Summer Time is Learning Time: Part III

For some odd reason, I feel the need to provide all you with a glimpse into my thought process for a moment.  Warning, my mind is a scary place.  Feel free to leave this entry and move onto something a little less bizarre and crazy.  If you’re still reading this, you are a brave soul, and for that, I thank you.

What to name today’s entry?  Hmmmmmm…  I could continue with the title sequence that I began using two entries ago, but that feels stale and boring to me.  Who really wants to read yet another article in a series of articles?  Won’t that title turn away readers?  Plus, how will my readers have any idea of what I am writing about it if I title the entry in such a banal manner?  Won’t blog viewers simply skip right over my post because it sounds like a bad sequel?  Then I got thinking about movie sequels.  Most movie sequels are horrible.  Case and point, Speed 2.  We’re supposed to believe that Sandra Bullock is Keanu Reeves?  Really?  She looks nothing like him.  You can’t switch actors in a movie series.  That is a big no-no.  Then there was Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd.  Again with the new actors.  Will Hollywood ever learn?  I doubt it, as they keep making awful movies like Armageddon and Gods of Egypt.  So, anyway, back to today’s title.  If most movie sequels blow chunks, then why would I want to continue with that tradition in naming today’s entry?  Well, hold on for a second.  Let’s “stop, collaborate and listen, ice is back with my brand new invention.”  I miss Robert Van Winkle.  Remember when he tried to do that rock/rap crossover album?  OMG, that was atrocious.  What I am trying to say is, maybe I’m forgetting something.  Perhaps there are great movie sequels or part threes that totally rock.  Oh yes, indeed there are.  Back to the Future III was by far the best movie in the entire series.  It doesn’t get much better than the wild west, c’mon.  Then there’s the Nightmare on Elm Street series.  Several of the films in that series totally kicked the original’s butt.  So, maybe this entry could totally rise to the occasion and lift my prior two entries up a bit.  Yes, perhaps.  But, what if today’s entry is a complete flop like Batman and Robin?  I can’t afford to let a bad entry ruin sequels for me and blog readers everywhere.  It’s just not fair.  Oh this a real conundrum.  What shall I do?  Well, as I am a creature of routine, I feel obligated to continue my summer learning sequence.  So that is what I will do.  I don’t love the idea, but I’m also getting really hungry and I made a deal with myself that I won’t prepare dinner until after I finish writing today’s entry.  So, part III it is.

While I’m sure you didn’t really need to know the thinking that I put into titling my blog entries, but perhaps it will help you better appreciate the finer things in life, like a beautiful sunrise or a tasty milkshake.  Now, onto the real meat of today’s entry.  Wow, I am getting really hungry.  Some raw meat would be good right about now.

This past week, I began digging into my final professional development summer reading text, and I think I’m liking it.  I mean, yeah, it’s super dense, as it is written by a science reporter; he really gets down to the nitty gritty of things, but there are a lot of great takeaways for me so far.  The book is Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman.  The first few chapters read more like a neurology textbook, as he explains the inner workings of the brain and the value of being able to effectively harness the power of our emotions.  There’s a lot there.  I do like how he uses stories to begin new chapters or sections.  He clearly knows how the brain works and remembers things.  While I’m only on chapter five, I’m enjoying the way my brain is interpreting everything it’s reading.  As I read, I’m always thinking, How can I use this in the classroom?  So far, I’ve gotten two cool ideas.

  • As I teach the students about the power of mindfulness and how it can help them gain control over their emotions and thinking, I want to share data on how IQ isn’t the sole predictor of success in life.  I want my students to understand that “being smart” is really about knowing one’s self and understanding how to own and regulate your emotions, rather than how well you did on a recent math assessment.  I’m hopeful that this information will empower my students to want to fully practice and apply the various mindfulness techniques they will learn throughout the school year.
  • I also want my students to understand what happens in the body when you are experiencing particular emotions.  I loved how the author detailed exactly what is going on physiologically when we become angry.  I think that this information may help my students be more self-aware as they start to learn how to appropriately express their emotions.

