The Value in Purposefully Teaching Academic Skills in the Classroom

When I was a wee, young lad, my father gave me a Rubik’s Cube as a gift.  I thought it was so cool.  All those colors and moves.  Amazing.  I spent several hours trying to figure out how it worked, how to solve it.  Now, keep in mind, I grew up in the 1980s, prior to the influx of all of this wonderful technology that allows kids to learn how to solve the Rubik’s Cube in under 10 seconds.  I had no resources.  I tried different moves and configuration of moves, to no avail.  Nothing seemed to work.  So, I just gave up.  I was not working in any sort of purposeful or effective manner, as I had no help available to me back then.  I needed a lesson, book, guide, video, or tutor to help me learn the algorithms required to solve the Cube.

Fast forward many, many years to 2016.  After having read an interesting article about the value in teaching students how to solve the Rubik’s Cube, I took it upon myself to finally learn how to solve the mysterious Cube.  I spent many weeks during that summer trying to tame the beast in the Cube.  I made a plan of attack and started off on my journey.  I watched multiple videos on Youtube, many times each.  I printed out a solution guide from the Rubik’s Cube Website.  I practiced, tried, failed, and tried again.  I memorized the first few steps, but still needed to look at the solution guide for the final few moves.  After many weeks, I was able to accomplish the goal I set for myself many long years ago.  I solved the Rubik’s Cube.  It felt so great to do something that once seemed impossible to me.  The key to my success was purposeful preparation and execution of an appropriate plan.  I made use of my resources to ensure my success.

As a teacher, I employ this same practice with my students.  When I teach a particular skill or ask the students to complete a task, project, or activity, I make sure to model the skill or show the students how to utilize the skill in an effective and meaningful manner.  If I want my students to take notes from a text, I need to make sure that I teach them how to do so and not simply expect that they have learned how to do so in the past.  I need to teach the skill before having them practice applying it.  I need to be mindful of teaching with a purpose so that my students can taste effective success.

This past week, my students completed the final project for our introductory Science unit on the Scientific Method.  After weeks or learning the various steps of how to DO science, they were provided with the opportunity to highlight their learning.  The students chose a problem impacting our school community, brainstormed solutions to the problem, generated an investigation to test their solution, conducted their experiment, crafted a lab report to document their process, and then created a presentation board to showcase their learning.  It was a lengthy project that included multiple mini-lessons on the Scientific Method, lab report writing, and making an effective presentation board.  The outcome was phenomenal.  Because the students learned how to utilize the many skills I expected them to apply on the project prior to completing it, they all had well organized posters with detailed information on their scientific processes.  The students were rehearsed when they spoke to members of the school community about their project and findings.  They had props and samples from their investigations to show their learning.  I felt like I was observing a high school science fair on Friday morning as my students presented what they had learned regarding their self-selected topics.



Several teachers and school administrators shared with me how incredibly impressed they were with my students.  “They all did great work.  They talked about what they had learned with confidence and ease.  Their posters were well done and effectively organized.  They did amazing work that rivaled what some eighth graders had done in the past,” they said to me after visiting with each of the students.  Following the big event, I couldn’t stop praising my students for their great effort, hard work, dedication, and ability to effectively apply the skills learned.  They knocked it out of the park like Jackie Bradley Jr. did against the Houston Astros last Tuesday night.

I do wonder if I would have observed the same outcome from my students had I not spent class time showing the students how to create an effective poster, modelling how to conduct a scientific investigation, and practicing how to appropriately present what was learned to others.  Would their posters have been neatly organized had I not conducted a mini-lesson on effective poster making?  Would my students have sounded as mature and confident had I not discussed the importance of removing the words or sounds ‘um, like, ahh, and err’ from their vocabulary?  Having a foundation of knowledge and skills on which to build, practice, and apply is crucial to success in and out of the classroom.  Great athletes aren’t born doing great things, they have to work at it over and over again.  Doctors, scientists, and authors don’t just fall into their professions, they have to practice and be trained in purposeful and meaningful ways.  I didn’t learn how to solve the Rubik’s Cube without a purposeful plan, much support, and correct practice.  As teachers, we need to help our students apply the academic and social skills learned in the classroom accurately so that they can grow and develop into wonderful young adults.

