Posted in Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, Reader's Workshop, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

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.

Posted in Challenges, Class Discussion, Conversation, Education, Humanities, Reader's Workshop, Students, Teaching

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.

Posted in Boys, Challenges, Co-Teaching, Curriculum, Education, Grading, Humanities, Learning, Math, New Ideas, Objectives Based Grading, Reader's Workshop, Reflection, Sixth Grade, STEM, Student Conferences, Student Support, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New, Writer's Workshop, Writing

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.

Posted in Class Discussion, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Reader's Workshop, Student Conferences, Teaching

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.

Posted in Education, Humanities, Reader's Workshop, Sixth Grade, Student Conferences, Students, Teaching

The Importance of Connecting With Our Students

I had very few teachers who ever tried to connect with me as a student.  Even when I struggled in the fourth grade and almost failed, my teacher did not try to figure out what was going on or try to help me in any way.  I wonder what my year in fourth grade might have looked like if I had had a teacher who took an interest in me or tried to connect with me on some level.  Maybe I wouldn’t have struggled so much or perhaps I would have been happier.

As teachers, it is our duty to help our students by any means necessary.  Most of the time, this means connecting with students.  We need to build safe and caring relationships with each and every one of our students.  While we do try to focus on connecting with the difficult students in our classes, it’s important to form connections with every member of every class we teach.  Yes, this is challenging and can be a daunting task; however, it’s a crucial step in educating our students.  We need them to feel like they have at least one person in their life who cares for them.

A real easy way to be sure we’re connecting with all of our students regularly is to hold conferences with them.  Since we in the sixth grade utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction, we have the opportunity to meet with each and every one of our students weekly under the guise of Reader’s Workshop.  Yes, we do ask them questions about their reading, but that is after we ask them about everything else in their lives first.  How’s life?  How was your weekend?  Did you do anything fun?  What are you excited about this week?  If we notice that a student seems to be a bit off or distant, we probe further.  How are things going at home?  What’s bothering you?  What can I do to help?  As we’re always checking-in with our students anyway, these conferences don’t generally elicit too much information that we didn’t already know.  However, every once in awhile, these 1-on-1 conferences do help us to better understand and help our students.  They are yet one more way we can connect to our students so that we can really get to know them over the course of the year in our class.

Today was our weekly Reader’s Workshop block in Humanities class, and so we conferenced with each of our students.  It was great to connect with the boys in my reading group while my co-teacher met with the students in her group.  While most conversations were short, some were longer on purpose.  If I’m wondering about how a student is doing emotionally or academically, I might add in a few more questions to open a dialogue between the student and I.  One student in my reading group has been struggling academically, as English is not his native language.  We’ve been offering him much support over the past five weeks, and I wanted to see how he was progressing.  So, I asked him some follow-up questions regarding his reading book to check on his comprehension.  He was excited to tell me all about what was going on in his book, but also shared with me that he had trouble understanding American history concepts in English.  Since his book was about westward expansion in America, I clarified and described what that period in our history was all about.  This seemed to really help him understand his story better.  If I did not have a chance to conference with my students weekly, I might have missed this opportunity to help this one student better comprehend the text he was reading.  This lack of comprehension could have led to other areas of confusion and frustration that might have been manifested in different ways.

Being proactive and connecting with our students regularly, helps prevent issues from arising and allows our students to feel safe and supported.  Genuine learning can only come about when students feel safe and cared for.  Therefore, connecting with our students is one of our most important responsibilities as teachers.  We can’t allow even just one student to slip through the cracks, because while I was lucky and did have a sixth grade teacher who formed a strong and positive relationship with me, some students have no one who connects with them, and this can lead to some very serious repercussions for them in the future.

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Reader's Workshop, Teaching, Trying Something New

Does the Class-Read Aloud Novel Have to Be Tied into the Unit Topic?

When we first implemented the Reader’s Workshop approach to reading instruction in the sixth grade classroom, my co-teacher and I chose novels that we thought would be engaging and interesting to the students.  While our first book Boys without Names by Kashmira Sheth did align with our unit on Asia, the other texts we used did not directly relate to the topic being discussed in our Humanities class.  We read books that the students seemed to really enjoy and like.  Does it matter that they didn’t fit into the content of the class?  Does the learning become more tangible for the students when the read-aloud novel ties into the topic covered?  We still used the other texts to introduce and discuss the various reading strategies covered, but did we do a disservice to the students by not choosing more relevant and appropriate novels?  Does it make a difference what the books are as long as the students are engaged in the storyline?

