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

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?
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Posted in Curriculum, Education, Learning, New Ideas, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

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…

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.