How the Novelty of Change Causes Distraction

I crave routine as I am truly a creature of habit.  I wash my body in the same order every time I shower.  I park in the same parking spot on campus every morning, unless someone else takes it, and then I become angry.  I do the same things in the same way, every day.  Knowing what’s coming next and the result is what helps keep my brain happy.  I love having a schedule.  Keeping my life neat and tidy, helps keep my world free of problems and distractions.  However, I have discovered the flaw in my plan over the past many years.  While knowing what to expect is good at times, life is far from scripted and usually the unexpected happens on a daily basis, which causes my best intentions to go up in flames.  Being prepared for everything that life throws my way is a vital life success skill.  Although I’m not a huge fan of change, I do know that being able to live in the present moment will help me better adapt and find mental success in life.  It’s a real challenge, but one that I try to work on regularly.  I’m far from perfect, but every once in awhile I am able to be flexible in my thinking and go where the day takes me.

The problem with change, which is why I struggle with it so very much, is that it’s generally new and unchartered territory.  How do I know what to do in a new situation?  What’s the dress code?  What do I need to bring?  I get very nervous and anxious during times of change because I have no idea what is going on.  I hate that, but it’s healthy for me to work out my brain in this way.

In the classroom, changes cause my students many problems as well.  When a break from the routine presents itself, some of my students struggle to function appropriately.  They forget how to act or what to do when things are a bit unscheduled because they are nervous and anxious, just as I am when faced with change.  It’s a typical response, but one that can cause problems in the classroom.  The goal is to help students learn to be mindful so that when things don’t go as planned, the students are able to live in the moment and not allow change to derail them.  Teaching students to utilize a growth mindset is an easy way to provide them with the needed strategies to successfully navigate changes in the routine or schedule.

My co-teacher and I have made use of a mindfulness curriculum this year to help our students learn coping strategies when life becomes overwhelming or stressful.  We’ve worked with the students and had them practice how to meditate, breathe mindfully, control their bodies in mindful ways, and how to view the world through mindful eyes.  This has helped many of our students address changes thrown their way.  We had the students reflect this morning on the mindfulness lessons covered so far this year, and many of them see the value and benefits associated with being mindful.  Only two students don’t understand how transformational mindfulness can truly be when done correctly.  I’m hopeful that those two students will begin to see its relevance as we continue to practice teaching the students new mindfulness techniques over the coming weeks.

Student Responses:

  • The Mindfulness videos help me calm down if I’m over excited for something or just super hyper.  I feel more Mindful and self-aware from doing the exercises.  I am more mindful and self aware to my surroundings when our class does the “mindful observations.”  Doing the mindfulness exercises helps me be more aware of my surroundings.
  • I think the mindfulness videos help because the voices tone is very relaxing. The voice doesn’t just relax just me, but my brain, and the world becomes clearer.
  • The lessons on mindfulness helped me to focus on one thing. For example, I was not listening to the teacher, but I learned mindfulness. I used mindfulness breathing to learn mindfulness. Mindfulness breathing helped me to focus on one thing, and now I can listen to the teacher very well.  I am now more able to focus on one thing, and understand people very well. Focusing on one thing goes in to mindful, and understanding people goes into self-awareness.
  • I personally think that the lessons on mindfulness have really help me to calm down because they made me more mindful and self-aware.
  • I think that the mindfulness lessons have been mostly helping.
  • I think that lessons on mindfulness helped me be more focused on the class. I can learn more from the class. The mindful lessons really help me a lot in the class and with my homework.

Clearly, our students see the value in being mindful and present.  However, sometimes, they forget the mindful techniques we’ve worked on when in the moment.  Case and point, Humanities class today.  During the second part of class, I conferenced with the students regarding their reading progress.  While I was conferencing with the students individually, most other students were engaged in quietly reading.  Then, I made a change.  I opened the curtains in our classroom to let in some natural light while the boys read quietly.  This change caused the entire dynamic of the room to shift.  Those students who once sat, quietly reading, now became distracting to their peers and unfocused on their book.  Many of the students became unsettled and unable to do what was being asked of them.  Despite several reminders and attempts to refocus the students, a few struggled to recalibrate themselves from the curtains being opened.  This small switch in the physical appearance of the classroom caused quite the distraction.  Several of the boys never fully returned to reading in a focused manner by the end of class.

Even though the students are equipped with strategies to refocus and be mindful, they were unable to be in the present moment, doing what was asked of them.  The interesting part is that a few of the most unfocused students today during Reader’s Workshop are usually the most focused and dedicated students in the class.  These students are usually able to utilize the mindful strategies we’ve been working on in class during other parts of the day if stress or anxiety settles in; however, today was not one of those usual days.  So then, what was different today?  The change in the curtains being opened.  This extra sunlight and view of the mountains seemed to distract many of the students so much that they were unable to recall how to be mindful or that they should be mindful.  Because I rarely open these curtains, this change was very much a novelty.  It was something new and out of the routine.  As my students crave routine, much like I do, this change to the ordinary proved to be too much for them to handle.  I’m hopeful that as they experience more breaks from the routine over the course of the year, they will better be able to go with the flow and live in the moment, mindfully.

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What’s the Best Way to Engage All Students During Class Read-Alouds?

When I taught second grade many eons ago, I would read aloud to my students following their lunch recess.  As they were all usually so tired and exhausted from running around, they sat in their chairs and listened intently as I read from our current read aloud novel.  They were captivated by the stories and hung on my every word.  You would have thought I had stolen their prized puppy when I finished reading each day as they were so sad to pause the story and move onto the next activity.

While I realize that sixth graders are very different than second graders, I’m struggling to engage this year’s group of sixth graders.  The classes from year’s past have all thoroughly loved the class read-alouds and ranked them as one of their favorite parts of Humanities class every year.  So, why is this year’s group not as engaged.  They don’t seem to be liking the novel or trying to listen in any sort of active or appropriate manner.  During every read-aloud this year I’ve had to redirect students who were making distracting or distracted choices, remind students not to speak to their peers, and refocus students who were moving around the reading area or playing with various toys or gadgets.  Instead of focusing on the story and getting lost in it, they are getting lost in each other.  This is the first year that I’ve struggled with engaging students during this weekly activity.  So, what’s the issue?  What’s causing the students to not engage during class read-alouds?  Is it the book?  Do they not like Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman?  Is it no longer a great choice for our community unit?  Should I choose something different?  Perhaps.  Or is it the language issue?  I do have four ESL students in my class who struggle to comprehend English orally.  Could this be impacting their focus and in turn affecting their classmates?  Maybe.  Regardless of the reasons why, I am now focused on solutions.  How can I best engage my students during the class read-alouds?

  1. After I noticed many of the students exhibiting distracting and unfocused behaviors during our first read-aloud, I decided to share my concerns with the students and brainstorm possible solutions.  While no big ideas came out of the discussion, one student suggested using his chair in which to sit in the reading area and another student asked about standing during the read-aloud.  So as to be open-minded, I accepted and permitted both of their ideas from taking place during read-alouds.  Unfortunately, their ideas did not make much of a difference in keeping students focused during class read-alouds.  Therefore, I went back to the drawing board.
  2. As I do realize that some students do need to fidget to stay focused, I wondered how many of my “distracted” students were actually paying attention and focused on what was being read and discussed.  So, to test my theory, I created a check-in assessment for my students to take today in class.  Most of the students did very well and seemed to fully comprehend what is happening in our read-aloud novel.  The only students who struggled are our ELLs, which is to be expected as auditory processing of a new language can be much more challenging than speaking or reading the new language.  Then, what does this data mean?  Does it mean that even though the students seem distracted and unfocused they are actually paying attention and fully engaged?  Perhaps.  To test this hypothesis, I need an outside perspective.
  3. On Tuesday of next week, during a class read-aloud, my co-teacher will be observing me and the students.  What are the boys really doing while I’m reading aloud to them?  What am I missing or not seeing?  Am I most effectively supporting all of my students during this activity?  Could I be doing anything else to keep the students focused and engaged?  I’m looking forward to receiving some specific feedback on what I might not be seeing.  I’m hopeful that it will shed some light on how I can best engage all of the students during the class read-alouds.

