Posted in Co-Teacher, Co-Teaching, Education, Math, STEM, Student Support, Students, Teaching

The Benefits of Working with a Co-Teacher

When I first started teaching, I used to think I could and had to do it all.  I would arrive to school early and stay late just so that I could accomplish everything.  I would never think to ask for help and certainly never accepted it when offered as I thought it was a sign of weakness.  I was an island unto myself and I liked it that way.  Little did I know how harmful it was to me and my teaching.  By not talking to other colleagues and bouncing ideas around with them or asking for help, my teaching became very stagnant very quickly.  I figured that everything I did was great as I had no one to say otherwise, and so I kept doing the same thing year after year.  Then, I worked with a co-teacher and everything changed.  I realized that I was far from perfect and needed to change my approach in the classroom.  So, I did.  I grew and became a better teacher because I had someone who could provide me with feedback and offer help and support at every turn.  My first co-teacher became one of my best friends as we worked so closely together.  I offered her suggestions on her teaching and life and she did the same for me.  We both grew and became effective educators because of this collaboration.  Working with someone else who can offer me advice, feedback, support, and help is one of the greatest things that has happened to me in my professional life.

Today’s STEM class provided me with yet another prime example of how vital and important a co-teacher can truly be.  My students are in the midst of a project that will allow them to understand where they stand mathematically,  Are they ready for seventh grade math?  If not, what gaps still exist in their learning that need to be filled?  Are they ready for pre-algebra or algebra I?  This project is all about helping them figure out what they need to do over the summer to prepare for the math course that they would like to be in next year.  In class today, the students were working on filling in their learning gaps by watching videos, working with a peer, or asking the teachers questions.  It also meant that I needed to be available to provide them with practice problems and worksheets.  As I was busy setting the students up with practice activities, my co-teacher fielded questions the boys had and monitored their work habits to be sure they were focused and working to prepare for Thursday’s final placement exam.  We worked together like a well-oiled machine.  It was phenomenal.  The boys were all on track learning new skills and reviewing old ones.  While there was a lot going on in the classroom, it was very controlled and focused.

Today’s class went so smoothly because my co-teacher was in the room providing support and help to the students while I was busy creating their practice assignments.  If she wasn’t there to help, chaos would have ensued very quickly.  The students would have been yelling and screaming for help and perhaps even swinging from the lights.  Our STEM class works so smoothly on days like today because of our co-teaching model.  We support one another and the students very well.  It’s great.  I can’t imagine trying to do what I did today without her support.  It would have been nightmarish.  Having extra help in the classroom, a person to provide you with feedback, and a creative sounding board are just some of the amazing benefits of working with a co-teacher.  While I realize that it’s just not feasible for every classroom or teacher to have a co-teacher with whom to work, when complex projects are being worked on, it is hugely helpful for both the teachers and the students to have a co-teacher in the classroom.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Learning, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

Competition vs Cooperation

In a WWF (or as we now know it WWE) style steel cage match, competition would totally crush cooperation’s butt.  Blood would be shed and someone would lose a tooth or three.  It would probably be close for most of the match as cooperation would work well with itself to get the job done driving in punches and dodging jabs, but in the end, competition would fight hard to be number one and deal cooperation the death-blow in the final seconds of the match.  It would be an epic battle that I would totally pay to see on TV like back in the day.  Summer Slam was always my favorite wrestling event as it came in the middle of summer when I was on school vacation and so my dad would let me stay up to watch the whole thing.  For Wrestlemania, my parents would record it on the VCR for me as it was generally on a Sunday night and I had school the next day.  Ahh, the good ol’ days of shouting matches and fake fighting.  It didn’t get much better than that.

As a classroom teacher, I’ve read all the research on creating a competitive classroom environment versus creating an atmosphere of cooperation amongst the students.  Both approaches have their positives and negatives.  Competition drives students to put forth great effort so that they can earn more points or do better than their classmates.  This motivation helps students to do well, generally, when competition is involved in the classroom.  Team games or projects that have a prize or winning component energize the students and get them excited about learning and accomplishing a task.  At the same time though, this extreme competition can drive students to be unkind to their teammates or act in a disrespectful manner as they try to best their classmates.  On the flipside, cooperation pulls students together towards a common goal.  The students act as a singular, family-like unit to complete a task, game, or project.  They help one another and utilize compassion when interacting with their classmates as they are all trying to complete a task together.  Sometimes, though, when cooperation is involved, those students who lack the social skills or strategies needed to be an active member of a team usually do nothing to very little, forcing their teammates to pick up the slack.  This then creates tension amongst the students as fairness plays a huge part in their mental state when issues like this arise.  So, which learning and teaching approach is most effective to help students best learn vital skills needed to be successful students living meaningful lives in a global society?

