Staring at the Sun: Reflections on my Summer Work

My parents had a very long “Don’t Do This” list for me growing up: Don’t talk to strangers, don’t stick your tongue on metal in the winter, don’t stare at the sun, don’t listen to music with Parental Advisory stickers (I’m still a little angry at Tipper Gore for making that craziness happen), don’t go swimming right after eating, and don’t shower during a thunder storm.  While some of their demands were reasonable, I mean, who wants to lose part of their tongue or get struck by lightning in a shower, others were just plain silly.

“Why can’t I listen to the new Guns ‘N’ Roses double album?” I asked my parents in complete dismay.

“Because it includes inappropriate lyrics and has a Parental Advisory sticker on it,” my mom said, all matter of fact-like.

This ridiculous rule forced me to secretly save my allowance for a few weeks, which was really hard to do as I loved spending money right away back then.  But, I did it anyway.  I saved my money until I had enough to buy both Use Your Illusions I & II.  Then, when my parents when shopping at Ames, I went over to Coconuts, the record store in our town, and bought both albums on cassette tape and shoved them into my pockets.  My pockets were too small to hold CDs.  I met my parents back at Ames like nothing devious or evil had just occurred.  I got away with my crime, and I do believe that it made the songs on those two albums sound a little bit sweeter.  They forced my hand.  I had to covertly purchase those two albums, as they changed the musical landscape of rock music.  I couldn’t possibly live my life without ever hearing November Rain.  That would be sacrilegious.

Once I was finally freed from the controlling wraith of my parents and went off to college, I was filled with thoughts of rebellion.  Freedom tasted like fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, at first.  I stayed up way past my bed time, listened to music with curse words, and went swimming while eating.  It was awesome.  However, this freedom did come at a bit of a cost, as I began to realize that the rules my parents set up for me were done so to keep me safe and healthy.  After several days of staying up very late and waking up early for class, I grew very tired.  I ended up having to skip a few classes to get caught up on my sleep.  Then, when I stared at the sun, my eyes burned for days afterward.  That was so not fun.  While I was unhappy having to live within the confines of the cage my parents built for me, it was exactly the cage I needed.  It just took a few bad experiences for me to see this.


With school beginning next week, I’m filled with excitement and joy, like when I first listened to the Guns ‘N’ Roses Use Your Illusions I & II albums, minus the feeling of betrayal.  I can’t wait to meet my new students and jump into the school year.  I’m looking forward to trying lots of new games in Math class, bringing real substance to our Morning Meetings, and completing a real-world project for my community unit.  As my summer vacation is coming to a close, I feel compelled to reflect on the work I completed over the past two months.  Did I accomplish what I had set out to do this summer?  Am I fully prepared for the upcoming academic year?  Is there more that still needs to be done?  How’d I do in meeting the professional goals I set for myself back at the close of the past school year?

  • Goal 1: I want to switch up the posters and decorations in my classroom– I feel as though I totally rocked the house on this goal.  I put a lot of time, effort, and energy into transforming my room into an educational oasis of sorts.  I reorganized my Maker Space to bring more order and accountability to the space.  I hung the tools on the wall and labelled them all so that I can quickly and easily see what tools are still in use or have yet to be returned.  Plus, every tool now has a specified place.  I like that.  I also added a Tech Space to my Maker Space so that students can learn to code, create video games, or research a project they’re creating in the Maker Space.  I set up the Raspberry Pi computer that I built last year to a spare monitor that had no use last year.  I’m excited about what the students will be able to do at this new space in my classroom.  In addition to the Maker areas in the classroom, I also had one wall painted blue and thought carefully and logistically about the posters I hung on the wall.  I made sure that each poster was directly tied to the curriculum in some way or provided the students with thoughtful words.  I attempted to remove the clutter and disconnected and distracting posters from the wall.  I’m very pleased with what I do have hung up.  I also tried to mount the posters to the wall in a more professional looking manner.  I wanted to make my classroom look more like it was put together by professional classroom designers rather than by a 42-year-old man who doesn’t even match his socks.  I’m also thrilled about the curtains I added to the library area to make it more of a fun and inviting reading cave.  I believe the students will thoroughly enjoy this new touch.  My wife is also in the process of making valences for the windows in my room.  I can’t wait to see how they inject fun and whimsy into the space.  So, mission accomplished with goal one.
  • Goal 2: I want to change-up some of my Social Studies and Science units– While this will be an ongoing journey of mine for this new school year, I haven’t quite met this goal.  I am looking to change some of my Science and Social Studies units, but I haven’t fully realized them yet.  I have been working closely with the Hopkinton Town Administrator to enliven Our Community unit with an engaging and real-world project.  He’s brainstorming some possibilities as I type this entry.  I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with.  I also want to complete some sort of unit on civics and the upcoming presidential election.  I’m not exactly sure what this will look like, but I want to teach the students about how the election process works while they learn about the candidates in the running.  I’m hoping to have the students complete some sort of debate for this unit.  Other than that, I will have to assess the completion of this goal at the close of the 2019-2020 school year.
  • Goal 3: Determine if I will use Classcraft as a tool in my classroom– After much research on the program and time spent pondering my approach to how much screen time my students have on a daily basis, I’ve decided not to utilize Classcraft in my classroom for the upcoming school year.  While this tool may work for some teachers and students, I really want my students to be focused on the entire classroom community rather than themselves as individuals.  I worry that the program would instill a sense of inappropriate competition within the class and force the students to focus too much on approaching school like a checklist.  I want my fifth grade community to operate in a free and organic manner.  So, no Classcraft for me this year.
  • Goal 4: I want to jazz up my Math class a bit– I devoted much time this summer to this one goal.  I researched various math programs that other teachers and schools use.  I read several studies on how to help students see Math as fun and engaging rather than difficult and unnecessary.  I am going to begin the year in my Math class by having the students play a series of math games to help them see the subject as a class on problem solving instead of a class that is problematic for them.  I made use of the numerous resources on the Mathforlove website.  I am going to use  pieces of the curriculum for mini-lessons and fun games in class as well.  I really want to make Math class something the students will look forward to instead of something they will dread.  I can’t wait to see how things go with Math this year.  I’m filled with hope and excitement for what is to come.  Mission accomplished with goal number four.
  • Goal 5: I want to find more engaging games to incorporate into our Morning Meetings for next year– All you have to do is revisit my entry on the first professional development text I read this summer to know that big changes are in the works for our daily Morning Meetings in the fifth grade.  I have the first two weeks of Morning Meetings planned and ready to go.  I can’t wait to get my students sharing, caring, and playing as we build and foster a strong sense of community in the classroom.  D for done on this goal too.

