Students worked hard, took risks, and were kind and caring towards one another.  Work was accomplished and learning had happened.  Students made much progress on their pinball machines in Science class.  In retrospect, I should have been more blown away by how hard they worked during that activity period in Science.  They got a lot of work done on their physics machines.  So, it only felt like an off day, while in reality it was another awesome day in the fifth grade.

The next morning, I woke up with a smile on my face and happy, positive thoughts whirring about in my mind.  I was purposeful about the words I used when talking to the students during our Morning Meeting and made a point to focus on the many glorious things that took place in my classroom that day.  Several students who had been struggling to think critically in order to solve problems they encountered in Math class, switched gears and worked super hard to finish problems that had been plaguing them for several days.  More excellent work was accomplished in Science class, as the students continued working on their pinball machines.  We had a phenomenal discussion regarding poetry and the concept of poetic license in Language Arts.  It was a remarkable day, not too unlike Tuesday.  The only difference was my mindset.  I focused on the positive and found it in every nook and corner of my day.  Sometimes difficult days are just awesome days in disguise.

While developmentally, many fifth graders are constantly focused on what is right and wrong and often seem to choose being right over being kind, as a fifth grade teacher, I make it one of my many missions to combat this primal urge.  My mantra in our fifth grade class is, “We are a family, and families take care of each other.”  I follow that up with, “And like in all families, problems will arise, and when they do, we will work together to solve them.”  When issues of unkindness or disrespectful acts take place among the students, we push the PAUSE button on whatever is happening in class to address the issues.  I have the students explain how they are feeling using I Statements and we brainstorm different, kinder, and more effective ways to deal with similar situations when they arise in the future, because related issues will come up again.  We usually close our discussion with some sort of mindful or breathing exercise.  While it does take away from the “academic curriculum,” the social-emotional well being of my students is far more important than any lesson on physics or reading strategies.  If they are overcome with big emotions and feelings, they operate from the reptilian portion of their brain that offers them only two options– fight or flee.  Addressing social issues that happen in the class usually does not take more than a few minutes, but makes a huge difference.  It’s like pressing the reset button on our day.  It’s vital to the success of everyone in the classroom, including me, as the teacher.

In partnership with these social-emotional learning mini-lessons, I also began using another strategy to help foster self-awareness in the classroom this week.  As part of our Morning Meeting each day during this past week, I explained the daily focal point for how the class could earn marbles for the class Marble Jar.  On Wednesday, the focus was on Patience.  I explained ways the students could show patience throughout the day, and informed them that showing patience is a valuable life skill and the only way to earn marbles for the day.  Every time, the majority of the students exercised patience in the classroom, the Marble Meter moved up.  They earned two handfuls of marbles that day due to their great effort and patience.  They waited quietly between activities or while a student was thinking after being called upon during a discussion.  They took the extra time to spread out newspapers on the floor before painting part of their pinball machine in Science class.  They exercised great patience.  It was quite the sight to behold.  Because I had them focus on one social-emotional learning concept or skill, they were more able to demonstrate their ability to use that one skill throughout the day.  Without a focus, some students might be patient while others would not.  I observed far more examples of patience, kindness, and self-awareness this week than I had in the past because each day focused on just one of those skills.  Breaking the big idea of social-emotional learning into manageable chunks is far more successful than trying to tackle everything at once.

At the Beech Hill School, we pride ourselves on embracing the diversity and uniqueness of our student body.  Although we are a small school, we have all different types of students in attendance.  We frequently talk to our students about how fortunate we are to be attending a school where being different is celebrated.  Differences make the world so beautiful.  In the fifth grade, I take every teachable moment and opportunity to discuss this issue and how we should always be looking to break down walls and stereotypes that pigeonhole people into square holes.  A few weeks ago, we watched a video in Science class that included a subliminal message and gender stereotype about men and women.  When I pointed it out to the students, they were rightfully outraged.  I told them to always be on the lookout for how society tries to put incorrect or false ideas into our minds.  We can be any type of person that we want to be and we can do anything we want to when we put our minds to it.  “Don’t ever let people make you feel like you need to conform or change.  Being different makes you special.  Celebrate differences,” I told them.