Although I feel as though I am quite knowledgeable on the subject of Emotional Intelligence and place much emphasis on the importance of Social and Emotional Learning in the classroom as an educator, I am loving that there is still much I don’t know about the ins and outs behind this big topic of Emotional Intelligence.  I am very much a student when it comes to fully understanding the power of our emotions, and it’s quite humbling.  I do wish that the author didn’t go about writing this book in such an academic manner, as the writing style is somewhat dry and verbose.  Perhaps he could create an edition for teachers that is written in a more fun-to-read manner.  I don’t need a graphic novel, but maybe not harping on the same thing over and over again for pages, could make it a little easier to digest.  At times I feel as though I’m reading a Stephen King novel.  Despite the stuffy nature of the text, I’m still extracting much useful information from this fine novel written before many people were really talking about SEL or tweeting about mindfulness.

As I prepare my evening meal in a few brief moments, I will be sure to think about how my reptilian brain really just wants to eat, while my prefrontal cortex wants to analyze every move I make to be sure that it puts me in front of food sooner rather than later.  Until part IV, over and out my amazing readers, if you’re still reading this that is.

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Summer Time is Learning Time: Part II

I want to begin today’s entry with a story, as stories are an effective way of conveying information to others in a meaningful way.  Just read the fantastic book entitled Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers.  It does a wonderful job explaining the power of stories in teaching and life in general.  So, here is my story for today…

It all started with a hat.  A winter hat in fact.  You see, I never used to be one for wearing hats when I was younger.  When my mother made me wear one to school, I took it off as soon as I was out of her sight.  Hats weren’t considered “cool” back then.  In high school, I did wear a baseball cap to school, as we were allowed to don them at Lebanon High.  I guess I chose to wear one because I could; other than that, I’m not exactly sure why I wore one, as I’ve never really understood the purpose of caps.  They seem like an unnecessary accoutrement, unless you like offering free advertising to big business.  However, living in New England and being mostly bald, winters can be very cold.  After marrying my lovely wife, we moved to Maine, where the winters are especially bitter, snowy, and freezing cold.  To help make my transition a bit warmer and more comfortable, my grandmother bought me a winter hat.  It wasn’t super thick, but it covered my head and kept me warm.  It was blue and gray.  At first, I didn’t really wear it, as I still didn’t see the purpose of the hat, but about a week or so later, my grandmother passed away.  It was quick and sudden.  I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.  As I was very close to my grandmother, her death hit me hard.  I clung to every memory of her like it was gold.  That’s when I remembered the hat she had given me when she had last come to visit my wife and I in Maine.  I put it on that night and never took it off, metaphorically speaking.  I wore it whenever I went out and about, no matter the season.  I wore it all year long, like a lifeline to my grandmother.  While that first, special hat did eventually need to be replaced, I never stopped wearing a similar winter hat all year long.  17 years later, I’m still wearing a winter hat.  Even today while it was 85 degrees outside, I wore my hat when I went out to run some errands this morning.  My hat is like my security blanket and a constant reminder of the many great things my grandmother did for me.  She was my security blanket.

Why am I telling this particularly sad story in the midst of summer vacation, you are probably asking yourself right now.  Well, I’ll tell you.  Even though I know what my winter hat represents and why I wear it year-round, very few other people know or understand my rationale.  So, consequently, I get asked frequently why I’m wearing a hat in the middle of summer.  Some people call me crazy.  Some people think I’m strange.  Some people make fun of me and tell jokes at my expense.  And you know what, it doesn’t bother me a bit.  I try not to waste my precious time on this wonderful Earth worrying about what other people think of me and my actions.  Instead, I try to focus on living and experiencing life.  This same philosophy applies to my teaching, I am always focused on honing my practice so that I can better help, challenge, and support my current and future students.  I don’t let summer vacation, the heat, or my grueling search for a summer job get in the way.  I keep reading, learning, looking, and growing.