I clearly don’t have any answers to the question I’m posing in my blog title today.  I’m curious and want to learn how best to support my students as they learn and grow as readers.  How can I best engage the students during class read-alouds?  Why is this group not buying into the read-alouds like every other sixth grade class I’ve had?  Am I doing something differently?  So, over the next few weeks, I’m going to be analyzing these questions as I look for new ways to engage all of the learners in my classroom during class read-alouds.

How to See the Good in Bad Choices

When I was in the fifth grade, I witnessed a fight between two of my friends during recess.  Because I was a witness, I needed to go to the vice principal’s office to share my side of the story.  Even though I wasn’t in trouble at all, I was terrified of being in the office.  I thought that just being in the office was trouble enough.  I was so nervous and anxious that I don’t even remember what I said.  Despite the fact that I was called into the office to help and do good, I felt only bad feelings.  There was no good for me that day in what could have easily been a fine and good situation.  I was helping to solve a crime but felt more like I had committed one.  It was a horrible experience.

To be sure my students never have to feel the pain of being called to an office, I’m very mindful about how, when, and where I speak with students about the choices they make.  I go out of my way to praise the good choices in the classroom as frequently as possible while I make sure that the difficult conversations about bad choices happen in private, away from other students.  I usually speak quietly to the student, “Please see me after class.”  While this statement alone can instill fear, I make sure to notice good choices that student makes later in class, before I speak with him.  This usually assuages their fear and helps them realize that as their teacher, I am there to support and help, not scare and hurt.  I also make sure that my conversations with the students about their bad choices are short and to the point or lengthy and more of a discussion if time permits.  I try to use Ross Greene’s Plan B when talking to students about their bad choices.  If time allows, I dig into the discussion with the student, but if time is limited, I focus on what their bad choice was, how it affected others, and what they should do next time instead of committing the bad choice.  I want difficult conversations to be easy and painless while also informative and relevant.  Talking to students about their bad choices shouldn’t cause them anxiety like it did for me when I was a student.  If I want students to learn from their bad choices, I need to be sure they are not operating from the fight or flight portion of their brain.  Scared or nervous students don’t learn anything from conversations about their choices as they are so focused on survival.  I want to alleviate fear for students when having conversations that should be used as learning opportunities.  Difficult conversations should not cause angst for students.  Sometimes, discussions about bad choices can also include positive aspects.

Today during my Humanities class, I introduced the students to a book in our class library through a Book Talk.  I really tried to persuade the students as to why they should want to read the novel Armstrong and Charlie by Steven B. Frank.  I provided the students with an overview of the book before reading a snippet from a very funny scene.  After my Book Talk, we moved into the class read-aloud portion of Reader’s Workshop.  Once we had finished reading a chapter in the book Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, I had the students transition into the quiet reading portion of Reader’s Workshop.  Now, as I was wrapping up our discussion on the class read-aloud book, three students began moving towards the outside of the circle, closest to the exit for the reading area.  These three students were also making hand and face gestures to each other as they moved and positioned themselves towards the back of the circle.  Fortunately, I knew their motivation and so I had them wait while I dismissed the other students.  I then spoke with these three boys in private after everyone else began silently reading.

The issue was that these three boys all wanted to read the Book Talk book I introduced earlier in the class, and so they were jockeying for a prime position in the reading area to be sure that they were the one who would grab the book from the shelf first.  I knew this, which is why I stopped any shenanigans from happening.  The boys knew exactly why I wanted to speak with them and were very apologetic.  “Sorry for being rude and disrespectful, Mr. Holt,” they said.  I then said, “I don’t want to be the one who decides which of you gets to read the book.  I want you three to determine that.  How will you do that?”  One of the students then said, “I can read it later.  You two can decide who gets it.”  I thought that was very polite and kind.  Then, another of the three students said, “Yeah, I don’t need it right now.  You can have it.”  The irony in all of this was that as the third student who was going to choose the book turned to grab it from the bookshelf, it was gone.  Another student from the class had grabbed it.  It’s nice to know in times like this that karma exists.  So, none of those three students who made bad choices were able to read the book they all wanted to enjoy.  Everything worked out just as it was supposed to in the end.

As this whole situation was unfolding and happening, I was secretly celebrating inside.  My students love reading so much that they are willing to argue and compete to read a book.  What more could I ask for as their Humanities teacher?  I was so happy and excited despite the slightly disrespectful behavior the boys exhibited.  I called them on it and they understood the error of their ways.  I’m overjoyed that I made a book seem that appealing to my students.  While it is a fantastic novel about school integration during the Civil Rights Movement, I don’t think it’s worth getting in trouble over; however, I did add fuel to the fire by reading an incredibly hilarious and risque scene from the text to inspire the boys to want to read the book.  I can’t help that I’m a great salesman.  Regardless, I was able to find the good in what many saw as a bad or difficult situation.  I got my students so excited about reading that they were willing to make a bad choice just so that they could read the novel that I explained during my Book Talk.  So, I guess you could say that I inspired my students to make bad choices.  Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound like a good thing at all.  I need to change the way I think about this occurrence so that I don’t come across as a horrible teacher.  How about this?  I got students excited about reading.  How they dealt with that excitement was on them.  Yeah, that sounds much better.  It makes me sound less like an awful educator.  I inspire students to want to read.  I’ll let them own their bad choices.  Those were not on me.  Yes, now I’ll be able to sleep tonight.  Thank you Mr. Wordsmithing for allowing me to make a terrible statement sound delightful and positive.

Helping Students Increase their Reading Stamina

In this day and age, sports are a huge draw for people.  Most everyone likes playing in or watching some kind of sporting event, whether it’s boxing, baseball, football, tennis, or soccer.  The sport industry is a money making machine.  It’s also a great way to help motivate kids and adults alike to stay healthy and in shape.  Building one’s stamina can lead to a longer life, healthy heart, reduced stress level, and so much more.  The benefits are staggering.  Exercise or participation in a sport of some kind can help improve one’s life in numerous ways, which is why schools and towns devote vast resources to creating physical fitness programs or sport teams in which students can participate.  Developing one’s physical stamina can help people in so many ways.

Like physical stamina, helping students increase their reading stamina is vitally important.  “The more you read, the more you know,” is a line from a famous commercial that aired on television in the 1990s.  Knowledge is power, and an easy way for students to acquire knowledge is through reading.  To help students learn more, they need to read more, and in order to read more, they need to be able to read more efficiently and for longer periods of time.  As teachers, we need to provide our students with opportunities to develop their reading stamina throughout the year so that they can become more effective students, learners, and thinkers.

Today featured a Reader’s Workshop block in my Humanities class.  Following a short mini-lesson on the reading strategy of reading with a purpose, the students spent the remainder of our time together, which was about 45 minutes, reading silently.  While many of the boys were thoroughly engaged throughout the class, a few of the boys were a bit distracted and distracting.  For those boys, they will need direct instruction on how to stay focused on their reading for a long period of time, as they clearly currently lack the skills needed to be successful in this area.  So, over the course of this year, I will work with those few students to help them learn how to increase their reading stamina so that they can become more effective readers and students in preparation for the rigorous reading requirements of the seventh grade.

Teaching Practices to Promote an Increase in Reading Stamina

  • Modelling: After conferencing with students each week, I pull out my current reading book and read right along with the students, so as to be a good role model.  I want my students to see the value in reading, and if they see me doing it with them, they be more apt to see the direct correlation.
  • Time: The students have several chances each week to sit and read for long periods of time, at least 30 minutes.  We have Reader’s Workshop once a week and they are assigned nightly reading homework at least three times a week.  This practice offers the students opportunities to develop their ability to read and stay focused for large chunks of time.
  • Conferencing: I meet with the students weekly to review their reading progress.  During these conferences I help students set goals to increase their pages per day goal if they are struggling to keep up with the reading requirements.  This generally motivates them to stay focused and make good use of their free time to read.
  • Choice: Once the students begin to love reading and find the joy in it, they will devour books like I devour cookies.  As many students have never been given the option to choose the books they read, some students begin sixth grade not liking reading.  Once they begin reading books that they select and enjoy, they will want to read more, this increasing their reading stamina.