Helping Students Learn How to be Professional Adults

While I’m in the midst of my school’s March Break vacation, I’m stuck here on my couch recovering from the flu.  Yes, that’s right.  Despite all of my incessant handwashing, healthy eating habits, and attempts to stay hydrated over the past week as the flu epidemic hit my school prior to our vacation, I fell victim to the flu virus.  Being sick is no picnic, but it’s allowed me the opportunity to reflect on my teaching and life: I’m so blessed to have an amazing wife who is helping nurse me back to health, despite my sometimes negative demeanor towards her; I am lucky to have a talented son who is putting forth great effort to achieve his goals even when life gets complicated; I am fortunate to work at a school filled with dedicated and committed colleagues who truly care about the students; I am inspired daily by my sixth grade class that is overflowing with young men who strive for excellence in life and academics.   Although my throat is still quite sore and I’m so congested that I can barely hear the beeping of the microwave oven, I’m feeling mentally amazing.  Life is Beautiful, is not just the name of an Oscar-winning movie, oh no.  It’s also my mantra that keeps me going.  While the great weather prognosticators of our time have predicted a huge snowstorm for the New England area tomorrow and Thursday, the weather outside gives no indication of this impending doom.  It’s sunny and beautiful outside, just as it was in my classroom Saturday morning, on the final day of classes before the big March Break.

As my body was in the beginning stages of breaking down from the flu virus on Saturday morning, my mental facilities were fully intact as my students participated in the Learning Exposition that took place in our classroom.  The boys had been preparing and planning for this since early February.  They chose their topics, became experts on them, and then created engaging and informative presentations to convey what they learned to others.  I crafted this project as a way to engage my students in our unit of study, Africa, review some of the foundational study skills introduced to the students earlier in the academic year, and to help prepare them for meaningful lives in a global society.  While I want my students to enjoy what we are learning and doing in the classroom, I also want my students to understand how to be professional, engage in complex and serious conversations, field difficult questions, and prepare for the unknown.  The research project that the students completed in my Humanities class forced them to create an engaging visual aide, know their self-selected topic as well as they know how to play their favorite video game, and then share what they learned and know with others in a real-world manner.  They dressed for success and presented their knowledge learned to other teachers from our school.  This was a challenge for some of the students as they have never had to complete a task like this before.  Some of my students come from schools where this was not an assessed skill, and so they were very nervous and anxious about having to do it.  As the real-world demands that all people tackle problems and solve them, I want to be sure that my students know how to do so in appropriate, creative, and professional ways.  While sixth grade boys are far from professional adults, they need to learn what professional looks and feels like so that they can one day be ready to live meaningful and professional lives.

This project allowed my students to learn how to solve problems regarding topics that engaged them.  As they researched their topics, some of them ran into roadblocks such as not enough information or lack of interest.  I helped my students troubleshoot these issues as they occurred.  Some students ran into different types of problems that seemed very advantageous such as too much information or interest in another aspect of the topic.  The students learned how to navigate this crazy world of research.  They then had to prepare a meaningful way to showcase or “publish” their knowledge.  This was probably the most important yet most difficult part of the entire project for the students.  While some of them wanted to take the easy way out by creating a slideshow presentation, I challenged them to think about their topics.  Is a slideshow the best tool for you to convey the information learned in a meaningful way?  For most students, this forced them to step outside of their comfort zone and take a risk.  They tried new things and put together relevant presentations.  Although this challenging task proved difficult for all of the students, they preserved, devised innovative and unique solutions to their problems, employed a growth mindset, and got the job done.  Saturday’s Learning Exposition was a remarkable success.  The students nicely highlighted their learning and ability to be professional as they shared what they learned with other teachers and faculty members.  The teachers in attendance were amazed by the quality of the student presentations.  The boys knew their topics very well and shared what they learned in engaging ways.

