Seeing the Treasure in the Trash: Creating a Happy Little Social Studies Unit

High school was a time of discovery and exploration.  Don’t worry, I was a friendly explorer, unlike those wretched conquistadors that caused much suffering and death in the name of freedom and exploration.   I was a happy young man in search of new music, friends, movies, love, fun, and garbage.  Yes, that’s right, I was in search of garbage.  Not the band, oh no, not a fan.  I mean actual garbage that people toss away.  You see, it was in high school that I discovered that one person’s, or in this case one company’s, trash, can truly be someone else’s treasure.

Dumpster diving is the act of rummaging through other people’s garbage in search of that special something.  As there was not much to do in the small town of Lebanon, NH, late at night, my friends and I would scavenge through the dumpsters of various companies and organizations that had offices in our sleepy little town.  Although we usually left our nightly excursions with some small trinkets, we never found anything substantial or exciting, until that one night in late July.  There we were, at about midnight, in the middle of summer, literally jumping into this giant dumpster in search of something worthy of our time and effort.  When my friend pulled out a television remote, our excitement began to grow, as we all new what that meant: There was probably a television near by.  Sure enough, when I pivoted and looked behind me, a very large TV stuck out of the pile of battered electronics.  We shouted for joy, softly, so as to not call attention to ourselves in the middle of the night.  I then had one of my friends help me fish that television out of the dumpster and pack it into our car.  While my parents would freak out if I brought a large screen TV into the house, one of my friends ended up bringing it home.  The most interesting part of this whole vignette is that I never found out if he got the television working.  Perhaps it was a dud and deserved to live out its plastic existence in a landfill somewhere, or maybe, it did work.  I like believing that it was a working treasure, that all of our hard work paid off.  I like to think that good things can happen to good people.  To me, that glass will always be overflowing with clean and cold water.

Like my friends and I discovered in high school, if you look long and hard enough, you will find the treasure and beauty in everything, even something that resembles trash.  Luckily, I had the wonderful experience of doing just that, recently.

As one of my professional development summer goals is to revise and retool the social studies unit that I generally use at the start of each academic year, I decided to dig in and give it a shot.  Although I didn’t have a clear idea of exactly what I wanted the unit to look like when finished, I did have some foggy notions swirling about my beautiful brain.  I knew that I wanted to inject an engaging and fun project into the unit, but was unsure of what the journey to that point might look like; however, I forged ahead regardless.  My first iteration of the revised unit felt clunky and disconnected, like a broken television.  While I had added in the project I wanted to include, the unit felt more like a series of separate, unrelated lessons on different concepts or topics.  It lacked flow and life.  It felt like demo tape that a band releases before getting with a producer to craft a polished and brilliant debut album like Pearl Jam’s 10 or Coheed and Cambria’s The Second Stage Turbine Blade.  While it wasn’t yet the beautiful jewel that I had hoped for, it wasn’t simply trash.  The nucleus of its treasure was hidden deep within it, and I just needed to find it.  I needed to change my perspective so that I could transform this awkward unit into something more, something great and engaging.

So, I took a break from it.  I let the unit sit for a few moments and simmer.  I gathered my thoughts and started thinking about what comes next.  How could I alter this unit to make it more meaningful and relevant for my students?  While I see the value in teaching students about the community of which the school is a part, do I need to spend so much time discussing the concept of community?  Could I just jump right into teaching about the town?  How will I then connect the town to the rest of the country?  I did much thinking before I sat down with the unit one more time.  Then, I cut lessons, chopped discussions, added activities, and found a way to bring about cohesion to this unit.  I subtracted the clunkiness to get to the heart of the unit.  I want the students to see how the town of Hopkinton is connected to the state of New Hampshire, and how the state is a part of something even larger, greater.  And, I managed to do just that.

As our country is in the midst of epic turmoil, it is important to me that I empower my students to become agents of change.  I want them to be able to look at the problems facing our great nation and find solutions to them.  I want them to want to foster change within the world.  I want my students to be able to see how important the upcoming presidential election is for our country.  I want my students to be self-aware and know what is going on around our country and world.  I believe that this new unit is just the bridge I need to make my desires come to fruition in the coming school year.

