Posted in Challenges, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Presentation, Students, Teaching, Writer's Workshop, Writing, Writing Conferences

Learning from Yesterday’s “Failures”

When I was just a wee young lad, the word “fail” was considered almost as bad as other curse words like the “F word.”  If you failed at something, it meant that you were not good and lacked talent.  No one wanted to fail or be thought of as a failure.  It was a Scarlet Letter that you wore with you for the rest of your childhood.

Now, of course, we all know that times have changed and the word failure is synonymous with success.  In order to do something well, you have to fail at it first.  We want our students to fail in order for them to learn how to grow and succeed.  While it’s amazing that our ideas on teaching have progressed so much thanks to technology and research on the neuroscience of education, I do wish that the adults in my world when I was a child would have embraced failing as an essential part of the learning process.  Had I failed more because I was inspired to take more risks with my learning, I wonder how many other things I’d be capable of doing now.  Perhaps I would have learned to stick with playing the guitar.  Maybe I’d be in a band right now, touring Europe.  That would be cool.  I’ve always wanted to see London during this time of year.

As I now see the value in failing on a regular basis because of the learning that comes from the experience, I am more willing to try new things in the classroom as a teacher.  I’m not afraid to try out a new application on the computer or a new instructional strategy in the classroom.  If it works, great; if not, it provides me with a teachable moment in the classroom.  Luckily too, I can also reflect on my failed lessons or activities and learn from them.  While I was not overly happy with the outcome of yesterday’s Humanities lesson on the process of revising writing, I had the chance to reflect on what didn’t go well yesterday.  Then today, I was able to more effectively introduce and explain the purpose of the revision process and the power that it holds.  “Revision is the most important step in the writing process because it provides you with a chance to fix what’s broken with your work.  No writer, regardless of age and experience, is able to craft the perfect piece of writing.  Every writer is in need of fixing and revising their work.  Today, you have a chance to receive feedback from as many people as possible so that you can create an even better story than what you currently have.  You also have the chance to receive such valuable feedback that you will be able to, hopefully, exceed the three graded objective for this assignment.  So, treat today’s revision period with the respect it deserves.”  After feeling as though I did not explain the process of revising one’s writing well yesterday in class, I wanted to be sure that I highlighted the benefits in revising one’s written work based on feedback from others, and I feel like I did that today.  After my introduction and review of what was to happen in class during the work period, I felt quite confident that things would be better today than they were yesterday.

My future-telling skills were clearly right on par today as the work period was phenomenal.  The boys worked so well on providing each other with feedback, revising their work, and growing as writers.  I conferenced with three students and was able to provide them some meaningful feedback that will allow them to make their story far better than it was.  While I didn’t have a chance to observe every student or group as they worked during class today as I was conferencing with students at the back table, the groups I could see and hear seemed to be bleeding greatness.  To conclude class today, I some had students share how the peer editing process went for them in class today.

“Me and my partner worked on helping each other come up with better words to describe the setting in our stories,” one student said.  I praised those two students for the great effort they put into looking at one aspect of their writing.

“My partner helped me fix grammar stuff in my story and I helped him make his story funny and not boring,” one student said, laughing.  “He even said that he’s going to write a whole new story since he doesn’t think he did a good job on his first one.”  He was describing what he and his partner worked on during their peer editing conference.  Awesome!  I then explained how amazing it was that because of feedback, this specific writer will be able to grow and develop his writing skills.

I can’t wait to read the revised stories my students will complete by early next week.  They are sure to be far better than what they had typed this week.  And to think that if I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on yesterday’s lesson and thought about how to change things for today’s class, I would not have been able to inspire my students to see the value in revising their writing while also helping their peers make their stories better.  Failure helped me better support and challenge my students to utilize a growth mindset in Humanities class today.  Making mistakes is how genuine learning is fostered.  I need to fail in order to grow.  It seems counter intuitive, but it’s how the brain works.  We are wired to remember things that are tagged with emotion, and so failed experiences stick with us because they don’t make us usually feel very good.  I thought about my “failed” class yesterday for hours, which is why I was able to spend so much time thinking about how to fix the situation in class today.  How could I help my students better appreciate the editing and revising stages of the writing process?  And wallah, I found my answer in class today.  Failure rocks!  I can’t wait to do it again.