Today in STEM class, the students finished working on their presentations for Saturday’s big Climate Change Solutions Exposition taking place in the classroom.  Faculty members will be serving as judges while the students present their solutions regarding the problems of global warming and climate change.  It will be organized very much like a science fair.  Each pair of students will be assigned a table and area of the room in which they can set up their digital presentation, prototype, and other materials.  The boys will then try to convince the faculty judges as to why and how their solution is the most viable and best solution to help solve the problem of climate change on Earth.  The students have spent the past several weeks working on creating their solution, prototype, and presentation.  Much research, energy, problem solving, and critical thinking has gone into completing this project.  The boys are pumped and excited as they are vying for a huge prize if they have the solution voted best by the judges.  The energy in the room during the past several work periods has been incredibly positive.  The boys have been focused on their solution and presentation, without being negative or trying to bring other groups down.  The students will even help members of other groups when problems are encountered.  It’s been quite amazing.  For me, competition has been a valuable motivator and tool for the students.  They have worked harder on this project than they have on any previous STEM group project.  Why is this?

I think the big answer is because of the way we have structured the class this year.  We worked tirelessly during the first two months of school to foster a sense of caring and kindness amongst the students.  We explored how to work effectively with others as well as how to encounter and approach problems faced when working with other students.  This atmosphere of support and compassion helped us to create a culture of caring within the sixth grade.  No matter what the project or task is, the students support and care for each other.  It’s amazing to see this in action.  The boys truly do act like a family, taking care of one another.  I think, because we created this family environment within the classroom, the students approached this competitive STEM group project like any other task faced with this year, with love and respect.  For this reason alone, competition is a strongly motivating force of good for the students.  If we had not fostered this sense of trust and support amongst the students, this project based on competition would not be going as well as it is.  Setting students up for success isn’t just about academic content and standards, it’s about teaching students how to be good and kind citizens.

Posted in Education, Learning, Math, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

Helping Students to Own their Learning

As a teacher, I sometimes feel as though parents and people in positions of power blame teachers for problems in our country: “Our leaders can’t lead because of bad teachers.  Kids get into drugs because the schools and teachers aren’t doing their jobs.  My son is getting a C in history because his teacher isn’t doing his job”  No one is willing to take ownership for their actions and choices, and so it seems to be easier to blame teachers and schools as students spend so much time at school anyway.  Parents aren’t willing to take responsibility for their ineffective parenting because then it makes them look bad.  Just blame the teachers.  And this is one of the main problems with education in our country.  Our government has made it acceptable to blame teachers for problems facing our country and its youth; therefore, teachers are not given the respect they need and deserve.  Teachers work long hours, all year long despite what many people seem to think, to create engaging and meaningful lessons.  Teachers go out of their way to help support and challenge students.  We care for our students as if they were our own.  We are not paid what we deserve and schools rarely help support teachers when problems arise.  People no longer want to go into the field of teaching or stay there long because of how we are treated by the community and country.  Until our country takes ownership of their actions and choices, teachers are going to continually be viewed like Cameron Diaz in the movie Bad Teacher.

To help my sixth grade students begin to learn the power of ownership as it pertains to their learning, I’ve created a final math project that will help set them up for success in their seventh grade math class.  I want my students to realize that they are in control of what math section into which they are placed next year, and that it’s not fixed based on their work in the classroom this year.  I want them to own their learning so that one day they will own their actions and choices, paying teachers and schools the respect they deserve.

The project is divided into four phases:

  1. The students will complete what I’m calling the Math Pre-Placement Exam, which includes a series of questions based on the three different levels of math offered in the seventh grade.  The first page of the exam has the students reflect and respond on their math ability regarding the specific section they feel they will be or should be placed into next year.  I want them to set a goal for themselves before completing this project so that they can begin to align their self-perspective with the reality.  The final page of the exam is a guide sheet that shows them which questions are related to which particular course.  Once they have completed the exam, they will be provided with the answer key and grade their exam.  This will give them a good idea of where they are currently in their math trajectory.
  2. Then, the students will do some reflecting on their performance on this pre-placement exam.  They will make note of any gaps in their learning, skills they haven’t yet mastered, and then learn those skills via Khan Academy, working with the teacher, or seeking help from a peer.  They will practice these skills by completing problems in the textbook or on worksheets.
  3. Once I feel they have mastered the skills they are lacking, they will complete the final Math Placement Exam, which is very similar to the one they may take at the start of the next academic year.  They will then grade their exam to see how they have progressed and to help them see into which math course they may be placed next year.
  4. The final phase of this unit involves the students reflecting on this whole process as well as creating an action plan for what they will do over the summer to be sure they are prepared for seventh grade math and the course in which they would like to be placed.

