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

Introduction

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!

Purpose

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.

How Can I Apply my Summer Reading to the Classroom?

Pic 3

While I’m all about science and the study of meteorology, I often find weather forecasts to be confusing and inaccurate.  What does partly cloudy really mean?  How many clouds will be in the sky?  Will we see the sun at all?  What fraction of the sky will be covered by clouds?  I’ve given up putting my faith in the daily weather forecast due to all of this puzzling information.  Instead, when I want to know what the weather is, I simply go outside and look up.  Are there clouds in the sky?  Is it sunny?  I will sometimes also lick my finger and place it into the air to find out how windy it is and in what direction it’s blowing from.  I don’t need some fancy computer model telling me something that may not be true when I can just figure it out for myself.

So, this morning, when I was trying to figure out how to prepare for my weekly shopping trip, I went outside and looked up.  The normally blue sky was 100% covered by clouds.  It looked like an overcast kind of day.  Perhaps the sun would come out later in the day, or maybe not.  It’s really hard to tell.  Might the clouds thicken and produce some moist precipitation?  It’s possible.  Thankfully, the cloud cover brought the temperature down a bit from where they’ve been over the past few days.  Could that change and the clouds move out, giving way to sunshine and increased temperatures?  Perhaps.  Anything is possible on an overcast day like today.  Do I bring a raincoat or umbrella with me to keep my clothes dry?  Do I wear my hat to shield my balding head from the harmful UV rays?  What do I do?  So many questions, with no immediate answers.

Like trying to prepare for the uncertainty of today’s weather, teachers and schools around the country are trying to figure out what the start of the new school year will look like.  Will schools reopen?  Will all students return to school?  Will there be a staggered schedule?  Will students be able to keep their face coverings on through the day if we do return to school?  What precautions will schools take to keep their students and faculty safe?  Would it be safer to simply begin the year the same way we ended the previous academic year, with remote learning?  Too many questions with not enough answers or solutions.  What will September look like for schools, teachers, and students around the country?  As facts regarding the current pandemic have been changing faster than a newborn baby needs to have his or her diaper changed, it’s my perception that schools can’t completely prepare for something that is two months away.  So much can change in that period of time.  What do we do in the meantime then?  We watch, wait, and prepare for numerous possible solutions to the problem of how to start the new school year come September.


While there is much I don’t know about what the new school year holds for me and my school, I do feel confident that I can be prepared for almost every possible outcome.  My gassy gut is telling me that we will most likely have to utilize a combination of in-school and remote learning programs throughout the upcoming school year.  So, I’m looking to grow as a multi-faceted educator who can transition between on-site teaching and distance teaching as quickly as that pizza box guy can fold pizza boxes.

As I dug a bit further into the professional development text that the faculty and staff at my school are reading this summer, I was filled with excitement about some of the new things I want to try in my classroom or online in just a few short months.  When I finally finished the book, Teaching Students to Become Self-Determined Learners by Michael Wehmeyer and Yong Zhao, I felt empowered, as I gained insight into how to improve my remote learning program and my on-site teaching.  Several years ago, when I completed a course on the neuroscience of teaching, I realized the power in creating a student-centered approach to teaching.  When students are in control of their learning, they are more engaged, curious, and motivated to work hard.  This book that I recently finished takes that whole body of knowledge to the next level and explains how to create classrooms and schools that truly empower students to take ownership of their learning through becoming self-determined learners.  I loved the way in which the book was crafted.  It felt more like a non-fiction book than it did an educational textbook.  It wasn’t dense, but it did contain much valuable information on teaching and learning.  I enjoyed how the authors shared research knowledge in relevant and manageable chunks while also mixing in lots of stories on how schools around the globe have created student-driven programs for their students.  I highly recommend this text for all teachers looking to grow and become a more effective guide for their students.  As I’ve known for many years now, teaching isn’t about being the sage on the stage, it’s about being the guide from the side.  And this book provides salient information on how to do that in a more meaningful and effective manner.

