You Taught Your Students What?: Highlights from Last Week in my Fifth Grade Classroom

While last week did feel a bit chaotic and busy at times at my wonderful little school, as we prepared for the big April vacation taking place this week and had to input Progress Report grades, there was also a sense of serenity, gratitude, and excitement in the air.  The temperatures outside began to rise, the snow had finally melted from our rolling fields, and spring was beginning to take hold in central New Hampshire last week.  Despite the craziness of finishing up a unit, cleaning the school, and preparing for the final two months of the academic year, numerous wonderful things took place in my fifth grade classroom last week.  In no particular order, here they are…

Mindfulness Yoga

Looking back on when I came up with this grand idea of having a Yoga instructor come into my classroom once a month for the entire year to teach my students the power of Yoga, mindfulness, and relaxation, I wasn’t even sure it would be possible.  It seemed like a utopian construct that would never work in reality.  Would I be able to find an instructor crazy and brave enough to be a part of such an ambitious undertaking?  Then, my school’s headmaster gave me the name of a wonderful Yogi who is also the mother of two BHS students.  Would she want to help out?  Could she help out?  Would her schedule allow her to lead such a class?  In early August, I received an excited and hopeful email from Lisa Garside, owner of a local Yoga studio.  She would love to work with me and my class throughout the year, she responded.  The ideal time that I had in mind totally worked with her schedule.  The stars were aligning.  I couldn’t wait for the academic year to begin.  But then, would my students be into it?  Would they be engaged in such a different type of mindful instruction?  When I informed my students of the first session way back in September of 2018, you would have thought that I had told them they had no homework for the rest of the month.  They couldn’t wait for our first class.  What seemed impossible became achievable because I persevered and ran with a kooky idea.

Now, as I think about the fact that we have but one final Yoga session left in this school year, I am feeling bittersweet about it all.  I am ecstatic that it was so well received by my students.  They have loved our monthly Yoga sessions and have really gained much focus, relaxation, and calming strategies over the course of the year.  I am so grateful that Mrs. Garside was able and willing to give us the gift of her time, wisdom, and kindness.  She has been absolutely amazing with my students.  Yoga days are the most relaxed days each month, as we begin them in such a peaceful and calm manner.  I am also sad to think about the end being so near.  Our last Yoga session will take place in May, and serve as another reminder of just how close the end of the school year truly is.  We have been so fortunate this year to have Mrs. Garside work with us month after month.

This past week, Mrs. Garside led my students through our April Yoga session.  The focus for this month was on a different style of Yoga that included quick and fast breathing.  The students learned more about how to focus their energy on breathing and moving, instead of dwelling on their inner thoughts regarding this more challenging form of Yoga.  It was quite amazing to observe my students practicing the concept of mindfulness, as they worked very hard to hold difficult poses for long periods of time.  A sense of awe and wonder washed over me as I watched my students engage in this wonderful Yoga session.

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I believe that every school and class should incorporate some form of Yoga in their routine, as I have witnessed the amazing benefits first hand.  My students are able to be more present in the moment, aware of their breathing, and understand the power of their bodies from partaking in our monthly Yoga classes.  Imagine how much more compassionate, kind, and aware ALL students could be if Yoga was incorporated into the curriculum or routine in some way in ALL schools.  Perhaps instances of bullying and violence in schools would decrease if ALL students were provided the opportunity to stop, relax, focus, breathe, and stretch at least once a month.  Just imagine the possibilities.

Rover Presentations in Science Class

After weeks of great effort, much failure, perseverance, overcoming adversity, trying new things, taking risks, and rebuilding based on feedback, the three student groups presented their space rovers to two judges this past Friday during Science class.  Each group began their presentation by explaining the problem that their solution and rover could solve.  One group tackled the trash and plastic issue plaguing Earth, while another group chose to mine asteroids for frozen water.  The third group had wanted to mine asteroids for their materials.  They were very specific in identifying their problem and solution.  Each group then showcased how their rover works.  They detailed how they built their rover, the problems encountered as they worked and how they overcame that adversity, and how their rover operates.  It was quite impressive to hear the students share their ideas, thoughts, and facts regarding what they had learned throughout our Astronomy Unit.  Amazing!

The highlights for me were three-fold:

  • Talk About Preparation: The students were so rehearsed and ready for Friday’s presentations that you would have thought we were live streaming the event for the world to see.  They spoke with poise and clarity, unlike what I normally see and hear during class discussions or chats.  They avoided the dreaded ums, ahhs, and likes as if they were evil incantations uttered by the Teletubbies or Barney.  The students didn’t skip a beat between speakers either.  Each group just knew when to pass the metaphorical baton.  It was awesome.  I was so proud of them.  The judges were in awe of their brilliant performances.  In times like these, I have to remind myself that my students are only in the fifth grade because they often act as though they are gifted graduate students studying to take over the world.
  • Problem Solving in Action: As one group readied to demonstrate how their rover worked for the judges, nothing seemed to happen.  They toggled the on switch back and forth, and still nothing.  Instead of giving up and continuing on with their presentation, they stopped for a few moments to solve their problem.  After fiddling with a few of the Little Bits pieces, they got their rover rolling.  They could have easily given up and not fixed the problem encountered, but they did not and did.  They persevered and reached the top of the mountain of awesomeness.  It was so cool to watch this play out.  Everything we’ve worked on all year was on display in those few brief moments.  I could not have been a more proud teacher.
  • To Judge or Not to Judge: Rather than have me assess the students on their presentations, pose questions, and provide the students with feedback, I brought in two very qualified judges to be a part of the big event in class on Friday.  Earl Tuson, a mechanical engineer who once worked for NASA and Aubrey Nelson, one of the science teachers from my school were absolutely wonderful.  They asked the students high-level questions and kept them on their toes the whole time.  I do believe that having such quality judges helped inspire the students to be so prepared for their presentations.  It’s nice to bring in other community members for the students to interact with throughout the year.

Empathy and Compassion Aren’t Simply Trendy Catch Phrases

As I read many educational blogs and articles found in all parts of the inter-web, it seems as though teaching students the concepts of empathy and compassion are and have been hot topics for quite some time.  How do we best help students learn the power of empathy?  Why does it seem that our students are so entitled in the classroom?  How can we help our students learn to be compassionate citizens?

Like all great teachers, I have tried, over the course of this school year, to instill these ideas of caring and kindness within my students.  We often talk about how to communicate in compassionate ways with each other in the classroom.  Compassion is one of our class norms.  However, it sometimes feels like I’m simply doing lip service to some big, grandiose, and utopian idea that is not really achievable in the classroom.  Is all of this work for not?  What I witnessed this past week in my classroom definitely tells me otherwise.