While my students are far from joining the workforce and going off into the real-world any time soon, I do need be sure they are aptly prepared for their future before tomorrow becomes today.  Helping students learn how to address adults professionally, convey their thoughts in meaningful and relevant ways, and share what they learned in engaging ways, is simply one way I can be sure my students will be well-equipped to live meaningful lives in a global society upon completion of their academic careers.  Projects like the one we just completed allow students the chance to practice what it’s like to be an adult who is in charge.  As I told them, they were the teachers in the classroom on Saturday.  They were the adults who had to navigate the sometimes uneasy waters of life.  What if your computer malfunctions?  What if someone asks a question you can’t answer?  What if the unexpected happens?  This unique and special experience the students went through in my Humanities class over the past three weeks allowed them to think like an adult and be prepared to tackle real-world problems.  It was awe-inspiring to watch my students talk to my fellow colleagues in exciting and professional ways.  They were polite and in charge.  Mission, accomplished.

As my body begins to heal itself with the aid of modern medicine, I’m left pondering all the beauty that life has to offer.  How did I get to be so lucky?  How is it that I am able to work with such a fine class of sixth grade boys who are constantly growing and developing on a daily basis?  I’ll chock it up to good Karma.  Yeah, that’s it.

Is Modelling the Right Approach When Teaching a New Skill in the Classroom?

In my 17 years of teaching, I’ve often wrestled with the concept of modelling.  While I want my students to understand how to do what is being asked of them, does modelling steal the thinking from them?  If I show my students how to do something through modelling the skill, will they get stuck in their thinking?  Will they be unable to find other ways to solve the problem?  I worry that when I model a new skill or activity, my students will simply regurgitate what I showcased in the work they complete and turn in, and where’s the learning in that?  But, and of course there’s always a but, what if I don’t model or properly explain a new skill or activity?  Will the students be too perplexed or lost to effectively showcase their learning?  If I don’t show them what to do and how to do it, will they be able do it?  Is there a balance in modelling new skills and activities for students in the classroom so that they know what to do but are still able to demonstrate their own, original thoughts and learning?

I’m not sure if I have the exact answer because, as all teachers know, every student is different.  What works for one student may not work for another.  The method that I’ve had luck with recently is the I do, We do, You do approach to modelling a new skill in the classroom.  I start by engaging the students in a discussion regarding the purpose of the new skill they will be learning.  I want them to always understand the why of everything we do in the classroom.  Relevance is a huge part of ownership in the class for our students, according to research on learning and the brain.  I then briefly model the new skill with help from the students, combining the I do and We do steps so that they are actively engaged in the modelling and not passive watchers.  I then provide the students with an opportunity to practice the new skill in the You do step.  During this part of the lesson or activity, I observe the students and provide feedback to each of them on their progress and ability to utilize the new skill.  I then close the lesson by reviewing the big ideas and concepts covered by this new skill learned.  This method seems to be the most effective for me in the classroom.  While I still do need to differentiate my instruction a bit during the You do phase for a few of my students, it does work for the majority of my students.  The You do step is structured in such a way that I’m able to provide extra assistance and help to those students who need it.