Building stamina, whether it’s physical or academic, is important to the overall success of our students.  The more they exercise their brain and body, the longer they will be able to live and prevent mental and physical decay.  Helping students see the value in increasing their reading stamina is important for many reasons, which is why all teachers should be advocating for this in the classroom.  We are all reading teachers and need to remember that on a daily basis.  Reading is everywhere, in every class, and needs to be supported and celebrated.

The Importance in Providing Students with Opportunities to Fail

When I was in the sixth grade, failure wasn’t an option.  If I didn’t do something correctly the first time, I received a poor grade and got in trouble with my parents.  Therefore, I quickly learned how to be the perfect student.  School then became a me vs. them sort of game.  I had to learn what my teachers wanted or expected and then gave it to them when work was assigned.  I wasn’t really doing any learning as I was simply striving for the perfect grade.  Failure was never an option for me after sixth grade.  Perhaps if I had failed more often, I would have learned much more than I did.  You see, my grades were a reflection of figuring out the game of school and not a picture of what I learned or was capable of.  In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t placed so much emphasis on the importance of grades on myself when I was in school.  I feel as though I missed out on a lot of learning opportunities because of this.

Clearly, I know that genuine learning comes from failure and making mistakes.  Students need to be provided with safe opportunities to mess up, make mistakes, and fail in the classroom.  As a teacher, I understand this.  So, I try to make sure that I help my students value failure and making mistakes.  I want them to see failure as a crucial part of the learning process.  When mistakes happen, I focus on the next step.  What will you do now?  Now what?  How will you solve this problem?  As I don’t want my students to turn into the kind of student I became in the sixth grade, I need to be sure that failure is a part of everyday life in the classroom for my students.

Today in my Humanities class, I introduced the students to Reader’s Workshop.  I explained how to choose a Just-Right book and allowed them time to choose a book and begin reading it.  While part of me wanted to set my students up for success and help them choose a book that I feel is just-right for them, I resisted the urge and remembered how important learning from one’s mistakes is to the learning process.  When students chose a book and reported to me, if they followed the steps we went over in class on how to choose a book and could explain this process to me, I allowed them to begin reading the book they chose.  Even if I knew the book was too difficult or easy for them, I empowered them with the opportunity to make their own choices and mistakes.  I’ll have a chance early next week to conference with them independently and see where they’re at then.  I want them to come to the realization of how truly easy or difficult it is for them on their own.  This way, the students learn to value the process of choosing an appropriate reading book for themselves.

I was able to see the benefit in letting the students learn from their own mistakes first hand today in class.  An ELL in my class chose a book that I knew was going to be too challenging for him, but he wanted to try it and was able to tell me the process that he went through to choose it.  So, I let him start it.  About 15 minutes later, this same student came up to me and said, “This book is little too hard for me.  Can I choose new one?”  As fireworks went off in my head to the sound of the Queen song Another One Bites the Dust, I calmly responded, “Sure thing.  Would you like helping choose a new book?”  I then recommended several books before he decided on one that would be just right for him.  He needed to fail on his own in order to realize that the book was too hard for him.  Me telling him no would be like when your parents told you not to touch the stove because it was still hot.  What did we all do?  We touched the stove, of course.  Our students need to learn from doing and making mistakes just like we did.  So, it’s important that as teachers, we provide opportunities in the classroom for students to make mistakes, fail, and then try something new.  Preventing our students from failing or making failure appear bad to our students is the worse thing we can do for them.  We need to help them see that failure is part of the learning process.

The Humanity in Humanities: Revising my Unit on Community

Being an elementary school teacher at heart, I remember learning all about planning and implementing a unit on community in my methods and practicum course in college.  “Young students need to learn the importance of community and how they are all a part of many different communities,” the professors would often preach.  While I used to think it was hokey, in this day and age of technological distractions and social media, it’s crucial that students learn all about the community in which they live while exploring it without a cell phone or portable device.  Students learn through experiences, and so what better way to help them appreciate and understand the community in which they live than to have them dig through an old river bed for artifacts from the town’s history?  Hands-on learning brings the community alive for the students and makes learning engaging and fun.  Through experiences like this, students will learn to appreciate the communities of which they are all apart.  It will also help them to be more open-minded and aware of their surroundings.  If students only knew the history of the towns in which they live, they might be more apt to explore and get out and about in their communities during their free time instead of playing video games or checking their social media applications.

So, to be sure my students learn to appreciate all that the little town of Canaan has to offer, I’m beginning the academic year in my Humanities class with a unit on community.  While I’ve enjoyed the activities completed during this unit in past years and the students have provided positive feedback on the various lessons completed throughout the unit over the past four years, I’ve made a few minor tweaks for this year.  I want to be sure the students have the opportunity to process and debrief each of the field experiences.  Last year, I felt as though we would simply move on after each field experience without making sure the students understood why we did what we did and how that informs their understanding of the Canaan community.  I don’t want to think of this unit as a series of boxes to check off; I want to make this unit an experience that the students will carry with them when they go out into other communities.  I want my students to always be asking why and how?  How did this town come to be a town?  What is my role in this community?  How can I make this community a great place for all people?  I want my students to be changemakers, and in order to do this, I need to provide them with opportunities to ask questions so that they understand the relevance of every piece of this unit puzzle.  In this same vein, I also added a new option for the final project that will allow the students to identify a problem within the community, create a solution to the problem, and then enact their solution.  I want critical thinking and problem solving to be skills the students learn and practice in every class.

I’m super excited about this unit because of the slight alterations I’ve made, but also because of the power it holds.  This unit is the foundation upon which the other units we will complete throughout the year will be built upon.  This unit ties our course together as we revisit the themes and ideas of this unit in every successive unit.  The stage is set for both Writer’s and Reader’s Workshop in this unit as well.  I’m very pleased with the work I’ve done to enhance this unit over the past few weeks, and I’d love any feedback you could provide me with about this unit.  Here is the daily plan for Our Community unit…

Day 1: Reader’s Workshop Introduction

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Trivia Time: Discuss and Explain process
  • Discuss and Explain: What is Humanities class all about?
  • Introduce and Discuss Reader’s Workshop
    • Think-Pair-Share: What is your past experience with reading?  Do you like to read and why or why not?  Have students jot down answers on paper before partnering.
    • Explain Reader’s Workshop
      • Class Read Aloud: First Book Seedfolks  by Paul Fleischman
      • Mini-Lesson on Reading Strategies
      • Silent Reading
      • Book Talks
      • Book Chats
      • Teacher Conferences
    • Choosing Just Right Books
      • Mini-Lesson in small groups
      • Discuss: How do you choose a new book to read?
      • Model and explain 5-Finger Rule using books
      • Have students choose first reader’s workshop book and read silently
      • Conference with students as they choose books
    • Wrap Up: Briefly Explain Habits of Learning and have students share which they used today in class

Day 2: Community Unit Introduction

  • Homework: Write about the Dawn Climb for 30 Minutes
  • On This Day in History: Explain and Discuss
  • Introduce Focus for first Humanities Unit
    • Discuss Community: As a group of students together, what are some other titles we might use to refer to us as?  What does it mean to be a part of a community?  What communities are you a part of?  How does being a part of a community make you feel?  What are you able to do as a part of a community that you couldn’t do if you weren’t?
    • Community Definition: Have students brainstorm a definition for the word Community with their table partner before sharing ideas aloud with the class until we have an agreed upon definition
    • Community Norms: Discuss what an effective community looks like in action before generating a list of how all good communities should function and operate
  • Exit Ticket: Write at least ways all good communities function

Day 3: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Previewing a text
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: Who would like to share what they liked about their book today?

