Allowing Students to Address Social Issues on their Own

Several years ago, I watched a news segment on an evening program about how schools and teachers in Japan help teach their students how to appropriately interact with their peers and navigate social issues that arise.  These teachers featured in the video didn’t just jump right in, proactively, to solve problems for their students.  Instead, they allowed the students to solve their own problems.  Yes, they observed from afar to make sure that no one was getting seriously injured, either mentally or physically, but they provided the students the time and space to figure things out on their own.  In this day and age of helicopter parenting and extreme allergies to everything, it seems as though caregivers and teachers are very quick to react to situations in order to prevent anything that could be remotely construed as “bad” from happening.  While this seems like a good idea to many people as it prevents dangerous or harmful things from happening, it’s actually very dangerous for and harmful to our children.  How do they learn to solve social problems that arise if they are never provided opportunities to practice solving them on their own?  If parents and teachers are always intervening in situations that occur between students, how will students learn what to do in the heat of the moment?  Sure, we can coach them on how to address those situations in the future, but how do we know if they will be able to apply the strategies we’ve provided them with when they are responding from their amygdala?  We need to allow our students to try solving their own problems, and see what happens.  If things get physical or someone is getting hurt in any way, we must definitely jump in and assist, but other than that, we watch.  Then, after the fact, we address the situation with the students involved and provide coaching or positive feedback as needed.  Preparing our students for life in the real-world, means helping them to solve their own problems.  We are not always going to be around our children or students to tell them what to do and how to do it.  They need to figure these things out for themselves.  Teachers and caregivers need to give up control to allow their students and children to grow and thrive in meaningful ways.

Today, at the start of my Humanities class, two students, who happened to be table partners, we arguing over a pencil.

“You took my pencil,” Student A said.

“No, I didn’t,” Student B said.

“Yes you did.  I need it to write in the homework,” Student A said.

“All you have to do is ask, and I will let you use it,” Student B responded.

“I don’t need to ask to use it because it’s my pencil and you took it,” Student A replied as he grabbed the pencil from the hands of Student B.

I watched, closeby, as this situation unfolded.  I didn’t jump in and help.  I simply observed as the students tried to solve the problem themselves.  After Student A snatched the pencil from the hands of Student B, I waited to see if there would be any retaliation from Student B.  Other than a quiet response from Student B about the pencil being his, there was nothing.  As there appeared to be no real conclusion to this situation, I was worried that it would boil over into the work period.  Luckily, the students are partners for the Globe to Flat Map Project, and had plenty of time together to rectify the situation, if needed.  I suggested to one of the students in that group that I would be observing their coexistence and communication during today’s work period because I was a bit concerned by the pencil situation and what might have caused confusion.  The student acknowledged what I said and got right to work with his partner.  I made sure to check-in with the group on numerous occasions throughout the class period and observed them from afar to ensure their safety.  After a quiet start, they worked together as though there was never a problem between them.  They were productive, compassionate, and used kind communication while working on the project in class.  I was a bit surprised by what happened today in class, as these two students have struggled to effectively coexist throughout the academic year.  I thought for sure that they were going to continue arguing while they worked on creating their flat map.  Boy did they prove me wrong.  They worked together better today, following the pencil issue, than they had for this entire project.  I was amazed.

So, what was it that allowed this to outcome?  How were these two students who had a disagreement directly prior to the work period able to work together so well?  How were they coexisting so effectively?  Why weren’t they still angry with one another?  What happened?  Was today’s result due to the fact that I allowed them to solve the social issue that arose between them on their own?  Did that make a difference?  I allowed the situation to completely unfold, which meant that the situation had almost ended when they began working with each other again.  Were they able to work together effectively because I had allowed the issue to be resolved first?  Did that have an impact on today’s result?  Was it the weather or something else so random that I’d never really know what happened in the classroom today?  While I am far from an expert on any subject, I feel as though I can confidently say that the students were able to be productive during today’s work period because they had the chance to solve the social issue that arose between them on their own.  I allowed them to own their actions and the result.  I didn’t step in or debrief the situation at all as I wanted to see what would happen later in the period.  I allowed life to happen naturally.  I didn’t try to control or stop anything.  Emotions were high and I let them diffuse on their own.  While this approach may not work in every setting, situation, or with every student, it was effective in the classroom today.  Perhaps those schools featured in that news clip I watched many years ago were onto something.  If we empower our students to solve their own problems, and offer coaching or help only when required or needed, then it’s possible that we will be properly preparing them to live meaningful lives in a global society.


Greatness in the Sixth Grade Classroom

I wear a teaching cape to feel like a superhero in the classroom; but really, all I need are my students to feel like a superhero.  They are my metaphorical cape.  They help make the dark days of winter seem like bright summer days in the classroom.  They take the boring and everyday and find a way to make it fun.  Who knew how much fun mixing cornstarch and water together could be for sixth graders?  They loved it.  My students teach me more on a regular basis than I could ever hope to teach them.  They’re the real teachers in the classroom.  I’m just the superhero on the sidelines.

Today’s Humanities class provided yet another opportunity for my students to showcase their greatness as they worked on the Globe to Flat Map Project.  While this task is proving quite difficult for the students, they are utilizing a growth mindset to persevere and find new and creative solutions to the problems encountered.  It’s quite amazing.  One group discovered that writing over permanent marker with a dry erase marker on a plastic beach, erases the permanent marker.  Who knew?  Another group found that hand sanitizer somewhat removes permanent marker from a plastic beach ball.  Not only can Purell clean our hands, it can also take permanent marker off of plastic.  I had no idea.  My grandmother was so right when she used to say, “You learn something new every day.”  Boy do I ever.  So, as the students worked in the classroom today, two very amazing things happened.