Posted in Education, Humanities, Learning, Presentation, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

The Stress of Being Observed by a Colleague

After having been teaching for over 16 years, you’d think I’d be comfortable when peers or mentors join my classroom to observe me, my students, and my teaching in order to provide me with feedback to help me grow and develop as an educator.  You’d think that, but unfortunately, that’s not the case.  I still get a case of the jitters every time a fellow teacher observes me.  Despite knowing that their purpose and goals are all positive and coming from a helpful place, I still get nervous and anxious whenever I’m being observed by a colleague.  I couldn’t tell you why I’m filled with such worry every time someone tries to provide me with constructive feedback on how I can grow as a teacher.  Maybe I’m worried that I will mess up and embarrass myself or perhaps I’m scared that I won’t demonstrate effective teaching practices.  Maybe I’m thinking that I might lose my job if I mess up.  While these are all possibly true worries, I can’t allow them to penetrate my brain while I’m teaching and being observed.  I need to separate my worries from the present.  I need to apply the mindful techniques I’m teaching to my students, to me.  I need to be present in the moment and focus only on that, and nothing else.  I need to learn to not hold onto my worries or fears as let them eat away at me.  I need to forget that I’m being observed and focus on teaching my students.

Yesterday provided me with yet another opportunity to practice living in the moment and being mindful when I’m being observed by a fellow teacher.  A colleague of mine came to observe me today as part of the three-year teacher development process of which I’m in the midst.  I knew he was coming and so made sure that I was very prepared.  I had photocopies made, a relevant agenda slide prepared, and lots of specific ideas on how to execute today’s lesson with poise and precision.  I felt completely ready to go.  Then, my fear and anxiety took over, and all of the great ideas and precise words and phrases I had intended to use were lost.  I didn’t freeze up or totally mess up the lesson, but I just felt off.  Things didn’t seem to go as I had planned them in my mind.

My plan for Saturday’s lesson introducing the historical fiction story final project…

  • Tell a story about how Mrs. Dunkerton contacted me after Wednesday’s field experience to issue a challenge to the students.
  • Remind the students that this project is like the big game for our unit on Canaan.
  • Discuss and explain the project overview and rubric sheet to the class.
  • Field questions the students have.
  • Explain what the students will do to begin working.
  • Meet with small groups of students to discuss the grading rubric and be sure the students feel completely comfortable with the expectations.
  • Observe the students as they work.
  • Have volunteers share lines or parts of their story aloud with the class.

Instead, because concern and worry wormed its way into my brain as class began, things got slightly off track…

  • While I told the story about Mrs. Dunkerton contacting me regarding a writing challenge for my students, I didn’t properly explain why she wanted us to do this.  I focused more on the conversation with her and not on the meat of the story itself.  I was trying to draw the students into the project with a fictional story writing contest but felt as though I didn’t explain it well at all.  My explanation felt verbose and clunky.  The message seemed lost.
  • I then jumped right into the project overview sheet without reminding the students how this project is like the big game for our Canaan unit.  I explained the process in an awkward and overly specific manner.  It didn’t feel right to me.
  • I then fielded the very few questions the students had, which I would usually take as a good sign, but it felt strange in the moment.  As I worried that I didn’t explain the project and expectations well, I was sure the students were confused, but there were only one or two questions.  I wondered how well they will be able to work on this project.
  • I then explained how the students will begin the writing process, again in a very verbose manner.  When I get nervous, I tend to repeat myself and over talk.  I probably said way too much.
  • I then met with my students in three separate, small groups.  The first group contained my ELLs.  I wanted to meet with them first so that I knew they completely understood what was being asked of them and how they were being assessed.  I went over each part of the rubric, having one of the students read the sentences aloud.  I then explained what that meant to the group.  A few of the students asked some clarifying questions.  One student seemed a bit confused, but his English proficiency is so very low.  He did eventually seem to get it and was working in a meaningful manner.  The second group contained two students who tend to struggle processing information in oral form.  I went over the rubric with them and explained each part.  They seemed to get it and asked only a few follow-up questions.  The final group I met with included my advanced English students.  For this group, I had them read over the rubric individually and then fielded any questions they had.  They had only one question.
  • I then walked around the classroom, observing the students as they worked.  They all seemed quite focused and engaged in the project.  However, because I had spent too much time earlier in the period explaining the project, I had only about two minutes to monitor the students as they worked.
  • I had no time to have students share their writing aloud with the class.  So, instead, I asked a question, “How many of you are loving your story and how it’s coming together?”  Many of the students raised their hands for this one, which felt promising.  I then reminded the students of their homework and what we’d be doing after Morning Break.  I do regret not having time for the students to share their work aloud with their peers, as this tends to be something they love doing.