This past Wednesday, one of my students had his lunch taken, accidentally, as he had left it out of his lunch box during the all-school lunch period.  He came back to the classroom seeming very upset and hungry.  He shared what had happened with me and the other students in the classroom prior to the start of our next class.  Immediately, two students got extra food they had leftover in their lunch boxes to share with this student.  Despite the student saying, “No thanks,” they gave him the food anyway.  He then gratefully enjoyed this gifted food during our class read-aloud.  I shared what had unfolded with the entire class prior to starting to read aloud from our class novel, as I wanted everyone to celebrate the kind deeds in action.  The most happy-tears part of the whole situation was that the students who gave their leftover food to the student who had none, didn’t even pause to think about their choice or actions; they simply got their food out and gave it to the student, as though that is just what you do to help members of your community.  Wow, was just about all I was thinking in that moment.  Perhaps those lessons and all that talk of compassion and empathy did have an impact on my students.

Astronomy Unit Reflection

Going into this Astronomy Unit in Science class way back in mid-March, I felt quite confident that I was providing students with the learning and education on space that they had requested prior to starting the unit.  They gave me some great insight as to what specific topics regarding astronomy that they wanted to study and cover over the course of our unit; and so, when I crafted the unit, I made sure to include what they had asked for and not what topics they had already learned about in the past.  For this reason, I was very hopeful that the students would really enjoy this unit.

Fast forward a month to the end of the unit and I still feel the same way.  The students seemed engaged and curious throughout our unit.  They seemed to like every part of it, including the test.  So, when I asked for feedback on the unit this past Friday, as we closed the door on this fine masterpiece of learning, I had my fingers crossed that my thoughts would align nicely with the students’ perspective on our Astronomy Unit.

The big takeaways for me were that the students did really enjoy this unit, overall.  While there are always going to be outliers in an activity like completing a feedback form, almost every students felt like I had covered what they wanted to learn in a way that worked for them.  This felt really positive.  Asking for thoughts and ideas before the unit, helped me to generate a very meaningful and engaging unit on an often fun topic for students.  Asking the students for help in creating an engaging and fun curriculum totally helps.  Student buy-in was great throughout this unit, as they had helped to shape it.  I love it!

Here are some direct quotes from the Google Form the students completed regarding their thoughts on our astronomy unit:

  • In answering the question, “Is there anything(s) that you wish we had learned about space that we did not cover during this unit?” one student responded: No, I feel like I was informed of everything I wanted to learn.
  • In addressing this question, “If you were the teacher, what would you change about the Knowledge Phase, including mini-lessons and test?” one student wrote: Nothing. I thought that you handled them very well.

McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center Field Trip

As I’m sure we can all attest to, we may not remember many of the specific topics covered when we were students in school, but we sure do recall, vividly, the experiences we had in school.  I will never forget the field trips I took to Fort Number Four in fourth grade, an outdoor science center in sixth grade, and Washington D.C. in ninth grade.  Those opportunities brought the learning to life for me.  I remember the fun times with classmates, cool science facts, and the amazing exhibits in the museums we visited.  As teachers, we realize this fact, and try to imbue our class and curriculum with engaging and enjoyable experiences.

This past Tuesday, as a way to wrap up our Astronomy Unit, I took my class to visit the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery in Concord, NH.  The students enjoyed the hands-on exhibits in the discovery center.  They loved trying to land the space shuttle and experiencing the different types of waves.  We concluded our visit with a very cool planetarium show on Black Holes.  After partaking in the unveiling of the Black Hole images from two weeks ago, my students were so into learning more about Black Holes.  It was awesome.  Throughout the show, I heard my students say, “Wow,” “That’s so neat,” and “I didn’t know that.”  It was awesome.  While they may not remember every last fact we learned about space throughout our unit, I’m hopeful that they will never forget our class trip to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center.

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All that stuff happened in just one week?  Whoa, that was a very rich and full week.  As I wax nostalgic on all the fun I’ve had with my class this year, it’s comforting to know that I still have almost two more months with them before they matriculate into sixth grade.  How much more fun can be had?  Well, we are sure to find out starting next week.

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Lessons in Learning from a Mechanical Engineer

Teachers are the best students, as we must never stop learning and growing.  Educators are always in search of new lessons, new ways to approach a concept in the classroom, and new ways to engage our students.  Teachers are like great adventurers on magical quests for knowledge, understanding, and a bright future for our students.  While most of this learning does generally happen outside of the walls of our classrooms, we also learn a lot from our students.  Each day I’m in the classroom with my students is like Christmas all over again; I keep unwrapping magical gifts of wonder and excitement.  I often ask my students, “I wonder who’s doing more learning today, me or you.”  Our students teach us how to be kind, how to approach and solve problems, how to speak what’s on our mind, how to be curious and wonder, how to care for others, and how to see the world through rainbow-colored glasses of awesomeness.  Joe Dirt was right, life really is a garden.

Although my students provide me with many lessons on a daily basis, I often find myself learning from my colleagues as well.  My school’s headmaster is an amazingly kind, caring, and thoughtful man whose heart is filled with never-ending support and love.  He goes out of his way to help and support the teachers and students of our amazing school on a daily basis.  The other teachers in my school community are some of the wisest and most wonderful educators I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting and working with.  The English teacher directs our students in plays that rival those I’ve seen on Broadway, while our Math teacher is pretty much the smartest person I know.  Her ability to solve problems is phenomenal.  Our Science teachers make a dynamic duo of chemistry and physics.  They engage our students in cool projects and know more about squid than the creatures themselves.  Our History teacher is compassionate and filled with energy like a hot air balloon of love, archeology, geology, and art history.  She seems to know history better than those who have written textbooks on the subject.  My learning journey never ends due to my amazing students, fellow teachers, and all of those special guests I invite into my classroom.

