How’d I Do: My End of the Year Goal Reflection

As I left my classroom this afternoon following the last, formal academic day at my school, sadness filled my heart while the song “It’s so Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” by Boyz II Men popped into my head.  I looked out onto my school’s namesake Mount Cardigan and tears started to fill my eyes.  15 years is a long time to be at one school.  Memories have been washing over me recently like ocean water on a beach of sand.  I remember my first year at Cardigan, right out of college.  I was a wreck.  It was awful.  I couldn’t control the students and was teaching courses I knew very little about.  Things got better though as I grew a bit wiser.  Much has changed about me and the school at which I’ve worked at for the past several years.  Cardigan has changed me, and hopefully I’ve left my mark on this fine educational institution.  While I’m moving onto a new school for the next academic year, I will bring much of what I’ve learned in my time here, to my new school.

As I hop and skip down memory lane in my final days here on the Point, it’s prudent that I reflect on my progress as an educator this year.  Did I meet my professional goals?  Did I grow as a teacher?  How’d I do in the classroom?

It was an awesome year in the sixth grade.  My students made much progress both socially and academically, due in part to the strong program my co-teacher and I created this year.  We helped the boys work through communication and coexistence issues while also helping them to develop as readers, writers, critical thinkers, and problem solvers.

I tried a few new things this year that I felt went very well…

  • The mindfulness curriculum that my co-teacher and I developed and implemented during the fall term and throughout the year seemed to really help focus the students mentally and socially.  While by the end of the year, they did joke a bit with each other about it.  “Make sure you are mindful now boys,” they would say to one another, which is great because it means that they got it, they see the power in living in the present moment, staying calm, and avoiding external and internal distractions.
  • I created a unit on Figurative Language for my Humanities class that I used during the spring term.  During the past several years, I’ve used the same unit on the Middle East region during the final academic term of the year.  While I’ve enjoyed this unit and feel as though the students do get a lot out of it, I always wondered if I was properly preparing them to think critically about literature.  In the past, I have focused mostly on basic reading and writing strategies and skills, and have found that some of my students do not feel prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English class.  As the expectations are ratcheted up quite a bit, the students are expected to know how to analyze literature.  So, I changed my final unit of the year so that I could help my students be and feel more prepared for life in the seventh grade.  It was so much fun, and probably my most favorite unit of the year.  Every piece of Humanities class fit together so perfectly during this unit, from our Idiom of the Day bellringers to our class read aloud and poetry activities.  It was awesome.  The students had a blast learning how to make their writing more colorful and creative while also learning how to interpret figurative language used in works of literature.
  • Our big field trip of the year to Chewonki in Maine was a huge success.  While the boys seemed to not enjoy it in the moment, as it was hard and asked them to step way outside of their comfort zone, they are already beginning to see the great benefits and fun that came from this great experience.  This was a completely new trip for the sixth grade, but I was ready for a change as we had been going to the same place in Cape Cod for nine years.  Chewonki was that change, and boy was it a great change at that.

I also met my two professional goals that I set way back in October of last year…

  • I want to gather data on how rubrics and project introductions help promote or reduce the amount of creativity students are able to put into their work so that I can begin to understand how to best introduce a new task or assignment to my students.
    • After much work on this topic throughout the year, I’ve realized that my original hypothesis is correct and that rubrics are futile tools that simply steal creativity and critical thinking opportunities from students.  The only group that I found in my research that gets any use out of a rubric is the ESL students, as rubrics tend to use simple English language that is manageable for them to process easily and quickly.  Mission accomplished.
  • I want to incorporate ideas and skills covered during our Mindfulness Unit in Team Time and our Brain Unit from PEAKS class into my Humanities class.
    • While I didn’t necessarily do this as much as I would have liked to have done it and, perhaps, as meaningfully, I do feel as though I did accomplish this goal.  We incorporated mindfulness activities into our study skills class at least once a week during the spring term.  We had the students complete a guided meditation that we led before having them share how others have helped them or how they have helped others in the class.  These activities helped to focus the students while allowing them to develop compassion and gratitude.  I also made use of the big ideas behind mindfulness, including growth mindset, perspective, and open-mindedness, in my Humanities class throughout the year.  Every part of our curriculum came down to helping them broaden their perspective as a way to be more kind, compassionate, and thoughtful, and I reminded them of that often in class.  Although I wish I could have met with the students at the start of the academic day daily, our schedule didn’t allow for that.  Had it though, I would have conducted a Class Meeting that contained a mindfulness activity as well as some student sharing.  My goal is to make use of this type of Morning Meeting on a daily basis in my classroom at my new school starting in August.

Thinking back on the year as a whole, it felt very productive, and I feel as though I did a great job helping my students to grow and develop as students and people.  Yes, it is hard to say goodbye to my current school, but I’m doing so on good and positive terms.  It’s time for me to move on and start a new adventure.  I now have much to do this summer to prepare for the next academic year at my new school.  I can’t wait to start jumping into things in a few short weeks.  For now though, I will live in the present moment and make the most of the time I have left at my current school.  Until the summer when I will inevitably be reflecting on life at my new school, I’m out.

Discussions that Are Good to the Last Drop

The dining hall at my school has really been ratcheting up the variety and taste of its coffee this year.  They began introducing various flavors of coffee at the start of the academic year.  They added vanilla cream, caramel nut, rainforest crunch, and many others.  It’s really been a plus this year to have some delicious coffee in the morning, as in years past, the coffee they’ve served has tasted more like motor oil than coffee.

