Posted in Education, Learning, Professional Development, Reflection, Sixth Grade, Students, Summer Reading, Teaching

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.

Posted in Education, Reflection, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

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.

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 Co-Teacher, Education, Reflection, Teaching

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.

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Group Projects, Humanities, Learning, Reflection, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

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.

Posted in Education, Reflection, Sixth Grade, Teaching, Testing

Reflecting in the Moment

This past weekend, I hosted a school-sponsored trip to go apple picking at a nearby orchard.  The weather was brilliant and the boys had a blast.  The apple picking wasn’t fantastic, but if you were patient, then the best apples had a way of finding you.  I walked around the orchard with two sixth graders from my class as they had never been apple picking before.  I wanted to show them the ropes.  We walked past several trees that didn’t seem to have any apples left.  Then we happened upon a tree that seemed quite full of red apples.  So, we started picking, and that’s when we realized that the tree was playing a nasty little trick on us.  From our angle, the apples looked perfect, but in fact were quite rotten or infested with various insects.  I explained to the boys, the art of apple picking.  You need to be choosy and picky.  You can’t pick every apple you see.  You must inspect the apple completely before pulling it from the tree to be sure it is not funky.  So, we continued walking about, looking for some pickable apples.  While we happened upon a few funky ones, we did manage to find plenty of great apples.  The key is in taking the time to look and observe before yanking.  While I’m not sure if these young men will ever have another chance to go apple picking as they come from a large city in China, they now know the ins and outs of apple picking.  It’s an art.  It’s all about stopping and thinking.

In the classroom, we refer to stopping and thinking as reflection: Taking the time to look back at what you did and learn from it.  While I usually do this after classes every day in this very blog, because I’ve gotten so into the habit of reflecting, I’m now always thinking in terms of reflection.  How did that lesson go?  Could it have been better?  Could my interaction with that student have been more effective?  I find myself mentally reflecting almost all of the time.  It’s great.

Today was the dreaded ERB Testing day at my school.  I hate standardized tests.  While gathering data for checkpoints can be beneficial, I also question the validity of filled-in bubbles.  What does they really tell us?  I’d much rather have a student respond in writing or orally to questions.  That way I really know if he knows his stuff or not.  I could guess on a standardized test and possibly score quite high on the scale.  Does that say anything about my aptitude or intelligence?  Not really.  Anyway, testing is yucky, but we administer them in the sixth grade because our school mandates it.  So, like a good teacher, I follow my orders.

The students did a great job.  They sat still, were generally focused, and seemed to really be putting forth excellent effort.  I was very impressed.  Very little policing needed to take place as they took the test in class today.  After the first few testing sessions, the students had a 15 minute break to get a snack, run around, or use the restroom.  They needed the time to recalibrate before completing the next section.  I reminded them that the ninth graders would be in classes and that other groups of students might be taking the test too.  They needed to be quiet and respectful when in the academic buildings.  I thought for sure that they could handle this.  I forget to take into account that they had been sitting, focusing on a challenging test for the past two hours.  How could they possibly be prepared to make smart decisions?

As the students began to filter back into the classroom, a colleague of mine came to report to me that some of the students had been running through the hallways, screaming as ninth graders were in class.  Holding the bar high, I sternly ended their break and had them return to their seats.  I expressed my disappointment in their choices and informed them that they would not get another break prior to lunch.  They struggled to follow our school’s core values and were disrespectful to their Cardigan brothers.  I moved right into the next testing session.

After I laid into my students, I started to wonder, Was I too hard on them?  No, they needed to be reminded of the rules and expectations.  If I didn’t mention it or make a big deal of it, they might think that they could act like that again.  We can’t have that.  Then, on my way to get a fresh cup of coffee, I chatted with a colleague.  He asked me how the testing was going for my students.  “Things are good.  The boys are doing well, but a teacher did tell me that some of the students were seen running in the building, shouting as they made their way back to the classroom.”  His feedback helped me to see the light.  “What did he expect?  They’re sixth grade boys who have just been cooped up in a classroom taking a test all morning.  Of course they had energy in need of escaping.”  I never thought about it like that.  Maybe I was not the only one who overreacted.  Perhaps my colleague had also overreacted by reporting the incident to me.  Sure, I want my students to be compassionate and respectful at all times, but on a day like today, we should be a bit more lenient.

