Summer Reading Professional Development Text: Lost at School

Although the crux of the concept Ross Greene explains in his book seems intuitive and almost like common sense for teachers and parents, I found this novel to be eye-opening and quite beneficial.  It’s an easy read with short chapters and lots of specific examples.  The story of a school using his Plan B weaves together the book and different ideas suggested within.  As my son is often described as a challenging student, I found this book to hit very close to home.  I “saw” him in many of the descriptions I read about difficult students in school and it made me realize that even though the method of supporting and helping challenging students is good teaching, very few of my son’s teachers have utilized this approach to helping him.  So, I send out a plea to all teachers, if you haven’t yet read this book, please do so and utilize Plan B when working with all students as we don’t want to create apathy and anger within our students.  Let’s get comfortable giving up control in order to foster an atmosphere of caring and collaboration in the classroom.

Some takeaways:

  • I sometimes find myself treating difficult students as if they are being defiant and challenging on purpose.  I then try to inflict my will upon them as a way to control the situation and the student.  Not only does this not work, it creates anger and frustration within the students.  They learn to dislike school because they are not being supported or cared for.  The author explains how as teachers and caregivers, we need to change the way we think about difficult kids.  Challenging students are challenging not as a way to be purposefully defiant but because they have developmental delays regarding thinking and learning skills.  These difficult students are challenging because they don’t know how to do what they are being asked to do.  If they knew how, they would clearly do it.  This idea really made me question how I have dealt with difficult students in the past.  I believe that I usually assume challenging students are purposefully acting out as a way to be defiant.  Boy was I ever wrong.  This new way of thinking will help me better support challenging students in my class come September.
  • Greene proposes that teachers collaborate with students to solve problems and address challenging and difficult behavior.  For many educators, this will be hard to swallow as we often want to be in control of our class.  “How can we possibly allow the students to help us solve their problems.  They have no idea what they need.  They need to be disciplined and receive consequences for their poor choices.”  This fixed mindset is what has caused students like my son to hate school and struggle greatly.  As teachers, we need to realize that we are in this amazing journey, often called education, together with our students.  It is not us vs. them; instead, we need to be one big community and family of learners.  Families do things together and so the same needs to apply in the classroom.  Students know themselves and what they need way better than we do.  Sure, we might not always like their ideas, and that’s okay, but we do need to respect what our students have to say and how they feel.  Students need to be validated if progress is to be made.  The author’s Plan B is all about validating the feelings of our students and then working together with our students to help address these issues that are rearing their head as challenging behaviors in the classroom.
  • Greene’s Plan B approach to solving behavioral problems in the classroom contains three steps:
    • Step 1: Validate the feelings of the student by showing apathy.  “I’ve noticed that it’s been difficult for you to complete your homework on a daily basis.  What’s up with that?”  This step begins the conversation and allows you to determine is going on with the student.  Why is he or she exhibiting this difficult behavior?  This is the most important step in the process as it builds trust and care between the teacher and the student.  While the student may not give up the goods right away, if you keep digging and probing through empathetic questions and active listening, you will eventually figure out what is causing the student to act they way they are acting in the classroom.
    • Step 2: Explain your concern with the student’s behavior.  “My concern is that by not doing your homework, you are unable to practice the skills introduced in class and then seem very confused when we build upon the skills learned.”  This step is obviously the shortest and must be free of judgment and explanation.  Don’t try to assume why the student is acting a certain way, simply state your concern with their behavior.
    • Step 3: Invite the student into the conversation once again by asking for their suggestions on how to solve the problem or address the behavior being exhibited.  “I wonder if there is a way we can help you complete your homework on a daily a basis.  Do you have any ideas?”  This step may take the longest to complete as the student may have lots of ideas that won’t be mutually agreed upon by both the teacher and the student; however, it’s important that we show the student that we value their input.  We want them to be a part of the problem solving process.  If a student doesn’t have any ideas, propose your own.  While the student may not like any of your ideas, he or she might be prompted to provide some of their own once they have had time to process what is being asked of them.  Difficult students often lack executive functioning skills and need more time to process and think before responding.
  • After reading through the three parts of Plan B, I began to wonder, am I already doing a form of Plan B in the classroom at times?  I do find that I sometimes begin conversations regarding a student’s behavior with empathy before getting into my concern with their choices.  However, that is usually where I stop.  I don’t usually allow the student to add their ideas and suggestions to the conversation.  So, what I thought was Plan B is actually Plan A.  I am doling out consequences as a way to control the student and my classroom.  Because I’m not making the problem solving process collaborative, the students become disengaged in the process and no genuine progress is made, which is why I often see these same difficult behaviors repeated throughout the year.  I need to be sure I allow the students to add their thoughts and concerns to our discussions as collaboration is crucial to making real progress.
  • The author helps educators think about the Plan B model of collaborative problem solving by comparing it to differentiating academic instruction in the classroom.  Teachers wouldn’t expect every student to be able to comprehend every aspect of a single novel read without support and scaffolding; therefore, we shouldn’t assume that every student has the ability to transition from playtime to class time without help and support too.  Some students need help from us, their teachers, to learn how to solve problems, transition, etc. and Plan B is a differentiated approach to doing this.  If we differentiate the academic instruction for our students, then we need to do the same for behavior and the social aspects of school too.  I liked this analogy as I see how important differentiation is for academic instruction.  If I put as much time and energy into helping all students address their behavioral issues as I do creating scaffolded learning opportunities for my students, then I would see the frequency of challenging behaviors in my classroom decrease.
  • Plan B isn’t simply an individual approach to problem solving; it can be used for a whole class or small groups as well.  The same three steps are used.  The only difference is that more students are involved.  You will need to set ground rules for how these conversations proceed, but they are vital to fostering a strong sense of community and compassion within the classroom.  Although I do try to address big issues with my entire class, I do so in a very controlled manner without allowing the students to add their insight to the discussion.  I want to work on this for the new academic year.  I’m thinking that maybe having one community meeting a week to address behavioral issues or concerns might help to create a sense of family and caring within the classroom.  I want to run this by my co-teacher to get her thoughts on the issue.  I’m excited about this as I think it will make a big difference in the classroom.
  • The author suggested a cool idea that could easily be incorporated into these whole class Plan B discussions: Have students share gifts or personal qualities and attributes they have that could help their classmates.  This would help the students learn more about their classmates while also helping them all learn who could help them within their class.  This kind of activity could do wonders for building a strong sense of community within the classroom.  I love it and will use it as an icebreaker activity at the start of the year.  I might also revisit this activity throughout the year when issues arise.