I call this super unit Understanding our Country and it will be divided into three parts.  Part one will focus on the fundamentals of social studies.  The students will learn about what I’ve aptly called the Big Ideas when learning about a new place: Geography, History, Government, and Culture.  I will be sure they understand what each Big Idea represents and the importance it holds.  I will have the students practice applying these Big Ideas as they learn about our fine town.  Once I feel as though they have a firm grasp on these Big Ideas, they will complete an interactive research project on the US.  It is my hope that this project will engage the students and empower them to truly see our country for what it is, full of possibility and wonder.

Expedition USA Project


The most effective way to learn about a new place, is to travel to that place and explore it.  While, sadly, Mr. Johnson informed me that we cannot go on a cross-country field trip to explore the great United States of America, even if we wear fun masks and ride in separate train cars, we must do so virtually.  So, let the excellent, virtual, expedition begin!


The purpose of this project is two-fold: 

  • Learn more about the great country in which we live through some virtual exploration.
  • Practice crucial study skills including note taking, working with a partner, and using Google Maps.

Part I: Brainstorming

  1. Meet with your assigned partner
  2. Brainstorm ideas
    • Make a list of all the places in the US that you and your partner want to visit
      • You must choose at least 5 different locations around the US to virtually visit:
        • One must be somewhere near the East Coast, Atlantic Ocean
        • One must be somewhere near another country
        • One must be landlocked
        • One must be somewhere near the West Coast, Pacific Ocean
        • One must be a National Park

Part II: Research

  1. For each location you will be virtually visiting, gather online research and take notes on your findings

Part III: Google Maps

  1. Create a New Map in Google Maps that includes the following information:
    • Unique title for your expedition
    • Separate Marker for each location you will virtually visit
      • Details about what you will do while there, in your own words
      • Details about what you will learn while there, in your own words
      • Details about why you want to visit that location, in your own words
      • Picture from your virtual visit, with attribution
    • Lines showing how you traveled from BHS to each location and then back to BHS
      • Details about method of transportation, cost, and time it took
      • Kilometers traveled
      • Picture from your travels, with attribution

Part IV: Presentation

  1. Present your Google Map and expedition to the class

Graded Objectives

Your handwritten notes will be assessed on the following objectives:

  • Students will be able to extract the main idea from an online source in their own words.
  • Students will be able to craft neatly organized notes with separate headings for different sources or topics.

Your finished Google Map will be assessed on the following objectives:

  • Students will be able to paraphrase information learned, in written form, regarding a research topic.
  • Students will be able to utilize the Google Maps app to accomplish a task.

You and your partner will also be assessed on the following objective:

  • Students will be able to collaborate and work with a partner to accomplish a task.

I created this project with lots of wiggle room so that the students can and will ask questions.  I didn’t detail or mandate how the various stages of the project will be completed because I wanted to empower the students to choose.  I want the students to determine how some things are done.  I left the instructions a bit vague on purpose, so that they would be confused and want to ask questions and know more.  Students who are thinking and doing, are learning.

This project will conclude the first part of the unit.  The closing activity will have the students make a list of what they learned about the United States of America in completing this project.  I will again get them thinking in terms of the Big Ideas.  I will have them create a chart showing the Big Ideas that they’ve learned regarding our country.  My hope is that they will notice that they have learned very little about the government and history of the US, as parts two and three of the unit pertain to those Big Ideas.

Part two of the unit will focus on the American Government and will feel very much like a civics unit.  The students will explore the hows and whys of our governmental system.  We will then dig into the big election taking place in November of this year.  We will discuss the political parties in our country and learn about the candidates running for president.  My hope is that during this portion of the unit, the students will be inspired to ask many questions about why things are done a certain way in our country.  I want to provide them with just enough information, that they will want to know and learn more.  I want my students to be curious and wonder.  I want them to question things.  I want them to think freely.  I believe that this part of the unit will get them doing just that.

The final part of the unit will allow the students to learn more about the roots of our culture and history.  Who were the first true Americans?  Were there people living in what we now call the US prior to the Europeans setting foot on the new land?  In this third part of the unit, the students will learn about the native people who took care of and respected this land long before the colonists moved in and took over.  This portion of the unit will conclude with an interdisciplinary project in which the students will research a tribe of Native Americans and then craft a historical fiction story regarding that tribe.  My hope is that this final part of the unit will also inspire the students to ask questions and wonder why things happened the way they did in our country.  I hope that it will empower my students to ask why and also conjure up strong feelings and emotions within them.