Unfortunately, it seems that other other people in the world don’t seem to take the same approach to diversity that we do at our small micro school.  I read a news story about a nine year old boy from Australia who was born with a form of dwarfism.  Recently, when his mom picked him up from school, he was in tears telling her how he wished someone would kill him, as he is constantly faced with bullying because of his differences.  A nine year old boy wants his life to end because other people are making him feel like less of a person.  Why?  Why can’t people celebrate life instead of trying to destroy it?  While most educators understand the root of bullying, it doesn’t make it any easier to comprehend.  I was filled with anger after reading this story.  I felt helpless.  Then, I decided to do something about it.  I brought this story to the attention of my students on Friday morning and shared my thoughts on it.  I then opened the floor to discussion.  “Is there anything we can do to help?” I asked my class.  One student said, “We can write cards to the boy letting him know that he is cared for and loved.”  Another student suggested trying to put the family in touch with a place that pairs therapy dogs with students.  Perhaps that would help him feel cared for.  Another student suggested making a video sharing our stories and sending him positive thoughts and messages.  Kindness, compassion, and empathy are alive and well at the Beech Hill School.  My students never cease to amaze me on a daily basis.  Again, they saw this as an act of injustice in our world and wanted to do something about it.  On Monday, I’m going to provide the students with time to create cards or a video that we can send to this boy and his family, letting them know that we are on their side.  While stories like the reality this boy lives on a daily basis cause us much anger and sadness, they can also be just the fuel we need to bring about change in our world.

While these are but three tiny tales from my amazing week in the fifth grade, I feel that they offer a glimpse into the magic and wonder of education and teaching in our stellar world.  Like tasty doughnuts from Tim Hortons, savor the wonder of each and every day.  Live like children searching for ways to make our world a better, happier, safer place for all living beings.  Namaste.

From Bad to Great: How my Difficult Math Past Has Helped Me Make Math Fun for my Students

“Okay children, take out your math books and turn to page 32.  Today we are going to learn about Long Division.  Who would like to complete problem one on the board for us?”  Direct instruction like this was commonplace in my Math classroom when I was a student in elementary school.  My teachers explained each new math concept by reviewing the material in the textbook.  Did they think we couldn’t read?  Why did they teach us from the book?  They would also have students complete problems on the board, in front of the whole class.  What fourth or fifth grader wants to be embarrassed in front of his or her peers when they incorrectly complete a math problem on the chalkboard?  Certainly not me.

While this style of teaching may have worked for some of my peers, it did not meet my needs as a learner.  I was not the “typical” student in a classroom.  I learned very differently than many of my classmates when I was in school.  I processed new information slowly and needed time to let that new “stuff” mentally simmer.  If I was to genuinely learn something in elementary school, I needed to interact with the material, play with it, and take it out for a test drive.  I didn’t fully learn by simply listening to someone speaking.  Because my learning style did not align with how my teachers taught Math, I struggled to authentically and completely learn numerous mathematics concepts.  Thus, I was always at a disadvantage in class when learning new material, since Math is very much a pyramid-style subject as topics and ideas build upon previously learned content.  How could I possibly learn new concepts in Math when I hadn’t mastered the foundational material needed to comprehend this new skill?  As a result, I earned low Math grades throughout my years in elementary school and gained a dislike for the entire subject.  I despised Math class, as if it were my sister’s Cabbage Patch doll.  I just didn’t get it.  Why are some numbers written with a horizontal line between them while others have a dot separating some numbers from others?  Why can’t all numbers be written the same way?  Why does division need to be so long?  If you mess up on one tiny step, it ruins the whole problem.  I remember telling my parents on many occasions back then, “I hate Math.”