Just like good coffee, teaching is enjoyable to the last drop.  As my academic year winds to a close, with only two class days left, I’m getting very nostalgic.  It’s been an amazing year in the sixth grade.  Our class is phenomenal in every way, and each student has made great progress since September.  They have grown together as a real family and support each other nicely.  It’s really been awesome to watch this transformation throughout the year and guide them through it.

While teachers get a bit sad at the end of every school year, students tend to get a bit kooky come the end of school.  Negative behaviors tend to pop up, as the students can’t wait for summer vacation.  It can be difficult to keep students focused during the final days of school.  With this in mind, I was a bit nervous about our last current events discussion of the year that took place in class on Saturday.  As the boys didn’t have any formal study hall time to read about current events, I wondered how fruitful the discussion would actually be.  Lo and behold, it was probably the best discussion we had all year.  The boys were focused, built on each other’s comments and thoughts appropriately, and raised some valid and unique points regarding school shootings.  It was quite a sight to observe.  I was impressed.

The students rocked it and stayed focused even at the very end of the school year.  I wonder what allowed that to happen.  Do they just love talking about current events that much?  While I do think this group enjoys discussing different topics, I’m not sure if that was the catalyst.  Perhaps.  Maybe because they knew they were being graded on the discussion objective they put forth great effort?  Who knows what allowed this amazing and final discussion to happen, but it did.  I will celebrate the little victories at this point in the year as I enjoy the final drop of this morning’s tasty cup of coffee.

The Power in Holding Students Accountable

Fourth grade was a challenging year for me as a student.  I felt like I was on an emotional roller coaster.  Some days were better than others.  I hated school on some days, but then loved it on other days.  In retrospect, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to what caused good days vs the bad ones.  At this same time, I also struggled being able to see well.  I didn’t want to tell my parents because that meant that I would need glasses.  Back in the 1980s, if you wore glasses, you were labelled a geek and picked on mercilessly.  Life was already hard enough for me, and so I just rode it out.  I sat in the back of the class, straining to read anything the teacher had written on the blackboard.  I didn’t have many friends back then either.  Life was tough.  Despite all of these big things going on in my life, one of the most vivid memories from my year in fourth grade was when my teacher held me accountable for not doing my work.  Here’s the story…

It was a mid-Autumn, Monday afternoon.  I had just gotten off the bus near my house and walked home.  The sound of crunching leaves echoed throughout the neighborhood as children ran to their homes.  After using the restroom and having a delicious snack, my mom made me sit down and do my homework.  While I was never a big fan of homework, looking back on how my parents addressed it, I appreciated the structure as it helped mold me into a strong student.  My homework was a spelling worksheet.  I hated spelling, but I was good at it.  So, I whipped through it quite quickly.  As I finished the worksheet, my mom rushed my sister and I out of the house for some sort of family thing.  My memory of the specifics regarding what we were doing isn’t quite as strong as the rest of this story, but we had something to do that prevented me from putting my worksheet into my backpack.  We then got home very late that evening.  I went to school the next day, not having put my spelling worksheet into my bag.  So, when my teacher asked for us to hand in the worksheet, I didn’t have mine.  My consequence was detention that evening.  I was mortified.  I went to the bathroom and cried.  I then had to go to the office and call my parents to tell them to pick me up later.  It was an incredibly traumatic experience that ingrained within me the importance of being prepared and organized.  From that day forward, I never missed another assignment.  The moral of the story is that being held accountable taught me a valuable lesson.

As a teacher, I see the power in holding students accountable.  If a student doesn’t complete work to demonstrate their ability to meet an assessed objective, there needs to be some sort of consequence or repercussion so that he or she learns the value in completing a task.  If students are able to get away with not completing work, even if they don’t pass the course, will they ever truly learn the skill of follow-through?  In my class, if a student doesn’t complete a task, assignment, or project, I work with him outside of class during his free time to be sure he completes the work or is able to meet the objective being graded.  In order to be sure that I am properly preparing my students for the next grade, I need to do my job and equip them with the appropriate and necessary skills.  Every assignment or learning task is important to me, as I assess their ability as students.

In Humanities class yesterday, my students participated in a fun and engaging Poetry Slam, as they turned in their final Poetry Book for the unit.  The students had a blast reciting their poems aloud to the group in a unique manner.  Many of my students even chose to don the beanie hat I have as a prop.  While they read and listened to some amazing pieces of creative poetry, they enjoyed some tasty treats with which I provided them.  It was a very special activity, as they worked very hard to complete this difficult task of revising their poems and putting them together in an organized and aesthetically pleasing way.  Laughter filled the room as the boys shared their poems with their classmates.  The students got into character, altered their voice, walked around the room, used hand gestures, and had fun reading their phenomenal verses aloud to the class.

Prior to Friday’s due date for this project, I told the students that those who don’t have their final Poetry Books completed according to the requirements and ready tor turn in by the start of third period on Friday would be unable to participate in our festive Poetry Slam in class.  The boys were very aware of the learning task, due date, and consequence for failing to complete the assignment on time.  All but two students were ready and prepared for class on Friday with their Poetry Book finished and turned in.  Before we got into our Poetry Slam, I had those two students exit the room to work on the task that they did not finish.  While one of the students tried to debate that he did actually have his Poetry Book finished, I reminded him that it wasn’t completed according to the requirements listed via the learning portal.  Those two students missed our super fun, engaging, and enjoyable Poetry Slam to complete work that should have been finished outside of class.