I’d say that I had quite the productive summer as I worked to meet the five goals I set for myself back in June.  I feel confident, inspired, and excited to meet my new students, create a strong sense of community within the fifth grade, have fun, and learn lots.  After this lengthy summer break, I say, bring on the students and let’s get this educational party started, without any sort of Parental Advisory stickers, of course.  Smiley faces, scratch-and-sniff, and motivational quotes are the only kinds of stickers that will be allowed in my classroom.  So, although Axl Rose probably wasn’t talking about a new school year in the song Locomotive, I feel as though it totally relates to this new journey all teachers and students are about to embark upon in the coming days and weeks: “Let it take you where it may, we live and learn.”  See mom, Guns ‘N” Roses do have songs filled with inspirational and thoughtful lyrics.

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Summer Time is Learning Time: Part IV

Last night, as I stood next to my wife dancing away to the music of the Goo Goo Dolls and Train, a sense of true happiness and love washed over me as if I were a pebble in the ocean of positivity.  While thousands of other music fans sat quietly or stood motionless listening to great live music, I felt the music and was moved by it, literally.  The music took me on an amazing journey as I wiggled, danced, moved, or whatever you’d like to call what I was doing, to some of the biggest pop songs of the past two decades.  I danced like no one was watching because I lived in the serenity of the moment.  I didn’t think about people snapping videos of me on social media or what others might think or label me as, I just danced and enjoyed the evening with my phenomenal wife.  It was one of the best night’s I’ve had in a while.  I allowed my emotional thoughts on the music control my body.  I listened to my soul while ignoring the social constructs that tell me to stand still or bob my head slowly to live music.  I was like a flame in a beautiful fire.  I moved like a work of bad art, and I didn’t care what anyone thought.  It was legendary.

Like my reckless dancing from last night, our emotions have immense power over us and our actions.  While I was in a controlled setting and realized that no real harm would come to me or others because of my radical dancing, aside from a neck cramp, sometimes, our emotions or feelings hijack our sense of right and wrong or what is socially acceptable.  Being self-aware of our emotions and the pull they have over our actions is crucial for success and happiness in life.  We need to find that balance between what our emotions want us to do and what our prefrontal cortex realizes we should do.  Learning self-control is one of the many keys to being an emotionally intelligent human being.  The opposable thumbs isn’t the only difference between us and monkeys.  We feel and react before we think and decide what the most effective course of action is.  However, with training, practice, and the power of redos, we can learn to be thoughtful, empathetic, and kind in how we respond to challenging or emotional situations.

Although I struggled to get through my final professional development text of the summer due to the intense density of the book, I learned much from Daniel Goleman’s seminal resource on emotional intelligence.  Sure, it could have been pruned down to about 100 pages, because like most scientists or great thinkers of our time, Goleman loves to spend pages and pages repeating the same thing over and over again using different words.  Aside from the density and repetition of the text, it reminded me of the huge and important responsibility we as educators and adults have to help teach future generations of students how to be emotionally in charge of their lives.  It’s possible that many horrible crimes and even lesser offenses in which other people were hurt either emotionally or physically may have been prevented had those involved individuals been more emotionally intelligent.  Stop, recognize, and reframe is a great strategy for being able to respond instead of reacting to situations.   When we push the pause button on our emotions and actions, and realize that we are feeling a strong emotion, we can then begin to change our thoughts and choose the best recourse to solve issues or situations in more thoughtful and caring ways.