As a Math teacher, I have made it my goal to ensure that students don’t feel lost or confused in my Math class.  I want my students to fully understand material before learning new concepts.  I want my students to see the fun and joy in Math.  Yes, Math can definitely be fun and exciting.  Just watch a group of students trying to beat their teacher at the game “1, 2, Nim.”  The joy is palpable.

After growing up disliking the subject, I went on a mathematical journey of discovery in adulthood.  Learning how to effectively teach Math allowed me the chance to see the subject in a whole new way.  Math is like a beautiful puzzle; when you carefully put the pieces together, they create a work of art that explains something.  Completing a complex algebraic equation is so satisfying for me, now that I have come to view Math with a more open and growth mindset.

While I was not fully satisfied with the way I taught  Math last year, I made sure to focus on changing my game plan for this year.  Instead of jumping right into the curriculum and textbook, my hope was to provide students a chance to see Math through the lens of fun games.  I also wanted to help challenge my students who see themselves as “not Math students.”  I wanted my students to be excited about their year in Math class, not dreading it like I once did.

I believe that, so far (don’t worry, I knocked wood), I have been successful in my quest of helping my fifth graders see Math as fun and enjoyable.  Here is how I’m going about doing that:

  • During the first four days of Math, I taught the students various Math games and puzzles.  I had them interacting with their peers to master “1, 2, Nim” in order to defeat me, the Nim Master.  I challenged them to find a number that didn’t fit for the Math Magic Trick, with which I presented them.  There were no assessments given, textbooks handed out, or worksheets completed.  We laughed together, played together, and saw Math as a series or fun games and experiments.
  • Step two involved helping the students to change the way they view themselves as Math students.  We watched a fun and short video on mindset and read an article on how every student can be a “Math Student.”  I had the students discuss what this means for them.
  • From there, we created a list of steps or things the students should do when learning a new concept or completing a difficult problem in Math class.
    • Step 1: Think, “I can do this.  I’ve got this.  While it may be hard, I will become the master of this concept or problem.”
    • Step 2: Persevere and don’t give up no matter how challenged you may feel.  Work through the mental pain with guidance from your teacher and classmates.
    • Step 3: Try, fail, try again, and keep trying.  Remember, it’s process over product.
  • Then, I had students brainstorm possible strategies they could use when attacking difficult problems in Math.  This then led in to the students creating their own Problem Solving Plan that they can use in Math class throughout the year.  I allowed them to personalize it anyway they wanted as long as it included the three steps discussed in class and at least three strategies they could use to tackle a challenging math problem.  The students used glitter, markers, and so much more to create their own Problem Solving Plan.  They really got into it.
  • The following day, I provided the students with a difficult and multi-step word problem, as a way of testing out their Problem Solving Plans.  Did your plan work?  Were the strategies helpful?  Is there anything you should add to your plan?  I had the students reflect, in writing on how useful and helpful their plan was to solving the problem.  A few students revised their plans based on their reflection.  I closed the lesson by telling the students that their Problem Solving Plan is a living document and may need to be added to or altered during the academic year, as they try it out and use it more.
  • Yesterday, I then introduced the online math program Prodigy to the students.  I explained that they will be using this throughout the year to practice math skills covered in class and to fill in any gaps in their math learning process.  While this is not the main vehicle for math instruction, it is a great support system.  It’s also very interactive and fun for the students.  It game-ifies Math instruction.  They began using it in class yesterday.  They created their characters and worked on the placement exam that is built into the program.  For 35 minutes, they were in the Math Zone.  It was awesome.  Each and every student was completely enthralled by and engaged in showing off their prior math learning.  The following are direct quotes from my students, shared with me during Math class.
    • “Mr. Holt, thanks for making Math fun this year.”
    • “Mr. Holt, I know we don’t have homework over the weekend, but can I work on Prodigy over the weekend?”
    • “This is so much fun.”
    • “Check out the cute little pet I earned in the game.”
    • “Mr. Holt, you are a Miracle Worker for making us like Math this year.”
  • This coming week, the students will be placed into the level of Beast Academy that meets them where they are, mathematically speaking, based on their results from the diagnostic test they completed via Prodigy.  Beast Academy is the Math program I use in the fifth grade.  It is rigorous, yet engaging for the students, as it uses fun monsters and a graphic novel approach to teaching new concepts.  Using this program allows me to individualize and differentiate my Math instruction for each student.  I employ mini-lessons and work with the students during Math class each day as they progress through the Beast Academy curriculum.
  • I will begin or close each Math class with a fun game or activity that reviews concepts covered and provides the students with opportunities to practice using their problem solving skills.