While they missed the tasty snacks and humor that ran rampant through the room during our final Poetry Slam, I’m hopeful that those two students learned a lesson in time management.  In life, if you don’t complete something according to the due date, you are penalized.  If you fail to renew your license prior to its expiration date, you could face a stiff fine or penalty.  To prepare my students to live meaningful lives in a global society, they need to understand how the world works.  By holding my students accountable and doling out consequences for not completing work on time, I am helping to teach them a valuable lesson that will serve them well in the future.

Challenging the Fixed Mindset

Over the past twenty years or so, our society has begun opening its mind a little bit when it comes to gender differences.  Lawsuits are finally being brought forth regarding the sexual abuse and harassment of females.  People are being held accountable for their derogatory and horribly offensive actions.  Schools, stores, and businesses have begin making changes to their bathroom policy so that transgendered individuals, or those questioning their gender, have a safe place to relieve themselves.  More women are being appointed to positions of much power while some women are earning equivalent salaries to their male counterparts.  Times have certainly changed as equality is becoming more widespread.

Like all things in life, some thrive and survive while others die or transform into invasive species, sucking the marrow out of all living things nearby.  While most people in our world are beginning to open their minds to possibility and difference, there are still some folks who live in ignorance.  Some people struggle to accept others who are different from them.  They combat knowledge and openness with hate and bias.  I’m hopeful that as the world continues to change and evolve, even those people who live in denial or a state of perpetual prejudice will learn to accept all people for who they are no matter how they may express themselves.

In the classroom, I make it my personal mission to help bring light to the darkness.  I work hard to educate my students so that they see people for who they are and not what they look like.  I want my students to feel safe and know that they can express themselves in any way that feels right for them.  If they feel like a male but are born with the reproductive organs of a female, I want them to be comfortable expressing their gender in an appropriate and male way, for them.  I want my students to accept all people as they learn to embrace the differences that make the world so fun and interesting.  In order to live meaningful lives in a global society, my students need to understand the importance of seeing all sides and perspectives of an issue or person.

Today during health class, we discussed the difference between gender and biological sex, as I want my students to see that gender isn’t about the reproductive organs one is born with; it’s about how one feels.  The boys asked some curious questions, as they do every year.  They often become fixated on gender versus sexual orientation.  One boy today asked, “If a girl feels like a boy and is attracted to girls but then gets the surgery to become a boy and is still sexually attracted to girls, is that person gay?”  So, I broke down the question into its various parts as I helped the boys to see the differences between biological sex, gender, and sexual orientation.  I then walked this student through his scenario to help him answer his own question.  The students seemed to understand these complex ideas as they began opening their minds to the possibilities that exist.

Then came the fixed mindset, which happens every year.  There seems to be one student in every class who carries his biases with him into the classroom.  It can be difficult for people to open their minds and broaden their perspectives if they wear a shield of close-mindedness.  While this one student did attempt to pose his thoughts to the class in an appropriate manner, I could see the thinly veiled bias and fixed mindset through his words.  He said, “All this gender and transgendered stuff seems to be very opinion-based.  Why should the world change just to suit the requests of other people who feel different?  Why can’t those people figure it out and learn to fit in like everyone else?  I don’t think we should be talking about such a controversial topic.”  Rather than flip out on this student, I paused for a moment before responding, and then said, “While there is much opinion involved in talking about issues of gender, the reason we are discussing it in class is because it’s controversial.  I don’t want to hide the truth from you.  I want you to see the world for all its beauty.  Differences make the world go round.”  I then addressed the idea of having a fixed mindset when discussing and learning about issues of difference, especially around sexual orientation and gender.  Another student then added to the conversation by talking about how gender is an internal feeling and people can’t always control how they feel.  “People need to be able to express themselves according to how they feel,” he said.  This was great, as it wasn’t just me addressing this one student who seemed to possess a bit of a fixed mindset regarding today’s topic.  At the end of class, the student who seemed a bit closed to new ways of thinking did come and speak with me about what he had said, to clarify confusion.  I had a good chat with him about differences and why it’s so important to accept people for who they are no matter what they may look like on the outside.  He seemed to get it.  I love it.  It’s nice when students are able to move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

As this issue of gender and sex is still quite the hot topic in society today, it’s my job as a teacher to help my students become aware and knowledgeable on all of this information.  This does mean that I do need to challenge some of my students to see the world from another perspective.  Not every person is going to be open and accepting of everything I say or try to teach them, but I do need to help all of my students see the power in education and acceptance.  The more we know, the broader our flashlight beam of perspective will be as we navigate the world around us.  I want to be sure that my students are prepared to interact with all types of people while feeling comfortable digging into big and personal issues regarding sexual orientation and gender.