Some of my takeaways from the book…

  • Should homework be choice-based for students?  Rather than us as the teachers assigning homework that is, perhaps, sometimes seen as busy work by the students, should we allow the students to choose their homework assignments?  Maybe a student who is struggling to comprehend a newly learned math concept would find further practice with that topic more beneficial than reading on a particular night.  Or perhaps, a student working on crafting a creative fiction story might want to spend time outside of school continuing to develop his or her story instead of completing a math worksheet or some other unrelated task.  As we want our students to engage in the learning tasks, activities, and projects they complete during class, shouldn’t we also want them to be engaged in the work they are doing outside of the confines of class time?  I’m thinking that I might pilot this practice by providing my students with some options for homework each night and allowing them to choose what they will do.  Perhaps some students might have a lot of extracurricular activities happening that night and homework just isn’t feasible.  Isn’t that an okay choice too?  As teachers, we need to be sure that our students are finding a balance between work, play, and self-care.  Maybe homework doesn’t need to be assigned nightly.  Interesting food for thought indeed.  I can’t wait to see how it plays out in practice.
  • How might we get students involved in classroom organization?  Could the students help us determine how to best set up and organize our classrooms?  Perhaps we could work this into our Orientation Day schedule.  Now, this idea, of course, would not be able to be put into practice until after the pandemic has subsided and an effective vaccine is widely available for all citizens.  But, I do love the idea of having the students help to create their ideal classroom.  They could determine the posters that we plaster onto the walls, as well as how we organize the desks and other areas of the classroom.  Maybe they would choose not to use chairs but beanbags or exercise balls instead.  This would be so much fun.  I can’t wait to try this idea in a year or two.
  • At our Closing Faculty Meetings last week, we discussed the idea of student recognition.  How could we best recognize and celebrate student successes without creating a culture of competition and stress to be recognized?  What if we looked to celebrate character instead of academic achievements?  Rather than recognizing the grades a student earns, we could celebrate the positive and caring choices he or she makes.   One of the schools referenced in the book makes use of a Bucket Filling Board based on the book Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud.  My school should totally do that.  We could create a bulletin board display in the front entryway of the school that the students and faculty could use to recognize caring and compassionate choices and actions.  If I notice that a student is going above and beyond to help another student understand a difficult concept, I could recognize them in writing on this board.  I could also then share this example of bucket filling with the greater community during one of our all-school gatherings that take place each morning.  This way, we are teaching students to see the value in kindness, compassion, and caring.  I love it!
  • Should we have a student government at my school?  While we are a micro-school with about 40 students or so, does it make sense to have a governing body composed of students to help the faculty and staff make decisions for the school?  I think it would help students feel and be more involved in the entire process of schooling and education if we were to do so.  Instead of complaining about the way things are, students could work to foster change in the school.  There could be one delegate from each grade, chosen by the students.  They could meet weekly or more frequently, with the aid of a faculty advisor, to discuss changes they would want to make.  They could ask for feedback from their peers for ideas.  Then, once every few weeks, that group could attend one of our Faculty Meetings to share their ideas with us.  We could also ask for their input on school decisions we are making as a faculty.  Talk about engagement.  It would also allow us to meaningfully teach the power of civic duty and responsibility.  I’m totally bringing this idea up with the faculty at one of our next Faculty Meetings.
  • Could we make use of the idea of a Personalized Learning Plan if remote learning happens?  We could work with each student and their family to devise a plan for their learning during the time away from school.  The students could have input on what they learn and how they choose to showcase their learning.  I like this idea because, again, it puts the onus on the students as they work to become self-determined leaners.
  • The book discussed the importance of teaching students an effective process for solving problems.  I like this idea and want to start the new school year introducing the concept of problem solving to my students.  Once I introduce the steps of the process to the class, we could then apply them to a practice problem.  I thought it would be a cool idea to have the students work with me to create a meaningful set of class expectations.  This way they can take ownership of the rules, which would hopefully, in turn, allow them to be more engaged in the entire process of learning.  I can’t wait to try this out in the classroom.
  • Another school featured in the book had students complete the VIA Character Youth Survey as a way to help celebrate the various character traits that students bring to a classroom.  I like this idea and see that it could also be used to help create tailored plans for students to work on developing their lesser strengths.  I took the adult version of the survey and was surprised by the findings.  I feel that knowing where my weaknesses lie, helps me to focus on areas in need of growth.  So cool!  I am totally using this in the classroom.
  • I was intrigued by the Hole in the Wall Project conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s in India.  It made me realize how truly capable our students are.  Their brains seem to be more able to be open to new things and ways of learning.  If we give students the time and space to figure things out on their own, they are very able to teach themselves.  So, instead of me spending lots of time explaining how to use a new technology tool, I could provide my students with time to explore and play on their own.  This way, they can learn on their own, applying the problem solving process I plan to teach early in the year.  I love this idea!

What a fantastic book filled with great and inspiring ideas.  Schools can be magical places that empower students to engage in and own their learning, if the adults at the schools allow these things to happen by fostering a sense of student agency and teaching students to become self-determined learners.


While the weather outside is still uncertain, I know that I am excited for the new school year to begin, regardless of how it will look or be designed.  I’m ready to try some new things remotely or on-site.  The unknown can easily become a haven for possibility if we are open to taking risks and trying new things.

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.

The Key Ingredients Needed to Make Learning Fun in the Classroom

While I tend to be a creature of habit in most aspects of my life, when it comes to cooking, I love to wander off the downtrodden path and improvise.  Recipes, shmeshipes I say.  I cook from the heart, and stomach.  What do I think will taste good in this dish?  That question drives me when I’m in the kitchen.  I love chocolate chips, and so even though most recipes do not call for them, I love to throw them in.  Chocolate makes everything better.  As my son can’t consume high quantities of salt, I usually discard that ingredient from recipes when cooking something that he may enjoy.  I get a little funky and try new things when baking or cooking.  It’s a great release for my creativity.  A dash of this, a pound of that, and lots of chocolate chips.