That’s how I do Math in the fifth grade.  After two super fun weeks in Math class, I can’t wait to see how much progress my students make as they continue to see the subject as fun and enjoyable.  I truly believe that each of my students will become a “Math Student” this year because of my approach.  I’ve found a way to transform my horrid Math past into engaging and exciting Math instruction.  It’s all about perspective and mindset.  Just like the “Little Engine That Could,” my students and I are going to work together to overcome challenges and obstacles in Math class this year.

Staring at the Sun: Reflections on my Summer Work

My parents had a very long “Don’t Do This” list for me growing up: Don’t talk to strangers, don’t stick your tongue on metal in the winter, don’t stare at the sun, don’t listen to music with Parental Advisory stickers (I’m still a little angry at Tipper Gore for making that craziness happen), don’t go swimming right after eating, and don’t shower during a thunder storm.  While some of their demands were reasonable, I mean, who wants to lose part of their tongue or get struck by lightning in a shower, others were just plain silly.

“Why can’t I listen to the new Guns ‘N’ Roses double album?” I asked my parents in complete dismay.

“Because it includes inappropriate lyrics and has a Parental Advisory sticker on it,” my mom said, all matter of fact-like.

This ridiculous rule forced me to secretly save my allowance for a few weeks, which was really hard to do as I loved spending money right away back then.  But, I did it anyway.  I saved my money until I had enough to buy both Use Your Illusions I & II.  Then, when my parents when shopping at Ames, I went over to Coconuts, the record store in our town, and bought both albums on cassette tape and shoved them into my pockets.  My pockets were too small to hold CDs.  I met my parents back at Ames like nothing devious or evil had just occurred.  I got away with my crime, and I do believe that it made the songs on those two albums sound a little bit sweeter.  They forced my hand.  I had to covertly purchase those two albums, as they changed the musical landscape of rock music.  I couldn’t possibly live my life without ever hearing November Rain.  That would be sacrilegious.

Once I was finally freed from the controlling wraith of my parents and went off to college, I was filled with thoughts of rebellion.  Freedom tasted like fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, at first.  I stayed up way past my bed time, listened to music with curse words, and went swimming while eating.  It was awesome.  However, this freedom did come at a bit of a cost, as I began to realize that the rules my parents set up for me were done so to keep me safe and healthy.  After several days of staying up very late and waking up early for class, I grew very tired.  I ended up having to skip a few classes to get caught up on my sleep.  Then, when I stared at the sun, my eyes burned for days afterward.  That was so not fun.  While I was unhappy having to live within the confines of the cage my parents built for me, it was exactly the cage I needed.  It just took a few bad experiences for me to see this.

With school beginning next week, I’m filled with excitement and joy, like when I first listened to the Guns ‘N’ Roses Use Your Illusions I & II albums, minus the feeling of betrayal.  I can’t wait to meet my new students and jump into the school year.  I’m looking forward to trying lots of new games in Math class, bringing real substance to our Morning Meetings, and completing a real-world project for my community unit.  As my summer vacation is coming to a close, I feel compelled to reflect on the work I completed over the past two months.  Did I accomplish what I had set out to do this summer?  Am I fully prepared for the upcoming academic year?  Is there more that still needs to be done?  How’d I do in meeting the professional goals I set for myself back at the close of the past school year?