I want my students to see where their math skills line up with the math courses offered at my school in the seventh grade.  I find that sometimes students think they are better or worse at math than they truly are.  This way, they can see what is what and then take ownership of their learning.  They get to decide what they want to do to be placed into the math course that they feel would be best for them.  It takes teacher placement out of the equation and puts the onus on the students.  They have the power to change their future.  If they do poorly on the placement exams but really feel as though they should in Algebra I or Pre-Algebra next year, they have the entire summer to prepare for the placement exam come September.  The figurative math ball is in their court.

I’m excited about this project that we just began yesterday in STEM class.  I feel as though it will help the students fill in any gaps in their math learning and help them see the reality of their math skills.  The boys seemed invested in this project and process yesterday when I introduced it.  They asked some great questions and seem to know that the power lies within them regarding what math class they will be in next year.  I’m hopeful that this project will help them feel and be as successful as they want to be while also learning how to own their choices and learning.  If I want my students to grow up to be able to make good choices and then own them, I need to create learning opportunities in the classroom for them to practice showing ownership now.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Learning, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

The Power of Natural Consequences

When I was about 17 years old, I wasn’t afraid of anything.  I was invincible.  Nothing scared me, except for the police.  I was deathly afraid of getting pulled over while driving, despite being a very safe teen driver.  I feel like that might be a bit of an oxymoron, teen driver; however, I was a relatively safe and cautious young driver because I was afraid of getting in trouble with the law.  Whenever I saw a parked police car, I slowed down to almost a crawl, even on the highway.

In the area in which I grew up, border patrol stops were common.  They would stop every car and check inside to be sure people weren’t smuggling drugs or people across state or country borders.  It was a common occurrence in the upper valley area.  I had seen these kinds of checkpoints on many occasions growing up.  I knew exactly how to react and what to do.  Despite this, after getting out of work late one evening, and knowing that there was a border patrol checkpoint on the highway, I decided to take a different route home.  While this route was much longer and out of my way, it prevented me from having to get on the highway, thus, missing the border patrol stop.  The fear for me was real back then.  As I took this alternate way to get back to my house from work, I ended up getting a flat tire.  You see, I wasn’t particularly familiar with this the route and all of its turns.  So, when I took a sharp turn, I hit the curb, which sliced my tire, causing it to deflate.  As soon as it happened, I was so upset with myself.  Because I had let my fear get to me, I had gotten a flat tire.  The moral of this story is, don’t listen to those strange voices in your head that tell you to make bizarre choices simply to avoid getting in trouble.  Lesson learned for me, as I never took that long cut home again.  The natural consequence of getting a flat tire taught me to ignore that particular fear in the future.  Now if only I could learn to ignore my other irrational fears, all would be well in the world.

Natural consequences are my favorite as a father and teacher.  Rather than having to lecture students or provide them with consequences that may seem fitting, their choices can naturally provide them consequences while also, hopefully, teaching them an important lesson: Don’t do dumb things.  Although not every action comes with its own built-in natural consequence, some things do, as long as the teacher or caregiver is prepared to allow the child to make his or her own choices.  Sometimes as parents and teachers, we are over-protective and don’t allow our children to learn from their choices. We tend to try and shelter children from harm.  Rather than let a student figure out what happens when they eat glue, we constantly monitor the students and remind them not to eat the glue.  What we need to do is allow children to make choices that might not be the ones we would choose for them, but one’s that provide them with freedom so that they can learn from their mistakes.  Choices with natural consequences are perfect for doing just that.

Yesterday in the classroom, I was finally able to take my students back outside so that they could visit their assigned forest plot.  As the weather has been cold and rainy for the past several weeks, and since the snow just recently melted in some places on campus, the students have been unable to observe their forest plots.  So, I needed to capitalize on yesterday’s moderately good weather.  Now, because of the crazy unspring like weather we’ve been having in recent months, I knew that the forest would be a bit damp and mucky.  So, I told the students to be sure they borrowed boots from the classroom so that their feet wouldn’t get wet.  While a few students took me up on the offer, a fair amount of the boys seemed to think like I once did, that they were invincible.  Their feet will never get wet.  Oh how sorely mistaken they were.  Three students wearing sneakers or dress shoes stepped right into a giant puddle or muddy bog, completely soaking their socks and shoes.  Those students, of course, immediately came running to me when this happened, begging to go back to their room to change.  I reminded them of the school rule that no students may return to the dorms during the academic morning.  Being the teachable moment kind of teacher, I then responded with, “Why didn’t you borrow a pair of boots from the classroom?”  They then responded back with, “I didn’t think it would be this wet.”  Of course they didn’t because they are impenetrable.  Oh to be young again.

