Engaging Students with Creative Activities

As the biggest storm of the winter is currently in the process of dropping over a foot of snow right outside my window, I can’t help but think of my childhood.  Growing up in New England, we used to see massive snow storms like this all the time.  For many years, we didn’t get out of school until almost July because of all the snow days.  I remember one storm that brought about three feet of snow with it.  It snowed for almost two days, non-stop.  It was crazy.  At one point we even lost power, as so much snow had piled up on the utility lines.  Being about eight years old, I loved it.  I went outside and made tunnels and castles in the white and fluffy stuff.  I imagined I was king of all that the snow touched.  I played outside for hours each day, as my imagination ran wild like a like a lion or a hyena.  I would pretend to build tunnels to new lands or worlds, digging through the snow with enthusiastic vigor.  I used my imagination to be creative.  Back then, there were no portable electronics.  The first Game Boy hadn’t even been invented yet.  If we wanted to do something as kids, we had to invent and create our own fun.  We pretended that we lived in lands we saw in movies or read about in books.  It was epic, before epic took on its current meaning in our vernacular.

Now it seems as though kids don’t know what to do without their portable electronics.  They don’t know how to be bored or use their imagination and be creative.  They get so lost in their screens that they don’t realize they aren’t actually having real fun.  They are having faux fun.  Despite being able to go outside and play in the snow, most children remain inside held hostage by the television or other screen.  While the technological advances that have been made since I was eight years old are wonderful and amazing in many ways, I do wonder if they have prevented children from genuinely embracing creativity.

As a teacher, I have the opportunity to tip the scales a bit.  I have the ability to craft unique, hands-on, and engaging lessons that allow students to be creative, without the use of technology.  I can provide students with a safe space in which to take risks, try new things, flex their imagination, be creative, and have a ton of fun.  And I have done just that in my fifth grade classroom this year.  No, I haven’t banned devices.  In fact, I do require that my students have a laptop with them each and every day, as I can’t ignore the fact that I need to prepare them for and to live meaningful lives in a very digital and connected world.  They need to understand how to type on a keyboard, respond to emails, navigate the Internet, and effectively utilize digital devices.  However, laptops are merely one tool I use in the classroom to help provide my students with a well-rounded educational experience.  We also spend every Friday morning outside in nature for Forest Fridays.  This past week, the students built fires without any sort of modern technology like matches or fire starters.  They used flint and steel, birch bark, and lots of perseverance.  They love being able to go outside and explore, learn about, and play in the wonderful nature that exists just a few steps from our small school.  Experiences like these, free of technology, allow my students to get creative and use their imagination.  In fact, the students even named the forested area which we visit weekly.  They call it Narnicheeia, a cross between Narnia and our school’s moniker, the Beech Hill School.

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In the classroom, I also find inventive ways to help students explore the curriculum as they learn about the world around them.  In Language Arts class, we have just begun a unit on poetry.  I began this unit last week by having the students explore the power of words.  They generated a huge list of words that hold a lot of power for them and/or others.  This chat then led into an interactive activity, in which the students began playing with words and putting them together in new and unique ways.  Each table partnership was provided an envelope full of Magnetic Poetry words.  Their first task was to simply play with the words and put them together in fun ways.  I gave them time for some free play without a concrete purpose other than exploration.  The students really enjoyed the freedom that came with this fun activity.  They combined words in silly and interesting ways.  It was great.  While the second task did have some parameters, it still allowed for much freedom and creativity.  The students moved, with their table partner, through four stations in the classroom.  Each station had Magnetic Poetry words strewn about and a theme written across the top of the table.  The students had to create a “chunk of verse” as I called it, around the theme, using the words on the table.  They needed to craft at least 3-5 lines on each of the topics or themes in 10 minutes.  They could use no more than 1-2 extra words, words that weren’t on the table, per line.  Once they had their lines, they typed them into a Google Doc.  The students thoroughly enjoyed this activity.  They laughed together, as they generated some brilliant lines of verse.  After each group had rotated through the four stations, I had them each choose two of their favorite verses to read aloud to the class.  Despite having access to the same words at each station, every verse was different.  Each student brought their own voice and creativity to their particular verse.  It was awesome.

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Activities like this help my students practice being creative and inventive in new ways.  It helps them see that they don’t need video games or movies to have fun.  Learning and interacting with one’s classmates can be very rewarding and engaging.  Allowing my students to exercise their imagination and creativity in many different ways on a daily basis, allows for true development, growth, and learning.  I’m helping to prepare my students to live in a world that will most likely be dominated by things and occupations that haven’t even been invented yet.  If my students learn how to solve problems in creative ways by using their imagination, I feel as though they will be well prepared for all that this mysterious and amazing future holds for them.

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Empowering Students to Take Responsibility for their Decisions

Growing up, all of my decisions were made for me by my parents, my teachers, and everyone else but me.  I was not in charge of my own life.  I ate what my parents made for me.  I completed the work my teachers assigned.  I did the jobs my boss told me to do.  I followed the rules of life and never questioned why.  I walked through life as if I were a robot following pre-programmed commands.  I was not responsible for anything other than what everyone else told me to do.  Back then, I just accepted my fate.  I thought that’s what life was all about.  Do this, don’t do that.  Life was simple and routine.  I knew what to expect.  Then, came college.  For the first time in my life, I was in charge of everything.  Do I stay up late or go to bed early?  What do I want to eat for dinner?  Do I want to go out or stay in?  Do I want to take this class or that class?  At first, it was all very overwhelming.  I didn’t really know what to do, as I had never had to make any real decisions for myself before.  It was scary.  I made many mistakes at first, and I didn’t take advantage of this newly found freedom.  I didn’t know what choice would be best, and so I usually just did nothing.  I felt like a lost puppy dog looking for his master.  I was so used to having others make decisions for me, that it took me quite some time to navigate this crazy thing called free will.  I wish I had been provided more opportunities to make my own decisions before I went off to college.  I wish my teachers had given me options for demonstrating mastery of the concepts covered.  I wish my parents had given me choices instead of mandates.  I wish my transition into the real-world hadn’t been so harsh.  It was almost as if I were plucked from my cozy bed on Earth and thrown onto Mars without any sort of instructions or fancy space suit.  I hadn’t been empowered to really understand how to survive in life once I left home.  While I did eventually figure out how to make choices on my own, I wish I had been given the opportunity to practice taking responsibility at a much younger age.  Perhaps I wouldn’t have made the same erroneous mistakes I did during my first year on my own.  Perhaps I would have been better equipped to traverse the many obstacles I faced during my first few years as an adult.  As they say, hindsight is like having the cheat codes to the video game of life without any way to input them.

While I have yet to find or build the way-back machine, I can help empower others to learn from my mistakes.  As a teacher, I can hand over the reigns of control to my students.  I can help them learn how to get back up and try again when they fail.  I can help them learn how to become responsible decision makers.  I can provide them a safe space in which to take life out for a test drive without any serious, lasting consequences.  I can empower my students to take responsibility for their lives in order to create the future they want for themselves.

However, in this overly protective world in which we live, it seems almost impossible to find a school that embraces a similar philosophy.  Many parents and schools want to shield children from pain, suffering, failure, and genuine learning.  Many educational institutions in our country force students to learn a pre-determined body of knowledge that may not effectively prepare students to learn how to think for themselves, make their own decisions, and be responsible for their own lives.

Fortunately for me, I have found a school that believes, like me, students need to be provided a safe space in which to learn how to make decisions, fail, try again, and take responsibility for their learning.  At the amazing micro-school at which I teach, I can try things that most teachers only dream of being able to do.  I can provide my students with options and choices.  I am able to allow my students to make their own decisions.  I can help my students learn to take responsibility for their lives in and out of school.  I have the freedom to allow my students to be who they truly are as individuals, thinkers, readers, and problem solvers.  Instead of me telling them what to think, do, or learn, together, we write the road map that moves us forward.  What do you really want to learn more about, and how would you like to learn that body of information?  At the Beech Hill School, I am able to give my fifth grade students the educational experience I wish my teachers had given me when I was just a wee young lad.

