Supporting Some Students Takes Persistence and Patience

Some students are like fluffy little sponges ready to absorb information and adapt to their surroundings.  They are flexible and open to new ideas and approaches.  We love working with students like these because they enjoy school more than anything else in life.  These students are easy to work with and usually put a smile on our faces because they soak up every word that falls from our lips.  Some other students are more like dry sponges in need of a little watering before they are ready to take on the world.  They are very open and willing to learn things with a little help and prodding first.  These students are also easy to work with.  Then there are those few students who are more like a chunk of granite, in need of much work before they can be molded into open-minded young men.  These students need much help, support, and scaffolding in order for learning to take place.  They usually employ a fixed mindset from day one and often face much adversity in their personal lives outside of school.  Over my 17 years of teaching, I’ve had the pleasure of helping to mold quite a few granite slabs into fine, hard-working students.  It’s no easy task, but one well with the undertaking.  While I love all of my students, I do enjoy a good challenge, which is why I look forward to helping shape those few hunks of rock each year.

This year, I have a class filled with mostly porous sponges who can’t seem to learn enough.  They enjoy working on projects and spend much of their free time completing assignments.  It’s pretty awesome.  I’ve been able to extend my units and curriculum a bit more than in past years due to the fact that most of my students are up for and crave a good challenge.  Although this aspect of teaching fills me with great joy, I find it easy to execute and accomplish.  I love challenging students and creating unique and engaging projects and assignments that push the students to think critically in order to creatively solve problems encountered.  In order to truly grow as a teacher, I need to constantly be challenged myself.  Fortunately, I do have the pleasure of working with one young man this year who is proving to be quite a tough chunk of granite.  He has struggles with executive functioning skills, is very self-absorbed, struggles to see the reality of situations, and is very deficient in math, reading comprehension, and writing.  This, combined with the fact that his family just welcomed a new baby into the fold, makes him one hard rock to crack.  He is the only student in our class who is constantly challenged by our expectations and has yet to buy into our sixth grade program.  My co-teacher and I discuss this one student on a daily basis during our free periods and team meetings.  He often does not appropriately complete homework assignments and struggles to meet many of the graded objectives across all of our classes.  Our goal for the year, is to help him find the joy in school and learning.  While we don’t expect him to be an A student by any means, we want to help him see the value in school and learning.  We want him to find the fun in learning about new topics and solving problems in creative ways.  We want him to find the polished gemstone that is buried deep under his hard, rocky exterior.  It’s an interesting and sometimes frustrating journey that we are on with this student this year, but one we are excited to have embarked upon.

We began a research project on Africa yesterday in my Humanities class.  The students chose topics and began locating reputable resources from which they can mine for wonderful knowledge nuggets.  While almost every student had chosen a topic and began searching for online resources by the end of class yesterday, our one special student was unable to choose a meaningful topic.  He struggled to brainstorm appropriate ideas that would allow him to learn new information. He attempted to choose topics he already knew much about.  He wasn’t trying to challenge himself and was clearly using a fixed mindset in approaching the task.  My co-teacher and I worked with him on separate occasions, trying to help him find an engaging and appropriate topic for the project, to no avail.  He seemed determined to do what he wanted to do, which prevented him from being able to demonstrate his ability to meet several of the assessed objectives.

This morning in our study skills class, the students continued working on this research project.  This one student spent the period reading through an article on a topic that we had not approved, instead of trying to brainstorm and settle upon a new topic that would help him to grow and develop as a student.  My co-teacher and I were at a loss.  How can we help inspire him to choose a more meaningful topic?  How can we help him want to learn for the sake of learning?  How can we best support this student?  No answers came to us.  We were beginning to get frustrated, but we certainly were not giving up.  We just needed to be patient and persistent, which ended up paying off later in the day.

During my Humanities class, the students had another opportunity to continue working on this hefty research project in class.  The boys dug into their topics and sources like archeologists on a quest to discover a new dinosaur.  They were so excited looking for information and facts to help them understand their topics.  Many of the boys couldn’t help but share their finds with their table partner or me.  This one challenging student began the period, stuck, unable to choose a topic that he was interested in or knew very little about.  So, I stopped and had a chat with him.  I talked to him about why I am challenging him to choose a topic that would allow him to think critically.  I offered him some examples before providing him with time to work independently.  A few minutes later, I stopped to check-in on him, and lo and behold, he had chosen a more appropriate topic.  While it was still lumpy and needed to be ironed out a bit, it was a topic that will require much critical thinking to investigate.  So, I probed him a bit, trying to help him see how to whittle his broad topic down to a more meaningful chunk that would be easy for him to dig into.  Finally, with much support and scaffolding, he had generated and chosen an appropriate topic for his research project.  While it took much effort, patience, and persistence on my part, I was able to help him find his polished parts buried beneath his hard, outer shell.