Day 4: Writer’s Workshop Introduction

  • Homework: Continue Working on Quick Write for 30 Minutes
  • Geography Bee: Explain and Discuss
  • Writer’s Workshop Introduction
    • Class Discussion: What do you like about writing and why?  What do you not like about writing and why?  This year, we hope to turn the negatives into positives
    • Writing
    • Mini-Lessons on Writing Strategies
    • Sharing
    • Revising
    • Editing
    • Rewriting
  • Explain Quick Write Protocol
    • Write about provided prompt for 10 minutes
    • Have volunteers share what they wrote
    • Ask students: What are your thoughts on this activity?
  • Wrap-Up: Which Habit of Learning did you use the most in class today?

Day 5: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Trivia Time
  • Review: What makes an effective community and why?
  • Pair-Share Activity: Where are you from and how is it different from Canaan?
  • Discuss: When learning about communities, what do we need to keep in mind?  How do we learn about communities that are unfamiliar to us?
  • List Generation: Make list of what we need to or want to learn about in our unit on the Canaan Community
  • Community Quick Write
    • Create Canaan’s history.  How did the town form and when?
    • Have students share their pieces with their table partner
  • Wrap-Up: How does growth mindset play a key role in learning about a new place?

Day 6: Writing About Your Reading

  • Homework: Finish Goodreads Update and Read About Current Events for 30 Minutes
  • Mini-Lesson: Writing about your Reading– Part I
    • Ask students: Why is it important to know how to write about what you read in a meaningful and critical manner?
    • Discuss and Explain Requirements of Effective Goodreads Update
    • Share a Goodreads update that meets the requirements and discuss why
    • Share a Goodreads update that does not meet the expectations and discuss why
    • Read chapter from Seedfolks read-aloud novel and have students write, on lined paper, an update focused on the character narrating the piece
    • Have students meet with teacher and peers to receive feedback on their update
    • Exit Ticket: Write two requirements of an effective Goodreads Update

Day 5: Current Events and Writing About Your Reading

  • Homework: Free Write on a Current Event
  • Weekly News Quiz: Explain and Discuss
  • Introduce Current Event Process
    • Have students share current events read about with their table partner
    • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Mini-Lesson: Writing About Your Reading– Part II
    • Have students Review their Goodreads Update
      • Highlight support or example from book
      • Underline Interpretation or analysis
      • Write number of sentences in margin
      • Write and circle number of topics focused on in margin
    • Collect Goodreads Updates and read a few aloud discussing requirements and expectations
  • Wrap-Up: What do we need to remember when crafting a Goodreads update?

Day 6: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 20 Minutes and Update Goodreads on 1 Character
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Reading with a Purpose
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: Who would like to share what they liked about their book today?

Day 7: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Geography Bee
  • Discuss the physical place of Canaan
    • Show students a map of Canaan and have them share noticings and wonderings
    • Ask students: Does the physical space of Canaan have everything a community needs to be successful and why or why not?  Do you think the map of Canaan changed over time and why or why not?
    • Show students different maps of Canaan over time and discuss the changes
    • Ask students: How does the physical place and environment affect a community?  How does Canaan’s location affect the people and place?
    • Tell students: Tomorrow we will be going on a walking field trip of Canaan Street.  You will be taking notes, writing, drawing, and actively participating in the field experience.  Your notes will be graded along with your participation in the field experience.  What kind of notepad do you want to use for tomorrow’s trip?
    • Have students make a notepad for tomorrow’s field experience using supplies in the classroom.

Day 8: Canaan Street Field Experience

  • Homework: Finish Canaan Street Notepad
  • Canaan Street Field Experience

Day 9: Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Finish Dawn Climb Story
  • Collect Canaan Street Notepads
  • On This Day…
  • Writer’s Workshop
    • Have students share their Dawn Climb story with their table partner
    • Ask students: What did you notice about the pieces?  What did they have in common?  What made them different?  What is narrative writing?  What makes an effective narrative story?
    • Have students revise, finish, or rewrite their dawn climb story remembering to include the features of a narrative story
  • Exit Ticket: What makes an effective narrative story?

Day 10: Current Events and Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Weekly News Quiz
  • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Explain Editing and Revising Process
  • Have students edit their dawn climb story
  • Have students revise their dawn climb story
  • Have volunteers share piece with the class
  • Wrap-Up: Which Habit of Learning best helps with the revising and editing process?

Day 11: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 20 Minutes and Update Goodreads on Setting
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Use Prior Knowledge
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: Table Partner Book Share

Day 12: Writer’s Workshop and Canaan Community

 

  • Homework: Finish Revising Piece Based on Peer Edit Feedback
  • Geography Bee
  • Writer’s Workshop
    • Explain and discuss Peer Editing Process
      • Handout worksheet and discuss
    • Have students Peer Edit their dawn climb story with a partner
    • Have students begin revising piece based on student feedback
  • Discuss what we learned about the Canaan community during last week’s field experience
  • Ask students: What else do you still want to know?
  • Have students Create Canaan Historian Field Experience Notepad reminding them that it will be graded
  • Wrap-Up: What questions do you want to ask Mrs. Dunkerton about Canaan tomorrow during our field experience?

 

Day 13: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Finish Canaan Historian Notepad
  • Canaan Field Experience

Day 14: Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read 1 current event and take Bullet Style Notes on lined paper
  • On This Day…
  • Writer’s Workshop
  • Explain Writing Groups Process
  • Have students get into their assigned writing groups and complete process
  • Have students revise their piece based on the feedback received
  • Wrap-Up: What did you find helpful about the writing group process?

Day 15: Current Events and Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Finish Author’s Note
  • Weekly News Quiz
  • Have students share their current event with their table partner
  • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Explain Author’s Note Process
  • Have students complete their Author’s Note at the end of their dawn climb piece
  • Exit Ticket: Why is it important to learn about current events in the world?

Day 16: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 20 Minutes and Update Goodreads on Thoughts About your Book
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Make Connections
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: Why is making connections an important reading strategy?

Day 17: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Rand Estate Tour and Field Experience

Day 18: Writer’s Workshop

  • Homework: Finish Revising Piece Based on Teacher Feedback
  • Trivia Time
  • Writer’s Workshop
    • Discuss Teacher Feedback and Final Revising Process
    • Have students read the teacher feedback and make changes to their piece based on this feedback

Day 19: Canaan Community

  • Homework: Read 1 Current Event and Take Bullet Style Notes
  • On This Day…
  • Discuss what was learned from Tuesday’s field experience
  • Ask students: What else do we want to know about the Canaan Community?
  • Introduce and discuss Canaan Community Project
  • Have students choose project and begin working

Day 20: Current Events and Canaan Community Project

  • Homework: Work on Canaan Community Project for 30 Minutes
  • Weekly News Quiz
  • Have students share their current event with their table partner
  • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Have students work on Canaan Community Project
  • Wrap-Up: Have volunteers share successes and/or struggles they are having in the project

Day 21: Reader’s Workshop

  • Homework: Read for 20 Minutes and Update Goodreads on Questions you Have
  • Reader’s Workshop
    • Book Talk
    • Class Read aloud
      • Mini-Lesson: Questions
    • Student-Teacher Conferences
    • Read Silently
  • Wrap-Up: How does asking questions make you a better engaged reader?

Day 22: Canaan Community Project

  • Homework: Work on Canaan Community Project for 30 Minutes
  • Geography Bee
  • Work on Canaan Community Project

Day 23: Canaan Community Project

  • Homework: Work on Canaan Community Project for 30 Minutes
  • Trivia Time
  • Work on Canaan Community Project

Day 24: Canaan Community Project

  • Homework: Finish Canaan Community Project
  • On This Day…
  • Work on Canaan Community Project

Day 25: Current Events and Unit Wrap-Up

  • Homework: Read for 30 Minutes
  • Weekly News Quiz
  • Explain and discuss one current event with the class
  • Collect Canaan Community Projects
  • Debrief Unit with Class
    • Have students complete student feedback survey
    • Ask students: What did you learn about communities from this unit?