Over my years in education, I’ve tried to adopt this same improvisational approach to my teaching.  I like to take risks, try new things, and engage my students.  This often means that I need to think on my feet, adapt a lesson or activity in order to meet the needs of my students, and revise my plans frequently.  As the large body of research on learning and the brain tells us, students learn best when they are engaged.  To engage my students, I work to make learning fun.  How does one make learning fun, you are probably asking yourself right now.  Although schools have changed over time, if your experience was anything like mine, there was very little fun to be had during the class part of your school day.  The fun came at recess, lunch, and snack.  Learning was rarely fun for me when I was in school.  Fortunately for our students, schools and the world of education have evolved much over time.  Fewer schools and teachers are using textbooks, and teacher-directed instruction is now only a small part of each lesson or activity.  As teachers, we now have the flexibility to make use of project-based activities and hands-on learning.  We are working to make learning fun for our students.

So, what’s the secret to making learning fun?  Well, that’s just it, there is no tried and true formula for making learning fun, as every student and school is different.  What might be fun for one student may not be enjoyable for another.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic wand to give you that will allow you to make learning fun for your students; however, I do have some tips and tricks.  You see, while there is no set recipe for fun in the classroom, if you start with a few key ingredients, you may find that fun happens.

First, as the neuroscience research tells us, it starts with safety.  The students need to feel safe, respected, and cared for in the classroom.  You need to create a welcoming space for the students to enter each and every day.  Setting up your classroom in such a way that the students have options for how they learn is crucial.  Not all students learn best sitting in a chair at a desk.  Some students like to get comfortable in a bean bag or on the floor.  Organizing your classroom with different types of spaces is vital to helping students feel respected and cared for.  The other key component for students to feel safe in your classroom is the social-emotional curriculum.  Do you address the anxiety levels of your students?  Do you provide students with a safe space to share their feelings?  Do you make use of mindfulness strategies?  Do you begin each morning by warmly greeting your students and engaging them in conversation?  If not, you will want to dig into each of those areas so that you are creating a culture of care and compassion in the classroom.  Only when students feel safe can genuine learning happen.

The second key ingredient required to make learning fun is a sense of humor.  Being able to laugh at yourself in front of the students and make really awesome Dad Jokes, as my students like to call them, helps to create an atmosphere of trust and silliness in the classroom.  When the students see that they don’t need to be so serious all the time, they let their guard down, they open up, they share their feelings, they laugh, and they have fun.  Each Morning Meeting in my fifth grade classroom includes a pun.  For example, the pun I used on the last day of school prior to the holiday break was, “How do Christmas Trees keep their breath smelling so fresh?”  Any ideas?  My students guessed things like their pine scent, which were chili pepper ideas, but incorrect.  The answer, “Orna-mints.”  Hilarious, I know.  Beginning the day with silly jokes and riddles helps the students see that learning and school can be fun and enjoyable.

The third key ingredient needed for fun to spontaneously break out in the classroom is, wait for it, novelty.  Trying new things, taking a different approach to an old concept, and making things fresh for the students helps to trigger their brains to pay attention.  Our brains crave new things, and so when we teach a concept in a unique way, our students will pay close attention because their brains are telling them to do so.  For example, instead of using those mundane grammar worksheets we all grew up having to complete, I teach grammar through stories.  I tell my students the story of how this gang of super heroes saved my life one night.  I explain how I was being accosted in the alley by some villains when out of seemingly no where comes this group of superheroes to save the day.  Super Noun Man uses his hands, super strength, and super speed to help, while Super Verb Lady uses her many super actions to intercede on my behalf.  I create this elaborate tale all about how each part of speech gets involved in saving my life.  When I shared this story with my students this year, one student asked, “I notice that each super hero helped you using examples of the part of speech they are.”  Exactly!  Students love new and fun things.  So, trying to find different and cool ways to teach a concept or introduce a new unit is paramount for fun to be had in the classroom.

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The fourth ingredient has to do with the activities or lessons themselves.  Are the students doing something?  Are the students working with their peers?  Is there hands-on learning taking place in the classroom?  Students crave social interactions with their peers.  They love talking to the other students.  So, making use of carefully constructed group projects or partner activities allows for this to happen in meaningful ways.  Students also learn best when they are doing something.  Rather than spewing information at them, allow them to experiment with a new concept and investigate how it works.  After briefly explaining how speed differs from velocity, I had the students, working in pairs, create a marble track that maximized speed while also having at least two changes in velocity.  This was a challenging but super fun task for the students.  It allowed them to tinker and find solutions on their own.  As the students worked, I asked each partnership probing questions about the concepts to be sure they understood the difference.  And they did.  They got it, and had a ton of fun doing so.