After my students finished completing the test section they were working on, I got a little discussion going.  I shared my thoughts with them.  “While it was not appropriate to run and scream inside an academic building, you are sixth graders who had been sitting, taking a test all morning.  Excess energy was bound to build up.  You just need to be more mindful of other students next time when you allow that energy to escape.”  I asked if any of the students would like to explain what happened and own their mistakes.  Several students raised their hands and took responsibility for their actions.  They had been running inside and shouting.  They then realized the error of their ways.  I was impressed with the courage it took to admit their mistakes.  I thanked the students for showing courage and honesty in sharing.  I reminded them once again of the expectations for the academic spaces before I provided them with a short break to show good faith in their ownership and bravery as a class.

Reflecting on my quick reaction to something a fellow teacher shared with me, allowed me the chance to best support and help my students.  I probably came down too hard on them.  Yes, I needed to explain what rules had been violated, but I also needed to be mindful of their emotional and mental states at that moment.  They were stressed and tired from taking a test all day.  Their brains weren’t functioning at full capacity because of it.  As their prefrontal cortex hasn’t even developed yet, they were making decisions using a different portion of their brain.  They were actually over thinking their choices.  The student shouting was shouting, “Hurry up guys, we’re going to be late for the next test.”  Is that a bad thing to shout?  No, he was looking out for his peers.  He was trying to help his classmates get back to the classroom on time.  He was being thoughtful by saying that.  However, he did not think about the other students in the nearby classrooms that were in the middle of class.  The shouting might have distracted them.  So, while what my students did was not the best choice for the time and place, their hearts were in the right place.  Because I reflected on what I said to them as they started their next test, I was able to fix the situation a bit and help continue to build community within the classroom.  I gave the students a chance to own their mistakes and take responsibility for their actions.  If I were not in the regular habit of mentally reflecting, I might not have been able to rectify the mistake I made by lecturing them instead of trying to get to the heart of what happened.  I wasn’t willing to listen to them at first.  Therefore, I wasn’t respecting them.

Reflection is huge.  It has definitely made me a better educator and person.  Several years ago, I never used to think back on something and learn from the experience.  Once something was in the past, it stayed there.  If I remembered something really bad or good that happened, I might incorporate it into the next year’s lesson, but that was it.  I never really got better at teaching back then.  I remained stagnant.  Then, I learned to see the ripples in my teaching that were always there, but because I never looked, I just assumed my body of water was unchanged.  Being a reflective teacher has made me a better teacher for my students, and isn’t that what it’s all about?

Posted in Reflection, Sixth Grade, Teaching

Reflection Time

With two full weeks done and in the books for the 2016-2017 academic year at my school, it feels like the right time to look back and reflect a bit.  What went well?  What failed?  What did I learn?  How can I grow as a teacher?  While I reflect on this blog daily, I don’t often take the opportunity to look at the big picture.  I imagine myself flying a drone above my life, looking down on everything I do and say.  Would I like what I saw?  For the most part I would be pleased with what I saw on the remote control screen.  However, I’m sure I would notice and observe plenty of things that I could have done better.  That’s the power of reflection.  The key is to learn from those instances.

Although I am quite good at being realistic when I reflect on this blog, I worry that I am biased.  Perhaps seeing things from an alternative perspective will help me more effectively reflect and grow as an educator.  So, I put together a reflection survey for my students this past week.  Who better to give me honest feedback?  My students won’t sugar-coat the truth and they see things that I usually miss.  Today’s entry will detail the reflection survey and what it taught me.

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I certainly was not shocked by this result.  However, I did think it would be a bit more than 50%.  The boys love the new Farm Program we began this year.  Even though we’ve only had one session at the fiber farm, they thoroughly enjoyed it.  Going into this year, I figured that the students would really like going to the farm to learn about animals, farming, and fibers.  Perhaps the number of students who found it to be their favorite part will increase by the end of the year as we dig deeper into the curriculum we’ve created for it.