As I reflect, in writing, on this process, it doesn’t seem that it went as poorly as originally thought.  The students seemed engaged in the writing process and seemed to understand what they were being assessed on.  Despite not introducing the project exactly as I had wanted to, I feel like I still did a pretty good job introducing and selling the students on the project.  I liked that I met with my class in smaller groups to go over the grading requirements as they had a chance to ask questions and feel at ease with what was being asked of them.  This process went very well.  While I do wish that I hadn’t been as mentally preoccupied as I was with being observed yesterday, the lesson went well overall.  I think I may have rushed to the conclusion that the lesson didn’t go well, which just goes to show how important the reflection process is.  Because I reflected on yesterday’s lesson in writing today, I was able to see that things didn’t go as poorly as I had thought.  I would like to work on better controlling my thoughts and emotions when being observed though.  That is one thing that never changed in how I thought about my lesson from yesterday.  I was overly stressed about being observed by a colleague.  Hopefully when I’m observed again, I won’t be quite so nervous.  I just need to work on being more mindful, like I’m asking of my students on a daily basis.  I now need to practice what I preach.

Posted in Co-Teacher, Co-Teaching, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Presentation, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

Embracing Teachable Moments for Teachers

Teachable moments aren’t solely reserved for students, oh no.  Anyone can experience and learn from a mistake, choice, or action.  You don’t need to be a student in a classroom to learn from something you did.  Think of the greatest minds and innovators of our time: Albert Einstein, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan to name a few.  They all suffered great setbacks early in their lives that they learned from.  Albert Einstein was kicked out of school because of his poor behavior, Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first on-air job, and Michael Jordan didn’t earn a spot on his high school’s varsity basketball team when he first tried out.  Of course, we all know that they learned from their mistakes or learnable/teachable moments and went onto to change the world.  Any person can learn from their past errors, not just students in a classroom.

Today, my co-teacher and I experienced a learnable moment that caused us to completely change our lesson.  Walking to our classroom this morning, my co-teacher and I discussed the lesson we had planned for our first period study skills class.

“So, are you all set for PEAKS class today,” I asked my co-teacher as we left the dining commons to head to our classroom.

“Yeah, I’m all set.  We’re going to finish that worksheet from last time,” she responded.

“Ahh, no.  I did that on Wednesday during your unscheduled morning.  You’re doing the study plan, remember?” I said, concerned that I had messed up and hadn’t informed her of the proper lesson plan.

“Umm, I don’t remember that, but I can fix it,” she quickly responded back as we walked into the classroom.

I then worked with my co-teacher to help her revise the agenda slide to reflect the accurate lesson plan.  As she was typing in the new topic for today’s class, I remembered that the students were going to be taking a test in her math class next week.  So, I said, “That’s cool that we’re discussing making study plans today.  Maybe they could make one for their math test.”

She then responded, “Yeah, that’s right.”

At that point, I was inspired.  “Wait a minute,” I said, “Let’s change things up a bit.  Let’s not use this boring worksheet I created but instead have the students create a study plan for their math test.  Yes.  I will model how to create a study plan and then they will make their own.  What do you think?”

She loved the idea, and so we changed the agenda slide one more time.

Today’s class was a huge success as each student created his very own study plan to prepare for next week’s math assessment.  The students know what they need to do to get ready.  Not only did we teach them a valuable strategy for planning ahead and making good use of their time to properly study for an exam, we also had them apply the skill to practice getting ready for an exam they have in class next week.  Talk about interdisciplinary work.  And to think that this brilliant plan and idea would not have been fostered had my co-teacher had the agenda slide properly completed for class.  Because of some miscommunication between the two of us, we were able to revise today’s lesson and craft a more meaningful and relevant activity based on the nucleus of the original idea.  Making a mistake lead to a Eureka moment for us both.  We better helped the students learn how to enhance their learning and study habits by changing what we had first planned.  The moral of this epic story is that learnable or teachable moments happen for everyone; you just need to be prepared to take in the lesson or learning.

Posted in Education, Humanities, Learning, Presentation, Students, Teaching

The Value in Purposefully Introducing Graded Assessments

I’ve never been a big fan of books that begin with an introduction of sorts.  I don’t want to read a story that begins with “once upon a time…”  Introductions in books create stories that lack creativity and pigeonhole readers into analyzing the novel in only one or two ways.  I enjoy reading books that jump right into the story or action.  If I want an introduction, I’ll read the back of the book.  While I understand the value in the introductory start to some books, it’s not for me.  I feel as though it ruins the story a bit as it takes away from the author’s message.  An effective author paints beautiful images that are open to interpretation, not fixed photographs that can only be analyzed through one lense.

