It’s All About Relationships

Driving to my school this morning to help out at an Open House event for prospective fifth grade families, I felt a sense of calm and peace wash over me like glaze on a doughnut.  I was moved to philosophical thought, as I finally had a chance to meaningfully reflect on my teaching.  After an amazing, yet rich and full fall trimester in the fifth grade, I haven’t had much me-time.  I’ve been straight out, pedal-to-the-metal busy planning, teaching, grading, supporting and helping my students, and meeting with families, not to mention all of my responsibilities as a father and husband.  So, this morning, as I made my way south to the wonderful Beech Hill School, I had the opportunity to think poetically about the last three months at my new school…


Like a smooth stone shaped by the current, rolling along a river’s bed,

I’ve been changed and transformed by my school and students over the past few months:

I’ve taken risks and tried new things I never thought possible,

like mindful yoga and a student-driven newscast;

I empowered my students to own their learning,

as if they were the teachers and I the student;

I embraced failure and made it a positive part of our classroom vernacular,

one must fail for learning to be manifested;

My students challenged me to push them forward in new directions,

like ships changing course to avoid icebergs;

I employed new strategies to promote social awareness in the classroom,

we are a family, and families take care of each other, I preached;

I tried new, innovative ways to engage my students in the process of learning,

like Forest Fridays, student choice, a class pet, and bonus points.

 

I thought about the struggles I faced as well,

the challenges that kept me busily searching for possible solutions,

like the Goonies searching for One-Eyed Willy’s lost treasure.

Even after only a short time at my new school, I’ve grown in many ways,

like mountains being formed through tectonic plate movement.

My peaks eroded through the winds of change and new challenges

while my deep valleys began filling in with new information debris.

 

I am a semi-polished piece of granite, floating in the river

that is the Beech Hill School, learning and growing in a

never ending cycle of compassion and commitment.

I can only imagine what the next few months have in store for me.


As I pondered all of my moments of wonder, scenes of serenity, and snapshots of challenge, I started dwelling on what truly matters.  Although, as educators, we are constantly bombarded by articles and blog entries on new pedagogical approaches to teaching and advances in technology, what I began to realize on my early morning trek was that all that fancy stuff, all those bows on the presents of teaching, are meaningless without the gift of relationships inside.  High tech gadgets like interactive whiteboards and hands-on projects are ineffective and useless if we haven’t formed strong bonds and positive relationships with our students.  If our students don’t feel supported, cared for, or safe at school, then their brains will be unable to learn in any sort of meaningful and genuine manner.  Tiny problems that are easily solved because of the strong relationships we have with our students will quickly snowball into giant issues if we do not work to create strong and effective relationships with our students.

Just last week, a student in my class struggled to showcase his learning and reflect in a meaningful way in the ePortfolio he was working to prepare for his student-led conference.  I provided him space to attempt to solve his problem on his own.  While he didn’t openly admit that he was unable to solve his dilemma independently, he sent me a frustrated email that told me he needed help.  Because I have come to understand this student over the past few months and have a great rapport with him, I read through the veneer of anger.  The morning after I received his email, I had a great chat with him about his struggles.  I then worked with him during free periods in our daily schedule to help him display how he has grown and changed since early September.  I re-framed questions, worked with him to put his ideas and thoughts into complete sentences, and helped him transform his thinking onto his laptop.  When all was said and done, he seemed happier and proud of what he had accomplished.  He realized, that when he asks for help, he is able to accomplish the task at hand.

Because I have a strong relationship with this student, I knew that his angry email was a cry for help.  Forming meaningful relationships with our students allows for all of the other puzzle pieces of teaching to fall into place.  When our students feel cared for and understood, they are able to engage in project-based learning and get the most out of interactive learning tools.  Genuine learning happens when our students are able to work from the new, modern portions of their brains responsible for problem-solving and emotion.  My peaceful moments of reflection this morning allowed me to see that all of the awesomeness that happened in my fifth grade classroom this year was as a direct result of the relationships I formed with my students.  Great teachers are great at connecting with their students in just the right ways.