Wednesday morning, Earl Tuson, a mechanical engineer, farmer, father, husband, and so much more, spoke to my students about solving problems while working for NASA.  He told great stories about the importance of being open to all ideas and listening to others.  He was once on a team that had to create a device or machine that would carry astronauts from one part of the International Space Station to another, outside of the giant craft.  While his team had been working on this problem for quite some time, they were stuck.  He came on board and suggested they think about it like a bicycle.  As the team was very fixed in their mindset, they were unable to hear Mr. Tuson’s brilliant and simple solution to their problem.  In the end, they crafted this complex machine that fell apart in space.  If only his team members had listened to all of the ideas put forth before choosing one, perhaps NASA would not have had yet another problem to solve.  The students were engaged in what Mr. Tuson had to say and asked many great questions about our Astronomy Project.  One student asked about the best material to protect a space craft from the harmful rays of the sun, while another student bluntly asked if her group’s idea for a solution to the problem of trash on Earth was realistic or viable.  Rather than directly respond to her question, he asked her to think about if the trash on Earth is indeed trash at all.  Couldn’t we reuse the plastic?  Can we use the rotting food as compost?  Is their really trash that cannot be somehow repurposed?  This response caused her to rethink her group’s approach to the problem.  As Mr. Tuson spoke to my class, I felt inspired to learn and grow as well.

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After his talk with my students, I picked his brain a bit further.  I asked him more directly about how he approaches problems.  Do you draw things out before you begin building?  How do you plan out solutions?  I was a bit surprised by his response.  He said, “I tinker and play until the pieces seem to come together.  Through doing, I am better able to be inspired and think critically.  I can’t draw out a solution without first trying to put things together.  The process doesn’t work like that.  Those who create a blueprint before actually constructing a product, end up having to spend much time revising their design because theories and ideas don’t always end up working the way we’d like them to in life.”  This got me thinking.  So, I then asked him, “Should I revise the project steps a bit to allow the students to tinker and play with the materials they will use to build their space rovers before having them create a blueprint?”  He felt as though providing the students with a chance to play and experiment first, would lead to better results and more engagement.  I then changed the stages of the project to allow students time to play with the Little Bits pieces before they crafted a blueprint.  And was I ever thankful I did that.

Thursday and Friday of this week, the students began the design phase of the group project in class.  After brainstorming their solutions, I gave them time to learn how to use the Little Bits STEM Kits.  I wanted them to see the possibilities and learn how they work.  As the students tinkered and played, they talked about ideas.  “Oh, we could use this to make our rover do that,” many of the students said as they snapped the circuit pieces together.  They were so into this tinkering process.  Their faces lit up when they discovered something new that they could do.  The buzzer button was one of their most favorite pieces.  Shockingly enough, I wasn’t bothered by the constant buzzing as much as I thought I would be.  The other students were the ones telling their classmates to refrain from using the buzzer for more than a few seconds.  That was pretty neat.  After the students determined the ins and outs of the Little Bits pieces, they began sketching out their rover ideas.  Their blueprints were much more detailed and thorough than they would have been had I not allowed them to tinker and play first.  Mr. Tuson was right, allowing students to engage with the pieces and materials first leads to more unique and specific ideas and solutions.  My grandmother was so right, I really do learn something new every day.

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How Empowering Students Leads to Engagement in the Classroom

One of my favorite memories from my experience in elementary school came in the sixth grade.  While my year in the sixth grade was transformational for me in many ways, one project in particular really helped to shape my love of science and plants.  I had Mr. Carr for Science class that year.  He was an older, more experienced teacher who refused to put up with guff from students.  Did I just use the word guff?  How old am I?  Oh well, with age comes insight.  Rather than digressing too far off track, I’ll continue.  So, anyway, Mr. Carr was a cool dude who taught my Science class.  For most of the year, we learned about topics that clearly did not engage me, as I have no recollection of them.  Then came the spring term.  We learned all about plants, ecology, and ecosystems, which, on their own merits weren’t super interesting topics to me; however, it was the culminating project that really did it for me.  As a class, we had to design, build, and plant an outdoor garden in the school yard.  At first, I wasn’t super excited about this project, but the deeper into it I dug, the more engaged and enthusiastic I grew, puns intended.  I spent many of my recess periods outside tending to the garden and setting it all up.  I loved it.  I became so enthralled with gardens and plants, that I spent most of that summer planting a garden near my house.  There was something about getting my hands dirty and helping bring life to things, that really excited me.

If I became excited about learning and doing back then through a garden project, might I be able to inspire some of my students to get pumped about learning if I incorporated a similar project into my curriculum?  Planning my current unit on ecosystems and ecology, I reflected back on my own experience.  Hands-on learning in the form of a project might be just what motivates my students to see the benefit in learning all about how plants grow and develop in their ecosystems.  Plus, a student feedback survey I conducted in mid-December showed that my students like haptic learning experiences.  They like group projects that they can own.  Everything seemed to be falling into place, like seeds in soil.

This is the final project I generated for my unit on ecology, based on my past experiences and the information my students shared with me about how they learn best.

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It felt really good to me.  I was excited to unveil it to my students.  About two weeks ago, my class began working on this project.  After I introduced it, smiles and positive chatter filled the classroom.  They were exhilarated before they even began working on it.  Yes, I thought.  Mission accomplished.  However, that excitement was simply the beginning of the awesomeness.  Because I wanted this project to be completely student driven, during each Science class that is devoted to working on this project, I don’t say a word.  I let the students take charge from assigning roles and jobs to each other to designing the ecosystem, choosing plants, and solving problems encountered.  I don’t interject at all.  In fact, only one student in the class is allowed to ask me questions during the work periods.  I want my students to apply the problem solving skills they have been working on since September.  I want them to self-regulate themselves and their classmates.  I want them to practice compassionate communication.  I want them to think critically about the project and content covered in order to solve problems they face.  After the first work period, they had discussed how they wanted to grow all sorts of berries and flowering vegetables in the garden.  I didn’t remind them that we can’t easily grow flowering plants in the classroom, as we can’t have bees flying around the room.  The next day however, one of the students announced the problem with growing flowering plants in our garden.  Amazing!  They solved their own problem through research, critical thinking, and working outside of class.  I just sit back and observe.  The students run the show.  A few students usually take charge during each work period to remind each other of the goal or task at hand.  Then, they break up into smaller groups and work on designing the indoor garden.  One group works on creating the blueprint while the other group generates a list of materials needed.  They ask each other questions and work together to solve problems.  Each and every student is involved in some way because they want to be.  They are excited about this project.  They love that they are able to choose what they grow and how to build the ecosystem in which these plants will grow.  So far, they have decided upon the basic design of the indoor garden, where in the classroom it will be located, and the plants they want to grow.

