How Reflection Helps Students Learn and Grow

Sometimes I feel like a broken record, writing all about how important the reflection process is for our students to grow and develop.  I find that I reflect on how important self-reflection is use for our students, on a weekly basis, especially during this time of year when grades are being tallied and reported out to parents.  I want the students to genuinely understand how they earned the grades they did and what they can do to improve in their classes.  The self-reflection process is an easy way for the students to understand their academic progress.  While I’m sure that everyone who happens upon this blog already knows about the power of reflection for students, I find that many of my colleagues still don’t seem to see the benefit in having students reflect on their progress in their classes.  Many students in the other grades at my school often seem confused by their grades and don’t seem to understand why they have the grades that they do in their courses.  These same students don’t seem to understand how they are progressing in their classes because their teachers don’t provide them with opportunities to self-reflect on their work.  Had these same students been offered chances to reflect either orally or in writing on their classes and grades, it’s quite possible that they would then know exactly how they are doing in their classes and what needs to happen for progress to take place.  So, because I see how many teachers fail to take advantage of opportunities to have their students reflect on their work in their classes, I feel the need to continue discussing and explaining how important the self-reflection process is for all students.

So, to those of you who already see the power in self-reflection for our students, feel free to stop reading and visit another blog or find some other useful resources on teaching and education such as the Educator’s Notebook. As I understand how busy life can be for teachers, I feel no need to waste your time.  To those of you who don’t provide your students with time in class to reflect on their progress and grades, please continue reading as I’d love to help you understand how important the self-reflection process is for your students to grow and develop in your class.

In my previous blog entry which I posted this past Sunday regarding the value of utilizing the student-led conference format in place of the typical and out-dated parent-teacher conferences, I explained how my students demonstrated amazing self-awareness regarding their academic progress in the sixth grade so far this year.  The boys did a fantastic job explaining why and how they earned the grades they did in all of their classes, what they need to do to improve in their courses, and the goals they have set for themselves as we move into the final half of the fall term.  Now, while all of this sounds great and wonderful, how do we truly know if this self-reflection and ownership process works and if it does indeed help students grow and improve in school?  Well, that’s a great question that I have been working to answer over the past several years.  I have much data to support these self-reflection and student-led conference processes, including grades and individual reflections my students have completed over the years.  I also have a tangible example of the power of student reflection from classes today.

I began the sixth grade class day this morning by reminding the students that we have but three weeks until the fall term comes to a close.  “As many of you have great goals that you have set to improve upon your grades in all of your classes, it’s important to remember that we only have three weeks to go until the fall term closes and grades become official.  Know that you can redo work and seek help from your teachers if you are struggling to comprehend material covered or master skills assessed.”  After this brief comment, I jumped right into the normal class routine, and this is when I noticed something peculiar.  The boys seemed more focused than ever before.  They transitioned between tasks, activities, and classes faster than they had earlier in the year.  They asked insightful questions and seemed more focused and attentive than before this past Parents’ Weekend.  One student even came to me asking to redo his ePortfolio and historical fiction story so that he could improve upon his grades.  While I would have loved to have seen this kind of effort from my students earlier on in the year, I’m glad to see that they all learned from their self-reflections and are making the changes they suggested.  They not only wrote about what they need to do to improve, they are actually doing it now.  That’s the power of reflection, right there.  If they hadn’t been provided the time and modeling on how to effectively reflect on their academic progress, I would most likely not have seen the results that I did today in the classroom.  Because my students know what they need to do to grow and develop prior to the end of the fall term, they are able to make the necessary adjustments to bring about the changes they suggested.  You too, could see your students change and develop in the classroom if you provide them the time needed to reflect on their learning and grades.  So, although I might sound like a broken Led Zeppelin vinyl album, it’s important to me that other teachers and educators see the value in the self-reflection process for themselves and their students.  Plus, it’s also great validation to know that I’m effectively helping challenge and support my students to be the best possible version of themselves.  Yah for self-reflection!

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How My Students Help Me Become a Better Teacher

When I was a young lad, I always wanted a rock polisher.  I thought they were the coolest things ever.  You can take an old, nasty looking rock and turn it into a polished stone in a matter of hours.  How awesome is that?  Every year for Christmas I asked for one, and you know what I never got?  Yes, that’s right, a rock polisher.  Now, this isn’t some rant about what I never had growing up.  This rant is all about rocks.  You see, rocks are constantly in a state of change.  The rock cycle causes them to melt, harden, shoot out of Earth, and repeat.  They also become weathered, break down, reform into something else, and then do it all over again.  Rocks are amazing like that.  Although we can never see these processes take place as they happen over long periods of time, I’ve always been in awe about how focused rocks are on changing and growing.  What I always found spectacular about rock polishers is that they can make a process that usually takes years in rivers and on Earth’s surface, to happen almost overnight.  What I love most about rocks is that they are never happy with their current state as they are always longing for improvement and change.  Liquid rock inside Earth is always trying to find a way out to become something a bit more solid and hard, while large chunks of granite rock are always looking to roll into something a bit smaller and more compact.  Rocks are fantastic role models for humans.  We can learn a lot from rocks.  Rocks teach us to value a growth mindset and persevere through problems no matter their size.  Rocks also teach us to look at the world and see the endless possibilities that exist.  Rocks are pretty phenomenal and beautiful naturally occurring objects.