It’s so easy to get caught up in trying to plan the best, most effective, hands-on units possible, when all that really matters is how we interact with our students.  If we know, understand, and care about our students, everything we do plan will be exactly what our students need to help them grow and learn.  Unit planning for me comes down to my students.  What do they need to be successful?  How can I best challenge my students?  What type of project will motivate them to want to know more?  When I start with my students first, I find that the path to growth and learning is always right around the corner.  At the Beech Hill School, we always put our students first, which is why our students love coming to school each and every day.  I even had four amazing students show up today to help out with the Fifth Grade Open House event.  They value their learning and our class community so much that they are willing to give up their free time on a Sunday to help others see the power in being a Beech Hill School student.  If that doesn’t speak to the power of relationships, then I don’t know what does.

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Impromptu Superhero Fun in the Sixth Grade Classroom

As we know, our brain loves new and novelty things, which is why infomercials and those wacky Made for TV products are so popular.  Who wouldn’t love an easy way to put on socks or a pan made from copper, I mean, c’mon.  In the classroom, Kahoot! was super fun for my students the first few times I utilized it, and then it became just another activity.  Therefore, trying new things and taking risks in the classroom, helps educators keep their lessons fresh and their students engaged.  What’s really exciting is that this novelty engagement and learning can come in many forms.  Sometimes it can be in the form of a fun activity, new tech gadget or application, super cool project, or something else entirely.  Our students’ brains crave new and exciting images and chunks of information.  As teachers, we need to harness this power as much as possible.

 

Story Time in Verse

Writing in verse

allows me to

subtract the unnecessary

while adding meaning

through carefully

chosen words and images.

Thus, I will share a story

in the form of a poem…

 

Frigid, cold air penetrated

my bones like a scalpel

cutting into flesh.

BBBrrrr, I said as I

walked outside this morning.

Despite the calender telling

me it was April ninth,

everything in my cold car

screamed, WINTER!

Driving to school,

excitement replaced

the coolness in my bones

as I thought about

my Humanities lesson.

As ideas swirled about

my mind like ballerinas

in an antique shop,

the announcer on the radio

broke my concentration

when she said, “Ever

wonder what your superhero

name is?  Well, I’ll tell you

how you can find out

coming up on the morning show.”

What, I thought.  Why

can’t you just tell us now?

I don’t have time to wait

to find out how I can

determine my superhero name.

All of these questions

were quickly swept aside

as I walked to the dining hall.

 

Fortunately, my brain does

most of it’s best work

when I don’t even realize

I’m doing any thinking at all.

Later in the morning,

I remembered what the DJ

had said about superhero names.

While I used to think

that sliced bread was one

of the best inventions ever,

I now believe it is Google.

I Googled “Superhero Name

Generator” and found tons

of online resources.

Curiosity may have killed

the cat, but luckily, I’m no feline.

I ventured into one of these

fun websites and took a quiz

that allowed me to discover

my superhero name,

which happens to be Mr. Sunshine.

Fitting as I tend to be

optimistic and warm like

the sun.

All sorts of figurative

bells and whistles

began going off in my brain

as I started thinking about

how I could incorporate

this fun little activity

into my class.

That’s when it hit me,

take a risk and just

try the activity in class

with no real learning objective

or plan in mind

except to inspire and engage

the students in something

fun and novelty.

And so, I did just that…

 

The Experiment

I decided to wrap up my Reader’s Workshop block a bit early this morning so that I could complete this teenzy little activity with my students.  If a 40-year old man has fun creating a superhero name for himself, just imagine how excited sixth grade boys will be with this same task.  I introduced the activity with a shortened version of my driving to work story, which I shared in verse earlier in this very blog post.  I then shared my superhero name with the class, informing them that I would be perfectly fine if they decided to use my new superhero name, Mr. Sunshine, instead of the bland ol’ Mr. Holt that I usually go by.  They seemed quite amused by this.  Giggles erupted like a Hawaiian style volcanic eruption.  But, I didn’t stop there.  I then said, “But, I can’t have all the fun now, can I?  It’s time for you to determine your superhero name.”  I showed them how to find a superhero name generator online, and then let them run wild.  Laughter and excitement filled the classroom as they began crafting and discovering their superhero personas.  I closed the activity by having each of the students share their superhero name aloud with the class. This was the really fun part.  Some of the names included The Procrastinator, Dasheye, Super Flame, The Grouch, Witty Wonder, and Mr. McDab.  While some of them sounded more like super villain names, the students all seemed to be thoroughly engaged in this fun little break from the routine.

