Posted in Challenges, Change, Co-Teacher, Conversation, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Student Conferences, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

How to be Flexible with Time in the Classroom

Despite stretching a little bit every day as I climb out of bed and take the three steps needed to get to my bathroom where the magic happens, I am not a very flexible person, physically speaking, that is.  While I enjoy twisting and turning to crack my back or get a kink out of my neck, I don’t spend more than 10-20 seconds a day actually stretching and working to make my body flexible.  I don’t do yoga and I don’t stretch a lot before working out.  I don’t put in the effort needed to make my body pliable because it’s not a skill or something that I really want to master.  I’m okay not being able to do a split or put my legs behind my head.  Sure, it would be pretty awesome to be able to do that as a parlor trick or as part of a Cirque du Soleil show, but I’m also quite content being my inflexible, lumpy self.  It’s who I am and I’m happy with that.

Now, being physically flexible and mentally flexible are two different things.  While I care not to be physically flexible, I do strive towards mental flexibility.  I want to be able to go with the flow, make changes on the fly, and be open to trying new things and taking risks in the classroom.  If my students ask lots of questions regarding a topic being discussed, I want to be able to field their questions and foster a meaningful discussion rather than not allowing them to ask their questions because I feel the need to continue with the lesson and push forward with the curriculum.  I want my students to be curious and engaged, and so, if allowing them to ask questions and chat about a topic holds their attention and is relevant to them, then I am all in favor of it.  Even though I say that in this here blog post, I still do sometimes get stuck in my thinking and will not allow questions to be asked or other activities to be completed because I want to plow through my curriculum.  I’m still always working towards mastering the skill of mental flexibility.  It’s very easy to get caught up in the schedule and lesson plans I worked so hard to put together and forget why I went into teaching in the first place.  I want to help students, inspire students, and allow students to see that school and learning can be fun and engaging.  Being the kind of educator who is open to switching things up in the middle of class, is what I continue to work towards day after day.  I’m far from perfect, but I want to engage my students in the process of learning; being flexible with time and activities is one of the most important strategies I can employ to accomplish just that in the classroom.

Today proved to be one of those “finish up work” kind of days.  My students had spent the last several days working on creating a tri-layered map of the Middle East Region as well as crafting an Inspiration map of the three main causes of Climate Change on Earth.  As both assignments are due on Monday, my co-teacher and I wanted to provide the students an opportunity to work on these pieces over the course of today.  So, today during Humanities class, when the students finished their map of the Middle East Region, they worked on their Inspiration map regarding Climate Change.  While most students had completed the Humanities map last night for homework, a few of the students spent the period finishing their map.  That worked for them as they needed more time to process the information and transfer it onto paper in the form of a map.  This task can be cumbersome and challenging for students who struggle with hand-eye coordination and attention to details.  Three of our students needed extra time today in class to complete this task.  The other students worked on finishing their STEM Inspiration map showcasing the causes of Climate Change.  This work period provided the students the opportunity to complete their graphic organizer or receive feedback from my co-teacher or I on their work so that they could revise it before turning it into be formally assessed.  I had some great conferences with the boys on their maps and learning processes.  While most of the students understood the assignment and just needed feedback on how to exceed the two graded objectives, one student needed clarification on the assignment.  He was very confused as to what he should be doing.  Instead of listing facts explaining the three main causes of Climate Change, he summarized each topic into one bubble or part of his web.  I was able to redirect him and help him fully comprehend what was being asked of him.  This really helped him focus his energy and feel successful as he now knows what he needs to do.  I had several other similar conversations and chats with my students regarding their graphic organizers.  It was great to have the time to conference and converse with the students about their work before it was due.

Although Humanities class is usually reserved for working on writing, reading, discussing, and thinking about the world around us, we do like to be open to new possibilities when they present themselves.  Today seemed like one of those opportunities.  Not all of the students needed to work on their map of the Middle East Region for Humanities class and so it seemed silly to press on with the curriculum when I knew that I would not have time in STEM class to meet with the students today to review their Inspiration maps.  So, using Humanities class time to conference with students on their STEM work just made sense.  It’s all about flexibility and being open to trying new things all in the name of better supporting and helping our students.  While I am sure to struggle with being mentally flexible next week in class, at least today provided me the chance to apply the skill of mental flexibility so that I don’t forget the great value it holds.  Life doesn’t unfold in a pretty, scripted manner and so I need to be aware that life in the classroom also doesn’t need to follow a linear, organized path.  I can switch things up from time to time when the changes will best help my students.