While all great educators already realize the importance of teaching students how to be emotionally intelligent people, it’s valuable to hear it constantly repeated in books, articles, or discussions with colleagues.  Now more than ever, a resource like Emotional Intelligence is just what we need to be reminded of the huge job we have as teachers, parents, and caregivers.  We need to be sure that our children learn how to be self-aware, empathetic, and thoughtful human beings.  This text hit that point home like nothing else.  Despite the fact that it reads like a college psychology text for graduate students, the core message is meant for everyone: Think before you respond or act.  How simple is that?  But, wow does it make sense.  Imagine how many issues or disagreements we’ve all had that could have been handled more effectively had we not allowed our emotions to take over and drive the mother ship.  A lot, right?  It’s so very easy to allow our feelings to hijack our prefrontal cortex or the more modern portion of our brain, while it’s much more difficult to control our emotions and respond thoughtfully without reacting in an out-of-control manner.  This book reminded me of how important the social and emotional learning curriculum truly is.  We can’t expect our students to learn when we haven’t addressed their basic needs including safety, shelter, clothing, and food.  I can’t wait for the school year to begin so that I can help my new students to be the best possible and emotionally intelligent versions of themselves.

Here are just a few realizations or thoughts I had on this invaluable resource, all of which I jotted down in the margins.  A book can’t genuinely be digested unless you interact with it.  Reading is, after all, a physical activity.

  • Being able to accurately read the body language and facial expressions of others is crucial to being an emotionally intelligent person.  When we are able to recognize the physical signs of sadness, anger, happiness, or any other emotion, we can then use empathy to validate the other person’s feelings and then respond to the situation at hand.  I want to be sure that I teach my students how each of the big emotions manifests themselves on the bodies and faces of humans.  Much of our communication takes place without the utterance of any words.  While I’ve known this idea for years, it still smacks me in the head like a ton of bricks every time I revisit it.  We say so much without saying anything at all.
  • As teachers, we need to be specific and thoughtful with our feedback to students.  Rather then telling a student that their answer or work is wrong, we need to provide students with kind words while also helping them learn how to grow and improve as writers, mathematicians, scientists, or any other type of great thinker or doer.  While it’s much easier to say to a student, “That is wrong, now go fix it,” feedback of that type only negatively impacts our students.  We need to lift while we climb.
  • I used to think that acting out or role playing traumatic or violent events was harmful to people.  Wow, was I ever wrong.  It turns out that when kids act out or play games that seem violent or inappropriate after having survived a traumatic event, they are safely and effectively processing what they went through.  It’s the brains way of dealing with powerful memories, experiences, and emotions.  I guess the old adage of “never judge a book by its cover” remains true.
  • Our brains are plastic and changeable.  Nothing is fixed, unless we think it is.  We can change our mind, our attitude, and our outlook on life through practice, training, teaching, and sometimes counseling.  Having a growth mindset in life helps one to be emotionally literate.  If we are having a bad day, we need not allow negative emotions impact how we view what comes next.  We can choose to be happy or choose to be miserable.  I choose happy.
  • We need to help students learn how to express and talk about their emotions in effective and meaningful ways,  This can be done through various activities, but it needs to happen in our classrooms.  We can’t teach students about the gas laws if they don’t know how to process the negative emotions they are feeling regarding an interaction they had with a peer in the hallway prior to Science class.  Teaching students how to be emotionally intelligent is far more important than teaching them how to properly use a comma.
  • Many schools prevent students from feeling any sort of negative emotion much like the community in Lois Lowery’s dystopian novel The Giver.  How can we expect students to learn how to process and deal with negative feelings or emotions if we don’t teach allow them to experience them?  We can’t shield students from life.  What we can do, however, is help teach students strategies for dealing with, processing, and responding to emotions.  It is not good to shield students or people from feeling sad, angry, or mad, as then they will never learn what to do when they actually do encounter those emotions.  We can guide, help, and teach students, but we should not try to manipulate or control situations so that students are always in a constant state of happiness.  We need to experience all emotions to better appreciate life in all its magnificent glory.

“And that’s all I have to say about that,” Forrest Gump once said.  Like I did last evening at the concert in which I was an attendee, we need to help our students assess various situations and respond appropriately.  Emotions are wonderful things to experience, as long as we remain in charge of our actions and respond in kind and thoughtful ways.  Dancing crazy-like at a concert is socially acceptable behavior, while dancing at a funeral is not.  Goleman’s fine book reminds us that we need to help our students navigate their emotions, thoughts, and feelings.  Life is hard and fun and silly and unfair and beautiful all at once.  It’s like looking at a Jackson Pollack painting, we feel so many different things all at once, like controlled chaos.  So, to you fine followers of my blog, I say, go dance like no one is watching, as long as you are not at a funeral or a golf tournament.

Summer Time is Learning Time: Part III

For some odd reason, I feel the need to provide all you with a glimpse into my thought process for a moment.  Warning, my mind is a scary place.  Feel free to leave this entry and move onto something a little less bizarre and crazy.  If you’re still reading this, you are a brave soul, and for that, I thank you.

