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.