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The fifth and final necessary ingredient needed for fun to be fostered in the classroom, is, yes, you guessed it, love.  It seems hokey, but so very important.  You’ve got to love what you are doing in the classroom.  If you don’t love your lesson, activity, unit, or read-aloud novel, then the students will see through your fake smile and know that what they are doing is not fun.  This is probably one of the most difficult ingredients to get right for learning to become fun.  It’s not easy to make paragraph writing engaging and fun; however, if you think about the other key ingredients for fun and engagement to happen in the classroom, then it’s totally doable.  Finding ways to love everything you do in the classroom ties the other four ingredients together like wonderful wrapping paper.  When you love what you are doing in the classroom, the students will see it and start to love it as well.  Positivity and excitement are contagious.  When you share with the students the marble track you made on the wall of your classroom because you want to jump in on the fun they are sure to have, the students get pumped.  Then, when you have a student stand underneath the end of the marble track you have mounted on your wall and say, “Okay, now I need someone to stand right about there and face the opposite direction,” the students raise their hands as if you are giving away a new computer or phone.

Although there is no secret recipe for bringing about fun in the classroom, there are five key ingredients that will make fun possible: Creating a safe learning environment, having a sense of humor, novelty, hands-on learning and group projects, and having a love of what you are doing in the classroom.  When you mix equal parts of those five ingredients together, fun is bound to happen in your classroom.  Learning doesn’t have to be boring.  In fact, it can easily be engaging and fun, if you take the time to knead each lesson or unit into just the right shape.  When the students are having fun learning new concepts or applying old concepts to new ones, you are creating lifelong learners.  What students learn when they are having fun will not soon be forgotten, unlike those ridiculous grammar worksheets from your eighth grade English class.

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How Will I Grow as an Educator this Summer?

Anger is an emotion I rarely experience.  Frustration and madness, sure, but not anger.  I just don’t find myself getting angry that often.  However, in the last two years, or ever since our sitting president took office, I find myself being brought to the verge of anger on a more regular basis while reading news stories and current events about happenings in our world.  Things just aren’t like they used to be, oh no.  Humans are going a little bonkers.  But this kind of angry is good, because it means that I am paying attention to the world around me.  As some person once said, “If you’re not angry, then you’re not paying attention.”  I watch and observe what is happening in our country and abroad because I care.  I vote, I watch, and I try to make a difference if I’m not liking what I’m noticing.  So, sometimes I do get angry when I’m reading stories on the news app on my phone.  The crazy things that are happening boggle my mind.  It’s as if we are living in a reality television program.

Yesterday, I read a story online that made me a bit angry.  Surprisingly enough though, it wasn’t about the political side of things.  No, it was about something even more near and dear to my heart: Music.  This author had the audacity to proclaim that rock music is officially dead.  What is he talking about, I said aloud to myself while reading this absurd piece.  One of my all-time favorite genres of music is rock.  I listen to rock music on the radio almost daily.  Bands are crafting new rock tunes all the time.  Rock music will never die.  Especially with what’s going on in our world, people need rock music.  Rock is the genre for the counter-culture movements happening globally.  Rock has always provided those invested and knowledgeable angry people with a safe haven, an outlet will you.  Rock music saved my life when I was growing up.  Things were a bit difficult for me as a teen, but fortunately, I had my rock cassette tapes and CDS to comfort me and provide me with an escape when things got too challenging.  I remember listening to Guns N’ Roses’ masterpiece Use Your Illusions I and II so frequently that the tapes eventually broke.  Axl Rose’s lyrics helped me through some tough times.  Then came Pearl Jam’s Ten.  Epic is the only way to describe this album.  Black was my favorite tune from that disc.  Amazing.  As hardcore, metal, punk, and rock evolved in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the landscape of rock music changed as well.  Bands like Coheed and Cambria and Thursday blended genres together and took listeners on a completely new musical journey.  Other bands grew out of this new movement and rock music flourished through the beginning of the 21st century.  New bands and old ones are still crafting and constructing new rock music all of the time.  The author of that ridiculous article clearly has no idea what rock music really is.  You see, in the article, he only referenced bands like Avenged Seven-fold and the Foo Fighters.  While I do like both of those bands, they aren’t the only rock bands around, and they certainly don’t encapsulate the genre.  So, to make this rant come to an end so that I can get on with my blog, this article is completely false and rock music is alive and well, and will always be that way.

Unlike that fictitious article I just referenced, my summer plans are shaping up to totally rock and roll as I prepare for my first year of teaching fifth grade at my new school.  I’m so excited.  I get to set up a new classroom, meet new people, create new curriculum, challenge new students, and be a part of what is sure to be an amazing learning community.  YES!  So, to prepare for all of this awesomeness, I need a plan of action.  So, this summer, I’m going to keep the pedal pushed all the way down to the rocking metal as I work to prepare for the upcoming school year.