Great teachers, like rocks, are always looking to grow and develop.  How can I become a more effective educator?  Reflection is definitely a huge part of that process of change, but the rest comes in the form of feedback.  Feedback we receive from our colleagues and our students.  The most effective feedback I’ve received over the years, comes from my students.  They know what they like and what they don’t like and they aren’t afraid to tell the world all about it.  Students can be brutally honest, which can be both good and bad.  However, the feedback students have provided me with over the years has allowed me to grow and mature as a teacher.  The implementation of Reader’s Workshop came out of reflecting on feedback received from my students about the books we were reading altogether as a class.  The structure of units and activities used throughout the years is all due to the wisdom I’ve gained from asking my students to comment on what they like and what they would change if they were in charge.  Reflecting on and then using feedback received from my students is why I am the effective teacher I am today.

Humanities class provided me with yet another opportunity to receive two different kinds of feedback from my students today.  As we have come to the end of our first unit on the Canaan Community, I had the students complete a survey, providing me with their thoughts on the unit as a whole.

Questions posed in the survey:

  • What was your favorite part of this unit and why?
  • What fact or piece of information, that you learned throughout the unit, did you find the most interesting or engaging?
  • What did you think about our class read-aloud Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman?
  • What did you like about the Historical Fiction Story Writing Project and why?
  • If you were the teacher teaching this unit, what would you change about it for next year?
  • Using Cardigan’s Effort Grading Scale, grade Mr. Holt on how effectively he taught this unit.

I was impressed with the honest and detailed feedback I received from the students.  Overall, they seemed to enjoy the unit.  I was a bit surprised by their favorite parts though.  While I thought for sure that almost everybody would say, “The archeological dig,” only three students cited that as their highlight of the unit.  Three other students explained how the historical fiction story writing project was their favorite part of the unit.  What?  I don’t think any student has ever cited the final project as their favorite part of the unit, which means that because I focused on helping the students find the fun and excitement in writing, they were actually able to dig into their stories more meaningfully than digging for bottles by the river.   I was happy about that.  I was also pleased that many of the students stated different facts about Canaan’s diverse history that really stuck with them, which means that I didn’t overly discuss or talk about one topic or piece of Canaan’s history too much.  Yah for me.  I also enjoyed learning that the students seem to enjoy our class read aloud novel Seedfolks.  While we don’t spend a ton of time reading and discussing this novel, I’m glad that the students enjoy it and seem to understand how it ties our unit together.  I was worried that this group of students did not like this text because they often seem so disengaged during read-alouds.

While all of the feedback I received from the boys today via this survey is useful to me, the fourth and fifth questions allowed me to extract the most meaningful feedback.  I wanted to determine what aspects of the writing process I have done an effective job explaining and introducing.  Those that I found creative and engaging ways to introduce to the students, I figured, would be their favorite part. I also wanted to know what aspects of the unit the boys did not like and want to see changed for next year.  The answers I received from the students on these two questions will help drive the revisions and changes that I make to this unit for next year.  Their feedback will also help guide me in planning future lessons this year.

Here’s what they had to say:

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It was great for me to learn that many of the students seemed to enjoy writing their historical fiction stories, which means that they found their passion; they found how to make writing fun for themselves.  If that’s all they get out of sixth grade this year, I’ll be happy.  Learning to love the act of writing will help them be successful in almost every area of school life in their future.  I also love that a few of them seemed to enjoy the choice and engagement act of the project.  They liked that I allowed them to write about whatever piece of Canaan’s history most interested them.  As research on the brain tell us, students learn best when they are engaged in the act of working and have the ability to choose the vehicle through which they showcase their learning and understanding.  It’s nice to know that at least a few of my students see the benefit in being provided choice when working.

I wasn’t very surprised by the responses my students provided regarding things they would change about the unit.  I know that in every class I have one student who doesn’t like anything, and so I wasn’t shocked to read that one student found the field experiences boring.  It wasn’t because he truly found them boring, it’s just that he doesn’t know how to utilize a growth mindset and provide meaningful feedback.  I get that.  It is nice to know that the most common response focused on time.  They want more time spent on the really fun parts of the unit.  That makes sense.  I wish we were able to allocate more time in our schedule for those fun field experiences.

Overall, the feedback from the survey will be very helpful for me to think about and reflect upon as I look at revising this unit for next year.  As the students seemed to really enjoy the historical fiction story project I used this year, I think I will stick with that as the final project for next year.  I changed it from last year because many of the students explained how they didn’t like the final poster project they needed to complete as the final project for the unit.

The second piece of feedback I received from the students today, came in the form of a rubric.  The focus for my Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan is on grading rubrics and their effectiveness for introducing and describing graded projects and activities to students, and since the students just completed the historical fiction story project using the grading rubric as a guide, I wanted to know what they thought of the grading tool.  Did the rubric help them in the writing process, and if not, what would have made the rubric more effective?  After a short whole-class discussion on that question, I had the students, working with their table partner, create a new grading rubric that I could use to assess this project next year or assess future writing projects the students complete this year.

I was so impressed with how focused the students were in working with their partner to create a new rubric.  They seemed dedicated to providing me with useful feedback.  Every group gave me some amazing insight and ideas on how to create a more student-friendly grading rubric.