  • Recently, I’ve noticed that one of my ELLs from a European country raises his hand with two fingers extended.  What is that all about?  Is that a cultural norm he learned back home?  Is he trying to be different?  What’s going on?  So, today, when he raised his hand to ask a question while his group worked on the project, I asked him, “Why do you raise your hand in the manner in which you do?”  I was a bit surprised by the answer, “In my country we do this because if we don’t, it looks too much like the Nazi salute, which is very bad.”  Wow, I had no idea.  So it is a cultural thing.  He does it because that’s how he was trained in his country to not accidentally look like he is giving the Nazi salute.  I find it interesting yet important that schools around Europe help their students understand the gravity of WWII and the Nazi party.  Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party had such a horrific impact on the European people, and the world, that modern Europeans raise their children in such a way to honor the victims of the war and ensure that no recognition is given to the Nazi party.  I would not have learned that if I hadn’t have asked this particular student the question that I asked him.  As he tends to try to bring attention to himself on an almost daily basis, I did wonder if it was a new attention getting behavior.  I sure was wrong, and in the process of being wrong, I learned something.  My students make the best teachers.
  • As this Globe to Flat Map Project is one filled with great difficulty, many of the students struggled today in class.  They were challenged by hand-drawing a map of the world onto a plastic beach ball.  They struggled to create an accurate and properly proportioned globe of Earth.  The students found it difficult to place the lines of latitude and longitude in the proper places.  They were perplexed by how to make sure they were effectively drawing an accurate map of the world on their beach ball.  Much problem solving and troubleshooting took place in the sixth grade classroom today.  The boys worked with their partner to find new and creative ways to solve their problems while other groups had to fix mistakes they had made on their globes.  It was quite awesome to see effective coexistence, communication, critical thinking, and problem solving take place.  For one group though, the challenge that faced them proved very troublesome.  Just when they thought they had it all figured out, they realized the error in their judgement.  They realized that they should have cut their globe at an arch instead of straight along the lines of latitude and longitude.  Wanting to showcase their true potential as students, they asked if they could start the entire project over so that they could apply this new solution they had devised.  Now, realize that they have spent about four hours of class time working on creating their globe and making their map since we started this project.  The final map is due by the end of class on Friday and we have only one period of class time remaining.  If they did redo it, they would have to complete the task almost entirely outside of class during their free time.  Knowing these two students, they will put forth the time needed as they want to do well and challenge themselves accordingly.  After being told all about the limited time that they will have, they still chose to redo the task so that they could utilize the new solution they had devised.  I’m proud of them for using a growth mindset and persevering through their problems.  I’m impressed that they are willing to use their free time to redo a challenging assignment.  Everything that my co-teacher and I have been trying to instill within them all year about hard work, perseverance, and problem solving came to light today as this one group showcased all three of these crucial life skills in making the choice they did.  They didn’t have to redo the assignment as they were meeting the objectives covered, but they chose to because they wanted to test out their hypothesis.  Amazing!

Yet again, my students never cease to amaze and teach me on a daily basis.  Greatness, effort, curiosity, discovery, and failure were alive and well in the sixth grade classroom today.  Sometimes I feel like I should make capes for my students to wear in the classroom, as they are the real superheroes.

Helping the Families of our Students Feel like a Part of our Classroom Family

Creating a caring and compassionate atmosphere in the classroom, in which students support and look after one another, is the cornerstone of the sixth grade program that my co-teachers and I have created over the years.  Our motto is: “We’re a family, and families take care of each other.”  We instill this way of living within the boys on day one and tie it into almost every discussion we have with the class throughout the year.  We spend the first two months of the school year helping the students learn how to transform this motto into an actionable plan.  At this point in the year, most of the students are able to live our class mantra and make it a part of their daily routine.  They take care of their fellow sixth grade brothers in and out of the classroom.  It’s an amazing thing to see.  Our class of 11 individuals have turned into a family of students working together towards a common goal.

While we pride ourselves on creating this close-knit family of learners in the classroom, we want to be sure that the parents and families of our students feel a part of this community as well.  We want them to feel like extended sixth grade family members.  We want the families of our students to know what’s happening in the classroom on a daily basis.  This is especially vital for our international students, as their families are thousands of miles away in most cases.  We want them to feel as if they are in the classroom with their student, despite being far away.  We provide our families with fodder for which they can use to create meaningful conversations and discussions with their sons.  We don’t want the parents and guardians of our students to feel disconnected from life in the sixth grade.  We want them to feel a part of something greater than just the school to which they send their son.

We create this strong community through a four-pronged approach, which starts and ends with open and honest communication.