What does this look like in action, you wonder.  Well, I’ll provide you with two brief snapshots of how I empower my students to learn how to take control and embrace responsibility.

  • As this is the first year my school has had a fifth grade, there are many possibilities for how my class can fit into the greater school puzzle.  On the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day, also known as Civil Rights Day in many places, the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders at my school have special programming already set in place for them.  What about my fifth graders?  What will we do on that day?  Well, I posed two different scenarios to the students and let them choose which they feel would be best for them on that day?  Would they like to participate in similar programming with the rest of the school or would they like to do something different and unique to the fifth grade?  I allowed the students to discuss the options as a class prior to choosing.  While they asked a few questions, they seemed to understand the options open to them.  I then allowed them to vote on which choice they would like, with the majority-option being the one I will put in place for them on that day.  It was almost unanimous.  All but one student wanted to participate in the special programming the rest of the school will be partaking in on that day.  While I wasn’t surprised by their decision, it was their decision.  I did not make it for them.  They chose.  So, if it goes well, then yah for them; however, if it doesn’t go the way they had anticipated, we can debrief it in the classroom the next day and discuss what to keep in mind the next time we are making a group decision.  A teachable moment will exist regardless of the outcome.  I love it.
  • This past Friday, our school held a special Winter Fun Afternoon for the students.  Each grade chose a special activity in which the other students participated.  Despite the frigid temperatures outside, it was an epic experience in awesomeness.  The students went sledding, decorated cookies, played games, and enjoyed each other’s company as a whole.  It was so much fun.  The best part was that each class had ownership over their activity.  Friday morning, I had the fifth graders hash out how the sledding competition they were in charge of would go.  How many teams would the students be broken into?  How would it be managed?  What were the rules?  The students discussed every aspect of the activity.  They self-selected roles, chose how the competition would be run, and took control of the entire thing.  It was their activity, and so I wanted them to be in charge.  It was so much fun observing them as they spoke and shared their ideas with one another.  They were mindful of one another’s opinions and open to all sorts of ideas and input.  They compassionately crafted a well-structured and super fun event that the students loved.  I was so proud of how they worked together and took responsibility for their event.  They kept track of times, scores, and teams.  It was quite impressive to watch.  During their free period prior to lunch, many of the students made props for the big event to bring more of a realistic feel to the competition.  While the execution of their idea went well, as they had hoped, if it had not gone well, I could have used the experience as an opportunity to help the students learn from their mistakes.  What could we keep in mind the next time we are planning something like this?

Those are only two of the many wonderful experiences students in my class and at my school are able to participate in, which help to teach them responsibility and ownership.  Aside from not being prepared for the real-world as I was, how else might this manner of structuring a school and classroom benefit students?  Engagement.  Neurobiology research on learning tells us that students are much more engaged in the process of learning when they are able to choose how and what they are learning.  Our brains are much more able to focus and become invested in something that we like or helped design.  Allowing students to choose the platform for learning helps bring them into the fold in a more meaningful manner.  Plus, when students feel engaged or a part of something bigger than themselves, their happiness is increased.  The happier they are, the kinder and nicer they are to others.  Then, all of a sudden, you have a school or community filled with caring and positive people helping others make the world a better place for all.  It’s really quite an amazing thing that I am lucky enough to be able to witness and be a part of on a daily basis.  Empowering students to learn to be responsible decision makers is what all schools should strive to do each and every day.

The Power of Gratitude

In the hustle and bustle of daily life, it can be difficult to appreciate the numerous wonderful things that happen all around us every day.  Did you thank that stranger who held the door open for you?  Did you stop to appreciate the beauty of the sunrise?  Did you show thanks to your boss for the compliment he or she gave you?  It’s easy to miss opportunities in which we can be grateful; however, these opportunities pack more power than we may realize.  Research like this article from the Huffington Post tells us that expressing thanks to others helps improve our own mental and physical well being.  Imagine that.  Taking a few seconds to say “Thank You” to someone can actually make you feel better.  How cool is that?  As the new year has just begun, what better time to make a new resolution to be more thankful.  So, go out and show your gratitude to the world and increase your level of happiness at the same time.

To help my students see the value in being thankful and grateful for the many amazing people and opportunities that exist all around our school, I created a Gratitude Wall.  I started by taking down a large poster from the wall that I had put up back in August.  It had been slowly withering away in the sunlight.  Parts of the poster were getting ripped and falling down.  So, I removed it from the wall and put up two colored pieces of poster board and a simple title “Gratitude Wall.”  On our first day back from the lengthy holiday break, I introduced this new addition to our classroom.  I informed the students during our Morning Meeting that we will be adding a new part to our End-of-the-Day routine.  I suggested that they take note of things that they are grateful and thankful for during the academic day.  At the end of that first day of classes for 2019, we gathered around the Gratitude Wall and I explained what it’s all about.  “This is a place where we will gather each afternoon prior to leaving to celebrate the wonderful things that are happening in and around our classroom and school.  We will take a few moments to express our gratitude to others.  You will each record one thing you are grateful for on a sticky note and then add it to our gratitude wall.  Once everyone is packed up and the classroom is cleaned for the end of the day, we will return to this wall and share the things that we are thankful for.”  I reminded the students to think about the specific names and times when these grateful things occurred.  The students then wrote their messages of gratitude onto the sticky notes.  I was very curious to see how this new experiment of mine would go.  Would it be just another new thing I try that fizzles out or doesn’t work out the way I had intended?  Or, would it be something great and wonderful?  I had no idea.  I felt good about my introduction to the activity and so I was excited to see how the sharing of gratitude would go.

When the students returned to our Gratitude Wall, I had them share what they had written.  I was amazed by the uniqueness and sincerity of each note.

  • “I am thankful that Mr. J is allowing a new student to join our class.”
  • “I am thankful for the new books Mr. Holt added to our Class Library.”
  • “I am thankful to be back at school.”
  • “I am thankful to my friend for carrying things for me.”

I thanked the students for expressing their kindness and highlighted a few special ones that showed great compassion.  When we began this activity in class on Thursday, I had shared that a new student would be joining our fifth grade family the following day.  The students were very excited about this fact, and so when that one student shared that she was happy to have her join our class, I almost started to cry.  I truly am one of he luckiest teachers I know.  I am fortunate to work with such a kind and thoughtful group of girls and boys.

Following this activity, the students seemed happier and more upbeat than they had previous to the activity.  Perhaps the power of gratitude is real.  Regardless of what led to this emotional change within my students, I was very happy that I took a risk and introduced this new activity into our classroom.  I discussed with the students the power of gratitude and can’t wait to see how things may change in the coming weeks as we continue to show our thanks and gratitude to others.  As we stood in front of the wall and marveled at the many acts of kindness that stared back at us, one student asked, “What happens when the wall gets filled up?”  Then another asked, “How will we know which ones happened on each day?”  The students then decided to record the date on each of their notes of gratitude beginning the next day.  One student offered to write Thursday’s date on each of the notes already posted to the wall.  Wow, talk about care, compassion, and kindness.  It is alive and well in the fifth grade.

While Thursday’s pilot of the Gratitude Wall went so well, I didn’t know what to expect on Friday.  Well, yet again, my students showed their true, warm colors.  They seemed to think even more deeply about the acts of kindness that happened to them throughout the class day.  What they recorded yesterday blew me away.  They were so thoughtful and thankful.  One student wrote, “I am thankful for Mr. Holt being the best teacher in the whole world.”  Our new student shared that she was thankful for being included and joining our class at BHS.  After she shared her sentiments, I then responded, “Even though this was your first day in our class, it felt like you have always been with us.”  At that point, the other students all chimed in with remarks of “Oh yeah.”  I had no idea that the students could take this activity to the next level, but they did.  As each new thought of thanks was shared with the class, discussions began and blossomed out of what each of them said, as then even more thanks were piled on.  Who knew that something so simple could have such a huge impact on our class?  Being grateful is really something special.  I am so grateful and thankful to be working at such an amazing school, with such kind and caring students.  We really are like one big, happy, and thankful family at the Beech Hill School.

