Professional Goals Reflection: Am I Working Towards Meeting my Goals?

Introduction

As I realize how valuable it is for my students to reflect on their learning throughout the day, period, and school year, I want to be sure that I am practicing and modelling reflective behavior in and out of the classroom as well.  In closing today’s Humanities class by having the boys share what allowed them to meet or not meet the goal they set for themselves during today’s work period on the Globe to Flat Map Project, I was inspired to do a little reflecting myself in today’s blog post.  Am I working towards my goals, and if so, how’s it going?

My Goals

Back in early October, which seems like years ago now at this point in the year, I set two professional goals for the academic year.

Goal 1: Gather data on how best to introduce and explain projects and activities to students.  Do rubrics work best?  What kind of rubric will promote creative problem solving?

  • After spending the first few months of the academic year honing in on this goal, I feel confident in the fact that I have indeed gathered much research on the use of rubrics and project handouts.  I’ve varied my approach to introducing and explaining projects to the students so that I could determine if one method is more effective than another.  I’ve spoken to several different faculty members on this topic as well.  What works for them in the classroom?  I’ve come to a few conclusions at this point in the year:
    • Students need some sort of rubric or assignment explanation for any project or activity.  I need to be sure that I explain the project for the students so that they know what is expected of them.
    • The detail I put into the rubric doesn’t seem to make a difference in terms of promoting students to think creatively or ask questions to solve problems.
    • The process the students utilize to complete the task seems to vary by student.  Character and work ethic seem to be the driving factors.  Students who have the academic drive and wherewithal to be successful, will do well no matter what.  A rubric or what it includes will neither hinder nor help them meet the graded objectives.  Students who struggle with English proficiency will face challenges regardless of the language used, but the more detailed the rubric, the more confident they seem to feel while working.  Students who finish work just to get it done, will complete the required academic tasks just well enough to meet the objectives.  No matter how detailed the rubric is or not will make no difference in the outcome for students who live by the status quo.
    • The students themselves seem to make all the difference in the outcome of projects and tasks.  Regardless of how assignments are explained to students, there will always be those students who do well and those who don’t.  The specificity of a rubric or project handout seems to matter very little.
  • I now need to focus on how to inspire all of my students, including those few boys who seem happy completing barely satisfactory work when they are capable of exceeding the objectives covered, to complete work that exceeds my expectations.  I want to figure out how best to challenge each and every one of my students.  How can I help my high functioning students reach for the next level?  How do I ensure that my struggling ELLs are learning the foundational skills needed to be fully prepared for the seventh grade?  How can help my mid-level guys aspire for more?  This is where I need to head for the next few months regarding this goal.  It’s not about the effectiveness of rubrics, it’s about all of the other stuff I’m doing behind the scenes.  Effective teaching will help students to think critically and creatively while solving problems in new and unique ways.

Goal 2: Incorporate mindfulness and learning about the brain, as it pertains to utilizing a growth mindset, into every aspect of the sixth grade program.  How can I best help students learn how to change their thinking to accommodate how they learn best?

  • As I mentioned in an earlier blog post this week, my students seem to have risen to the next level of academic consciousness as they are applying a lot of the skills and strategies learned during the fall term.  They are beginning to think critically.  They are using a growth mindset and realizing that they can accomplish any goal set or task undertaken with great effort, perseverance, and determination.  They are working on being mindful and present in the moment.  They are better able to solve social issues and problems encountered in the classroom on their own now than they were back in September and October.  I feel as though I have met this goal.  The challenge for me now will be to make sure that I hold the students accountable for being able to use a mindful and growth mindset during the remainder of the year.

What’s Next?

As I have basically met the two goals I set for myself in early October, I need something else to keep me motivated, moving forward.  Should I focus on better handling behavioral issues encountered in the classroom?  Should I work on being more mindful and present in the moment to be sure that I am best challenging and supporting my students?  Should I try to spend more time digging into how I could implement coding into my Humanities class?  Where should I go from here?

What if I try to focus on one goal a month, and then move onto the next one?  Might that be a good framework for my goals for the remainder of the 2017-2018 academic year?  I like that, short and simple.

So, for the next two weeks, I will focus on finding more appropriate and meaningful ways to address and handle challenging students.  I will use more patience when talking with students who struggle to meet the expectations of our sixth grade program.  I will attempt to try the Plan B approach suggested in the book Lost at School by Ross Greene.  I will try to empathize with these students so that they feel heard, cared for, and respected.  I find myself falling into the trap of disregarding their concerns and issues.  I view one of my students as a compulsive tattletale and another as an apathetic student who just wants to play sports.  I need to change my thinking about the difficult students in my class.  How can I best help support them while also challenging them to grow and develop as people?  This is my new goal for the remainder of December.  Hopefully, the festive holiday spirit will fill me with the energy and compassion I need to work towards meeting this goal.

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Learning from Colleagues

While I wasn’t the sharpest crayon in the Crayola box when I was in school, I managed to achieve Honor Roll level grades and become a member of the National Junior Honor Society.  Because of this status and the fact that I was in mid-level courses, I was considered to be the smartest student in my classes.  Therefore, everyone wanted to sit next to me so that they could try to copy off my paper or ask for help; and when it came time to complete a group project, everyone in the class wanted to work with me.  You see, not only was I seen as one of the most intelligent students in my classes, but I was also a perfectionist, which meant that everything I turned in had to be perfect, and I never trusted anyone else to complete work that met my standards of perfection.  Students liked working with me because I did all of the work for group projects.  Interestingly enough, it seemed as though I was teaching my peers more in our classes than they were learning from the teachers.  I guess it makes sense then that I became a teacher.  I enjoy helping others through their learning journey.

As a teacher, I seek help from others, much like my peers in high school did from me.  I look to my colleagues for advice, guidance, suggestions, and ideas.  As learning is a journey with no finish line, I’m always looking to progress forward.  There is always more that I can to learn to become a better educator.  My Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan journey is helping motivate me to become an even more effective educator.  I’m learning a lot about rubrics, project and/or activity introductions, and assessments as I delve into what makes an effective rubric.  Are prescriptive rubrics the most effective way to help students understand and know what they have to do in order to meet or exceed the objectives for the task?  Would less be more in this instance?  If a rubric utilized simply stated language for each graded objective, would that better help students understand what they need to do while also allowing them to think critically about the assignment and use creativity to complete it?  What’s the best way to explain graded activities or assignments to students?  To help me answer and address the many questions that I’ve been raising regarding my ITIP topic, I’ve spoken to my fellow teachers.  I’ve had two conversations already with teachers on how they use rubrics in their classrooms, and have learned much from our conversations.