Sometimes You Just Gotta Let ‘Em Complain a Little

“If you ain’t got nothin’ good to say, don’t say anything at all,” is one of the oldest rules in the book on how to be a kind and compassionate person.  At a young age, children are taught to keep their negative thoughts and emotions bottled up inside.  “Don’t say mean things.”  “Don’t say something that might hurt someone else’s feelings.”  Due to this culture of political correctness, children grow up unaware of how to deal with negative emotions, as they have kept them bottled up inside for so long.  Schools around the globe teach children to share only positive, happy thoughts with one another, while repressing any negative thoughts or feelings.  This, as we know now due to the numerous studies and reports being done on children around the globe, leads to an increase in the suicide rate, depression, homicide rate, and abuse.  If children are never taught how to navigate the rolling waves of emotions that sweep over them on a regular basis, they will struggle transforming into fully-functioning adults.  We need to provide children outlets for ALL of their emotions while teaching them how to manage both positive and negative feelings.  It’s perfectly normal to feel sad, mad, or upset, and we need children around the world to know that.  It’s our duty as adults to help teach children how to manage and handle all types of emotions.  What do you do if a peer in your class makes you angry?  What should you say if you are mad at someone?  What’s the right way to deal with the flood of emotions children feel on a daily basis?

As a teacher, I’ve made it a goal and mission of mine to help my students learn to be comfortable feeling and expressing, appropriately, all of the emotions they experience.  I want my students to learn how to tell someone that what they are doing is making them very angry.  I help my students learn to address all of their emotions.  At the start of a new school year, this is messy and can be and feel very chaotic as the students are learning how to express themselves.  For many of them, this is their first go-round of this type of activity, as they were unable to share their true feelings at their past schools.  I often find myself stopping class to help teach the boys how to deal with how they are feeling.  “It seems like you are really upset right now.  That must be very frustrating for you.  How are you feeling?”  Their response to this question allows me to do some teaching in the moment.  “Instead of cursing at your classmate when you are upset with him because he accidentally pushed you, you should tell him how you are feeling.  ‘I feel very angry right now because you pushed me.'”  These short, impromptu mini-lessons allow me the opportunity to help students learn how to interact with their peers in meaningful ways as they learn how to appropriately deal with positive and negative emotions.  I don’t ever want my students to feel like they need to bottle up their feelings or keep them hidden inside.  It’s completely normal to feel upset or mad, and I want them to learn how to deal with those types of feelings as they grow and develop throughout the year.

As most students that I work with come from schools, countries, and places that often prevent them from expressing negative emotions or feelings, this process takes a while to get through as a whole class.  However, occasionally, I am able to work with a student who comes from a place, environment, or family that have embraced feelings and emotions.  These students are fun to work with because they wear their feelings on their sleeve and aren’t afraid to tell it like it is.  “I hate this class.”  “You smell bad.”  “This is stupid.”  These students have learned how to share their feelings already.  My duty is to help these students learn how to share their feelings and emotions in appropriate ways.  “Instead of saying this is stupid, is there a more compassionate way you could express your frustration and anger right now?”  These students learn how to control the words they use when sharing their feelings so that they will be heard.  If a student calls someone else stupid, everything else that comes after the word stupid will not be heard, as it’s a trigger word.  Instead, I help my students learn to express their actual feelings and emotions.  “I feel angry right now because you are not understanding what I am saying even though I am using words that I think should help you understand me.”  This way, that other student is able to hear what that one student is saying and begin to change his behavior so suit the situation.

What I truly enjoy about these students who wear their emotions on their sleeves is their brutal honesty.  “I hate that class because it is stupid.  I don’t understand why we just tell stories all period.  That isn’t teaching me anything.”  If I ever want honest feedback with no filters, I will ask the one emotionally open student in my class questions.  These students also struggle to contain their negative thoughts and feelings, which can make for some interesting situations.  I have a student from Europe in my class this year and when we started our unit on Africa, he asked, “My mom is paying thousands of dollars to send me here to learn about America.  Why are we learning about Africa?  That makes no sense to me.”  At first, I was taken aback by this comment, but addressed his question in a meaningful manner.  As we got into the unit, he was one of the hardest workers in the class during the project phase because he enjoyed his topic so much.  As we debriefed the unit, he had clearly learned much.  “I loved this unit and it taught me a lot about a part of the world I didn’t know much about.  It changed my perspective a lot.  I loved the project too.  That was so much fun dressing up in costume.”  It was at this moment that I realized, that this student, like many with whom I have worked with in the past, just need to be allowed to share their thoughts and feelings in order to process the influx of new information.  By allowing students like this one to share his true feelings, negative or otherwise, he is able to then open his mind to new information.

Case and point, today’s study skills class.  The students needed to reflect, in writing, on their academic goals and make a plan for what they will do to keep working towards the goals they have set for themselves.  This one honest student asked, “Why do we have to do this?  It is stupid.  I already made my goals.  Why do I need to write about how it’s going?”  I listened as he spoke and provided him with a brief response on the power of self-awareness and ownership.  I then walked away and allowed him to get to work.  Walking by him a few minutes later, he was hard at work, focused on reflecting on his progress in working towards his goals.  He even asked me for feedback when he finished.  Amazing.  So, even though this student seems angry and confused at first, he just needs the time and opportunity to share his feelings aloud in order to process what he needs to do.  I’m so glad that I came to this realization, because I had started thinking that he was just a negative individual.  Now I see that he just has a different way of working and solving problems.  Awesome sauce.  Sometimes, you just gotta’ let ’em complain a little.

From the Mouths of my Students

Children are innocent, as they haven’t yet been touched by the impurity of reality.  They believe in santa claus and the tooth fairy.  They think the world is a great place because they don’t see all of the bad that exists.  They are kind and gentle souls who are untainted by knowing how the world really operates.  They see life through kid-colored glasses.  This purity of thought allows them to think and say some pretty interesting stuff.  They are not afraid to speak their mind.  I remember the first time my wife and I met our son before we adopted him.  After shaking my hand, the first thing he said to me was, “Why do you sound like a farmer?”  Kids have no filters and are very curious.  It’s great.  That’s what I love about teaching elementary-school-aged children.  They are very honest.  They don’t sugar-coat the truth.  If they like you, they will tell you.  If they don’t like something, they will also tell you.  They aren’t afraid to talk or share their thoughts and ideas with others.