Here is the Unit Plan document for the unit…

Unit Title: Our Community
Creator: Mark Holt
Grade Level: 6
Timeframe: Fall Term– Wednesday, September 13 – Thursday, October 19 (25 class days, double periods)
Essential Questions

  • What does it mean to be a part of a community?
  • What do we need to learn about a community in order to fully understand it?
  • How does what you learn about a community change your perception of a place?
Habits of Learning

    • Growth Mindset: The students will be challenged to take risks, fail, make mistakes, and try new strategies when writing, reading and discussing.  The students will need to be flexible in their thinking when approaching the strategies covered.  Thinking creatively will allow for new and unique ideas to be generated, which will in turn lead to deeper engagement and more genuine learning.
    • Self-Awareness: The students will need to be aware of their writing and reading abilities when choosing just-right books and crafting pieces of writing.  They will be challenged to move beyond their abilities so as to grow as readers, writers, and thinkers.
    • Coexistence: The students will work collaboratively with their peers when peer editing, discussing current events, discussing community, and discussing their reading.  They will be challenged to overcome obstacles faced when working with their peers.
    • Critical Thinking: The students will think critically when brainstorming writing, revising their writing, peer editing, discussing various topics in class discussions, and reflecting on their reading and writing.  They will be challenged to move beyond the concrete to the more abstract.
    • Communication: The students will need to effectively communicate with their peers and the teacher when writing, reading, and discussing.
    • Ownership: The students will be expected to take responsibility for their learning throughout this unit.  They will be challenged to self-check their work before turning it in to be assessed and graded.  They will need to be honest with themselves and the teachers when choosing appropriate just-right books.
    • Creativity: The students will be expected to craft an original and unique story based on their experiences climbing Mt. Cardigan at dawn and add their own original thoughts to class discussions.
Student Objectives, Skills, and Outcomes

Students will be able to:

  • Write about their reading.
  • Craft an original story, with a beginning, middle, and ending, based on a true account.
  • Revise their writing based on feedback.
  • Participate in class discussions.
  • Participate in field experiences.
  • Understand how a geographical place changes over time.
  • Create a visual representation of their knowledge regarding the Canaan community.
  • Review their work to be sure it includes all required parts.
Cross Curricular Connections

  • PEAKS:
    • Students will learn how to utilize a growth mindset when learning new information.
Instructional Strategies Utilized

  • Identifying similarities and differences
  • Homework and practice
  • Cooperative learning
  • Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback
Materials/Resources/Websites

Haiku Learning Website

Seedfolks Paul Fleischman

Canaan Community members

Assessments

  • To assess students’ ability to write about their reading, we will read and grade their specific reading updates posted on the Goodreads website.  They will complete one update a week and we will spend the first few days of classes explaining and modelling the expectations for an effective update.
  • To assess students’ ability to craft an original story with a beginning, middle, and ending and revise their writing based on feedback, we will read their unique story based on their experiences hiking Mt. Cardigan at dawn, paying close attention to their ability to effectively utilize writing structures and the writing process in terms of editing and revising their work based on feedback from their peers and the teachers.
  • To assess students’ ability to participate in class discussions, we will take copious notes during small group discussions regarding the read-aloud text and current events.  We will spend time at the start of the year explaining and modelling the expectations for effectively participating in class discussions.  We will provide the students with much feedback throughout the unit so that they fully understand what is expected of them regarding this objective as it will be woven into almost every unit covered throughout the year in Humanities class.
  • To assess students’ ability to participate in field experiences, we will grade their performance during our visit to the town museum as well as our Canaan Street walk.  They will be expected to appropriately add their relevant insight, thoughts, and questions to the discussion.  They will also be expected to take relevant notes on important facts and details.
  • To assess students’ ability to understand how a geographical place changes over time, create a visual representation of their knowledge regarding the Canaan community, and review their work to be sure it includes all required parts, the students will complete the Canaan Community Project, which will have them make a creative visual representation of what they learned regarding the Canaan community and it’s history.

How to Choose the Best Read-Aloud Novel

When I was in sixth grade, I had an amazing language arts teacher who utilized the workshop model of literacy.  Twice a week, she would read aloud to us from our current read-aloud novel as a way to teach reading strategies.  That’s how I fell in love with Roald Dahl.  After she read us Matilda, I was smitten with Dahl’s prose and word play.  While I don’t recall the other books she read aloud to us, I remember them being great choices.  My year in sixth grade helped direct me towards reading and writing.  My dual major in college was creative writing because of the fire that Mrs. Lacombe lit within my soul in the sixth grade.

Now, although she made it look easy because she had carefully chosen the read-aloud novels ahead of time, there is a fine art to choosing the right book to read aloud to a class.  My teachers from other grades read aloud to the class just like Mrs. Lacombe did, but you see, because they didn’t carefully choose the novels they read aloud, I found myself usually quite disengaged and bored while they read.  This was typically the time I got into a lot of trouble as well because I was so disinterested in the story being read aloud.  Had those other teachers taken the time and put in the effort to carefully choose engaging and fun read-aloud novels, I might have started to enjoy reading at an earlier age.  I also might not have gotten in quite so much trouble either.  Regardless, the moral of the story is that you can’t just pick any old book to read aloud to a class; you have to choose one that is interesting, fun, well written, and engaging.

As I want my students to enjoy reading and see it is an adventurous experience, I make sure to take the time to carefully select just the right read-aloud novels to drive our Reader’s Workshop mini-lessons.  I spend hours online researching engaging books that will also tie our curriculum together.  I then read each book first to be sure I enjoy it because if I’m not into it, then it’s going to be super hard for me to sell it to the students.  Once I choose a read-aloud book, I try it out on a class.  I then seek feedback from the students.  While I usually don’t have to change the books we read aloud to the students unless we are altering our curriculum, I did drop one book a few years ago because the students did not like it.  It’s important that the students enjoy the book being read aloud to them.  Throughout this process of selecting books and trying them out in the classroom, I’m always looking for new books as well.

As today was host to a Reader’s Workshop block in Humanities class, we began the period with our class read-aloud.  Now, about four years ago, I was looking to try a new read-aloud book with the students as Sacagawea by Joseph Bruchac just wasn’t doing it for them anymore no matter how much I liked it and tried to sell it to them.  The boys hated the book.  So, I went on a quest to find a new read-aloud novel.  After much searching and research, I decided to try three and then choose my favorite.  While two of them were fine books and may have actually made good read-aloud options, the third selection, was by far the best choice.  Not only was it one of the best books I had read in a while, the prose was beautiful and heartbreaking all at once.  The story was inspired by true events and took an alternative approach to storytelling.  Instead of going with the typical third person approach or even the first person human method of telling a story, Katherine Applegate decided to tell her story from the perspective of a gorilla.  After reading The One and Only Ivan, I knew that I had found a special book that would remain in my read-aloud library for years to come.  Year in and year out, the students cite that book as being their favorite of our read-aloud texts.  They enjoy the story and the way in which it is told.  Ivan’s character is relatable and it’s easy to empathize with him and the other animals in the mall.  As we are almost 200 pages into the book this year, the students are loving it.  As I close the book to signify that we are transitioning into silent reading and conferences every Monday morning, shouts of “NOOOO!” can be heard for meters and meters.  My students love this book.  They enjoy learning about Ivan and his story.  They laugh at his jokes and the cute way the author tries to get inside the mind of a gorilla.  They just can’t get enough.  They hang on my every word.  One student even tried to find a copy of the book in the library about a week ago so that he could finish it on his own.  Unfortunately or fortunately depending on your perspective of the situation, the library at my school does not have that particular title in stock.