  • Goal 1: I want to switch up the posters and decorations in my classroom– I feel as though I totally rocked the house on this goal.  I put a lot of time, effort, and energy into transforming my room into an educational oasis of sorts.  I reorganized my Maker Space to bring more order and accountability to the space.  I hung the tools on the wall and labelled them all so that I can quickly and easily see what tools are still in use or have yet to be returned.  Plus, every tool now has a specified place.  I like that.  I also added a Tech Space to my Maker Space so that students can learn to code, create video games, or research a project they’re creating in the Maker Space.  I set up the Raspberry Pi computer that I built last year to a spare monitor that had no use last year.  I’m excited about what the students will be able to do at this new space in my classroom.  In addition to the Maker areas in the classroom, I also had one wall painted blue and thought carefully and logistically about the posters I hung on the wall.  I made sure that each poster was directly tied to the curriculum in some way or provided the students with thoughtful words.  I attempted to remove the clutter and disconnected and distracting posters from the wall.  I’m very pleased with what I do have hung up.  I also tried to mount the posters to the wall in a more professional looking manner.  I wanted to make my classroom look more like it was put together by professional classroom designers rather than by a 42-year-old man who doesn’t even match his socks.  I’m also thrilled about the curtains I added to the library area to make it more of a fun and inviting reading cave.  I believe the students will thoroughly enjoy this new touch.  My wife is also in the process of making valences for the windows in my room.  I can’t wait to see how they inject fun and whimsy into the space.  So, mission accomplished with goal one.
  • Goal 2: I want to change-up some of my Social Studies and Science units– While this will be an ongoing journey of mine for this new school year, I haven’t quite met this goal.  I am looking to change some of my Science and Social Studies units, but I haven’t fully realized them yet.  I have been working closely with the Hopkinton Town Administrator to enliven Our Community unit with an engaging and real-world project.  He’s brainstorming some possibilities as I type this entry.  I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with.  I also want to complete some sort of unit on civics and the upcoming presidential election.  I’m not exactly sure what this will look like, but I want to teach the students about how the election process works while they learn about the candidates in the running.  I’m hoping to have the students complete some sort of debate for this unit.  Other than that, I will have to assess the completion of this goal at the close of the 2019-2020 school year.
  • Goal 3: Determine if I will use Classcraft as a tool in my classroom– After much research on the program and time spent pondering my approach to how much screen time my students have on a daily basis, I’ve decided not to utilize Classcraft in my classroom for the upcoming school year.  While this tool may work for some teachers and students, I really want my students to be focused on the entire classroom community rather than themselves as individuals.  I worry that the program would instill a sense of inappropriate competition within the class and force the students to focus too much on approaching school like a checklist.  I want my fifth grade community to operate in a free and organic manner.  So, no Classcraft for me this year.
  • Goal 4: I want to jazz up my Math class a bit– I devoted much time this summer to this one goal.  I researched various math programs that other teachers and schools use.  I read several studies on how to help students see Math as fun and engaging rather than difficult and unnecessary.  I am going to begin the year in my Math class by having the students play a series of math games to help them see the subject as a class on problem solving instead of a class that is problematic for them.  I made use of the numerous resources on the Mathforlove website.  I am going to use  pieces of the curriculum for mini-lessons and fun games in class as well.  I really want to make Math class something the students will look forward to instead of something they will dread.  I can’t wait to see how things go with Math this year.  I’m filled with hope and excitement for what is to come.  Mission accomplished with goal number four.
  • Goal 5: I want to find more engaging games to incorporate into our Morning Meetings for next year– All you have to do is revisit my entry on the first professional development text I read this summer to know that big changes are in the works for our daily Morning Meetings in the fifth grade.  I have the first two weeks of Morning Meetings planned and ready to go.  I can’t wait to get my students sharing, caring, and playing as we build and foster a strong sense of community in the classroom.  D for done on this goal too.