As a teacher, I crave honest feedback so that I can continue to grow and develop in the classroom.  I’m constantly asking my co-teacher what I could do to improve a lesson, unit, or activity.  When colleagues come into my classroom to observe me, I pepper them with questions.  What do I need to work on?  What could I have done better?  Did I ask the most effective questions?  Did I call on the same student too often?  As my colleagues are adults, they usually choose just the right words to answer my questions, which means that I may not always be getting the most truthful response or feedback.  You know adults.

The most effective and honest feedback I’ve gotten over the years comes from my students.  If I want to truly know how a lesson went, I just ask my students.  What did you think?  How’d it go?  What would you change if you were the teacher?  They don’t hold back.  While I work with them over the course of the year in learning to give honest feedback to others in appropriate ways, that doesn’t mean that they don’t reveal their true feelings.  They just do so in a kind and compassionate manner.

Yesterday, the students began working on writing a book review for the play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose, which we recently finished reading and discussing in class.  My written instructions and explanation for what they needed to include in their review were very limited.  I kept it focused on just the facts, without telling them too much.  I want them to do the thinking and problem solving when approaching the task at hand.

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The students worked diligently in class on their first paragraph.  While a few students had some questions about how they should include the author’s name and title, they solved their own problems as they worked.  At the close of class, I asked them if they felt like the brief overview I gave them was enough information to go on to complete the task of if they would have liked a detailed rubric instead.  I wasn’t shocked by their responses, as I’ve known how ineffective rubrics can be for most students for quite some time now.  However, it does feel good to know that my students see how less is more when it comes to project or task details.  Here’s a smattering of the feedback I received…

“I liked the overview you gave us because it allowed me to think for myself and ask questions if I didn’t understand.  I was challenged and I like that.”

“For me, I’m an ESL student and sometimes I need more help understanding an assignment, but your explanation was fine.  I knew what to do.”

“When there’s a lot of writing like on a rubric, I don’t read it.  I like how you just gave us the basic requirements for the assignment.”

“Your explanation told me what I needed to do while also giving me room to be creative in how I do it.”

“I liked it.  It really helped me to do the work, but allowed me to make it my own as I could interpret the requirements in my own way.”

From the mouths of my students comes truthful and honest feedback.  I love it.  If you want to know how you’re doing as a teacher in the classroom, don’t ask adults because they will find a way to put a positive spin on what they say.  Ask your students for feedback.  Plus, who knows you better than your own students?  See what they have to say.  I’ve done the most growing as an educator in my 17 years of teaching by using the feedback I’ve received from my students.  Give it a try and see what happens.  Perhaps, you will find as much success in the process as I have.

Helping Students Change Their Perspective

It’s story time…

Once upon a time in the land of green and white, there lived a class of sixth graders.  They were a little feisty, slightly stinky, and wonderful in all the right ways.  The only problem was their perspective.  It was always so stuck in the mud like a pig or Artex from The Never Ending Story.  Whenever their amazingly gifted and ruggedly handsome teacher taught them something new, they put on a stern face and said, “We hate this topic and we are never going to like it.”  However, once they began learning that something new, their attitude began to change.  They started to like that thing they once hated.  No matter what the new subject was, they always started out with a negative mindset, until the learning actually began.  It was like watching reruns of Mash, at first you’re like, “Oh, this show is so old, I can’t possibly like it,” and then after you start watching an episode for a few minutes you’re like, “OMG, this show is hilarious.  I love Hawkeye.”

Okay, I’m done telling my story, but wait, it has no ending.  Every story needs a happy ending.  So, here is mine…

Then, one day the sixth grade class was outside exploring the Forbidden Forest of Doom when they happened upon a uni-chaun, which is a cross between a unicorn and a Leprechaun for those not in the know.  The uni-chaun jumped for joy when it saw the sixth grade class and their broad-shouldered teacher, and said, “Yah!  I am now free.  Thank you so much for finding me.  I can grant you one wish before I fly away.  What would you like?”  So, the sixth grade class thought long and hard about their wish, and responded, “We would like to have rainbow-colored wings so that we can fly wherever we want.”  And so, the uni-chaun granted their wish and gave every member of the sixth grade class, including their witty and wise teacher, rainbow-colored wings.  Then, the sixth grade class flew off into the sunset.  THE END.

So that’s it.  That’s my story, which serves as the inspiration for today’s blog post.  You see, over the years, I’ve found that many of my students come into a particular topic or subject area with a very fixed and closed mindset.  For whatever reason, they don’t like math, science, poetry, or some other topic; however, by the end of the unit, activity, or course, they change their tune and seem to like that which they once despised.  It’s always been a bit perplexing to me, but something that I’ve grown to accept in my years of teaching sixth grade.