  • I need to set up and organize my new classroom.  I’m happy to know that my new school will be ordering new whiteboard desks and rocking chairs for my classroom.  Those will help the students stay focused, attentive, and engaged throughout the day.  I get to figure out how I’m going to set things up.  My new classroom has so many windows that look out onto rolling fields and scenes of nature.  I can’t wait to try some new ways of putting things together in my new classroom.  I hope to get started on this process in early July, which is great because I have a ton of stuff in storage right now to move over from my old classroom.
  • I need to determine which math book or series I will be going with for the fifth grade program.  The school currently uses the Big Ideas Learning math series for grades six through eight.  While I want to maintain consistency for the fifth grade, I’m not sure this book series would be best for the group of students I will be working with this fall.  Some of my new students have noted that math is a bit of a struggle for them.  So, my goal is to choose a math curriculum that will engage my students in meaningful ways so that they are excited to learn new math concepts and strengthen their foundation regarding computational skills.  The founder of my new school suggested I look at this new program called Beast Academy.  Wow, was about all I could say when I checked it out.  It is a math graphic novel that uses monsters to teach math concepts.  It’s rigorous and challenging, but tackles the topics in new and creative ways.  I think this would be a great curriculum to use.  Now, I just need to talk things over with my new headmaster to find out what he thinks would be best.  Of course, I will support whatever he chooses, but I’m hoping that he will allow me to try out the Beast Academy program for next year.  Fingers crossed.
  • I need to complete my first science and social studies units on community and the scientific method.  As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’ve got a plan for this process.  I’m excited to try new things and dig into some cool ideas and learning.  I have already begun this process, as it requires much behind the scenes work.  I’m sure that this portion of my summer work will last the longest.
  • I need to determine what my daily schedule will be for the fifth grade program.  Sometime in the coming weeks, I will sit down with my new headmaster to hash out the daily schedule in terms of time.  When will specials be?  What time is lunch?  Things like that.  Once I have this finalized, I can then begin the planning for things like Morning Meeting, Passion Projects, and outdoor discovery time.  This will be one of the first things I can check off of my summer list, as I need this to fall into place before I can really dig into the daily planning of my class.
  • My summer reading goal is small right now as I only have one book on it.  I also want to read some young adult books that I might use during Reader’s Workshop lessons in the fall.  I haven’t decided on those titles yet.  The only book I have so far is Quiet by Susan Cain.  I just started it yesterday and am loving it.  As an introvert, I can totally relate to a lot of what she mentions in the novel.  The world seems to favor extroverts, but its the synergy of people working together that really makes the world work.  We need to embrace the introverts in our work places and schools and allow them to develop their skills in appropriate ways.  We can’t try to make introverted people into extroverts, as it will only cause future problems.  I’m excited to learn some tips and tricks on how to best support the introverts that I will inevitably have in my classroom this year.  I’m hoping to finish this book within a couple of weeks.  Then I will gather the young adult books I want tackle next.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for now.  I’m sure that other things will crop up along the way, as they always do.  That’s just part of the process of developing new things and preparing for a new school year.  The fun is in the middle.  So, now I will embark upon my summer journey of rocking hard as I ready things for the next academic year.  Oh, and I’ll be listening to plenty of rock music.  Rock on!

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.

The Humanity in Humanities: Revising my Unit on Community

Being an elementary school teacher at heart, I remember learning all about planning and implementing a unit on community in my methods and practicum course in college.  “Young students need to learn the importance of community and how they are all a part of many different communities,” the professors would often preach.  While I used to think it was hokey, in this day and age of technological distractions and social media, it’s crucial that students learn all about the community in which they live while exploring it without a cell phone or portable device.  Students learn through experiences, and so what better way to help them appreciate and understand the community in which they live than to have them dig through an old river bed for artifacts from the town’s history?  Hands-on learning brings the community alive for the students and makes learning engaging and fun.  Through experiences like this, students will learn to appreciate the communities of which they are all apart.  It will also help them to be more open-minded and aware of their surroundings.  If students only knew the history of the towns in which they live, they might be more apt to explore and get out and about in their communities during their free time instead of playing video games or checking their social media applications.