Walking back to the classroom with one of the students who had drenched feet, we discussed the idea of natural consequences.  He asked me why he couldn’t go back to his room to change.  I reminded him, again, of the school rule and added, “Having to sit in wet shoes and socks for 30 minutes will hopefully teach you a valuable lesson so that next week when we go outside to visit our forest plots again, you will remember to borrow boots from the classroom so that you don’t get wet feet.”  He didn’t have a witty comeback for that.  He just slowly moped back to the classroom.  While I always want to help and support my students in every way possible, breaking the rules for this student or forcing him to wear boots outside would prevent any actual learning from happening for him.  He needs to see that when he chooses to wear sneakers outside in the forest, they will get wet.  Now he knows.  I don’t like to see students suffer, ever, but they do need to learn, and clearly, my words of encouragement and suggestion did not help.  So, natural consequences it was.   I’m hopeful that these students who had to sit through the final 30 minutes of class with wet shoes will remember this experience next week when we go outside to observe the forest.  Perhaps they will heed my advice to wear boots.  I guess I’ll just have to wait and see how powerful natural consequences truly are.

Posted in Education, Learning, Math, STEM, Students, Teaching, Testing

How Much Test Preparation is Effective?

I was never a good test taker in school.  For one, I didn’t really know how to study.  Do I reread the pages in the text book?  Make flashcards of vocabulary terms?  Reread my notes a bunch of times?  My teachers never taught me how to study.  So, I usually just glanced over my notes and called it a day.  As I was a relatively good writer, essay exams were my jam.  I generally aced those.  But when it came to standardized tests or multiple guess exams, I struggled.  The questions were tricky on purpose and I didn’t know the material well enough to take an educated guess.  No test prep in the world could have helped me when I took a fill-in-the-bubble test.

As a teacher, I’m armed with my experiences as a student.  I hated tests and still feel as though they prove very little about how much students have learned material.  Most students cram for exams and will often due quite well, but when you ask them about the content learned weeks later, they remember almost nothing.  In those cases, there was clearly no genuine learning taking place.  So, as a teacher, I rarely use tests as assessments, except for math, as that is how they will be assessed in all future math classes at my school.  Being mindful of this, I know that I need to prepare them for next year.  Following each math unit, I have the students complete a math assessment.  I make sure there are no multiple choice questions on the exam.  I also spend much time going over study strategies and techniques.  What’s the best way to study and what does that look like?  Usually though, I only have one day of review in class prior to the assessment, and what I have found is that some students struggled on the assessment.

Keeping this in mind when I planned my current math unit, I made sure to leave more than a week for review, discussion, and preparation.  I want all of my students to feel ready and prepared while also being successful.  I had the students complete a math review packet last week.  Once they completed the packet, I gave them the answer key so that they could correct their work.  For every problem they got wrong, they had to explain why it was wrong, as I want them to own their learning and truly comprehend the skills covered throughout the unit.  Then, I made myself available throughout the week during class and outside of class for extra help.  A few students took advantage of this extra support and saw me for help.  I addressed their questions and had them complete sample problems regarding the skills with which they struggled.  This seemed to help those few students feel much more prepared and at ease for Monday’s exam.

As this lengthy preparation is a big change from past units, I wonder if this new method is more or less effective.  Did I spend too much time preparing my students for tomorrow’s math assessment?  I could have used that week to begin another unit.  Did I spend too much time having the boys review the major vocabulary terms covered in the unit?  Will they be better prepared for tomorrow’s exam because they were provided with extra time to process the information and complete some practice problems?  Will I see a difference on their assessments?  I’m hopeful that they will all do very well as I feel as though I had a chance to check-in with all of them over the course of last week to be sure they understood and had mastered all of the skills covered.  I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out for certain, but I do feel as though giving the students extra time to review for tomorrow’s assessment will help them be and feel successful.

Posted in Boys, Education, Learning, STEM, Students, Teaching

Can Curiosity Be Taught?