  • Prior to the start of the academic year, we contact all of the families over the summer via email.  We provide them with an introductory letter, explaining our sixth grade program in detail.  We also share numerous videos with our students and families, introducing ourselves as their teachers and guides.  We explain a few of the projects and activities we will be doing throughout the year to help foster a sense of excitement within the students and their families.  We want the boys psyched for the academic year to begin.  This constant barrage of communication over the summer helps bridge the gap between the school and the families of our new students as they go into September knowing exactly what they and their son can expect from the sixth grade program at Cardigan.
  • We send out daily updates via the Remind app to our families regarding life in the sixth grade.  We tell them what we’re doing in each of our classes and update them on changes to our schedule, all with the intention of helping keep them connected to what we are doing in the sixth grade.  This constant contact helps facilitate conversations between the families and their sons.  It also provides us, the teachers, with yet another support system for each of our students.
  • We maintain a class website via Shutterfly that we keep updated with pictures of special events and activities, in and out of the classroom, and weekly newsletters.  This is a more broad way for the families to know what’s happening in the sixth grade classroom.  Who doesn’t love seeing a picture of their child engaged and having fun in school?  This communication really allows the parents to feel as if they are in the classroom with us.
  • As my co-teacher and I are also the advisors for the entire sixth grade class, we provide the families with updates on how the students are doing in the classroom, in sports, and in the dormitory setting.  We field all of the questions thrown our way swiftly and in a meaningful, yet honest manner.  We want the families to have an accurate portrait of their son as they see how they nicely fit into our sixth grade family.  This more intimate communication shows that we truly know and care for the students in our classroom, showing the families how important their children are to us.  This final piece of the puzzle, that weaves the families of our students into our sixth grade community, may be the most important piece of all.  The families feel as if they have an advocate on their side and not just teachers trying to tell them what their son is doing in the classroom.

This method of bringing the families of our students into the fold that is our sixth grade program, pays dividends.  The line of communication is wide open before the school year even begins so that the families feel as if they can trust and confide in us.  If concerns or issues need to be raised before or during the academic year, the parents and guardians feel comfortable sharing this information with us.  It’s not an us vs. them mentality in the sixth grade, and we make sure that the families feel as though it isn’t.  We want them to feel invested so that we are able to best help support and challenge their sons.  Teaching is so much more than just what happens in the classroom.  It’s also about connecting the dots to everything else outside of the classroom, as we know that children can’t be raised and prepared by just one person or small group of people.  It takes a kind and caring community to help prepare students to live meaningful lives in a global society.

Is Modelling the Right Approach When Teaching a New Skill in the Classroom?

In my 17 years of teaching, I’ve often wrestled with the concept of modelling.  While I want my students to understand how to do what is being asked of them, does modelling steal the thinking from them?  If I show my students how to do something through modelling the skill, will they get stuck in their thinking?  Will they be unable to find other ways to solve the problem?  I worry that when I model a new skill or activity, my students will simply regurgitate what I showcased in the work they complete and turn in, and where’s the learning in that?  But, and of course there’s always a but, what if I don’t model or properly explain a new skill or activity?  Will the students be too perplexed or lost to effectively showcase their learning?  If I don’t show them what to do and how to do it, will they be able do it?  Is there a balance in modelling new skills and activities for students in the classroom so that they know what to do but are still able to demonstrate their own, original thoughts and learning?

I’m not sure if I have the exact answer because, as all teachers know, every student is different.  What works for one student may not work for another.  The method that I’ve had luck with recently is the I do, We do, You do approach to modelling a new skill in the classroom.  I start by engaging the students in a discussion regarding the purpose of the new skill they will be learning.  I want them to always understand the why of everything we do in the classroom.  Relevance is a huge part of ownership in the class for our students, according to research on learning and the brain.  I then briefly model the new skill with help from the students, combining the I do and We do steps so that they are actively engaged in the modelling and not passive watchers.  I then provide the students with an opportunity to practice the new skill in the You do step.  During this part of the lesson or activity, I observe the students and provide feedback to each of them on their progress and ability to utilize the new skill.  I then close the lesson by reviewing the big ideas and concepts covered by this new skill learned.  This method seems to be the most effective for me in the classroom.  While I still do need to differentiate my instruction a bit during the You do phase for a few of my students, it does work for the majority of my students.  The You do step is structured in such a way that I’m able to provide extra assistance and help to those students who need it.

Yesterday in my study skills class, I introduced the two-column note taking system to the boys.  I began the lesson with a few discussion questions.  What are two-column notes?  What purpose do they serve?  I wanted to be sure the students understood why they were learning this particular method of taking notes.  I explained to them how this is the most common form of notetaking used in the other grades at our school.  This is a key skill they will need to have in their academic toolbelt in order to be successful students next year and beyond.  They all seemed to understand my explanation.  I then walked the students through the skill itself.  I had them set up their lined sheet of paper with the proper heading as I had done on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom.  I asked a student volunteer to tell me the first step in organizing the paper for two-column notes, as I wanted to be sure that my students were actively engaged in the learning process.  After drawing the line on the board as they drew the line on their paper, I called on various students to determine the importance of information in a passage on the Boreal Forest before paraphrasing it for our notes.  As the students paraphrased the information, I wrote it onto the board and instructed the students to copy it onto their notes.  My co-teacher wondered around the classroom, helping those students who needed more guidance and support.  I then asked other students to tell me if the information paraphrased was effectively paraphrased to be sure that the students understood this skill discussed earlier in the week.  After going through three sentences together as a class, I had the students complete the remainder of the passage on their own.  As the boys worked, my co-teacher and I helped those students who needed extra scaffolding and provided feedback to those students who were completing it effectively on their own.  By the end of the period, it was clear that every student in the class had a pretty firm grasp of how to effectively complete two-column notes using expository research.