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Posted in Boys, Challenges, Co-Teaching, Curriculum, Education, Grading, Humanities, Learning, Math, New Ideas, Objectives Based Grading, Reader's Workshop, Reflection, Sixth Grade, STEM, Student Conferences, Student Support, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New, Writer's Workshop, Writing

Why I Love Teaching Sixth Grade

On this day of love, I find myself in a loving and reflective mood.  I am so grateful that I have been allowed to create such a strong sixth grade program over my years here at Cardigan.  Because the administrators at my school have faith in my abilities as an educator, I have been able to take risks, try new things, fail, try other new things, and develop a sixth grade program that best suits the needs of each of my students.  So, to celebrate this great freedom and amazing program I’ve been able to create over the years, I’ve devoted today’s blog entry to discussing the sixth grade program.

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.

Towards the end of the first term, we put our teamwork and family to the test with a three-day trip to an outdoor center in southern New Hampshire.  The focus of the trip is teamwork.  The students work together to solve problems, accomplish tasks, and have fun learning about how to survive in the wilderness.  It’s always one of the big highlights for the sixth grade boys.  They will never forget how they overcame their fears and learned to help and support their classmates in new and fun ways.

Co-Teaching

While our class size fluctuates from one year to the next, in recent years we’ve had a smaller sixth grade class.  A tight-knit team of two lead teachers is the most effective method for our program.  We plan, grade, and teach together.  Having another person to bounce ideas off of allows for more ideas to come to fruition.  As units are developed, we work together to generate engaging lessons.  With two people working together to complete this process, ideas can be built upon and added to.  Good ideas become great ideas.  Grading together allows for conversations about objectives and work.  How can we create objective objectives that don’t allow room for interpretation?  Having two teachers in the room for classes allows the students to be fully supported, and those students who need one-on-one time have the chance to receive it with two teachers in the classroom.  We can conference with students more effectively during humanities class and the boys are able to safely conduct investigations in STEM class.  We constantly model effective teamwork skills for the boys so that they see what we expect from them.  Co-teaching has fostered a sense of compassion in the classroom.  In order to create a family atmosphere amongst the students, we need to be able to effectively care for them, and  with two trained educators in the room, we can more effectively challenge, support, and ensure the safety of each and every sixth grade student in our 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 instituted this change just this year and it has made a huge difference.  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.

STEM Class

An effective way to bring science to life is to create a Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) class.  Students have difficulty seeing how the different math and science puzzle pieces fit together.  They also struggle with the math concepts when they aren’t applied in realistic ways that make sense to them. Helping the students build neurological connections between prior knowledge and what they learn in our classroom is one of the many ways we make our program meaningful for our students.

Our STEM 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 STEM 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 STEM units challenge students to think creatively and solve problems in innovative ways. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Common Core Math Standards (CCSS) are the foundation of our STEM curriculum. These standards promote rigor and problem solving in fun and engaging ways.

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.  Through self-inventories and mini-lessons on learning styles and the multiple intelligences at the start of the year, the boys begin to become self-aware of their own learning styles and preferences.  Much reflection is also completed throughout the year so that the boys have a chance to observe their strengths and weakness and set goals to work toward.  They also document this learning process in an e-portfolio that they continuously update throughout the year.  Beginning the year in this way, allows the students to focus on the process of learning and how being self-aware will help them grow and develop.  During the winter term, students learn about brain plasticity and how their working memory functions as a way to build upon their self-awareness and genuinely own their learning.  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.

Posted in Class Discussion, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Reader's Workshop, Student Conferences, Teaching

Learning by Being a Role Model

My son is a huge sports nut.  Not only does he love playing all different types of sports, but he also enjoys watching and learning about them.  When the television in our house is turned on, it is usually tuned to ESPN.  He enjoys finding out how his favorite teams or players fared in games and competitions.  His love of sports generally keeps him quite active and in shape.  He’s also been trying to eat healthier foods too.  I think it’s great.  There is clearly a lot of good benefits that can come from this for him.  My only concern though is the role models he has.  It’s challenging to read the news headlines and not come across a story about an athlete making a bad choice or getting in trouble with the law.  These are some of the role models my son has, and frankly, I don’t like it one bit.  As a father, I make sure that I have conversations with my son about the mistakes athletes make and highlight the bad character they are demonstrating by making these poor decisions.  My hope is that my son will value the positive attributes of the athletes he admires and realize that the bad choices they make are not to be celebrated in anyway.

