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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Conversation, Education, Learning, Planning, Students, Teaching

Processing Through Preparation

I tend to be much more of a kinesthetic learner.  I need to try something in order to learn it.  I can’t learn a new math skill by watching someone else do one on the board.  I need to actually do the problem myself in order to practice and master that new skill.  That’s just how my brain works.  Luckily, I know that about myself as a learner.  Unfortunately, some students and adults don’t always know or realize how they learn best.  I feel bad for those people as I feel empowered knowing how I learn best.  I know that I need to physically do something to learn a new skill.  As a teacher, I try to help my students realize how they learn best so that they can be and feel empowered as they mature and develop as students and learners.

Today provided me the opportunity to help my students see how important preparation is to learning something new.  Having time to process information or a new skill is crucial to all learning styles.  As many of my students do not seem to understand this concept, I wanted to try and help them realize it on their own.  So, to prepare for today’s current event discussion, I provided the students with the article that served as the basis for our discussion in class today.  For homework last night, they needed to read and annotate the article.  At the start of class today, I allowed the students to ask any clarifying questions they had about the facts of the current event.  I was surprised that there were not more questions.  The students seemed to understand the topic and concepts addressed in the article.  Usually, my students ask many questions about the current events we are discussing, but today they had none.  I wonder if this was because the students had a chance to process the information and annotate it last evening for homework.  Perhaps this extra time allowed them to fully comprehend the messages contained within the news article. I then broke the students up into two groups so that they could discuss this article using the guiding question as the foundation on which to build the conversation.  I was so impressed with the group I observed.  They were adding their insight to the discussion in appropriate ways, using examples from the article, and building upon each other’s contributions to the discussion.  It was awesome.  They were also truly compassionate and kind throughout the conversation.  They made sure everyone had a chance to add their thoughts to the discussion at least twice.  They executed an effective and purposeful plan to be sure that everyone’s voice was heard in a timely manner.  I was overly impressed with how they handled themselves as well as the level of discussion.  They analyzed the details of the article, showcasing their ability to draw conclusions regarding a written text.  They were discussing the guiding question using great critical thinking.  Amazing.  This was by far, the best current events discussion we’ve had all year.

Following the discussion I asked the students for feedback on this new method of preparing for a current events discussion.  Did they like or dislike having the article the day before the discussion?  Did this help them feel or be more prepared for the discussion?  The feedback they shared was overwhelmingly positive.  Every student who shared his insight felt that having the time to prepare for the discussion, understand the content, process the concepts covered, and take notes on the topic was beneficial and helpful to them.  They all felt that having the chance to prepare for the discussion helped them feel and be more successful today in class.  They loved it.

While I don’t like to brag, it does feel good being right.  I knew that my students needed time to prepare for the discussions we’ve been having in class, but they clearly didn’t realize this fact on their own.  Allowing them to see how much more productive and prepared they can be when they have the opportunity to process new information, helped them to see the value in preparation.  Well, at least I hope it did.  Many of the students seemed in much better spirits than normal following today’s discussion.  Perhaps that was because they felt prepared and successful.  While we won’t always structure our current events discussion in this manner because we want the students to drive the discussion based on news topics they find engaging and interesting, we will revisit this method of preparing for a discussion later in the academic year.  We want the boys to see how important preparation is to learning something new.  It is key.  Even though some people and students learn differently and at different paces, everyone needs time to process and think about new information and how it fits into their perspective or mindset.  What does it mean to me?  We must ponder this question when learning something new and having the allotted time to do so makes the learning more genuine and meaningful.  Preparation leads to processing and processing leads to learning.  Therefore, preparation leads to learning.

Posted in Astronomy, Education, New Ideas, Planning, Students, Teaching

Collecting Student Input to Drive a Unit’s Content

I always wished that school for me was more like the Magic School Bus.  I wanted my teachers to come into class and say, “Hey, what do you want to learn about today?”  How cool would that be if students got to choose the content and what they learned about.  Talk about individualized education.  While I know that I wouldn’t have been able to go on fun field trips like Ms. Frizzle’s class because we didn’t have a sweet school bus that changed into anything, it would have been nice if my teachers took my input and we actually learned about something that my peers and I wanted to learn about.  Now I know there are independent schools like that out there, but they are rare and very few students have the opportunity to attend them.  What if all schools allowed the students to help develop the curriculum and content for the classes?  Talk about building relationships and having students own their learning.  This would do that as the students would be learning about what interests them.  I love this idea.  Now, how can I do it in my classroom?