So, to be sure my students learn to appreciate all that the little town of Canaan has to offer, I’m beginning the academic year in my Humanities class with a unit on community.  While I’ve enjoyed the activities completed during this unit in past years and the students have provided positive feedback on the various lessons completed throughout the unit over the past four years, I’ve made a few minor tweaks for this year.  I want to be sure the students have the opportunity to process and debrief each of the field experiences.  Last year, I felt as though we would simply move on after each field experience without making sure the students understood why we did what we did and how that informs their understanding of the Canaan community.  I don’t want to think of this unit as a series of boxes to check off; I want to make this unit an experience that the students will carry with them when they go out into other communities.  I want my students to always be asking why and how?  How did this town come to be a town?  What is my role in this community?  How can I make this community a great place for all people?  I want my students to be changemakers, and in order to do this, I need to provide them with opportunities to ask questions so that they understand the relevance of every piece of this unit puzzle.  In this same vein, I also added a new option for the final project that will allow the students to identify a problem within the community, create a solution to the problem, and then enact their solution.  I want critical thinking and problem solving to be skills the students learn and practice in every class.

I’m super excited about this unit because of the slight alterations I’ve made, but also because of the power it holds.  This unit is the foundation upon which the other units we will complete throughout the year will be built upon.  This unit ties our course together as we revisit the themes and ideas of this unit in every successive unit.  The stage is set for both Writer’s and Reader’s Workshop in this unit as well.  I’m very pleased with the work I’ve done to enhance this unit over the past few weeks, and I’d love any feedback you could provide me with about this unit.  Here is the daily plan for Our Community unit…

Day 1: Reader’s Workshop Introduction

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Trivia Time: Discuss and Explain process
  • Discuss and Explain: What is Humanities class all about?
  • Introduce and Discuss Reader’s Workshop
    • Think-Pair-Share: What is your past experience with reading?  Do you like to read and why or why not?  Have students jot down answers on paper before partnering.
    • Explain Reader’s Workshop
      • Class Read Aloud: First Book Seedfolks  by Paul Fleischman
      • Mini-Lesson on Reading Strategies
      • Silent Reading
      • Book Talks
      • Book Chats
      • Teacher Conferences
    • Choosing Just Right Books
      • Mini-Lesson in small groups
      • Discuss: How do you choose a new book to read?
      • Model and explain 5-Finger Rule using books
      • Have students choose first reader’s workshop book and read silently
      • Conference with students as they choose books
    • Wrap Up: Briefly Explain Habits of Learning and have students share which they used today in class

Day 2: Community Unit Introduction

  • Homework: Write about the Dawn Climb for 30 Minutes
  • On This Day in History: Explain and Discuss
  • Introduce Focus for first Humanities Unit
    • Discuss Community: As a group of students together, what are some other titles we might use to refer to us as?  What does it mean to be a part of a community?  What communities are you a part of?  How does being a part of a community make you feel?  What are you able to do as a part of a community that you couldn’t do if you weren’t?
    • Community Definition: Have students brainstorm a definition for the word Community with their table partner before sharing ideas aloud with the class until we have an agreed upon definition
    • Community Norms: Discuss what an effective community looks like in action before generating a list of how all good communities should function and operate
  • Exit Ticket: Write at least ways all good communities function

Day 3: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Previewing a text
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: Who would like to share what they liked about their book today?

Day 4: Writer’s Workshop Introduction

  • Homework: Continue Working on Quick Write for 30 Minutes
  • Geography Bee: Explain and Discuss
  • Writer’s Workshop Introduction
    • Class Discussion: What do you like about writing and why?  What do you not like about writing and why?  This year, we hope to turn the negatives into positives
    • Writing
    • Mini-Lessons on Writing Strategies
    • Sharing
    • Revising
    • Editing
    • Rewriting
  • Explain Quick Write Protocol
    • Write about provided prompt for 10 minutes
    • Have volunteers share what they wrote
    • Ask students: What are your thoughts on this activity?
  • Wrap-Up: Which Habit of Learning did you use the most in class today?

Day 5: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Trivia Time
  • Review: What makes an effective community and why?
  • Pair-Share Activity: Where are you from and how is it different from Canaan?
  • Discuss: When learning about communities, what do we need to keep in mind?  How do we learn about communities that are unfamiliar to us?
  • List Generation: Make list of what we need to or want to learn about in our unit on the Canaan Community
  • Community Quick Write
    • Create Canaan’s history.  How did the town form and when?
    • Have students share their pieces with their table partner
  • Wrap-Up: How does growth mindset play a key role in learning about a new place?

Day 6: Writing About Your Reading

  • Homework: Finish Goodreads Update and Read About Current Events for 30 Minutes
  • Mini-Lesson: Writing about your Reading– Part I
    • Ask students: Why is it important to know how to write about what you read in a meaningful and critical manner?
    • Discuss and Explain Requirements of Effective Goodreads Update
    • Share a Goodreads update that meets the requirements and discuss why
    • Share a Goodreads update that does not meet the expectations and discuss why
    • Read chapter from Seedfolks read-aloud novel and have students write, on lined paper, an update focused on the character narrating the piece
    • Have students meet with teacher and peers to receive feedback on their update
    • Exit Ticket: Write two requirements of an effective Goodreads Update

Day 5: Current Events and Writing About Your Reading

  • Homework: Free Write on a Current Event
  • Weekly News Quiz: Explain and Discuss
  • Introduce Current Event Process
    • Have students share current events read about with their table partner
    • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Mini-Lesson: Writing About Your Reading– Part II
    • Have students Review their Goodreads Update
      • Highlight support or example from book
      • Underline Interpretation or analysis
      • Write number of sentences in margin
      • Write and circle number of topics focused on in margin
    • Collect Goodreads Updates and read a few aloud discussing requirements and expectations
  • Wrap-Up: What do we need to remember when crafting a Goodreads update?