Did yesterday’s lesson go so well because there were two teachers in the classroom to help monitor the progress of the students?  Perhaps.  I do think that effective co-teaching makes a huge difference in how our students are able to practice new skills.  If one of us is modelling at the front of the classroom, the other is able to observe the students, and help those struggling students as needed, not slowing down the overall pace of the lesson.  With just one teacher in the classroom, lessons go much slower to allow for help, questions, and differentiation.  This prevents the high functioning students from being effectively challenged.  Co-teaching is a great model for teaching a diverse population of students.  I also feel as though the method of modelling we utilize in the sixth grade classroom helps to support and challenge all of our students.  Those boys who learn quickly are able to see the skill modelled a few times and then try it out on their own, while those students who need more help, are able to receive it during the practice stage of the process.  Having the students help me complete the I do step of the process also allows for more engagement in the classroom.  By cold-calling on the students throughout the modelling process, I can ensure that they actively engaged in the lesson and learning the material.  Every part of this modelling process helps to make sure that I’m not stealing the thinking or creativity from the students while also making sure that they understand what is being asked of them.  So, to answer the question posed in my title, Yes, I do feel as though effective modelling is the right approach to the instruction of a new skill.  The learning process needs to be active and more of a two-way dialogue, not simply direct-instruction from the teacher.  When done well, modelling helps engage, challenge, and support students in the learning process.

Professional Goals Reflection: Am I Working Towards Meeting my Goals?


As I realize how valuable it is for my students to reflect on their learning throughout the day, period, and school year, I want to be sure that I am practicing and modelling reflective behavior in and out of the classroom as well.  In closing today’s Humanities class by having the boys share what allowed them to meet or not meet the goal they set for themselves during today’s work period on the Globe to Flat Map Project, I was inspired to do a little reflecting myself in today’s blog post.  Am I working towards my goals, and if so, how’s it going?

My Goals

Back in early October, which seems like years ago now at this point in the year, I set two professional goals for the academic year.

Goal 1: Gather data on how best to introduce and explain projects and activities to students.  Do rubrics work best?  What kind of rubric will promote creative problem solving?

  • After spending the first few months of the academic year honing in on this goal, I feel confident in the fact that I have indeed gathered much research on the use of rubrics and project handouts.  I’ve varied my approach to introducing and explaining projects to the students so that I could determine if one method is more effective than another.  I’ve spoken to several different faculty members on this topic as well.  What works for them in the classroom?  I’ve come to a few conclusions at this point in the year:
    • Students need some sort of rubric or assignment explanation for any project or activity.  I need to be sure that I explain the project for the students so that they know what is expected of them.
    • The detail I put into the rubric doesn’t seem to make a difference in terms of promoting students to think creatively or ask questions to solve problems.
    • The process the students utilize to complete the task seems to vary by student.  Character and work ethic seem to be the driving factors.  Students who have the academic drive and wherewithal to be successful, will do well no matter what.  A rubric or what it includes will neither hinder nor help them meet the graded objectives.  Students who struggle with English proficiency will face challenges regardless of the language used, but the more detailed the rubric, the more confident they seem to feel while working.  Students who finish work just to get it done, will complete the required academic tasks just well enough to meet the objectives.  No matter how detailed the rubric is or not will make no difference in the outcome for students who live by the status quo.
    • The students themselves seem to make all the difference in the outcome of projects and tasks.  Regardless of how assignments are explained to students, there will always be those students who do well and those who don’t.  The specificity of a rubric or project handout seems to matter very little.
  • I now need to focus on how to inspire all of my students, including those few boys who seem happy completing barely satisfactory work when they are capable of exceeding the objectives covered, to complete work that exceeds my expectations.  I want to figure out how best to challenge each and every one of my students.  How can I help my high functioning students reach for the next level?  How do I ensure that my struggling ELLs are learning the foundational skills needed to be fully prepared for the seventh grade?  How can help my mid-level guys aspire for more?  This is where I need to head for the next few months regarding this goal.  It’s not about the effectiveness of rubrics, it’s about all of the other stuff I’m doing behind the scenes.  Effective teaching will help students to think critically and creatively while solving problems in new and unique ways.

Goal 2: Incorporate mindfulness and learning about the brain, as it pertains to utilizing a growth mindset, into every aspect of the sixth grade program.  How can I best help students learn how to change their thinking to accommodate how they learn best?

  • As I mentioned in an earlier blog post this week, my students seem to have risen to the next level of academic consciousness as they are applying a lot of the skills and strategies learned during the fall term.  They are beginning to think critically.  They are using a growth mindset and realizing that they can accomplish any goal set or task undertaken with great effort, perseverance, and determination.  They are working on being mindful and present in the moment.  They are better able to solve social issues and problems encountered in the classroom on their own now than they were back in September and October.  I feel as though I have met this goal.  The challenge for me now will be to make sure that I hold the students accountable for being able to use a mindful and growth mindset during the remainder of the year.

What’s Next?

As I have basically met the two goals I set for myself in early October, I need something else to keep me motivated, moving forward.  Should I focus on better handling behavioral issues encountered in the classroom?  Should I work on being more mindful and present in the moment to be sure that I am best challenging and supporting my students?  Should I try to spend more time digging into how I could implement coding into my Humanities class?  Where should I go from here?

What if I try to focus on one goal a month, and then move onto the next one?  Might that be a good framework for my goals for the remainder of the 2017-2018 academic year?  I like that, short and simple.