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Empowering students to lead the class while providing them with choices and options in how they learn or accomplish a task, leads to great engagement.  The students are excited for Science class now because of this project.  They love that they are in charge.  They hold each other accountable and make sure that everyone is on task.  It’s amazing.  Talk about student-centered learning.  This is it.  Creating opportunities for hands-on learning and student-led projects helps with student buy-in and engagement.  My students won’t soon forget the requirements plants need to survive or how ecosystems thrive because of this project.  They need to fully understand and comprehend the content covered during the beginning of this unit in order to successfully complete this project.  I’m hopeful that my students, like I did as a student, will take memories of their experience regarding this project with them as they continue to grow and develop as young adults, thinkers, ecologists, and humans.  Effectively empowering students truly does lead to student engagement with the content.

Promoting Problem Solving in the Classroom

Helping students learn how to overcome adversity can be challenging.  I find it difficult, at times, to overcome the problems with which I’m faced on a daily basis.  How can I create an interactive lesson on grammar?  How do I change a tire on my car?  Problem solving is a tough skill to teach people in general, let alone fifth graders.  What’s the best way to help students learn the art of solving problems?  Experiences in failure.  Yes, that’s right, I said, let students fail.

I told my students on day one that I want them to fail this year, as that is when the real learning happens.  When people stumble, make a mistake, or fail, they have a choice to make.  They can find a new way to solve their problem or give up.  I want my students to see the power in perseverance and problem solving.  I empower my students to change their perspective, try something new, or take a break when faced with adversity.  The best way to learn to solve problems is through practice.  As a teacher, I find creative ways to help my students encounter problems throughout each and every day.  This way, they have multiple chances to mess up, make mistakes, fail, and then learn.  I use these opportunities as teachable moments.  What do you do now?

A prime example of this strategy in action happened today during Science class.  The students are in the midst of a final project for our unit on physics.  They need to create a pinball machine that applies the concepts of kinetic and potential energy, simple machines, and speed and velocity.  They can only use materials they have access to in our classroom.  As we have lots of “stuff” in our Maker Space, the possibilities are almost endless.

After planning out their designs and creating a blueprint of their pinball machines, they continued working on constructing them in class today.  After the students, working in pairs, set a goal for the period, they got right to work.  At first, the room was filled with activity.  The students were measuring, sawing, re-sawing, remeasuring, taping, gluing, and trying to get the bases of their pinball machines assembled.  Things went swimmingly for the first 45 minutes.  Then, the students started to hit some walls as they encountered problems.  How do you attach the legs of a pinball machine to the machine itself?  How do you make a base wide enough?  How do you attach two pieces of wood together to create legs?

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I observed the students as they started bumping into these problems.  While they became frustrated, they never gave up.  They searched for new ways to solve their problems.  One group that was trying to widen their pinball table, connected two pieces of wood together by attaching wooden shingles with nails to the back of the two pieces.  Very creative.  Another group struggled to attach their legs to their pinball machine base with screws, and so they found another way to transform their base into an inclined plane.  They attached a piece of wood to the back.  It was so fun to watch my students face adversity in class today, and then persevere through it to find new solutions to their problems.  I praised the students as they generated new ways to solve the dilemmas with which they were faced.  Providing students opportunities to fail, learn from their mistakes, and then find new solutions to their problems is how genuine learning and growth happens in and out of the classroom.

What Makes an Effective Sixth Grade Program?

As the winter term winds to a close today at my wonderful school, I find myself reflecting and pondering grading, assessment, and our overall academic program.  What makes an effective academic program?  What allows a school to function in a meaningful and relevant manner?  This then led me to contemplate the sixth grade program that I’ve been working on developing over the past 11 years or so…

Introduction

Going through the adolescent stage of development is like being on a roller coaster without a seat belt.  When you flip upside down, you fall out of your seat unless you are holding on with everything you’ve got.  Each benchmark within adolescence brings new turns, curves, and loops.  Working with adolescent boys is like trying to dodge raindrops.  You can’t avoid the inevitable.  Craziness and chaos will ensue.  But heck, that’s why middle school teachers work with this age group.  We’re a little crazy too because we remember what it was like to be this age.

At Cardigan, we make it our mission to mold young boys into compassionate and mindful young men.  It’s a wild and sometimes frustrating journey, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  Boys who attend sixth grade at Cardigan begin this adventure earlier than most as it is the youngest and smallest grade at our school.  Because of this, we have created a very unique  program that will help our boys foster a family spirit and connection that they carry with them throughout their time at Cardigan; to help provide them with some safety features on the bumpy roller coaster of adolescence.

Rationale

Brain-based research on how learning really happens reveals that students learn best when they are engaged, motivated, feel safe, are challenged and supported.  The sixth grade program has greatly evolved over the years due to this research and, as sixth grade teachers, we are always trying to find new and innovative ways to inspire and effectively educate and prepare our boys for meaningful lives in a global society.

Our Philosophy: We’re a family, and families take care of each other

The first ten weeks of the academic year are focused on building a strong family atmosphere amongst the students.  One of our biggest goals in the sixth grade is to foster a sense of family within the boys.  We want the students to understand and be able to effectively coexist with one another in a way that celebrates their differences.  First, as teachers, we model the behavior we expect to see from the students.  Second, we spend time each week talking about what makes an effective community.  We have the students share personal information about themselves including interests, hobbies, sports, and social identifiers.  We help the boys examine all parts of their personality that remain hidden to most of the world.  In exploring this, the students begin to think deeply and critically about themselves and how they fit into the world.  They also have a chance to share this information with their peers.  While making them vulnerable, it helps the boys make deep connections with each other.  We provide the students with specific strategies on how to communicate with their peers effectively, how to solve problems amongst themselves, and how to work together as a team to accomplish tasks.  We utilize numerous team building activities as catalysts for these mini-lessons: The boys build spaghetti towers in small groups, create a scavenger hunt with a partner, and solve various tasks that provide opportunities to practice and learn how to be effective teammates.  We want the boys to understand what it takes to be Cardigan community member.  

During the first month of school, we take the boys on an overnight trip to our school’s CORE cabin to help build a sense of family and community within the boys.  While the location of the cabin is on our campus, it feels very like it could be miles away.  We build a fire together and then roast marshmallows.  We tell stories, play games, and interact as a family.  If problems arise, we take the time to help the students learn how to work together to solve them.  It’s an amazing experience that helps lay the groundwork for future whole-class experiences we will provide the boys with throughout our year together.