What to name today’s entry?  Hmmmmmm…  I could continue with the title sequence that I began using two entries ago, but that feels stale and boring to me.  Who really wants to read yet another article in a series of articles?  Won’t that title turn away readers?  Plus, how will my readers have any idea of what I am writing about it if I title the entry in such a banal manner?  Won’t blog viewers simply skip right over my post because it sounds like a bad sequel?  Then I got thinking about movie sequels.  Most movie sequels are horrible.  Case and point, Speed 2.  We’re supposed to believe that Sandra Bullock is Keanu Reeves?  Really?  She looks nothing like him.  You can’t switch actors in a movie series.  That is a big no-no.  Then there was Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd.  Again with the new actors.  Will Hollywood ever learn?  I doubt it, as they keep making awful movies like Armageddon and Gods of Egypt.  So, anyway, back to today’s title.  If most movie sequels blow chunks, then why would I want to continue with that tradition in naming today’s entry?  Well, hold on for a second.  Let’s “stop, collaborate and listen, ice is back with my brand new invention.”  I miss Robert Van Winkle.  Remember when he tried to do that rock/rap crossover album?  OMG, that was atrocious.  What I am trying to say is, maybe I’m forgetting something.  Perhaps there are great movie sequels or part threes that totally rock.  Oh yes, indeed there are.  Back to the Future III was by far the best movie in the entire series.  It doesn’t get much better than the wild west, c’mon.  Then there’s the Nightmare on Elm Street series.  Several of the films in that series totally kicked the original’s butt.  So, maybe this entry could totally rise to the occasion and lift my prior two entries up a bit.  Yes, perhaps.  But, what if today’s entry is a complete flop like Batman and Robin?  I can’t afford to let a bad entry ruin sequels for me and blog readers everywhere.  It’s just not fair.  Oh this a real conundrum.  What shall I do?  Well, as I am a creature of routine, I feel obligated to continue my summer learning sequence.  So that is what I will do.  I don’t love the idea, but I’m also getting really hungry and I made a deal with myself that I won’t prepare dinner until after I finish writing today’s entry.  So, part III it is.

While I’m sure you didn’t really need to know the thinking that I put into titling my blog entries, but perhaps it will help you better appreciate the finer things in life, like a beautiful sunrise or a tasty milkshake.  Now, onto the real meat of today’s entry.  Wow, I am getting really hungry.  Some raw meat would be good right about now.

This past week, I began digging into my final professional development summer reading text, and I think I’m liking it.  I mean, yeah, it’s super dense, as it is written by a science reporter; he really gets down to the nitty gritty of things, but there are a lot of great takeaways for me so far.  The book is Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman.  The first few chapters read more like a neurology textbook, as he explains the inner workings of the brain and the value of being able to effectively harness the power of our emotions.  There’s a lot there.  I do like how he uses stories to begin new chapters or sections.  He clearly knows how the brain works and remembers things.  While I’m only on chapter five, I’m enjoying the way my brain is interpreting everything it’s reading.  As I read, I’m always thinking, How can I use this in the classroom?  So far, I’ve gotten two cool ideas.

  • As I teach the students about the power of mindfulness and how it can help them gain control over their emotions and thinking, I want to share data on how IQ isn’t the sole predictor of success in life.  I want my students to understand that “being smart” is really about knowing one’s self and understanding how to own and regulate your emotions, rather than how well you did on a recent math assessment.  I’m hopeful that this information will empower my students to want to fully practice and apply the various mindfulness techniques they will learn throughout the school year.
  • I also want my students to understand what happens in the body when you are experiencing particular emotions.  I loved how the author detailed exactly what is going on physiologically when we become angry.  I think that this information may help my students be more self-aware as they start to learn how to appropriately express their emotions.

Although I feel as though I am quite knowledgeable on the subject of Emotional Intelligence and place much emphasis on the importance of Social and Emotional Learning in the classroom as an educator, I am loving that there is still much I don’t know about the ins and outs behind this big topic of Emotional Intelligence.  I am very much a student when it comes to fully understanding the power of our emotions, and it’s quite humbling.  I do wish that the author didn’t go about writing this book in such an academic manner, as the writing style is somewhat dry and verbose.  Perhaps he could create an edition for teachers that is written in a more fun-to-read manner.  I don’t need a graphic novel, but maybe not harping on the same thing over and over again for pages, could make it a little easier to digest.  At times I feel as though I’m reading a Stephen King novel.  Despite the stuffy nature of the text, I’m still extracting much useful information from this fine novel written before many people were really talking about SEL or tweeting about mindfulness.

As I prepare my evening meal in a few brief moments, I will be sure to think about how my reptilian brain really just wants to eat, while my prefrontal cortex wants to analyze every move I make to be sure that it puts me in front of food sooner rather than later.  Until part IV, over and out my amazing readers, if you’re still reading this that is.

Summer Time is Learning Time: Part I

As last week’s Summer Solstice marked the official start to the season of warmth and outdoor fun for those of us living in the northern hemisphere, it also reminded me that my season of learning and growing has also begun.  While I try to stay abreast to current trends and research in education throughout the academic year, I find it difficult to tackle any serious new learning projects or professional development texts when school is in session.  Summer vacation is my time to learn and attack new projects regarding my classroom or curriculum.  I sincerely value the large blocks of time to sit down and read a new book on educational pedagogy or revise my unit plans for the following year.  I feel like a kid at Christmas during summer vacation, as I am able to do my best work to prepare to make the next school year the best one ever for my students.  As Christmas in July begins on the Hallmark Movies and Mysteries television channel today, I jumped into my summer work feeling very festive and jolly, if not a bit hot too, as it’s almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit in central New Hampshire.