Although my feedback and takeaways can’t possibly do justice to how great and wonderful this book is, I feel as though I encapsulated the best and most important ideas of the text.  I love this book and feel as though the ideas presented will help me continue to grow and develop as a teacher.  I can’t wait for September so that I can try Plan B.  Heck, I’m going to try it with my son this summer.  Bring on the challenging behavior!

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Summer Work: What I’ll Do When It’s Hot Outside

While there are times I miss owning a house and having a place to call my own, I don’t miss mowing the lawn, plucking the weeds, and checking to make sure the basement isn’t flooded, again.  The summer months are the worst for homeowners as there is so much to constantly do and redo again and again.  It’s a never ending cycle of sweaty, back-breaking labor.  No, I don’t miss taking care of a house, especially in the summer.  The summer months are for relaxing, spending time with family, and staying cool inside thanks to artificial air from air conditioners.  What a brilliant invention!  If it weren’t for air conditioners, I’d have to spend every summer at the North Pole with Santa and his elves.  Although it would be super cool to help Santa make presents for all the girls and boys around the globe, I’d miss my wife and son too much.  Luckily though, I get to enjoy the best of both worlds with air conditioning and family fun.

As I spend most of the oppressively hot summer days inside, I’m far from bored.  In fact, my summer vacation is the second busiest time of the year for me.  The most hectic time is definitely the regular school year, of course.  In the summer though, I set lofty goals for what I’d like to accomplish.  Last year, I revised my STEM curriculum, learned how to knit, learned how to solve the Rubik’s Cube, and read a few professional development texts.  This year my goals may be a tiny bit higher as I work each year to grow as an educator and individual.