Now, is there ever value in using introductions?  Of course.  Introductions serve a key purpose: They set the scene for what is to come.  While I don’t personally like stories that begin with an introduction, that’s not to say that writers shouldn’t use them or that there is no place for introductions in life.  We need strong, meaningful beginnings in relationships, movies, life, and the classroom.  Great teachers know how to effectively utilize introductions in their classroom.  Introductions to lessons, projects, activities, or assignments serve a vital purpose.  They allow the students to process what is being asked so that they can mentally transition from one action to another and be prepared to properly process what is being asked of them.  Good introductions employ great teaching practices that best support how our students learn.

My Humanities lesson from today included a great example of this effective teaching practice in use.  I began the first of two activities with an introduction: I explained the grading requirements for participation in a class discussion.  I made sure that the students understood what it takes to meet or exceed the graded objective of being able to participate in a class discussion, by explaining a list of rules and requirements that I had written on the whiteboard.

  • Appropriately raise your hand at least once during the discussion to add your thoughts, ideas, questions, or comments to the discussion.
  • What you add to the discussion must move the conversation forward and build upon what was previously stated.
  • Positive body language
  • Active listening: Eyes up, heads up, sit up

I explained each bullet point thoroughly with examples.  Last year I did not specifically or purposefully explain this process and felt as though several of the students struggled with this objective for the first few times it was assessed.  I want to make sure that this doesn’t occur this year and so I made sure to be very clear and specific in my expectation.

I then told the students, “In a moment, you will have the opportunity to practice the skill of effective class participation and receive feedback on your performance so that you understand how this objective will be formally graded beginning next Saturday.”  I want the students to be and feel completely comfortable with the expectations regarding how to meaningfully participate in a class discussion.  Throughout the practice discussion, I paused and provided the students with feedback.  “You did a fine job building on what was previously said and then brought up your point.  Nice job!  That would earn you a 4/4.”  or “You did not build on what was previously said and would have earned a 2.5/4 on this assessment if it were being formally graded.  You need to be sure that you add to the discussion by growing the conversation.”  I believe that this specific feedback will help my students know exactly what they need to do to meet or exceed this graded objective beginning next Saturday.  I closed the activity, with some general feedback about the types of comments made and the level of discussion, as well as a reminder that formal grading of this objective will begin next week.  I’m hopeful that this specific and detailed explanation of how to effectively participate in a class discussion will help them be more prepared and involved in next week’s first, graded, current events discussion of the academic year.

While I will not have any concrete evidence to back up my hypothesis on the importance of having a purposeful introduction for a new activity or graded assignment until next week’s class discussion, I left class feeling confident that each and every student knows what is expected of them in one week.  Providing students with a clear and meaningful explanation and introduction is like having a well-built foundation; without one, your house may not remain as strong and solid throughout its lifetime.  A methodical and purposeful introduction to a graded assessment helps students to fully comprehend what the teacher is asking of them.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Humanities, Learning, Presentation, Students, Teaching

What’s the Most Effective Way to Engage All Students?

I was in school during the worksheet boom.  Sometimes I wondered who was doing the teaching, the teacher or the worksheet. It felt like every class had worksheets.  Worksheets kept students engaged back then.  Sure, the students hated them because they were mindless busy work, but they kept us focused and quiet in class, for the most part.  Luckily, worksheets are no longer the in-thing in education and are now rarely used.  When students see a worksheet now, they get excited because they are novelty.  It’s so crazy how trends in education change as often as my son changes his clothes.

To engage students in the classroom, teachers use various active learning approaches.  They will engage the students in discussion, Think-Pair-Share activities, Socratic discussions, projects, and other hands on activities.  We find ways to make the learning fun and interactive for our students.  Sometimes, though, I wonder if these new approaches do really engage all students.  Are there other ways to be sure that all students are engaged and on-task in the classroom?