So, for the next two weeks, I will focus on finding more appropriate and meaningful ways to address and handle challenging students.  I will use more patience when talking with students who struggle to meet the expectations of our sixth grade program.  I will attempt to try the Plan B approach suggested in the book Lost at School by Ross Greene.  I will try to empathize with these students so that they feel heard, cared for, and respected.  I find myself falling into the trap of disregarding their concerns and issues.  I view one of my students as a compulsive tattletale and another as an apathetic student who just wants to play sports.  I need to change my thinking about the difficult students in my class.  How can I best help support them while also challenging them to grow and develop as people?  This is my new goal for the remainder of December.  Hopefully, the festive holiday spirit will fill me with the energy and compassion I need to work towards meeting this goal.

The Power in Teaching Students to Understand Computer Coding

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

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

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

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

What’s the Best Way to Promote Problem Solving in the Classroom?

If you give me a recipe for a tasty dessert, I will rock that recipe and create the most delicious cake or cookies you have ever tasted.  If you need help assembling that new bookcase you purchased from IKEA, please don’t hesitate to call me as long as you still have the directions because I will get it put together, perhaps not correctly but together none the less, in no time flat.  When I’m provided with clear directions, I am able to accomplish a job like nobody’s business.  I can get things done under directions.  Now, if you’re having trouble with your computer or need help fixing something that’s broken, I am not the person to seek help from.  I really struggle with solving problems that don’t come with clear directions.  If I encounter a struggle in life, it often takes me a very long time to overcome it.  My brain views the road of life as linear and constant, and so when things happen to cause that line to veer off course in a non-linear and chaotic manner, my brain begins to melt down.  It’s like the blue screen of death on PCs.  Can’t compute…  While I am able to solve problems that I’m faced with, it usually takes much time, failure, retrying, and effort to get to my destination as my brain likes dealing in the simple and concrete when it comes to problems.  I’m not the quickest problem solver in the world.

Now, I could easily blame my inability to effectively and quickly solve problems on my past teachers.  They didn’t equip me with the strategies and tools needed to solve problems encountered in creative ways.  I could just as easily place the blame for my poor problem-solving skills on my parents and their inability to challenge me and allow me to solve my own problems encountered.  I could use a scapegoat to explain away my mental incapacities, but that would be unhelpful to me as a person.  I am the only one to blame for not developing strong problem-solving skills.  While I wasn’t bombarded by teachers who challenged me to think creatively and solve problems, I also didn’t try to struggle through difficult tasks when I was in school.  I usually took the easy way out, and that allowed me to develop into the very slow problem-solver sitting here typing these words you are currently reading.  I do wish that I had been fortunate enough to be in classrooms where Project-Based Learning was used.  I wish I had been exposed to teachers who used the Socratic style of discussion in their classrooms.  I wish that my teachers had encouraged me to face my problems head on and solve them.  I wish that I had been challenged more by my teachers.  Perhaps my mental capacity for solving problems would be much stronger than it currently is had my teachers employed more effective teaching methods in the classroom.  Perhaps I would be more helpful to others if I had attended schools where solving problems, taking risks, and failing was embraced.  Perhaps my life would be very different right now had my teachers employed a different, more hands-on approach to teaching.  But, if that were the case, then perhaps my life wouldn’t be as perfect as it is right now.  I have a smart, funny, and beautiful wife, an amazing and athletic son, and am fortunate enough to work with a phenomenal group of sixth graders who challenge me to be the best teacher possible for them on a daily basis.  Life doesn’t get much better than this.

As an educator, I do realize the importance of teaching students how to solve problems encountered in new and unique ways.  I want my students to embrace risk-taking and failure in the classroom.  I want them to see how important it is to think critically about problems faced so that they are able to solve them in meaningful and relevant ways.  I want to promote problem-solving in my classroom.  One way I do that is through creating challenging assessments that force my students to struggle through problems encountered and solve them on their own without help or direct guidance from the teacher.

Today in my Humanities class, the students completed an assessment on map parts.  Rather than create a multiple choice test or written assessment, I wanted to challenge my students to think critically and creatively.  Therefore, I created a DOING kind of assessment.  The students, working independently, had to hand-draw a map of a self-created island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.  They had coordinates that it needed to be between, but the area was quite vast.  They could only use drawing tools, pencils, a piece of copy paper, and an atlas to complete this task.  Their map had to include the following:

  • Readable and easily understandable writing and drawing
  • Appropriate Map Title
  • Map Legend: Including symbols for boundaries and major cities
  • Scale Bar
  • Correctly placed lines of Latitude and Longitude based on the coordinates listed in the directions.
  • Labels for at least three major cities with unique names

At the start of class, I explained the directions and fielded all of their questions as I told them that I would not be answering questions while they worked.  As the students will have all different types of teachers next year in the seventh grade, I want to be sure they are prepared to deal with teachers who do not allow questions during work periods.  I told them this was the reason why I was organizing today’s work period the way in which it was set up.  I want them to understand the purpose of why we do things in the classroom while also preparing them for next year.  I spent about 15 minutes addressing questions the boys had about the assessment.  Then, I allowed them to begin working.  I had soft, instrumental music playing, like during all work periods, as they diligently got to work.  They were focused on the task at hand.  They reviewed the directions as they worked, perused their atlas for help, and began drawing their maps.  Each student seemed to take a different approach to the activity.  While a few students jumped right into drawing their island shape onto their paper, others drew on their lines of latitude and longitude first.  Some of the other students didn’t begin drawing right away.  Instead, they looked at the world map in their atlas and reread the directions for the task.  At first, I thought these students were lost or confused, but as I watched them work, I realized, that that was just how they solved problems.  They needed more time to process the information before they began working.  I found that so interesting.  A couple of students seemed frustrated a bit by parts of the task, but persevered through the problem to create a solution that worked for them.  Everyone had a good handle on the task by the end of class.  The atmosphere in the classroom during the last few minutes was one of vast productivity and positivity.  The students were solving problems they encountered.  While I refused to answer any questions about the task that I had previously explained in the directions phase of the activity, many of the boys had unanswered questions that they needed to solve on their own.  This required them to think critically and utilize a growth mindset to solve their problems.  It was awesome because they did just that.  The students were solving their own problems without assistance from me or their peers.  They were getting things done and showcasing great growth as learners and individuals.  I was so impressed and amazed by their performance today.  My students never cease to amaze me on a daily basis.  Wow!