Today provided me yet another opportunity to learn and grow as a teacher.  I spoke with a history teacher about how she used and currently uses rubrics in the classroom.  What I gleaned from our conversation today was that the rubric itself doesn’t matter too much.  Students who enjoy learning and school will complete quality work with or without a rubric.  They will ask effective questions that show they are thinking critically about the task at hand.  They put forth great effort in and out of the classroom to showcase their fine understanding of the content and skills covered.  These students, if provided with a rubric, will use it as a guide to be sure they are doing what is expected of them.  If these same students are not provided with a rubric, they will still use a growth mindset to accomplish the task in a meaningful manner that highlights their great ability to think critically and creatively about what they are being asked to do to demonstrate their learning.  Rubrics don’t seem to make a difference to these students, no matter how specific the rubric may or may not be.  Then there are those students who are either apathetic or unable to show their learning in an appropriate manner.  Those students struggle to accomplish any task with or without a rubric.  This group of students can be divided into two subgroups: Students with learning difficulties and students who choose not to do well even though they could.  If provided with a rubric, the students with learning difficulties will use it as it guides them through the learning task.  They crave specificity and detail with regards to projects and assignments.  They need to know exactly what is expected of them so that they can do it.  Those students who seem not to care about completing quality work will not use a rubric as they don’t care and feel as though they already know everything.  If only they knew how detrimental to their learning journey that having a fixed mindset can be.  The moral of this story is that it doesn’t matter if we use rubrics or not when explaining graded assignments in the classroom, as 75% of our students will not make use of them anyway.  Using rubrics, according to the fantastic discussion I had today with a fellow history teacher made me realize what I’ve thought all along: Grading rubrics are unnecessary tools for students.  They confuse students, steal their thinking, and rob them of their creativity.  Overly prescriptive rubrics prevent students from needing to use critical thinking skills while broadly worded rubrics generally go unused by students.

After today’s fruitful discussion with a colleague, I’m now beginning to wonder if I should even use grading rubrics at all when introducing or explaining tasks.  What if I create rubrics for those interested students?  Make them optional.  Students can choose to see me for a rubric that they could use to guide them through the learning journey.  That might be an interesting approach to my rubric dilemma.  Perhaps I will try this method on a future task or graded assessment to determine its effectiveness.  Maybe making the rubric an optional piece that they can choose to use or not will help the 25% of my students who do make use of rubrics when completing tasks.  I like it.  What a clever idea I crafted.  If I didn’t have the conversation I did with a fellow teacher today, I doubt I would have even realized this point: Most students don’t even use rubrics when completing their work.  Talking with others has helped me grow and develop as an educator in the 17 years I’ve been working in schools.  Using the resources available to me has allowed me to become a more effective educator.

Free Professional Development: Talking with Teachers

Some of the best ideas for lessons and solutions to problems I’ve faced in the classroom over the years have come out of discussions I’ve had with my fellow teachers.  When I taught second grade many eons ago, I would often pick the brains of the kindergarten and first grade teachers for advice on how to deal with certain situations involving students.  I began using a discipline method suggested by the kindergarten teacher that really helped my students stay focused on the learning.  In my years of teaching sixth grade, I’ve had many chats with colleagues that led to trying new activities in the classroom.  Recently, I had a great talk with a fellow English teacher on how to best assess student writing and promote creativity and critical thinking throughout the writing process.  He suggested a very fun idea that I used as a learning extension project for the students in my class who had finished the revision process early.  All of this learning that I’ve done over my 17 years of teaching has helped me see that two minds are far better than one.  The best teaching ideas I’ve had came out of talks with my co-teachers.  I don’t know everything and I certainly don’t know what I don’t know.  Talking things through with others and listening to their suggestions has allowed me to grow and develop as a teacher.  While I have gained some useful tools from conferences I’ve attended and professional development texts I’ve read over the years as well, I have found talking to other teachers to be more helpful, and free.

As I’m in the beginning stages of the three-year Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan that all educators at my school continually work through, I’ve been having many conversations with colleagues about teaching.  I’m trying to understand how best to explain and introduce graded projects or activities to students so as to foster critical thinking and creativity skills.  I don’t want to spoon feed my students every last detail of a project so that I steal thinking opportunities from them, but I also don’t want them to be overly confused by an assignment.  So, what’s the best way to start a project?  I tried a differentiated grading rubric for a past writing assignment and felt like my students had very few questions.  They seemed to understand almost exactly what to do.  When I had them reflect on the usefulness of the rubric, almost every student seemed to feel as though the grading rubric helped them revise and make their work better since they used it as a guide post through their writing journey.  So, although the specificity of the grading rubric felt like overkill to me and made me wonder if I wasn’t allowing the students to struggle a bit and overcome challenges, the majority of my students felt like the rubric helped them create effective stories.  Almost every student crafted an amazing and creative story that explored an aspect of our town’s rich and diverse history.  This strange outcome then made me curious.  Was I wrong in my thinking that rubrics with much detail are ineffective ways to promote critical thinking and creativity?  To help me understand this, I began seeking guidance from other teachers at my school.

In the past week, I’ve talked to two teachers about how they introduce projects and use grading rubrics.  The math teacher I spoke with explained how when she used a grading rubric with simple explanations and no specific details, the students asked many clarifying questions on how to complete the task and meet the expectations for the assignment.  Great, I thought.  This is what I was hoping to hear.  We want our students to ask questions.  This gives me hope that my hypothesis is correct.  Then, yesterday I had a chance to speak with a seventh grade English teacher who recently had her students complete a project that utilized a very prescriptive rubric.  She said that the students asked very few questions because the rubric detailed every aspect of the writing process.  She did seem to have the same outcome that I had seen in my class.  The students all seemed to like the rubric because it served as a guide while they worked.  Her students all completed fine essays, perhaps because of the specific rubric with which she had provided them.  This data again goes against my original thought that specific rubrics are ineffective in the classroom.  While I’m okay with being wrong, I’m perplexed by what I’m learning.  I thought for sure that telling students information is a passive learning experience for the students.  In order to promote active learning, we need our students to ask questions and engage in the learning process, and detailed rubrics don’t do this; however, so far I’m finding that detailed rubrics do allow students to be and feel more successful when completing projects and graded assignments.  I wonder if students need specificity and much detail when completing a writing task or project, but need less information and telling from the teacher during the learning process.  Interesting.  I never thought about it like that before.