Today in Humanities class, I attempted to engage the students in various types of class and partner discussions to get them thinking about communities and what they want to learn about the community in which our school is located.  I posed several, what I thought were great, critical thinking questions for the students to ponder and discuss.  After explaining to the students the importance of not being a distraction to their peers and staying present in the moment, a few students did not seem engaged in class today.  They were fiddling with various objects and talking to their peers.  When I called on them to see if they were paying attention while fidgeting, as some students can, they were unable to address my question as they weren’t genuinely paying attention.  I then spoke to the whole group again about not staying focused and being unable to meet the expectations of the class.  This didn’t make much of a difference, those disengaged students remained disengaged throughout.

So, what happened?  What caused them to be unfocused and disengaged?  Were they bored or uninterested?  What could have helped them be more engaged in what was going on in class?  In moments like these, I wonder if having a specialized worksheet would have helped those fidgeting, disengaged students.  While I’m not generally a fan of worksheets, if the students had something they needed to fill in that was graded, perhaps this would have helped keep them motivated and interested in what was being discussed.  Is that my only option though?  Could I try other approaches to help keep those two or three other students from distracting their peers?  I’m not sure at this point what other ideas could help but I will definitely be trying the worksheet solution during our next lengthy class discussion period.  Perhaps this will help keep all of the students focused on the learning and engaged in what is being discussed.  Well, it looks like Justin Timberlake isn’t the only one bringing something back.  I’m bringing the worksheet back into the classroom, at purposeful and specific times.  Don’t worry though, I’m not going to make this a regular practice; however, if it helps my disengaged students stay focused, I might implement it during class discussion days.

Posted in Boys, Education, Humanities, Learning, Presentation, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Training Future Generations of Teacher Leaders

My son recently went to prom with a friend of his who happens to be a girl.  No, not his girlfriend, he likes to point out to my wife and I, his friend who is a girl.  The day of the big event, he was quite nervous and a bit grouchy toward his mom and I, which we’re used to as his parents.  While part of me wanted to be frustrated with him, what happened next erased all of those negative emotions.  When we dropped him off at his date’s house, her whole family had gathered to take pictures.  Now, to appreciate the full scope of the story that comes next, there’s something you need to know about my son.  He struggles meeting new people and greatly dislikes having his picture taking it, unless of course, he’s the one taking it.  He takes more selfies in a day than I take breaths.  So, when we arrived at his friend’s house, her entire family came to greet my son.  Instead of retreating into his turtle shell and being all silent, he shook their hands, gave and received hugs, made eye contact, talked to these strangers, and allowed them to take many pictures of him.  Even though he was a bit jerky to my wife and I, he greatly redeemed himself by putting forth his best effort to showcase what a remarkable young man he truly is.  We are so proud of him.  Of course, we’d like to think that his phenomenal behavior was a direct result of how we raised him and trained him to act in front of others.  Who knows?  Maybe that’s what it was or maybe he just knows what to do when interacting with new people.  Regardless, I was a proud poppa that day.  He looked so handsome in his tux.

As a teacher, I have experienced similar proud moments in the classroom with my students: When students have a-ha moments and the lightbulb turns on; when they solve a problem that had been causing them great difficulty; when they put an arm around a peer who is clearly having a rough day; when they apologize for making a poor choice.  The list could go on forever.  It feels good to know that you’ve had a positive impact on another person.  I love it.  In those moments, I’m reminded, yet again why I became a teacher.

Today provided me with one of those proud teaching moments during Humanities class.  For the past few weeks, the students have been preparing elaborate class presentations regarding their I-Search Project.  Some of the boys made documentary movies, others crafted slideshows, and a few made three-dimensional models to help showcase their learning.  The boys began performing their presentations in class today.  While my co-teacher and I didn’t focus too much on how to present the material, we did tell the students that they needed to make their presentations interesting and engaging as we don’t want to fall asleep watching 14 presentations that include the presenter reading from his slideshow.  The students clearly took our advice and ran with it.

The four students who presented today acted more like businessmen and trained teachers than they did sixth grade boys.  They were teaching the class all about Islamic veils, the Hanging Gardens of Babylonia, Buddhism, musical instruments utilized in the Middle East region.  They created amazing documentary movies, presentations using various digital tools, fun and engaging Kahoot quizzes, and interesting speeches on their topics.  I was amazed at how well they presented their project and material.  They were poised, rehearsed, and well-spoken.  It was awesome.  The students in the audience were respectful and asked insightful questions regarding the various presentations.  It was evident that the students were excited to share what they had learned with their peers and their classmates were clearly excited to learn more about the Middle East region.  I could not have been more proud of my students today.  Everything we’ve been trying to instill within them this year was being applied in the classroom this morning during their presentations.  One student even remarked, during his presentation, “It’s so much fun being the teacher.”  Yes, I thought.  It is so much fun being your teacher.