This past week, I finished reading the educational text Closing Circles: 50 Activities for Ending the Day in a Positive Way by Dana Januszka and Kristen Vincent.  While I utilized a version of a Closing Circle in my classroom in previous years, I knew that there was more I could be doing, and so I chose to make this book my second summer read.  Although the book is filled with great ideas and activities that I look forward to using in my classroom, because the philosophy behind the Closing Circle and the Responsive Classroom approach to education is not new to me, I didn’t learn any new approaches to teaching from this book.  However, if you are not familiar with the Responsive Classroom approach to teaching or the concept of a Closing Circle, then I highly recommend this book for you.  The Introduction includes an overview of the rationale behind the Closing Circle and how it greatly benefits students.  As all great teachers do, we work tirelessly to create a compassionate community within our classroom, and the Closing Circle is a meaningful and effective way to end each day before sending the students out into the crazy world.  So, while I didn’t learn any new pedagogy from this book, it reaffirmed what I already know and try to do in the classroom.  It did, however, give me lots of nifty ideas that I plan on incorporating into my classroom in several short weeks.

At this point, I plan on using the Around-the Circle Sharing activity during our first Closing Circle of the new school year, as I feel that it will offer the students a safe place in which to push themselves outside of their comfort zone a bit.  The activity asks each student to offer an answer or response to a question the teacher poses.  A question I might use on day one would be, “What’s one new thing you learned today?”  The open-ended nature of the question allows for creativity and variety in responses.  It also encourages a community of openness, new things, and learning.  While it may be difficult for some students to be put on the spot, with the smaller class size that I will have this year, I will have the time and space to support all of my students.  In a larger class, you could allow students to pass if they are struggling to think of something to share.  However, I would recommend that you push all of your students to share, even if it is something short and simple like, “Math.”  One word responses provide a foundation for future growth and learning to take place.  Safety and care are the base of the pyramid of fun and happiness in the classroom.  Our students need to feel safe and cared for, and sometimes during the first few days, students are testing the waters of safety and care.  By allowing students options and choice, they feel empowered and cared for, which is the beginning of lasting relationships in the classroom.

Like an infant, seeing the world for the first time, I love learning new ways to approach teaching.  This wonderful book provided me much fodder for growth and learning as a teacher.  If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, I highly suggest it.  You may also want to read the Responsive Classroom’s book on Morning Meetings, if you want more cool ideas on how to foster a strong sense of community within the classroom.  My previous blog entry detailed my thoughts on this amazing text, not that I’m self-promoting, but if you are bored and have a spare few minutes, check it out.  Now, I will continue my educational journey to grow and develop as a teacher, all while donning the memory of my grandmother upon my balding head.

Summer Time is Learning Time: Part I

As last week’s Summer Solstice marked the official start to the season of warmth and outdoor fun for those of us living in the northern hemisphere, it also reminded me that my season of learning and growing has also begun.  While I try to stay abreast to current trends and research in education throughout the academic year, I find it difficult to tackle any serious new learning projects or professional development texts when school is in session.  Summer vacation is my time to learn and attack new projects regarding my classroom or curriculum.  I sincerely value the large blocks of time to sit down and read a new book on educational pedagogy or revise my unit plans for the following year.  I feel like a kid at Christmas during summer vacation, as I am able to do my best work to prepare to make the next school year the best one ever for my students.  As Christmas in July begins on the Hallmark Movies and Mysteries television channel today, I jumped into my summer work feeling very festive and jolly, if not a bit hot too, as it’s almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit in central New Hampshire.

As the bright slices of sunlight cut through the trees outside my window, I reflect on the first of several professional development texts I have chosen to tackle this summer to grow as an educator and allow my students to blossom and transform into the best possible version of themselves.  Book one on my leaning tower of literature filled me with brilliant ideas and excitement for the upcoming school year.  The Morning Meeting Book by Roxann Kriete and Carol Davis is chock full of stellar ideas and simple ways to incorporate Social-Emotional Learning into each and every day in the classroom.  While I utilized the Morning Meeting format many years ago when teaching second grade, I wanted to review the structure and learn some new activities and ways to effectively incorporate this practice into my fifth grade classroom.  I mean, I did conduct my version of a Morning Meeting in the classroom this past year, but it was a hodgepodge of ideas and activities that did not follow the structure put forth by the Responsive Classroom folks.  We occasionally discussed serious topics and played some games during that time, but there was no routine or consistency to it.  Knowing how much fifth graders crave and need routine and structure, I decided to brush up on the proper Morning Meeting procedure.