  • Read Two Professional Development Texts
    • As I never finished the book Educating English Learners that I began at the start of this past academic year, part A of my first summer goal is to complete that.  In order to be sure that I best support, challenge, and care for the non-native English speakers that are sure to fill my sixth grade classroom next year, I want to finish reading this text.  I’m hopeful that it will provide me with many valuable and useful strategies that I can apply in the classroom at the start of the year.  This way, I will be better equipped to help the international students in my class be able to effectively learn and grow as English language learners.
    • The professional development summer reading book I chose from the list provided by my school’s administration is Lost at School by Ross Greene.  Although I never read his immensely popular book about how to help difficult or explosive children, I’m excited to dive into this resource for helping students with behavioral issues feel cared for and supported.  I have sometimes found myself fumbling for the best strategy to use to to help students with chronic behavioral issues.  As I know there is clearly some sort of underlying motivation for their poor choices, I struggled, at times, to best help students who seemed to be “too cool for school.”  I’m optimistic that this resource will provide me with much fodder for next year and beyond.  How do I best help students with behavioral issues in the classroom?
  • Read Three Summer Reading Books my Students May Read This Summer
    • As my new co-teacher and I put together a pretty amazing list of possible summer reading books for our new sixth graders, we wanted to be sure that between the two of us, we have read them all.  As there are nine books on the list and we each read one, I’ll be reading three that interest me and my new co-teacher will read four that she’s excited to read and perhaps utilize in STEM class next year.  I’ll be reading Welcome to Camp Nightmare by R.L. Stine, The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce, and The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang.  As I’m a huge fan of young adult literature, I can’t wait to dive into these treasures.
  • Create Mindfulness Curriculum
    • After attending a workshop on the importance of teaching students how to be mindful in this ever distracting world in which we live, I felt compelled to find a way to implement mindfulness into my curriculum.  Since my new co-teacher and I have three extra periods a week with the sixth grade boys in the fall, we now know how we are going to cover this ever important topic with the students.  Once or twice a week, we want to introduce, explain, and have the students utilize mindfulness practices including meditation, breathing exercises, self-awareness, and much more.  As I haven’t had much opportunity to dig into the many resources available online for teaching this important topic, I’m looking forward to having the time this summer to craft a meaningful and appropriate mindfulness curriculum for our new sixth grade students.
  • Revise Humanities Unit on Community
    • Despite truly loving the community unit my co-teacher and I used this past year, I want to take the time to deeply reflect on it.  Does it cover and address the big ideas I want my students to take away from it?  Is it fun and engaging for the students?  Does it take up too much class time or not enough?  Is every part of the unit interconnected?  Are there too many field experiences or not enough?  Should I stick with just the town of Canaan or cover the entire state of NH?  What’s the best way to instruct a unit on community?  I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel by any means and will probably keep most of what I used last year, but I want to take the time to meaningfully look at the unit and what it entails.  Is there a better way to implement a unit on community in the sixth grade?
  • Learn How to Effectively Utilize a Makey Makey Tool
    • Not only is it fun to say, “Makey Makey,” but it’s also a really cool resource to use to get students learning about computer mechanics and circuitry.  As I was recently given a Makey Makey of my own, I feel compelled to not simply learn how to use it, but to learn how to use it effectively so that I can teach students how to use it in our classroom’s Makerspace starting in September.   As the Makey Makey website includes many great tutorials and resources on how to best utilize them in the classroom, I’m excited about playing with this cool new tool this summer.  I wonder what amazing knowledge I will gain from learning how to use the Makey Makey.  I can’t wait to find out.
  • Research Grading Rubrics and Create Several Different Types
    • As I am moving into year one of my school’s Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan (ITIP) beginning in September, I felt it prudent to choose a topic that I could begin focusing on this summer.  While teacher and student reflection is definitely my jam, I already do it and have seen tangible results because of its utilization in and out of the classroom; therefore, I’ve decided on a topic that will force me to look at how I assess and grade student work.  Although I’ve seen the benefits of using the objectives-based grading model in the sixth grade classroom over the past several years that I’ve used it, grading and assessing student work still proves to be a bit subjective at times.  Is this because the objectives I’ve created are too subjective or open to individual interpretation?  Do these challenges stem from having expectations for my students that are too high or too low?  What is causing the issues that I’ve seen regarding the grading and assessment of student work?  To help me figure out what might be at play here, I’ve decided to focus on the grading tool I use to assess student work.  While I’ve never been a fan of prescriptive rubrics as I feel they steal creativity and problem solving from the students, I’ve only been using a bare-bones list of expectations the students need to meet when completing a project or assignment.  Is this enough for the students to be able to effectively demonstrate their ability to meet or exceed the graded objectives?  Should I use rubrics instead so that the students know how to meet and exceed the graded objectives for a particular task or assignment?  Might that help or would it limit what the students could do because rubrics are so explanatory?  Are there different types of rubrics I should use?  What is the most effective way to introduce an assignment and grade and assess student work using the objectives-based grading model?
    • So, this summer, I want to research grading rubrics and their effectiveness in the classroom.  What type of rubric works best?  Do rubrics work?  What data have teachers and schools collected on assessment that might help me address my ITIP topic?  I also want to create a few different types of grading tools and rubrics that I could utilize in the classroom to collect my own data on assessment.