So, now that my learning journey as veered off the beaten path that I thought for sure it would stay on, I’m curious.  What next?  Well, I’m trying something completely different for the next two projects I’m completing in my study skills and Humanities classes in the coming weeks.  For the Humanities project, I’m not using a specific grading rubric at all.  Instead, I’m going to describe what they need to do with a series of steps.  I am only going to list the graded objectives without explaining what they need to do to meet or exceed them.  I’m hoping that this lack of detail will allow the students to ask many questions as they try to wrap their heads around the task.  I think that it will also inspire more creativity as I’m being less prescriptive in my explanation of the task.  For the study skills class project that my students will be completing next week, I’ve split the class into two groups.  One group will have a specific grading rubric with much detail on the requirements, while the other group will have just a basic list of steps and the graded objectives, much like I’m doing for the Humanities project.  I want to see which group is promoted to ask more questions and complete more creative, detailed work.  Now that my thinking is beginning to change on this topic of project introductions and assessments, I’m unsure of what the outcome might look like.  I think that the group with the grading rubric will be able to complete more creative projects while the group with the less detailed project explanation will make use of their critical thinking skills more to complete the assignment.

What I’m learning through this process is that if I didn’t talk to other teachers about this topic, I would be stuck in thinking that my way is the only way; and, therefore I would be doing no genuine learning.  In speaking with my colleagues on the subject of rubrics and assessment introductions, I’m realizing that perhaps I’m only partially accurate in how I think about rubrics.  As I gather more data and speak with more teachers, I’m hopeful that this murky pool of understanding will become more clear.  Free in-house professional development is far more useful than any conference or academic text teachers can read, or well, at least it has been for more.

What’s the Most Effective Professional Development Model for Schools?

When I first started teaching, the schools I worked at had little to no money available for its teachers to pursue professional development opportunities.  While this was certainly not an ideal situation, my colleagues and I made do.  We learned from each other.  If I wanted to learn more about the Reader’s Workshop model of literacy instruction, I talked to the first grade teacher in my school who had been implementing it in her classroom for years.  If a teacher wanted to utilize technology in their classroom, he or she sought me out for guidance.  We capitalized on the resources available to us in-house as an educational institution.  This worked for me as a young and developing educator.  As I grew, learned more, and gained more experience, I craved more than what the teachers at my schools were able to teach me.  I wanted to learn about new teaching practices that no other teacher in my school was aware of.  I wanted to learn how to implement standards-based grading in my class, which no other teacher at my school was doing.  I wanted something more than what my school offered.  At first, I sought out books on the subjects for which I wanted to learn.  Then, I ran out of books.  Luckily for me, as I was growing, so too was the school at which I worked, which meant that there were funds available for professional development.  So, I started attending conferences.  I learned so much from the sessions I attended at the various conferences I went to over the years.  They were so useful.  I felt a bit like a dried up sponge before I started going to teaching conferences.  Then, in a few short years, I was transformed into an overly moist and wet sponge, dripping knowledge from every nook and cranny.  It was awesome!

As schools have evolved over time, so too have professional development models.  While most schools have funds available for their teachers to attend conferences, workshops, and the like, some schools have switched back to in-house professional development for most teachers except those going through the self-evaluation process.  Although reflection and self-evaluation are both vital processes to one’s success as a teacher and individual, this model of professional development makes it challenging for other teachers to grow and develop.  So, to help all teachers feel as though they have access to professional development opportunities, some schools invite in speakers and have teachers read and discuss various teaching resources.  This modification definitely helps all teachers feel included.

My school has moved to this model and I like it, for the most part.  What I would like to see is more differentiation within the in-house professional development opportunities.  Like snowflakes, no two teachers are exactly alike in their teaching practices or knowledge base.  Therefore, schools should help meet all teachers at the level they are currently at.  For example, my school recently spent a morning learning all about the neuroscience of education.  A professor from a local college came to speak with us about this topic.  While the information for some of my colleagues was useful, a fair amount of teachers at my school have taken courses in this very subject and are well-versed in how to support all types of learners based on brain science.  For me and a few of my fellow teachers, this speaker did not provide us with new information nor allow us to explore and engage in areas of interest to us.  Because of this, we extrapolated very little from this four-hour session.  While my school was trying to do the right thing, they didn’t think about all of the teachers and their ability levels.  They planned this workshop session for the average teacher.  This seems a bit counter-intuitive to what we should be doing in the classroom as teachers.  If we are expected to differentiate our instruction, then why isn’t the school doing the same for its teachers?

Wouldn’t it be great if professional development at schools was differentiated?  Imagine this…  “The topic for today’s professional development workshop is differentiation.  For those who are new to teaching or unfamiliar with this concept, you will be participating in a session with an engaging presenter who will help you understand the concept and be able to effectively employ it in your classroom.  For those who are already familiar with differentiation and utilize it in your classrooms, you will be attending a session of your choice based on your interest level within the topic.  Option one will provide you the time and resources needed to update your lessons plans so that they all incorporate differentiation of some sort.  Option two will be an interactive session on new technology applications used to differentiate instruction for students in all subject areas.  And option three will be an open forum discussion on differentiation techniques that worked well or didn’t work well.”  Doesn’t that sound amazing and wonderful?  Teachers would receive training and support that is appropriate for the level at which they are currently working.  I would love to be at a school that utilizes this model of professional development as I could more effectively grow and develop as a teacher.  So, my question is, why don’t all schools employ this model of helping teachers grow and develop?  Sure, it takes planning, but that’s what great teachers and schools do.  So, why not try it?  Why not best support and help all teachers at all schools around the globe?  Let’s practice what we preach as teachers and meet students, or in this case educators, where they are so that we can best help them grow and develop as individuals.  Let’s change the way schools help teachers grow and develop professionally.

What Makes Effective Teaching?

This morning, as I perused the various headlines via the News app on my iPhone, a story caught my eye: “Educators: Innovate Less, Execute More” by Kalman R. Hettleman.  The author proposes that teachers need to focus on effectively teaching students rather than trying to find new and novel ways to teach and educate them.  Although the focus of the article is really on how public schools implement RTI, the first few graphs do discuss classroom teachers.  As I first read the article, I found the perspective refreshing after having been inundated for the past several years with books, articles, and conferences on the importance of being an innovative teacher and using innovative technology products and services in the classroom.  Most of these books and conferences all focused on the same issues and ideas, and so they all felt very repetitive; therefore, I was ready for something different.  But, upon further contemplation of this article, I realized that the author was somewhat contradicting himself, as great and effective teachers are always trying to find new and better ways to effectively teach and engage their students.  In order to execute a lesson or activity well, teachers must know and understand how their students learn best so that they can be sure they are reaching each and every individual student in their classroom.  To do this, teachers need to find new and novel ways to hook students.  While being sure that the lesson is executed well is an important part of the teaching and learning process, it’s only a part of the larger educational puzzle.  Teachers must constantly innovate their teaching practices in order to be effective in the classroom.  Great teachers are the best students because they value the importance of knowledge.