As the last day of classes is but a week away, it’s great to see how much the students have progressed since the start of the academic year.  They have learned a lot about the topics and material covered, gained many skills needed to be successful students, and matured a lot as individual community members this year.  While we are ecstatic to see them to move onto seventh grade next year, we’re also sad to see them go as we’ve had such a blast working with and learning from them this year.  These 14 boys are certainly going to have a huge impact on the world one day.  They will become the next teachers, changemakers, problem solvers, engineers, and everything else inbetween.  Get ready world because here they come…

Posted in Challenges, Learning, Presentation, STEM, Students, Teaching

Why Does Focus Change from Day to Day in the Classroom?

Have you ever had one of those days where you feel pretty awesome?  I mean, I know many people dislike Mondays about as much as I dislike Starbucks, but for me, Monday’s are magical.  “Monday Funday!” is my mantra.  Mondays are the beginning of a new adventure.  Anything is possible on Mondays.  Sure, other days are cool too, but there’s something special about Mondays.

As today is Monday, I went into class today excited for the numerous possibilities.  I was ready for fun and excitement.  After such a focused day in the classroom on Saturday, I was ready to be wowed once again by my amazing students.  While the students were a bit chatty at the start of Humanities, they were mostly focused during Reader’s Workshop.  The boys read quietly while my co-teacher and I conferenced with each student about his spring term reading goal, as today marked the beginning of the spring term.  Going into STEM class, I was feeling quite good.  The boys were a bit energetic but seemed focused during Humanities class.

I’m not sure what happened between fourth and fifth periods, but the focus monster clearly visited the sixth grade classroom and stole the focus from a few of my students, as they were not nearly as focused as they were in class on Saturday or as focused as they were during Humanities class.  What’s strange, is that the structure of the class was exactly the same as it was on Saturday.  The boys began the period by working on making progress regarding their assigned Khan Academy course for ten minutes.  While they were mostly focused during this time, when they transitioned from Khan Academy to the next activity, something happened.  The little focus the students had been using seemed to fade.  They were distracting and distracted as they moved into working with their assigned partner to update their Stock Market Game portfolio.  As they know that they need to complete the record sheet by the end of classes on Saturday, they should have been more motivated than they were.  In order to have fun and play in the Makerspace on Saturday, they need to finish this record sheet packet.  Reminding them of that, I thought, was going to motivate the students to stay focused and work hard to make trades via the Stock Market Game website.  However, a few of the students were having side conversations with their peers when they should have been focused on helping their partners make wise decisions to increase the equity of their portfolio.  On Saturday, they were super focused during this time as they wanted to move up in the standings.

This same strained focus continued during the work period when the students, working with their assigned partner, worked to complete the assigned packet on risk.  They know that the more work they accomplish in class means they will have less to do outside of class for homework.  So, why were they not as focused as they were on Saturday?  The task was exactly the same.  The expectations were also the same.  So, what happened?  The students were incredibly focused and worked diligently to complete the assigned stock packet on diversification in class on Saturday.  The students were so focused that they earned two handfuls of marbles for the Marble Jar, a positive reinforcement technique used to help the students see the value in teamwork, compassion and effort.  Today, they were far from earning marbles because of their lack of effort.  Now, as a group, their focus was by no means awful, but it wasn’t as good as it was on Saturday.  Several of the students were trying to stay focused on the task at hand, but a few of the students were chatting with their friends regarding unrelated topics.  So, what was the difference between today and Saturday?  Why were the students so much more focused in STEM class on Saturday than they were today?  Were there any variables that could have caused this odd result?

The only differences between today and Saturday were the following:

  • The weather outside was a bit better on Saturday than it was today.  The air temperature was a bit lower today.
  • We began Saturday’s mini-lesson with a short video on diversification.  I began today’s mini-lesson with a quick overview of the three types of risk.
  • Two students were missing from the class on Saturday due to athletic commitments.  Everybody was present today.