So, that’s it.  That’s my plan for the summer in between chauffeuring my son around to his driver’s education course and football training commitments as well as spending time with my wife and making sure I do as much as I can to help out around the house since I’m quite absent when the academic year begins.  So, bring on the heat as I’ll be keeping cool and busy inside this summer with my epic workload and professional development goals.  Go me!

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.

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.

What do I Believe?

I don’t fancy myself a religious person, but I do have faith.  I have faith in my family, science, and humanity.  I believe that everything will work out just the way it is supposed to.  While I do sometimes question why things happen the way they do, I know that it is all part of the process of life.  Life is like one giant puzzle and every experience makes up one piece of that puzzle.  Sure, some pieces are not fun to add to the puzzle and can cause much discomfort and sadness.  Have you ever tried to put a puzzle together that contained pieces that were mostly one color?  It’s beyond frustrating.  But then there are also the exciting pieces that are full of fun and enjoyment.  Now we all know that I’m talking about the border pieces.  Those are super easy to locate and add to a puzzle.  In the end though, we need both the good and bad pieces to make the puzzle complete.  I have faith in this process.  I also have faith in karma.  What goes around definitely comes back around to either give you a big hug or a slap in the face.  How we live our lives dictates what comes next.  I believe in this idea because it helps remind me of the power my choices hold.  If I make a poor choice, it will impact my life later on.  Now, that later on could be in five minutes or five years, but it will happen.  Just like science tells us, every action has an opposite and equal reaction.  If I walk by a piece of trash and not pick it up, a dog might come by later on and eat that trash.  Then, later that evening, that dog could get very sick.  Do I want that kind of consequence to come about all because I was feeling lazy and uncaring?  No, I want to show compassion and kindness to all living creatures.  So, I pick up the trash, believing that it will help to make the world  better place.  Karma works and so I have faith in it.  I also believe in a similar concept of fate.  I believe that everything in life happens for a reason.  Back in 1997, I didn’t leave that concert at Keene State College because I was bored, I left that concert because I was supposed to go back to my room and meet my future wife.  Had I not left that concert, who knows what my life might look like right now.  It was fate that I went back to my room and logged onto the school intranet.  So, while I don’t play for any one religious team, I have faith in life and all that it offers.