Providing the students with difficult and challenging work that they must complete on their own or in small groups promotes an atmosphere of creativity and problem solving.  Doing hard things requires hard work and lots of learning.  By pushing my students to the edge of their comfort level as it pertains to working and learning, I am enabling them to become innovative problem solvers.  Yes, this requires much training on the part of the students up front because the year does not begin this way.  The students do not enter my classroom in September being able to solve their own problems and think creatively, oh no.  I need to provide them with scaffolding and specific strategies.  I need to help them develop a growth mindset.  This pre-work takes the first three months of the academic year to complete, but then once that is done, the magic can happen.  Today was one of those magical days where everything just started to fall into place.  The boys worked through their problems, struggles, and frustrations because they had the tools to do so.  Earlier this year, I gave them the directions that they used today to complete the task in front of them.  Effective teaching involves a very specific and detailed process.  I could not have given the students the task I did today back in September and expected them to be even remotely successful because they lacked the skills needed.  Now that they have those skills, I need to allow them to practice using them by providing them with difficult and challenging assessments, projects, and tasks.  By the end of the school year, they will be able to tackle any problem thrown at them.  Who knows what they’ll be capable of in a few years because of the skills and practice they are receiving in the sixth grade this year.

Making Grammar Fun for Our Students

In college I had to take, for my major, a class on linguistics, in which all we did for an hour and thirty minutes, twice a week, was diagram sentences.  The teacher, in her dry and quiet monotone voice, helped us to understand the correct part of speech for every word, in every sentence she had written on the chalkboard.  Yes, that’s correct, I was in a class with a chalk board.  On top of being the most boring class I was forced to take in college, it also came with the sound of chalk screeching across a board.  It was a horrible, perfect storm of sorts that made me hate grammar.  While I never really liked learning about grammar in middle school, this college course firmly solidified my stance on the subject.  Grammar is useless and boring.  There are very few jobs on Earth that require a knowledge of grammar and parts of speech, and so, I thought, why do I need to know this stuff?  College definitely turned me off to grammar.

What I didn’t realize at the time, though, is that it wasn’t that grammar is an unnecessary topic to know, it’s that my teachers never found a relevant and engaging way to teach the subject to me and my classmates.  Grammar is, let’s be honest here, a somewhat boring topic.  Who really wants to define the major parts of speech and identify them in sentences?  No one, ever.  So, when teaching grammar, educators need to employ fun tactics to make the material interesting and novel, which my teachers were never able to do.  Teaching grammar at face value is like trying to sell a boat to villagers living in the middle of a desert, pointless.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate and love grammar.  Without grammar, we wouldn’t have exciting sentences filled with loving and beautiful words.  Without grammar, no one could curse.  Living in a world without proper grammar would be like only communicating with people via texting.  Have you ever texted a teenager?  Not only is their spelling atrocious, but they use abbreviations and shorthand for everything.  There is no possible way that everything I say makes my son laugh out loud, yet he starts almost every text to me that way.  Texting language makes me crazy.  Why can’t you take the time to write out the words?  With autofill and autocorrect, it doesn’t even take that long to type out complete words and sentences.  I would never want to live in a world where the only form of communication is texting.  I just can’t take emojis anymore.  What’s the difference between a smiley face and a bigger smiley face?  Don’t they both mean happy?  Why can’t people just type happy?  I feel as though as a society we are reverting back to our cave-drawing ancestors.  I say, let’s bring back proper grammar.

I’m off my soap box now, don’t worry.  Sorry, I can get a little carried away by things, and texting is one of those things that set me off.  Anyway, where was I again?  Oh yeah, grammar.  It’s super important for students to understand the parts of speech and how to properly utilize them in their writing so that they don’t turn into texting zombie-cave-people.  The problem is, the methods with which teachers instruct or cover grammar.  Students need to be interested in the material, and so presentation is everything.

After doing some research this past summer on the importance of teaching grammar to students in a fun and engaging way, I wanted to make sure that I provide my students with a strong foundation of grammar knowledge so that when they get into the eighth grade and spend much time completing numerous grammar worksheets, they will feel prepared and ready for the challenges in front of them.  Prior to Thanksgiving Break, our grammar study began with a short, five minute, review of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.  We then spent seven minutes, once a week, playing a fun and engaging Word Slap game, in which two students stood in front of a whiteboard with the three major parts of speech listed, holding fly swatters, and slapped the appropriate part of speech for the word shouted out by one of their peers.  We played this game thrice times in class over three weeks.  Following the turkey day break, I had the students complete a check-in assessment regarding the three major parts of speech reviewed prior to break and three new grammar terms that some of the students may have learned previously at their former schools.  I wanted to be sure that I was structuring my instruction in a meaningful and relevant way based on what my students know.  While some students had been exposed to the new terms, no student had a firm grasp of adverb, preposition, or conjunction.