That was it though.  Everything else was almost exactly the same.  Could these minor tweaks have made the difference?  Perhaps the temperature outside somehow impacted the air pressure inside the classroom to keep their brains more focused.  Or maybe the video I used on Saturday helped to focus the students prior to working.  The two students that were missing tend to be the more focused students in class on average anyway, and so I doubt their absence played a role.  I wonder what it was that caused today’s difference.  Rather than supposing and hypothesizing I feel as though I should think about what I can do to possibly prevent this lack of focus next time.  What could I have done differently today to help the students stay more focused?  Could I have used a video to introduce the idea of risk to the students?  Should I have allowed the students to work with their partner to troubleshoot the concept of risk as they complete the worksheet packet together?  Might that have helped?  What if I split the students up in the room a bit more as they were in a confined area of our large classroom?  Perhaps that would have made a difference?  Other than that, I’m at a bit of a loss as for what to change.  The one big difference, which might have actually been at play today was the fact that this is the last week of classes prior to spring break.  Maybe the students are just overly excited and can’t focus.  In that case, this is going to be a long week, which is why it will be super important for me to be at the top of my game.  I need to whip out every trick in my book this week to motivate, inspire, and help keep the students focused.

Even though things didn’t go exactly as I would have liked them to on this here Monday Funday, I’m not letting it get me down.  Oh no!  I’m using it as fodder to make tomorrow an even better day.  Learning from my mistakes is one of the easiest ways to grow as a teacher.  So, watch me grow!

Posted in Curriculum, Humanities, Learning, Presentation, Students, Teaching

Sometimes the Hardest Things are the Easiest

When I was just a wee lad growing up in Lebanon, NH, I used to sit and watch my grandparents and parents spend hours playing this bizarre game they called Cribbage.  It seemed so strange to me back then.  You have cards and move pegs on a wooden board.  What?  At first it seemed so boring to me.  My grandmother would sit in one spot for hours doing nothing but moving plastic pegs around on a board and saying strange things like 15-2.  Back then, I would usually watch my grandparents play for few seconds before I grew bored and played with my Matchbox cars.  Then, as I grew older, more sophisticated, and a bit smarter, I started paying more attention to when my elder family members played this weird game.  Then, one day I asked my grandmother to teach me how to play.  So, she did.  It turns out that this once cryptic game was actually quite easy to play once I learned it.  Years later, I’m still fascinated by this game and often find myself sitting, for hours, moving plastic pegs on a board, happier than a clam in its shell.  I realized, that what I once thought would be too hard for me to do turned out to be quite easy when I tried it.  Sometimes, the hardest things can actually end up being the easiest things to do.

My goal for today’s Humanities class was to introduce my students to our next class read-aloud 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose.  As this is a play and set in a time with which the students are unfamiliar, I was worried that they might not be interested.  I thought that perhaps they will find this play boring and won’t at all be engaged or excited about acting out their assigned parts.  In the past, some of my students have dreaded this activity when it was introduced.  They didn’t see the relevance.  While they always did come around once we got into reading the play, they were not always super excited at first.  So this year, I made sure to think about how I would structure my introductory comments on the play.  I wanted to be sure that all of the students were inspired to focus on reading the play in class.  I prepared numerous slides to provide the students with background knowledge on the play and the context of the history in which it is set.  I wanted to make sure that they understood the idea of America’s judicial system, how it works, and the type of court cases decided by juries.  I went into today’s class a bit nervous but feeling prepared to introduce my students to 12 Angry Men in a relevant and exciting manner.  I was ready to motivate and excite my students, no matter how hard it might be.  I was willing to put in the effort.

Then came the lesson.  I started out by telling the students how we haven’t taught this play in the sixth grade for two years because we haven’t felt like we’ve had a group that could handle such a mature storyline and challenging task, until this year.  At this point, the boys started to sit up a bit straighter in their chairs.  Perhaps they were trying to show me how sophisticated they are.  I then started explaining what the play is about and how we will read it in the class.  “Each of you will be assigned a different role.  Some will have more lines than others, but everyone will need to play his role very well in order for this activity to be successful.”  This seemed to excite some of the boys as they realized that they would all be partaking in the reading of this play.  I then explained how they will have the option to act out the scenes according to the stage directions.  Several smiles filled the room when I told them that.  I could almost see their mental wheels turning.  They were thinking about how they might act out their parts.  They seemed genuinely excited, and I hadn’t even gotten to my other slides on the background information regarding the play.  As I could see how excited the boys were about the play, I started sharing some of my excitement with them.  “What I love about this play is the different types of characters included.  Reginald Rose crafted very different and unique characters.  Some of you will have lines that you will need to shout out while a few of you will have to say some naughty words.”  After I shared this tidbit with them, they were all hooked.  The class broke out in chatter and excitement.  They couldn’t hold it in any longer.  They were pumped to start reading this play.  I could have stopped my introduction right then and there and I would have been fine.  But don’t worry, I didn’t.  I kept going to make sure that each of my students had the context needed to comprehend the play that we will begin reading in class tomorrow.  At the end of the period, I handed each student a copy of the play along with their assigned role so that they could peruse their lines and be prepared for tomorrow.  I wanted them to feel comfortable as we read the play aloud together in class.  Well, when I did this, you would have thought that I was giving the students $100 bills.  They couldn’t open their copy of the play fast enough.  They started reading and finding their lines.  At the start of the next period, I had to remind students to keep their copy of the play in their cubby so that it wasn’t a distraction as several of the students were trying to read it during STEM class.  Yes!  I was so excited by how enthusiastic the class seemed about the play.