And this afternoon proved to me, yet again, that I might actually believe in something that is true and real.  Fate and karma aren’t just some hocus pocus ideas.  Oh no.  Fate and karma bring people together and cause them to fall apart.  Karma can cause wars while fate paints the portrait of that war and its outcome.  Fate is much more retrospective, whereas karma affects the here and now.  However, sometimes, fate can rear its beautiful head in the moment to remind us of its great power.  In those moments, we able to see how karma has affected us and changed the path of our lives.  Those moments are pretty sweet.  They can be transformational or like watching your life flash before your eyes.  Either way, when we are able to see the true power of life and all that it is, it’s hard not to have faith in the beauty that it possesses.

My plan this afternoon, after my team’s basketball practice, was to quickly swing by my classroom, enter some academic updates into our school’s database system, and then head home to see my son who came home from boarding school today for a long weekend.  I was so excited to see him.  That was my plan.  That was what I thought the end of my afternoon was going to consist of.  Of course, I had ignored the plan fate already had in store for me.  I didn’t want to think that anything would prevent me from getting home to see my wife and son.

Sweating from a gruelling workout my school’s strength and conditioning coach put my team through, I slowly sauntered back to the locker room to change and be sure my players got ready without incident.  Everything was going as planned.  I then made my way back to my classroom, stopping for my usual afternoon coffee in the dining commons.  Nothing seemed to be getting in the way of my plan, yet.  As I neared the stairs by my classroom, a student who had left his laptop in the classroom followed me upstairs to retrieve his computer.  He grabbed his computer and then started chatting me up.  Wanting to engage him and form a meaningful relationship with him, I listened to his stories and questions, and responded positively.  After a few minutes, he left the classroom to prepare for his dinner out with his advisor.  So, I started working so that I could get home to see my son.  As I proofread an email I had drafted, that student who had just left the classroom came back in as he heard me talking.  He thought I was talking to someone.  I of course then had to explain how when I proofread my writing, I talk out loud to myself to catch any mistakes.  At this point, he then went to sit down and continued talking to me.  While I tried to do work in between his questions, I realized that he clearly wanted my attention.  So, I asked him about his homework.  He only has one assignment due tomorrow and so I wanted to be sure he had a plan to complete it as he was going out to dinner and would, therefore, miss a good chunk of study hall time.  At that point, he said, “I don’t really get the homework.  What do we have to do?”  Red lights began flashing in my mind.  Oh no, this is one of those turning points.  It’s like I’ve come to a fork in the road.  Which path do I choose?  Do I quickly fill him in on what to do and then leave to get home to my family or do I take the time to work with him to be sure he fully understands the assignment?  While I haven’t seen my son in almost two weeks, I realized that he would be home for a few days and that I would be able to see him later this evening.  So, I stopped doing my work and cracked some joke about offering to help him.  “Well, I bet if Mr. Holt were here right now, he would probably offer to walk you through the homework and help you with the first few paragraphs.  If only I knew where he was.  Have you seen Mr. Holt?”  He found this quite humorous.  He then grabbed the current event article that he had to read and annotate for homework and sat down next to me.  I then spent the next thirty minutes helping him understand what he needed to do.  We worked through the first few paragraphs together before I let him fly solo on the last two pages.  I wanted to be sure he could meet the objective on his own, without help and support.  Sure enough, he was able to effectively annotate the text after I modeled the process for him.  Once he finished his homework and I signed his planbook, he packed up his stuff and got ready for his advisory dinner.  At that point, I quickly finished the work I needed to do in my classroom and made a mad dash for home.  While I still had a good chunk of work to do once I got home, I wanted to be able to see my son.  Unfortunately, when I arrived home, he had already left to visit a friend.  Well, at least I’ll be able to see him when we pick him up tonight, I thought.