So, I got to thinking a few days ago, What content do I want to cover in my next STEM unit on Astronomy?  What do the students really need to know about space?  Should I teach an overview of the solar system?  Nah, they probably have seen a unit like that ten times prior to this year.  What about something on exoplanets?  That might be fun.  Then, I started to think, What would the students like to learn about?  What matters to them?  What topics would get them excited about space?  That’s when it hit me.  I should just ask my students what they want to learn about and then I can incorporate it into my unit on astronomy.

So, during a free period today, I’m going to have the students complete a Google Form that asks two questions:

  1. Our next STEM unit is going to focus on Astronomy and space.  What topics would you like to learn about?  The Solar System, Planets, Exoplanets, Colonizing Mars, Moons, Space Junk, Satellites, or something else?
  2. Are there any special projects you would like to complete or work on during our STEM unit on Astronomy and space?  Labs, Investigations, Group Projects, or something else.

I’m hoping that the students will take the time to really think about what they want to learn.  I have plenty of my own ideas, but I’d much rather use their input.  If they are choosing the content, they will be much more engaged in class as they take ownership of their learning since they chose it.  I can’t wait to see what kind of fodder and ideas come from this exercise.  I’m thinking that if this plan goes well, I may be able to create the greatest astronomy unit of all time for my STEM class.  Well, maybe not the best unit of all time, but at least the most relevant and appropropriate unit for the students in my class.  Although I won’t be able to fit them into a cool school bus and fly them to the moon, with their input, we still should be able to have an amazing experience in our next unit on astronomy.  To quote one of the greatest space explorers of all time, “To infinity and beyond!”

Posted in Education, Humanities, Planning, Teaching

What Makes an Effective Unit Introduction?

Beginning a new unit can be tricky.  How do you best introduce it to the students in an engaging manner?  How do you get them excited or hooked on the content information?  How do you help assess the students’ prior knowledge?  Do you need to have an opening activity?  These questions often plague me as I plan a new unit.

My co-teacher and I recently planned a new unit on Africa for our Humanities class.  We wrestled with how to begin it.  After a mini-unit on perspective, how would we jump into a cultural study on Africa?  How would we get the boys excited about a place that is so foreign to many of our students?  We finally came up with some ideas that we liked.

Today, we began our new Unit on Africa in Humanities class.  We began the unit by sharing and discussing one of the guiding questions for the unit: How does your perspective guide you when learning about new cultures?  We dissected the question for the boys so that they understood what it was asking.  We defined some of the vocabulary terms for our ELL students.  We also told the boys that this question will act like the river cutting through our unit.  It will tie everything we do throughout the unit together.  

Then, we had the students complete an activity to assess their prior knowledge of Africa.  Before class had began this morning, I took down all of the world maps we had hanging on the walls.  We then gave the students a piece of paper and a clipboard on which they drew the outline of Africa based on their prior knowledge.  Inside the continent they were to list everything they already knew about Africa.  We discussed some possible topic ideas to use: Culture, People, Food, Traditions, etc.  We assigned each student a different part of the classroom so that they would not be able to see what their peers were doing.  While we encourage group work and peer tutoring, we wanted this pre-assessment to be all theirs.  The students silently created their maps and filled them with information.  While most students had a good idea of the basic shape of Africa, many of the boys knew every little about the continent.  Much of the information the boys had already learned was very biased and stereotypical.  They mentioned learning about animals, watering holes, jungles, and deserts.  This is great information for us as teachers to know so that we can be sure to educate them regarding the other side of Africa, the Africa that many people like to ignore: Child soldiers, starvation, lack of clean drinking water, and disparity of wealth.  Once they had each completed their list and map, we had the students share their map with their table partner to compare and contrast.  The boys had some great conversations with their peers.  We then showed an accurate map of Africa for the boys to see their inaccuracies.  Some of the students seemed a bit shocked.  I then explained what shape I saw in Africa as a way to imprint the shape of the continent into my long term memory by making connections.  Sideways, Africa looks like the skull of an animal.  I pointed out the ear and eye.  Then, I had the boys share what they saw in the shape.  They had some great ideas: An elephant’s ear, wolf, and the Patriots symbol.  This helped them better remember the shape of Africa for future reference.  