Recently, my students have been learning about poetry in my Humanities class as part of our larger unit on Figurative Language.  When I first introduced our mini-unit on poetry, complaints and sighs filled the room like mold on bread.  “I hate poetry.  It’s so boring,” were some of the statements made by my students.  Then, we got into the heart of it.  I taught them how to craft Haikus, Sonnets, Epic, and Free Verse Poems.  I shared examples of great poems with them.  They began writing their own poems.  I explained how poetry isn’t fixed and is open to interpretation.  Rules are meant to be broken, I told them.  I let them explore words and lines as they learned the ins and outs of the poetic form of writing.  And of course, as always is the case, they started to enjoy poetry.  They had fun writing poems.  They liked listening to poetry read aloud.  They loved reading their original poems aloud to the class during our weekly Poetry Slams.  Their disdain for this personal form of writing seemed to drift away like gas after a student farts in the classroom.  As they realized that what they thought they knew about poetry was only a tiny sliver of the actual truth, their perspective began to change.  They started to see poetry as fun and exciting.  They looked forward to learning about new forms of poetry.  They couldn’t wait for our next Poetry Slam.  And they begged me to read more of our class read-aloud novel written in verse.  They have begun to truly love poetry.  It’s amazing.

Today in class, after the students had spent the period working on revising some of their poems, I had some of the boys share how they have grown as poets over the course of our time learning about poetry.  It was through their words that I started to see how it just takes time for people to see all sides of something, including the good and the bad.  While for many of the students, their past experience with poetry was negative and perhaps a bit stereotypical, they have now been able to see it from a different perspective.  They now see how poetry is more than just “pretty” words strung together in short lines.  Poetry is truth.  Poetry is fun.  Poetry is personal.  Poetry is easy.  Here are some snippets of what they shared with me in class this morning…

“I used to not like poetry because I thought it was boring or confusing.  Then I started to realize that it’s fun writing poetry when you use figurative language.  My lines now mean something more than just what the words suggest.”

“I thought poems were just about nature and stuff.  I didn’t realize you could write a poem about Abraham Lincoln or how life changes.  I liked learning about different poems and trying to figure out what they meant.”

“I liked how we could break the rules of grammar and writing when typing our poems.  I could choose to use a comma or not, and I didn’t get in trouble.”

“I liked how short the poems could be.  Haikus were really short and didn’t take long to write.”

“I used to not like poetry because there were so many rules about syllables, lines, and rhymes.  Then I realized that I didn’t have to follow all of the rules if I didn’t want to.  I really liked the freedom we had in writing our poems.”

Clearly, my students learned a lot about poetry throughout our unit as their perspectives changed quite a bit.  It’s nice to know that my students will be moving onto seventh grade enjoying poetry and seeing a new side of this form of writing that used to send shivers down their spines.

An Ode to My Sixth Grade Class in Haiku Form

My sixth grade students

are silly and stinky and

like learning new things

Inspiring Curiosity and Critical Thinking

In this incredibly digital world in which we live, people can find answers to questions plaguing them faster than I can say the word pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.  When we want to know something, we whip out our smart phone or computer and Google it.  We live in a world of instant gratification.  People are so used to getting what they want when they want it, that they struggle to be patient or think critically to determine the answer to their questions on their own.  This has really done a number on this current generation of students in our schools around the world.  They seem to have the attention span of Dory from Finding Nemo.  They are greatly challenged by having to locate their own answers or information.  Rather than think about a topic or question, they’d rather just go online and find the answer in mere seconds.  This fixed and impatient mindset is creating students who can’t think for themselves.  They can’t solve their own problems, as they rely on technology to do it for them.  This is a serious issue.

As teachers, we need to combat this problem in the classroom.  We need to help our students learn to think critically and creatively in order to solve their own problems, without Google.  We need to teach students about the powerful mental technology available to each of them in their skulls.  We need to help them understand how their brain works so that they know of what they are capable.  We need to empower our students to be mindful and take the time necessary to process information or a problem so that they can construct a viable solution.  We need our students to learn how to be self-reliant so that when the robots take down the power grid one day, they will be able to survive and save the world from robot-mageddeon.

I foster an atmosphere of creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving in my classroom by inspiring my students to ask questions, formulate hypotheses, and think for themselves.  I began the year by teaching the students about their brain and how it works.  They learned about the power of perseverance, mindfulness, and growth mindset.  I also challenge them to draw their own conclusions and support them with evidence that they find on their own.  I usually respond to their big questions with further questions.  I don’t want to be the personification of Google, and so I inspire them to determine the answer to their own question.  When students realize what they can do on their own, the world becomes their oyster.  They see all of the possibilities that exist when their eyes are opened to deep thinking and self-awareness.  It’s truly amazing.

Today in my Humanities class, we continued reading and discussing the wonderful play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose.  Throughout the period, I posed some questions to them, but then offered them the opportunity to ask any questions they had.  The boys asked some insightful questions about the homework and play.  One student asked if the rain storm began directly following the first climax of the story or at a later time, while another student asked if he needed to include information in his notes on both the characters’ motivation and background as they are one in the same.   Awesome!  They were really reflecting on and thinking about the play as a work of literature and figurative language.  I was so impressed.

Another way I work to challenge my students to become curious is by limiting the number of questions asked in class.  As my school utilizes 40-minute periods, that is nearly not enough time to really delve into a topic.  So, I just don’t have time in class to address or answer more than a few questions.  By not calling on every student who raises their hands, I promote independent learning.  The students generally leave class wanting to know more, and so some of them will do research outside of class, on their own, to answer their questions or ask me questions after class has ended.  They are curious and want to know more.  I love it.  I’m whetting their appetite for knowledge by not simply answering all of the questions my students have during class.  Rather than spoon feed my students information or answers to questions, I like to inspire creativity and curiosity.  I want my students to wonder about the world around them.  What causes this to happen?  Why does that happen?  As they wonder, make observations, ask questions, and get curious, they begin to learn and make strong neurological connections in the brain.  This sense of curiosity being instilled within my students will help to combat the drawbacks and distractions caused by digital and portable technology.