Yesterday in my study skills class, I introduced the two-column note taking system to the boys.  I began the lesson with a few discussion questions.  What are two-column notes?  What purpose do they serve?  I wanted to be sure the students understood why they were learning this particular method of taking notes.  I explained to them how this is the most common form of notetaking used in the other grades at our school.  This is a key skill they will need to have in their academic toolbelt in order to be successful students next year and beyond.  They all seemed to understand my explanation.  I then walked the students through the skill itself.  I had them set up their lined sheet of paper with the proper heading as I had done on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom.  I asked a student volunteer to tell me the first step in organizing the paper for two-column notes, as I wanted to be sure that my students were actively engaged in the learning process.  After drawing the line on the board as they drew the line on their paper, I called on various students to determine the importance of information in a passage on the Boreal Forest before paraphrasing it for our notes.  As the students paraphrased the information, I wrote it onto the board and instructed the students to copy it onto their notes.  My co-teacher wondered around the classroom, helping those students who needed more guidance and support.  I then asked other students to tell me if the information paraphrased was effectively paraphrased to be sure that the students understood this skill discussed earlier in the week.  After going through three sentences together as a class, I had the students complete the remainder of the passage on their own.  As the boys worked, my co-teacher and I helped those students who needed extra scaffolding and provided feedback to those students who were completing it effectively on their own.  By the end of the period, it was clear that every student in the class had a pretty firm grasp of how to effectively complete two-column notes using expository research.

Did yesterday’s lesson go so well because there were two teachers in the classroom to help monitor the progress of the students?  Perhaps.  I do think that effective co-teaching makes a huge difference in how our students are able to practice new skills.  If one of us is modelling at the front of the classroom, the other is able to observe the students, and help those struggling students as needed, not slowing down the overall pace of the lesson.  With just one teacher in the classroom, lessons go much slower to allow for help, questions, and differentiation.  This prevents the high functioning students from being effectively challenged.  Co-teaching is a great model for teaching a diverse population of students.  I also feel as though the method of modelling we utilize in the sixth grade classroom helps to support and challenge all of our students.  Those boys who learn quickly are able to see the skill modelled a few times and then try it out on their own, while those students who need more help, are able to receive it during the practice stage of the process.  Having the students help me complete the I do step of the process also allows for more engagement in the classroom.  By cold-calling on the students throughout the modelling process, I can ensure that they actively engaged in the lesson and learning the material.  Every part of this modelling process helps to make sure that I’m not stealing the thinking or creativity from the students while also making sure that they understand what is being asked of them.  So, to answer the question posed in my title, Yes, I do feel as though effective modelling is the right approach to the instruction of a new skill.  The learning process needs to be active and more of a two-way dialogue, not simply direct-instruction from the teacher.  When done well, modelling helps engage, challenge, and support students in the learning process.

Making a Lesson, on the Purpose of Government, Engaging

As I was certainly not an engaged nor studious student when I was in school, I retained very little from my history classes regarding civics and government.  Until I began teaching the subject, I could tell you almost nothing about the three branches of American government.  I didn’t think I needed to be aware of this type of information.  It’s not like I was going to run for public office or anything.  Why do I need to know how the judicial branch works?  I was young and naive way back then.  I thought I knew everything I needed to know.  Boy was I ever wrong.

Over the past several years I’ve done much research on the teaching of history and social studies to know that I should have paid much better attention when I was in school.  As citizens of a country, it is our civic responsibility to know how our country and government works.  I should understand how the electoral college works as well as the purpose it serves, but I don’t.  So, over the past few years, I’ve been doing a lot of make-up learning.  It’s been great fun educating myself all about how countries and governments work.  Now that I am equipped with all of this knowledge, I feel powerful, like I could take on the world, or at least run for public office.  Instead though, I’ve realized that with this power comes great responsibility.  I’m sort of like a superhero.  No, even better, a super-teacher.  Therefore, my new superpower is being able to teach my students to understand their civic responsibilities.  I want my students to see the importance in understanding the history of one’s country and government.  I want my boys to be informed citizens, regardless of from where they come.