It was so refreshing to be reminded of the importance of each part of the Morning Meeting process.  Skipping parts takes away from the integrity of the concept.  Sure, teachers can adapt the stages of the Morning Meeting to fit their schedule and needs, as long as the entire process is completed in some sort of routine manner.  Reading the Introduction and seeing the structure of Morning Meeting laid out in print form, I, at first, balked at the four steps.  “I teach fifth grade,” I thought to my self, “I don’t really need to start with a greeting.  That’s so childish.”  However, as I delved deeper into this treasure trove of a book, I began to realize that providing students with a safe place to feel like they matter and are seen on a daily basis is so crucial to their emotional and cognitive growth as humans.  So, I changed my perspective on the greeting and will be incorporating this component into my Morning Meeting.  Because of the specific research and anecdotes the authors included in the book, I was able to see the importance of each phase of Morning Meeting.

The big takeaways for me…

  • I will begin each class day with Morning Meeting following the whole-school Community gathering that takes place at my wonderful little school.  I want to provide my students with a safe place to have a voice and be recognized and appreciated for the diversity and perspective they bring to the class community.  I will start each meeting with a formal greeting activity of some sort.  I have decided to begin the first day of school with the same fun and insightful greeting I utilized last year: The Spiderweb Greeting.  It’s a tangible way for the students to learn each other’s names while also beginning to see the interconnections that exist in our fifth grade class.  The activity is short and simple: I would begin with a ball of yarn, introduce myself to the class, choose a person in the circle to greet with a “Hello” or “Good morning,” and then pass the ball of yarn to them, while still holding onto the start of the yarn.  Once everyone has introduced themselves and greeted a classmate, the circle resembles a knotty spiderweb.  I would then engage the students in a discussion about the story that this strange tangle of yarn weaves.  What can we learn from this knotted mess?  What’s the metaphor?  Like last year, I hope that this opening greeting will be a wonderful springboard into the richness of conversation and discussion that will be had all year.
  • After not setting expectations for sharing at the start of this past year during my Morning Meeting, I needed to occasionally cut off students when they spoke so that we’d be able to have more than five minutes of Math class.  Reviewing the chapter on Sharing reminded me of the vital importance of setting clear expectations for sharing during Morning Meeting.  It starts with modelling and a discussion that will allow students to observe and notice what is expected of them.  I want the students to learn the value in being succinct and respectful of others.  Having clear rules and a protocol for how students will share during Morning Meeting will make the process valuable and effective for us all.
  • The sharing component of Morning Meeting is a truly effective and easy way to allow students to practice and learn how to effectively listen, question, and be empathetic when interacting or conversing with others.  As children and tweens are stuck in that very selfish stage of cognitive development, it’s crucial that teachers provide their students with opportunities to learn how to look outside of themselves.  Teaching students how to ask effective questions that will elicit a meaningful response from the speaker, be mindful and caring listeners, and empathize with the speaker in insightful ways will help the students learn how to be compassionate humans.  Research tells us that negativity spreads like the flu virus, but so to does positivity.  If we can create a culture of kindness in our classrooms through the purposeful teaching of listening and responding, we will be helping our students while also making the world a better, nicer place in which to live.
  • I loved learning about all the fun class activities that I can now use in my Morning Meeting.  The book was full of engaging and fun ideas.  While I had previously heard of a few of them and even used some in the classroom last year, many of the activities mentioned in the text were new to me.  I can’t wait to start the year with A Warm Wind BlowsThis interactive game will get students moving and learning about their classmates on day one.  I love it!

Although summer vacation just began, I can’t wait for the first day of school after having read this amazing book.  I want to jump right into my first Morning Meeting.  Unfortunately, I have some time to wait before I can do that, but on a positive note, I also have much more time in which I can learn and grow as an educator.  Yah for me!  So, as I turn on my air conditioner and cozy up with a warm cup of hot cocoa with mini marshmallows while watching a classic Christmas movie on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, I wish you all a happy summer filled with much learning, growing, and festive fun.