Grading Rubrics Not Required

Picture this… It’s Christmas morning.  You wake up super early, filled with excitement and glee.  What did Santa bring you this year, you wonder as you leap from your bed.  You run downstairs to check out all of the awesome gifts the jolly man in red left waiting for you under the tree.  It’s that remote-control car you asked for.  Yes!  You tear into the box and attempt to extract it.  Unfortunately, it is screwed down.  So, you ask your parents for help.  After hours of trying to find the only screwdriver in the house, they finally manage to pull the car and remote from the box for you.  Your eyes sparkle like waves in the blue ocean.  You can’t wait to play with your fancy new car.  You try to turn it on when realize that it requires batteries.  You scream to your parents that you need 16 AA batteries for the car and remote.  Sadly, they respond, “We only have four AA batteries.  You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”  Tomorrow?!  You can’t wait until tomorrow to take your new car out for a test ride.  You need to do it today.  So, you scavenge the house for batteries.  You take two from the television remote, two from the VCR remote, and two from each of the four smoke detectors in your place.  You now have enough batteries.  Let’s just hope that nothing catches on fire in the next few days.

Ahh, the good ol’ days of needing an excessive amount of batteries for everything.  While you always seemed to have batteries when you didn’t need them, you never had them when you did need them.  Although times have changed, many other things haven’t.  We still need batteries for almost everything, you still shouldn’t walk home alone, and remote-control cars are still super fun to play with, no matter how old you are.

Like remote control-cars need batteries, teachers have always thought that every graded assignment or project should include a grading rubric to guide students through the task.  “How will the students know what to do unless we tell them exactly what is expected of them?  We need to force feed them everything.  Students can’t think for themselves.  We need to take thinking out of the equation.”  And this line of thinking is exactly what has led to such a decline in American students going onto become engineers, mathematicians, or scientists.  If we want students to think critically, creatively, and learn to become problem solvers, we need to empower them to do the thinking.  Rather than explain in great detail what they need to do to meet an objective, we should provide the students with a very brief outline of a task or project and allow them to figure out the specifics on their own.  This way, they will learn to ask questions and think outside the box when working toward mastery in a particular area.  Unlike how the world still needs batteries, schools and learning don’t still need grading rubrics.

In my Humanities class today, I introduced the final project for our foray into poetry.  I made no rubric for this project, but instead created a simple outline of the requirements.

Screen Shot 2018-05-08 at 8.28.09 PM

I introduced the project to the students by going over this outline.  I then fielded the numerous questions the students had, which I had hoped they would.  By not providing them exact parameters on how to meet or exceed the three graded objectives, they have to think about what they will need to do to solve the problem.  This contemplation leads to questions, which I love because then I know they are the ones doing the learning.  They asked lots of clarifying questions, which I joyfully answered.  They even asked questions that I didn’t even think they would ask.  I love how my students continue to surprise me daily.

By not having a detailed rubric for this project, I’ve put the ownership and learning on the students.  Am I worried about the outcome?  No, because I’ve created an atmosphere of compassion, learning, and challenge in my classroom.  My students put great effort into meeting and exceeding every objective because they know it’s the right thing to do.  They work hard because they want to and see the benefit in doing so.  They are motivated because of the family spirit I’ve worked very hard to create in the classroom.  They don’t need me to explain and spell out every aspect of how to meet or exceed each of the three graded objectives, because they want to do well to exceed them, and will, therefore, do whatever it takes to solve problems encountered or address questions that arise, on their own.  Students who want to do well, will do well with or without a grading rubric.  Why waste my precious time as a teacher and steal their creativity and thinking by crafting a rubric for every project?  That just doesn’t make sense to me.

After this short preview of the project, I let them get to work on editing and revising their Haiku and Sonnet poems.  This is the point when I saw, firsthand, how unnecessary grading rubrics are when you foster a sense of challenge and can-do-ness in the classroom.  Some of the students revised their poems on their own, while others worked with a table partner to edit and revise their work.  They coexisted in such meaningful ways, helping to make their partner an even stronger and better poet.  It was amazing.  Those students who worked independently, took the time to carefully comb through every word and line of their poems to make sure that they included figurative language and really painted the perfect image in the mind of their readers.  I was so impressed.  One student who had quickly thrown together the sloppy copy of his Haikus a few weeks ago, took the time to make them meaningful, relevant, and brilliant.  He changed words and added new meaning and dimension.  Wow!  Other students wanted to challenge themselves one step further by crafting all new poems.  They wanted to be sure that they displayed their growth as a poet over the course of this unit, and utilized all of the tricks, tips, and strategies learned to craft new, better poems.  It was so much fun to watch and observe the students working.  The positive energy in the room was palpable.  The boys were having fun revising their work and growing, right in front of my eyes, as writers and poets.  And, they didn’t need a grading rubric to tell them to do this.  They just did so because that’s what we do in my classroom.  The bar of excellence is set high so that they are constantly able to grow and challenge themselves as learners.