When my son was very young, he once asked me why the sky is blue.  Being the creative and caring father I am, I made up some elaborate story about a green frog and a blue frog.  To this day, I don’t remember exactly how the story went, but I remember it being very long and in depth.  My son wasn’t very curious and believed my story without asking any follow-up questions.  A few years later, when he was in fourth or fifth grade, his teacher posed the same question to the class, “Why is the sky blue?”  My son, who loves being right and always knows the answer, told his teacher and the class, the story of how the green frog got angry at the blue frog and chucked him into the air, making the sky blue.  He had believed my creative story.  The teacher did a great job of explaining how sometimes parents make up stories to make life seem a bit more interesting.  I’ll never forget when my son came home from school and told me that I had lied to him.  I had completely forgotten that I told him that story.  If I hadn’t been so convincing in how I told that story to my son so many years ago, I wonder if he would have asked me some clarifying questions.  He’s a pretty curious young man, always asking why, and so I wonder if he would have been able to see through my untrue story had I not stated it so matter-of-fact like.  Would he have asked some questions about the frogs and how they were able to throw each other?  How do frogs change color?  Had my son been more curious about my story, I wonder if he would have been able to figure out that I was weaving an elaborate tall tale.  Curiosity might have killed the cat, but it also helps people figure things out.  Why is the sky blue?  Why is the grass green?  How does light work?  The more we know about the world and how it works, the more power we have to solve problems and make the world a better place.

In the sixth grade, I spend a lot of time trying to help my students think critically about the world around them.  Why is it that way?  Why can’t it be this way?  How does that work?  I  want my students to learn something new and then and wonder why.   I want them to be able to make educated hypotheses about new information.  I want them to be curious and question everything.  Knowledge is power, I tell them repeatedly throughout the year, and so, the more you know, the more powerful you will become.  Teaching students to think critically and creatively is not easy and requires much practice and modeling.  Through completing various PBL activities, the students learn how to think critically in order to solve problems.  They learn to persevere and find new solutions to problems.

At this point in the year, I am able to easily track the progress my students have made regarding the skill of critical thinking.  I observe them during STEM and Humanities classes as they work to complete tasks and projects.  I hear them asking insightful questions and working together with their peers to find answers to problems encountered.  Most of them have become creative problem solvers.  This year, though, like every year, I have one student who doesn’t seem to have made any progress in this area.  He doesn’t ask a lot of questions and doesn’t seem to be able to creatively solve problems.  He makes use of a very fixed mindset and frequently gets stuck completing work in and out of the classroom.  Is it because he wasn’t really paying attention when we talked all about how to think critically, how to ask insightful questions, and how to solve problems?  Could that be?  Perhaps he just hasn’t learned those skills yet.  What if it’s something more though?  Sometimes, depending on the problem or topic being discussed, he does display his ability to solve problems and think critically, which leads me to believe that something else is at play here for students like this particular one.  He seems to accept information as is and doesn’t question things.  He doesn’t seem curious and seldom wonders why.  Is this the issue?  Is his inability to think critically about new information due to his lack of curiosity?  If so, what can I do as his teacher to help him?  How can I teach him to be curious?  I feel as though I model it on a regular basis.  I ask tons of questions and always make sure to field questions the students ask as well.  I make noticings and observations as I model the skill of critical thinking.  Nothing I’m doing seems to be helping though.  The bigger question seems to be, can curiosity be taught?  Do students learn to be curious or is it an innate trait?  Are humans born asking why?  If not, then how can we teach our students to be curious?  What else could I be doing to help inspire this student to question the world around him?  How can I help all students not simply accept facts and information at face value?  How can I help them to wonder why and be curious?

Posted in Challenges, Education, Learning, Math, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

When Things Don’t Go as Planned in the Classroom

I like to think of myself as a classroom prognosticator.  I feel as though I am generally quite good at predicting the future in my classroom.  I know that if two particular students sit together, they will chat and distract each other all day long.  I also know that my students will be excited in Humanities class on Monday because they love Reader’s Workshop.  My crystal spherical object usually points me in the right direction.  Because I spend so much time planning and preparing for lessons, activities, and field trips, I almost always know how things will go in the classroom.  I need extra time for some lessons and less time for others.  I know these things to be true because I’ve experienced them before.  New things, lessons, or activities, on the other hand, are a different beast entirely.  While I am still pretty good at predicting how new things will go in the classroom, every once in awhile my prediction turns out to be wrong.  Now, why is this, you must be asking yourself.  If I am so good at reading the future on a daily basis, why do I struggle with predicting the outcome of new events?  It’s those unknown factors.  What if the technology doesn’t work properly?  What if students don’t understand my directions?  What if there is a fire drill during the lesson?  Those unknown variables are the ones that mess me up.  They are my kryptonite.  Although I try to prepare for every unknown situation, it’s just not possible.  I occasionally miss one or two variables every time I plan a new lesson.  Generally, those variables are so minute or not relevant that the lesson usually will still usually go as planned; however, there are exceptions to every rule.