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Although I was not surprised by the results of this second question, it does make me wonder what their past school experiences were like.  Why were the expectations from their last schools so easy?  Why did they not have fun last year?  Why were some of the boys not challenged last year?  Why is it that school was not fun or enjoyable for them in their past schools?  School should be a challenging, supportive, caring, and fun place to be.  Students should be excited about school.  Genuine learning can not be had if students aren’t engaged or seeing the relevance in what is happening, neuroscience research proves.  So, why do many of our students feel as though their last schools were too easy or boring?  Are their past schools limited by a restrictive curriculum such as the Common Core?  Do they come from schools in other countries where the learning and structure is very different?  Now, the type of school they attended last year also plays a major role.  For those students who did not come from a boarding school, my school is very different.  We are with the boys all the time.  This makes a huge difference.  I know my students so very well because I’m able to be with them all day and night, all year.  I see them through their highs and lows, their times of hunger and frustration, and their times of sleep deprivation.  My relationship and connection with my students is so much greater and deeper than what most teachers in day schools experience.  This is a lifestyle and not just a school.  I’m teaching these boys so much more than what is covered in the classroom.  This factor probably has a lot to do with the results as well.  However, I do still wonder what it is about the other schools that made things not as fun or engaging as Cardigan.  This might be a great question to ask in a future survey.  What made your last school different from Cardigan?  What are you doing at Cardigan that you didn’t do last year?  I think the answers would be quite different and enlightening.

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The results to this question made me all warm and fuzzy inside.  I wasn’t really going for an ego-boost with this question, I promise.  I just wanted constructive feedback, but instead my co-teacher and I received several fantastic compliments.  We’re doing great stuff in the sixth grade and it shows.  They love the field experiences and seem to also like how we challenge and support them.  We have a rule in the sixth grade, You do the work.  We will guide you, but you have to be the one to solve the problems encountered.  Clearly, that works for this group of students.  After the difficult year I felt we had in the sixth grade last year due to multiple factors, I’m so happy that we’re off to a great start this year.  The boys feel safe and happy.  We couldn’t ask for much more than that.  Now we just need to keep on keepin’ on, as Joe Dirt said.

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This question was wide open on purpose.  I wanted the students to honestly think about our whole sixth grade program and how we could improve upon it.  The results were interesting.  While six of the students love everything about what we’re doing in the classroom, several students observed areas in need of improvement.  Now, some are counter intuitive to our philosophy in the sixth grade, but some of their feedback is very useful.  We need to have evening study hall as it is a part of our school’s program.  While we do think carefully about homework assignments so that they are relevant and meaningful, we also realize that we have to assign homework.  That issue is out of our hands as classroom teachers.  I’d love to see the sixth grade not have an evening study hall.  They should have free time to bond and grow as a family as it is my school’s smallest class year in and year out.  They also need to have an earlier bedtime.  Sixth graders grow tired faster than older students but also wake up earlier than the upperclassmen.  While changes could be made to this part of our day, it is not something that will be changing anytime soon.  My favorite response was the one about fidgeting with something.  Perhaps they did their research, but no matter what, they make a convincing case.  My co-teacher and I try to keep things out of our students’ hands during full class lessons or activities to help the boys stay more focused.  Brain research shows that multitasking is a myth and not possible.  How can our students focus on fidgeting and the lesson or task at hand?  One of the options will get less attention devoted to it from the brain.  We can’t have that.  Our classroom furniture already addresses this issue.  The students have rocking chairs to release excess energy during whole class instruction.  They can totally rock away while we’re talking.  We’re fine with that as we know it helps them focus, but can they really rock, fidget, and listen well?  I don’t think so, but I’m willing to give it a try.  So, I’m going to be more mindful of what I allow to happen during full-class instruction time.  Maybe this will have a positive impact for some students or maybe it will simply reaffirm what I already believe, that fidgeting is multitasking.

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This question also elicited a variety of responses.  I like what they’ve taken away so far.  They’re learning about the power of collaboration and ownership.  That’s awesome.  Being able to work effectively with others while owning their work and choices are very important skills our students need to learn to lead meaningful lives in a global society.  The fact that some of them have already started to see the value in those two skills is phenomenal.  We are very lucky in the sixth grade this year.  The chemistry of this group of boys just works so well.  They make a perfect solution.  It’s amazing.  That makes a huge difference.  While every student I’ve ever worked with or taught is amazing in their own ways, sometimes when they are in a group, they don’t always mix well with others.  This can in turn make learning difficult.  While being able to work with all different types of people is a crucial life skill, when many people in a group have a fixed mindset from the start, trying to help others grow and develop can be very tricky.   I’m very pleased with what our students have already begun to take away from our sixth grade program.  We have been much more intentional about things this year, on purpose, and it shows.