Mindfulness

During the first term of the academic year, we spend time helping the students learn how to be present and mindful in the moment.  We teach the students many different mindful practices and strategies including deep breathing, visualization, yoga, and meditation.  The boys learn how to self-soothe and calm themselves during moments of intense emotion so that they are able to get the most out of each learning experience in the sixth grade.  We revisit and review these strategies periodically throughout the year as well so that the boys don’t forget them and are able to see the power they hold in helping them stay focused and in the present moment during class.

Classroom Organization

In order to help foster a sense of engagement in the classroom and to allow our students to feel as though they can focus on the lesson or activity at hand, our classroom is organized in a very specific manner.  

We have a reading nook area for small group work, independent reading, and movie viewing when appropriate.  The boys can sit or lie on the carpet squares in any way that allows them to feel engaged and focused.  We also have a small group work table for those students who need to be sitting to work and stay focused.  The desk table area is towards the front of the classroom near our interactive board and projector.  We use whiteboard tables to allow the students the opportunity to take notes, brainstorm, solve math problems, or just doodle upon them while working or listening.  We also use rocking style chairs at the desk work area to allow those students who need to move and stay focused.  These chairs help create a sense of calm and focus in the classroom during full group instruction lessons.  While every student is rocking, they are able to pay attention and listen intently.

These classroom organizational choices are based on the neuroscience of learning.  Students are able to genuinely learn the concepts and skills covered when they feel safe, engaged, and motivated.  The classroom furniture we use and the spaces we’ve created help our students to learn in a meaningful way.

Curriculum

Our goal is for our boys to feel connected to and engaged with the curriculum we employ in the sixth grade.  We want the students to enjoy coming to classes because they are excited and interested in what is happening.  We are constantly revising and updating what we do and how we do it, and because of this, our curriculum is a living and breathing entity.

Humanities

In our humanities class, the students develop their critical thinking skills to become community-minded young men with an awareness of the world around them.  We begin the year with a unit on community so that they learn to accept and appreciate differences in others.  Through completing various activities during the first two weeks of the academic year, the students begin to understand how they fit into our sixth grade family as well as the greater Cardigan community.  The boys also learn much about their peers through this first unit.  Everything else we work on throughout the year in humanities class builds upon this foundation we create at the start of the year.  

The humanities class occupies a double block period that covers both the history and English curriculum for the sixth grade.  This integrated approach allows students to see how the big ideas in History and English go hand in hand.  We cover various communities and cultures from around the world so that we can provide the students with a macro view of the world in a micro manner.  Our goal is to help the students understand perspective and how it can change based on many different factors.  We utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction so that a love of reading and writing is fostered within the boys throughout the year.  

For Reader’s Workshop, the students choose just-right (engaging, grade-level and reading-level appropriate) books so that they are interested in what they are reading.  While at the start of the year, several students often seem uninterested in reading, they grow to become voracious and excited readers because the boys can choose books, novels, texts, and e-books that interest and engage them.  

For Writer’s Workshop, the students choose the topics about which they write within the confines of the genre requirements.  The vignette form of writing is the first genre covered in the sixth grade.  Rather than mandate that it be a personal narrative vignette, we allow the students to choose the topic.  This choice and freedom empowers the students.  “I can write a short story about anything?” we often hear our students exclaim.  For boys, writing is generally not something they enjoy doing.  They would much rather go outside and play or explore instead of writing.  We want our students to see writing as something that can be fun and hands-on.  If we allow our students to write about topics that engage them, a sense of excitement develops within them.

Math Class

As math tends to be a loathsome topic for many, we have made it our mission in the sixth grade, to help students see math as fun and meaningful.  We want our students to see how vital the skills they are learning in our math class are to their everyday lives.  While we do follow a book series, we supplement it with projects and activities that allow the students to see the relevance in what they are learning.  For example, to help the students understand the importance in learning how to solve basic computational problems, we complete a unit on the Stock Market, in which the students, working in small groups, invest in the stock market as they learn financial literacy skills.  In order to buy, trade, or sell stocks, bonds, or funds, they need to accurately calculate the costs associated with their particular transaction.  Through this project, the students learn the value of accuracy in solving various computational problems.  

We utilize the Math in Focus: Singapore Math series of books in our sixth grade math course.  We chose this particular math program because of the options it provides students when introducing new skills.  Students can choose one of three ways to solve problems using skills covered.  This versatility and choice leads to better engagement amongst the students as they pick the method that is most relevant to them.  As we often have a wide range of ability in terms of math skills in the sixth grade class each year, we have the flexibility to greatly differentiate our math instruction.  We challenge each student where they are at the start of the academic year.  We have the ability to help students work through a sixth grade, seventh grade, or eighth grade Singapore Math program based on their math capabilities.  This flexibility allows for the students to be actively engaged in the math curriculum as they are being appropriately challenged.

Science Class

Our science class teaches students to persevere.  They learn how to overcome adversity, think differently, see problems from numerous perspectives, communicate effectively, and be curious. We teach students what to do when faced with a new problem. As Angela Lee Duckworth stated in her well-received TED Talk, we need to teach our students how to be gritty. Our sixth graders are provided with opportunities to explore, try new things, fail, try again, talk with their peers, sketch out new ideas, and then do it all over again.

Our science curriculum holds the bar high for our students. Rigor doesn’t mean that we require more work to be done for the sake of doing it, it means that the standards and objectives we are teaching are challenging, specific, and relevant. Our science units challenge students to think creatively and solve problems in innovative ways. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are the foundation of our curriculum. These standards promote rigor and problem solving in fun and engaging ways.

In past years, we have completed units on astronomy, geology, Earth science, weather, ecology, and chemistry.  Every unit incorporates some sort of project or group activity that challenges the students to think critically to creatively solve problems by applying the content information learned.  For example, in our astronomy unit, we had the students work together to solve a problem facing Earth that originated outside of our planet’s atmosphere.  The students then created a space vehicle, using Little Bits, that allowed them to apply their unique solution to the problem.  Teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity are some of the skills learned and practiced throughout the completion of this project.

PEAKS Class

At Cardigan, while we weave study skills into every course that we teach, we have one class devoted to supplementing and supporting every other core subject: Personalized Education for the Acquisition of Knowledge and Skills (PEAKS).  The true purpose of the course is to help the students understand how they best learn, metacognition.  We begin the year with a unit on the brain and its amazing plasticity as a way to help the students learn to become self-aware and genuinely own their learning.  The students learn how to change their thinking in the classroom so that they can approach every new task with a growth mindset.  Throughout the rest of the year, the PEAKS class works to provide the students with the vital academic and study skills they need to be successful learners, thinkers, and problem solvers.  If the students are working on a research project in Humanities class, they will learn how to effectively take notes from their sources and practice doing it in PEAKS class.  This course supports and challenges each and every student where and when they need it.