As the bright slices of sunlight cut through the trees outside my window, I reflect on the first of several professional development texts I have chosen to tackle this summer to grow as an educator and allow my students to blossom and transform into the best possible version of themselves.  Book one on my leaning tower of literature filled me with brilliant ideas and excitement for the upcoming school year.  The Morning Meeting Book by Roxann Kriete and Carol Davis is chock full of stellar ideas and simple ways to incorporate Social-Emotional Learning into each and every day in the classroom.  While I utilized the Morning Meeting format many years ago when teaching second grade, I wanted to review the structure and learn some new activities and ways to effectively incorporate this practice into my fifth grade classroom.  I mean, I did conduct my version of a Morning Meeting in the classroom this past year, but it was a hodgepodge of ideas and activities that did not follow the structure put forth by the Responsive Classroom folks.  We occasionally discussed serious topics and played some games during that time, but there was no routine or consistency to it.  Knowing how much fifth graders crave and need routine and structure, I decided to brush up on the proper Morning Meeting procedure.

It was so refreshing to be reminded of the importance of each part of the Morning Meeting process.  Skipping parts takes away from the integrity of the concept.  Sure, teachers can adapt the stages of the Morning Meeting to fit their schedule and needs, as long as the entire process is completed in some sort of routine manner.  Reading the Introduction and seeing the structure of Morning Meeting laid out in print form, I, at first, balked at the four steps.  “I teach fifth grade,” I thought to my self, “I don’t really need to start with a greeting.  That’s so childish.”  However, as I delved deeper into this treasure trove of a book, I began to realize that providing students with a safe place to feel like they matter and are seen on a daily basis is so crucial to their emotional and cognitive growth as humans.  So, I changed my perspective on the greeting and will be incorporating this component into my Morning Meeting.  Because of the specific research and anecdotes the authors included in the book, I was able to see the importance of each phase of Morning Meeting.

The big takeaways for me…

  • I will begin each class day with Morning Meeting following the whole-school Community gathering that takes place at my wonderful little school.  I want to provide my students with a safe place to have a voice and be recognized and appreciated for the diversity and perspective they bring to the class community.  I will start each meeting with a formal greeting activity of some sort.  I have decided to begin the first day of school with the same fun and insightful greeting I utilized last year: The Spiderweb Greeting.  It’s a tangible way for the students to learn each other’s names while also beginning to see the interconnections that exist in our fifth grade class.  The activity is short and simple: I would begin with a ball of yarn, introduce myself to the class, choose a person in the circle to greet with a “Hello” or “Good morning,” and then pass the ball of yarn to them, while still holding onto the start of the yarn.  Once everyone has introduced themselves and greeted a classmate, the circle resembles a knotty spiderweb.  I would then engage the students in a discussion about the story that this strange tangle of yarn weaves.  What can we learn from this knotted mess?  What’s the metaphor?  Like last year, I hope that this opening greeting will be a wonderful springboard into the richness of conversation and discussion that will be had all year.
  • After not setting expectations for sharing at the start of this past year during my Morning Meeting, I needed to occasionally cut off students when they spoke so that we’d be able to have more than five minutes of Math class.  Reviewing the chapter on Sharing reminded me of the vital importance of setting clear expectations for sharing during Morning Meeting.  It starts with modelling and a discussion that will allow students to observe and notice what is expected of them.  I want the students to learn the value in being succinct and respectful of others.  Having clear rules and a protocol for how students will share during Morning Meeting will make the process valuable and effective for us all.
  • The sharing component of Morning Meeting is a truly effective and easy way to allow students to practice and learn how to effectively listen, question, and be empathetic when interacting or conversing with others.  As children and tweens are stuck in that very selfish stage of cognitive development, it’s crucial that teachers provide their students with opportunities to learn how to look outside of themselves.  Teaching students how to ask effective questions that will elicit a meaningful response from the speaker, be mindful and caring listeners, and empathize with the speaker in insightful ways will help the students learn how to be compassionate humans.  Research tells us that negativity spreads like the flu virus, but so to does positivity.  If we can create a culture of kindness in our classrooms through the purposeful teaching of listening and responding, we will be helping our students while also making the world a better, nicer place in which to live.
  • I loved learning about all the fun class activities that I can now use in my Morning Meeting.  The book was full of engaging and fun ideas.  While I had previously heard of a few of them and even used some in the classroom last year, many of the activities mentioned in the text were new to me.  I can’t wait to start the year with A Warm Wind BlowsThis interactive game will get students moving and learning about their classmates on day one.  I love it!