About three weeks ago, I was speaking with a former student of mine who is now a sophomore at our local public school.  He misses Cardigan and his experience here, but is doing very well at his new school as he felt prepared.  His time at Cardigan helped him learn many vital study skills and much content that is helping him thrive at his new school.  The only road bump on his journey so far has been his history course.  He needed to take a ninth grade civics course instead of the typical tenth grade history class this year, as the state of NH requires all students to complete a civics credit.  Because we don’t have a civics course at Cardigan, he is a bit behind in that area.  In speaking with other students who have graduated from our fine institution, they also echo this one student’s experience.  They feel as though they lack an understanding of civics.  What does it mean to be a citizen of a country?  What are our responsibilities?  They don’t seem to truly grasp these concepts because we don’t cover them in the seventh, eighth, or ninth grades.  Why not?  I have no clue.  Regardless of the reasons why we don’t cover that in the other grades, I took it upon myself two years ago to ensure that all of my sixth graders gain a foundation of civics knowledge.  I don’t want my students feeling confused or unaware of how governments work.  I want them feeling powerful and prepared.  So, while the seventh, eighth, and ninth graders at my school do not, sadly enough, receive any formal civics instruction, I do know that students who come to Cardigan for sixth grade will be prepared for their future lives as global citizens.

As last year was an election year, it was easy to develop a unit to drive my pilot year of providing my students with a background in civics instruction.  We dug deep into the election process, issues that matter, forms of government, and how the American government operates.  It was so much fun.  The boys loved this unit last year.  As I began thinking about how I was going to teach a civics unit this year, I wondered how I would make it fun and engaging like last year’s unit.  So, I spent many hours researching how other teachers help their students understand government and their role as citizens, and that’s when I happened upon iCivics.  What an amazing resource.  I based my unit on the Foundations of Government curriculum found on their website.  It was so helpful in designing an engaging and fun unit for my students.

Last week marked the beginning of our unit.  We started with a fun writing and discussion activity that helped me make sure that all of my students had a strong understanding of what government is.  Today, we jumped into our first lesson on the purpose of government.  Although I wanted to provide my students with much information on the historical theories regarding the formation and purpose of government, this material is quite dense and challenging to understand; therefore, I had to be sure I found a way to make today’s lesson engaging and meaningful for my students.

I began today’s lesson with a silent Gallery Walk activity, during which the students answered, in writing, four different questions that were posted on giant art paper placed in different areas of the classroom.  I had the students respond to the questions in writing and without conversation so that I could assess their ability to think critically about new information, while also making sure that they all firmly understand what we spoke about last week regarding government.  I had them spend two minutes at each station, jotting down answers to the questions.  If there were already answers posted, I had them read through what their peers had written first to be sure that they were building on the silent discussion and not repeating what others had said.  The boys seemed very engaged in this activity.  Once they completed their four rotations, we discussed the big ideas they had written about on the paper.  This allowed me to clarify the difference between control and order.  I want to be sure my students know that the purpose of an effective government is to bring about order and a feeling of safety within its citizens, not to control their every move and tell them how to live their lives.  This physically active hook experience bled right into our class discussion on the ideas of Thomas Hobbes.  We used a handout from the iCivics website entitled Why Government to weave together our discussion.  As we read through the article, I explained and clarified the big ideas being addressed.  I also used this opportunity to assess my students on their ability to properly annotate an academic text.  So, I made sure to spend time at the start, reviewing what it means to annotate an article and what they should be focusing on.  I called on volunteers to help point us in the right direction on what we should be highlighting, underlining, and writing about in the margins as we began digging into the article.  As challenging concepts including State of Nature and Social Contract were introduced in the article, I made sure to detail and explain what these ideas really meant.  I used metaphors and stories to get the point across.  This seemed to help.  The boys asked questions throughout, showcasing their fine ability to think critically about the content being covered.  It also showed me how engaged with the material they were.  I was impressed.

To close today’s lesson on the reasons for government, I wanted to be sure every student had a basic understanding of Social Contract and State of Nature.  So, I had the boys stand up and physically act out what being in a state of nature would look like with the absence of a leader or government.  They began shouting at each other, arguing over land, tables, and computers.  They pretended to push and shove one another with angry faces.  It was awesome.  They so got it.  I then had them act out what would happen if I became their sovereign and we entered into a Social Contract.  The boys began being kind to one another and started to pretend as though they were giving me money and respect.  At one point, one of the boys bowed before me.  It was super funny, but highlighted their understanding of these two complex concepts.