The Key Ingredients Needed to Make Learning Fun in the Classroom

While I tend to be a creature of habit in most aspects of my life, when it comes to cooking, I love to wander off the downtrodden path and improvise.  Recipes, shmeshipes I say.  I cook from the heart, and stomach.  What do I think will taste good in this dish?  That question drives me when I’m in the kitchen.  I love chocolate chips, and so even though most recipes do not call for them, I love to throw them in.  Chocolate makes everything better.  As my son can’t consume high quantities of salt, I usually discard that ingredient from recipes when cooking something that he may enjoy.  I get a little funky and try new things when baking or cooking.  It’s a great release for my creativity.  A dash of this, a pound of that, and lots of chocolate chips.

Over my years in education, I’ve tried to adopt this same improvisational approach to my teaching.  I like to take risks, try new things, and engage my students.  This often means that I need to think on my feet, adapt a lesson or activity in order to meet the needs of my students, and revise my plans frequently.  As the large body of research on learning and the brain tells us, students learn best when they are engaged.  To engage my students, I work to make learning fun.  How does one make learning fun, you are probably asking yourself right now.  Although schools have changed over time, if your experience was anything like mine, there was very little fun to be had during the class part of your school day.  The fun came at recess, lunch, and snack.  Learning was rarely fun for me when I was in school.  Fortunately for our students, schools and the world of education have evolved much over time.  Fewer schools and teachers are using textbooks, and teacher-directed instruction is now only a small part of each lesson or activity.  As teachers, we now have the flexibility to make use of project-based activities and hands-on learning.  We are working to make learning fun for our students.

So, what’s the secret to making learning fun?  Well, that’s just it, there is no tried and true formula for making learning fun, as every student and school is different.  What might be fun for one student may not be enjoyable for another.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic wand to give you that will allow you to make learning fun for your students; however, I do have some tips and tricks.  You see, while there is no set recipe for fun in the classroom, if you start with a few key ingredients, you may find that fun happens.

First, as the neuroscience research tells us, it starts with safety.  The students need to feel safe, respected, and cared for in the classroom.  You need to create a welcoming space for the students to enter each and every day.  Setting up your classroom in such a way that the students have options for how they learn is crucial.  Not all students learn best sitting in a chair at a desk.  Some students like to get comfortable in a bean bag or on the floor.  Organizing your classroom with different types of spaces is vital to helping students feel respected and cared for.  The other key component for students to feel safe in your classroom is the social-emotional curriculum.  Do you address the anxiety levels of your students?  Do you provide students with a safe space to share their feelings?  Do you make use of mindfulness strategies?  Do you begin each morning by warmly greeting your students and engaging them in conversation?  If not, you will want to dig into each of those areas so that you are creating a culture of care and compassion in the classroom.  Only when students feel safe can genuine learning happen.

The second key ingredient required to make learning fun is a sense of humor.  Being able to laugh at yourself in front of the students and make really awesome Dad Jokes, as my students like to call them, helps to create an atmosphere of trust and silliness in the classroom.  When the students see that they don’t need to be so serious all the time, they let their guard down, they open up, they share their feelings, they laugh, and they have fun.  Each Morning Meeting in my fifth grade classroom includes a pun.  For example, the pun I used on the last day of school prior to the holiday break was, “How do Christmas Trees keep their breath smelling so fresh?”  Any ideas?  My students guessed things like their pine scent, which were chili pepper ideas, but incorrect.  The answer, “Orna-mints.”  Hilarious, I know.  Beginning the day with silly jokes and riddles helps the students see that learning and school can be fun and enjoyable.

The third key ingredient needed for fun to spontaneously break out in the classroom is, wait for it, novelty.  Trying new things, taking a different approach to an old concept, and making things fresh for the students helps to trigger their brains to pay attention.  Our brains crave new things, and so when we teach a concept in a unique way, our students will pay close attention because their brains are telling them to do so.  For example, instead of using those mundane grammar worksheets we all grew up having to complete, I teach grammar through stories.  I tell my students the story of how this gang of super heroes saved my life one night.  I explain how I was being accosted in the alley by some villains when out of seemingly no where comes this group of superheroes to save the day.  Super Noun Man uses his hands, super strength, and super speed to help, while Super Verb Lady uses her many super actions to intercede on my behalf.  I create this elaborate tale all about how each part of speech gets involved in saving my life.  When I shared this story with my students this year, one student asked, “I notice that each super hero helped you using examples of the part of speech they are.”  Exactly!  Students love new and fun things.  So, trying to find different and cool ways to teach a concept or introduce a new unit is paramount for fun to be had in the classroom.

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The fourth ingredient has to do with the activities or lessons themselves.  Are the students doing something?  Are the students working with their peers?  Is there hands-on learning taking place in the classroom?  Students crave social interactions with their peers.  They love talking to the other students.  So, making use of carefully constructed group projects or partner activities allows for this to happen in meaningful ways.  Students also learn best when they are doing something.  Rather than spewing information at them, allow them to experiment with a new concept and investigate how it works.  After briefly explaining how speed differs from velocity, I had the students, working in pairs, create a marble track that maximized speed while also having at least two changes in velocity.  This was a challenging but super fun task for the students.  It allowed them to tinker and find solutions on their own.  As the students worked, I asked each partnership probing questions about the concepts to be sure they understood the difference.  And they did.  They got it, and had a ton of fun doing so.

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The fifth and final necessary ingredient needed for fun to be fostered in the classroom, is, yes, you guessed it, love.  It seems hokey, but so very important.  You’ve got to love what you are doing in the classroom.  If you don’t love your lesson, activity, unit, or read-aloud novel, then the students will see through your fake smile and know that what they are doing is not fun.  This is probably one of the most difficult ingredients to get right for learning to become fun.  It’s not easy to make paragraph writing engaging and fun; however, if you think about the other key ingredients for fun and engagement to happen in the classroom, then it’s totally doable.  Finding ways to love everything you do in the classroom ties the other four ingredients together like wonderful wrapping paper.  When you love what you are doing in the classroom, the students will see it and start to love it as well.  Positivity and excitement are contagious.  When you share with the students the marble track you made on the wall of your classroom because you want to jump in on the fun they are sure to have, the students get pumped.  Then, when you have a student stand underneath the end of the marble track you have mounted on your wall and say, “Okay, now I need someone to stand right about there and face the opposite direction,” the students raise their hands as if you are giving away a new computer or phone.

Although there is no secret recipe for bringing about fun in the classroom, there are five key ingredients that will make fun possible: Creating a safe learning environment, having a sense of humor, novelty, hands-on learning and group projects, and having a love of what you are doing in the classroom.  When you mix equal parts of those five ingredients together, fun is bound to happen in your classroom.  Learning doesn’t have to be boring.  In fact, it can easily be engaging and fun, if you take the time to knead each lesson or unit into just the right shape.  When the students are having fun learning new concepts or applying old concepts to new ones, you are creating lifelong learners.  What students learn when they are having fun will not soon be forgotten, unlike those ridiculous grammar worksheets from your eighth grade English class.

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Promoting Problem Solving in the Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

A Day in the Life of a Fifth Grader at BHS

While I am a new teacher at the Beech Hill School (BHS) this year, it certainly didn’t take me long to learn how lucky I am to be working at such a special and wonderful school.  We are a community of learners, problem solvers, and friends here at BHS.  We support and take care of each other, regardless of our roles.  Teachers aren’t just educators; we are leaders, role models, caregivers, and students.  Our students are more than just pupils in classrooms as well; they are helpers, teachers, and doers.  As the fifth grade teacher at BHS, I often wonder who is learning more on a daily basis, me or my students.