Day 6: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 20 Minutes and Update Goodreads on 1 Character
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Reading with a Purpose
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: Who would like to share what they liked about their book today?

Day 7: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Geography Bee
  • Discuss the physical place of Canaan
    • Show students a map of Canaan and have them share noticings and wonderings
    • Ask students: Does the physical space of Canaan have everything a community needs to be successful and why or why not?  Do you think the map of Canaan changed over time and why or why not?
    • Show students different maps of Canaan over time and discuss the changes
    • Ask students: How does the physical place and environment affect a community?  How does Canaan’s location affect the people and place?
    • Tell students: Tomorrow we will be going on a walking field trip of Canaan Street.  You will be taking notes, writing, drawing, and actively participating in the field experience.  Your notes will be graded along with your participation in the field experience.  What kind of notepad do you want to use for tomorrow’s trip?
    • Have students make a notepad for tomorrow’s field experience using supplies in the classroom.

Day 8: Canaan Street Field Experience

  • Homework: Finish Canaan Street Notepad
  • Canaan Street Field Experience

Day 9: Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Finish Dawn Climb Story
  • Collect Canaan Street Notepads
  • On This Day…
  • Writer’s Workshop
    • Have students share their Dawn Climb story with their table partner
    • Ask students: What did you notice about the pieces?  What did they have in common?  What made them different?  What is narrative writing?  What makes an effective narrative story?
    • Have students revise, finish, or rewrite their dawn climb story remembering to include the features of a narrative story
  • Exit Ticket: What makes an effective narrative story?

Day 10: Current Events and Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Weekly News Quiz
  • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Explain Editing and Revising Process
  • Have students edit their dawn climb story
  • Have students revise their dawn climb story
  • Have volunteers share piece with the class
  • Wrap-Up: Which Habit of Learning best helps with the revising and editing process?

Day 11: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 20 Minutes and Update Goodreads on Setting
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Use Prior Knowledge
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: Table Partner Book Share

Day 12: Writer’s Workshop and Canaan Community

 

  • Homework: Finish Revising Piece Based on Peer Edit Feedback
  • Geography Bee
  • Writer’s Workshop
    • Explain and discuss Peer Editing Process
      • Handout worksheet and discuss
    • Have students Peer Edit their dawn climb story with a partner
    • Have students begin revising piece based on student feedback
  • Discuss what we learned about the Canaan community during last week’s field experience
  • Ask students: What else do you still want to know?
  • Have students Create Canaan Historian Field Experience Notepad reminding them that it will be graded
  • Wrap-Up: What questions do you want to ask Mrs. Dunkerton about Canaan tomorrow during our field experience?

 

Day 13: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Finish Canaan Historian Notepad
  • Canaan Field Experience

Day 14: Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read 1 current event and take Bullet Style Notes on lined paper
  • On This Day…
  • Writer’s Workshop
  • Explain Writing Groups Process
  • Have students get into their assigned writing groups and complete process
  • Have students revise their piece based on the feedback received
  • Wrap-Up: What did you find helpful about the writing group process?

Day 15: Current Events and Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Finish Author’s Note
  • Weekly News Quiz
  • Have students share their current event with their table partner
  • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Explain Author’s Note Process
  • Have students complete their Author’s Note at the end of their dawn climb piece
  • Exit Ticket: Why is it important to learn about current events in the world?

Day 16: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 20 Minutes and Update Goodreads on Thoughts About your Book
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Make Connections
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: Why is making connections an important reading strategy?

Day 17: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Rand Estate Tour and Field Experience

Day 18: Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Finish Revising Piece Based on Teacher Feedback
  • Trivia Time
  • Writer’s Workshop
    • Discuss Teacher Feedback and Final Revising Process
    • Have students read the teacher feedback and make changes to their piece based on this feedback

Day 19: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Read 1 Current Event and Take Bullet Style Notes
  • On This Day…
  • Discuss what was learned from Tuesday’s field experience
  • Ask students: What else do we want to know about the Canaan Community?
  • Introduce and discuss Canaan Community Project
  • Have students choose project and begin working

Day 20: Current Events and Canaan Community Project

  • Homework: Work on Canaan Community Project for 30 Minutes
  • Weekly News Quiz
  • Have students share their current event with their table partner
  • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Have students work on Canaan Community Project
  • Wrap-Up: Have volunteers share successes and/or struggles they are having in the project

Day 21: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 20 Minutes and Update Goodreads on Questions you Have
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Questions
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: How does asking questions make you a better engaged reader?