Homework

Student engagement isn’t confined within the walls of the classroom.  What the students do or don’t do outside of the classroom can be equally important.  If students aren’t seeing the relevance or value in their homework assignments, then we’ve lost them.  In the sixth grade, we approach homework in the same manner we approach everything.  It’s all about choice and engagement.  We want the students to further practice the skills learned in the classroom in a captivating way that allows them to continue learning and growing as a student.  Homework is not graded and assessed purely for effort.  If we want our students to practice, fail, try again, and continue to practice, then we must not grade this practice work.  Plus, since the students are completing the work outside of the classroom, it is difficult to know who is doing the work and how it is being done.  Are the boys getting assistance from peers, teachers, or parents to complete the work?  While we promote this self-help approach, grading the individual students on work when we don’t know exactly how the work was completed.  Most of the homework assigned is a continuation of what was worked on in class.  

For example, in humanities class, we do much writing and reading.  So, a typical homework assignment is to read from their Reader’s Workshop book for 30 minutes.  As they choose their Reader’s Workshop books based on ability and interest level, the engagement is already there.  Plus, this practice allows them to increase their reading stamina so that they are prepared for the reading demands of seventh grade.  Homework assignments shouldn’t be separate, stand-alone tasks that overly challenge the students.  Developmentally, by the time the sixth graders get to evening study hall at 7:30 p.m. they are exhausted and unable to focus for a long period of time in order to effectively process information and solve problems.  You might say that our homework assignments complement the classroom curriculum the way a beautiful brooch can bring out the colors of a flowing dress.

Project-Based Learning

To prepare students for lives in the global society in which they will live and work, we teach our students how to effectively work in groups to solve open-ended problems with no right or wrong answer. Students need to know how to delegate tasks, lead groups of their peers, follow instructions, ask questions, and solve problems. Project Based Learning ties all of the aforementioned skills together with ribbons of the required curriculum. While the students are engaged with the content and hands-on aspects of the project, they are also learning crucial life skills that will help them persevere and learn to overcome adversity.

Standards-Based Assessment

To help our students adopt learning skills necessary to grow and develop as critical thinkers and problem solvers, we use a standards-based system of grading. The focus is on the standard or objective being assessed. If our curriculum is set up according to the standards, why should we grade the students on anything other than what the curriculum asks? If we are teaching paragraph structure and the standard is, students will be able to craft an original, properly formatted, and complete paragraph, then we should only be grading student work on that one standard using a scale that aligns with the school’s grading criteria? Points must not be taken away for spelling, grammar, or other reasons unless the paragraph is being assessed regarding those standards as well. Rick Wormeli and other leading educational reform leaders have been talking about standards-based grading for years. It is the only way to accurately grade students on what is essential.

In this vein, we also want the students to understand that learning is a process.  Education is like a living organism.  Our students will grow, change, regress, and evolve throughout the year.  As we expect and want our students to meet or exceed all of the objectives covered so that we know they will be fully prepared for seventh grade, we allow students to redo work that doesn’t meet the graded objectives.  The boys are allowed to redo all and any work for a unit until the unit has finished.  They can seek help from the teachers and utilize any feedback we provide to them in order to showcase their ability to meet or exceed the objectives.  This grading system is dynamic and can be changed to allow for the students to employ a growth mindset and truly own their learning.

Conclusion

At Cardigan, we prepare students for an unknown future in a world that will inevitably be very different from its current state.  Because of this, in the sixth grade, we have devised over many years of data collection, research, and practice, to develop a strong and creative academic and social program that engages students in an applicable curriculum that teaches problem solving, critical thinking, coexistence, and how to manifest and utilize a growth mindset.  Students who attend Cardigan Mountain School starting in the sixth grade and then go onto graduate at the close of their ninth grade year receive a meaningful and rich experience.  They grow up together, and, in turn, a family atmosphere and spirit is created within that group of four-year boys.  While it can be challenging at times to be a sixth grade student at Cardigan, our inclusive program helps the boys feel safe and connected within a special family known as the sixth grade.

The Power in Teaching Students to Understand Computer Coding

I love teaching sixth grade, and it’s one of the reasons why I wake up so happy each and every morning.  I love challenging students to think critically.  I love watching my students struggle through problems using perseverance and a growth mindset.  I love guiding students to the metaphorical watering hole of learning and watching them figure out what to do once there.  I love teaching Humanities and our study skills classes.  I love helping students learn how they learn best.  I love helping students broaden their perspective.  I love everything about my role in the sixth grade this year, well, almost everything that is.

Last May when the school needed to hire a new co-teacher to work with me in the sixth grade, I was offered a choice: Teach STEM or teach Humanities?  As I majored in English in college, I feel most qualified to teach the Humanities class; however, I developed the STEM class three years ago and have been the only teacher of the course since its inception.  It’s kind of my thing, but I was never formally trained in teaching math or science and so I always felt like I had to do much learning on my own outside of class.  My understanding of the STEM content was very limited.  While I loved teaching STEM class, I always felt a little in over my head.  So, I chose to stick with Humanities.  While I love teaching my Humanities class, I do miss the hands-on and engaging projects I had the students do last year in STEM class.  Don’t get me wrong, my new co-teacher is doing a fabulous job teaching the STEM course this year, but I do miss all of the fun I had in STEM class the past three years.  It’s very easy to get students excited about a topic when they are able to play with Little Bits to create a working rover.  It’s a lot harder to get students excited about the topic of government in Humanities class, no matter what type of project or activity is used to convey the information.  I miss working with the students in STEM class.

Today reminded me, yet again, of just how much I miss teaching STEM class.  In our study skills class today, I pushed the PAUSE button on our regularly scheduled unit on Academic Integrity so that I could have the students participate in the global Hour of Code event taking place this week.  After showing the students a short video created by the wonderful folks at Code.org, I had the boys choose an activity on the Hour of Code website to complete for the remainder of class, which ended up being about 30 minutes.  The boys had so much fun learning how to create the fun and engaging video games they often play including Minecraft, Flappy Bird, and other such games.  The students persevered through challenges, asked peers for help when needed, used a growth mindset to think critically about their problems in new and unique ways, and had a ton of fun learning how computer coding works.  They learned how if and then statements work as well as how difficult it is to create just one tiny portion of a very complex video game.  They realized how important every space, digit, or letter truly is when coding.  At the end of the period, the boys looked as though they had lost their puppy dog when I had them shut their laptops to close the class.  They didn’t want to stop programming games and having fun.  They didn’t want to stop learning.  A few students remained in the classroom during their free period 90 minutes later to keep working on the coding projects they had started earlier in the day.  The boys had so much fun engaging in an activity that hopefully inspired them to learn more and perhaps made a few of the boys realize where their passion lies.