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This final question was more of a self-reflection for the boys.  We’ve introduced and discussed our school’s Habits of Learning quite a bit since the start of the academic year.  We want the boys to see how valuable each of the habits really is to growing and learning.  Having an open mind to new ideas and feedback is one of the main building blocks of learning.  Clearly, our students have already started to grasp some of these challenging skills.  Helping the students to develop these habits throughout the year will be a constant focus for us in the sixth grade.

I was very happy with the overall result of the Week One Survey.  The students are feeling good about the start of the year and seem to really love what we’re doing.  I hope this trend continues.  We will have the boys reflect and provide us with feedback throughout the year.  The big takeaway for me from this experience is that reflection is crucial for growth to come about.  Had I not been already thinking about how I wanted to change things for this year, last year, I doubt that we would be off to such a great start.  I was very deliberate in my planning this year so that the students feel more engaged and are learning crucial skills to make all subject areas fun and exciting.  The more I stop and think about what went well or what didn’t go well on a daily basis, the more I will continue to grow as a teacher.  My number one goal has always been and always will be to help support and challenge my students in exactly the ways they need to be supported and challenged.

Posted in Education, Reflection, Sixth Grade, Teaching

Reflections on MY Academic Year

With only three formal class days left until the end of the academic year at my school, I’m filled with excitement and a bit of sadness.  The group of boys I’ve had the great pleasure of working so closely with this year will be matriculating into the seventh grade come September.  I won’t be able to help guide them on their journey towards academic enlightenment any further.  However, I’m also very excited to have three months of summer vacation to plan for next year.  Plus, getting to know a new group of sixth graders is quite fun and enjoyable.  It’s bittersweet.

After watching yesterday’s senior slideshow filled with pictures from when my son’s class was in the sixth grade, I am also feeling very nostalgic.  A lot has happened in four years.  The boys were so small and childish looking when they were in sixth grade.  They now look like men.  It’s crazy!  My son is about to become a tenth grader.  Where did the time go?  I know it’s a cliche, but the older I get, the faster time seems to pass me by.  I wish life was like a recorded movie in our brains that we could watch over and over again so that I’ll never forget all of the memories.

So, as tears of joy and sadness well up within my eyeball areas, I want to reflect on the 2015-2016 academic year.

Successes

  • I feel as though this was my best year of teaching to date.  I focused a lot on unit and class introductions and closings, which made a huge difference.  Students seemed more engaged than in years past.  My classes seemed to have both a top and bottom bun, which is always a good thing so that one’s hands don’t get all greasy and nasty.  I opened classes well and closed them with reflections, games, review, or previews.  As one of my professional goals for the year was to be more deliberate with how I ended classes, I feel as though I put forth much thought, reflection, and effort into making it come to fruition this year.  Each class period felt like it was complete because I was able to wrap things up in meaningful ways for the students.
  • Working with my new co-teacher for this year helped me to grow and develop as an educator.  I learned lots of new ideas and approaches to teaching Humanities and world geography from her.  My favorite new lesson was definitely the one on mapping and perspective.  The students seemed to really understand how one’s perspective plays a role in how one views the world physically and/or figuratively.  Plus, the boys had a blast making their globes turn into flat maps and realized how inaccurate flat maps truly are.
  • Helping students grow and develop throughout the year.  Several students began the year with very low English skills or many other academic or social skill deficiencies but closed the year having made much progress.  Some of our ELL students have grown to become some of the hardest working students in the class because they realized that hard work reaps great benefits and rewards.  Their English proficiency has increased exponentially because of their excellent effort.  A few students who struggled to put forth great effort at the start of the year, finished the year by using much of their free time to meet and exceed the graded objectives.  I am so proud of the progress each and every one of my students made throughout the year.
  • Creating a detailed document that highlights and specifically outlines and describes the sixth grade program at my school that I have worked at creating over my many years teaching sixth grade.  Not only is it a useful document for the school to use to showcase our sixth grade program and its purpose and intended outcomes, but it will also be a great tool to mark our progress in the sixth grade moving forward.  How else can we change and improve to best help and support the students?
  • Whiteboard Tables and Rocking Chairs.  The whiteboard tables are amazing.  The boys used them throughout the year to document their writing and planning process, solve math problems, ask questions, spell words, or help their peers better understand a concept.  The addition of these whiteboard tables is one of my big highlights for the year.  It made the learning and teaching experience so much more rich and meaningful for the students.  They were owning their learning and more engaged in class because of the tables and the access they had to taking notes and staying focused.  The rocking chairs also made the overall learning experience for the students more enjoyable.  Instead of tipping back in a regular classroom chair and falling backwards, the students were able to gently rock back and forth to channel their energy into focusing and paying attention.  Awesome!
  • A Long Walk to Water  by Linda Sue Park was the read-aloud text we used to compliment our unit on Africa.  Having not read the novel prior to this year, I was surprised by how amazing it is.  Not only did it help us model and practice various reading strategies in Humanities class, but it also helped the students broaden their perspective of Africa and the people from that part of the world.  It was a fine new addition to our class.
  • Field trip to the Hood Museum in Hanover, NH.  The boys thoroughly enjoyed this trip to a local art museum.  They loved learning about the history of African weapons and art from the great continent of Africa.  Our docent was knowledgeable and kept the boys engaged throughout the trip.  It was a free experience that helped bring the classroom learning to life for our students.
  • Making concepts and topics in STEM class more relevant and meaningful for the students.  Instead of just teaching the boys about weather and how it forms on Earth, I had the students generate problems caused by climate change and create simple solutions that could easily be implemented.  Not only did this allow the students to think critically about the world around us and how it is changing, but it also helped the students to see how big of a problem climate change really is.  I want the students to realize and understand that their generation is going to have to seriously address and deal with this huge issue to prevent major changes and destruction from occurring sooner rather than later.