As the final three days of faculty meetings begin tomorrow morning at my fine educational institution, I can’t help but get excited for what is going to happen on Friday: Registration Day.  My new students will arrive and get settled into their dormitories and prepare for the start of classes next week.  I can’t wait to meet my 11 new and eager students as we embark upon a journey of curiosity, wonderment, knowledge, failure, and fun.  I can’t wait to introduce Reader’s Workshop to the boys and get them excited about reading.  I can’t wait to have them play and explore with the Makey Makeys we’ve added to our Maker Space this year.  I can’t wait to begin working with my new co-teacher.  I can’t wait to begin implementing the new Brain and Mindfulness units my co-teacher and I crafted this summer.  I can’t wait to put on my teaching cape and get down to business.  I just can’t wait for the new academic year to begin.

While I will be sure to execute lessons and activities well in the classroom this year, as Mr. Hettleman suggests I should, I will try to also do what he states I shouldn’t do in the classroom, innovate and try new things.  I will take risks and try new approaches to teaching to help best support all of my students.  Great teaching requires a positive attitude, desire to learn, flexibility, creativity, innovation, enthusiasm, and an understanding of effective teaching practices.  So, thank you Kalman, for reminding me what it takes to be an effective teacher.  Thank you for helping stir up my mental pot and prepare for the coming days that are sure to be filled with fun, drama, and lots of questions.

Do Grading Rubrics Hurt or Help Students?

Many eons ago, back when I was just a young lad in school, I felt as though word of grading rubrics hadn’t reached my school district in the small state of New Hampshire; therefore, my teachers only ever told us about assignments with very few details on what to include and how to receive the grade we wanted to work towards earning.  “You will need to write a 3-page essay, due on Friday, explaining the impact of WWII on the world,” was similar to how many of my teachers informed us of graded assignments or projects.  They provided very little detail on what was expected of us as students.  Did I need to use complete sentences?  Was I required to include a bibliography?  Did I need to include support from my sources?  How was I supposed to earn an A on this essay if my teachers never told me what was expected?

I am a very concrete thinker who craves feedback and specific instructions.  Just tell me exactly what to do and how to do it, and I will get it done as soon as possible.  I don’t like gray area or instructions that are open to interpretation.  “Attach piece A to piece B” kind of instructions frustrate me because I don’t know how they want me to do what is being asked of me.  I like things clearly spelled out for me. “Using two of the 1/4″ screws, attach piece A to piece B as displayed in the image below.”  Now those are my kind of directions, as I know exactly what is being asked of me.

In school, I was the very same way.  I hated that my teachers never clearly or specifically explained assignments to me.  Even when I asked for clarification on what was being asked of me, my teachers provided me with very little explanation.  Why?  What purpose does confusion serve?  If they want me to do something in a specific manner, then they need to tell me, I often thought.  And, it was clear that my teachers had a specific set of expectations in mind when assigning tasks to us because not everyone received the same grade, which meant that they wanted us to include support from our sources, include a bibliography, and use complete paragraphs and sentences.  So, if they had in mind what they wanted us to do, why did they not tell us?  Why keep us in the dark?  Ohh how frustrating that was for me.

When I first became a teacher, I employed grading tactics that I wished my teachers had utilized.  I provided my students with specific details and rubrics regarding assignments, as I wanted them to know exactly what was being asked of them.  I detailed every last expectation in these grading rubrics including font size, number of paragraphs, and everything else in between.  I wanted my students to be informed and not confused.  I feel like this method of grading worked.  My students knew what to do, and they either chose to do it or not do it.  Those who didn’t do what was expected of them chose not to do it rather than being unaware of what was expected.  My students knew how their grades were calculated and had very few questions about grading and assignments.  Rubrics allowed my students to know exactly what they needed to do for every graded assignment, and there was no room for interpretation or confusion.  I liked that, at first.

But what about creativity and problem solving?  If I always told my students exactly what was expected of them for various assignments, how did I know if they could think critically or solve problems on their own?  In this day and age, people need to know how to think for themselves in creative and innovative ways.  If teachers are always spelling out exactly what students need to know and show, then how will they ever learn how to create and solve problems on their own?

It was then that I began to realize why my teachers did what they did when I was in school.  They wanted me to be creative, interpret directions, and solve problems.  They didn’t want me to simply regurgitate what I had learned in class.  They wanted me to think critically about facts and information learned in order to analyze and interpret them.  While I used a fixed mindset in school, I now realize what my teachers were trying to get me to do.  They wanted me to utilize a growth mindset so that I could become the best student possible, which is why they didn’t use grading rubrics or specifically detail assignments for me.  Regardless of their goals and hopes for me, I was still a very frustrated student.

So, I realized, that as a teacher, I needed to strike a balance between explaining assignments and preventing creativity from happening.  That’s when I began to do away with grading rubrics and instead explained assignments to students and answered any questions my students had about the task or what was being asked of them.  Rather than detail every part of the objective and assignment, I allowed the students to think for themselves and ask questions regarding what they wanted to know about the expectations.  This way, I hoped, to inspire more creativity and individual problem solving within my students.  While I believe that over the past few years since I’ve been using this model of introducing graded assignments, I’ve also helped my students learn how to think creatively and critically in order to solve problems on their own, I don’t have any data to support this claim.

As I crafted my Individualized Teacher Action Plan (ITIP) for this coming academic year, I began to realize what I wanted to focus on: Grading and rubrics.  Do detailed and specific rubrics hurt or help students?  If teachers provide too much information on grading rubrics, will students be unable to be creative in completing the task or assignment?  Should teachers use grading rubrics to introduce assignments to students?  What works and what doesn’t?  I want to know, unequivocally, if my current thought on grading rubrics is actually the best and most effective way to approach the introduction of assignments.

I spent several days researching this topic online to find out what was already written on the topic.  I can’t possibly be the first teacher to have this thought or question.  While I did find much information on grading and rubrics in general, I did not find an exact answer to my question.  Therefore, I’m going to spend time this year collecting and gathering data on rubrics and grading.  What is the best and most effective way to introduce assignments to students so as to inform them of the expectations, but not curtail their creativity?

I have already created two graded assignments, with two different explanations for my students.  Half of my students will receive a specific and detailed grading rubric for a task, while the other half will receive a brief explanation of the assignment.  Once the students have completed the task, I will assess, without grading, the quality of creativity and problem solving the two groups of students used when completing the task.  Did one group demonstrate more creativity than the other group?  I will then seek feedback from the students to find out how the assignment went for them.  Did they understand what was being asked of them?  Did the rubric provide too much information for them?  Did one group feel better equipped to tackle the task than the other group?  After doing this a few times over the first half of the year, I will reflect on the data gathered and determine the best way to introduce assignments to students.  I will then create task introductions based on what seems to be working best for my students, and hopefully, find the perfect balance between too much and not enough information regarding the expectations for assignments.

I also created a survey that I sent out to my students to complete prior to the start of the school year.  I want to find out how they were graded at their previous schools.  I also want to know what their experience with grading rubrics is and how they feel about them.  In collecting this data, I hope to be able to introduce and explain assignments and tasks to my students in meaningful and personalized ways so as to support and challenge my students accordingly.  I can’t wait to begin receiving the results of this survey.  What do my students think about grading and rubrics?