Although I’m sure studies have been done on this subject, my personal opinion is that it doesn’t matter.  The important, crucial idea to keep in mind when choosing read-aloud texts is engagement.  The students need to find the book interesting in some way.  If it relates to the topic being discussed in some way, great, and if not, that’s okay as well.  As long as the novel chosen can be used to effectively introduce and practice the vital reading strategies students need to grow into successful readers, the title matters very little.  When we used to choose class novels based on how they fit into the curriculum, many of the students could not relate to the book or found it boring.  Once students became bored with class, we lost them and learning did not occur.  We can’t have that again.

Two years ago, my co-teacher and I vacillated over what read-aloud book to use for our Humanities unit on Europe.  In the past we had used The Ravenmaster’s Secret by Elvira Woodruff.  While some of the students did seem interested in it, several of the boys did not find it engaging in anyway.  As we did not like that outcome, we decided to find something different.  After much searching, we hit a dead end.  There seemed to be no novel that we both felt would be engaging and tie our unit together appropriately.  So, rather than be bound by the idea that our class read-aloud text had to be directly related to our curriculum, we started searching for quality read-aloud novels.  This journey lead us to the amazing Newbery Award winning book The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.  My co-teacher and I both read it and instantly fell in love.  Not only was the prose beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time, the story was one of social justice and equality, which did tie into the theme of our class.  So, we ran with it, and the boys loved it.  In all of my years teaching sixth grade, this has been my favorite read-aloud novel.  It’s so much fun to read aloud and discuss.  We love it.  Just imagine, though, if we had stuck to our original premise of choosing a topic-relevant novel.  What might we have ended up with?  Boredom?

This year, my co-teacher and I found ourselves in this same predicament.  We felt obligated to choose a book that directly connected to our current Humanities theme on the Middle East Region.  We looked and looked to no avail.  Nothing seemed appropriate or engaging.  Then, I remembered Ivan’s story.  I said, “What about The One and Only Ivan?  Could we choose that?  I know it doesn’t relate to our topic, but it is so much fun to read aloud and the boys always enjoy it greatly.  Could we use that as our read-aloud option?” Fortunately, my co-teacher and I were on the same wavelength at the time and agreed.  So, today in class, we began our new read-aloud book.  The students seemed intrigued and interested.  While it doesn’t have anything to do with our new unit, it will hopefully keep the boys interested and engaged throughout while allowing us to cover the vital reading strategies the students will need to develop into skillful readers.  Sometimes, forcing curriculum alignment in every way possible just doesn’t really work.  Having a growth mindset and the willingness to be flexible in creating new units will bring about much more engagement within the students.  And isn’t that what we want?  Interested students?

Posted in Co-Teacher, Education, Humanities, Reader's Workshop, Students, Teaching

Goal Setting Based on Reflection

As the spring season will soon be upon us, according to the calendar, mentally I’ve already begun preparing.  Since I am not coaching during the spring season, I will have some free time each afternoon.  While I could devote that extra time to work or relaxation, I’ve decided to devote it to my family.  I realize that my eating and life habits are not going to put me on track for eternal life.  I love sweets and I’m not a fan of exercise; however, I do want to live a long and healthy life so that I can grow old with my wife and watch my son blossom into the beautiful orchid I know he will one day become.  His blooming process just takes a little longer than the average flower.  So, to prolong my life, I’ve decided to put my free time to good use this spring: I’m going to train for a 5K running race.  I know, running is horrible.  I truly dislike running in any form unless I’m being chased by an evil monster or the tax man; sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart though.  Since I haven’t done any actual exercise or running in years, I feel as though I need to manage my expectations.  I can’t expect to go out on day one and run three miles.  I’ll need to run a little each day, reflect on my progress weekly, and then set a new goal for the following week.  It’s got to be about the process and not the product.  Just like I tell my math students, “It’s the process that matters and not the answer.”

To help my students see the value in the process of reflection and goal setting in Humanities class, today my co-teacher and I spent several minutes conferencing with each student.  We reviewed the reading goal they set for themselves at the start of the winter term and reflected on their progress.  Did they meet their goal?  If not, why?  Did they exceed their goal?  If so, what did they do to make that happen?  Then, using this reflection, we had them set a realistic reading goal for the spring term.  We asked them questions depending on the goal they set.  Will you be able to achieve this by the close of the academic year?  What will you need to do to meet this goal?  Why are you setting your goal lower than the number of books you read during the previous term?  We wanted the students to genuinely reflect on their reading progress thus far in the year.  We provided them feedback on their goals and hopefully inspired them to work diligently to achieve them by June.