Although you can’t ever really understand a school unless you visit, I feel compelled to at least attempt to paint you all a picture of the magical school we have created in the small town of Hopkinton, New Hampshire.  I hope this entry helps to shed some light on the magnificent things one micro-school is doing to make education about the students.  Today’s entry will provide readers with a special look at a day in the life of a fifth grader at the Beech Hill School.  Each section will include two parts: An overview from my perspective as their teacher followed by a realistic, but slightly imagined glimpse of life through the lens of various fifth grade students.  Enjoy, and please feel free to post comments or questions about this entry.


That Magical Time Before School Officially Begins

As the sun slowly peeked out from behind the mountains near our small school, students began to fill the halls and classrooms after 7:30 Wednesday morning.  The fifth grade students made their way into our classroom, early like always.  You see, my students love being at school.  They enjoy time with their friends, creating things in our Maker Space, experimenting with Makey Makeys, and playing with our class hamster.  One student even told his parents he wished he had school on Saturdays.

The students enjoyed their time together in the classroom before our day officially began, playing games and having fun.  I love being a part of this celebration of community and learning each morning in the fifth grade classroom.  It provides me the unique opportunity to interact and bond with my students in different ways.  Once the sound of bells resonated in the air though, we knew that our day was about to formally commence.

Walking into school this morning, I was filled with excitement and curiosity.  We are starting our big physics project in Science class today, and I can’t wait to start making a pinball machine.  I wonder how big it will need to be.  Who will be my partner?  Ahh, I thought as I entered our classroom.  Although Mr. Holt was working on setting up the board with today’s agenda, he stopped to greet me with a smile and an energetic “Good morning!”  I really like how happy and excited he is in the morning.  It helps me wake up and feel ready to go for the day.  As his magical teaching cape seemed to float behind him in the air while he whizzed around the room like a real-life superhero, I put my stuff into my cubby and went to check on Beans, our class pet.  He’s so cute in the morning, nestled in his pink igloo-like structure.  I lured him out with a yogurt treat.  He loves those things.  I played with him on the Maker Space table.  When my friends arrived, they joined me.  We created a little obstacle course for Beans to navigate through.  It was so much fun.  When the clang of the bell rang out, I quickly put Beans back into his cage and walked downstairs with my friends.

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Community

Each day at the Beech Hill School begins in our multi-purpose room with something our headmaster calls Community.  It’s like a giant Morning Meeting of sorts.  The teacher in charge leads the school community, grades five to eight, though a short but mindful meditation we refer to as a Moment of Intention.  That teacher then guides us through an activity.  Today’s focus was on current events.  The students shared some news stories they had read or heard about recently.  We discussed the death of former President George H. W. Bush, the Alaskan earthquake, and so much more.  The other teachers and students then had the opportunity to share further announcements.  We only had a few brief announcements for this portion of the meeting.  A student then reminded us all what day it was as we applauded and headed upstairs to our respective classrooms.  What a delightful way to start our day as a whole school.

I quickly found an empty chair and stood behind my seat.  I talked to my friend until Mr. Aruda raised his hand to start Community.  I really like Community because it’s a great time to learn about any changes to our schedule as well as what else is going on in the school.  I think it’s so cool that we do this altogether as a school.  I often sit next to an eighth grader, even though I’m a fifth grader, and she always says, “hi” to me.  That’s pretty neat.  Although it’s sometimes hard for me to sit still during the Moment of Intention, I really like having quiet time to think about my goals for the day. 

Oh, that’s right, it’s World Wide Wednesday.  Today, students talked about news from around the world.  One student talked about how he heard a story this morning about aliens landing on Earth.  Mr. Aruda hadn’t heard this story and so he couldn’t tell us anymore about it.  I don’t think it was a real story because I haven’t seen any aliens, or have I?  Sometimes I wonder if my teacher Mr. Holt is from another planet because he wears a cape, slippers, and tells lots of funny dad jokes.  Wow, I kind of got distracted by that story.  Luckily though, I was able to hear Mrs. Fries’ announcement about volunteering on Saturday at the Gingerbread House Making event.  I want to help out.  That sounds like a lot of fun, and maybe I’ll get to eat some candy too.  I’ll check with her before I go up to class to tell her I can help out.  I need to make sure I tell my parents about that.  Meeting is over.  Time to go.

Morning Meeting

As the fifth grade students crossed the threshold of our classroom, those who had not checked their Daily Effort Grade feedback from the day before on our Google Classroom page did so while everyone else got comfortable on a yoga mat.  Yes, we do have tables and chairs in the fifth grade, but as today marked our December yoga session, we needed yoga mats to begin our morning.  Local yoga instructor and mother to a current BHS student joins us in the fifth grade, once a month for a mindful yoga session.  She leads the students through numerous stretching and yoga poses to provide them with the opportunity to become centered and present.  It’s a part of our mindfulness curriculum that spans the entire year.  The students love our yoga sessions and other mindful activities that began most of our days in the fifth grade.

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While our mindful activities are usually a part of our class Morning Meeting, our monthly yoga sessions take place immediately following the all-school community meeting.  So, today did begin a bit differently than most other days.  Following our closing ohm and namaste, we worked as a team of fifth grade ants to put the classroom back together again.  I then reviewed today’s agenda, which is written on the whiteboard daily.  Following our Morning Meeting, on most days, we move right into our first academic subject of the day, and today was no outlier in that regard.

Yoga, yes!  I love Yoga.  I totally forgot we had it today.  Luckily I already checked my Daily Effort Grade last night, so I could pick my Yoga mat first.  I wonder what Mrs. Garside is going to have us do today.  Stretching?  I like that.  I am so flexible but it’s fun to stretch anyway.  I like Yoga because it helps me get all my energy and wiggles out before we start learning.  Mr. Holt has the lights off so we can be mindful too.  I like thinking about just the present moment.  Sometimes it’s hard, but I try and I think I’m getting better at it.  I like the Ohm thing we do. It’s so cool that we all make the same sound for as long as possible.  Today we did it for like 15 seconds.  That was a long time.  Namaste, Mrs. Garside.  Now I’m ready for Math.

Math

A typical math class, if there really is such a thing, generally consists of some sort of opening activity, be it the Date Game or Khan Academy time, followed by a work period, during which time the students work on their assigned workbook pages in their math books.  We use the Beast Academy program in the fifth grade.  The students are enjoying the fun and challenging nature of the curriculum.

Today, however, was a very special day in math class.  As this week is host to the global Hour of Code event, today marked our opportunity to participate in this special happening.  The students each chose an online activity to complete as an introduction to the world of computer programming.  Some students chose to learn how coding in Minecraft works while others created a fancy dance involving animals.  The students were so engaged in this activity, that we had a working snack.  They loved it!  Several students asked if they could complete more activities during their free time or for homework.  You know something special is happening when they ask questions like that.  Amazing!

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At first I was like, “What is this Hour of Code stuff all about?  Do I have to write Morse Code for a whole hour?  That sounds hard and boring.”  But then, Mr. Holt showed us the website and I was like, “OMG!  I get to make a computer game.  This is so cool.”  It was so much fun.  I want to do Hour of Code every day.  I chose the dancing activity and so I got to make unicorns dance.  It was really difficult, but I persevered and solved my problems.  One of my classmates helped me out with the fifth level.  When I was finished, I was so happy and proud of myself.  I made unicorns dance while eating my snack.  What could be better than that?  Learning about how computer programming and coding works was so much fun.  I can’t wait to try another one tonight.

Science

After an extended play and snack period following math class, we then moved into Science.  Our current focus in Science is physics.  The students have been learning all about speed and velocity, potential and kinetic energy, and simple machines.  Today, we reviewed what the students had learned about simple machines.  Their retention was impeccable.  I love retrieval activities like this one, as neuroscience research tells us that learning strategies are only useful when coupled with the practice of memory retrieval skills.

To make the concept of simple machines and work tangible for the students, they completed a class challenge.  Working together, the students had to make or find examples of each of the six simple machines, in the classroom.  I was impressed by their cooperation, planning, and effort.  They communicated effectively, crafted a plan, and then executed that plan.  Each student had a role in making the machines.  The students then shared their machines as I had them explain how each worked.  Talk about DOING science.  The students had a blast working together to solve the problem.