I will close the entire unit by having the students fill in any gaps they may have in the Big Ideas chart we started at the close of part one.  Throughout the unit, we will also discuss current events happening in our country.  I want the students to pay attention and be aware of what’s going on around them, as they develop the skill of self-awareness.  I want them to wonder and ask why.  I want to empower my students to see problems affecting the citizens of the US.  I want to get them thinking about possible solutions.  I want to empower my students by providing them with knowledge, information, curiosity, and questions.  I want them to ask why and how.

And that’s the unit.  I structured it this way so that I could create different learning opportunities and activities for the students.  I wanted to find unique ways to teach the crucial study skills they will need to be successful students, as well.  As it is an election year, I want to capitalize on the current event aspect to help them make connections between information learned.  I want this unit to be engaging and fun for the students.  I want to challenge their thinking and broaden their perspectives on our amazing country.  I completely overhauled the unit that I’ve used in past years to make something special and wonderful.

While it took me a few rounds to get to what I have now, I am pleased with the result.  I found the treasure in the trash.  I can’t wait for the new academic year to begin so that I can implement this new unit.  I can’t wait to watch my students explore and wrestle with US maps.  How does this thing fold?  Do I fold it this way or that way?  It will be like watching me try to assemble a piece of furniture I purchased from Ikea, quite the comedy routine.

The entire experience of creating this new social studies unit empowered me to feel like an explorer, charting a course for new lands and information.  I loved sifting through the online research I discovered throughout the process.  Educators have created some amazing units and posted them online for the world to see.  There is a wealth of information out there on our fine country and how to go about teaching students all about it.  This experience did at times bring me back to my dumpster diving days.  Trash or treasure?  Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, my friend.

How Can I Apply my Summer Reading to the Classroom?

Pic 3

While I’m all about science and the study of meteorology, I often find weather forecasts to be confusing and inaccurate.  What does partly cloudy really mean?  How many clouds will be in the sky?  Will we see the sun at all?  What fraction of the sky will be covered by clouds?  I’ve given up putting my faith in the daily weather forecast due to all of this puzzling information.  Instead, when I want to know what the weather is, I simply go outside and look up.  Are there clouds in the sky?  Is it sunny?  I will sometimes also lick my finger and place it into the air to find out how windy it is and in what direction it’s blowing from.  I don’t need some fancy computer model telling me something that may not be true when I can just figure it out for myself.

So, this morning, when I was trying to figure out how to prepare for my weekly shopping trip, I went outside and looked up.  The normally blue sky was 100% covered by clouds.  It looked like an overcast kind of day.  Perhaps the sun would come out later in the day, or maybe not.  It’s really hard to tell.  Might the clouds thicken and produce some moist precipitation?  It’s possible.  Thankfully, the cloud cover brought the temperature down a bit from where they’ve been over the past few days.  Could that change and the clouds move out, giving way to sunshine and increased temperatures?  Perhaps.  Anything is possible on an overcast day like today.  Do I bring a raincoat or umbrella with me to keep my clothes dry?  Do I wear my hat to shield my balding head from the harmful UV rays?  What do I do?  So many questions, with no immediate answers.

Like trying to prepare for the uncertainty of today’s weather, teachers and schools around the country are trying to figure out what the start of the new school year will look like.  Will schools reopen?  Will all students return to school?  Will there be a staggered schedule?  Will students be able to keep their face coverings on through the day if we do return to school?  What precautions will schools take to keep their students and faculty safe?  Would it be safer to simply begin the year the same way we ended the previous academic year, with remote learning?  Too many questions with not enough answers or solutions.  What will September look like for schools, teachers, and students around the country?  As facts regarding the current pandemic have been changing faster than a newborn baby needs to have his or her diaper changed, it’s my perception that schools can’t completely prepare for something that is two months away.  So much can change in that period of time.  What do we do in the meantime then?  We watch, wait, and prepare for numerous possible solutions to the problem of how to start the new school year come September.

While there is much I don’t know about what the new school year holds for me and my school, I do feel confident that I can be prepared for almost every possible outcome.  My gassy gut is telling me that we will most likely have to utilize a combination of in-school and remote learning programs throughout the upcoming school year.  So, I’m looking to grow as a multi-faceted educator who can transition between on-site teaching and distance teaching as quickly as that pizza box guy can fold pizza boxes.