So, not only are my students loving this book and its story, they are finding enjoyment in reading.  Those students who began the year as reluctant readers are now voracious reading machines.  They love reading and finding new books.  They look forward to Mondays and Reader’s Workshop as much as I look forward to going to concerts.  They love listening to our class read-aloud novel and then curling up with a good book and getting lost, for a few brief moments, in another world.  Helping our students find their love of reading starts with our approach to teaching it.  We need to offer students choice in the books they read, but we also need to choose interesting books to read-aloud to them as these are the vehicles by which we teach the critical reading strategies they will need to grow into mature and careful readers and thinkers.  Choosing the right read-aloud novel requires much time and energy, but pays dividends at the end of the day when the right ones are read aloud to our students.

How Much Literary Analysis is Too Much?

“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”  Do you know from what movie that famous line comes?  I’ll give you a hint, it won an Oscar or two and stars Kevin Spacey.  That’s right, American Beauty.  What an amazing film.  It was provocative, inspiring, sad, disturbing, and beautiful all at the same time.  I know it’s a cliche, but that scene with the floating plastic bag gets me every time.  So beautiful!  Having watched this movie more than a handful of times, I noticed something different every time.  When I saw it in the movie theater for the first time, I didn’t fully comprehend the director’s use of the color red.  It took me a few more viewings to really see what Sam Mendes was trying to accomplish in creating this masterpiece.  After the movie was first released, I read several reviews and commentaries on the film that discussed how many different layers one needed to peel away to see what was truly underneath.  The lighting, the use of the color red, the camera angles, the writing, and the final scene were just some of the different aspects critics analyzed when discussing the film.  They went on and on about every tiny little detail of the movie, it seemed to me back then.  Universities and colleges even began offering a film class to study the movie.  While I love the movie and agree with most everything people said about it when it first came out in 1999, I did begin to wonder if people in the industry were overdoing it.  Were the critics over analyzing the movie?  Were they discussing it so much that the film seemed to lose some of its allure or beauty?  One could argue both sides of those questions, but it does make me question if sometimes, popular culture does get over discussed or critiqued in our society.

During Humanities class today, my co-teacher and I continued reading aloud our class novel The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.  We just began the book last week, after returning from March Break.  Upon reviewing the main characters, title, author, and setting of the novel, I began reading it aloud to my students.  The boys were enthralled.  They couldn’t get enough.  When I did stop reading, they begged for me to continue.  I love that.  It means that we chose the right read-aloud text.  I couldn’t be happier, because not only are the students enjoying the book, but it’s also one of my favorite novels to read aloud.  The prose is brilliant and heart breaking while the storyline is simply complex.  The way the author captures the thoughts of a silverback gorilla is breathtakingly bittersweet.  There is at least one line in almost every chapter that I could talk about for hours.  The way Ivan sees humans as wasters of words or the way he views the world with such heart and simplicity.  As I read the novel aloud to my students today, I couldn’t help but stop to reread various lines, asking the students to decipher the message the author was trying to send her readers.  After having analyzed several lines together as a group, I realized that I had spent 10 minutes getting through only three pages.  Was I over analyzing the book?  Were the students really able to get into the story if I kept pausing to discuss so much?  Despite the beauty of the novel, was I overdoing it today in class?  Did I spend too much time discussing and analyzing the author’s words?  As I read, I realized that perhaps I was going into overdrive a little longer than I should have been; and so, during the last ten pages of reading, I merely paused after reading what I interpreted as amazing writing and simply waited in silence for a few seconds or said, “While I would love to discuss this line, I know you are all such great detectives and are able to infer the message the author is trying to convey.”  This seemed to keep the boys happy as I was validating their abilities while also moving forward in the story.  It was difficult for me to control myself during this time because I wanted to ask so many questions.  I wanted the students to dissect what the author was trying to do and why Ivan saw the world the way in which he did.  But, I didn’t.  I kept on reading.

How much is too much analysis?  Should I have continued asking questions while reading?  if I did that, I never would have finished reading the 20 pages I had wanted to complete in class today.  Would that have been an issue?  Should I have been okay with that and kept discussing?  Or, was I right in continuing to read the story aloud?  Did the students miss out on anything because I didn’t give them a chance to analyze and discuss the novel during the final ten pages of the section I read today?  Would they have been able to practice applying other reading strategies that we hadn’t already covered in class had I posed further questions?  I doubt it, as my line of questioning was about analysis and drawing conclusions.  I do think that if I had spent any more time discussing and less time reading, the boys might have gotten a little frustrated.  They seem to really like this book and so the more I read to them, the happier they are sure to be.  It’s much easier to follow a story that is read in a fluid motion like the flow of a river.  I kept damming things ups by stopping to ask questions.

I do think that there is a fine line between analyzing a text and overdoing it.  While we want our students to be able to interpret books, analyze the words the author crafts, and draw their own conclusions, it is important that we don’t beat a dead horse.  If we stop to pose questions and discuss a book too much, we risk losing the students’ interest.  We need to ask just the right amount of questions as we read a book aloud to our students.  Reading and discussing literature is very much a fine art.  It’s a balancing act of beauty and beast.  How much is too much and how much is not enough?  For me, it’s all about knowing my the audience.  Are my students engaged in the discussion or are they bored?  Do they seem to need more time to process and analyze what I’ve read aloud?  Gauging the students during activities like this is crucial.  The better we know our students, the more effective we can make these read aloud and discussion sessions.  Just like Alanis Morissette did to her record company after they released yet another single off of her third studio album Jagged Little Pill, we, as teachers, need to know when to put the brakes on discussion and move back into reading.

Why I Love Teaching Sixth Grade

On this day of love, I find myself in a loving and reflective mood.  I am so grateful that I have been allowed to create such a strong sixth grade program over my years here at Cardigan.  Because the administrators at my school have faith in my abilities as an educator, I have been able to take risks, try new things, fail, try other new things, and develop a sixth grade program that best suits the needs of each of my students.  So, to celebrate this great freedom and amazing program I’ve been able to create over the years, I’ve devoted today’s blog entry to discussing the sixth grade program.

Introduction

Going through the adolescent stage of development is like being on a roller coaster without a seat belt.  When you flip upside down, you fall out of your seat unless you are holding on with everything you’ve got.  Each benchmark within adolescence brings new turns, curves, and loops.  Working with adolescent boys is like trying to dodge raindrops.  You can’t avoid the inevitable.  Craziness and chaos will ensue.  But heck, that’s why middle school teachers work with this age group.  We’re a little crazy too because we remember what it was like to be this age.

At Cardigan, we make it our mission to mold young boys into compassionate and mindful young men.  It’s a wild and sometimes frustrating journey, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  Boys who attend sixth grade at Cardigan begin this adventure earlier than most as it is the youngest and smallest grade at our school.  Because of this, we have created a very unique  program that will help our boys foster a family spirit and connection that they carry with them throughout their time at Cardigan; to help provide them with some safety features on the bumpy roller coaster of adolescence.

Rationale

Brain-based research on how learning really happens reveals that students learn best when they are engaged, motivated, feel safe, are challenged and supported.  The sixth grade program has greatly evolved over the years due to this research and, as sixth grade teachers, we are always trying to find new and innovative ways to inspire and effectively educate and prepare our boys for meaningful lives in a global society.

Our Philosophy: We’re a family, and families take care of each other

The first ten weeks of the academic year are focused on building a strong family atmosphere amongst the students.  One of our biggest goals in the sixth grade is to foster a sense of family within the boys.  We want the students to understand and be able to effectively coexist with one another in a way that celebrates their differences.  First, as teachers, we model the behavior we expect to see from the students.  Second, we spend time each week talking about what makes an effective community.  We have the students share personal information about themselves including interests, hobbies, sports, and social identifiers.  We help the boys examine all parts of their personality that remain hidden to most of the world.  In exploring this, the students begin to think deeply and critically about themselves and how they fit into the world.  They also have a chance to share this information with their peers.  While making them vulnerable, it helps the boys make deep connections with each other.  We provide the students with specific strategies on how to communicate with their peers effectively, how to solve problems amongst themselves, and how to work together as a team to accomplish tasks.  We utilize numerous team building activities as catalysts for these mini-lessons: The boys build spaghetti towers in small groups, create a scavenger hunt with a partner, and solve various tasks that provide opportunities to practice and learn how to be effective teammates.  We want the boys to understand what it takes to be Cardigan community member.  