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After reviewing simple machines, I then introduced the final unit project to the class.  As our projects and assignments are posted to our Google Classroom page, I projected this final project onto our large classroom monitor.  I explained the various steps of the project so that the students could wrap their curious minds around the problem they needed to solve.  I then fielded all of the questions the students had about the project.  This question time is a great opportunity for me to clarify information and clear up any confusion the students may have.

My goal in creating projects and explaining information to the students is to keep it vague and simple, as I want them to think critically about the information.  Rather than spell out every aspect of the task or project, I like when the students can fill in the blanks with answers or questions.  For example, in our current physics project, the students have to design, blueprint, and then build either a catapult or a pinball machine.  In my explanation, I did not detail the kind of pinball machine they could build.  All I said was, “You are only able to use materials in the classroom, and are not able to bring in anything from home.”  One of the students asked if they could use things like the Makey Makey or paper circuits in their pinball machines.  My response was an overwhelmingly positive, “Oh yeah!”  While I was hoping they would think big, I didn’t want to control or limit their problem solving capabilities by force feeding them all of the information.  I wanted to promote curiosity, creativity, and questions.  I want my students to wonder about the world around them.  As they had many questions, this final activity took us to the end of our Science class.  The highlight of this project introduction for me was when all of the students asked if they could begin the project instead of moving onto the next school commitment.  They are so excited about this project, that they wanted to keep on working.  I love it!  Student engagement is alive and well in the fifth grade.

Next to Math, Science is my favorite subject in the fifth grade.  I love that we get to do lots of fun projects.  I can’t wait to choose my partner and start building our machine.  I kind of want to make a pinball machine, but I want to see what my partner wants to do first.  If we do decide to make a pinball machine, I have so many ideas.  I want to use a Makey Makey to light up the playing board and I want to try to find a way to keep score.  Should we make the flippers out of wood or PVC pipes?  We’ll have to figure that out.  Also, how can we reduce friction and increase the speed of the marble as it rolls on the track since cardboard can be bumpy in places?  Maybe my partner will have an idea on how to solve this problem.  I’m so excited to get started with this project.  I can’t wait for tomorrow’s Science class.

Electives/Free Period/Lunch/Jobs

We at BHS believe in student exploration and risk taking.  We want our students to have numerous experiences and opportunities to try new things.  The elective program that takes place every day, with the exception of Friday, is a chance for the students to do something a little different.  At the start of each trimester, they choose two new electives to partake in.  Some of the offerings for the winter trimester are Outdoor Games, National History Day, and School Newspaper.  The students enjoy this break from the norm, during which time they are also able to interact with the other students at the school.

I do dance for my elective on Mondays and Wednesdays.  It’s super fun.  We are learning all kinds of dance moves.  I’m pretty good at it.  The teacher is a lot of fun and helps us learn the moves.  Next week she said we’re going to learn break dancing.  That sounds fun and a little scary.  I hope I don’t break anything, like a bone.

Following the elective period, the students have a block of 20 minutes that they can use in almost any way that they wish.  While some students choose to play games with their peers during this time, others enjoy going outside to climb a tree, finding a quiet spot to read, or working on school work.  It’s that one time of the day that is not scheduled for the students.  It’s like a giant recess period.

I love Free Period because I can do whatever I want.  Today, I used Mr. Holt’s computer to play on the website Elf Yourself.  It was so much fun.  I made an elf from my picture and my friend’s picture.  We were dancing in these cool holiday scenes.  It was awesome!  Mr. Holt was trying to copy the dances.  It was so funny.  I wish Free Period was a little longer on days like today.

After recess comes lunch.  The students can choose to eat anywhere in our giant multipurpose room.  I usually sit with some of my students.  We have great conversations and enjoy the fun time together.  Immediately following lunch, the students participate in the Jobs Program.  Each student has an assigned job to help clean and tidy the entire school.  The eighth graders are the leaders and overseers of each job location.  The jobs include sweeping, vacuuming, and wiping.  Jobs rotate on a monthly basis.  This program provides the students with the opportunity to show responsibility and take ownership in maintaining a clean and safe school.

I like that we get to eat wherever we want for lunch period.  I like to sit with some of the older students.  We joke around while we eat our lunch.  It’s super fun.  It’s a short period, but enough time for me to gobble up my sandwich and chips.

Language

On Mondays and Wednesdays, during the first half of the academic year, the students utilize the online program Duolingo to learn, review, and practice using a new language of their choice.  They can choose any language they are interested in learning more about.  Some of the students have chosen French, German, Greek, and Spanish.  The students enjoy this interactive and challenging program and seem to be learning numerous new vocabulary terms and how to apply them in the new language.  This activity usually goes for about thirty minutes in length.  In January, the students will transition into Spanish for their Language offering, as this is the required language class they will be taking in sixth through eighth grades.  Our amazing headmaster is the instructor for this class and uses a combination of teacher-directed lessons, student-practice, and online tutorials to help the students learn the Spanish language.

I like working on Duolingo everyday to keep my streak alive.  It’s a fun way to learn a new language.  I take notes on the new words I’m learning so that I can use them in a historical fiction story I’m writing during my free time.  It’s about WWI.  Learning new phrases and words in German allows me to use them in my story so that it sounds more realistic.  I can’t wait to learn even more words in Duolingo so that I can incorporate them into my story.

Language Arts

The fifth grade Language Arts class combines writing, reading, spelling, grammar, and fun into one amazing package.  As we are currently in the midst of a great interdisciplinary Humanities project, the students are working on researching a Native American tribe in order to craft an original historical fiction story based on what they learned.  As the students received a brief introduction into the culture and history of the Abenaki tribe when we learned about the history of the town of Hopkinton, NH, the students are excited to learn more.  They are very much engaged in this project.

On Wednesday, we began class with an opening activity that we complete weekly called Word of the Day.  I asked the students to hypothesize what they believe the word circumvent means.  A few volunteers shared their thoughts on the meaning of the word based on the prefix circ-, which I found most enjoyable.  I love that my students are applying the knowledge learned in class earlier this year to solve a current problem.  Amazing!  While no student fully grasped the understanding of the word, I shared the word’s definition with the class before asking for them to determine its part of speech.  This one they got on the first try.  Love it!  A few weeks ago, I taught a mini-lesson to the students on grammar and parts of speech.  I used engaging, interesting, and silly stories to teach the major parts of speech to the students.  Neuroscience research tells us that we remember nuggets of knowledge when they are wrapped in stories, and it seems that it worked in this situation.  Thank you science!

Following this brief opening activity, I asked the students on what stage of the Humanities project they were currently working.  I wanted to have the students practice the skill of memory retrieval once again.  They all remembered where they had left off last week.  I then reminded them of the expectations while working, put on some instrumental mindfulness music, and let them get right to work.  The students worked so well.  Almost every student finished the research phase of the project in class.  Two students started working on their story.  Stellar!  They were all so focused on the task at hand.  When they had questions, they turned to their table partner for assistance before using their Stop and Go card to request assistance from the teacher.  After 45 minutes of intense work, we transitioned into the final classroom portion of our day.

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I started the year not really liking to write since my other teachers had made it seem so boring.  Last year I had to write a report about the first Thanksgiving, and I don’t even really like history.  But this year, Mr. Holt makes it super fun.  We get to choose our topic and how we write.  Like for example, this project.  Yeah, we have to research a Native American tribe, but even that is super cool.  Then, we get to create our own historical fiction story.  I’m going to make mine about one of the wars the Apache tribe was involved in.  This kind of writing is fun because we get to choose how we do it.  I love that freedom.  I’m starting to really like writing now.

Closing Meeting

At the end of each day, the students work as a community to record the nightly homework in their planners, pack their belongings to go home, and clean the classroom.  It’s really quite amazing, as this whole process usually takes place in under 10 minutes.  Tonight’s homework: Finish the Research phase of the Humanities Project.  Those students who finished this task in class could continue to work on their stories for homework instead.  As the students wrote the homework in their planners, a student grabbed the red stamper we use to denote when someone has verified that the students have correctly filled out their planner for the day.  For the first few months of the year, that person was me; however, as the students are learning and wanting more responsibility, I have passed the torch onto them.  They take turns being the stamper person.  It’s quite cool to see them remind their peers to spell things correctly or add dates to their planner.  They work hard to hold each other accountable in respectful and compassionate ways.