As I dug a bit further into the professional development text that the faculty and staff at my school are reading this summer, I was filled with excitement about some of the new things I want to try in my classroom or online in just a few short months.  When I finally finished the book, Teaching Students to Become Self-Determined Learners by Michael Wehmeyer and Yong Zhao, I felt empowered, as I gained insight into how to improve my remote learning program and my on-site teaching.  Several years ago, when I completed a course on the neuroscience of teaching, I realized the power in creating a student-centered approach to teaching.  When students are in control of their learning, they are more engaged, curious, and motivated to work hard.  This book that I recently finished takes that whole body of knowledge to the next level and explains how to create classrooms and schools that truly empower students to take ownership of their learning through becoming self-determined learners.  I loved the way in which the book was crafted.  It felt more like a non-fiction book than it did an educational textbook.  It wasn’t dense, but it did contain much valuable information on teaching and learning.  I enjoyed how the authors shared research knowledge in relevant and manageable chunks while also mixing in lots of stories on how schools around the globe have created student-driven programs for their students.  I highly recommend this text for all teachers looking to grow and become a more effective guide for their students.  As I’ve known for many years now, teaching isn’t about being the sage on the stage, it’s about being the guide from the side.  And this book provides salient information on how to do that in a more meaningful and effective manner.

Some of my takeaways from the book…

  • Should homework be choice-based for students?  Rather than us as the teachers assigning homework that is, perhaps, sometimes seen as busy work by the students, should we allow the students to choose their homework assignments?  Maybe a student who is struggling to comprehend a newly learned math concept would find further practice with that topic more beneficial than reading on a particular night.  Or perhaps, a student working on crafting a creative fiction story might want to spend time outside of school continuing to develop his or her story instead of completing a math worksheet or some other unrelated task.  As we want our students to engage in the learning tasks, activities, and projects they complete during class, shouldn’t we also want them to be engaged in the work they are doing outside of the confines of class time?  I’m thinking that I might pilot this practice by providing my students with some options for homework each night and allowing them to choose what they will do.  Perhaps some students might have a lot of extracurricular activities happening that night and homework just isn’t feasible.  Isn’t that an okay choice too?  As teachers, we need to be sure that our students are finding a balance between work, play, and self-care.  Maybe homework doesn’t need to be assigned nightly.  Interesting food for thought indeed.  I can’t wait to see how it plays out in practice.
  • How might we get students involved in classroom organization?  Could the students help us determine how to best set up and organize our classrooms?  Perhaps we could work this into our Orientation Day schedule.  Now, this idea, of course, would not be able to be put into practice until after the pandemic has subsided and an effective vaccine is widely available for all citizens.  But, I do love the idea of having the students help to create their ideal classroom.  They could determine the posters that we plaster onto the walls, as well as how we organize the desks and other areas of the classroom.  Maybe they would choose not to use chairs but beanbags or exercise balls instead.  This would be so much fun.  I can’t wait to try this idea in a year or two.
  • At our Closing Faculty Meetings last week, we discussed the idea of student recognition.  How could we best recognize and celebrate student successes without creating a culture of competition and stress to be recognized?  What if we looked to celebrate character instead of academic achievements?  Rather than recognizing the grades a student earns, we could celebrate the positive and caring choices he or she makes.   One of the schools referenced in the book makes use of a Bucket Filling Board based on the book Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud.  My school should totally do that.  We could create a bulletin board display in the front entryway of the school that the students and faculty could use to recognize caring and compassionate choices and actions.  If I notice that a student is going above and beyond to help another student understand a difficult concept, I could recognize them in writing on this board.  I could also then share this example of bucket filling with the greater community during one of our all-school gatherings that take place each morning.  This way, we are teaching students to see the value in kindness, compassion, and caring.  I love it!
  • Should we have a student government at my school?  While we are a micro-school with about 40 students or so, does it make sense to have a governing body composed of students to help the faculty and staff make decisions for the school?  I think it would help students feel and be more involved in the entire process of schooling and education if we were to do so.  Instead of complaining about the way things are, students could work to foster change in the school.  There could be one delegate from each grade, chosen by the students.  They could meet weekly or more frequently, with the aid of a faculty advisor, to discuss changes they would want to make.  They could ask for feedback from their peers for ideas.  Then, once every few weeks, that group could attend one of our Faculty Meetings to share their ideas with us.  We could also ask for their input on school decisions we are making as a faculty.  Talk about engagement.  It would also allow us to meaningfully teach the power of civic duty and responsibility.  I’m totally bringing this idea up with the faculty at one of our next Faculty Meetings.
  • Could we make use of the idea of a Personalized Learning Plan if remote learning happens?  We could work with each student and their family to devise a plan for their learning during the time away from school.  The students could have input on what they learn and how they choose to showcase their learning.  I like this idea because, again, it puts the onus on the students as they work to become self-determined leaners.
  • The book discussed the importance of teaching students an effective process for solving problems.  I like this idea and want to start the new school year introducing the concept of problem solving to my students.  Once I introduce the steps of the process to the class, we could then apply them to a practice problem.  I thought it would be a cool idea to have the students work with me to create a meaningful set of class expectations.  This way they can take ownership of the rules, which would hopefully, in turn, allow them to be more engaged in the entire process of learning.  I can’t wait to try this out in the classroom.
  • Another school featured in the book had students complete the VIA Character Youth Survey as a way to help celebrate the various character traits that students bring to a classroom.  I like this idea and see that it could also be used to help create tailored plans for students to work on developing their lesser strengths.  I took the adult version of the survey and was surprised by the findings.  I feel that knowing where my weaknesses lie, helps me to focus on areas in need of growth.  So cool!  I am totally using this in the classroom.
  • I was intrigued by the Hole in the Wall Project conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s in India.  It made me realize how truly capable our students are.  Their brains seem to be more able to be open to new things and ways of learning.  If we give students the time and space to figure things out on their own, they are very able to teach themselves.  So, instead of me spending lots of time explaining how to use a new technology tool, I could provide my students with time to explore and play on their own.  This way, they can learn on their own, applying the problem solving process I plan to teach early in the year.  I love this idea!