When One Door Closes, Look Ahead for Another to Open

On this cloudy Father’s Day morning, I can’t help but revel in the wonder of two night’s ago: my son graduated from high school on Friday night.  Wwwhhhooo-hhhooo!  If I had some fireworks available to me and wasn’t afraid of shooting them off, I would totally do that right now too.  After many years and months of trying to help him see the light, he got to the end of the tunnel.  He made it, with much help and support from his teachers and aide.  While the ceremony was long, as his class was quite large, the speeches were phenomenal and Mother Nature kept the rain monsters at bay.  After the big event, he was beaming with pride.  He also seemed a bit surprised that he had successfully graduated.  My father turned to him at one point and said, “I’m surprised you did it,” and my son replied, “Yeah, me too.”  It was a very special moment.  In the car ride to his graduation dinner celebration, he said, “Now onto Milford Academy and then college.”  On graduation night, he was already looking ahead to the Post-Graduate school he will be attending before going to college.  He’s already set his sights on his next goal.  I love it!  He’s definitely got my energy for goal-setting.  So, to my son, I say, “Congratulations young man.  You did it!  Now, keep kicking butt as you look ahead to your next challenge.”

Much like my son, I’ve begun to think about my next school year.  As my fifth graders officially became sixth graders on Friday morning, our last day of school at BHS, I’m already thinking about changes I’d like to make in my classroom for next year.  Although I felt as though this past academic year was highly successful, I don’t ever want to stop growing, thinking, and reflecting.  There is always room for change, as I told my students this year, “Nothing or no one is perfect, not even your amazing teacher.”  As the door on the 2018-2019 school year has closed, it’s time to find the next door to open.

Things I want to tweak or change for the 2019-2020 academic year:

  • I want to switch up the posters and decorations in my classroom.  While things looked good this past year, I didn’t super love the way I hung stuff on the walls.  I feel as though I can do better.  I want to strive for making it look more professional.  I want to create a fun sign for the Reading Nook and Maker Space in my classroom.  I want to attach the posters to the wall in a more avant-garde way.  I want conjure up the emotion and rawness of Jackson Pollack while still maintaining the elementary feel of a Harry Allard book.  I’m not sure exactly how I will do this, but I am going to bring some change to the decor of my classroom this summer.
  • I want to change-up some of my Social Studies and Science units.  Will I still do a unit on the Native Americans?  I’m not sure.  With the Community Unit that kicks off the school year, I dig into the native tribes that once resided on the land that we now call Hopkinton.  Is it overkill to then follow up that unit with another one on the same topic?  While the students seemed to enjoy that unit, I feel as though I could also use that time to teach them a unit on civics and what it means to be a citizen of the US.  With a pivotal election on the horizon, helping students understand what it means to be a citizen seems to make a lot of sense to me.  I also plan to make some minor changes to the other units I will update for next year based on the feedback I received from my students this year.
  • While the history teacher uses the online application Classcraft to help motivate students, I’m not sure if I want to make use of it in the fifth grade.  While the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders seemed to enjoy using it this past year, I worry that it tied them to their computers too much.  In this techno-verse in which we live, it’s very easy for people to zone out and stay connected to a screen, and I don’t want that to happen to my students.  While Classcraft does seem really cool and offers some amazing features, I feel as though I need to spend some time this summer really contemplating the decision to utilize it or not for the fifth grade.
  • I want to jazz up my Math class a bit.  As I had much success with the games I used in class, I want to dig even deeper into that concept for the upcoming year.  I want to investigate the cool Math For Love curriculum to see if it would be an appropriate supplemental curriculum for next year.  I want to find even more math games to use in the classroom.  I want to begin each Math class with an activity, problem, or game.  I want to help my students see how much fun Math can be.
  • I want to find more engaging games to incorporate into our Morning Meetings for next year.  The students loved the activities I used towards the end of the year, and I want to find even more games that help foster problem solving and critical thinking while allowing students to develop their social-emotional skills.

I think that’s it for now.  My summer vacation is still young and so this list may grow as September draws closer.  I’m excited to challenge myself this summer and continue to grow and develop as an educator.  Although the end of a school year is filled with bittersweet emotions, it is also a wonderful time to reflect and think ahead.  So, like my son is already doing, I am looking forward to next year’s wonderful class.  Big it on, I say.