In STEM class last year, I had the students use the online program Code Combat on a weekly basis to learn computer coding.  The boys had so much fun learning how to make computer games.  I really missed that, until today.  Today gave me a taste of what I was missing, and made me realize that I don’t have to miss it.  Coding isn’t just a STEM topic.  Coding applies to every subject.  Computer coding can be used to help students learn how to be brief and succinct writers in English class.  Coding can be used to help students work through challenging math problems in the form of games.  Coding can be used to help students understand complex ideas such as government.  Coding doesn’t have to be something that is only taught in tech or STEM classes.  Coding could and should be taught or covered in every class.  I could easily use coding programs in Humanities class or our study skills course.  I don’t have to pine away for what once was when I can bring the magic into the classes I am currently teaching.  I can use coding to inject a little more engagement into the classes I do teach.  Coding is the language of the future, and so I should capitalize on this in every way possible.

The Brain as a Unit

The brain is an absolutely fabulous work of art created by the trials and tribulations of evolution.  We are a lucky species to be equipped with such an amazing device that allows us to think, deliberate, feel, talk, smell, and so much more.  As the brain is in charge of everything that we as humans do, it’s also really nice that scientists have spent so much time studying this remarkable body part that hangs above our neck like a statue on a pedestal.  Because of this work, we as teachers, know that the brain is what enables or prevents our students from learning and growing as individuals.  So, it just makes sense that we should empower our students with knowledge about this great tool hidden away in our skull under layers of hair and skin.

My co-teacher and I spent several weeks doing research on how to most effectively teach the brain and how it helps students learn.  We bounced ideas off of one another, did some more research, and revised our unit plan until we had what we feel is the best possible unit on teaching the students how they can best utilize their brain in order to be the most effective student in and out of the classroom.  We based most of our unit on the ideas developed by Carol Dweck and the Brainology program her and her team created.  A lot of the activities we have planned came directly from that curriculum.  If you are looking for a dynamic and meaningful way to teach the brain and the concept of mindsets to students, you must definitely check out Brainology.  It is an amazing program.  Enough with the subliminal advertising.  So, my phenomenal new co-teacher and I have created a unit on the brain and how it helps students learn that will engage and educate students so that they can grow into effective and thoughtful students.  We will be implementing this unit at the start of the year as a way to introduce students to this great tool resting on their shoulders.  This unit will run side-by-side our unit on Mindfulness so that the students will see how living mindfully will help them not only be be more peaceful and deliberate, but also more effective students and thinkers.  We feel as though these ideas and concepts need to be integrated for the best result possible.

Highlights of our unit on the brain:

  • The students will learn all about the plasticity of their brain through various discussions and activities.  Knowing that intelligence is always influx and not fixed will help the students see that everything they do is about attitude and perspective.  They can do almost anything they put their mind to.
  • The students will create and design learning plans to help fictional students utilize a growth mindset and be the most effective student possible.  The hope is that they will be able to apply these ideas to themselves and their learning in and out of the classroom.  It will also be great practice for the final project.
  • The unit will close with a project in which the students will set SMART goals for themselves with a plan for how they will achieve their goals based on ideas and strategies learned throughout the unit.  This will be a graded project that will allow us to teach the students about how to set SMART goals, revise work their work, and utilize feedback in a meaningful manner.  We will also have the students review and update their learning plan every two weeks to make it relevant and meaningful for them.
  • This unit will be implemented in our study skills class while the students learn about the biology of the brain and its parts and their functions in STEM class.  Integrating this unit into our STEM class made sense to us.  The students will learn about how their brain learns in PEAKS class while they learn the science-based aspects of the brain in our science course.  Helping the students put the pieces of the brain puzzle together will allow them to see the hows and whys of this amazing resource that we generally take for granted.

Below is the unit plan we devised:

How Your Brain Learns Unit

Day 1

  • Briefly introduce unit on the brain
    • This unit will help you realize how flexible and plastic your brain is and how you can change how you think about learning and intelligence to become a more effective student and learner.
    • This unit will help students understand how their brain physically changes as they learn new information and how they can affect those changes.
  • Ask students: What do you wonder about this unit?
    • Have them start an OWL (Observations from their past/things they already know, Wonderings, Learning/things they learn from this unit) chart about their brain. They will complete the “L” at the end of the unit.
  • Have students complete the Mindset Assessment Profile
    • Have them score it themselves
    • Have them complete the reflection worksheet

Day 2

  • Have students finish the Mindset Assessment Profile if not completed in class on the previous day
  • Discuss:
    • Are there some subjects in which you don’t feel confident that you can learn and do well?  Why might that be?
    • How do you think it feels to get a bad grade when you learned something really hard?  How did you learn it?
    • Can you think of a time when you learned to do something really hard?  How did you learn it?
    • What would you be willing to work hard at to achieve if you knew it was possible?
    • If you knew that you could develop your intelligence through effort, what goals would you set for yourself?
  • Tell students: In this unit you are going to learn how you can grow your intelligence and do anything you want through hard work and effort.

Day 3

  • Read through and discuss “You Can Grow Your Intelligence” handout together as a class

Day 4

  • Have students complete the Scan your Brain Health self-assessment and then score it
  • Discuss:
    • What do you need to do to move into or stay in the Growth Mindset Zone?

Day 5

  • Tell students: Today we will learn more about the brain and its parts.
  • Ask students: What do you already know about the brain and its parts?
  • Create a list on the whiteboard of what the students already know about the brain.
  • Show students the Youtube Video on the Human Brain
  • Have students complete the Take an Active Approach handout
  • Ask students: What did you learn about the brain today that you didn’t already know?