Despite all of my hard work and preparation, what I thought would be a hard and difficult task ended up being super easy.  So, I didn’t need to stress, worry, or be nervous about my lesson today, but I didn’t know that.  I was prepared for the worst as I wanted to be sure every student was ready and prepared to start reading the play tomorrow in class.  I had many inspirational and fun things to say about the play, but really only needed a few.  As this year’s class loves reading and enjoys doing things together as a group, just telling them what we are going to do was enough of a build up to get them excited about the activity.  It’s funny how sometimes reflection or over-thinking something can lead to unnecessary stress and anxiety.  I was so worried about getting my students excited about the play that I forgot to remember how much this class loves to read and work together.  Because I was so focused on preventing what happened in the past from happening again, I was unable to see what I already knew.  I didn’t need to spend hours preparing this elaborate introductory lesson, I just needed to show the students the play and tell them that we would be reading it together as a class.  That would have been enough.  I find it so interesting how things that at first glance seem hard, end up being super easy, and how easy things can sometimes end up being a lot harder than than one thinks.

Posted in Presentation, Professional Development, Teacher Workshop

My STEM Workshop at the NHSTA’s Annual Conference

Having presented at several conferences over the past few years, I feel like I have some good stuff to say and pass onto other teachers.  While I may not always convey what I want to say in the most effective manner, I do believe that I’ve given my fellow teachers something to think about and even some ideas to implement in their classrooms.  Each successive workshop affords me another opportunity to hone my presentation craft.

Yesterday I presented a session on differentiating your STEM curriculum at the NH Science Teachers Association’s annual conference at Pinkerton Academy.  Click here to view my presentation.  My public speaking skills were quite strong.  I moved about the classroom and the teachers in attendance seemed quite engaged.  They asked some good questions.  At the start of the session, I was having some problems with the active board in the classroom.  Every time I touched it, the slideshow advanced.  I said, “Hey, what’s going on?  It must be set to advance automatically.”  Then a teacher in the crowd informed me that it was a new SMART Board and touching it acted like a mouse click and so it advanced.  I was amazed and made it known.  The group project in which the teachers created egg drop vehicles was a ton of fun.  The teachers were focused and seemed to have fun.  It allowed me a chance to model good teaching by walking around and asking the groups questions and providing positive feedback.  Luckily the classroom in which I presented was near a balcony and so we were able to test the vehicles when finished.  It created a bit of an audience, which was very cool.  Science is super fun!

While I ran out of time to cover everything I had planned– I tend to be an over planner– I was able to discuss the bid ideas from my presentation.  I wanted the teachers to understand how I formulate my STEM units.  I use a recipe process I refer to as SNDP (Standards, Neuroscience, Differentiation, and Perseverance.)  I went through the value and importance of each aspect so that the teachers see what is needed to create an engaging and academically appropriate unit that incorporates all parts of the STEM acronym.  If I were to do this workshop session again, I would revamp a few things.  I would focus on the recipe process of creating STEM units and then get into the group project.  I would explain the focus of the project in more detail.  I would even list the standards used in creating the unit.  I might even find other standards that could be used with this activity.  I would then go through the process I use in the classroom with the students.  I would also allow for more debriefing and discussion.  Hopefully, this would bring focus to the session and offer the teachers more details on how to make the STEM approach come about more easily.

Although I’m not getting down on myself about Saturday’s presentation.  I thought it went well, but I also realize that failure is all part of the process.  I saw room for improvement and want to act on it.  Noone is perfect and I realize that growth comes from change and reflection.  Perhaps if I facilitate this workshop again, it will be more effective for the teachers in attendance.  My goal every time I present at a conference is to help other teachers try new things, take risks, and better engage their students.