Challenges

  • iPads.  Despite the vast number of schools utilizing iPads in the classroom and the great results reported, the 1-to-1 iPad program did not work in the sixth grade this year.  Perhaps the failure stems from the fact that the iPads we used were very early models and did not have the processing capabilities needed to effectively run the applications we were using in the classroom.  The iPads were slow and glitched quite frequently.  The students didn’t like using them either.  Since the rest of the students were provided laptop computers, our boys felt different and did not like the “unfair” treatment.  Despite explaining the reason and rationale for the change in technology this year, the students still struggled with why we used them.  Needless to say, we’re going back to laptops for the sixth grade next year.
  • Not supporting or challenging a particular student in math.  This one student came into the sixth grade with accelerated math skills.  Because we don’t have another math course for him in the sixth grade and couldn’t make one work in our schedule, we tried to best support him with a flipped classroom approach, but it didn’t really work for him.  He was frustrated and his enjoyment with math began to dwindle.  We have a plan in place going forward if we have another student with such high math abilities, but I feel awful that we did not help this one student in math in any way.
  • Helping parents understand the approach we take to education in the sixth grade.  As we utilize objectives-based grading, a Humanities approach to teaching English and history, and the STEM model for teaching math and science, this is new for many of our families.  A few families struggled to understand the whys and hows of our approach despite letters sent home and explanations provided.  Those families had difficulty understanding our grading system or our problem based learning approach to teaching math.  Perhaps it was just those particular families as we didn’t have any challenges with this issue last year and we used the same approaches.  However, I will be very mindful of this when crafting the parent letter we will send out over the summer.  Perhaps I just need to be more specific and explanatory.
  • My two co-teachers are leaving at the close of this academic year.  While I’ve only worked with one for this year, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working with the other for three years now.  I’m going to miss them both dearly.  I’ve grown so much in the time we’ve worked together.  I know that everything will be alright next year and I’m excited about my new co-teacher who was recently hired, but I’m also a bit sad to say goodbye to more close friends.

I thought long and hard about the year in creating this list.  I know it seems lopsided, but that’s how the year went.  I experienced far more successes than challenges.  Sure, I love a good challenge because that’s where the genuine learning and growth happens, but I feel as though our sixth grade program is really starting to solidify nicely.  It was an awesome year.  I’m, overall, very pleased with the result.  I feel as though our boys are prepared for the seventh grade and are sure to find much success as they continue to grow and develop next year and beyond.  It’s hard to believe another year has come and almost passed us by, but that’s what happens when one is unable to find life’s pause switch.  Where is it again?