During the first month of school, we take the boys on an overnight trip to our school’s CORE cabin to help build a sense of family and community within the boys.  While the location of the cabin is on our campus, it feels very like it could be miles away.  We build a fire together and then roast marshmallows.  We tell stories, play games, and interact as a family.  If problems arise, we take the time to help the students learn how to work together to solve them.  It’s an amazing experience that helps lay the groundwork for future whole-class experiences we will provide the boys with throughout our year together.

Towards the end of the first term, we put our teamwork and family to the test with a three-day trip to an outdoor center in southern New Hampshire.  The focus of the trip is teamwork.  The students work together to solve problems, accomplish tasks, and have fun learning about how to survive in the wilderness.  It’s always one of the big highlights for the sixth grade boys.  They will never forget how they overcame their fears and learned to help and support their classmates in new and fun ways.

Co-Teaching

While our class size fluctuates from one year to the next, in recent years we’ve had a smaller sixth grade class.  A tight-knit team of two lead teachers is the most effective method for our program.  We plan, grade, and teach together.  Having another person to bounce ideas off of allows for more ideas to come to fruition.  As units are developed, we work together to generate engaging lessons.  With two people working together to complete this process, ideas can be built upon and added to.  Good ideas become great ideas.  Grading together allows for conversations about objectives and work.  How can we create objective objectives that don’t allow room for interpretation?  Having two teachers in the room for classes allows the students to be fully supported, and those students who need one-on-one time have the chance to receive it with two teachers in the classroom.  We can conference with students more effectively during humanities class and the boys are able to safely conduct investigations in STEM class.  We constantly model effective teamwork skills for the boys so that they see what we expect from them.  Co-teaching has fostered a sense of compassion in the classroom.  In order to create a family atmosphere amongst the students, we need to be able to effectively care for them, and  with two trained educators in the room, we can more effectively challenge, support, and ensure the safety of each and every sixth grade student in our class.

Classroom Organization

In order to help foster a sense of engagement in the classroom and to allow our students to feel as though they can focus on the lesson or activity at hand, our classroom is organized in a very specific manner.  

We have a reading nook area for small group work, independent reading, and movie viewing when appropriate.  The boys can sit or lie on the carpet squares in any way that allows them to feel engaged and focused.  We also have a small group work table for those students who need to be sitting to work and stay focused.  The desk table area is towards the front of the classroom near our interactive board and projector.  We use whiteboard tables to allow the students the opportunity to take notes, brainstorm, solve math problems, or just doodle upon them while working or listening.

We instituted this change just this year and it has made a huge difference.  We also use rocking style chairs at the desk work area to allow those students who need to move and stay focused.  These chairs help create a sense of calm and focus in the classroom during full group instruction lessons.  While every student is rocking, they are able to pay attention and listen intently.

These classroom organizational choices are based on the neuroscience of learning.  Students are able to genuinely learn the concepts and skills covered when they feel safe, engaged, and motivated.  The classroom furniture we use and the spaces we’ve created help our students to learn in a meaningful way.

Curriculum

Our goal is for our boys to feel connected to and engaged with the curriculum we employ in the sixth grade.  We want the students to enjoy coming to classes because they are excited and interested in what is happening.  We are constantly revising and updating what we do and how we do it, and because of this, our curriculum is a living and breathing entity.

Humanities

In our humanities class, the students develop their critical thinking skills to become community-minded young men with an awareness of the world around them.  We begin the year with a unit on community so that they learn to accept and appreciate differences in others.  Through completing various activities during the first two weeks of the academic year, the students begin to understand how they fit into our sixth grade family as well as the greater Cardigan community.  The boys also learn much about their peers through this first unit.  Everything else we work on throughout the year in humanities class builds upon this foundation we create at the start of the year.  

The humanities class occupies a double block period that covers both the history and English curriculum for the sixth grade.  This integrated approach allows students to see how the big ideas in History and English go hand in hand.  We cover various communities and cultures from around the world so that we can provide the students with a macro view of the world in a micro manner.  Our goal is to help the students understand perspective and how it can change based on many different factors.  We utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction so that a love of reading and writing is fostered within the boys throughout the year.

For Reader’s Workshop, the students choose just-right (engaging, grade-level and reading-level appropriate) books so that they are interested in what they are reading.  While at the start of the year, several students often seem uninterested in reading, they grow to become voracious and excited readers because the boys can choose books, novels, texts, and e-books that interest and engage them.

For Writer’s Workshop, the students choose the topics about which they write within the confines of the genre requirements.  The vignette form of writing is the first genre covered in the sixth grade.  Rather than mandate that it be a personal narrative vignette, we allow the students to choose the topic.  This choice and freedom empowers the students.  “I can write a short story about anything?” we often hear our students exclaim.  For boys, writing is generally not something they enjoy doing.  They would much rather go outside and play or explore instead of writing.  We want our students to see writing as something that can be fun and hands-on.  If we allow our students to write about topics that engage them, a sense of excitement develops within them.

STEM Class

An effective way to bring science to life is to create a Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) class.  Students have difficulty seeing how the different math and science puzzle pieces fit together.  They also struggle with the math concepts when they aren’t applied in realistic ways that make sense to them. Helping the students build neurological connections between prior knowledge and what they learn in our classroom is one of the many ways we make our program meaningful for our students.

Our STEM class teaches students to persevere.  They learn how to overcome adversity, think differently, see problems from numerous perspectives, communicate effectively, and be curious. We teach students what to do when faced with a new problem. As Angela Lee Duckworth stated in her well-received TED Talk, we need to teach our students how to be gritty. Our sixth graders are provided with opportunities to explore, try new things, fail, try again, talk with their peers, sketch out new ideas, and then do it all over again.

Our STEM curriculum holds the bar high for our students. Rigor doesn’t mean that we require more work to be done for the sake of doing it, it means that the standards and objectives we are teaching are challenging, specific, and relevant. Our STEM units challenge students to think creatively and solve problems in innovative ways. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Common Core Math Standards (CCSS) are the foundation of our STEM curriculum. These standards promote rigor and problem solving in fun and engaging ways.

PEAKS Class

At Cardigan, while we weave study skills into every course that we teach, we have one class devoted to supplementing and supporting every other core subject: Personalized Education for the Acquisition of Knowledge and Skills (PEAKS).  The true purpose of the course is to help the students understand how they best learn, metacognition.  Through self-inventories and mini-lessons on learning styles and the multiple intelligences at the start of the year, the boys begin to become self-aware of their own learning styles and preferences.  Much reflection is also completed throughout the year so that the boys have a chance to observe their strengths and weakness and set goals to work toward.  They also document this learning process in an e-portfolio that they continuously update throughout the year.  Beginning the year in this way, allows the students to focus on the process of learning and how being self-aware will help them grow and develop.  During the winter term, students learn about brain plasticity and how their working memory functions as a way to build upon their self-awareness and genuinely own their learning.  This course supports and challenges each and every student where and when they need it.

Homework

Student engagement isn’t confined within the walls of the classroom.  What the students do or don’t do outside of the classroom can be equally important.  If students aren’t seeing the relevance or value in their homework assignments, then we’ve lost them.  In the sixth grade, we approach homework in the same manner we approach everything.  It’s all about choice and engagement.  We want the students to further practice the skills learned in the classroom in a captivating way that allows them to continue learning and growing as a student.  Homework is not graded and assessed purely for effort.  If we want our students to practice, fail, try again, and continue to practice, then we must not grade this practice work.  Plus, since the students are completing the work outside of the classroom, it is difficult to know who is doing the work and how it is being done.  Are the boys getting assistance from peers, teachers, or parents to complete the work?  While we promote this self-help approach, grading the individual students on work when we don’t know exactly how the work was completed.  Most of the homework assigned is a continuation of what was worked on in class.  