Day 6

  • Tell students: It seems effortless to do things you like such as playing sports, playing video games, or using your cell phone.  
  • Ask students: What are some of your favorite things to do?  How did you learn to do them?  How can you apply this same tactic to school work or learning anything new?
  • Tell students: Dr. Carol Dweck is a psychologist who studies why people fail.  What she found is that when people believe they failed because of lack of talent or intelligence, they stopped trying.  But, when people believe they failed because they didn’t try hard enough, they persevered and put forth more effort to be successful.
  • Ask students: Have you found this to be true in your personal lives?  Do you try harder when you believe you failed because of a lack of effort?  How does a person’s attitude affect his or her success?
  • Tell students: Sometimes we think we tried hard to learn something and fail so we give up when really it’s because we don’t know how to apply effective effort.  We need to work hard and work smart.  
  • Pass out Effective Effort Rubric Handout to students
  • Tell students: This rubric is a tool for thinking about how hard you tried to learn something.
  • Read and discuss the rubric together as a class.
  • Have the students think of something they tried to learn recently that they didn’t already know how to do.  How much effective effort did they use?  Have them circle the boxes that apply to how they performed.  When they finish, have them write a paragraph explaining how much effort they put forth and what they could work on next time they are learning something new.
  • If time permits, have students share their paragraphs aloud with the class.

Day 7

  • Read and discuss together as a class “John’s History Test” handout.
  • Tell students: Working with your table partner, create a plan to help John achieve his goal of doing well on the upcoming history test.  Write the plan out with specific action items and days of the week.  What should his study schedule look like?
  • Have students share their study plans with the class and discuss.  Is the plan effective and why or why not?

Day 8

  • Discuss Overcoming Challenges handout
    • What obstacles do you think these people experienced early in their lives?
    • What did they do to overcome these challenges and achieve their goals?
  • Have students complete the reflection questions on the worksheet individually.
  • Have students share times they overcame challenges in their lives aloud with the class.
  • Ask students: What can we learn from these people and others like them?

Day 9

  • Discuss stress and how it affects students and their learning.
  • Watch and discuss Youtube Video on How Stress Affects the Brain
  • Read and discuss Emotions and Learning Handout
  • Discuss what students can do to alleviate stress
    • Make list of ideas on the whiteboard
    • Remind them of mindfulness techniques we’re learning

Day 10

  • Read and discuss Alicia’s Presentation handout
  • Activity: Have students work with their table partner to help Alicia learn to not freeze up when performing a class presentation.  Create a plan including specific actions she can do to prevent stress from getting in the way of her life.
  • Have students share their plans and ideas with the class.  Are the plans effective and why or why not?

Day 11

  • Ask students: What are the two types of mindsets people use?
  • Read and discuss Two Mindsets handout
  • Explain to students a time when you felt challenged and talk about what you did to overcome that challenge
  • Have students complete the Two Mindsets Reflection worksheet
  • Have students focus on having a growth mindset as they go through the rest of their day, telling them that they will reflect on their progress in changing their mindset during our next PEAKS class.

Day 12

  • Ask students: How did it go trying to utilize a Growth Mindset when working or interacting with others?  Have volunteers share their experiences.
  • Have students complete the Scan Your Mindset worksheet and self-score it before having them work on the Growth Zone worksheet.
  • Have students share their plans for staying in the growth zone with the class.

Day 13

  • Activity: Students working with their table partner will read the assigned research brief before completing the worksheet.
  • Have students share how their research impacts the human potential.

Day 14

  • Ask students: What needs to happen for effective learning to take place in the brain?
  • Discuss: What are the two types of mindsets people can use?  What happens if we find ourselves in a fixed mindset?  What can we do?
  • Have students complete the Two Mindsets Part 2 worksheet
  • Discuss each of the scenarios on the worksheet and have the students share what they would do to use a growth mindset

Day 15

  • Ask students: How can you be sure you are using a growth mindset in the classroom?  What might that look like?
  • Read and discuss the five BRAIN acronym handouts
  • Ask students: How can you apply these ideas and strategies in the classroom to become a better student?

Days 16-18

  • Ask students: What have we learned about the brain throughout this unit?
  • Finish the KWL chart started at the beginning of the unit
  • Discuss with students: Now what?  You learned all about how you can best utilize your brain to learn and be the most effective student possible.  How can we be sure that you will apply this knowledge and information throughout the year in all of your classes?
  • Have the Students Complete a Learning Goals Plan
    • Discuss SMART goals and how to set them
    • Have the students set at least one SMART goal for each of their major courses: STEM, PEAKS, Humanities, Language, and Gates
    • For each goal, have them create a plan for what they will do to work towards their goal.  They will need to include at least one strategy or idea learned in the unit.
    • Discuss Peer Editing and have the students peer edit with each other
    • Have the students revise their Learning Goals Plan
    • Every Tuesday in PEAKS class, the students will update their progress in this same document
  • Ask students: What did you enjoy about this unit?  What would you change if you were in charge?

Making our Makerspace Even More Maker-Friendly with the Makey Makey

While the name is certainly fun to say, I feel as though it doesn’t truly encapsulate the awesomeness and possibilities provided by the Makey Makey.  It’s a toy, tool, new gadget, game pad, circuit board, keyboard, and so much more.  It’s a small box filled with endless projects and solutions.  After happening upon this fun little resource a few years back, I thought that it was high time to really learn more about it and find useful ways to incorporate it into our sixth grade curriculum, which is why one of my professional goals for the summer was to become better versed in using this learning tool.  So, I spent many hours tinkering, trying new things, and exploring the online tutorials in order to fully grasp what’s possible with this fun little tool called the Makey Makey.

While we will be adding several Makey Makeys to our classroom Makerspace for this upcoming academic year, this resource could also be utilized in Humanities, PEAKS, and STEM classes.  There are so many possibilities that exist with this tiny little gadget.  Combined with other elements including materials and the coding program Scratch, the Makey Makey could be used as a solution to a problem, project possibility, or almost anything else our students can dream up.  I’ve even thought about having the students use this resource during our unit on the brain in PEAKS class as they explore growth mindset and the plasticity of the brain.  The Makey Makey Website is filled with creative ideas and possible uses of this innovative learning tool.  I can’t wait to see what the students create and design with the Makey Makey come September.

I created an enticing little Screencast O Matic video of my fun time with the Makey Makey to inspire and ignite the spark of learning within my future sixth graders.  A big thanks goes out to the amazing, skilled, and innovative thinkers at MIT for creating such amazing learning tools such as the Makey Makey and Scratch.  I can’t wait for my students to learn all about circuits and computer coding through the use of these fine tools.  I wish I could use the Makey Makey to create a fast forward button so that I could skip ahead to September to watch my students build, explore, fail, try something new, and have fun learning with the Makey Makey.  Perhaps my wish could indeed come true if I just keep tinkering and playing, as I’m sure there is some way I can use alligator clips to manipulate time and space.  Anything’s possible…

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.

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.