I’ve realized, throughout my research into grading rubrics this year, that they are an old technology.  Teachers no longer need to provide their students with grading rubrics.  Instead, great teachers inspire their students to ask questions, think creatively, and solve their own problems so that they learn to become critical thinkers who can tackle any problem encountered.  So, my advice to you all is to ditch the grading rubrics and turn the learning over to your students.

How My Students Helped Put Things into Perspective for Me

The word perspective is very much like a Transformer.  Yes, I mean those really cool robots in disguise.  What does a word have to do with a toy, you’re probably asking yourself.  My simile is much more figurative in nature than literal, of course.  Although words can have alternative meanings when used in particular situations, their spelling or phonetic composition doesn’t change.  So, here’s where I’m going with this comparison…  While artists view the word perspective one way, teachers of the humanities look at it through a very different lens; however, the nucleus or core meaning stays the same, much like Transformers.  Optimus Prime was a compassionate and kind being in robot and vehicle form.

Whether we’re using the word perspective to discuss the vantage point of a piece of art or how one views the world, it comes down to view point and how one is looking at something.  My view of the world most likely greatly differs with how you all see the world around us and happenings within it.  The same is true of artists, how one painter chooses to create an image for the viewer will be different than how another artist approaches the same task.  Perspective is open to interpretation.  It’s a personal word.  While it’s something we all posses regarding many different topics, it’s different for each person.  Our experiences, history, culture, and language all shape our perspective of the world in many different ways.  Despite these differences though, just like Bumblebee, we all jump into each new adventure life throws at us armed with our perspective, and charismatic wit.

In my Humanities class, Saturdays are devoted to discussing current events in our world.  As our students are the future of our world, it’s important that they are equipped with all of the necessary knowledge to move our world forward and live meaningful lives in a global society.  In order to make decisions in the future, our students need to understand their past and what led to the current state of affairs.  Learning about what’s going on in the world outside of the walls of our school not only broadens our students’ perspective, but it is vital to the success of our students and our world.  If the future leaders of our globe don’t understand how the leaders of North and South Korea came together for a common good, then they may not know how to approach a situation involving the countries or solve problems plaguing that region of the world.  Therefore, I make sure to educate and inform my students about major news events happening around the world.  Although I only give them the Twitter-ized summaries of news stories, I help to foster fruitful discourse amongst my students so that they learn how to view the world through a critical eye in order to solve problems creatively.  I provide my students with the facts and then let them analyze and infer.  What does all of this mean?  How is this story news and relevant to the world?  What can be done to address or solve this problem?  How does this story impact and affect me now and in the future?  To be sure that my students will indeed live meaningful and compassionate lives in our world, it’s important for them to see the world through many different lenses.  They need to see all sides of a story, fact, or current event in order to make informed decisions or draw appropriate conclusions.  I want my students to be like the word perspective itself, adaptable and flexible for every situation, much like a Transformer.

Yesterday during our current events discussion in my Humanities class, we talked a bit about the interesting and provocative quote recently uttered by the musician and artist Kayne West.  “When you hear about slavery for 400 years … for 400 years?” he said. “That sounds like a choice.”  I tried to frame the crux of his statement in a way that would allow my students to draw their own conclusions.  I never want to paint my students into thinking one way or another.  I try to create an open dialogue, free of bias and my own opinions.  So, I didn’t tell my students what I thought about his words, but instead, tried to inspire them to think about them.  Was slavery a choice for black people in America?  Why might Mr. West think that?  As we dug into this story for a brief moment, an international student in my class from Europe asked, “What is slavery?”  So, I used ESL-friendly language to describe what the term means, for this student.  He got it, from my explanation.

This reminded me of what I’ve noticed over the years teaching students from numerous different countries around the globe: They don’t know about slavery because it didn’t happen where they are from.  While all countries have their own sordid stories and histories of how they came to be, most countries in Asia and Europe didn’t experience this same kind of racial slavery and degradation.  The first time I realized that this big, important chunk of American history is so foreign to outsiders, I was perplexed.  How can they not know about something as big as slavery?  Slowly, I started to see that it wasn’t that they didn’t know about it, they just couldn’t wrap their minds around it.  It didn’t make sense to them.  Why would one race of people enslave and mistreat, for so many years, another race of people?  This kind of horrible abuse didn’t necessarily happen in these other countries, or at least not in a racial manner.  They couldn’t fathom how America and its people could allow for such atrocities to take place.  The country was founded by people who fled their former homes in search of freedom, peace, and fairness.  So, why were those same people robbing other humans of their freedom, peace, and fairness because of the color of their skin?  It just doesn’t make sense to many people from other countries learning about American history.  This epiphany helped to open my eyes to a whole new perspective and view on the world.  Just because I understand and know something, doesn’t mean that everyone else has that same perspective.  My viewpoint on the world is very different from that of someone from a different country.  Knowing this, has allowed me to approach the teaching of big events in a more open, broad manner.  Rather than spewing out facts to the students, I pose questions and try to generate empathy for the people involved.  Teaching about slavery is not an easy undertaking for any teacher, but is one that can be interesting to teach to people not from America.

So, once again, my students helped me to broaden my perspective and see the world in a more open and real way.  Nothing should ever be taken for granted, especially facts or the rights afforded to all human beings, regardless of the color of their skin, religious preference, or any other difference that makes someone special and unique.  My students reminded me of this once again in class yesterday.  I often wonder who the teacher in the classroom truly is, me or my students.