Once I begin to gather data and determine the best way to introduce assignments to students, I will update you all on my progress and the results of this study.  Do grading rubrics hurt or help students?

The Brain as a Unit

The brain is an absolutely fabulous work of art created by the trials and tribulations of evolution.  We are a lucky species to be equipped with such an amazing device that allows us to think, deliberate, feel, talk, smell, and so much more.  As the brain is in charge of everything that we as humans do, it’s also really nice that scientists have spent so much time studying this remarkable body part that hangs above our neck like a statue on a pedestal.  Because of this work, we as teachers, know that the brain is what enables or prevents our students from learning and growing as individuals.  So, it just makes sense that we should empower our students with knowledge about this great tool hidden away in our skull under layers of hair and skin.

My co-teacher and I spent several weeks doing research on how to most effectively teach the brain and how it helps students learn.  We bounced ideas off of one another, did some more research, and revised our unit plan until we had what we feel is the best possible unit on teaching the students how they can best utilize their brain in order to be the most effective student in and out of the classroom.  We based most of our unit on the ideas developed by Carol Dweck and the Brainology program her and her team created.  A lot of the activities we have planned came directly from that curriculum.  If you are looking for a dynamic and meaningful way to teach the brain and the concept of mindsets to students, you must definitely check out Brainology.  It is an amazing program.  Enough with the subliminal advertising.  So, my phenomenal new co-teacher and I have created a unit on the brain and how it helps students learn that will engage and educate students so that they can grow into effective and thoughtful students.  We will be implementing this unit at the start of the year as a way to introduce students to this great tool resting on their shoulders.  This unit will run side-by-side our unit on Mindfulness so that the students will see how living mindfully will help them not only be be more peaceful and deliberate, but also more effective students and thinkers.  We feel as though these ideas and concepts need to be integrated for the best result possible.

Highlights of our unit on the brain:

  • The students will learn all about the plasticity of their brain through various discussions and activities.  Knowing that intelligence is always influx and not fixed will help the students see that everything they do is about attitude and perspective.  They can do almost anything they put their mind to.
  • The students will create and design learning plans to help fictional students utilize a growth mindset and be the most effective student possible.  The hope is that they will be able to apply these ideas to themselves and their learning in and out of the classroom.  It will also be great practice for the final project.
  • The unit will close with a project in which the students will set SMART goals for themselves with a plan for how they will achieve their goals based on ideas and strategies learned throughout the unit.  This will be a graded project that will allow us to teach the students about how to set SMART goals, revise work their work, and utilize feedback in a meaningful manner.  We will also have the students review and update their learning plan every two weeks to make it relevant and meaningful for them.
  • This unit will be implemented in our study skills class while the students learn about the biology of the brain and its parts and their functions in STEM class.  Integrating this unit into our STEM class made sense to us.  The students will learn about how their brain learns in PEAKS class while they learn the science-based aspects of the brain in our science course.  Helping the students put the pieces of the brain puzzle together will allow them to see the hows and whys of this amazing resource that we generally take for granted.

Below is the unit plan we devised:

How Your Brain Learns Unit

Day 1

  • Briefly introduce unit on the brain
    • This unit will help you realize how flexible and plastic your brain is and how you can change how you think about learning and intelligence to become a more effective student and learner.
    • This unit will help students understand how their brain physically changes as they learn new information and how they can affect those changes.
  • Ask students: What do you wonder about this unit?
    • Have them start an OWL (Observations from their past/things they already know, Wonderings, Learning/things they learn from this unit) chart about their brain. They will complete the “L” at the end of the unit.
  • Have students complete the Mindset Assessment Profile
    • Have them score it themselves
    • Have them complete the reflection worksheet

Day 2

  • Have students finish the Mindset Assessment Profile if not completed in class on the previous day
  • Discuss:
    • Are there some subjects in which you don’t feel confident that you can learn and do well?  Why might that be?
    • How do you think it feels to get a bad grade when you learned something really hard?  How did you learn it?
    • Can you think of a time when you learned to do something really hard?  How did you learn it?
    • What would you be willing to work hard at to achieve if you knew it was possible?
    • If you knew that you could develop your intelligence through effort, what goals would you set for yourself?
  • Tell students: In this unit you are going to learn how you can grow your intelligence and do anything you want through hard work and effort.

Day 3

  • Read through and discuss “You Can Grow Your Intelligence” handout together as a class

Day 4

  • Have students complete the Scan your Brain Health self-assessment and then score it
  • Discuss:
    • What do you need to do to move into or stay in the Growth Mindset Zone?

Day 5

  • Tell students: Today we will learn more about the brain and its parts.
  • Ask students: What do you already know about the brain and its parts?
  • Create a list on the whiteboard of what the students already know about the brain.
  • Show students the Youtube Video on the Human Brain
  • Have students complete the Take an Active Approach handout
  • Ask students: What did you learn about the brain today that you didn’t already know?

Day 6

  • Tell students: It seems effortless to do things you like such as playing sports, playing video games, or using your cell phone.  
  • Ask students: What are some of your favorite things to do?  How did you learn to do them?  How can you apply this same tactic to school work or learning anything new?
  • Tell students: Dr. Carol Dweck is a psychologist who studies why people fail.  What she found is that when people believe they failed because of lack of talent or intelligence, they stopped trying.  But, when people believe they failed because they didn’t try hard enough, they persevered and put forth more effort to be successful.
  • Ask students: Have you found this to be true in your personal lives?  Do you try harder when you believe you failed because of a lack of effort?  How does a person’s attitude affect his or her success?
  • Tell students: Sometimes we think we tried hard to learn something and fail so we give up when really it’s because we don’t know how to apply effective effort.  We need to work hard and work smart.  
  • Pass out Effective Effort Rubric Handout to students
  • Tell students: This rubric is a tool for thinking about how hard you tried to learn something.
  • Read and discuss the rubric together as a class.
  • Have the students think of something they tried to learn recently that they didn’t already know how to do.  How much effective effort did they use?  Have them circle the boxes that apply to how they performed.  When they finish, have them write a paragraph explaining how much effort they put forth and what they could work on next time they are learning something new.
  • If time permits, have students share their paragraphs aloud with the class.

Day 7

  • Read and discuss together as a class “John’s History Test” handout.
  • Tell students: Working with your table partner, create a plan to help John achieve his goal of doing well on the upcoming history test.  Write the plan out with specific action items and days of the week.  What should his study schedule look like?
  • Have students share their study plans with the class and discuss.  Is the plan effective and why or why not?