Posted in Challenges, Connections, Conversation, Education, Following Directions, Humanities, Language, Learning, Mistakes, New Ideas, Reflection, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

When Students Understand Why We Do What We Do as Teachers

I remember, as a child, cartoon-esque drawings of characters or people having A-Ha moments: A lightbulb appeared over someone’s head as they worked or did something.  The simplicity of the pictures always amazed me.  The idea of a light being turned on when neurons fire and bridge mental connections is a great metaphor.  While it very much simplifies the process, the concept and idea behind what is going on in the brain is conveyed to the viewer.  A-Ha moments are actually very complex, neurological happenings that involve many different chemical reactions.  Genuine learning comes about through these type of grand realizations as connections are being made in one’s brain.  It’s almost like the idea of working through one’s frustration.  Perseverance and resiliency are two great concepts that, for me, lead to these A-Ha moments.  While for some people, new ideas or answers to problems seem to make sense and happen seamlessly, without much thought or struggling, some people need much processing time and practice to come to a conclusion or answer.  I am one of those people.  I need to really ponder something before I’m able to figure it out.  Usually, after much time playing or wrestling with the question or new concept, a solution or realization seems to just sort of pop into my mind.  Those are great experiences.  An easy way to see this process happen is by looking at one’s facial expressions.  The person might start out with a frown or upset face that slowly or quickly changes to a smile as the A-Ha moment occurs.  Learning makes people smile.  How great is that?

As a teacher, I love witnessing these A-Ha moments happen for my students.  After much time spent working with them or watching them struggle and attempt to solve a problem, it is quite rewarding and fulfilling to see them understand what they’ve been working towards.  It’s like finding that missing puzzle piece after minutes of searching for it.  I see it most frequently happen for our ELL students when learning new, to them, concepts in English.  Although they seem confused at first and can’t wrap their heads around what is expected of them or the concept being covered, after asking questions and processing the information, they just get it.  Those are fun moments.  “I get it now!” they usually exclaim with a smile on their face.  Persevering through challenging times is not an easy skill to teach.  It takes lots of practice and reminders.  Rather than jumping in and telling students how to solve problems, I find it much more beneficial to let them struggle through it and ask them probing questions to inspire neurological connections to be made when assistance is required.  For many students, this is all it takes for them to figure things out.

To help prepare our students for the increased level of critical thinking that will be required of them as well as the larger work load they will face next year, we have been working on challenging our students to rise above where they are, mentally, to be better able to solve problems on their own by utilizing the Habits of Learning practiced in the classroom all year.  During the past month, we have been asking students to challenge themselves to do more than just complete an assignment.  At this point in the year, many of the boys are capable of exceeding the requirements and graded objectives.  Rather than just write about their reading, we expect that most of our students will be able to analyze what they read and make inferences using examples from the text.  While we have been using this type of language with them for weeks now, a few of the boys are still struggling to realize why we are asking them to step up and challenge themselves.  They usually get frustrated and start over instead of adding to or altering the nucleus of their work.  While that is certainly one way to approach what we’re asking of them, it is generally not the most productive way to go about challenging themselves.

Today in Humanities class, the students worked on crafting an original poem utilizing the poetic device of personification.  While a few of the students got right to work and crafted brilliant stanzas filled with metaphors and alliteration, a few of the students struggled to begin their poem or choose an object.  One student had his idea right away and wrote his first two lines with ease.  He was so excited about his work that he shared his poem with me.  While he was on the precipice of critical thinking, he was using vague words and simplistic lines to craft his poem.  So, I said, “I see what you are trying to do, but I challenge you to use more specific and carefully chosen words in a more complex manner.  I challenge you to create lines of poetry that don’t begin in the exact same manner.  I challenge you to think more critically about your object as you write your poem.”  While I could easily tell that he was a bit deflated after hearing my feedback, he didn’t give up.  He began erasing his lines as I conferenced with another student.  My co-teacher then approached him in the act of erasing and asked him what he was doing.  His response, “Mr. Holt is challenging me to think more critically about my object.  So, I’m going to start over and see if I can use more specific words to describe light in a personified way.”  I stopped working with the other student with whom I was conferencing and stood up for a brief moment when I heard him utter those words.  I almost began to weep.  Wow, I thought, he gets it.  He totally understood what I asked him to do.  He was challenging himself to grow and develop as a student and critical thinker.  Amazing!  So all of these weeks of reminding the students to put forth more effort into thinking critically and creatively about problems and the world around them totally paid off.  They now realize why we have been doing what we’ve been doing in the classroom as their teachers.  They too want to grow and learn more.  They want to be better able to solve problems and think about new topics or concepts.  I was blown away.