Today saw one of those exceptions play out in my STEM class.  My goal was to help the students learn how to use the flashcard making application Quizlet to create flashcards for the vocabulary terms we’ve covered in our math unit.  I had the list of words already prepared and posted to our learning management system.  I checked it twice yesterday to make sure that it still worked.  I played around with Quizlet to be sure I knew how to navigate the website as well.  I even made a test set of flashcards to try out the games and test.  I felt ready and prepared.  I had thought of everything, except the biggest, most crucial part: What if the students can’t locate the vocabulary terms in their math book?  I failed to think about how they would locate the terms in their book.  What if the definition wasn’t in their book?  What if they needed to infer the meaning of the word from the book?  What if they couldn’t remember a certain concept?  Then what are they supposed to do?

After explaining the activity to the students, modeling how to use Quizlet, and answering all of their questions, I let them get to work.  Soon after they started working, the questions started pouring in.  “I can’t find the definition.  What if I don’t know what the word means?  I don’t understand this word?” many of the students said as they worked on the task of making math vocabulary flashcards.  I had forgotten to tell them how to use their book to find the words and what to do when a word wasn’t directly defined in the text.  While most students were able to draw conclusions on their own to solve the task, a few students struggled to complete this task because of the directions I had omitted.  Had I better explained this portion of the activity, they might have felt more successful and needed less of my support.  What I thought was going to take 15 minutes, ended up taking more than 30 minutes to complete.

The moral of this story is, I can’t predict the future no matter how hard I try.  Unknown variables are called that because no one knows what they are.  They are unknown for a reason.  I can’t possibly plan for every single issue, dilemma, or happening.  Luckily, I rolled with today’s lesson and most every student was able to finish the task by the end of class.  I felt a bit off though because I hadn’t properly prepared my students to complete the activity successfully.  Next time, I need to be sure I model how to complete the task and not just how to use the technology tool.  At the end of the period, I shared my thoughts and noticings with the students.  I explained how I thought this activity was going to be short and simple but ended up being a bit convoluted and took much longer than anticipated.  I shared with the boys how I need to better prepare for an activity like this in the future.  I need to be sure I show them how to complete an activity like this.  Although today’s STEM lesson didn’t go entirely as planned, it taught me an important life lesson and allowed me to show vulnerability to my students.  Even teachers make mistakes.  With a growth mindset, failure can quickly be transformed into an opportunity to learn.

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Learning, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

Helping Students Think Like Scientists

In the current state of our country, it’s amazing to see scientists and citizen scientists coming out in droves to support science and its many fields.  Without scientists observing the natural world and collecting data about it, we would never have realized how much damage we as humans are doing to the globe because we burn and consume so much carbon.  We might not understand how DNA works if scientists hadn’t studied living organisms.  Science is what helps us understand the complex world on a higher level.  We can’t expect to move forward with technology, life, and everything else without science.  As our country’s government ignores science facts and knowledge, it’s important for us as teachers to remember that we have a critical role to play.  We need to educate our students to think like scientists, to question everything, and to understand how vital their role is in making the world a better place for all living things.

One of the many benefits of the farm program we utilize in the sixth grade, is scientific thinking.  The students learn how to observe the natural world and understand it on a higher level because they’re always asking why.  Why is that goat black and the other goat white?  Why do daylilies grow in clumps?  Why do some chickens have puffier tails?  The students have learned to question everything and figure out why it is that way?  This natural curiosity that they are practicing and learning this year on the farm bleeds over into the classroom as well.  The students are asking why do some Muslim women wear headscarves while others don’t?  Why do more men than women attend college in some parts of the world?  What would have happened had Italy’s dictator not been executed during WWII?  The boys are learning to question everything in order to fully piece together a mental puzzle of the world and how it works.

Yesterday for Farm Fun Friday, we headed back to the farm we visited in the fall since it has warmed up enough and all of the snow has finally melted.  The focus for yesterday’s visit was on observations.  Observe the animals, living things, and other components of the farm.  What do they tell us?  What do we know about the sheep and goats because they sat the entire time we were watching them?  Do their feet hurt?  Do they need to have their nails clipped?  What did we notice about the chickens?  Are some developing differently than others, and if so, what does that mean?  The boys made observations in their farm journals as they watched the farm awaken from the dead of winter and blossom into the beautiful spring.  The students were asking many great questions about what they observed.  Why did it seem that one or two daylilies in each bunch seemed to be taller than the rest?  Why are some of the chickens developing tails? Why did my bunny not seem to grow much from our last visit?  What does all of this tell us about the farm and the way the natural world works?