Day 8

  • Discuss Overcoming Challenges handout
    • What obstacles do you think these people experienced early in their lives?
    • What did they do to overcome these challenges and achieve their goals?
  • Have students complete the reflection questions on the worksheet individually.
  • Have students share times they overcame challenges in their lives aloud with the class.
  • Ask students: What can we learn from these people and others like them?

Day 9

  • Discuss stress and how it affects students and their learning.
  • Watch and discuss Youtube Video on How Stress Affects the Brain
  • Read and discuss Emotions and Learning Handout
  • Discuss what students can do to alleviate stress
    • Make list of ideas on the whiteboard
    • Remind them of mindfulness techniques we’re learning

Day 10

  • Read and discuss Alicia’s Presentation handout
  • Activity: Have students work with their table partner to help Alicia learn to not freeze up when performing a class presentation.  Create a plan including specific actions she can do to prevent stress from getting in the way of her life.
  • Have students share their plans and ideas with the class.  Are the plans effective and why or why not?

Day 11

  • Ask students: What are the two types of mindsets people use?
  • Read and discuss Two Mindsets handout
  • Explain to students a time when you felt challenged and talk about what you did to overcome that challenge
  • Have students complete the Two Mindsets Reflection worksheet
  • Have students focus on having a growth mindset as they go through the rest of their day, telling them that they will reflect on their progress in changing their mindset during our next PEAKS class.

Day 12

  • Ask students: How did it go trying to utilize a Growth Mindset when working or interacting with others?  Have volunteers share their experiences.
  • Have students complete the Scan Your Mindset worksheet and self-score it before having them work on the Growth Zone worksheet.
  • Have students share their plans for staying in the growth zone with the class.

Day 13

  • Activity: Students working with their table partner will read the assigned research brief before completing the worksheet.
  • Have students share how their research impacts the human potential.

Day 14

  • Ask students: What needs to happen for effective learning to take place in the brain?
  • Discuss: What are the two types of mindsets people can use?  What happens if we find ourselves in a fixed mindset?  What can we do?
  • Have students complete the Two Mindsets Part 2 worksheet
  • Discuss each of the scenarios on the worksheet and have the students share what they would do to use a growth mindset

Day 15

  • Ask students: How can you be sure you are using a growth mindset in the classroom?  What might that look like?
  • Read and discuss the five BRAIN acronym handouts
  • Ask students: How can you apply these ideas and strategies in the classroom to become a better student?

Days 16-18

  • Ask students: What have we learned about the brain throughout this unit?
  • Finish the KWL chart started at the beginning of the unit
  • Discuss with students: Now what?  You learned all about how you can best utilize your brain to learn and be the most effective student possible.  How can we be sure that you will apply this knowledge and information throughout the year in all of your classes?
  • Have the Students Complete a Learning Goals Plan
    • Discuss SMART goals and how to set them
    • Have the students set at least one SMART goal for each of their major courses: STEM, PEAKS, Humanities, Language, and Gates
    • For each goal, have them create a plan for what they will do to work towards their goal.  They will need to include at least one strategy or idea learned in the unit.
    • Discuss Peer Editing and have the students peer edit with each other
    • Have the students revise their Learning Goals Plan
    • Every Tuesday in PEAKS class, the students will update their progress in this same document
  • Ask students: What did you enjoy about this unit?  What would you change if you were in charge?

Making our Makerspace Even More Maker-Friendly with the Makey Makey

While the name is certainly fun to say, I feel as though it doesn’t truly encapsulate the awesomeness and possibilities provided by the Makey Makey.  It’s a toy, tool, new gadget, game pad, circuit board, keyboard, and so much more.  It’s a small box filled with endless projects and solutions.  After happening upon this fun little resource a few years back, I thought that it was high time to really learn more about it and find useful ways to incorporate it into our sixth grade curriculum, which is why one of my professional goals for the summer was to become better versed in using this learning tool.  So, I spent many hours tinkering, trying new things, and exploring the online tutorials in order to fully grasp what’s possible with this fun little tool called the Makey Makey.

While we will be adding several Makey Makeys to our classroom Makerspace for this upcoming academic year, this resource could also be utilized in Humanities, PEAKS, and STEM classes.  There are so many possibilities that exist with this tiny little gadget.  Combined with other elements including materials and the coding program Scratch, the Makey Makey could be used as a solution to a problem, project possibility, or almost anything else our students can dream up.  I’ve even thought about having the students use this resource during our unit on the brain in PEAKS class as they explore growth mindset and the plasticity of the brain.  The Makey Makey Website is filled with creative ideas and possible uses of this innovative learning tool.  I can’t wait to see what the students create and design with the Makey Makey come September.

I created an enticing little Screencast O Matic video of my fun time with the Makey Makey to inspire and ignite the spark of learning within my future sixth graders.  A big thanks goes out to the amazing, skilled, and innovative thinkers at MIT for creating such amazing learning tools such as the Makey Makey and Scratch.  I can’t wait for my students to learn all about circuits and computer coding through the use of these fine tools.  I wish I could use the Makey Makey to create a fast forward button so that I could skip ahead to September to watch my students build, explore, fail, try something new, and have fun learning with the Makey Makey.  Perhaps my wish could indeed come true if I just keep tinkering and playing, as I’m sure there is some way I can use alligator clips to manipulate time and space.  Anything’s possible…

Mindfulness Background Reading

I stood at the counter recently at a local Dunkin’ Donuts shop, perplexed.  They had both of my favorite donuts on the shelves, the Chocolate Stick and the Vanilla Cake Batter.  I was befuddled by which donut I should choose.  The chocolate stick is easy to hold and eat and makes very little mess when eaten in a car.  The vanilla cake batter donut has a delicious filling that makes me go, “Ahhhh.”  What about not getting a donut at all?  They are full of fat and bad chemicals that only cause problems for my body.  Should I not even bother with a donut? I thought.  It was quite a vexing moment for me.  I didn’t know what to do.  I was torn.

I feel this same baffled way about the teaching resource Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness by Deborah Schoeberlein David that I recently finished reading.  While it filled my mind with lots of great ideas to implement in the classroom, it was poorly organized and overly repetitive.  So, do I give it a rave review and not mention how disorganized the text felt throughout or do I give it an honest review mentioning both the good and bad aspects of the book?  So, like I did that day at the doughnut shop, I paused, took a deep breath, and made my decision: Honesty is always the best policy.  So, here it is, my honest review of the professional development resource regarding mindfulness.