Then, we helped the boys put Africa into the context of the greater world.  We provided the students with a world map that had Africa blanked out.  They needed to draw an accurately placed and proportional Africa on the world map.  We then handed the students a larger sized version of the same world map with Africa clearly marked.  This lead into a discussion of what the students noticed about their drawing.  The students made some keen observations:  “The top part in my drawing was too far north, Mine was too far south, or Mine was too small.”  This activity helped the students understand where Africa is in the world.

Our final introductory activity was focused on helping the students understand how large Africa is.  We gave the students each a pair of scissors and had them cut out the other continents and see how many they could fit inside Africa.  They had fun cutting and arranging the countries in a unique way.  The average was three continents.  We then shared a visual aide with the boys that displayed how many different countries could fit into Africa.  It then compared the total land area of all of those countries to Africa.  It’s a lot larger in size than many people realize.  We then discussed how today’s activities helped broaden the students’ perspective of Africa.  Many of the boys didn’t realize how large Africa truly is.  They also didn’t fully grasp its location in the world.

We ended class having the students examine why each student has a different perspective.  This then lead into how these altered perspectives can teach us a lot.  We can learn about different ways to view the world from our peers.  The students seemed excited about this discussion and today’s lesson.  Hopefully, this introduction into our unit on Africa inspired them to want to learn more.  While this was only one way to begin the unit, we hope that it was an effective and engaging way.  We’ll have to revisit this in a few days as we dig deeper into our study of Africa.

Posted in Education, Planning, Teaching

Why is there Never Enough Time?

I often wish each day came with an extra two to three hours so that I could get everything on my list accomplished.  I’d love to be able to go home each night with an empty To Do List, but that rarely happens.  I usually have something else to do because I just run out of time.  If only I had an extra hour in the day, I’d get everything done.  However, the odds are that that new time would be chewed up by something else and I still wouldn’t have enough time in a day to get done what I need to accomplish.

A few weeks ago when I planned my new Chemistry Unit for STEM class, I penciled in a few lab experiments to introduce the scientific method, experimentation, and lab safety protocol.  In my mind, it would only take about half of the class period or less to accomplish the investigation, which means that there would be time to work on the partner portion of the project.  It made sense to me in the planning stage of the unit.

So, today marked the first investigation of the unit.  Over the weekend I prepared the materials and found some fun and engaging videos to introduce and review the major concepts covered.  I created slides to project on the whiteboard that would detail the lab protocol.  I had everything planned just right.  I figured we would have at least 30 minutes remaining when we finished so that the students could begin working on the Science Fair project.  It was sure to work, or so I thought.  Sometimes all the planning in the world can’t prepare you for reality.

When the time for STEM class arrived, I was so excited.  I prepared the materials on the back table before I started class.  I was pumped.  Today we were making Oobleck!  I started class as I usually did.  I reviewed the homework, signed planbooks, and reviewed the day’s agenda.  Nothing new there.  We were on schedule at that point.  Then I handed out the math worksheet packets so that the students could begin the homework.  I said very little about the packets as everything they needed to know was written on the front page or detailed on their Haiku page.  That took about two minutes.  Then I shared the Chemistry Question of the Day with the class.  I didn’t even have volunteers share their hypotheses on the question.  I briefly explained what the question was asking and shared a short video with the students.  The video detailed the differences between physical and chemical changes.  It was filled with visual explanations for the ELL students but had lots of information conveyed verbally as well.  It was a perfect supplement to the question.  Following the video, I asked a few students the question again to be sure they had gleaned the appropriate information from the video.  One of the students who I asked seemed a bit confused by the ideas in the video and so I spent about three minutes reviewing the major differences between physical and chemical changes.  I even detailed notes on the whiteboard.  I had volunteers share their thoughts and ideas until we had specific and understandable definitions for each type of change.  This helped make the ideas in the video tangible for all.