What a fantastic book filled with great and inspiring ideas.  Schools can be magical places that empower students to engage in and own their learning, if the adults at the schools allow these things to happen by fostering a sense of student agency and teaching students to become self-determined learners.

While the weather outside is still uncertain, I know that I am excited for the new school year to begin, regardless of how it will look or be designed.  I’m ready to try some new things remotely or on-site.  The unknown can easily become a haven for possibility if we are open to taking risks and trying new things.

The Calm in all this Sweltering Heat: My Professional Summer Goals

About a month ago, my son shared with me that the air conditioning in our car was not properly functioning.  Being that it was mid-May, I paid it no mind.  “Just roll down the windows.  I’ll deal with it after my school year has finished,” I told him.  He didn’t argue too much with that response because it wasn’t super hot in New Hampshire in May.  Well, for those of you not familiar with the weather in New England, allow me to educate you on the subject.  On any day in New England, it could snow, rain, sleet, and get very warm, all within 24 hours.  The old adage about our weather is so true: If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.  And change it did, very quickly as May transformed into June.  On a warm day in early June, I went to put gas in the car.  Even with the windows rolled down, I was sweating from parts of my body that I did not know could produce sweat.  By the time I returned home, I felt like I had just traversed a great mountain in a rainforest.  I was moist and stinky, like my teenage son before he started realizing the benefits of using deodorant.  It was horrible.  The next day, I scheduled an appointment to get the air conditioner in our car fixed.  If only I had listened to my son and addressed this issue earlier, I wouldn’t have had to feel like the Swamp Monster of Concord when I gassed up the car that day.  Hindsight and reflection are crucial to learning from our mistakes and being able to move forward in a productive manner.  I just wish that Miss Hindsight wasn’t so adamant about teaching us valuable lessons in the most uncomfortable manner.

As I sit, properly masked up, and patiently waiting for my car’s air conditioning to be fixed, I can’t help but be excited for my cold ride back home.  No more sweat-filled trips for my family.  Yea!  I also realized that this is as good a time as any to start thinking ahead.  As my school year officially wrapped up this week with our Closing Faculty Meetings, I’m feeling pumped and ready for summer vacation to begin.  While I won’t be heading out on any trips to the beach or other overcrowded places in which people don’t seem to understand the importance of social distancing and the use of face masks to keep themselves and others safe and healthy, I am planning to stay plenty busy honing my craft as an educator.  I love summer vacation because it’s a good, long chunk of time in which I can read new professional development texts, research new teaching practices, or just tweak some unit plans or activities.