Now, you’re probably all asking yourself, “Where’s the learning in this?”  And, that is a fantastic question.  I’m not sure at this junction, but I wanted to take a risk and try something new.  I wanted to break from my normal routine and mix things up a bit.  Is it possible that learning did come about from this activity today without me even realizing it?  Were the students super excited at the end of class?  Yes.  Did this novelty activity stimulate something within their brain that might come to fruition in the near future?  Possibly.  Could I have the students use these names in some writing they will be doing very soon?  Yes.  In fact, I think I will try just that on Wednesday.  As they create Twitter exchanges using words in new and interesting ways, I will have them use their superhero names as the ones involved in the Twitter dialogue.  That should prove to be quite hysterical and fun.

As student engagement comes in many different forms, I wanted to try this activity with my students this morning to see what would happen.  Well, the good news is that fun happened.  My students had fun changing things up a bit and thinking creatively.  They were engaged as they created and chose superhero names.  Excitement and possibility filled the sixth grade classroom this morning.  Who knows what learning this short little break will inspire in the coming days within my students.  Perhaps nothing will happen, or maybe, something great or grand will crystallize from this activity.  Like great infomercial inventors of the past, I had to take a risk and try.  Maybe like the Flowbee, it will flop.  Or maybe, like the copper pan craze, it will be a huge success.  Only time will tell.

Why Do We Need to Teach Our Students to Be Creative Problem Solvers?

Problem solving was not a skill taught when I was a student in school many eons ago.  School back then was all about rote memorization, following directions, and doing exactly what the teacher told you to do.  There was no wiggle room when I was in school.  If the teacher said you needed to use complete sentences to answer the questions, you failed the assignment if you did not use complete sentences, even if you answered the question correctly and used support to back your claim.  Creativity and problem solving were not skills we were ever introduced to or had a chance to practice. In fact, when we did get creative or showcase our ability to problem solve as students, we were penalized. “That’s not what I told you to do.  You need to write an essay explaining why America got involved in WWII, not create a poster.  You are so very wrong.  Now you must redo this assignment by tomorrow morning or you will fail the course.”  It was all or nothing back then.  School for me seemed to be more about falling into line and being a drone than it did learning anything useful.

As a teacher, I’m trying to break free from the constraints of what our society once thought school should be.  School is a place to learn, engage and interact with the content and skills, practice failing and solving problems, and be creative and take risks.  Great, effective classrooms encourage creativity and foster a student-centered approach to education.  The students are provided options and choice to showcase their learning and growth as students.  There is no one way to complete a task or meet an objective.  School is a fun-filled adventure where anything is possible and dreams come true.

If we want our students to be able to live meaningful lives in a global society that is rich in pollution, crime, unpredictable weather due to climate change, and many other problems, then we need to equip our students with the necessary tools.  People no longer have a use for memorizing information as we can access it with the touch of a button.  People need to know how to find creative solutions to problems and think critically about the world around them.  We are living in an ever-changing world and we need to prepare our students accordingly.

In STEM class today, my students began working on the final project for our unit on climate change.  Understanding what climate change is, how it came to be a serious issue, and how it is impacting our planet, it is not enough for my students.  I want them to see beyond the information and content.  I want them to apply this knowledge to creating a solution that addresses the issue of climate change.  What can humans do to make a difference and help slow down or reduce our human impact on Earth?  So, the students, working in pairs, brainstormed possible ideas and solutions to the global problem of climate change.  The students used their critical thinking skills to the max today as they sketched ideas, researched information, and created some creative and unique solutions.  I was so impressed.

Some of the ideas my students brainstormed today included:

  • Attach tiny solar panels to the side pieces of eyeglasses that will collect the sun’s energy and store it in a small USB battery device that would be attached to the end of the ear piece.  This battery could then be used to charge electronic devices.  This solution would help reduce the amount of electricity needed to power gadgets, thus reducing the amount of carbon being released into our atmosphere.
  • Create a small-scale greenhouse within a large tube that would be attached to the top of smokestacks of factories.  The pollution being released from the factories would be filtered through various carbon-absorbing plants.  The air and gas would then be released into the atmosphere, containing a lot less carbon and other harmful greenhouse gasses.
  • Build a robot that would float around in the world’s oceans, sensing salt levels.  When the salinization level becomes too low, the robot would release salt into the water to help maintain a healthy balance of salt within the sea water.  This invention would hopefully help to keep sea life healthy and safe.