Following last week’s ungraded pre-test, I completed the first of three mini-lessons on the three new parts of speech.  Last week we started with adverbs.  I introduced these new vocabulary terms as members of the grammar gang that I had met over Thanksgiving Break.  I told a short story about my interactions with Mr. Adverb and how he talked slowly and moved carefully.  I then asked student volunteers to define the term adverb.  They provided a basic definition, which I then built upon to be sure the boys understood what this part of speech was really all about.  I then had the students, working with their table partner, create a story using only five complete sentences and five adverbs.  They had to underline the five adverbs.  I then had students share their stories and adverbs with the class.  I had the boys help their peers fix any adverbs problems.  This short but effective mini-lesson seemed to work because today when I reviewed adverbs, every student was able to explain what an adverb is and provide examples.  I was very impressed.

Following this review of adverbs, I then introduced the next member of our grammar gang, Ms. Preposition.  She is a superhero who loves to fly high around things.  I then I asked a volunteer to define the term preposition.  One student provided a brief explanation of the term that I elaborated on so that the boys could all make sense of this often confused part of speech.  I then asked the students, “What can Ms. Preposition do to the clouds as she flies high in the sky saving the world?”  I called on students to provide preposition examples.  The boys did a fine job providing creative and specific examples.  Once I felt as though every student had a firm comprehension of the newest member of our grammar gang, I had the students begin the short partner task, in which they had to make a list of every adverb they could think of using a chair as the noun.  They worked with their partner to generate a list of adverbs.  One student wrote the list while the other student practiced doing things to the chair such as going over it, under it, below it, and etc.  It was very entertaining watching them move around the chair and discuss different prepositions.  One student said, “Mr. Holt, my partner says you can go through a chair.  Tell him that’s wrong.”  I asked the partner to explain why he said that it was possible to go through the chair.  He was unable to support his original claim with a demonstration.  Then I asked him if it was possible to put his arm through the top hole in the chair, and sure enough it was.  His partner seemed very surprised when he realized that it was possible to put one’s hand through the chair.  The boys seemed to have a lot of fun with this short activity.  I gave them three minutes to work.  The group that had the longest, correct list of adverbs received a special treat.  This activity seemed to really make learning prepositions fun and meaningful for the boys.

Thanks to this unique method of teaching grammar, not only do my students now think of the parts of speech as superheroes, but they also realize how much fun learning about the somewhat boring and complex subject of grammar can be.  Grammar shouldn’t be taught over a long period of time or through the use of mundane worksheets.  Grammar should be taught through fun, hands on activities that get the students working together and moving.  I don’t want my students to dislike grammar the way I did in college and school.  Grammar should be fun for our students, and it’s our job as educators to make it that way.

What’s the Best Way to Help Students See How their Actions are Perceived by Others?

When my son was in middle school, he struggled to see how his actions affected others.  He was unable to think about how others perceived his actions.  He didn’t realize that when he lied in school, teachers would have trouble believing him the next time he spoke the truth.  It was challenging for him to step outside of himself and imagine what others saw when he made the choices he did.  Of course, what we know about brain development tells us that most middle school boys struggle with this skill as it requires much reasoning and critical thinking, which happens in their undeveloped frontal lobe.  Most students in middle school, can’t think about how others might see their actions because their brains just aren’t ready for that level of critical thinking yet.  However, as a parent, it’s very frustrating when our children keep making the same type of mistakes over and over again because they know no other way, yet.  The good news is, that as they get older, this skill becomes something they can do, and so all hope is not lost.  Hang in there, because once boys make it through the difficult middle school years, things get slightly easier, in this department anyway.

As a teacher, I find it difficult to help my students see how their actions impact others.  As many of my students don’t yet have the brain capacity to think things through and empathize with others, I often struggle helping them see the error of their ways.  How can I help students see that certain things they do are perceived as rude and disrespectful by others?  What’s the most effective way to help them learn from their mistakes?  I’ve tried role playing and scenarios.  I’ve tried having conversations with them about their actions.  I’ve tried every trick in my book to help my students learn that their actions can impact others negatively, to very little avail.

Yesterday in my Humanities class, a student was completing an atlas study worksheet with his table partner.  He struggled to answer one of the questions and so asked for help.  As he had yet to peruse the introductory pages of the atlas like the instructions on the worksheet indicated, he had yet to learn how to locate the title on a map.  So, I reminded him that he needs to read and review those first few pages so that he can learn all about the various features of an atlas.  He argued with me saying that he had already learned all of this information at his old school and didn’t need to look over the opening pages in the atlas.  He simply wanted me to provide him with the answer, which I did not do.  When I walked away as I realized he wasn’t processing anything I said, he slammed his fist down onto the table.  Rather than confront him right away about this action, I simply pulled his stop light card to yellow as a warning that he needs to be more respectful.  I then went onto help other students who seemed more responsive to the feedback with which I provided them.  Later in the period, I then went back to this student who seemed confused as to why he had earned a yellow card.  I explained to him what he did when I walked away from him and his table partner.  He then informed me that in the country he is from, that is how he shows his anger.  I told him that at our school and in this classroom, that is not how we show our anger or frustration.  “It is completely acceptable and appropriate to be angry and upset, but it’s how you show that anger outwardly to others that makes a difference.  Slamming your first onto the table is not okay.  You cannot show your anger to others like this.  It is aggressive and disrespectful.”  He didn’t seem to understand why this action was not okay, no matter what I said.  After awhile, I needed to move on to help other students and could spend no more time trying to squeeze water from a fixed mindset rock of a student.