As a teacher, I am always striving to be a positive role model for my students.  In a world where we celebrate people doing dumb things or committing epic fails as my son often calls them, it’s important that our students and children have positive examples of how to live meaningful lives in a global society.  I make sure to greet my students daily and ask them how things are going.  I want them to see the importance in making genuine connections with others.  I also make sure to point out when I make mistakes, own them, apologize for them if need be, and then rectify the situation as I expect my students to do the same when indiscretions are made.  If I expect my students to hold themselves to high standards of behavior, then I need to make sure I am doing the same or better at all times.

Today during Humanities class, I had a chance to showcase a positive behavior that I would love to see my students embrace.  The funny thing is though that I didn’t mean for it to happen.  It was a bit of a happy accident.  As today was our first official day of classes since returning from the recent holiday break, my co-teacher and I wanted to ease the students back into the routine.  So, during Humanities class today, we had the boys participate in Reader’s Workshop, which they loved.  When one student came in and read the agenda for the period on the whiteboard, he exclaimed, “Yes!”  Our students love to read and talk about the books they’ve read.  It’s awesome.  After the students began reading, my co-teacher and I conferenced with each of the students.  Reading conferences are one of my favorite parts of the week as they provide me the ample opportunity to check-in with the students about life in general as well as what they’re reading.  I asked the boys about their vacation and they shared wonderful vignettes with me about the fun they had away from school.  These conversations give me one more way to connect with my students and form valuable relationships that I can use to help them grow and develop as thinkers, makers, mathematicians, and students.

As we did not have a read-aloud portion to our Reader’s Workshop block today due to the fact that we are waiting to start a new book until next week once we begin our new unit on Africa, I had more than enough time to meet with my group of students.  In fact, I had about 20 minutes of class time remaining after I finished my last student conference.  To be a good role model for my boys, I picked up my current reading book and spent the final chunk of class time reading.  As I was reading, I realized that I was learning a new strategy for helping ESL students in my classroom.  In addition to differentiating the visual text ELs are exposed to, I need to also make sure that I am deliberate and thoughtful when delivering messages and information to my students orally.  I find that I sometimes use difficult vocabulary terms, complex sentences, and much figurative language when talking to my students as a way to challenge them to think critically.  For my ESL students, this is useless as they are only able to understand about 10% of what I’m saying.  I need to be sure I use gestures, visual cues, and clearly define new vocabulary words I use when speaking to the class.  While this seems like common sense, it hadn’t dawned on me to try this.  As one of my professional goals for the year is to learn how to better help and support my ESL students, this seemed like a valuable knowledge nugget.  But, what shall I do with this information, I thought to myself.  Store it in my brain and utilize it in the classroom?  Well, that makes sense.  Wait a minute, I thought.  What if I share what I learned from reading my book today in class with the students as a way to inspire them to perhaps share what they learned while reading today?  What a brilliant idea.  I never cease to amaze even myself.  So, for my class closing today, I shared the chunk of information I learned from my book before asking the students to share what they learned from their book today.  Three volunteers shared some very interesting and stimulating knowledge nuggets.  One student who is reading a book about how video games impact our society shared a statistic he read about today that surprised him.  Another student shared a philosophical quote that he had synthesized from his book.  The final volunteer shared an inspirational quote that he had gleaned from his reading book.  It was amazing.  My closing remarks focused on how books provide us with so many opportunities, from entertaining to learning.  My hope is that my students see the value in reading and all that being an active and voracious reader can teach them.

So, while my plan at the start of the period did not include ending class with a discussion on what books can teach us, because I made use of a growth mindset, was open to new ideas, and jump at the opportunity to be a role model for my students, I was able to leave my students thinking and wondering about what they learned from their book today.  What can books teach us?  How do books impact us?  How does what we read shape us?  Because I went with the flow of the class today, I was able to shed some new light on the importance of books and reading.  Sometimes, the best planned lessons and activities end up being disasters and sometimes, the impromptu discussions and lessons that evolve during class end up being the most fruitful and valuable.  Being a curious role model allowed me to help guide my students on their wonderful journey towards understanding and growth.