Wow!  My students are brilliant.  These ideas were certainly not the first creations they devised today in class.  The students would come to me with their ideas and I would ask questions, probing them to think about the feasibility of their idea.  Most of the initial ideas the students brought to me today were not the ones they are using to complete this project.  By challenging the students to think critically and complete more research, they were able to devise new and exciting ideas and solutions.  Perseverance was alive in the sixth grade classroom this morning.  The students worked with their partner to find a way to make the world a safer and better place for all living organisms.  Not only were the students engaged in this activity and having fun, they were creating real solutions that could one day be in use around the globe to help reduce our human impact on climate change.

In almost every STEM project or activity my students complete, I empower them to solve problems and think creatively.  I don’t need them to regurgitate information learned onto a worksheet or poster, I need them to synthesize what they are learning to answer questions and solve problems.  As the students of today will become the leaders of tomorrow, I need them to know how to encounter problems, solve them, fail, try again, and persevere.  Our world isn’t about knowing information any longer.  Although knowledge is power, if people don’t know how to think critically to solve problems, then our world is sure to fall apart within the next century.

Looking Back on the First Sixth Months of the Academic Year

As our lengthy March Break begins tomorrow, it feels like a fine time to reflect on the first two-thirds of the academic year.  It’s hard to believe that when we return from spring break, we will only have about nine weeks until summer vacation.  Where did the time go? It feels like just yesterday we were getting the students acclimated to the world of sixth grade at Cardigan, but alas, they are seasoned veterans on the ways of the classroom and are almost ready for seventh grade and all of the adventures that they will experience next year.  As the end nears, I feel myself getting nostalgic.  Remember when we went to the Sargent Center?  Remember when we had our first Marble Party?  Remember when we first met our bunnies on the farm?  At the same time, though, I’m excited for the fun we still have left and and all of the learning I’m sure to do.

This has been a fantastic year filled with many new experiences:

  • I worked with a new co-teacher this year, who has taught me a lot about teaching and working with students.  While I did have to train her on how our sixth grade program works during the first few weeks and months, she was a fast learner and asked lots of great questions.  I am blessed to have her on my team.
  • I piloted a Farm Program in the sixth grade this year, which the boys love.  They have enjoyed learning how a farm works, raising and caring for bunnies, planting various flora and vegetables, and learning about the importance of caring for the natural world while understanding our place in it.  The boys have learned much as is evident in their weekly journal entries.  This hands on experience was definitely worth all of the hard work that went into planning and preparing for this new program over the summer.  All classes and schools need a Farm Program like ours.  It’s beneficial to the students in numerous ways.
  • I made use of a computer coding online computer program called Code Combat this year.  The students have enjoyed learning all about the Python coding language as they play games and complete various tasks.  It’s helping prepare the students for the technology class they will take as seventh graders.  It’s also opening windows for students who never realized, prior to this year, that they were interested in technology or computer coding.  It’s planting seeds of curiosity within the boys.  I’ve really enjoyed using it and am glad that I happened upon this fun little program over the summer.
  • My mission to have all of my students learn how to solve the Rubik’s Cube fizzled out a bit in the past few weeks.  Earlier in the year, the students would spend ten minutes every week working on learning to solve the cube.  They seemed engaged and excited.  While several students were quick learners and figured out how to solve it within a month or so, there were a few who never really devoted the extra time to figuring it out and have gotten stuck.  No matter how many different ways I try to help those few struggling students, because they are employing a fixed mindset when it comes to this skill, they are unable to figure out how to successfully solve it.  Of course, because our last two units required more in-class work time, the students haven’t had a chance to play with their cubes in almost two months.  I’m hoping to get back into a weekly routine following our long break.  While I don’t want to give up on the challenge I put before myself back in September, I also want to be cautious of not setting myself up for failure.  I’ll have to wait and see what happens in April and May.  Fingers crossed.
  • I utilized Little Bits in my STEM class this year as part of the Astronomy Unit.  The students, working in small groups, had to develop and build a working prototype of a space rover that would help them solve a problem.  The students thoroughly enjoyed this unit.  They loved playing with the circuits and figuring out how to put them together in a meaningful manner.  This new addition was a huge success.  I’m so glad I piloted them in the classroom this year.
  • I restructured our math units so that they were more aligned with the Math in Focus book series we use.  I made sure that the introduction of each new skill was accompanied by a mini-lesson.  I wanted the students to feel successful as they practiced new math skills in preparation for next year.  After a bit of a disastrous math experience last year, I have been very pleased with the outcome I’ve seen so far.  My students are making progress and seem to feel good about math.  Many of my students spend time outside of class working on their assigned Khan Academy course because they want to learn more.  This leads me to believe that the changes I brought about this year in how I taught the math curriculum were successful.