Day 22: Canaan Community Project

  • Homework: Work on Canaan Community Project for 30 Minutes
  • Geography Bee
  • Work on Canaan Community Project

Day 23: Canaan Community Project

  • Homework: Work on Canaan Community Project for 30 Minutes
  • Trivia Time
  • Work on Canaan Community Project

Day 24: Canaan Community Project

  • Homework: Finish Canaan Community Project
  • On This Day…
  • Work on Canaan Community Project

Day 25: Current Events and Unit Wrap-Up

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Weekly News Quiz
  • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Collect Canaan Community Projects
  • Debrief Unit with Class
    • Have students complete student feedback survey
    • Ask students: What did you learn about communities from this unit?

Here is the Unit Plan document for the unit…

Unit Title: Our Community
Creator: Mark Holt
Grade Level: 6
Timeframe: Fall Term– Wednesday, September 13 – Thursday, October 19 (25 class days, double periods)
Essential Questions

  • What does it mean to be a part of a community?
  • What do we need to learn about a community in order to fully understand it?
  • How does what you learn about a community change your perception of a place?
Habits of Learning

    • Growth Mindset: The students will be challenged to take risks, fail, make mistakes, and try new strategies when writing, reading and discussing.  The students will need to be flexible in their thinking when approaching the strategies covered.  Thinking creatively will allow for new and unique ideas to be generated, which will in turn lead to deeper engagement and more genuine learning.
    • Self-Awareness: The students will need to be aware of their writing and reading abilities when choosing just-right books and crafting pieces of writing.  They will be challenged to move beyond their abilities so as to grow as readers, writers, and thinkers.
    • Coexistence: The students will work collaboratively with their peers when peer editing, discussing current events, discussing community, and discussing their reading.  They will be challenged to overcome obstacles faced when working with their peers.
    • Critical Thinking: The students will think critically when brainstorming writing, revising their writing, peer editing, discussing various topics in class discussions, and reflecting on their reading and writing.  They will be challenged to move beyond the concrete to the more abstract.
    • Communication: The students will need to effectively communicate with their peers and the teacher when writing, reading, and discussing.
    • Ownership: The students will be expected to take responsibility for their learning throughout this unit.  They will be challenged to self-check their work before turning it in to be assessed and graded.  They will need to be honest with themselves and the teachers when choosing appropriate just-right books.
    • Creativity: The students will be expected to craft an original and unique story based on their experiences climbing Mt. Cardigan at dawn and add their own original thoughts to class discussions.
Student Objectives, Skills, and Outcomes

Students will be able to:

  • Write about their reading.
  • Craft an original story, with a beginning, middle, and ending, based on a true account.
  • Revise their writing based on feedback.
  • Participate in class discussions.
  • Participate in field experiences.
  • Understand how a geographical place changes over time.
  • Create a visual representation of their knowledge regarding the Canaan community.
  • Review their work to be sure it includes all required parts.
Cross Curricular Connections

  • PEAKS:
    • Students will learn how to utilize a growth mindset when learning new information.
Instructional Strategies Utilized

  • Identifying similarities and differences
  • Homework and practice
  • Cooperative learning
  • Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback
Materials/Resources/Websites

Haiku Learning Website

Seedfolks Paul Fleischman

Canaan Community members

Assessments

  • To assess students’ ability to write about their reading, we will read and grade their specific reading updates posted on the Goodreads website.  They will complete one update a week and we will spend the first few days of classes explaining and modelling the expectations for an effective update.
  • To assess students’ ability to craft an original story with a beginning, middle, and ending and revise their writing based on feedback, we will read their unique story based on their experiences hiking Mt. Cardigan at dawn, paying close attention to their ability to effectively utilize writing structures and the writing process in terms of editing and revising their work based on feedback from their peers and the teachers.
  • To assess students’ ability to participate in class discussions, we will take copious notes during small group discussions regarding the read-aloud text and current events.  We will spend time at the start of the year explaining and modelling the expectations for effectively participating in class discussions.  We will provide the students with much feedback throughout the unit so that they fully understand what is expected of them regarding this objective as it will be woven into almost every unit covered throughout the year in Humanities class.
  • To assess students’ ability to participate in field experiences, we will grade their performance during our visit to the town museum as well as our Canaan Street walk.  They will be expected to appropriately add their relevant insight, thoughts, and questions to the discussion.  They will also be expected to take relevant notes on important facts and details.
  • To assess students’ ability to understand how a geographical place changes over time, create a visual representation of their knowledge regarding the Canaan community, and review their work to be sure it includes all required parts, the students will complete the Canaan Community Project, which will have them make a creative visual representation of what they learned regarding the Canaan community and it’s history.

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!

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.

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!”