My takeaways:

  • Students want me to use more simplistic, student friendly words when describing what is being asked of them to meet or exceed the objective.  For example, in the grading rubric I had the students use, I wrote, “The setting is described so well that you feel like you’re there.”  One group suggested that it should read, “You see the picture in your mind.”  I like it.  That’s some quality feedback that I can easily incorporate into the next grading rubric I create.
  • One group thinks that having visual or picture cues would help them better understand what is being expected of them at each level.  As the native language is not English for half of my class, pictures are easier to read than words.  That’s a unique idea I hadn’t thought about for a rubric before.  While they couldn’t provide any concrete examples of how I might do this, I really want to give this idea a try  for the next rubric I create.
  • One group suggested that I need to include a writing standard about not copying ideas or information from other sources in the rubric.  These two students seem to think that originality is important.  I like it, but I’m also aware that sometimes, imitation leads to inspiration and new ideas.  While I’m not sure that I will use this in a future rubric, it’s definitely something worth considering.
  • One group approached the rubric creation from a very different perspective.  Instead of starting out with what it takes to exceed the objective, they began with how not to meet the objective.  Their thought was that if I start with the lowest point value on the rubric, I can easily add more to each one as the point value increases.  They thought that would be easier than starting with the highest point value and subtracting details.  Interesting.  I never thought about this method of creating a rubric before.  Perhaps I’ll try this on a future rubric.
  • Grading rubrics seem to help the students.  Many of them found the rubric to be a valuable guidepost for them along their writing journey.  Here’s what my students had to say about them:
    • That rubric help me a lot. Because that paper tell me every moment, what did I need to improve for my story.
    • I think the grading rubric helped me in a phenomenal way because i new the objectives my story needed to meet like for example when I was trying to write my story at the beginning it helped me get a thought about what i’m supposed to do and how to get a good grade.   
    • Lastly, I have a sheet call the grading rubric, I helped me to complete the story. For example, I can see if my sentences make sense or not or see if my sentences have included everything a sentence need to have.
    • The grading rubric helped me a lot because without it I wouldn’t know what I was doing and what to change. I needed a rubric so I knew exactly what to edit.
    • I think the grading rubric helped me by providing some goals and giving me an idea of what I need to write to get a good grade.
    • I thought the grading rubric helped because it showed me what the expectations were and what exceeding the objective was. It helped me because I just focused on exceeding the objective. For example I saw that I didn’t have enough facts on the rubric so I added more in. Also I saw that I didn’t have enough details so I looked at the rubric and fixed my story.
    • The rubric helped me to put requirements in the story. For example, first I read the grading rubric. After reading it, I started to make story with requirements like five facts, correct grammar, and more.

The feedback I received from my students on the grading rubric will greatly help me as I look to create and design future rubrics.  It’s nice to know that many of my students seem to find them useful.  So, my next big data-gathering event will be when I create a project with just a simple explanation instead of using a detailed rubric.  Will this more simple project introduction better engage the students in asking questions and thinking creatively about how they will showcase their learning, or will it be too confusing for them?  I can’t wait to find out.

Because I seek feedback from my students, I’m able to grow and develop as a teacher, like a giant chunk of obsidian rock.  If I didn’t ask my students for their thoughts and ideas today, I would never really know what they thought about grading rubrics and the Canaan Community unit.  How can I collect data for my Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan if I don’t ask my students for feedback?  I can’t better support and challenge my students if they don’t challenge me by providing me with ways I can improve and grow.  As I told my class today, the best teachers make the best students as they are always looking to learn and improve.

How My Reflection Changed My Students

Having seen the value of individual reflection for many years now, I know the power it holds.  Being a reflective teacher has enabled me to become more effective at helping and supporting my students.  Taking the time to stop and think about what went well or what proved difficult in class on a daily basis has helped me refine my approach to teaching and the field of education.  Teachers are not the givers of information.  We are guides for our students as they journey towards understanding.  We are the flashlights our students use as they navigate their way through the dark world of life and school.  We encourage our students to ask questions.  We help them solve problems encountered.  We empower them to think for themselves in a critical manner.  We show them the path that will lead them towards enlightenment.  We pack their knowledge backpacks full of use study and work skills.  We are beacons of light and power for our students.  We are not libraries full of facts and information.  Reflecting over the past many years on my daily teaching practices has allowed me to see my true role as a teacher.

During the past week, I’ve struggled with feeling as though I am not appropriately helping my students see the value in revising their written work.  Earlier last week, the students seemed unable to focus their effort on making their historical fiction stories better and more effective while also providing their classmates with useful feedback on how they can improve their stories.  The boys seemed to rush through the process to finish and be done with it, rather than really jumping into the task as though they are on a writing journey.  This bothered me because I know that in order to grow and develop as writers, they need to see the benefit in revising their work based on feedback.  They need to utilize a growth mindset to see feedback provided to them as useful.  My students seemed greatly challenged by this phase of the writing process.  They seemed more interested in what they could do when they finished writing.  Very few of the students seemed to take the assignment seriously, and that caused me to pause.

How will they be prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English class if they can’t learn to improve upon their writing based on suggestions provided to them by others?  I reflected on my struggles in this very blog last week, at least twice.  I then incorporated some new thoughts and ideas into my class so that my students would, hopefully, be able to see the vast power that revising their work holds for them as students.  While I did see my students begin to change their thinking regarding the revision step of the writing process, I was skeptical that all of them had revised their thinking on the topic.  I reflected in writing and mentally.  What else could I do to inspire my students to see that they need to take the process of revising their work seriously if they want to grow as writers?