I used two physical activities to engage the students and be sure they were moving as they reviewed the purpose of government.  I also made sure to use simple language and stories to ensure that all of my students, including my ELLs, understood the big ideas addressed in our binding article.  At the close of class, the students seemed very excited and happy about today’s lesson.  They seemed to thoroughly like talking about history and the purpose of government.  One student even came to me and said, “Mr. Holt, this was so much fun today.  I love learning about this stuff.  It’s so interesting.”  No more kinder or truer words were spoken today.  That said it all right there.  As many of my students have never learned about government or civics, this is unchartered territory, which can be scary and difficult for some students; however, the boys seemed to really get into today’s lesson because of the different techniques and instructional methods used.  I made what could have been a very boring lesson on government and Thomas Hobbes seem enjoyable and interesting.  Sometimes, it comes down to presentation.  Since I seemed excited discussing the information, my students caught the fun bug and really got into it.  They asked great questions and thought critically about why countries form governments.  It was amazing.  I can’t wait to discuss the ideas of John Locke on Friday.

Growing and Learning as a Teacher and Person

Two summers ago, I taught myself how to solve the Rubik’s Cube.  After weeks of practice, failing, video viewing, and more practice, I was finally was able to solve it.  I only needed to look at the guide sheet for help with the last few steps.  It was quite the accomplishment for me as I struggle, at times, to learn new skills outside of the realm of teaching.  While I did teach myself this new skill to grow as a STEM teacher, I also wanted to challenge myself to grow and learn as a person.  I wanted to prove to myself that even though I am growing a bit older and grayer every day, I’ve still got the magic inside that makes me feel like I’m 17 again.

As an individual, I make sure to attend at least one concert a year to remind myself that I still haven’t lost my groove thang.  In fact, I’m going to see The Used on November 7 in Boston, MA.  I can’t wait.  Their new album Canyon is phenomenal.  I also collect sportscards and play old video games from my youth to make sure my life is plenty full of fun and excitement.  As a teacher, I make use of feedback from my colleagues and students to keep my teaching fresh and fun.  I want to make sure that I never turn into one of those teachers who still uses the same worksheets and lessons they created 20 years ago.  I stay current with new teaching practices and am always looking to try new things in the classroom.  I’m all about staying on the cutting edge of education to be sure that I am the best possible teacher for my students.

A colleague of mine recently observed one of my Humanities lessons and then provided me with some useful feedback on what he noticed.  While he gave me much praise for the lesson and execution of it, he did give me two little things to think about:

  • My cadence.  He noted that when I’m excited about something while teaching, I tend to speak very quickly.  He said that I had a cadence of about 220 words per minute, which is too fast for the ELLs in my class.  The typical ELL student can handle a cadence of about 140 words per minute.  He suggested that I try to think about how quickly I’m speaking while teaching so that all of my students can get the most out of every word that flows freely from my mouth.
  • Student movement.  He noted that I didn’t have the students move or be physically active at all during the 40 minute period.  He suggested that I try to incorporate some physical activities or simple movements into each class period so that I can be sure I’m actively engaging all of my students in the learning process.

Over the short break I had from school last week, I thought long and hard about this constructive and useful feedback.  How could I better challenge and support all of the students in my class?  What can I do to work at slowing my cadence while instructing the class?  How can I be sure that I am actively engaging my all of my students?  What techniques could I utilize in the classroom to get my students to be more physically active?  I brainstormed a solution so simple that it might actually work.  I need to be more mindful while I teach.  If I’m more self-aware while I’m talking to my students, I will be able to remember to talk more slowly so that I am reaching all of the students in my class.  If I’m more present in the moment, I can take the time needed to be sure that my students have a chance to move and be active at least once during every class period.  While this solution to my many questions seemed so easy, I felt like it would actually work.  I can so be more mindful when I’m teaching in the moment.