I’d say that I had quite the productive summer as I worked to meet the five goals I set for myself back in June.  I feel confident, inspired, and excited to meet my new students, create a strong sense of community within the fifth grade, have fun, and learn lots.  After this lengthy summer break, I say, bring on the students and let’s get this educational party started, without any sort of Parental Advisory stickers, of course.  Smiley faces, scratch-and-sniff, and motivational quotes are the only kinds of stickers that will be allowed in my classroom.  So, although Axl Rose probably wasn’t talking about a new school year in the song Locomotive, I feel as though it totally relates to this new journey all teachers and students are about to embark upon in the coming days and weeks: “Let it take you where it may, we live and learn.”  See mom, Guns ‘N” Roses do have songs filled with inspirational and thoughtful lyrics.

You Taught Your Students What?: Highlights from Last Week in my Fifth Grade Classroom

While last week did feel a bit chaotic and busy at times at my wonderful little school, as we prepared for the big April vacation taking place this week and had to input Progress Report grades, there was also a sense of serenity, gratitude, and excitement in the air.  The temperatures outside began to rise, the snow had finally melted from our rolling fields, and spring was beginning to take hold in central New Hampshire last week.  Despite the craziness of finishing up a unit, cleaning the school, and preparing for the final two months of the academic year, numerous wonderful things took place in my fifth grade classroom last week.  In no particular order, here they are…

Mindfulness Yoga

Looking back on when I came up with this grand idea of having a Yoga instructor come into my classroom once a month for the entire year to teach my students the power of Yoga, mindfulness, and relaxation, I wasn’t even sure it would be possible.  It seemed like a utopian construct that would never work in reality.  Would I be able to find an instructor crazy and brave enough to be a part of such an ambitious undertaking?  Then, my school’s headmaster gave me the name of a wonderful Yogi who is also the mother of two BHS students.  Would she want to help out?  Could she help out?  Would her schedule allow her to lead such a class?  In early August, I received an excited and hopeful email from Lisa Garside, owner of a local Yoga studio.  She would love to work with me and my class throughout the year, she responded.  The ideal time that I had in mind totally worked with her schedule.  The stars were aligning.  I couldn’t wait for the academic year to begin.  But then, would my students be into it?  Would they be engaged in such a different type of mindful instruction?  When I informed my students of the first session way back in September of 2018, you would have thought that I had told them they had no homework for the rest of the month.  They couldn’t wait for our first class.  What seemed impossible became achievable because I persevered and ran with a kooky idea.

Now, as I think about the fact that we have but one final Yoga session left in this school year, I am feeling bittersweet about it all.  I am ecstatic that it was so well received by my students.  They have loved our monthly Yoga sessions and have really gained much focus, relaxation, and calming strategies over the course of the year.  I am so grateful that Mrs. Garside was able and willing to give us the gift of her time, wisdom, and kindness.  She has been absolutely amazing with my students.  Yoga days are the most relaxed days each month, as we begin them in such a peaceful and calm manner.  I am also sad to think about the end being so near.  Our last Yoga session will take place in May, and serve as another reminder of just how close the end of the school year truly is.  We have been so fortunate this year to have Mrs. Garside work with us month after month.

This past week, Mrs. Garside led my students through our April Yoga session.  The focus for this month was on a different style of Yoga that included quick and fast breathing.  The students learned more about how to focus their energy on breathing and moving, instead of dwelling on their inner thoughts regarding this more challenging form of Yoga.  It was quite amazing to observe my students practicing the concept of mindfulness, as they worked very hard to hold difficult poses for long periods of time.  A sense of awe and wonder washed over me as I watched my students engage in this wonderful Yoga session.