Then came class today.  Today provided students one final opportunity to revise their historical fiction stories based on feedback provided to them by me, their teacher, and their classmates.  I also had them reflect on the process they used to craft this piece of writing, using an author’s note.  The students needed to respond, in writing at the bottom of their stories, to four questions.  Those students who finished revising their story and crafting an author’s note had two options:

  1. Complete an extra credit, objectively graded task, that involves the students creating a book jacket for their historical fiction story.  They must craft a front and back cover for their stories, being sure to include a title, relevant, hand-drawn image, brief summary of the story, and quotes from others on their story.
  2. Work on the Things to Do When Done list that is posted on one of the window displays in our classroom.  They could fill out their planbook for next week, work on Typing Club, work on homework, check their grades, or work in the Makerspace.

The students quickly got to work.  They seemed very focused on the task at hand.  A few of the students spent a good chunk of their time revising and improving upon their stories.  It was amazing to watch them add details, dialogue, and more effective character descriptions to their stories, on their own.  Some of the other students put forth fine effort into reflecting on their writing process as they crafted their author’s note.  Their responses were detailed and included examples from their writing experience.  It was impressive to see them being so mindful and reflective as they own their work.  The five students with whom I conferenced took the feedback I offered them with open arms.  They asked meaningful questions that allowed them to understand what they needed to do to improve their story.  It was fun to read their stories, praise their phenomenal talents as writers, and challenge them to grow and develop as they improve upon their writing pieces.  Students who had finished their story and author’s note early on in the period, took it upon themselves to help others revise their piece, if help was needed.  They were being truly compassionate community members.

During class today, I only needed to redirect two students who seemed to find focusing on the task at hand, individually, difficult.  Those two students, once redirected, did regroup and got right back to work on growing as writers.  The rest of the students seemed zoned in on improving their skills as writers.  They reviewed the three graded objectives on which their final story will be assessed.  They were committed to exceeding my expectations as they clearly saw the value in the process of revising their work.  I could not have been more proud and impressed by my students today.  They rocked their stories!  I can’t wait to read their final drafts.

So, what did I learn from all of this.  Well, I learned that reflection not only changes me, but it fosters change within my students.  Because I reflected on what didn’t feel right to me last week, I changed my approach to teaching the revision phase of the writing process.  Today, I saw, first hand, how this change impacts my students.  They were completely different writers today than they were last week.  They care about making their stories better, and thus crave feedback.  It’s quite amazing.  They weren’t rushing to finish their stories, they took their time to polish their words and develop their characters.  Because I took the time to think about how I could better support and help my students become better writers, I changed the way I spoke to my students about revising their work.  I didn’t explain the process as a task, but a journey they were going on to transform themselves into better writers.  My personal reflections on revision didn’t just change me, they changed my students too.

My Professional Goals for the 2017-2018 Academic Year

I used to think that goal setting was dumb.  “No one sets goals,” I used to say, “Who needs goals when you’ve got the present?”  That was the old me, before I became wise and all-knowing.  Then, I discovered the secret to life and was transformed into the handsome sage sitting in front of this very laptop, typing these very words.  You are so lucky to be reading these prophetic words…  Okay, enough of the craziness, now back to reality.

So, anywhoo, I used to view goal setting as one more thing that I didn’t have the time or desire to do.  Then, I learned all about the neuroscience of teaching and how students learn, and came to the realization that for genuine learning and growth to happen for our students, there needs to be relevance and a purpose behind everything we and they are doing in and out of the classroom.  They need to see, for example, that they should learn all about the causes of great wars so that they will understand how countries and nations formed, which will help them earn a high grade on the next history assessment and allow them to meet the goal they set for themselves regarding history test improvement.  Goal setting is a crucial part of the learning process for not just students, but for all learners.

So, knowing what I know about the power of goal setting, I decided that it was time to give my school year a focus and some clarity.  Aside from helping my students grow and develop as individuals, what am I trying to get out of this new school year?  What is my purpose in the classroom?  Why am I here?  Well, that last question is far too big to tackle in some tiny blog entry like this and so I’ll focus on the others instead.

My goals for the 2017-2018 Academic Year:

  • I want to gather data on how rubrics and project introductions help promote or reduce the amount of creativity students are able to put into their work so that I can begin to understand how to best introduce a new task or assignment to my students.  I want to understand if specificity in rubrics or explanations of new projects makes a difference in the students’ ability to think critically about the assignment or content covered.  If students are provided with too much information about how to complete a task or project, is there any room for creative, original thought or do the students just do what they’re told to do in order to earn a “good” grade?  So, to work towards meeting this goal over the course of the year, I’m going to create different types of rubrics and project descriptions for the same task so that I can split my class into two groups and try to determine what kind of explanation best promotes the use of creative problem solving skills.  Although my data may be skewed depending on how I group the students, I plan on using different grouping methods each time I conduct this experiment.  While I certainly have a hypothesis on the topic, I have no hard evidence to support my claim, and so I need to collect data this year to determine an accurate result.
  • I want to incorporate ideas and skills covered during our Mindfulness Unit in Team Time and our Brain Unit from PEAKS class into my Humanities class.  I want to help the students understand that if they can be mindful in the classroom during class discussions, they will be better equipped to actively listen to and participate in the current events discussions in Humanities class.  I also want to be sure that when I’m covering a new concept or skill in Humanities class, I’m referencing the ideas of growth mindset and brain parts to explain how they should best be utilizing their hypothalamus to catalogue and store this new information.  Being mindful myself, I hope to be able to better explain the inner workings of, as well as the purpose and relevance behind tasks and assignments throughout the year in Humanities class.  I want my students to be able to see how each separate piece of the puzzle fits together so well: Learning and the Brain, Mindfulness, and Humanities.