In class on Saturday, I made it a point during my study skills class to talk more slowly so that I could be sure my ELLs were able to follow what I was saying and process the information I needed them to understand and grab hold of.  Every time I began to get excited about what I was saying, which was quite frequently since I love talking about how students can help themselves learn to be more mindful and self-aware in the classroom, I made sure to slow my cadence.  Instead of spewing out information at a rate of 200+ words a minute, I tried to make sure that I was talking at a cadence of about 150 words per minute.  While that cadence is still a bit fast for the average ESL student, it is still a manageable rate for them to be able to comprehend the majority of what I was saying.  I also made sure to simplify my language and explain new concepts, terms, and vocabulary words in a more easily accessible manner.  Instead of using convoluted English, I kept it basic and simple.  While I’m not quite sure how effective it was as I had no assessment tool for which to collect data during class, the students seemed more aware and focused on what I was saying.  The ELLs in my class who usually ask many questions during class discussions, asked no questions in class on Saturday while we talked about how stress affects the brain and what the students can do to help regulate their stress levels.  This seemed like a very positive sign to me.  I do believe that because I slowed my cadence while talking to the class, all of my students were better able to comprehend and process what I was saying.  Because I made sure to be mindful and present in the moment of teaching, I was able to stay clued into my cadence in class on Saturday.  I’m hopeful that I will be able to continue working on the speed of my speech while teaching, moving forward.

During my Humanities class on Saturday, I made sure to provide my students with an opportunity for physical movement.  To begin the introduction of our new unit on the foundations of government, I wanted to be sure that all of my students understood what the term Government actually means.  As this is a somewhat abstract term and challenging word for non-native English speakers, I wanted to make sure that all of my students left class feeling as though they have a strong understanding of what the word means.  I had the students stand up, think about someone in the class, other than their current table partner, who they believe knows what the word government means, go and stand next to that person, and discuss what the vocabulary term means.  I gave the boys about two minutes to complete this task.  They moved swiftly and safely about the room as the tried to find someone who they believed knew what the word meant.  Then the conversations began.  They spoke to each other about the word government and what it means.  They provided each other with simple definitions of the term and their thoughts on what it means to them.  It was interesting to listen to them all discuss this new and difficult word.  This short activity allowed the students to be physically active as they began contemplating the new word that would be driving our new unit.  Once the students all returned to their seats, they seemed super engaged and were able to all add their thoughts to our discussion on what the word Government means.  I did not need to add anything to the definition my students generated as it was very complete and detailed.  I was so amazed.  Was this result due to the fact that I had them get a bit physical in class prior to our discussion?  Did our unit introduction go so well because they all had a chance to individually play with the word before we discussed it as a class?  I’d like to believe that it was a bit of both.  Providing the students with the opportunity to become physical and interact with their peers helped to actively engage them in the topic and lesson.  My students extracted more from Saturday’s lesson on the Foundations of Government than they had in many previous lessons and activities because I allowed them to move and chat with their classmates.  This engagement factor exponentially increased the mental productivity of my students.  How was I able to do this?  I was mindful of the feedback I received from my colleague and made sure to implement into my class.  I will continue to work on making sure that my students are somehow physically active during each class period, during the remainder of this academic year.

Thanks to the feedback I received from a fellow educator as well as my growth mindset of ensuring I’m best helping and challenging all of my students, I was able to foster some very engaging and thoughtful learning on my classroom on Saturday.  I made sure to remain mindful throughout the academic day so that I could stay focused on my goals of cadence and movement.  Because I want to stay mentally active and young on a daily basis, I will continue to grow and develop as an educator and person despite how old my driver’s license may state that I am physically.  Changing and growing keeps the mind and body young while stagnation leads to death and decay.  As I’ve made it a personal goal of mine to live long enough so that I can say to my son when he calls me in 25 years or so talking about how difficult it is to raise a teenager, “I told you so.  This is karma for all the bad choices you made while growing up and interacting with your mom and I.”  I know it’s a bit evil and vindictive, but it’s the simple things in life that keep me motivated.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.