Posted in Education, Student Conferences, Teaching

The Benefits of the Student Led Conference Format

As a student, I was never privy to what went on behind the closed doors of my classroom.  Back then, students were not allowed to attend their teacher conferences.  In fact, they were aptly named Parent-Teacher Conferences to imply that they were reserved for the parents and teachers only.  But what about me?  Why didn’t I get a say in the conferences?  Why wasn’t I able to explain my learning or talk about what I was planning to do to improve?  Might I have cared more about school and my learning back then if I owned it?  Imagine if I was able to explain to my parents what I was learning in school, how I was progressing towards the expectations and objectives, and what I needed to do to improve?  I would have really owned my learning and understood what was going on.  I would have paid better attention in class so that I could grow and develop as a student since I suddenly started caring about school and learning.  If only I had a time machine…

Although I can’t change my past school experiences, as an educator, I can help support and empower my students.  I can help them care about their progress and own their learning.  I can challenge them to grow and develop.  All of this can be facilitated and fostered through the use of the Student Led Conference format to replace the outdated and unuseful Parent-Teacher Conference format for teacher conferences.

This process of ownership and reflection begins at the start of the year when we introduce and discuss our school’s Habits of Learning.  We want the students to understand why we do what we do in the sixth grade.  Every skill taught or activity covered is explained using our Habits of Learning.  We need the students to understand the purpose of what we do in the sixth grade.  Why do we teach our students to take notes in a particular manner?   Why do we want our students to read from a variety of genres?   As we explain every new skill, we are sure to cover the purpose and Habit of Learning used to foster that skill.  Once the students see the relevance in what they are learning and being asked to do, they are much more engaged in the classroom and genuine learning then takes place within them.  The next step in laying the foundation for the Student Led Conference format is reflection.  After every major assessment and unit, we have the students reflect in writing on their learning.  What went well?  What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?  The students then begin to see what is working for them and what they still need to work on to improve.  Purpose + Reflection = Ownership of the Learning Process, which is showcased through the creation of an eportfolio.

After the first five weeks of learning, reflecting, and growing as students, we then prepare them for their first formal Student Led Conferences with their families.  We explain the process used and then allow the boys to highlight their learning, challenges, and areas in need of improvement.  The students utilize their ePortfolio to guide their Student Led Conference.  They explain their class goals and what they are doing to work towards them.  They also display artifacts demonstrating their learning and growth as students.  They also, honestly, share challenges facing them in the classroom and what they are doing to overcome them.  The conference concludes with the parents asking the students questions regarding their learning and progress thus far in the academic year.  As the boys do such a thorough job owning their learning and explaining their progress, the parents generally have very few questions for their sons.  We do allow the parents, at the close of the conference, to ask us, the teachers, any questions they may have.  They sometimes have one or two intriguing questions about classes or their son’s progress; however, since the students provide such a clear picture of their academic prowess to date, the questions are usually about school life in general.  What is the next unit being covered in STEM class?  Will the number of students in my son’s class change as they matriculate through the grades at Cardigan?  I’m always so curious about the questions parents ask in the conferences.  They seem to be thinking so critically about their son’s academic future.  It’s quite amazing.

Here is just a sample of the feedback we received from parents through an online survey they completed following our most recent Parents’ Weekend:

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Through these Student Led Conferences, the students own their learning, share their progress, and create a game plan for how to move forward in a productive manner.  Following these conferences, we usually see changes in the classroom.  The students seem more motivated and excited to learn.  They will more frequently ask for help and try to exceed the graded objectives.  While the students were aware of their learning prior to their conferences, actually verbalizing it has a huge impact on them.  Hearing themselves say what they need to do to improve, truly motivates them; it makes a big difference in the classroom for the boys.  Their learning becomes a puzzle that they can now easily complete since they have found the missing pieces.  Although these missing pieces were there all along prior to the boys completing their Student Led Conferences, the students were unable to see them since they hadn’t verbalized their location.  Telling their parents about their academic progress in the sixth grade helps to shine a beam of light on the missing puzzle pieces: Asking for help, better utilizing their free time to complete work outside of class, and staying more focused in class.