For example, in humanities class, we do much writing and reading.  So, a typical homework assignment is to read from their Reader’s Workshop book for 30 minutes.  As they choose their Reader’s Workshop books based on ability and interest level, the engagement is already there.  Plus, this practice allows them to increase their reading stamina so that they are prepared for the reading demands of seventh grade.  Homework assignments shouldn’t be separate, stand-alone tasks that overly challenge the students.  Developmentally, by the time the sixth graders get to evening study hall at 7:30 p.m. they are exhausted and unable to focus for a long period of time in order to effectively process information and solve problems.  You might say that our homework assignments complement the classroom curriculum the way a beautiful brooch can bring out the colors of a flowing dress.

Project-Based Learning

To prepare students for lives in the global society in which they will live and work, we teach our students how to effectively work in groups to solve open-ended problems with no right or wrong answer. Students need to know how to delegate tasks, lead groups of their peers, follow instructions, ask questions, and solve problems. Project Based Learning ties all of the aforementioned skills together with ribbons of the required curriculum. While the students are engaged with the content and hands-on aspects of the project, they are also learning crucial life skills that will help them persevere and learn to overcome adversity.

Standards-Based Assessment

To help our students adopt learning skills necessary to grow and develop as critical thinkers and problem solvers, we use a standards-based system of grading. The focus is on the standard or objective being assessed. If our curriculum is set up according to the standards, why should we grade the students on anything other than what the curriculum asks? If we are teaching paragraph structure and the standard is, students will be able to craft an original, properly formatted, and complete paragraph, then we should only be grading student work on that one standard using a scale that aligns with the school’s grading criteria? Points must not be taken away for spelling, grammar, or other reasons unless the paragraph is being assessed regarding those standards as well. Rick Wormeli and other leading educational reform leaders have been talking about standards-based grading for years. It is the only way to accurately grade students on what is essential.

In this vein, we also want the students to understand that learning is a process.  Education is like a living organism.  Our students will grow, change, regress, and evolve throughout the year.  As we expect and want our students to meet or exceed all of the objectives covered so that we know they will be fully prepared for seventh grade, we allow students to redo work that doesn’t meet the graded objectives.  The boys are allowed to redo all and any work for a unit until the unit has finished.  They can seek help from the teachers and utilize any feedback we provide to them in order to showcase their ability to meet or exceed the objectives.  This grading system is dynamic and can be changed to allow for the students to employ a growth mindset and truly own their learning.

Conclusion

At Cardigan, we prepare students for an unknown future in a world that will inevitably be very different from its current state.  Because of this, in the sixth grade, we have devised over many years of data collection, research, and practice, to develop a strong and creative academic and social program that engages students in an applicable curriculum that teaches problem solving, critical thinking, coexistence, and how to manifest and utilize a growth mindset.  Students who attend Cardigan Mountain School starting in the sixth grade and then go onto graduate at the close of their ninth grade year receive a meaningful and rich experience.  They grow up together, and, in turn, a family atmosphere and spirit is created within that group of four-year boys.  While it can be challenging at times to be a sixth grade student at Cardigan, our inclusive program helps the boys feel safe and connected within a special family known as the sixth grade.

Learning by Being a Role Model

My son is a huge sports nut.  Not only does he love playing all different types of sports, but he also enjoys watching and learning about them.  When the television in our house is turned on, it is usually tuned to ESPN.  He enjoys finding out how his favorite teams or players fared in games and competitions.  His love of sports generally keeps him quite active and in shape.  He’s also been trying to eat healthier foods too.  I think it’s great.  There is clearly a lot of good benefits that can come from this for him.  My only concern though is the role models he has.  It’s challenging to read the news headlines and not come across a story about an athlete making a bad choice or getting in trouble with the law.  These are some of the role models my son has, and frankly, I don’t like it one bit.  As a father, I make sure that I have conversations with my son about the mistakes athletes make and highlight the bad character they are demonstrating by making these poor decisions.  My hope is that my son will value the positive attributes of the athletes he admires and realize that the bad choices they make are not to be celebrated in anyway.

As a teacher, I am always striving to be a positive role model for my students.  In a world where we celebrate people doing dumb things or committing epic fails as my son often calls them, it’s important that our students and children have positive examples of how to live meaningful lives in a global society.  I make sure to greet my students daily and ask them how things are going.  I want them to see the importance in making genuine connections with others.  I also make sure to point out when I make mistakes, own them, apologize for them if need be, and then rectify the situation as I expect my students to do the same when indiscretions are made.  If I expect my students to hold themselves to high standards of behavior, then I need to make sure I am doing the same or better at all times.

Today during Humanities class, I had a chance to showcase a positive behavior that I would love to see my students embrace.  The funny thing is though that I didn’t mean for it to happen.  It was a bit of a happy accident.  As today was our first official day of classes since returning from the recent holiday break, my co-teacher and I wanted to ease the students back into the routine.  So, during Humanities class today, we had the boys participate in Reader’s Workshop, which they loved.  When one student came in and read the agenda for the period on the whiteboard, he exclaimed, “Yes!”  Our students love to read and talk about the books they’ve read.  It’s awesome.  After the students began reading, my co-teacher and I conferenced with each of the students.  Reading conferences are one of my favorite parts of the week as they provide me the ample opportunity to check-in with the students about life in general as well as what they’re reading.  I asked the boys about their vacation and they shared wonderful vignettes with me about the fun they had away from school.  These conversations give me one more way to connect with my students and form valuable relationships that I can use to help them grow and develop as thinkers, makers, mathematicians, and students.

As we did not have a read-aloud portion to our Reader’s Workshop block today due to the fact that we are waiting to start a new book until next week once we begin our new unit on Africa, I had more than enough time to meet with my group of students.  In fact, I had about 20 minutes of class time remaining after I finished my last student conference.  To be a good role model for my boys, I picked up my current reading book and spent the final chunk of class time reading.  As I was reading, I realized that I was learning a new strategy for helping ESL students in my classroom.  In addition to differentiating the visual text ELs are exposed to, I need to also make sure that I am deliberate and thoughtful when delivering messages and information to my students orally.  I find that I sometimes use difficult vocabulary terms, complex sentences, and much figurative language when talking to my students as a way to challenge them to think critically.  For my ESL students, this is useless as they are only able to understand about 10% of what I’m saying.  I need to be sure I use gestures, visual cues, and clearly define new vocabulary words I use when speaking to the class.  While this seems like common sense, it hadn’t dawned on me to try this.  As one of my professional goals for the year is to learn how to better help and support my ESL students, this seemed like a valuable knowledge nugget.  But, what shall I do with this information, I thought to myself.  Store it in my brain and utilize it in the classroom?  Well, that makes sense.  Wait a minute, I thought.  What if I share what I learned from reading my book today in class with the students as a way to inspire them to perhaps share what they learned while reading today?  What a brilliant idea.  I never cease to amaze even myself.  So, for my class closing today, I shared the chunk of information I learned from my book before asking the students to share what they learned from their book today.  Three volunteers shared some very interesting and stimulating knowledge nuggets.  One student who is reading a book about how video games impact our society shared a statistic he read about today that surprised him.  Another student shared a philosophical quote that he had synthesized from his book.  The final volunteer shared an inspirational quote that he had gleaned from his reading book.  It was amazing.  My closing remarks focused on how books provide us with so many opportunities, from entertaining to learning.  My hope is that my students see the value in reading and all that being an active and voracious reader can teach them.

So, while my plan at the start of the period did not include ending class with a discussion on what books can teach us, because I made use of a growth mindset, was open to new ideas, and jump at the opportunity to be a role model for my students, I was able to leave my students thinking and wondering about what they learned from their book today.  What can books teach us?  How do books impact us?  How does what we read shape us?  Because I went with the flow of the class today, I was able to shed some new light on the importance of books and reading.  Sometimes, the best planned lessons and activities end up being disasters and sometimes, the impromptu discussions and lessons that evolve during class end up being the most fruitful and valuable.  Being a curious role model allowed me to help guide my students on their wonderful journey towards understanding and growth.