Reflecting on my First Year Teaching Fifth Grade

As the end is vividly within sight now, I’m feeling nostalgic.  I still remember the first day of school as if it were yesterday.  My students were so quiet and well behaved because they were so nervous.  They were curious and excited about their upcoming year in the fifth grade.  Then there was our first Marble Party.  I believe that was the Glow Party.  They had so much fun.  The glow in the dark paint is still visible on the walls of my classroom.  I can’t forget our trip to the Sargent Center.  Despite the rain, the students had so much fun playing and exploring together.  The hook they made at the metal forge still hangs in our classroom.  What about the Fifth Grade Science Exposition?  This was the first time the students presented to the entire school.  They were so nervous, but they knocked it out of the park like Ted Williams hitting a baseball.  Then there was the Hopkinton History Expo at the Historical Society.  What an amazing opportunity for the students.  They were able to share what they learned with the greater community in the space where we began our unit back in September.  The way we celebrated the holidays in festive ways.  I’m a sucker for Christmas.  What about our trip to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts?  The kids had so much fun viewing the original pieces of art we looked at on our computers during our unit on Mesopotamia.  Of course, I can’t forget our unit on Astronomy that just happened to coincide with the release of the first images of a black hole.  We watched the press conference and everything.  My students were so into it.  Then there was our trip to the planetarium.  My students were in awe the entire time.  I had to clean up their drool from the floor afterwards because they mouths were open in amazement for the entire show.  Even now, the excitement generated from the Betterment Project is palpable in the classroom on a daily basis.  Awesome experiences aside, my favorite part of the year has been watching and observing my students grow and develop as readers, writers, thinkers, problem solvers, mathematicians, scientists, and friends.  I have loved celebrating their successes with them.  In fact, in school on Friday, I met with each student to do just that.  I went through and highlighted some of the ways in which they have grown throughout the year so that they leave school feeling successful and happy with the progress they made this year.  What a magical year it has been for us in the fifth grade.

Reflecting on my first year teaching fifth grade, it’s difficult not to think about how I’ve grown as an educator throughout the year.  I began the school year very nervous.  Would the students like me?  Would I be in the right dress code?  What happens next in our schedule?  With so many new things to learn, I was sure that I would forget something, but other than forgetting to put my cape on one morning, I didn’t.  I was able to figure everything out at my wonderful new school thanks to my supportive and caring colleagues, my phenomenal and kind headmaster, the amazing Judy, and my silly and compassionate students.

While I’ve always thought that having control over my students, the curriculum, and my classroom was of the utmost importance, I came to realize this year that giving up control and allowing the students to have a voice in the decision making process was far more important.  Instead of trying to make it my classroom, I became open to making it our classroom.  I asked the students for input on classroom organization, and we re-situated the desks and chairs on several occasions throughout the year.  Before we went on any field trip, I had the students vote on whether they wanted to go or not.  In every case, the students unanimously voted to go on our many off-campus excursions, but the point was that it was their decision.  They chose to go.  Letting go of the reigns a bit also helped to foster a mutual respect and a huge amount of engagement from the students.  Before each new unit, I asked the students for their thoughts and ideas on how they would like it to be set up.  What type of activities and projects did they want to complete?  What did they want to learn about regarding the particular topic?  They loved coming to school and learning because we were learning about things that they had said they wanted to learn about.  Our final Betterment Project came out of this concept of giving students ownership.  They chose their project ideas, and the care and time they are committing to completing them shows that they are totally engaged in this project.  I definitely became way more open to becoming the guide from the side instead of the sage on the stage this year.  It felt good to let the students steer our ship.

We trust our students at BHS to do the right thing, and in most cases they do.  When they don’t, we work with them to learn from their mistakes.  Failure is a part of the learning process.  Because we trust our students, I was able to do lots of things with my students this year that very few other schools would ever allow.  My students played with fire and knives as part of our outdoor, Forest Friday program in the fifth grade.  The students learned how to safely start and extinguish a camp fire.  They also learned how to whittle and carve wood.  Aside from some very minor finger scrapes, my students remained injury free throughout the year despite being allowed to use knives and fire in and out of the classroom.  My students were all amazed and very happy that we put so much trust in them.  “At my old school, we were never allowed to use anything sharper than dull, child scissors.  If we ever brought a knife to school, we would have been kicked out.  The school certainly never gave us knives to use in school,” they often shared with me.  The students love feeling trusted and respected.