With these two goals driving everything I’m doing in the classroom, I’m looking forward to an exciting year filled with transformation and education.  I hope to learn a lot about myself as a teacher as well as the art of teaching.  How can I better support and challenge all of my students in the classroom?  What else could I be doing?  So, now I will jump headfirst into the remainder of my school year, well-equipped with a roadmap to success: Goals.

Motivating Students to Care About their Academic Achievement

When I was in school, my parents motivated me to care about my grades and how I did in school with money.  A=$20 B=$10 C=$0 D&F=-$10.  It seems frivolous and superficial, but it totally worked for me.  I earned nothing but honor-roll-level grades from sixth grade through my senior year in high school because of this motivation.  Money made me care about how I did in school.  I worked hard in and out of school to earn high grades so that I would receive money.  I wasn’t focused on the learning or skills I should have been mastering, oh no.  I was solely focused on the grades I was earning.  I completed work that I knew the teachers wanted me to complete.  I didn’t craft essays that showcased my true talents as a writer.  Instead, I wrote pieces that I knew would earn a grade of at least a B.  School was about earning high grades for me and not about learning a lot.  To be honest, I don’t remember much from those particular school years as I was so focused on doing good work.  In hindsight, I wish I had been intrinsically motivated to learn in school so that I would have had a more meaningful experience filled with learning and growth.

As a teacher, I want to be sure my students learn many important skills that will help them be successful in seventh grade and beyond.  I want them to see sixth grade as a magical journey of exploration, failure, growth, and learning.  I want them to reach for the stars because they want to learn as much as possible about every topic covered.  I want them to care about school because they want to learn lots and not because they want to earn high grades.  Unfortunately, because I work at an independent school, the hopes and dreams I have for my students tend to get lost a bit in the shuffle of what the families want for their sons.  The parents of some of our students push their children so hard to earn high grades that our students can’t possibly stop to smell the roses of learning.  The pressure some of our students feel from home is overwhelming and makes our job a lot more challenging.  Despite those external factors, we push on through and remind the parents of our students that sixth grade is a journey towards enlightenment.  We’re looking for forward progress and growth as well as enjoyment.  While we are easily able to convince the boys of this goal, we can’t always bring the parents around to our side.  Oh well.  “You win some and you lose some,” a wise man once said.

So, with our goals in mind, to drive our instruction and everything we do in the classroom, while also not losing sight of the pressure some of our students are under, we begin the school year strong.  Once the honeymoon stage wears off after a few days, the boys’ true colors begin to shine through.  While most of our students want to do well and accomplish great things during their sixth grade year, a few of our students are more concerned about doing well on the playing fields or in their favorite video game.  To help those few students see school for what it truly is, a wonderful adventure filled with learning treasures, we sometimes have to remind our students that they are earning grades for their work or lack thereof.  While we don’t love the idea of helping students see sixth grade as a series of grades, some students aren’t motivated by much else.  Now, usually, this process of motivation takes about five to eight weeks to complete, which is the amount of time between the start of school and our first Parents’ Weekend in October.  During this special weekend, the parents come to school and learn how their son is doing academically.  Once the families begin to hear that their son is just doing the bare minimum to get by, many hard conversations fill the car rides home for the Long Weekend break, which begins right after the conferences have finished.  Then, miraculously, once the students return from this short respite, they begin to put forth a new sense of vigor and a strong effort that we haven’t seen from them until that point.  This awakening period is far too long and needs to be shortened if we are to best support and challenge our students.  So, this year, I’ve changed things up a bit so that those one or two students who lack the intrinsic motivation to work hard, begin to find motivation from within sooner rather than later.

After three weeks of classes, the students have completed a few objectively graded assessments and activities, which means that they are beginning to earn grades.  So, last Saturday, at the end of our third week of classes, we had the students view their grades on the learning management system our school uses, PowerSchool Learning.   For many students, they already knew exactly where they stood academically speaking and so they were not receiving new information.  A few students were pleasantly surprised by the high marks they received while one or two students were shocked by the low grades they had earned.  Once the realization had hit them that very little effort leads to low grades, they began to address this dilemma.  One student came and spoke with my co-teacher and I about what he could do to improve upon his grades.  We reminded him that he could redo assessments, and so he arranged a time to redo a math assessment for this week.  A few of the other students also came to speak with us about what they could do to improve upon their grades moving forward.  It was nice to see all of our students taking pride and care in their academic achievement.

To help our students make these emotions and feelings more real and tangible with only a week and three days to go before we reach the fall midterm, we had the students complete a written reflection this morning based on their grades.  We asked them to respond to the following questions:

  1. Are you happy with your grades in PEAKS class, Humanities class, and STEM class?  Why or why not?
  2. What can you do to improve upon or maintain your grades from now until the fall midterm?
  3. What can your teachers do to support you?