Like every other summer, I have created a lengthy list of goals or things I’d like to accomplish.  So, here is my list of summer goals for 2020…  Drum roll please…  In no particular order, here they are:

  • I want to read the summer reading book that my school’s collective faculty chose, Teaching Students to Become Self-Determined Learners by Michael Wehmeyer and Yong Zhao.  As I’ve read other books by Mr. Zhao and loved them, I am super excited to dig into this new text.  After reading only the first chapter, I am hooked.  The authors talk about the importance of student agency as they share the story of how a small group of bored but motivated students created their own school within a school that they aptly called the Independent Project.  How cool is that?  I can’t wait to learn more about how I can inspire my students to truly own their learning.
  • I want to choose a new read-aloud book to begin the new school year in Reader’s Workshop.  While I’ve used the novel Wishtree by Katherine Applegate for the past two years and have been pleased with how it ties our community unit together, I’m looking for something different, more controversial.  I’m looking to push my students outside of their zone of comfort a bit.  With all of the scary and sad headlines that have been plastered across newspapers and online news publications in the recent weeks and months, I can’t help but see a teachable moment.  Race in our country has been and will continue to be a very hot and contentious topic, but unfortunately, not one that is often debated or discussed in schools.  Most teachers worry that they may say the wrong thing or create more tension by shedding light on the subject, and so lots of schools have only gently glossed over the topic.  I want to confront it head on.  While the area in which my school is located does have some racial diversity, the majority of students at my school are Caucasian.  So, why not empower my students with knowledge and start a debate on race issues in my fifth grade class?  The two books that I’m looking to use as the catalyst for our discussion are Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes and Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson.  I’ve started reading Ghost Boys and am totally loving the alternating chapters between life and death.
  • I want to create a new Social Studies unit to kick off the new school year.  While I’ve loved the community unit I’ve taught for a few years, the feedback I’ve received from my students is mixed.  They like Social Studies, but they don’t super like diving into a deep unit on the town in which our school is located.  So, I’ve decided to branch out a bit.  Although I’m still going to keep the central theme of the unit on community, I’m going to briefly introduce the students to the town in which our school is located before getting them to think about our entire country.  I’m going to have the students plan a cross-country trip using Google Maps.  I want students to be able to choose where they would want to go if they could go on a trip across our great nation.  While they will have a set budget and requirements, the places they choose to visit will be in the hands of the students.  I am confident that this type of student-choice, Project Based Learning unit will engage the students and allow me to cover lots of skills including note taking, source documentation, and how to complete an effective online search.  I can’t wait to see where the students will want to travel.
  • I want to complete the online training regarding the Modern Classrooms Project.  They provide free, online training for educators looking to create a more student-centered approach to teaching.  It aligns nicely with the ideas covered in the summer reading text I’ll be working on.  I’m excited to learn even more about how I can best engage my students while fostering a love of learning in my classroom.
  • I want to play with the Edison Robots my school purchased for me to use in Science class.  I want to learn how to code and program the robots so that I will be able to effectively instruct my students on how to use them.  I want to have the students use the robots as part of our unit on Astronomy, as they create space rovers to accomplish a self-chosen task.  I’m looking forward to learning more about computer coding this summer, as I play with and explore these very cool robots.
  • I want to create a Professional Learning Community of other fifth grade teachers working in independent schools in the greater Concord area.  I want to reach out to these other teachers and hopefully create some sort of meaningful virtual or in-person learning community in which we can share ideas and knowledge regarding teaching and fifth graders.

While this does seem like a lofty list for a short summer vacation, I do believe that it is doable.  I am positive that I will be able to accomplish all of the goals I have set for myself this summer in a meaningful and relevant way.  As my car will soon be shooting out cold air, so too will I be shooting out lots of knowledge regarding all of the awesome things I’ll be learning this summer.  While I’m not sure that the analogy really works here, it sounds cool and so I’m sticking with it.

So, now I pass the baton onto you.  What are your plans for the summer?  How will you grow as a teacher and/or person?

Distance Learning Week 6: Seeking Feedback and Making Changes

During the past six weeks of remote teaching, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting and researching.

  • Is the distance learning program I’ve created for my fifth graders the most effective program possible?  Is it helping all of my students?  Is there more I could be doing?  Is the balance I’ve tried to strike between asynchronous and synchronous learning effective?  Am I asking too much of my students?  Am I not challenging my students enough?  Am I differentiating my instruction in a meaningful manner?
  • I’ve also read numerous articles on how to create an effective distance learning program, but it seems that every article takes a different stance.  Some professionals argue that schools should not implement a remote learning program, as access to technology and the Internet is not equitable in all areas of our country.  They believe that during this time away from school, students should simply relax and spend more time with their families.  Then there are educators who suggest that there needs to be more synchronous learning to asynchronous learning, as students need to connect with their peers and teachers during this uncertain time.  Of course, then there are those in education who say there must be a certain balance between asynchronous and synchronous learning, as students need to spend less time on screens.