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Once the first stage of our daily wrap-up routine was completed and the students were gathered in a circle at the front the the classroom, our formal Closing Meeting began.  I began the meeting by providing them with an overview of what we had accomplished today.  I added some constructive feedback for them all to take in as well.  I then teased them all with a little preview of what’s to come for tomorrow.  They are super excited to continue working on the Physics Project.

The second part of our Closing Meeting involves the students sharing an A.  I call this part A Cubed.  The students share either an Aspiration they have for tomorrow, an Apology they owe to a classmate, teacher, or the class as a whole, or an Appreciation.  This kind and thoughtful activity allows for honest communication and bonding to happen.  This portion of our day is part of our Social Emotional Curriculum.  Today, a student shared how she appreciated that everyone worked together to earn a handful of marbles, while another student aspires to start working on his  pinball machine in class tomorrow.  To close each day’s meeting, we make use of a system the students learned on a field trip to the Sargent Center in Hancock, NH.  The students put their hands in the middle of our circle together, say their assigned number after I call for a “Roll Call,” and then, in unison, answer the question I pose “Who are we?” with a loud “Carson Kids.”  So cool!  The students love this part of our meeting and really get into it.

I really like the Closing Meeting portion of our day because it gives us students a chance to work together to accomplish a task.  We all have some role in cleaning, packing, or preparing for what’s next.  I like to collect name tags and rocks from the desks and put them on Mr. Holt’s table.  Sometimes I also help to clean the Maker Space if it’s messy.  After we’re all ready, we get to find out fun stuff that we’re doing during the next day in class.  I can’t wait to begin working on my pinball machine in science tomorrow.  My favorite part of the Closing Meeting though, is the end.  I love when we do the roll call we learned at the Sargent Center.  Even though not every student came with us on the trip, we all participate in this counting and chant.  It’s so cool!  Now onto Cup Stacking.

Physical Education

On any day but Wednesday, the Closing Meeting would end our day in the fifth grade together.  But, Wednesdays are a bit different here at BHS.  Each Wednesday, the fifth grade participates in the school-wide Physical Education class.  Currently, the students are working on competitive cup stacking.  As a school, we recently participated in the international Cup Stacking event that broke the world record.  Amazing!  Today, the students practiced stacking cups as fast as possible.  Some of the older students at the school worked with the fifth graders as trainers.  It was so cool to watch eighth graders teach fifth graders the complex process of cup stacking.  The students had a blast moving cups to and fro on the table.

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I really like Cup Stacking because I’m quite good at it.  Mrs. Fries even said I’m the fastest one in the fifth grade right now.  So, today, I practiced at getting even faster.  An eighth grader worked with me and gave me some helpful hints and tricks that I hadn’t heard about before.  Those really helped.  I think I want to get timed next week to see how much faster I’ve become.

The End

As school ends at 3:10 each afternoon, most of the students rolled out at the end of today’s cup stacking activity.  Some of the students, who stay as a part of our Extended Day Program, hung out in the fifth grade classroom playing games, doing work, receiving extra help from me, or just chatting with their friends.  It’s a very low key and fun time for those students who do stay, and a relaxing and perfect way to close such an epic and rich day in the fifth grade at the Beech Hill School.

Since both my parents work, I get to stay at school even longer every day.  I usually get picked up around 5:00 p.m.  I use my extra free time to do my homework or ask Mr. Holt any questions I might have.  Yesterday, he helped me understand how to use dialogue in my writing.  I was really confused when we learned about it last week, but then he explained it to me in a really simple way and I got it.  That felt really good.  Today, I played on the Hour of Code website to try another activity.  I finished another dancing exercise.  That was so much fun.


And that, my wonderful readers is what it’s like to be a fifth grader at my amazing school.  It’s pretty awesome if you ask me; however, I am probably biased as I am the fifth grade teacher and love guiding students on magical journeys of learning.  I hope this small snippet of life in my school helped to shed some light on the miraculous nature of BHS.  Please feel free to post comments or questions about this entry, my school, or my approach to teaching.  I love feedback of all types, as that is how I grow and develop as a teacher and person.  Thanks for sticking with this verbose entry and I wish you all a wonderful day filled with much adventure and wonder.

The Intricate Puzzle of Teaching and Learning

You stare at a table covered with hundreds of colorful and tiny puzzle pieces.  While you have almost finished putting together the outside border, you’re still missing a few pieces.  You look and look for what seems like an eternity, to no avail.  The pieces you are searching for seem to look like every other piece.  Your vision is blurred looking at all those small, intricate pieces.  Frustration grows within you like magma slowly bubbling up within a volcanic tube.  You want to complete the border before moving onto your next task, but you just can’t seem to find the pieces you are looking for.  A small part of you wants to wipe the puzzle pieces off of the table and walk away, but giving up or walking away are not things you do.  So, you persevere.  You imagine the scattered puzzle pieces are like pebbles in a river bed.  You know that specks of gold must be mixed in with the quartz and granite.  You carefully scan each piece again, but this time, you are more focused.  You’re on a mission.  You have a clear goal in sight.  Suddenly, as your laser focus peers downward at the puzzle pieces, you find one of the pieces you are looking for.  Then another, and another, until you have found just what you are looking for.  After hours of concentration and madness, satisfaction washes over you like snow blanketing an evergreen tree in the forest.  You did it.  After failing for so long, you met your goal.  You put your mind to the task at hand and got it done.  You feel amazing, powerful, and so proud of yourself.  You realize now that you really can do anything you set you mind to, and that feels really awesome.

Like the puzzle builder, my fifth grade students and I had similar experiences in the classroom this week.  Prior to our Thanksgiving Break, my students conducted their student-led conferences with their parents.  They talked all about their growth as fifth graders.  They shared their hardships and highlights, and even explored their goals for the coming weeks.  These conferences were amazing.  My students clearly know themselves as learners, thinkers, and problem solvers.  Then, we had a week of vacation, filled with many days during which the students probably were not thinking about their math goals or progress in the classroom.  Will they remember what they talked about in their conferences when they return to school, I wondered.

To set them up for success, I had my students revisit their goals upon returning to school from the Thanksgiving holiday, much like the puzzle builder begins by putting together the border of the puzzle first.  I wanted my students to begin the week on a solid foundation.  While the first few days back proved challenging for all of us, as we struggled to fall back into a routine, we persevered and kept at it.  A few students struggled to use compassion when reminding their peers of the rules of our classroom.  Others were feeling a bit under the weather.  Some were under much stress as they prepared to star in big, dramatic productions this weekend.  When I noticed that my students were faced with adversity, I addressed it then and there.  During our Morning Meeting, we talked about how to handle stress using deep breathing, guided meditation, and much more.  We also discussed how to talk to peers in effective and kind ways.  I helped them over their hurdles that seemed to be blocking them from working towards their goals.  I helped them refocus and see the puzzle pieces in front of them.  By the end of the week, every student had finished their metaphorical border by working towards their goals.  Many of the students even met some of their long-term goals.  It was quite amazing.  Despite the struggles they faced earlier in the week, they kept their eyes on the prize and applied the strategies they had mentioned in their student-led conferences over a week ago.  They had made much progress in such a short time.  Amazing!

Like those die-hard puzzle makers with the patience of watchmakers, my students and I persevered through our challenges to accomplish our goals this week.  Although I was worried that my students would forget all of the wonderful things they had said during their student-led conferences about what they needed to do to continue to grow and develop as fifth graders, my students reminded me that they are exceptional girls and boys capable of greatness.  A few students who struggled to stay focused during math class prior to the holiday break, put forth amazing effort to stay on task and finish their work in a timely fashion this week.  Two students who love to help remind their peers of our class norms but struggled to do so in appropriate and nice ways at the beginning of the week, showed great growth and were able to be kind classmates by the close of the week.  A few students who had difficulty staying focus and on task back in mid-November, worked with a renewed sense of focus and concentration this week.  All of my students showed great progress and growth in the fifth grade throughout the week.