This curiosity the students have gained as a product of our farm program, has helped them to begin developing the critical thinking skills they will need to live meaningful lives in a global society.  Now that they know how to make relevant observations and question things, my hope is that they will be able to go out into the world better equipped to deal with problems encountered.  They won’t just accept adversity when they see it or have it happen to them as they know to question everything.  They will fight for what is right and stand up for things that matter to them.  They won’t allow people in positions of power to take away the freedom of others or say no to science.  Thinking like a scientist has helped my students grow and develop in many ways for their present courses as well as everything the future has in store for them.

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

What’s More Important, Skills or Content?

Thinking back on my school experience as a student, I recall very little about the content covered.  I could probably only tell you a few specific facts about each class I took in high school.  I know America fought in several wars, but I couldn’t tell you the specific dates.  Does that mean I didn’t learn anything in school?  Were my teachers ineffective?  No, because they taught me vital skills needed to succeed in life.  I know how to find answers to questions; I know what to do when I am struggling; and I know how to extract the main idea from a text.  I learned crucial skills that have helped me be successful in life.  I know how to study for exams and solve problems.  As a student, knowing how to do school and be a student is so much more important than learning the specific details of a historical time period or the symbolism of a character in a novel.

As a teacher, I make sure to focus on helping my students acquire key skills they will need to live meaningful lives in a global society.  After having a conversation with a colleague this morning regarding content versus skills, I realized how easy it is for teachers to get caught up in teaching content to their students.  “My students must memorize dates and names for battles and historical events,” some teachers might say.  This belief is much like fake news; if you believe it to be true, you begin to spread ignorance and falsities.  In the technological world in which we live where answers and information can be found by clicking a button, content knowledge is no longer what should be driving our curriculum.  Students don’t need to memorize the elements of the periodic table or mathematical formulas as they can quickly look them up online.  Instead, students need to know how to navigate the Internet, how to complete an effective online search, how to take notes and extract the main idea from a text, how to draw conclusions and make inferences from novels, and how to think critically to solve problems.  Of course, those are only some of the ever important skills our students need to acquire.  We need to teach our students how to be lifelong learners, thinkers, problem solvers, and doers.  Knowing a bunch of information will get you nowhere in life if you don’t know how to analyze literature or tackle a difficult math problem.  Teaching is about imparting vital life skills to our students by using the content information as a vehicle.  While my students think they are learning all about the Middle East region, they are really learning how to think critically about the world around them in order to broaden their perspective and be open to multiple stories and ideas.

Today in STEM class, my students worked on the final project for our unit on climate change.  The students generated unique solutions to the issue of climate change.  How can we reduce carbon emissions?  The boys, working in pairs, brainstormed creative products and ideas for addressing the issue of climate change and are now in the process of building a working prototype of their idea.  One group spent the period cutting and screwing together pieces of wood to build a box that will trap and store heat energy so that it can be recycled and reused by factories, while another group used various parts of a wind turbine kit to construct a working wind turbine that they will innovate for their solution.  Other groups spent the period working with Little Bits to create a solar battery that could be attached to glasses and planting wheat grass in an our aquaponics system that they will use as part of their solution.  The boys were applying numerous skills we’ve introduced and had them practice throughout the year in sixth grade including problem solving, critical thinking, perseverance, asking questions, appropriately using tools, and collaboration.  The students were focused for the entire work period, which lasted about 45 minutes.  It was awesome.

Where’s the content, you ask.  Well, the big ideas came earlier in the unit when the students learned about climate change, its causes, and its affect on Earth.  However, each group is learning tons of specific facts and knowledge nuggets regarding their solution.  One group has had to research all about how wind turbines work and how to construct their own while other groups are learning how electricity works so that they can wire their invention to store solar power, how to create a scaled-drawing, how to manipulate clay and cook it, and how to plant wheat grass.  This content is important to them because they need to learn it in order to create their invention.  I’m not telling my students they need to learn all about wiring and electricity or how to power a wind turbine, they want to learn that information so that they can create a working prototype of their solution.  The engagement with the content they are learning through completing this project is much higher than if I lectured at them and had them take notes.  They don’t always see the relevance in class discussions or knowledge I pass along to them during mini-lessons, but when they want to make a pair of solar powered glasses, they go out of their way to learn how that whole process works.  The learning becomes genuine and real.  So, there was plenty of content being learned in my classroom today, but that was only a by-product of the project.  This project, like every STEM project completed in the sixth grade, is all about the skills.  The students are learning how to work with their peers, solve problems, think creatively and critically about the world around them, and persevere through failure.  This is what classrooms around the world should look like.  They should be student-centered, where the focus is on learning and applying skills they will need to be successful in their lives outside of school.  Information and content can be fun, but if students don’t know what to do with it, that content becomes a roadblock to success and forward progress.