Mental food for thought:

  • The book is very disorganized and repetitive as the author keeps telling us the same thing over and over again regarding mindfulness and how to live mindfully.  While she breaks the concept down into tiny pieces, the definitions and methods are almost always the same.  Due to this chaos within the book, it felt clunky and I found myself skimming over several parts and chapters because they were all providing the reader with the same information.  This aspect made the text hard to digest effectively as I constantly found myself thinking, She already told us this, throughout the book.  Had she organized it in a more meaningful, succinct, and appropriate manner, I would have found much more enjoyment in the entire reading experience.
  • After reading this text, I realized that I am already doing some of the mindful practices the author suggests, which also reminded me that not all new teaching practices are completely new and unique.  Some concepts and ideas are things effective teachers already do on a regular basis, with mindfulness being one of them.  I’ve felt as though the big push recently in education is about teaching students to be mindful.  So, as one of my professional goals is to craft a mindfulness curriculum this summer, I felt compelled to read up on the topic so that I had some sort of foundation on which to build my curriculum.  As I read the book, I realized that a big part of being mindful is reflecting in the moment and after the fact.  I already do this on a daily basis through my teaching blog.  At the close of each and every day of teaching, I stop, reflect on something that went well or crashed and burned that day, and then write about it.  This process allows me to see how I can become a better educator since I am able to see the mistakes I made or celebrate my greatness.  In reflecting, I’m also able to, sometimes, generate possible solutions to problems facing me as a teacher.  Over the past few years that I’ve been blogging and reflecting, I’ve been able to focus my thinking in the moment.  I find myself thinking about what is going well or not as I’m teaching, which allows me to make any alterations needed right then and there.  So, while this idea of mindfulness seemed new and strange to me at first, I’m realizing that I am already on the path of being a mindful teacher, which means that I can model good, mindful practices for my students.
  • Mindfulness is all about taking the time to live in the moment and truly experience life.  I wonder then, if my school’s schedule is more conducive to mindlessness than it is mindfulness.  We have short class blocks, which do not allow most teachers to delve into mindfulness practices.  Our school is driven by time and schedule, which means that most students and teachers are always looking at the clock and not able to be present in the moment.  While our sixth grade schedule is much more flexible, and we reiterate the importance of not living by the clock or time constraints in the classroom at the start of the year, as a whole school, we struggle to build in time for mindfulness.  How can we expect our teachers to teach mindfulness to our students if we don’t provide them with the time to be mindful in the first place?  For our school to truly help students be more mindful in and out of the classroom, our schedule and mindset as an institution needs to change.  We need longer class periods and more time to work with the students on living in the moment and not worrying about what comes next.  We need more time to pause and reflect with our students.  I worry that while my co-teacher and I will teach our students to be more mindful this coming year, if our school doesn’t value mindfulness as a whole, then when our sixth graders move into the other graders, all of the effort and work they put into being mindful will be lost.
  • Teaching students to be mindful involves teaching them about the brain and how it works.  Once the students know how their brain helps them learn while also trying to distract them at every turn, they can begin to see how they can control their line of thinking and change their mindset.  While my co-teacher and I are teaching our students mindful practices, we will also be teaching them about how the brain works in our study skills course.  This way, they will be able to see how the puzzle pieces fit together.
  • Like teaching any new activity or skill in the classroom, it’s important to explain the purpose of mindfulness.  Why are we teaching you to be more mindful?  What’s the purpose?  How can these practices help you become a better student and individual citizen in our world?  These are important questions to address with the students at the outset, which is why we are planning to begin our mindfulness unit with a TED Talk or video that visually shows the students why mindfulness is crucial to their future success in and out of the classroom.
  • Short activities that allow students be more mindful in the moment will be good to use in all of our classes.  Perhaps starting class with one minute of mindful breathing and quiet contemplation could help center the students and recalibrate their brains and bodies prior to jumping into the learning and content for the day.  I want to use this in at least one class a day as I think it will really help the students see the benefits in stopping and pausing before continuing on with their day.  Another simple yet mindful activity is to start class with a riddle.  Having the students think about just the answer to the riddle allows them to hone their focus and concentration at the start of the class.  This is also a cool idea that I want to use in our study skills class.
  • When crafting the mindfulness curriculum for our class this year, I now have several good activities and ideas to include:
    • After explaining the purpose of learning mindfulness, I want to have the students realize how many different thoughts are swirling around their tiny heads at any given moment by having them list every thought they are thinking during a period of 30 seconds.  I will follow this up with a class discussion and reflection activity that will hopefully help the students see the power in decluttering their minds on a daily basis.
    • I want to have the students complete some mindful speech and active listening activities to help the boys learn how to speak aloud and listen appropriately.  The students will work with a partner to read a section of text aloud in various different ways before receiving feedback on each method.  This way, hopefully, the students will be able to see how important volume, annunciation, and intonation are when speaking aloud.  This activity will also help the students learn the importance of being good listeners and how this skill can help them and their partner grow as students and people.
    • The author introduced a cool activity about walking with awareness to help the students see how their body language shows their feelings and emotions without them even knowing it.  This will help the students learn to be aware of their body language and the messages it sends to their peers and teachers.
    • Have students complete various acts of kindness and then talk about the resultant feelings.  How does it feel to be kind and compassionate?  Helping the students see the value in kindness will help them to treasure it and spread it to everyone they come in contact with on a daily basis.
    • I want to have the students try a mindful seeing activity as a way to introduce how quiet observations can lead to mindful vision.  We could work this into the STEM curriculum as they observe the natural world right outside of our classroom.  How much more valuable are the observations they make when they are quiet and patient than when they are talking and focusing on several different ideas?  This is something I struggled with this past year in my STEM class.  When I took the students outside to observe their forest plots, they were so preoccupied with the external factors of bugs, heat, and their peers that they couldn’t mindfully observe their plots. Having the students practice this activity a few different times might help them to see the benefit in mindfully observing the world around them.
    • Have the students complete an activity in which they discuss a hot button topic before seeing how their expectations and judgements cloud their mindfulness.  How can you truly and objectively think about or discuss a topic if your mind is full of preconceived notions and subjective thoughts?  Getting the students to see the importance of broadening their perspective when learning about new ideas or topics is crucial for mindful learning to take place.
  • A great and easy way for the students to document their mindfulness progress is to have them reflect on their mindful thinking and learning in their e-portfolios.  As we will have the students update and maintain their e-portfolio throughout the year, adding another component in which they can document their growth as a mindful student just makes sense.  This way they can see how much more mindful they are at the end of the year compared to how they were at the start of the academic year.

While I didn’t totally love this book because it was disorganized and repetitive, I did learn a lot from it.  Reading this text also facilitated much thinking for me on the topic of mindfulness.  Although I wouldn’t recommend this book for teachers looking to create a mindfulness curriculum, it has helped me to think about how I want to organize my own unit on mindfulness.  Now begins the fun work of setting up my mindfulness unit with all that I’ve learned from this resource.