Although summer vacation just began, I can’t wait for the first day of school after having read this amazing book.  I want to jump right into my first Morning Meeting.  Unfortunately, I have some time to wait before I can do that, but on a positive note, I also have much more time in which I can learn and grow as an educator.  Yah for me!  So, as I turn on my air conditioner and cozy up with a warm cup of hot cocoa with mini marshmallows while watching a classic Christmas movie on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, I wish you all a happy summer filled with much learning, growing, and festive fun.

My Summer Work Reflection: Did I Accomplish ALL of My Goals?

Sitting at my tiny IKEA kitchen table, sipping on a warm cop of cinnamon coffee, I’m finding myself feeling a mixture of emotions.  Although I am super pumped to begin the school year at my new school, I’m a bit sad that my summer vacation is winding to a close.  I’ve enjoyed spending time with my son and wife, sleeping in, and relaxing.  Who doesn’t love watching Netflix?  So, in that regard, I’m feeling bittersweet, kind of like that epic song by Big Head Todd and the Monsters.  What a great song, filled with bridges and breakdowns and amazing lyrics.  So yes, I’m feeling happy and sad.  At the same time, however, I’m also feeling nervous for the school year to begin.  Will my students like me?  What if I mess up?  What if I leave my computer home one day?  What if I’m not in the proper dress code?  What if…  I could go on for many more pages with all of my fear, doubt, and insecurity, but that’s just it, they are my fears.  Rather than live with them, I’m learning to let go of them and accept that everything will work out just as it is supposed to.  While that’s not easy, I’m working on it.  I’m learning to transform my negatives into positives.  If my students don’t like me, I can use that opportunity to find new ways to engage with my students.  If I mess up or don’t do something the “right” way, then like great inventors of the past, I’ll go back to the drawing board and find a new way to solve the problem.  I’m working at changing the way I think about life in general.  So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I am feeling much like a witch’s cauldron, bubbling and brewing with all sorts of emotions and concoctions.  In the end though, this cacophony of emotions will cook into one heck of a delicious stew of awesomeness.  I say, bring on the school year!

Okay, let’s not get too carried away.  Yes, I want the school year to begin, but I still need to reflect on my summer goals.  How’d I do in working towards them?  Did I meet any of them?  Do I still have some goals that are unmet?  How productive was my summer?  Now, onto the reflection, and then let’s get the school year party started.

Goal 1: Set up and organize my new classroom.

D for done on that one.  Check out this blog entry to learn more about my classroom set-up process and to see some lovely pictures of my new learning space.  Mission accomplished.

Goal 2: Determine which math book or series I will be going with for the fifth grade program.

I can check that goal off of my list of things I accomplished this summer.  After much research, I chose to go with the Beast Academy series.  I like how it makes the learning part of math fun.  The graphic novel approach to each lesson seems like it will make learning math novel and interesting.  I love it.  I also find that it provides the right amount of rigor for any advanced math students I might have, while also offering the ability to scaffold the learning for any students who struggle to understand the concepts covered.  I have the ability to differentiate my instruction quite a bit as well with this series.  I will begin the year by having the students complete a math placement exam.  Based on their results, they will be placed in the course that will meet them where they are and help propel them forward.  Ca-check that goal off my list.

Goal 3: Create my first science and social studies units on community and the scientific method.

And on the seventh day, I finished this goal as well.  Go me, go me, go!  For details on this great quest, read this previous blog entry.

Goal 4: Determine what my daily schedule will be for the fifth grade program.

I met this goal early on in the summer.  I’m excited about my daily schedule and feel as though it will suit the needs of my students very well.  As my program is much like a self-contained elementary class program, I do have flexibility in my schedule; however, I’m happy with the schedule I have made and feel as though I won’t need to do too much tweaking throughout the year.  Fourth Goal accomplished.  I’m on a roll.

Capture

Goal 5: Finish my Summer Reading text.

And my final goal has been met.  Read this blog entry to learn more about my experience with the wonderful novel Quiet by Susan Cain.

And there you have it folks, my summer goals were met.  I’m already to go for the new school year at my new school.  Well, sort of.  I do have some finishing touches to put on my room, but other than that I’m feeling like a guy who just won a $2 from a scratch ticket.  $2 can buy me a coffee from that gas station I pass on my way to school each day or a tasty doughnut.  While that may seem insignificant to many of you, those two options make me very happy.  Now I wish I had won $2 on a scratch ticket.

With faculty meetings beginning tomorrow, I am feeling recharged and energized.  So, bring on the new school year, bring on my new students, and bring on the fun.  Go fifth grade!

Can Quiet be Showy?

Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I went on a little adventure to check out this bog that is known for having some very beautiful plants growing within it.  While the weather outside was a bit cool and gloomy, we needed to get outside and breathe in some delightful and fresh summer air.  So, we made our way through several back roads to this bog nature preserve in Hartland, VT.  Numerous other cars littered the tiny parking area and neighboring shoulders.  Do fairies live in this special place, I thought to myself as I pondered why so many people would be checking out a wetland on a gloomy Sunday.  Walking upon the well-maintained boardwalks, you could hear the chirping birds and singing insects perfectly.  Despite the many people that filled this small area, the sounds of nature were the only ones we could hear.  We saw lots of green things from ferns to leaves, and even a few bushes.  Who knew there were so many different kinds of ferns.  We even saw an Ostrich Fern.  What?  Ostriches don’t live in New England.  How did that plant get here?  Perhaps it’s named for its ostrich-like shape.  Oh, that makes way more sense than being food for ostriches.  As we slowly made our way through the meandering boardwalk, the reason for the many cars and people visiting this beautiful place became very evident to me: Showy Lady Slippers.  Imagine a small plant with a green, black, and white flower that grows in a most peculiar manner.  One part of it appears to look like a small shoe-like holding pouch, which is perhaps how this amazing specimen received its name.  These plants were more than just beautiful.  They offered serenity in the often turbulent times of early summer.  They proved a brilliant distraction in a sea of green and browns.  They stood out, but not in a showy way as their name suggests.  They stood almost at a downward angle, shadowed by the nearby trees and bushes.  They weren’t trying to be noticed, they just happened to be the picture of absolute beauty.  They offered quiet in a naturally loud and slowly flowing bog area.  While they looked completely different from every other species around them, they weren’t trying to out do the other flora samples.  They were just trying to be themselves, quiet and beautiful.  In a world filled with loud distractions, crazy schedules, and tumultuous current events, it’s nice to see that evolution has created some beautiful organisms to remind us to take a deep breath and experience the quiet world around us from time to time.

Having recently finished reading the novel Quiet by Susan Cain, I feel as though I am much more attuned to and aware of the introverts in our world.  I myself feel akin to her explanation of an introvert.  I feel much more at peace when I am alone or in a small group of close friends.  I do my best work in solitude and silence.  As I’m writing this entry, I’m sitting, alone, on my couch, staring out the window at a ginormous eastern white pine tree and listening to the birds talk it up.  No other distractions plague me.  If the television was on or another person in the room, my brain would be unable to contemplate the beauty of life.  Unfortunately though, in our world, it’s the extroverted qualities that are often embraced and rewarded.  I feel as though I was taught from an early age that being quiet and working or living in solitude are bad things.  I’ve been forced to, at times, be something I’m not because I was told by society that I had to.  Cain’s book shows us that while outgoing and extroverted personality traits are more recognized and celebrated, those more quiet, introverted people should be allowed to be who they are.  Introversion isn’t a disease, it’s something one is born with.  In the novel, the author whittles the difference between extroverts and introverts down into its simplest form, biology.  People are born with different levels of sensitivity regarding their temperament, which causes them to be extroverted or introverted.  Introverts can’t help being introverted and extroverts can’t help being extroverted.  It’s completely acceptable and fine to be who you really are.   If, like the showy lady slipper and me, you are a unique introvert that shows your creative beauty in more outward, visual ways, that is a-okay.  Be who you are and be happy with that.  Society should not force people to be something they are not, she states throughout the book.

She did mention something that struck me in her novel, as I’ve often wrestled with the kind of person I am.  I tend to, at times, come across as more extroverted and outgoing.  Does that mean I’m an extrovert?  Her answer was simply, No.  However, sometimes, introverts find that their passion requires them to utilize and display more extroverted qualities; therefore, it is completely acceptable to fake it a bit and pretend to be different than how you truly are if what you like to do requires that.  As a teacher, I am talkative, outgoing, and extroverted because that’s what makes me a great teacher.  Because I love teaching, I step outside my comfort zone to do what feels right and good to me.  Much like the professor she referenced in her book, I too need my down time after a long day of faking it.  I need to come home and veg out, watching television with my wife or talking to my son about his day.  I need a mental break.  This novel helped me see myself for how I truly am.  It’s given me the courage to remain quiet when appropriate.  I now feel confident owning my choices.

The author did a fantastic job explaining the difference between extroverts and introverts, and used stories, anecdotes, and much research to support her claims.  She also gave introverts like me the extra boost we need to realize that we don’t have to pretend to be an extrovert in a world that celebrates extroversion.  I can be me, a quiet, thoughtful, introvert.  Even though our world has come to rely on extroverted personality traits, it’s the introverts who have really shaken things up over time.  Some of the best inventions or ideas have come from introverts.  Without them, it does make me wonder if our world would be what it is today.  Cain provides much food for thought in her well-articulated text about quiet people.  She offers many suggestions on how people might embrace their inner introvert or help others seize their introversion.  She also explains how parents and educators can help introverts harness their true potential as individuals without having to fit into a certain box.  I found it to be eye-opening as an introvert and teacher.  Rather than push my quiet students to be more extroverted, I need to celebrate their introversion while also helping them to see that we do indeed live in a loud, extroverted world.  Sometimes, you do need to be a bit more extroverted if your passion requires it.  I am now equipped with new knowledge on how to best support all of my students thanks to Susan Cain’s brilliant book.

While some introverts, like me, do like to be a bit showy or loud in how we dress or act, at times, it doesn’t mean that we crave attention or are trying to be something we’re not.  We are simply trying to be ourselves in a world that often tries to fit us into holes that are meant to steal our creativity, individuality, beauty, and introversion.  Cain’s novel reminded me of just that.  It’s not an us versus them world.  I’m not trying to show up the extroverts in my life by standing out, I’m just trying to be me.  I’m trying to show others that I am comfortable in my skin, happy with the quiet person I am.  Like the showy lady slippers, some people are different and like to embrace that in a world that seems to crave uniformity.  It’s okay to be quiet or loud, as long as you are true to yourself.