I believe that every school and class should incorporate some form of Yoga in their routine, as I have witnessed the amazing benefits first hand.  My students are able to be more present in the moment, aware of their breathing, and understand the power of their bodies from partaking in our monthly Yoga classes.  Imagine how much more compassionate, kind, and aware ALL students could be if Yoga was incorporated into the curriculum or routine in some way in ALL schools.  Perhaps instances of bullying and violence in schools would decrease if ALL students were provided the opportunity to stop, relax, focus, breathe, and stretch at least once a month.  Just imagine the possibilities.

Rover Presentations in Science Class

After weeks of great effort, much failure, perseverance, overcoming adversity, trying new things, taking risks, and rebuilding based on feedback, the three student groups presented their space rovers to two judges this past Friday during Science class.  Each group began their presentation by explaining the problem that their solution and rover could solve.  One group tackled the trash and plastic issue plaguing Earth, while another group chose to mine asteroids for frozen water.  The third group had wanted to mine asteroids for their materials.  They were very specific in identifying their problem and solution.  Each group then showcased how their rover works.  They detailed how they built their rover, the problems encountered as they worked and how they overcame that adversity, and how their rover operates.  It was quite impressive to hear the students share their ideas, thoughts, and facts regarding what they had learned throughout our Astronomy Unit.  Amazing!

The highlights for me were three-fold:

  • Talk About Preparation: The students were so rehearsed and ready for Friday’s presentations that you would have thought we were live streaming the event for the world to see.  They spoke with poise and clarity, unlike what I normally see and hear during class discussions or chats.  They avoided the dreaded ums, ahhs, and likes as if they were evil incantations uttered by the Teletubbies or Barney.  The students didn’t skip a beat between speakers either.  Each group just knew when to pass the metaphorical baton.  It was awesome.  I was so proud of them.  The judges were in awe of their brilliant performances.  In times like these, I have to remind myself that my students are only in the fifth grade because they often act as though they are gifted graduate students studying to take over the world.
  • Problem Solving in Action: As one group readied to demonstrate how their rover worked for the judges, nothing seemed to happen.  They toggled the on switch back and forth, and still nothing.  Instead of giving up and continuing on with their presentation, they stopped for a few moments to solve their problem.  After fiddling with a few of the Little Bits pieces, they got their rover rolling.  They could have easily given up and not fixed the problem encountered, but they did not and did.  They persevered and reached the top of the mountain of awesomeness.  It was so cool to watch this play out.  Everything we’ve worked on all year was on display in those few brief moments.  I could not have been a more proud teacher.
  • To Judge or Not to Judge: Rather than have me assess the students on their presentations, pose questions, and provide the students with feedback, I brought in two very qualified judges to be a part of the big event in class on Friday.  Earl Tuson, a mechanical engineer who once worked for NASA and Aubrey Nelson, one of the science teachers from my school were absolutely wonderful.  They asked the students high-level questions and kept them on their toes the whole time.  I do believe that having such quality judges helped inspire the students to be so prepared for their presentations.  It’s nice to bring in other community members for the students to interact with throughout the year.

Empathy and Compassion Aren’t Simply Trendy Catch Phrases

As I read many educational blogs and articles found in all parts of the inter-web, it seems as though teaching students the concepts of empathy and compassion are and have been hot topics for quite some time.  How do we best help students learn the power of empathy?  Why does it seem that our students are so entitled in the classroom?  How can we help our students learn to be compassionate citizens?

Like all great teachers, I have tried, over the course of this school year, to instill these ideas of caring and kindness within my students.  We often talk about how to communicate in compassionate ways with each other in the classroom.  Compassion is one of our class norms.  However, it sometimes feels like I’m simply doing lip service to some big, grandiose, and utopian idea that is not really achievable in the classroom.  Is all of this work for not?  What I witnessed this past week in my classroom definitely tells me otherwise.