This timeline of how he worked in class yesterday and today is very typical of him.  It takes him much time to get into an assignment or project before he buys in and begins to see the fun in the task of learning.  We have noticed that the time between him using a fixed mindset and then changing to a growth mindset is decreasing as the academic year progresses.  He’s breaking down his own walls, as he transforms from a mountain of rock into a stone statue with the ability to solve problems and think critically.  As his teacher, I just need to be patient, offer him much support and help, persist and never give up on him, and he will continue to be chipped away until only a soft and pliable inner core remains.  While this task proves difficult on a daily basis, it is one I frequently get excited for, as it allows me to grow and develop as a teacher.  Finding new ways to help support and challenge my students has helped me to become a better educator.


Offering Second Chances in the Classroom

I’ve made many mistakes in my short life.  I’ve forgotten to put the toilet seat down, leave a tip at a restaurant, and put money in the parking meter.  I’m far from perfect.  Luckily though, I was given second chances to prove my true worth as a person.  I make sure to tip at least 20% when I go out to eat with my family, put more money than is necessary in parking meters, and almost always put the seat down after using the toilet.  Because I had other chances to make my mistakes right, I learned much from these experiences.  I wonder if I would have learned from those indiscretions had I not been given the opportunity to make better choices and fix my mistakes.

Like me, my students need to be provided second chances when they make mistakes as failure is a crucial part of the learning process.  If I don’t provide my students chances to learn from their mistakes, how will they ever learn the value in trying and failing?  I don’t expect perfection and so I want my students to feel supported and cared for; therefore, I need to allow my students to redo work that does not meet the objectives so that they learn, now, while they are still in school, how to make the right choices.  If students do not meet the graded objectives when their work is assessed, they need to redo the assignment until it at least meets the objectives.  This usually starts with a conversation.  “Why did you not meet the objectives?” I might ask the student.  I will then refer to the assignment rubric or instructions, asking them to read the assignment requirements aloud to me.  During this process, they are usually able to notice what they did not do correctly or accurately.  I then ask them if they understand what it is they need to do.  I want to be sure they comprehend what is being asked of them.  If a student fails to include an opening sentence in his paragraph and that is one of the requirements, I might ask the student if they know what a topic sentence is before I let them work on their own.  The students are then on their own to redo the assignment by the close of the term or unit.  When they turn in their work, I meet with them to conference about the work and process involved.  I want to be able to praise them for putting in the extra effort to redo their work while also reminding them of the importance of following instructions and completing work ahead of time so that they can receive feedback before the assignment is due.  I want my students to value the importance of effort and focus on the skills rather than the final grade.  Providing students with a second chance to meet graded objectives allows this ethos to be developed within the students.

This afternoon, I met with a student who had to redo a major STEM project that was due back in early February.  Because he failed to meet the four objectives on which the assignment was being assessed, he needed to redo the project.  While he had redone it two weeks ago, he had left it with his mother who had flown back to Korea.  So, she needed to send it to the school.  When I reviewed the math storybook that he had crafted, I realized he was missing one crucial requirement.  He did not include a sample problem that showed he understood how to apply the four steps of the problem solving process.  Rather than have him redo his book again just to include this page, I had him orally walk me through one of his problems using the four-step problem solving process.  As I had thought, he understood the process and was able to correctly apply the four steps when solving a math word problem.  Had I not met with him and simply had him turn the assignment in, I would not have been able to ask him follow-up questions or check for understanding in an informal manner.  I would have only been able to grade him on what I had in front of me.  Although he did not meet the original deadline, I am much more concerned with this particular student’s ability to follow and interpret directions.  He has struggled with this issue all year.  So, I wanted to give him a chance to really look at the requirements and redo the work in a way that allowed him to demonstrate his ability to meet the objectives.  Giving him this second chance and having a conversation with him this afternoon, helped him understand why following directions and completing work prior to the due dates in order to receive feedback are such crucial skills he needs to focus on moving forward.  School should never be about grades or deadlines, it’s about progress, growth, and character development.

Fostering Compassion in the Classroom

Several years ago, my son and I tried to build a makeshift bridge at the house we owned in Vermont.  Wa wanted to connect two sets of stairs together so that you didn’t have to walk down into a muddy area just to go back up another set of stairs.  It seemed like an easy enough idea.  I bought some posts, 2X8s, and screws.  In my head, it was a simple task.  I dug holes for the posts and put them into the ground.  Then, I screwed the flat pieces together and onto the supportive posts.  While it was a bit uneven, it seemed to work, at first.  After a rainstorm and some cold weather, the bridge became very uneven and started to fall apart.  Because I didn’t properly install and engineer the bridge to hold lots of weight and sustain storm damage, it ended up being a futile exercise.  A few years later, I had to take it apart as it was not usable.  If only I had created a strong foundation for the bridge, it might still be standing.  Creating a secure base when building a structure of any type is crucial to its success and livelihood.