The students seemed to take this reflection very seriously.  They created relevant and realistic goals that, if they kept with them, would help them continue to grow and develop.  Those students who are already doing well or already care about doing well academically, took the opportunity to set concrete goals that would help them continue to move forward, while those few students who seemed not to care about how they fared academically took the opportunity to be honest with themselves and own their poor choices.  They now see the error of their ways and are making amends to transform into a caring and hardworking student.  They are becoming motivated, academically, because they see the value in effort and high marks.  They want to do well to earn high grades, much like I did; however, I’m hopeful that my co-teacher and I will be able to convince them to do well because learning is fun too, over the course of the year.  It’s a year-long process for some of our students, but one that is completely worth the time and energy.  We want our students to see school as a fun place in which they can learn and try new things.  Although it’s a shame that for some students we need to use their grades as a carrot for them to care, it sometimes takes just that to jump start their curiosity and desire to learn.

Although it’s early, we’ve already seen changes from our students since they saw their grades and completed the written reflection this morning in the classroom.  One student retook a math quiz while other students sought help from me regarding their Goodreads Update.  They all want to do well and learn lots, which is what really matters.  While the motivation for wanting to do well may differ from student to student, we’re hopeful that we will help all of our students see the value in wanting to do well in order to learn and grow as people, thinkers, and engineers, by the end of the year.

Mindfulness Background Reading

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

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

Mental food for thought:

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

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

Reflection on My Professional Goals for the Year

It’s time to take a trip in the wayback machine.  Let’s set the clock for September of 2016.  The academic year had just begun and excitement was in the air.  My class was off to a great start and I was thinking of ways to grow and improve as an educator.  To challenge myself to improve as an educator, I set some goals for myself.  They weren’t overly lofty goals but they did push me to be better able to support and challenge my students.  Now, fast forward to May of 2017.  The school year is four days away from completion.  It’s been an awesome year in the sixth grade.  Each and everyone of my students has grown and improved in so many ways.  I’m really going to miss this group.  They’ve impressed me throughout the year due to their effort and compassion.  They are a kind group of intelligent and creative young men.  I am one of the luckiest teachers I know because I had the pleasure of working with them this year.  Like my students, I’ve grown and changed a lot throughout this year as well.  I’ve become more patient and open to allowing for flexibility in the classroom.  I learned a little bit about computer coding.  I learned how to almost solve a Rubik’s Cube.  I became the math teacher that I have always wanted to be.  I could go on and on, but I won’t as I’m sure you all have far better things to do than read about my amazing school year.  Instead, my blog today will focus on the progress I made in working towards meeting the two professional goals I set for myself at the start of the academic year.

Goal Number 1: Learn to better support and help the ESL students in my class.

  • Although I did not finish reading the professional development book I started back in October that I had hoped would provide me many great strategies regarding this goal, Educating English Learners by Loyce Nutta, Carine Strebel, Kouider Mokhtar, Florin M. Mihai, and Edwidge Crevecoeur-Bryant, I did make strides in this area.  I tried some new techniques in working with the ELL students in my class.  I tried simplifying the English vocabulary I used and found other pictorial ways to explain directions or new ideas to those students.  I also spent lots of time working with this group of students outside of class to provide them the one-on-one support they needed to get to the place at which they are today.  I am impressed by how much each of the ESL students in my class have grown this year.  Their English vocabulary improved exponentially while their written and oral comprehension also grew quite immensely.  By implementing new and different strategies throughout the year, I was able to best support and challenge the ELL learners in my class.  While I am far from an expert on this topic and will finish reading the book I started almost a year ago, this summer, I do feel as though I made progress in working towards this goal.  I wouldn’t say that I completely met or exceeded this goal, but I did focus much energy, especially early on in the year, in learning new approaches to best supporting and helping the ESL students in my class.

Goal Number 2: Follow through on the new curriculum add-ons I started this year.

  • In trying to tackle quite a few new activities and lessons this year, I might have set my sights a bit too high.  While I didn’t set myself up for failure by any means, I do feel as though I tried to implement too many new things in the classroom this year: I tried to use Khan Academy as a challenging supplemental to the math curriculum for my STEM course; I tried to have the students learn computer coding by using the online application Code Combat; I tried to have the students all learn how to solve the Rubik’s Cube; I tried to have the forest plot project stretch the entire year.  With four new activities and lessons, one or two were bound to slip through the cracks.
  • I feel as though I did a fine job having the students regularly, on a weekly basis, use Khan Academy to fill in gaps in their math learning and to challenge themselves to grow and develop as math students.  Each and every student made progress with his account on Khan Academy throughout the year as I graded them on their effort and performance of concepts mastered.
  • The change in the forest plot project for this year was also a huge success.  With the exception of three months in the winter, the students went outside once almost every week to note changes in their plot, learn about the flora and fauna living in their plot, and think like a naturalist.  The students will be completing the final portion of this project on Monday when they create a flipbook of their plot through the seasons.
  • These first two changes I made this year were quite successful.  Although I didn’t devote as much time to the Rubik’s Cube and Code Combat, I do feel as though I put forth great effort to keep these alive throughout the year.
  • The students used Code Combat at least once almost every week throughout the year as they learned all about the Python coding language.  While I wanted to do more with this and really help the students to see why this skill of computer coding may be a crucial life skill for them to possess, I really just had them work on the program independently or with a partner.  I didn’t follow any of the lesson plans or other activities provided on the website to really give this activity clout in the minds of the students.  A few of the students really struggled with this program and I didn’t do much to support or help them.  If I were to continue this next year, I would front load more lessons and activities at the start of the year before they even got into the application itself.  I would make this skill more relevant to their life and goals.
  • I had similar struggles with the teaching of the skill of solving the Rubik’s Cube.  As I only really memorized how to solve the first two layers of the cube, I couldn’t offer much support to my boys on how to finish the final layer.  While half of my students met the goal I set for them at the start of the year, the other half were unable to solve the Rubik’s Cube.  Despite providing them time in class almost weekly, because I was unable to fully support and help them understand the final stages of solving the cube, they were unable to meet this challenge.  If I were to tackle this same skill next year, I would make sure that I knew exactly how to solve the cube from start to finish.  That way, I would be better able to help support those students who struggled to figure out how to solve it on their own.
  • While I don’t feel that I met this goal this year, I do feel as though I courageously worked towards it and persevered through to the end. I never gave up and tried to be mindful of all four new activities so that none of them would completely slip through the cracks.  I kept up with every one of them, just not at the level I would have liked.