Utilizing the Student Led Conference format in the classroom is not easy and requires a restructuring of the class and the way in which the curriculum is taught.  The students need to see the purpose of their learning and its relevance to them and have opportunities to reflect and think about what they would do differently next time so that they can add new tools to their academic toolbelt.  This requires fostering a student-centered classroom where the students are able to own their learning, choose their challenge, and solve problems encountered.  This can be a lot for teachers as it means giving up control, a bit.  But, which outcome do you wish for your students, 1 or 2?

  1. Your students memorize many facts and take copious notes while you talk at them, complete lots of homework, take many tests, and achieve good grades.
  2. Your students are excited to come to class each and every day because they want to learn, grow, and solve problems on their own.

I hope, you like me, want to bring about the second outcome in your classroom.  Relevance, purpose, ownership, and reflection are the key ingredients to making a delicious classroom filled with curious and thriving students.  Allow them to showcase their recipes and delightful treats through the Student Led Conference process.  Trust me when I say, you will never want to go back to the traditional model of Parent-Teacher conferences again.

Posted in Education, Humanities, Reader's Workshop, Sixth Grade, Student Conferences, Students, Teaching

The Importance of Connecting With Our Students

I had very few teachers who ever tried to connect with me as a student.  Even when I struggled in the fourth grade and almost failed, my teacher did not try to figure out what was going on or try to help me in any way.  I wonder what my year in fourth grade might have looked like if I had had a teacher who took an interest in me or tried to connect with me on some level.  Maybe I wouldn’t have struggled so much or perhaps I would have been happier.

As teachers, it is our duty to help our students by any means necessary.  Most of the time, this means connecting with students.  We need to build safe and caring relationships with each and every one of our students.  While we do try to focus on connecting with the difficult students in our classes, it’s important to form connections with every member of every class we teach.  Yes, this is challenging and can be a daunting task; however, it’s a crucial step in educating our students.  We need them to feel like they have at least one person in their life who cares for them.

A real easy way to be sure we’re connecting with all of our students regularly is to hold conferences with them.  Since we in the sixth grade utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction, we have the opportunity to meet with each and every one of our students weekly under the guise of Reader’s Workshop.  Yes, we do ask them questions about their reading, but that is after we ask them about everything else in their lives first.  How’s life?  How was your weekend?  Did you do anything fun?  What are you excited about this week?  If we notice that a student seems to be a bit off or distant, we probe further.  How are things going at home?  What’s bothering you?  What can I do to help?  As we’re always checking-in with our students anyway, these conferences don’t generally elicit too much information that we didn’t already know.  However, every once in awhile, these 1-on-1 conferences do help us to better understand and help our students.  They are yet one more way we can connect to our students so that we can really get to know them over the course of the year in our class.

Today was our weekly Reader’s Workshop block in Humanities class, and so we conferenced with each of our students.  It was great to connect with the boys in my reading group while my co-teacher met with the students in her group.  While most conversations were short, some were longer on purpose.  If I’m wondering about how a student is doing emotionally or academically, I might add in a few more questions to open a dialogue between the student and I.  One student in my reading group has been struggling academically, as English is not his native language.  We’ve been offering him much support over the past five weeks, and I wanted to see how he was progressing.  So, I asked him some follow-up questions regarding his reading book to check on his comprehension.  He was excited to tell me all about what was going on in his book, but also shared with me that he had trouble understanding American history concepts in English.  Since his book was about westward expansion in America, I clarified and described what that period in our history was all about.  This seemed to really help him understand his story better.  If I did not have a chance to conference with my students weekly, I might have missed this opportunity to help this one student better comprehend the text he was reading.  This lack of comprehension could have led to other areas of confusion and frustration that might have been manifested in different ways.

Being proactive and connecting with our students regularly, helps prevent issues from arising and allows our students to feel safe and supported.  Genuine learning can only come about when students feel safe and cared for.  Therefore, connecting with our students is one of our most important responsibilities as teachers.  We can’t allow even just one student to slip through the cracks, because while I was lucky and did have a sixth grade teacher who formed a strong and positive relationship with me, some students have no one who connects with them, and this can lead to some very serious repercussions for them in the future.