But how?  How did all of these amazing things happen?  We were not in school for a whole week, and therefore, they were most likely not thinking about the goals they mentioned during their conferences.  How were they able to all return from break and apply the strategies and meet the goals they mentioned to their families during their student-led conferences?  Was it that I had them review their goals on their ePortfolio at the start of the week?  Did this help set them up for success?  Was it their natural perseverance that helped them be so successful this week?  Or was it the student-led conferences themselves?  Because they know themselves as learners and students so well, was that what enabled them to have such a transformative week in the fifth grade?  Is ownership and self-responsibility the cause of the amazing things that happened in the fifth grade this week?  Students who have been unable to solve problems on their own all year, were doing so this week.  Students who struggled to finish pages in their math workbooks prior to Thanksgiving were solving complex math equations in science to calculate the speed of a marble this week.  What’s that all about?

While I’m no psychologist or fancy scientist, my Spidey teaching instincts tell me that my fifth graders had such a phenomenal week in the classroom because they do know themselves as learners so well and are intrinsically motivated to meet their goals.  They want to improve and grow.  They want to have more focus.  They want to improve upon their grades.  They want to do better, and so they did this week.  While I was unsure of how things were going at the mid-point of this week, I kept reframing my thinking and found new ways to help better support my students and propel them forward.  I was like the puzzle builder, frustrated at points, but then worked through my struggles to accomplish my goal.  And it was so worth it to see my students ace their spelling test, generate creative cultural myths, and finish chapters in their math book this week.  Wow, is just about all I could say as I walked out of my brilliant little school on Friday afternoon.  The pieces of our complex classroom puzzle all came together this week.  Reason 2,175 why I love being a teacher.

Thank You: My Attitude of Gratitude

Glancing out my apartment window, I notice large flakes of snow slowly drifting through the cold November air.  How beautiful and amazing that no two snowflakes are alike.  How is that even possible?  Mother Nature is amazing in so many ways.  I am thankful for the beauty that lies right outside my door.

On this Thanksgiving eve, I can’t help but be filled with joy, happiness, and gratitude.  I am thankful for the opportunity to be alive and enjoy all that the world has to offer, both the good and not so good parts.  I’m thankful for the warm smells of apples and cinnamon, and grateful that the smell of skunk rarely fills my nostrils.  I’m thankful for my beautiful and amazing wife, with whom I am lucky to be on this wild adventure called life.  I’m thankful for her smile and thoughtful words when I need them most.  I’m grateful for the magnificent colors of this holiday season, from the reds and greens to the browns and whites.  The greenish hues of an evergreen tree glistening in the sunlight are magnificent.  I’m thankful for good friends, near and far, who are always there when you need them, like a security blanket.  I’m thankful to be working at such a wonderful educational institution.  I’m grateful for my supportive and appreciate headmaster, who makes me feel like the never-ending flame on a menorah.  I’m thankful for my school’s amazing Jill-of-all-Trades, Judy.  I’m not sure what mental state I might be in right now if it wasn’t for her.  I’m thankful for my students and their amazing families.  It’s nice to know that we are all on this fifth grade journey together.  How magical is that?  I’m thankful for the Hallmark Channel and the wonderfully festive holiday movies.  Nothing beats coming home after a long day at work and lounging around in front of the television watching a Christmas movie in your Christmas onesie and reindeer slippers.  Yah, that’s the stuff of which dreams are made.  I’m thankful for great young adult books that have been erupting from the speakers in my automobile on my journey to and fro work in the past several months.  Endling by Katherine Applegate was brilliant.  You should totally check it out if you haven’t already, as you are in for quite a delightful treat.  I’m grateful for many things these days, and am fortunate in numerous ways.  Despite the hardships we all face from time to time, I am a very lucky man.  So, to the snowflakes still drifting by my window like tiny angels sent from above, I say thank you.  Thank you for reminding me of all the greatness that fills my life each and every day.

In this moment of thankfulness, one snapshot from recent days stands out from the rest.  Picture this, it’s Parent-Teacher Conference Day at your child’s school.  But, instead of the formal and sometimes contentious conferences like those from past years, you realize that this year is different.  As you enter your child’s classroom, the teacher greets you with a smile and your child begins setting up.  Setting up for what, you wonder.  Shouldn’t it be the teacher preparing to tell you all about what your child has accomplished in school so far this year?  Your child then proceeds to tell you all about their progress in school this year.  They share their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their goals for continuing to grow and learn.  They field questions you pose, and run the show like a boss.  They seem to know themselves as a learner better than you.  The teacher only contributes to the discussion to recognize your child for his or her growth and progress.  This conference is more of an open and honest dialogue with your child about their process of learning in school, than a time for your child’s teacher to front load you with information about how they think your child is progressing.  Imagine that, a student-led conference.  Amazing, right?  If only schools did that, you think to yourself. Well, no need to keep dreaming because schools around the world are moving in this direction.  In fact, in my classroom, that is how we do Parent-Teacher Conferences.  On Monday and Tuesday of this week, my students wowed their parents, and me, frankly, with their metacognition and ability to reflect on their progress in the fifth grade.  They shared their highlights from the past few months in school and explained how they want to keep growing and developing as learners, doers, and creative problem solvers.  They totally rocked it and ran the show.  Their parents had very few questions, if any at all, at the end of their conferences, as the students did such a wonderful job explaining everything.  I was a proud and grateful teacher, yet again.

Wow, is the only way I know how to sum up today’s entry on gratefulness and student-led conferences.  No, I take that back.  I received an email from the parent of one of my students after she attended his student-led conference on Monday, and I feel as though it really sums it all up nicely.

I just wanted to say how thrilled I was with today’s 5th grade conference, not because of my son’s progress, but rather, because of the way it was conducted. I readily admit, I was skeptical at first. When I first learned that my son would run the conference, the thought may have crossed my mind once or twice – what do you mean that my child will not only be at the conference but also run it?! After today, my view is completely opposite.

Today’s conference was everything that I would desire, and more, from a school conference. My son was able to articulate what he does well, as well as what he has already worked to improve on. He was honest about things he needs to do better. Additionally, he had established his own goals, and together we were able to expand on those. 

As I reflected on the conference, I realized that one of the major benefits is that I don’t have to speak to him “parent-to-child” about the things he needs to improve on. I loved that I didn’t get the feeling that I was being ceremoniously patted on the back about having a studious child; there was more of a feeling of transparency all around between the three of us, and as a parent, I know that each of my children certainly have areas that challenge them. I also recognize and appreciate that it likely took exponentially more time for the teacher to prepare all of this with each student.

Many thanks to Mr. Holt for these efforts, and I heartily applaud his concept of the student-run conference.

More gratitude.  I love it!  Thank you, parent of one of my students, for taking the time to show your gratitude.  On that note, Happy Thanksgiving to you all, and I hope you take this opportunity to reflect on the many things you all have to be grateful for in your lives.

It’s All About Relationships

Driving to my school this morning to help out at an Open House event for prospective fifth grade families, I felt a sense of calm and peace wash over me like glaze on a doughnut.  I was moved to philosophical thought, as I finally had a chance to meaningfully reflect on my teaching.  After an amazing, yet rich and full fall trimester in the fifth grade, I haven’t had much me-time.  I’ve been straight out, pedal-to-the-metal busy planning, teaching, grading, supporting and helping my students, and meeting with families, not to mention all of my responsibilities as a father and husband.  So, this morning, as I made my way south to the wonderful Beech Hill School, I had the opportunity to think poetically about the last three months at my new school…


Like a smooth stone shaped by the current, rolling along a river’s bed,

I’ve been changed and transformed by my school and students over the past few months:

I’ve taken risks and tried new things I never thought possible,

like mindful yoga and a student-driven newscast;

I empowered my students to own their learning,

as if they were the teachers and I the student;

I embraced failure and made it a positive part of our classroom vernacular,

one must fail for learning to be manifested;

My students challenged me to push them forward in new directions,

like ships changing course to avoid icebergs;

I employed new strategies to promote social awareness in the classroom,

we are a family, and families take care of each other, I preached;

I tried new, innovative ways to engage my students in the process of learning,

like Forest Fridays, student choice, a class pet, and bonus points.