While it can be very easy to get caught up in the routine of teaching and not see the bright lighthouses littering the coasts of our classroom, they are there.  Our students are listening and growing and applying the skills we’ve been teaching them all year.  They are not solid bricks but moldable pieces of clay.  It can be frustrating at times when they come across as chunks of solid granite when in fact they are very soft shale sitting at the bottom of the pond that is our classroom waiting for knowledge to build up and push them closer to Earth’s mantle where they can metamorphize into slate or what we might see as able-bodied seventh graders.  It’s great to be able to take opportunities like this to reflect on the great work we and our students have done all year and celebrate it.  All is not for nothing.  They are learning and growing and changing.  Mission accomplished, for now, but our work as their teachers is far from done.

Posted in Change, Education, Humanities, Learning, Reflection, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching, Writing

Celebrating Student Growth

After having just returned from a week-long class trip to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I did not have high expectations for classes today.  I figured the students would be exhausted and unable to focus and concentrate.  While I did want to jump right back into the routine for the sake of the students, I also realized that they may not be as productive today in class as they have been in the past, since we had spent the last five days outside learning about the geology and ecology of the Cape Cod region.  And so, because of this, I wasn’t expecting amazing effort or quality work to be completed in class today.  I tempered my expectations or as my headmaster likes to say, “Manage your expectations.”  So, I did just that.  I went into classes today thinking that things would just be, and nothing more than that.  Well, let’s just say, I was quite surprised by what did actually happen in the sixth grade classroom today.

The students were focused and prepared to work diligently on whatever task was thrown their way.  They asked great questions to be sure they understood what was being asked of them.  They worked well independently and were able to stay on task, for the most part, when working with a peer.  I was impressed.  How was this possible?  We spent the week walking, hiking, climbing, talking, and working hard, and yet, they were still able to come to class on Saturday, of all days, and complete great work with fine effort.  Perhaps because my expectations were low, I was amazed by what did take place in class today.  Maybe I should have expected greatness as they are quite the talented group of young men.  Either way, I was tickled tan today by what I observed.

In Humanities class, my co-teacher and I had the students reflect on our trip to Cape Cod.  We generated insightful questions that allowed them to think critically about their experiences on the trip and the learning that took place.  As I had heard that some of our students already reflected on their journey during the previous class, I was sure to differentiate between the more storyboarding reflection that they had already done and the critical thinking reflection we expected them to complete in our class as I explained the activity.  Perhaps this helped motivate them to work harder and in a more focused manner.  Who knows.  All I do know is that their work and reflections were quite phenomenal.  Several of our ELL students who in the past struggled greatly with writing more than a few sentences, crafted two pages of written reflection on our trip and they still weren’t done by the end of class.  They were operating like writing and reflecting machines.  It was pretty awesome.  They cited examples from our adventure and detailed the learning that they experienced.  Maybe they are just getting better at reflecting because we do so much of it in the sixth grade.  Perhaps that’s what caused today’s outcome.  Maybe, but I still wasn’t expecting this level of work after a week away from the classroom.  It was a bit odd yet still very exciting.  Maybe, they are learning and growing like students should.  Perhaps what we saw was all part of the learning process.  Maybe they just needed a week away to allow for the synthesis of our teaching.  Perhaps our trip to Cape Cod allowed the students the opportunity to put together all of the puzzle pieces with which we have been providing them all year.  Maybe that’s what happened.  Yes, I’m sure that’s exactly what happened, he said with sarcasm dripping from his lower lip like autumn leaves falling from trees.  No matter what lead to today’s awesomeness in the classroom, I knew that it needed to be mentioned and celebrated.

So, towards the end of Humanities class, I did take the time to reflect orally on what my co-teacher and I had seen in class today.  We were impressed by how much they had written and how focused they were on the task at hand.  Many of them had accomplished more work in the short time we were together today than they had all year.  They applied the Habits of Learning we had been discussing and practicing all year in their written reflections.  They were taking ownership of their learning, and learning from mistakes made.  Wow!  It was phenomenal.  As I shared my reflection on today’s work period, smiles swayed through the classroom like the wave at a sporting event.  Hopefully, the boys understood how proud we are of them and their progress this year in the sixth grade.  It’s important to celebrate victories of any size so that our students can truly reflect upon their learning and growth.