Posted in Reader's Workshop, Relationships, Student Conferences

The Power of 1-on-1 Student Conferences

I used to sit in the back of the classroom so that teachers would never call on me.  Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that totally worked, especially in my public school.  The teachers didn’t seem to really care.  They seemed to only be in it for the paycheck back then.  Or, at least that’s what it felt like.

Having been bullied in elementary school with no recourse from the school or teachers, I carry a bit of disdain for some of my early elementary school teachers.  They didn’t try to help me or step in and prevent me from being teased.  So, I tried to hide from my peers and the teachers.  Sitting in the back of the room allowed me to do this, until my vision became an issue.  I almost failed the fourth grade because I couldn’t see the blackboard and always wrote down the wrong thing.  However, this didn’t change how I acted in class or where I sat, I just got glasses.  I tried to avoid contact with the teacher as much as possible.  My teachers seemed totally fine with this as well.  I don’t remember ever having to chat with my teachers prior to sixth grade.  I just coasted by.  Those first seven years of school prior to fifth grade, I had to go to transition following Kindergarten, were not memorable or happy times.  I was like an invisible child back then.  No one saw me for who I was and I was okay with that.

Then came sixth grade.  I had an English teacher who cared about me.  She wanted me to like reading and writing and brought out the best in me.  It started with workshop conferences.  We would meet once a week to discuss my reading and writing.  It was a magical time.  I had Mrs. Lacombe all to myself.  It was great.  I could ask her anything and talk to her about everything.  I felt special for the first time in my academic life.  Those conferences inspired me to enjoy school and want to do something more with my life than just be.  I wanted to be someone.

In Humanities class yesterday, we had our weekly Reader’s Workshop double block.  We began the class with a mini-lesson regarding the reading strategy of Back-Up and Re-Read.  We used our class read-aloud text Seedfolk by Paul Fleischman as our mentor and model text for the lesson.  Following that, the boys moved into their reading time.  Some of the boys chose to read at their tables while the others read in our reading nook area.  They had a full 40 minutes to sit and enjoy their books.  During this time, my co-teacher and I conferenced with our small reading groups.  I had the chance to conference with all five of my boys in class.  It was phenomenal.

These conferences gave me a chance to check-in with the student.  How’s it going?  How was your weekend?  I engaged them in a personal discussion before we even began talking about reading.  These weekly meetings are crucial in building respect and rapport as well as a safe and caring classroom community.  I then get into the heart of the conference.  I asked the student about their current reading book.  What page are you on?  What’s happening?  Do you like it?  I then had the students read aloud to me from their book so that I could gauge their fluency.  I followed that up with some comprehension questions to see where they are at in that area.  While we don’t always do this next part, we sometimes take the opportunity to share grades with the students individually so that we can provide them meaningful feedback regarding their progress in the class.  Yesterday, I shared the grade the students received on the current events discussion that took place in class on Saturday.  I gave them feedback along with their grade.  I also made suggestions for how they could improve for when they are assessed regarding this same objective again.  I wrapped up the conferences by allowing the students to ask me any questions they had.  I then sent them back to their reading.  Each conference only took about 5-8 minutes, but they were vital and important minutes for both the student and me.  It’s all about relationship building.

These one-on-one conferences allow me to be sure the student is emotionally feeling well.  They also give the student a chance to share things with me that they don’t feel comfortable sharing in front of their peers.  Some students will occasionally tell me about how another student is mistreating them.  They might also share insight regarding their roommate situation.  The chats help the students feel safe and cared for.

The conferences also allow me to help the students grow and develop as readers.  I can ask them questions and check their reading skills weekly to be sure they are progressing.  I assign some of the students weekly goals to work on.  This gives them a focus for their reading and allows me to challenge and support them appropriately.  In one conference yesterday, a student explained to me that he had finally found a just-right book for himself.  He was very happy.  This is great.  Luckily, I had a chance to praise and support that international student as he grows as an English Language Learner.

Despite the brevity of these conferences, I worry that I would not be able to build such strong relationships with my students without these weekly meetings.  The classroom community is formed around the respect and closeness that we share as teachers and students.  I know my boys on very different levels because of these weekly meetings.  They pack a lot of power.  I hope that my students feel the same way.  I hope that this sixth grade year is a transformational one for them like it was for me.  It’s all about making connections and allowing the boys to feel heard.