Is there anything else I could have done that would have helped this student see the error in his ways?  This certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve seen this type of behavior from this student this year.  I’ve tried talking to him later on about the choices he makes and he still seems perplexed as to why what he did was not appropriate.  I’ve informed his mother of the pattern of behavior and reactions I’ve seen from him, and she is very receptive.  She usually discusses these issues with him to help him understand why what he did was not okay.  He will even tell me that is mother explained to him why what he did was unacceptable, yet he continues to repeat the reaction in class.  What am I missing?  What else could I be doing?  I’ve even tried the Plan B approach that Ross Greene writes about in his book Lost at School with this student, and have had no luck.  Perhaps there is a cultural barrier at work as he is an ELL from a European country and this is his first experience at a US school.  That could very well be, and if so, what do I do then?  How do I help remove this barrier for him?  How can I help him see that his actions do impact others in sometimes hurtful and negative ways?  Perhaps this will be an ongoing struggle for him until his frontal lobe becomes more developed.  Maybe this year will be tough for him, but as he grows and matures, if he stays at a school in the US, this skill of empathy and perception will become easier.  In the meantime, I’m going to keep trying different approaches to help him see how others perceive his actions so that he will hopefully begin to understand how his actions have consequences.

Fostering Learning in the Classroom Through Challenge and Struggle

Some of the most meaningful learning that I’ve experienced in my life began with great struggle, challenge, and turmoil.  Learning to read proved quite difficult for me and led to numerous bouts of crying when I was just a wee lad.  After months of struggling, I did finally learn to read in the second grade, and it felt awesome.  Last summer, I was teaching myself how to solve the Rubik’s Cube to no avail.  After watching a video for about two hours and struggling to follow along, I realized that I had been holding my cube incorrectly the entire time I was watching the video.  In that moment, the learning happened, and it was only a matter of minutes before I had mastered the step I was on.  Real, meaningful learning is a messy journey filled with bumps and turns.  Nothing great comes without much struggle and difficulty.

As a teacher, I realize this on a daily basis.  I have found that my students learn best when I leave them to stew and struggle.  Instead of providing them with answers or guiding them to the solution, I like to ask more questions and allow the students to work through the challenge.  After much frustration and struggling, the boys are finally able to master the skill and showcase their learning.  Today provided me with yet another example of how effective this method of teaching truly is.

In Humanities class today, I introduced the concept of lines of Latitude and Longitude as they pertain to mapping and location.  I began the lesson by asking the students to imagine a world in which maps had only land masses and geographical landforms on them.  I then posed a situation to them: “So, my friend from Europe called me on my celly and said, ‘Yo, dude.  I’m coming to visit you.  Where do you live?’  I told him that I live in America.  So then he took the plane to the only airport in America.  He then called me on my celly once again and said, ‘Dude, where are you?  I’m at the airport waiting for you.’  I told him that I live in Canaan and that the airport is in the middle of America, thousands of miles away from me.  So then my friend asked, ‘So, where exactly do you live?’  How can I help my friend know how to get to where I am?”  The students all seemed to understand that those invisible lines on the map help with precise location.  We then watched a video on the topic.  I had students take notes and make observations on their whiteboard tables during the short video.  The first period of class ended with a discussion about what they learned from the video regarding lines of latitude and longitude.  They all seemed to understand the concept quite well.  Following the short break between periods, I displayed a blank outline map on the interactive whiteboard that had the Prime Meridian and Equator marked and labelled.  I then reviewed the concept with them, posing questions to various students.  They all seemed to understand the different hemispheres, cardinal directions, and lines of latitude and longitude.

At that point, I issued the challenge to them: “Using a blank map, draw and label the Prime Meridian, Equator, and lines of Latitude and Longitude in 30 degree intervals.”  This prompted a few questions, of course.  The students then got right to work.  While half of the students seemed to fully understand the concept and challenge in front of them, the other half seemed a bit confused or lost as they worked.  Three students needed to redo their maps as they switched, in their minds, the lines of latitude and longitude when labelling them on the map.  Two other students were very confused when I explained to them how they had incorrectly completed the task.  I didn’t tell them what to do, I merely asked them some questions.  Are those the lines of latitude or longitude?  How many degrees should be between each line?  For one student, these questions helped, for the other student, these questions only seemed to further confuse him.  Rather than give him the answer, I told him to leave it be for now and work on it during evening study hall tonight.  I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.  I do believe that he is on the verge of understanding the concept and just needs more processing time.

I loved watching the immense learning take place in the sixth grade classroom today.  The boys engaged in the material, struggled a bit, and then overcame their challenges.  Utilizing a growth mindset, they found a solution to the puzzle of understanding how to correctly label the lines of latitude and longitude on a blank world map.  If I had force-fed the students the information or provided them with a pre-labelled map of the world, would the learning they experienced today have been as meaningful?  Would they really understand how lines of latitude and longitude work?  I don’t think so.  I do feel that they needed to struggle with this complex task to effectively learn how lines of latitude and longitude are placed on maps.  This activity is a fine precursor to map drawing that we will do during our first region of study following the holiday break.  Allowing students to struggle, practice, and find new solutions to their problems is how stronger, neurological connections are built in their brains.  Real learning happens through experiencing great difficulty.  Hard things take hardship to accomplish.  The sixth grade classroom is a place where our students can safely, and with compassion and respect, struggle through challenges to get to the light at the end of the dark tunnel that leads to learning.