How Will I Grow as an Educator this Summer?

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

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

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

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

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

My Summer Professional Development Plan in Reverse

I read an article recently that explained the power in backwards planning for students.  Now, this isn’t news to me as a teacher, as great teachers have always been planning in reverse.  Start with the desired outcome, project, or assessment and plan your lessons off of it.  That makes a lot of sense, which is why I’ve been utilizing that practice in my teaching for years.  But, what about backwards planning for students?  Does that work too?  According to the research cited in the article read, it does indeed work.  A study was completed recently in which they had one group of students prepare for an exam or essay in the traditional forward-thinking model, while the other group utilized the planning in reverse model of preparation.  What they found, which should come as no surprise to anyone, is that the group who planned in reverse, was more successful and prepared, felt better about the task, and performed better than the other group.  So, backwards thinking isn’t just for teachers to utilize in the classroom; it’s a model of planning that all people should use, all of the time.

As I think about my summer plans, I’m going to put this new information to use.  One of the big things I want to accomplish this summer is to plan out the first units I will cover for my new class.  As I have already put together the social studies and science curricula for the fifth grade program, I feel as though this will be my first focus.  So, now I will plan out, in reverse order, the first integrated unit for my new class.

I want this new unit to employ the Project-Based Learning method of creating a meaningful, engaging, challenging, and authentic learning opportunity for my students.  I’ve done some research this week, including participating in my first LIVE webinar, on PBLs, and realized that I have created multiple projects over the years for my students, but never a truly effective PBL opportunity.  So, I want to use what I’ve learned this week to create my first PBL unit for my new school.  While I know that my first unit will be focused on community, I don’t know much more than that.  So, now what?

  • In reverse, the last step would be to finalize the unit after having revised it based on feedback I received from various colleagues at my new school.
  • Prior to that, I would have put all of the pieces I’ve been working on together into a cohesive unit that would allow my students to demonstrate their ability to meet the learning targets I decided on at the start of this process in a meaningful and engaging manner.
  • Before that, I would figure out the pacing of the unit.  When would we go on our various field experiences versus in class work and learning.
  • Prior to doing that, I would figure out which field experiences we would embark upon during the unit.  As I’m sure that I will find many great places to visit regarding the history of Hopkinton, NH, I also know that I have limited time; thus, choosing the most meaningful and engaging ones would be an important step in the process.
  • Before doing that, I would create the in-class lessons and lab experiences that the students would complete during the unit.  What labs do I want the students to do to help them learn about the scientific method?  How will I go about teaching those lessons?
  • Before that, I would make sure that that the unit is indeed an effective PBL unit.  I would make sure that it includes opportunities for authentic learning, a finished product that would be shared with others, intellectually challenging learning, chances for the students to learn project management skills, group work, and an opportunity for the students to reflect on the entire process.
  • Prior to creating the lessons, I would create a skeletal outline of the unit.  What do I want to cover and how do I want to do it?  This part of the process will be crucial to understanding how everything else is going to come to fruition.
  • Before the unit can even begin to come together, I need to determine the learning targets I am going to use.  What objectives do I want to cover, and how can I transform them into student-friendly language?
  • The first step in the whole process of creating this unit is the planning and research.  What do I want to do?  How might I put it all together?  Who do I need to speak with to learn about the history of this new-to-me town?  How can I create an engaging and challenging unit for my students that will allow them to complete authentic and real-world learning?

That was quite challenging.  While I usually plan my units in reverse order anyway, that wasn’t the difficult part.  It was hard for me to think about the steps involved in the process of getting everything together.  However, it did offer me a chance to think about the entire process of constructing a new unit from a completely different perspective.  I’m not sure I would have created this same list of steps if I had put them together the way I have in the past, starting at the beginning.  I think I may have left out some steps if I did it in the traditional way of planning.  As I worked from the finish to the start, I was forced to contemplate my process from a different angle.  It was kind of cool, and super fun.  As this is a new school for me, in a new town, I have much work to do this summer to learn about the history of Hopkinton, NH.  I just discovered today that it was the first capital of the state.  Who knew?  Not me, for sure.  This process is also fun and exciting, as I realize that I get to meet a whole bunch of new historians and people affiliated with the town.  I get to hear new oral histories and learn a much about a new place.  That really fills me with glee.  I’ve already scheduled my first meeting at the Hopkinton Historical Society.  Yah for me!

So, as I dig into my new PBL unit on Our Community, I’m excited to learn much, try new things, take risks, and push myself as an educator.  Like I will require my students to do all year, I am going to challenge myself to be uncomfortable and put forth great effort to create the most engaging and meaningful PBL unit my new students have ever seen.  Well, maybe I’m setting the bar a bit too high for now.  How about I just try to do my best to create a great PBL unit on community?  That sounds like a more realistic goal for now.  So, off I go to learn, forward now.

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.

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.