If we hadn’t conferenced with the students and just had them individually set reading goals for themselves, they would not have been able to reflect on their progress or receive feedback on their accomplishments.  Real learning comes about through meaningful reflection.  When students learn from their mistakes or growth, they can then truly apply this learning to further their growth and development as students.  Goal setting needs to come about through reflection on their learning process.  It’s all about the process and not the goal itself.  Metacognition is a crucial part of the learning process.

Posted in Reader's Workshop, Relationships, Student Conferences

The Power of 1-on-1 Student Conferences

I used to sit in the back of the classroom so that teachers would never call on me.  Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that totally worked, especially in my public school.  The teachers didn’t seem to really care.  They seemed to only be in it for the paycheck back then.  Or, at least that’s what it felt like.

Having been bullied in elementary school with no recourse from the school or teachers, I carry a bit of disdain for some of my early elementary school teachers.  They didn’t try to help me or step in and prevent me from being teased.  So, I tried to hide from my peers and the teachers.  Sitting in the back of the room allowed me to do this, until my vision became an issue.  I almost failed the fourth grade because I couldn’t see the blackboard and always wrote down the wrong thing.  However, this didn’t change how I acted in class or where I sat, I just got glasses.  I tried to avoid contact with the teacher as much as possible.  My teachers seemed totally fine with this as well.  I don’t remember ever having to chat with my teachers prior to sixth grade.  I just coasted by.  Those first seven years of school prior to fifth grade, I had to go to transition following Kindergarten, were not memorable or happy times.  I was like an invisible child back then.  No one saw me for who I was and I was okay with that.

Then came sixth grade.  I had an English teacher who cared about me.  She wanted me to like reading and writing and brought out the best in me.  It started with workshop conferences.  We would meet once a week to discuss my reading and writing.  It was a magical time.  I had Mrs. Lacombe all to myself.  It was great.  I could ask her anything and talk to her about everything.  I felt special for the first time in my academic life.  Those conferences inspired me to enjoy school and want to do something more with my life than just be.  I wanted to be someone.

In Humanities class yesterday, we had our weekly Reader’s Workshop double block.  We began the class with a mini-lesson regarding the reading strategy of Back-Up and Re-Read.  We used our class read-aloud text Seedfolk by Paul Fleischman as our mentor and model text for the lesson.  Following that, the boys moved into their reading time.  Some of the boys chose to read at their tables while the others read in our reading nook area.  They had a full 40 minutes to sit and enjoy their books.  During this time, my co-teacher and I conferenced with our small reading groups.  I had the chance to conference with all five of my boys in class.  It was phenomenal.

These conferences gave me a chance to check-in with the student.  How’s it going?  How was your weekend?  I engaged them in a personal discussion before we even began talking about reading.  These weekly meetings are crucial in building respect and rapport as well as a safe and caring classroom community.  I then get into the heart of the conference.  I asked the student about their current reading book.  What page are you on?  What’s happening?  Do you like it?  I then had the students read aloud to me from their book so that I could gauge their fluency.  I followed that up with some comprehension questions to see where they are at in that area.  While we don’t always do this next part, we sometimes take the opportunity to share grades with the students individually so that we can provide them meaningful feedback regarding their progress in the class.  Yesterday, I shared the grade the students received on the current events discussion that took place in class on Saturday.  I gave them feedback along with their grade.  I also made suggestions for how they could improve for when they are assessed regarding this same objective again.  I wrapped up the conferences by allowing the students to ask me any questions they had.  I then sent them back to their reading.  Each conference only took about 5-8 minutes, but they were vital and important minutes for both the student and me.  It’s all about relationship building.

These one-on-one conferences allow me to be sure the student is emotionally feeling well.  They also give the student a chance to share things with me that they don’t feel comfortable sharing in front of their peers.  Some students will occasionally tell me about how another student is mistreating them.  They might also share insight regarding their roommate situation.  The chats help the students feel safe and cared for.

The conferences also allow me to help the students grow and develop as readers.  I can ask them questions and check their reading skills weekly to be sure they are progressing.  I assign some of the students weekly goals to work on.  This gives them a focus for their reading and allows me to challenge and support them appropriately.  In one conference yesterday, a student explained to me that he had finally found a just-right book for himself.  He was very happy.  This is great.  Luckily, I had a chance to praise and support that international student as he grows as an English Language Learner.

Despite the brevity of these conferences, I worry that I would not be able to build such strong relationships with my students without these weekly meetings.  The classroom community is formed around the respect and closeness that we share as teachers and students.  I know my boys on very different levels because of these weekly meetings.  They pack a lot of power.  I hope that my students feel the same way.  I hope that this sixth grade year is a transformational one for them like it was for me.  It’s all about making connections and allowing the boys to feel heard.