As I sit here, pondering what might have been if I hadn’t gone back to my classroom this afternoon or if I had not helped that student complete his homework, I can’t help but wonder how fate intervened in my life today.  When did my life veer onto an alternate track?  Was it when I stopped to get coffee?  Probably not as I do typically do that regardless of what I have on my agenda.  Was it the path I took back to my classroom?  No, that couldn’t possibly be it as I walked the same way back to my classroom as I usually do.  Oh, I got it.  I now know when it happened.  It’s like that movie Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow.  I can see the moment when my life changed.  It wasn’t the coffee, but it was what I did with the coffee that lead to my transformation.  I stopped by the Faculty Room on the way back to my classroom to add some water to my coffee to cool it down.  As I did so, two of my sixth graders shouted at me from outside.  As I was waving at them, I realized that I needed to talk to one of the students about something that had happened at basketball practice.  So, I gestured him to meet me at the door.  We talked and then he asked me if I had seen his backpack in the classroom.  I told him he was welcome to come on up to the classroom as I was heading that way.  He followed me up to grab his bag.  That was it.  Those extra two minutes that it took for me to have that conversation made all the difference.  Because of that timing, I happened to be walking up to my classroom just as that other student was walking by.  This then lead to him remembering that he had left his computer in the classroom.  Had I not talked to that student I had seen through the windows of the Faculty Room, I might not have walked past the other student and he may never have told me about his homework issue.  This then would have lead to problems tomorrow when his homework was either incomplete or done incorrectly.  So that’s it.  That was my Sliding Doors moment, except it was a window for me.  Wow, fate is crazy like that.

Trying New Things to Best Support Our Students

I take criticism and feedback very personally.  While my goal is to continually improve as a person, husband, father, and educator, I am generally very hard on myself when I receive feedback that might be construed as negative, even if it isn’t.  I blame myself and think poorly of my performance.  Yes, my self esteem is low and I’ve been working on it for years.  I am great at what I do, but like a wise man once said, “All of you are perfect just as you are and could use a little improvement.”  I strive to grow, which is why I welcome feedback.  This way I am continually forced to deal with the fact that I’m not awful, there are just always going to be ways or areas in which I can improve.

Recently, I’ve realized that a student in my class is excelled in math.  His abilities in mathematics are incredibly high.  He has mastered most pre-algebra skills and is working at an algebra one level in the sixth grade.  He is humble about it, but wants to grow.  While my STEM class is structured in a very individual way, I only created three tracks based on the Common Core Standards, which my school uses in the Math Department.  I have a sixth grade track, seventh grade track, and an eighth grade track.  I figured this would cover and support every student this year, even my most advanced students; however, this doesn’t seem to be the case thus far.  While we’ve only just begun the year and the first unit tends to be easy as it is review, I’ve noticed, as has this student, that even the eighth grade track is too easy for him.  He has mastered many of these skills.

So, now what?  How can I best support him to help him grow and develop as a math student?  My first instinct was to have him work through this unit and then complete a unit in Khan Academy to further challenge him.  But what about direct instruction?  How will he learn new concepts?  He will need the support of a teacher.  Then, my co-teacher suggested having this student complete the Pre-Algebra Placement Exam used in the other grades to see where he falls.  If he does well on this, he could take the Algebra One Placement Exam as well.  Then we would know what concepts he has mastered and in what level to work with him.  This would allow my co-teacher to tailor the curriculum to meet this student’s needs through a one-on-one pullout during Math Work Days.

Brilliant idea.  I love it.  Then, immediately, I went to a place of, “Why can’t I help him?  Why didn’t I generate that idea?  Am I not good enough as an educator to help this student?”  No, that’s not it at all.  By being open to new ideas and ways to best support this student, I am being the best educator I can be.  I’m using my colleagues for help and guidance.  I’m allowing new ideas to take root.  I’m not trying to control every situation.  I want what’s best for this student and since I’ve realized I can’t give it to him with my own ideas, I need to seek help.  Teamwork is a vital 21st Century Skill which I try to teach my students daily.  Modelling this through my teaching and flexibility as an educator allows my students to see the value in it.  Everything is not all about me and I’m not always in the wrong.  Realizing this allows me to become a better educator and person.  I need to take and employ new ideas and suggestions in order to grow and develop.  If I want to best support and help all of my students, I need to admit that I can’t do it all.  I do need help and do need to try new things even if they are outside of my comfort zone.  Dealing with this student has helped me to realize this.  I guess that saying about great teachers really is true, “I learn more from my students than they learn from me.”