Summer Reading Professional Development Text: Educating English Learners

After a lengthy hiatus brought on by the craziness that is teaching sixth grade at a boarding school, I jumped headfirst right back into Educating English Learners, by Nutta, Strebel, Mokhtari, Mihai, and Crevecoeur-Bryant, now that summer vacation has begun.  While it was quite dense and loaded with vocabulary more geared towards English as a Second Language Teachers, I learned a lot about how to better support and help the English language learners in my class.  I would not recommend this text for light reading as I found myself having to reread several passages because of the syntax and verbosity of the language used.  It’s a great resource for any teacher who works with non-native English students in their classroom.  Although the book doesn’t include neat and easy to use remedies and strategies, it provides the reader with much food for thought and fodder on how to create a caring and supportive environment for all students in the classroom.

My takeaways:

  • English language learners will struggle less when learning English if their native language literacy skills are strong.  While this seems quite simplistic and obvious, when I read this knowledge nugget, I felt as though someone had slung a bag of bricks at my head.  So, the stronger the EL student is in his or her native language, the better equipped he or she will be to tackle the intricacies of the English language.  Knowing this will help me better structure mini-lessons or plans for the ELs in my class.  Talking to parents and looking at student files ahead of time might provide me with the answers I need regarding this issue.
  • To help EL students feel more welcomed and safe at the start of the school year, labelling objects around the room in the native languages represented in the classroom is a good first step in setting up the classroom.  This will help the students know how much I care about them and want them to be successful.  It’s a little thing that is sure to go a long way.  It’s also great for vocabulary development for those EL students in my class.
  • Things that native English speakers take for granted are truly difficult for EL students to learn.  For example, native English speakers know the difference between words when they are used in social contexts or in academic settings.  A party is a social gathering when discussed amongst friends, but in the social studies classroom it refers to a group of people with similar beliefs.  Although the definitions are closely related, to non-native English students, how is it possible that one word can have more than one meaning?  The English language is full of rules, idiomatic expressions, and exceptions to every rule.  Being aware of these challenges will help us better empathize with and support the ESL students in our classroom.
  • If we know that most native English speakers don’t fully grasp why we say what we do and how we say things in English and our ELLs need much help understanding rules of grammar when learning English, why don’t we do more formal instruction in the classroom on the rules and structure of English?  Why don’t we teach the parts of speech and how to use them?  Why don’t we help students learn how to diagram sentences to understand the hows and whys of English?  Why don’t we teach the English language to all of our students?  As I’ve often wrestled with these questions over the years, I’ve suddenly realized that I don’t formally teach grammar and English to my sixth grade students.  Sure, I brush over it at various times when I’m conferencing with students in Writer’s Workshop or helping an ELL in my class; I don’t however, do any full-class instruction on this.  I need to bring back the formal grammar instruction, but I want to make sure I do so in a meaningful, relevant, and engaging way.  Having the students complete worksheets and underline verbs and nouns seems tedious and boring.  I want my students to truly learn English grammar.  I was thinking of starting my Humanities class twice a week with a brain opener activity I would call Grammar Gurus in which I would teach the students about English grammar through fun activities.  It wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes and it would allow me be sure that my students understand the form and function of the English language.  This would also greatly benefit the ELLs in my classroom too.  Nice!
  • Acting out, visually, or through modelling, new or challenging vocabulary terms will better help the EL students in our classrooms understand what we are discussing or asking them to do.  I could use images or diagrams as instructions on worksheets or on our class website to help non-native English speakers better understand what is being asked of them.
  • Much like labelling objects in the classroom in various different languages, having a word wall in the classroom with new vocabulary terms and their definitions in simple English would also help struggling English language learners better understand the content being covered in class.  My co-teacher and I could use this strategy as an introductory lesson for each new unit.  We could introduce the new vocabulary terms that we will cover throughout the unit and help the students generate student-friendly and simplistic definitions for the new words.  Very cool idea!
  • Thematic units or PBLs help ELLs due to the longer exposure to the content and vocabulary terms covered.  If the students are learning about renewable energy in STEM class and also writing about it in Humanities class, the same ideas, concepts, and vocabulary terms will be used in both classes.  The English language learners in the classroom would then be provided with more time to practice understanding the content and processing the new words and concepts.  What a brilliant idea!  I’m going to talk to my co-teacher about crafting more thematic units throughout the year to better support and help the ESL students in our class.
  • While I’ve always known the power in partnering non-native English speakers with native English students, the book made a point to explain the power in pairing students with different languages together when working on a PBL activity that incorporates technology somehow.  The non-native English speaker can receive English support from the native speaker while they are both problem solving in English together.  Not only does this technique help to bridge cultural differences, it also helps both students grow and develop as English language learners.  I need to make sure I continue this tradition of pairing ELLs with native English speakers in the classroom as the evidence and research proves what I’ve known all along.
  • The text discusses the importance of correcting the English language learners in our class in their writing and oral speech.  This goes against my prior knowledge and what I currently do in the classroom.  Rather than correcting the oral speech of the ELLs in my classroom, I work with them one-on-one with their writing.  I provide them feedback on how to improve their written English.  I should do this more consistently and also correct their oral English as well.  The book highlights the importance of doing this so that the students will learn proper English.  If we cottle the ELLs in our classroom, they will not grow and develop as English language learners.  Although this seems like common sense, I’ve never realized the importance of doing so for the ESL students in my class.  I need to do this regularly in the classroom.
  • For ELLs to grow and develop, they need to be receiving direct instruction from an ESL instructor at least once a day along with inclusion in a mainstream class.  The combination of the two will help the students understand the rules and function of the language while also practicing the social and academic rules of English.  In the sixth grade, my ELLs only have ESL class twice a week.  They need to have it every day in order to be appropriately prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English class.  I need to talk with my school’s director of studies to see if this can be changed for next year and beyond.  While ESL class is a regular course in the seventh through ninth grades, it is done differently in the sixth grade.  This needs to be changed.  Perhaps that’s why I see very slow progress from my ESL students over the course of the year.  As I am not a qualified ESL instructor, I can’t help them in all of the ways they need to be supported as they learn the English language.
  • Because my school has almost 50% non-native English speakers, we need more professional development for supporting ELLs in our classrooms.  We need specific strategies, tips, and tricks we can use when working with English language learners.  While reading this book has helped me understand the issue at hand, it is only a tiny piece of the puzzle of working with ELLs.  I’m sure my colleagues would agree when I say that we need much more help and support from our school in working with non-native English speakers.  We need to be taught about teaching ELLs in our classrooms.  We can’t effectively help all of our students if we don’t know how to do so.

While it took me a bit longer than I had hoped to complete this text, it was totally worth the wait and perseverance.  I now know that I need to be much more deliberate and purposeful in teaching the English language to all of my students, and especially to the English language learners in my class.  I feel as though I am much more prepared now to help support the ELLs in my classroom come September.  Yes, I do still need a lot more help in what specific strategies to use when working with the English language learners in my class, but at least I feel like I have some places to start and ideas for how to improve as an English teacher moving forward.