So, which experts should teachers believe?  What formula for distance learning should we follow?  With all of these experts chiming in with different answers, it’s almost impossible to know what the right thing to do is.

But wait a minute, we’re teachers.  We know our students incredibly well at this point in the school year.  We know what works and doesn’t work for them.  We have a pretty good idea of how to best support and assist all of our students.  As teachers, we know what to do.  Instead of trying to sift through piles of hay looking for that oh so special golden needle answer, we should be navigating this whole remote teaching problem as we handle any problem in our classrooms, by trusting in our experience, preparation, knowledge, and understanding.  We are teachers because we care about our students and want to help them continue to grow and learn.  We need to trust our gut instincts.  Of course, we should also reach out to colleagues and seek guidance from other teachers, but we should not view that help as gospel.  We need to create the distance learning program that we feel and know is best for each and every one of our students.  Will we get it right the first time?  Oh no we won’t.  We will make mistakes.  I know that I have made plenty of mistakes in the past six weeks, but I’m learning from those errors.  We will persevere through this wild and crazy time of remote teaching, as we continue to challenge and support our students.  We will focus on the social and emotional aspects, as much as we do the curriculum and content.  We will check-in with our students and help them in any way possible.  We will continue to care for our students during this time of distance teaching because that’s what teachers do.  We rise to any challenge with which we are faced.  We find new and creative solutions to challenging problems like video conferencing, online learning, assessment, and so much more.  While we would much prefer to be in school right now with our students, we are doing what is best for them, us, and our country.

While I feel that the remote learning program I have put in place for my fifth graders is effective for most of my students, it is far from perfect.  There are ways I can make it better.  As I’ve been reading professional articles about the dos and don’ts of distance learning recently, I’m more perplexed than ever about how I can tweak and alter my virtual learning program to better help my students, as each author has something different to say.  Then, as I was creating the weekly self-reflection Google Form my students complete each Friday to reflect on their work and effort, I started to feel like a giddy school child.  The answer for how I can improve my distance learning program is right in front of me on my computer screen.  I should ask my students for feedback on what I could do to better help them.  So, I added a new question to this week’s self-reflection: Is there anything Mr. Holt can do to help support you, as you continue to grow and develop as a student?  Short and simple.  I did not make it a required question because I know that for most of my students, the program I have in place is working for them.  In fact, some of my students are thriving in this distance learning environment.  The question is really for the one or two students who want or need something else, something more.

As expected, about 70% of my students feel that things are going well and they have no suggestions for improvement.  However, two students did have some meaningful feedback for me:

  • Push me harder. I feel that some of the work you give us is too easy, tougher work.
  • I wish I could do more independent work because it is hard to look at a screen for that long.

Excellent, I thought.  This is just what I have been searching for.  So, what I need to do is provide my students with more options for how they can demonstrate their learning.  I need to offer more asynchronous, independent options for students who crave less screen time and provide more extension activities for those students who aren’t feeling challenged enough.  I need to better differentiate my remote learning program so that I can better support, help, and challenge all of my students.  This is exactly the guidance I have been searching for.  Instead of reading countless articles written by administrators or educators who may not even be participating in a remote learning program, I simply needed to ask my students.  While I often seek feedback from my students on different units and activities, I had not asked for their input in the past few weeks.  Again, for most students, the program I have in place now, is very effective, but my goal is to make it effective for ALL of my students.  So, tweaks will need to be made for next week.  I will create new extension activities for those students who want or need to be further challenged.  I will also create options for how students can show their learning of a concept or skill.  I will continue to develop and change my distance learning program based on the feedback I receive from my students, as well as their families.  I sent home a survey for parents to complete yesterday, that may elicit even more feedback and suggestions on how I can continue to improve the remote learning program I have in place for my students.

I am a teacher, and I will persevere through every challenge and obstacle, as I find new and creative ways to better support and help all of my students during this time of virtual schooling.  There is no utopian solution to the challenge of distance learning.  No well-written article will provide me with just the solution I am seeking to create the perfect virtual learning program for my students.  I know my students, and with their help and feedback, WE will create the distance learning program that is best for them.

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.

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.


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.