This past Wednesday, one of my students had his lunch taken, accidentally, as he had left it out of his lunch box during the all-school lunch period.  He came back to the classroom seeming very upset and hungry.  He shared what had happened with me and the other students in the classroom prior to the start of our next class.  Immediately, two students got extra food they had leftover in their lunch boxes to share with this student.  Despite the student saying, “No thanks,” they gave him the food anyway.  He then gratefully enjoyed this gifted food during our class read-aloud.  I shared what had unfolded with the entire class prior to starting to read aloud from our class novel, as I wanted everyone to celebrate the kind deeds in action.  The most happy-tears part of the whole situation was that the students who gave their leftover food to the student who had none, didn’t even pause to think about their choice or actions; they simply got their food out and gave it to the student, as though that is just what you do to help members of your community.  Wow, was just about all I was thinking in that moment.  Perhaps those lessons and all that talk of compassion and empathy did have an impact on my students.

Astronomy Unit Reflection

Going into this Astronomy Unit in Science class way back in mid-March, I felt quite confident that I was providing students with the learning and education on space that they had requested prior to starting the unit.  They gave me some great insight as to what specific topics regarding astronomy that they wanted to study and cover over the course of our unit; and so, when I crafted the unit, I made sure to include what they had asked for and not what topics they had already learned about in the past.  For this reason, I was very hopeful that the students would really enjoy this unit.

Fast forward a month to the end of the unit and I still feel the same way.  The students seemed engaged and curious throughout our unit.  They seemed to like every part of it, including the test.  So, when I asked for feedback on the unit this past Friday, as we closed the door on this fine masterpiece of learning, I had my fingers crossed that my thoughts would align nicely with the students’ perspective on our Astronomy Unit.

The big takeaways for me were that the students did really enjoy this unit, overall.  While there are always going to be outliers in an activity like completing a feedback form, almost every students felt like I had covered what they wanted to learn in a way that worked for them.  This felt really positive.  Asking for thoughts and ideas before the unit, helped me to generate a very meaningful and engaging unit on an often fun topic for students.  Asking the students for help in creating an engaging and fun curriculum totally helps.  Student buy-in was great throughout this unit, as they had helped to shape it.  I love it!

Here are some direct quotes from the Google Form the students completed regarding their thoughts on our astronomy unit:

  • In answering the question, “Is there anything(s) that you wish we had learned about space that we did not cover during this unit?” one student responded: No, I feel like I was informed of everything I wanted to learn.
  • In addressing this question, “If you were the teacher, what would you change about the Knowledge Phase, including mini-lessons and test?” one student wrote: Nothing. I thought that you handled them very well.

McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center Field Trip

As I’m sure we can all attest to, we may not remember many of the specific topics covered when we were students in school, but we sure do recall, vividly, the experiences we had in school.  I will never forget the field trips I took to Fort Number Four in fourth grade, an outdoor science center in sixth grade, and Washington D.C. in ninth grade.  Those opportunities brought the learning to life for me.  I remember the fun times with classmates, cool science facts, and the amazing exhibits in the museums we visited.  As teachers, we realize this fact, and try to imbue our class and curriculum with engaging and enjoyable experiences.

This past Tuesday, as a way to wrap up our Astronomy Unit, I took my class to visit the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery in Concord, NH.  The students enjoyed the hands-on exhibits in the discovery center.  They loved trying to land the space shuttle and experiencing the different types of waves.  We concluded our visit with a very cool planetarium show on Black Holes.  After partaking in the unveiling of the Black Hole images from two weeks ago, my students were so into learning more about Black Holes.  It was awesome.  Throughout the show, I heard my students say, “Wow,” “That’s so neat,” and “I didn’t know that.”  It was awesome.  While they may not remember every last fact we learned about space throughout our unit, I’m hopeful that they will never forget our class trip to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center.

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All that stuff happened in just one week?  Whoa, that was a very rich and full week.  As I wax nostalgic on all the fun I’ve had with my class this year, it’s comforting to know that I still have almost two more months with them before they matriculate into sixth grade.  How much more fun can be had?  Well, we are sure to find out starting next week.

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.

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.