It has truly been an epic year in the sixth grade.  I’ve been pleased with how our classroom community has developed since September.  All of the students seem to really like each other.  They are kind and compassionate and go out of their way to help each other.  It’s quite amazing to see this in action.  They are a fun and insightful group that have made huge strides in many ways.  Our ELLs have made tremendous growth regarding their English writing, reading, and speaking.  Their vocabulary has grown exponentially.  Our shy students have blossomed into social butterflies and our class leaders have become even stronger.  Because we put so much time and energy in during the first two months of the academic year to help our students hone their social skills and develop their emotional intelligence, our students have been able to grow and mature in so many other ways at such a rapid pace.  Fostering a sense of care, trust, and safety in the classroom is crucial to helping support and challenge students.  Our year has been so great in the sixth grade because of the effort and dedication my co-teacher and I put in early on.  I can’t wait to see what excitement and fun will be had during the final two months of the school year when we return from break in late March.

Trying New Things to Best Support Our Students

I take criticism and feedback very personally.  While my goal is to continually improve as a person, husband, father, and educator, I am generally very hard on myself when I receive feedback that might be construed as negative, even if it isn’t.  I blame myself and think poorly of my performance.  Yes, my self esteem is low and I’ve been working on it for years.  I am great at what I do, but like a wise man once said, “All of you are perfect just as you are and could use a little improvement.”  I strive to grow, which is why I welcome feedback.  This way I am continually forced to deal with the fact that I’m not awful, there are just always going to be ways or areas in which I can improve.

Recently, I’ve realized that a student in my class is excelled in math.  His abilities in mathematics are incredibly high.  He has mastered most pre-algebra skills and is working at an algebra one level in the sixth grade.  He is humble about it, but wants to grow.  While my STEM class is structured in a very individual way, I only created three tracks based on the Common Core Standards, which my school uses in the Math Department.  I have a sixth grade track, seventh grade track, and an eighth grade track.  I figured this would cover and support every student this year, even my most advanced students; however, this doesn’t seem to be the case thus far.  While we’ve only just begun the year and the first unit tends to be easy as it is review, I’ve noticed, as has this student, that even the eighth grade track is too easy for him.  He has mastered many of these skills.

So, now what?  How can I best support him to help him grow and develop as a math student?  My first instinct was to have him work through this unit and then complete a unit in Khan Academy to further challenge him.  But what about direct instruction?  How will he learn new concepts?  He will need the support of a teacher.  Then, my co-teacher suggested having this student complete the Pre-Algebra Placement Exam used in the other grades to see where he falls.  If he does well on this, he could take the Algebra One Placement Exam as well.  Then we would know what concepts he has mastered and in what level to work with him.  This would allow my co-teacher to tailor the curriculum to meet this student’s needs through a one-on-one pullout during Math Work Days.

Brilliant idea.  I love it.  Then, immediately, I went to a place of, “Why can’t I help him?  Why didn’t I generate that idea?  Am I not good enough as an educator to help this student?”  No, that’s not it at all.  By being open to new ideas and ways to best support this student, I am being the best educator I can be.  I’m using my colleagues for help and guidance.  I’m allowing new ideas to take root.  I’m not trying to control every situation.  I want what’s best for this student and since I’ve realized I can’t give it to him with my own ideas, I need to seek help.  Teamwork is a vital 21st Century Skill which I try to teach my students daily.  Modelling this through my teaching and flexibility as an educator allows my students to see the value in it.  Everything is not all about me and I’m not always in the wrong.  Realizing this allows me to become a better educator and person.  I need to take and employ new ideas and suggestions in order to grow and develop.  If I want to best support and help all of my students, I need to admit that I can’t do it all.  I do need help and do need to try new things even if they are outside of my comfort zone.  Dealing with this student has helped me to realize this.  I guess that saying about great teachers really is true, “I learn more from my students than they learn from me.”