As another year winds to a close here on the Point, I’m reminded of the many changes my students and I went through this year.  We all grew and developed in many ways.  While my students met many of the goals they set for themselves this year, I too made great strides towards meeting my goals.  While I didn’t successfully meet either of them, I am pleased with my progress.  I developed a lot as an educator this year and can’t wait to see what amazing professional challenges I attempt to tackle this summer.

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.

Scariest Moment Ever: Digitally Recording Oneself Teaching

Once when I was out tubing down the White River in Vermont with some friends, I had a near death experience.  After a long afternoon of paddling and having fun in the river, it was time to get out.  All seemed good at first, until I got to a section of the river about six feet from the shore that was very far over my head.  As I was tired and out of energy, I started sinking.  I didn’t think I was going to make it.  My short life flashed before my eyes in an instant.  Then, my friend came and rescued me, saving my life.  That was a scary moment for me.  Equally terrifying, though, are moments or instances that induce anxiety: Having to take a big test, interviews, meeting new people, and going to the doctor’s office.  These moments create stress and anxiety within me that are almost as terrifying as a near death experience.  Today featured one of those moments.

My co-teacher and I have been talking about ways we can create our own, free professional development opportunities in-house.  I stupidly suggested recording ourselves teaching as a way to provide each other with feedback on our teaching practices while also becoming aware of things we do unconsciously in the classroom.  Unfortunately, my co-teacher loved the idea.  As soon as she said, “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea,” my stomach began to growl.  Oh no, I thought, that means I really have to do it now.  While I actually am really excited about the prospect of reflecting on my teaching in this way, being observed by others makes me super uncomfortable.  I clam up, forget what I’m going to say, and usually mess up the lesson I had planned.  It’s horrible.  Being recorded, I felt, would make me feel the same way; however, I want to challenge myself to step outside my comfort zone, much like what my wife does on a daily basis.  I want to do something scary, but I still felt very nervous and anxious.

As we were going to be starting a new unit today in Humanities class, I felt like it would be a great opportunity to record myself teaching.  I was a wreck all morning, mentally preparing for this monet.  It was so nerve wracking.  I started the class by explaining to the students what I was doing and why I was doing it.  I wanted to be sure they understood why there was a video recorder in the room as well as understanding the importance of self-reflection.  Being a role model for my students is so important.  I’m hopeful that some of the good habits my co-teacher and I model for our students will rub off on them by the end of the academic year.  I then had my co-teacher set up the camera in the back of the classroom.  I was so scared.  As the camera started recording, I said aloud, “I’m so nervous.”  Yes, that is a great way to start this video, I thought.  Then I jumped into the lesson.  I was so anxious and nervous inside that I messed up several times.  I didn’t say what I had planned to say and my transitions were icky.  It felt awful.  Then came the break in between our double-block of Humanities.  My co-teacher approached me and said, “The camera just shut off when I touched it.  I don’t know what happened.  I checked it a few times and it seemed to be working.  I don’t know if it even recorded anything.”  I checked the camera, and sure enough it had only recorded the first two minutes of my lesson.  Oh know, I thought, all that hard work for nothing.  Then, I became very giddy.  “Great.  I felt really bad about that lesson anyway.  Now I have one more chance to redeem myself,” I said to my co-teacher.

So then came take two.  I set up the camera prior to starting the second part of my lesson and hoped for the best.  Things are going well, I thought.  I felt good about what I was saying and the pace at which I was setting.  I called on lots of students during the discussion, moved around the room well, and mixed up my instruction a bit.  It felt good.  Luckily, this video had successfully recorded on my camera.  While I haven’t viewed it yet, I feel good about how the lesson went.  It felt much better than the first part of the class.  I’m excited and quite nervous to watch myself teaching.  I want to be sure I am best helping, supporting, challenging, and guiding my students in the classroom.  Am I calling on one student more than another?  Am I talking too fast or too softly?  Am I talking too much?  Do I make sense?  These are all things I hope to learn from watching the video of my lesson.  I also want to try doing this again and again, so that hopefully I will become more comfortable with observations and being recorded.  I also want to show this video to my science department as a way to inspire other teachers to try recording themselves teaching.  It is a great way to reflect and grow as a teacher.  I’m hoping that by being the guinea pig, others will not feel quite so afraid to try it.