 

I thought about the struggles I faced as well,

the challenges that kept me busily searching for possible solutions,

like the Goonies searching for One-Eyed Willy’s lost treasure.

Even after only a short time at my new school, I’ve grown in many ways,

like mountains being formed through tectonic plate movement.

My peaks eroded through the winds of change and new challenges

while my deep valleys began filling in with new information debris.

 

I am a semi-polished piece of granite, floating in the river

that is the Beech Hill School, learning and growing in a

never ending cycle of compassion and commitment.

I can only imagine what the next few months have in store for me.


As I pondered all of my moments of wonder, scenes of serenity, and snapshots of challenge, I started dwelling on what truly matters.  Although, as educators, we are constantly bombarded by articles and blog entries on new pedagogical approaches to teaching and advances in technology, what I began to realize on my early morning trek was that all that fancy stuff, all those bows on the presents of teaching, are meaningless without the gift of relationships inside.  High tech gadgets like interactive whiteboards and hands-on projects are ineffective and useless if we haven’t formed strong bonds and positive relationships with our students.  If our students don’t feel supported, cared for, or safe at school, then their brains will be unable to learn in any sort of meaningful and genuine manner.  Tiny problems that are easily solved because of the strong relationships we have with our students will quickly snowball into giant issues if we do not work to create strong and effective relationships with our students.

Just last week, a student in my class struggled to showcase his learning and reflect in a meaningful way in the ePortfolio he was working to prepare for his student-led conference.  I provided him space to attempt to solve his problem on his own.  While he didn’t openly admit that he was unable to solve his dilemma independently, he sent me a frustrated email that told me he needed help.  Because I have come to understand this student over the past few months and have a great rapport with him, I read through the veneer of anger.  The morning after I received his email, I had a great chat with him about his struggles.  I then worked with him during free periods in our daily schedule to help him display how he has grown and changed since early September.  I re-framed questions, worked with him to put his ideas and thoughts into complete sentences, and helped him transform his thinking onto his laptop.  When all was said and done, he seemed happier and proud of what he had accomplished.  He realized, that when he asks for help, he is able to accomplish the task at hand.

Because I have a strong relationship with this student, I knew that his angry email was a cry for help.  Forming meaningful relationships with our students allows for all of the other puzzle pieces of teaching to fall into place.  When our students feel cared for and understood, they are able to engage in project-based learning and get the most out of interactive learning tools.  Genuine learning happens when our students are able to work from the new, modern portions of their brains responsible for problem-solving and emotion.  My peaceful moments of reflection this morning allowed me to see that all of the awesomeness that happened in my fifth grade classroom this year was as a direct result of the relationships I formed with my students.  Great teachers are great at connecting with their students in just the right ways.

It’s so easy to get caught up in trying to plan the best, most effective, hands-on units possible, when all that really matters is how we interact with our students.  If we know, understand, and care about our students, everything we do plan will be exactly what our students need to help them grow and learn.  Unit planning for me comes down to my students.  What do they need to be successful?  How can I best challenge my students?  What type of project will motivate them to want to know more?  When I start with my students first, I find that the path to growth and learning is always right around the corner.  At the Beech Hill School, we always put our students first, which is why our students love coming to school each and every day.  I even had four amazing students show up today to help out with the Fifth Grade Open House event.  They value their learning and our class community so much that they are willing to give up their free time on a Sunday to help others see the power in being a Beech Hill School student.  If that doesn’t speak to the power of relationships, then I don’t know what does.

Having Fun in the Fifth Grade

My year in the fifth grade was filled with trauma and struggles.  I remember almost nothing positive from my experience in the classroom that year.  I was picked on mercilessly for being different.  I had no friends because of the constant harassment.  I almost always felt alone.  I struggled with great sadness the entire time I was in the fifth grade.  My grandfather passed away that same year.  He and I were very close.  It was a difficult and trying time for me.  While I’m sure some positive things happened that year, because I was racked with such sorrow, I don’t recall anything good happening to me that year in the fifth grade.

To ensure that none of my students ever have such a year in the fifth grade at my school, I’ve created a program filled with hands-on, engaging experiences in tandem with a strong social-emotional learning component.  I want my students to feel like a part of something more than just a class or a grade.  I work hard to foster a sense of community unity within the class.  We work together to solve problems and complete activities.  The Marble Jar positive reinforcement strategy I employ helps the students to see the power in working as one unit.  They hold each other accountable and remind themselves to always be doing the right thing.  It’s pretty cool to see this in action.  It’s like I have eight co-teachers in the classroom with me at all times.  If my students carry baggage to school with them, I want them to be able to unpack it with us in the classroom.  My goal is for all of my students to feel safe and cared for, so that meaningful, fun, and engaging learning can take place.  This approach seems to be working, as my students love coming to school on a daily basis.  Many even beg their parents to bring them to school early so that they can hang out with their peers, create something grand in the Maker Space, or interact with our class hamster.

Some epic highlights from this past week in the fifth grade…

  • On Tuesday, the students posted the second episode of their News Five video to our Google Classroom page for everyone in the class to enjoy.  It is absolutely amazing and rivals most news shows on television these days.  This side project grew from a comment a student made after we viewed a short news-like video in Science class.  One of my students said, “Hey, we should make a fifth grade class news video like this for the whole school to see.”  I loved the idea so much that the following week, I provided the students a whole day to work on making the first episode.  The students did all of the work.  They planned the stories, wrote them, recorded it on one of their iPads, and laid it all out on iMovie.  I just observed the process and made sure they were safe throughout.  It was so much fun watching them work.  They were like little producers.  Two weeks ago they worked on the second episode of the newscast.  Based on the feedback we received on the first episode, I worked with them to plan out the story topics and then write the stories to be sure that we raised the bar of the newsworthiness of the segments included in the video.  The students did everything else.  They had so much fun recording this segment.  They worked together to be sure that each story was as close to perfect as possible.  This episode included interviews with other students, another video, a behind-the-scenes segment, and props.  It was amazing.

News 5 Video

  • On Thursday morning, as part of our SEL curriculum, a local Yoga instructor came in and led our students through a mindful Yoga session.  She comes in to work with us once a month.  This was her second time working with us.  The students love doing Yoga, and it helps them begin the day on a positive, peaceful note.  Serenity filled the classroom Thursday after our Yoga session, like warm, melted chocolate erupting from a chocolate fountain.

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  • On Friday morning, we enjoyed a fun but cold Forest Friday session in the woods near our school.  The focus was on weather-proofing their shelters and starting to make a proper fire pit.  The students cooperated well with their partner to accomplish the task at hand.  They stayed focused on their shelters and fire pits for a whole hour.  It was amazing.  I was so impressed with their perseverance and dedication.  They had so much fun being outside and finding unique and innovative ways to make their shelter rain and snow proof.  This weekly activity is something all of the students look forward to.  They enjoy going outside and getting their hands dirty.  Those students who struggle, at times, to focus in the classroom, thrive outside.  It’s great to provide the students with options in terms of showcasing their learning.

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And those were just some of the highlights from last week.  I could have gone on and on about the fun and engaging experiences with which the students were provided, but I’ll close this entry here.  The fifth grade program at my school is one of learning, compassion, care, engagement, community, and fun.  All of these facets are a part of everything we do in the fifth grade, from our Morning Meeting to our final closing of the day.  It’s all about helping the students broaden their perspective, feel safe, build positive memories, and have fun learning the skills and content they will need to be successful in sixth grade and beyond.  I want my students to look back on their experience in the fifth grade with fond memories.