Much like building an effective bridge, working to build a compassionate classroom takes the same effort.  As a teacher, I need to foster a sense of care and kindness in the classroom from day one.  I need to create rules and expectations for the students that allow them to be and feel successful and safe.  I also need to be a role model for my students in and out of the classroom.  I need to show them how to interact with their peers and deal with frustrations, setbacks, mistakes, and failure.  I need to address issues and conflicts when they arise in the classroom so that the students understand the expectations and see how their actions have consequences.  Doing all of this and so much more allows me to foster a sense of compassion within the classroom.  I need to build a foundation of support and positivity in the classroom before I can expect a strong sense of kindness and care to evolve.  It takes time and effort.

Over the weekend, a student in my class was in a terrible skiing accident and had to be airlifted to the hospital.  Fortunately, he is going to be alright and make a full recovery.  However, he is still in the hospital today and may not be discharged until tomorrow so that they can monitor his health for internal organ damage.  Since we are unable to visit him in the hospital as a class, I thought it would be nice to show this student how much we care about him and wish him a speedy recovery.  So, I had the boys create Get Well cards for the hospitalized student.  As I have done activities like this in the past when a student was sick for a long period of time, I expected the students to quickly craft a card with a picture or two and some words.  I didn’t expect it to be a lengthy activity.  However, because my co-teacher and I have been working so hard to foster a sense of compassion within the students, they all took their time to create thoughtful, meaningful, and beautiful cards that showed care, kindness, sympathy, and compassion.  They worked hard to create colorful and realistic images that they thought this injured student would appreciate and enjoy.  They wanted to help inspire this student to heal quickly so that he could make a speedy return to our sixth grade family.  I was impressed.  The cards the boys created in class today, were some of the neatest, most colorful, and artistic handmade cards I have seen from students in all of my years of teaching.  Because we have helped the students learn how to be empathetic and compassionate, they took their time to show this one student how they feel.  It was amazing.  I am so proud of the effort and care they put into crafting their cards today.  They clearly feel connected to this student as if he is a member of their family.  Creating a strong classroom community enables compassion to be fostered amongst the students, but it all has to start on day one of the new academic year.  A foundation of kindness is crucial to helping students learn to take care of each other like a family.  Unlike my unstable bridge, my students have grown to become a strong family in and out of the sixth grade classroom.

How Can I Help the Struggling Students in my Classroom?

When I was in the fourth grade, I was quite a difficult child to teach.  I didn’t want to be in school and made it challenging for my teacher.  I had vision problems and didn’t want to tell anyone.  I usually sat in the back of the classroom, which made seeing the blackboard almost impossible.  I never seemed to understand what was going on in the classroom because of that.  I was also having social problems with my friends at the time.  I had taken to lying and stealing.  Unfortunately, I was into taking ridiculous things like tiny metal weights from the classroom.  Why didn’t I go for something bigger?  I didn’t really want to lie or steal, but I was dealing with a lot of home issues.  Things were tough.  This was the depressing part of my life story that caused me to be a difficult student for two years.  I eventually solved my problems and found happiness.  I learned to be okay with who I was.  In the sixth grade, I became a permanent fixture on my school’s honor roll.  Things were starting to click for me.  It was a rough journey, but I survived.

I currently have a student in my class who reminds me a lot of fourth-grade me.  He struggles socially and drives his peers away with very strange behaviors.  He lies and doesn’t complete his work with much effort.  While at times he showcases his true potential as a student, those moments are few and far between.  His life story is a bit hard to hear and he has suffered many setbacks in his short life.  Throughout the year, my co-teacher and I have worked with him, supported and cared for him, and tried to help him realize how amazing he can be.  Despite all of this, he has made almost no progress throughout the year.  His work is done with the same inconsistent effort he utilized during the first part of the academic year.  He still finds ways to drive his peers away and doesn’t seem to have any true friends.  I’m really worried about him.  Will he survive?  Will he make it through the remainder of his years of education?

As his teacher, am I doing everything I can to support this student?  Could I be doing more?  Are my kind and supportive words enough?  Even though I listen to his stories and questions daily, is that all that he needs?  He works with our school counselor and some outside resources as well.  These also don’t seem to be providing any tangible results as of yet.  Is that okay?  Should something else be put in place?  When he makes poor choices in the classroom, my co-teacher and I work with him to explain why the choices he made elicited the results he saw.  We then give him strategies for how to deal with similar problems or situations in the future.  We’re trying to help him see how his actions have consequences.  Is that enough?  What else could I be doing to help him grow and develop?  I want to see him overcome his struggles to be and feel happy.  How can I do that?  When I struggled in the fourth grade, it didn’t matter what my teacher did or say, I was struck back then.  It took me two years to get unstuck.  Perhaps that’s what this student needs.  He needs time and a caring and supportive environment in which to deal with his struggles.  Maybe the best thing I can do is to let him struggle and figure things out for himself.  If I continue to jump in and solve his problems for him, am I really helping him?  I feel as though he needs to figure out things on his own.  Sure, I’ll be there to support him and offer words of encouragement when he needs them, but for the most part he needs to experience his life and realize that changes to need happen for growth to occur.  I just hope it doesn’t take him more than a year or so to figure this out.

The Power of 1-on-1 Student Conferences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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