While this adventure of recording myself teaching started out as a scary moment, it seems to be transforming into something positive and wonderful.  Now, I say this without having watched it.  Perhaps I’ll realize what an awful teacher I am and take my singing ninja idea to the next level.  However, I am hopeful that much good will come from taking a risk and trying something terrifying.  At least this moment was scary in a safe way, unlike almost drowning.

Our Hidden Curriculum

When I was in elementary school, looking back on it now, rarely did I feel that my teachers were trying to teach more than just the lesson.  Everything was very compartmentalized.  Social skills were taught by the guidance counselor, social studies was taught in social studies class, and reading was taught in language arts class.  There was no blending or integration of topics or subjects at the schools I attended.  There was no hidden curriculum, hence I was frequently bullied and made fun of.  Teachers taught content and left it at that.  I wish now that my teachers had been more versed in teaching cross-curricularly.  I wish my teachers had better addressed the social issues happening in my classes.  I wish my teachers had cared enough about me and my classmates to genuinely help us all grow and develop as students and people.  If only I had found my mom’s magic lamp back then.

As a teacher, I make it a priority to get to know and care for my students.  I don’t look at myself as a teacher of content and standards.  I teach my students how to be kind, curious, caring, questioning, and creative people.  Knowing when a battle took place or what the stuff inside a cell is called is useless if you don’t know how to communicate with others, ask for help, or solve problems on you own.  I teach my students to be great people.

So, when I teach a unit or lesson, it’s not just about the skills or content, oh no.  It’s about everything else too.  Sure, I want my students to learn lots of valuable knowledge nuggets, but I also want them to learn how to be a good friend or teammate.  There is much hidden curriculum to every unit I teach in the sixth grade.  For example, in my current STEM unit on Astronomy, my students aren’t just learning about the solar system.  They are also learning how to coexist with their peers to solve problems, think creatively and critically about problems encountered, struggle and utilize a growth mindset, and produce professional-grade work.  Now, my students may not always see this hidden curriculum right away, but we do discuss it and are deliberate in how we ensure the students learn these ungraded life skills.  On Thursday in STEM class, as the students worked on the Astronomy Group Project, one group was very confused about the task they needed to complete.  They struggled to accomplish the assignment accurately until I provided them some guidance.  I didn’t give them the answer, I merely clarified the instructions.  I expected them to put the pieces of the puzzle together, mentally, as a group to then complete the task correctly; and sure enough, they did.  They incorporated my ideas into their discussion and were open to the idea that perhaps their original interpretation of the instructions was inaccurate.  They used a growth mindset to see the assignment instructions in a new light.  At the end of class that day, I mentioned this a-ha moment and named it as such: What began as a struggle for one group, led to task completion thanks to their Growth Mindset.

Following today’s amazing class debate, my co-teacher and I debriefed the entire American Presidential Election Process unit with the students.  We asked the students the following questions via a class discussion:

  • What did you learn throughout this unit?
  • What did you enjoy about this unit?
  • What do you wish you could have changed about this unit?

I was blown away by their responses to the first question: What did you learn?  They of course mentioned the big ideas that we had hoped they would extract from this unit, but they also mentioned some of the hidden curriculum in the unit.  They talked about learning how to collaborate and coexist in a group and how to effectively listen to their peers.  I was surprised that they had gleaned all of this from our unit on such a high level that they were able to verbalize it.  I was impressed.  I shared my excitement with the students as well.  “While these ideas weren’t the focus of our unit, they are probably even more important than learning about the electoral college and how the president is elected.  Teachers call this the hidden curriculum.  We don’t always tell you that we’re trying to teach you these life skills, but they are embedded into the instruction.  You guys figured it out.  Great work!”  This group of young men never ceases to amaze us.  They are so bright and talented.  We are very lucky educators.  However, my favorite part of our reflection discussion was hearing what the students enjoyed about the unit.  I certainly wasn’t expecting some of what the boys shared:

  • They enjoyed the Big Debate Project.
  • They liked learning about the presidential candidates.
  • They enjoyed learning about the way leaders are elected in other countries.
  • They liked how much of the unit was student-centered and not led by the teachers.
  • They enjoyed the group work aspects of the unit.
  • They liked learning how to speak in front of a group.
  • They enjoyed using coexistence and critical thinking skills to accomplish various tasks.
  • They liked learning about the issues important to people in our country.

I was amazed.  They really seemed to like this unit for more than just the final debate project.  They liked learning about content that is not usually covered in schools today.  It was so great that they noticed how student-focused we tried to make this unit.  I was floored that they were able to pick that out of everything.  Again, this goes back to the hidden curriculum.  My students are learning to think for themselves and answer their own questions without the help of a teacher.

Lessons and units in school need to do more than just convey knowledge to students; they need to teach students how to be effective students and good people.  One easy and sometimes tricky way to do this is by imbuing it into the curriculum covered in the classroom.  While the students are learning about the battle of Gettysburg, they are also learning how to work with a partner to create a map of the battlefield using various materials.  Integrating vital life skills with the content is crucial in helping to prepare our students for meaningful lives in a global society.