Then we got into the lab.  At this point, about 20 minutes were gone in the double block, which meant there were only 60 minutes remaining.  I wasn’t worried at that point.  I figured conducting the lab would only take about 10 minutes anyway.  Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.  So, I quickly went over safety rules when conducting a science lab.  I called on volunteers for ideas and made a list on the board.  We reviewed the important tips to remember when conducting an investigation.  I stressed the importance of following the rules so that our safety is always being honored and respected.  This took about seven minutes.  Not bad, I thought.  Then I quickly shared the slide detailing the steps for conducting the investigation.  I handed out the Observation Record worksheet I made to help guide the students through the scientific method.  I then took all of the questions the students had regarding the expectations for conducting the investigation.  This whole process took about six minutes.  Nice.  Still on schedule, I thought.  Yah for me.

Then I assigned the students their partner and allowed them to begin.  They all got set up quite quickly.  Still no worries.  The boys got to work, slowly.  Some of the students asked me what to do.  How do we make Oobleck?  I reminded them to look at the protocol on the board.  I said no more than this when they asked me what to do or how to do it.  I wanted them to use their critical thinking and problem solving skills to get the job done.  That has been my focus all year in STEM.  I want them to engineer solutions to their problems.  They need to learn to self-advocate for themselves.  After about four minutes, many of the partnerships had solved their problems and had created Oobleck.  Then they started observing and playing with it.  This is where the real learning happened.  They started playing with the ratios of water to cornstarch to make even more Oobleck.  It was quite awesome to watch the boys learn and explore.  They were solving problems and thinking like scientists.  However, this play time meant more time had elapsed than I had mentally allotted.  All of a sudden, 10 minutes had turned into 15 minutes and they hadn’t even begun to clean up or complete their Observation Record worksheet.  So, I had them all clean up, which took a lot longer than I had anticipated.  The whole lab and clean up process took almost 23 minutes.  That was more than double what I had planned for and they still had to complete the worksheet.  That took another seven minutes.

Then we reviewed the big ideas from the investigation.  What kind of change took place?  What phase of matter is Oobleck?  What happened to the water and cornstarch when they were mixed?  This discussion brought about some insightful ideas and great conversation.  It was so interesting how the students thought that a chemical change had taken place.  It was like an a-ha moment for the students when I revealed what really had happened.  This part took a while but was totally worth it.

Then we watched and discussed a video about the difference in mixture types.  The students had to figure out which type of mixture the Oobleck represented.  This was the easy part.  It was at this point in the class when only five minutes remained.  Rather than get into the next part of the lesson that I had planned, I reviewed the major chemistry concepts covered in class.  This was a great way to wrap things up for the period as I will begin class on Thursday with an assessment on the concepts covered to be sure the students comprehended what we learned in class today.

Sure, today’s lesson was a hit.  The students were engaged and curious throughout.  They loved making Oobleck and learning about the chemistry of it.  They asked effective questions and solved problems in an appropriate manner.  However, I had not planned on the activity taking over the entire double block.  I wanted to leave time for the students to begin the Science Fair, but we ran out of time.  Will the students have enough time to complete the Science Fair project?  While over-planning is always better than under-planning, I am constantly frustrated with my inability to plan effectively.  Although today’s activity accomplished many objectives and concepts, did it cover too much in not enough detail?  Or did I beat a dead horse?

Perhaps though, it was just right.  Maybe everything worked out just the way it was supposed to have.  Maybe the students would not have had enough time to really dig into the Science Fair project regardless of when the activity had ended.  Maybe fate worked in my favor today.  Well, whatever happened, I’m still frustrated by my lack of effective planning.  Yes, I know the activity itself was a homerun.  The students learned a lot and had fun.  Many of the boys cited it as one of their highlights of the class day.  So, clearly it was worthwhile and amazing.  I guess I’m just being hard on myself.  Today’s STEM class did go very well, I just wish I had planned on the activity taking the whole period so that I don’t feel so bad about having over-planned.  Sometimes being a perfectionist is quite challenging, especially when there’s not enough time in the day to get everything just right.