Posted in Education, Learning, Math, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

How to Effectively Communicate with Students

I was raised in a time when spanking children was an acceptable form of parenting.  When I sat on my baby sister, I got spanked.  What did that teach me, you ask.  Well, it taught me not to sit on my sister, or at least don’t get caught doing it.  It also taught me to fear my parents.  Was that an effective method of parenting?  Well, who am I to say what is right or wrong.  I learned much about life growing up and I feel as though I turned out okay, for the most part.  In the modern world in which we live, parenting like how I was raised is completely unacceptable and unheard of.  If you spank or hit your kids, you can go to jail or lose custody of your children.  We live in a world where words are used to solve conflict and help bring people together.  My wife and I parent through love and compassion.  Of course, we’re stern and hold our son accountable, but we try to do so in a collaborative manner.  It’s not us versus him.  We’re all on this crazy journey together.  While the method of parenting that we are using to raise our son seems to be working, it’s hard to tell if other approaches would be as effective.  Are we doing the right thing?  Saying the right thing?  Are we being too tolerant or too hard?  Parenting, much like teaching, is all about finding what works for the situation and time.  People do and say what they think is right for them.  But, is every approach, action, or word appropriate for every person?  Would raising a completely different child using the same method used to raise me work for that child?  Maybe, but it’s still hard to tell.  Parents and teachers do what they think is best for them and the situation.

Communication is key when connecting with students and building meaningful relationships.  For students to genuinely learn in the classroom, they need to feel safe, cared for, and supported.  How we talk to our students helps lay the foundation for the future.  If we show our students that we care about them and will do whatever it takes to support them, they will reciprocate accordingly.  The opposite is also true, however.  If we talk at our students or use disrespectful words when communicating with them, they will put up walls and be defensive.  Students need to feel cared for, and effective communication is an easy and vital way to make this happen.

Today in STEM class, as my students completed a check-in assessment for the lesson covered in class on Saturday, I noticed that one student, sat, doing nothing.  He wasn’t working or trying to complete his assessment in any way, and he wasn’t asking for help either.  My co-teacher and I have seen this sort of shut-down behavior from this particular student in the past.  When he gets overwhelmed or confused, he will often stop working and sit at his desk area, unmoving, almost motionless.  As I’ve found ways to help him get unstuck and make use of a growth mindset in the past, I wanted to help him again.  Part of me, though, was just frustrated with him.  Because he wasn’t fully engaged in Saturday’s mini-lesson, he struggled to understand the concept, but didn’t ask for assistance or help at all during or after class that day.  So, part of me wanted to ignore him and let him struggle.  Of course, the teacher in me realized that I needed to support and care for him.  So, I thought long and hard about what I would say before I approached him.

“It looks like you are really struggling.  Can I help you in anyway?  What seems to be the problem?” I asked him.  He responded, “It’s not that I don’t know how to do this, it’s just that I don’t remember how to do it.”  I then directed his attention to the first question that asked him to create a table regarding some data.  “Do you understand what you need to do for this one?” I asked.  He then asked some clarifying questions before getting to work.  Once he saw that I wasn’t going to let him struggle and fail without trying to support and help him, he was able to believe in himself and demonstrate his understanding of the skill being assessed.  A few minutes later he asked for assistance on his own.  He didn’t understand what one of the word problems was asking.  So, I reworded it in a way that would make more sense to him.  I also used visual cues.  He then looked at me with a strange expression on his face and said, “Did you just tell me what to do?”  I said, “No, I simply reworded the problem for you in a way that would help you better understand it.  Your brain processed the information in a meaningful way, telling you what to do.”  He then smiled and wrote down the answer.  He finished the rest of the assessment on his own.  He seemed to realize that I was there to support him if need be and so he wasn’t afraid to take a risk and try some of the problems.

Had I spoken to him in a frustrated tone or not carefully chosen my words, I could have caused him to stay shut down throughout the period.  While communication is an important part of connecting with students, it also needs to be effective communication if we want to build strong relationships with our students.  I wanted this particular student to feel cared for and supported and so I needed to make sure I used words that displayed that to him.  While this interaction was successful for this student today, it may not work for every student, every time.  I read this situation and acted accordingly.  If something similar happens to another student, I might need to use a slightly different approach that would work for that student in that moment.  With so many variables at play all of the time, there is not always one right answer when communicating with students; however, there are plenty of wrong ways to communicate with our students, and it’s important that we avoid them.  Thinking before acting and then using compassionate and caring language when communicating with students who are struggling is usually the best approach for these types of situations.