While my first year teaching fifth grade is about to come to an end, my journey and time at this amazing school is just beginning.  I will be able to continue to watch my students grow and develop as they move into the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades.  I will be able to help inspire more students to reach for the sun and make the most of every moment in the fifth grade.  I will be able to learn even more from my students in the coming years.  Sure, I am very sad to say goodbye to my current fifth graders in a few short days, but I’m also so proud of the wonderful young people they have transformed into this year.  I have learned so much from them.  In the near future, my students will be helping to run the world.  Who knows, I may even have a future president in my class.  What a year it has been.  With five days to go, I’m filled with excitement, sadness, happiness, and love.  I love my students and I love my school.  It doesn’t really get much better than this.

The Value in Project Based Learning

For teachers, it’s totally normal to get nostalgic and a little sad during this time of the year, as the end is near.  Our amazing school year that began back in 2018 is two weeks away from being over.  Our remarkable and wonderful students have made so much progress and now it’s time for them to move on.  I still remember the first day of school as if it were yesterday.  It was about 95 degrees in my classroom and I had sweat through my shirt by 9:30 that morning.  My students were nervous and excited.  In fact, they made up a new word to describe just that very emotion.  They call it “nerited.”  My nerited little sponges were full of curiosity and wonder.  Now that the close of another school year is within sight, I am feeling nerited.  Did I prepare them effectively for their next steps?  Are they truly ready to move on?  I think the bigger question is, am I ready to let them move on?  This being my first year at the Beech Hill School, I feel so very lucky to have had such a wonderful and amazing class of fifth graders.  Each and every one of them are remarkable in numerous ways.  I don’t want the fun to come to an end, but as Robert Frost wrote in one of his most famous poems, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way,” time stops for no one and my little fifth graders aren’t so little anymore.  They are ready for their next journey, their next path.  (Wiping away tears as I reflect on my wonderful year.)  But hold on, while the end is indeed near, it’s not here yet, oh no.  We still have two glorious, and what I’m sure will be, crazy weeks to go.  Although it may be easy to look out onto the horizon and see June 14, my energy is focused on the present, the now.

To keep my students focused on the now, and to help them hold back any tears that may be welling up inside, this past week, I introduced the final, cumulative assignment to my class.  It’s the project to end all projects.  It’s the Big Kahuna of Kahunas.  This is the project that will make all other projects seem like just another day in the dentist’s chair.  We’re talking major project here.  In fact, this isn’t simply another project.  This is something far different.  You see, this is a cross-curricular, integrated, behemoth, project of epic proportions.  This, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is, wait for it…  The BHS Betterment Project!  That sound you hear is the thunderous applaud and screams of amazement.  While I have utilized Project Based Learning in the past, this is the first large-scale project that I have ever created.  This project has its tentacles reaching into our Language Arts curriculum, our Social Studies curriculum, our Science curriculum, and our Social-Emotional Learning curriculum.  This is the big time now folks.  I feel a bit like that person in the circus that steers the show, tells funny jokes, and explains all of the various acts.  Yeah, I feel a bit like a circus clown.

Before I get too carried away with my silly antics, I should get back on track.  So, the project involves the students creating some way to leave their mark on our wonderful little school.  What could they do that would enrich the lives of our school’s community members?  How could they make our campus and school even better than it currently is?  Once they brainstorm their idea, they begin constructing it.  Click here to learn more about this phenomenal project.

This week past week, I introduced the project to my class.  Excitement was definitely in the air.  They were pumped for this project.  Immediately, almost every pair of students had an idea for their project.  The first step was to flesh it out, bring it to life a bit more.  I had them complete a project proposal via Google Forms to allow them time to really think about their idea.  How will it benefit our tiny little school?  What materials will be needed?  Are we invested in this project enough to work outside of school if the need arises?  I then met with each group to discuss their idea with them.  I posed questions to each partnership to help them truly think through their idea.  The positive energy was amazing.  The students were so excited to jump into this project.  They loved it.  On the first day, I asked the students what allowed them to work so well and stay so focused during the various work periods we had for this project.  Their response, “Because this project is awesome.  It’s real.  We are actually doing something that makes a difference.  We’re changing our school for the better.”  At hearing their responses, I almost jumped out of my skin and ran around the classroom jumping for joy.  I felt like that guy from that movie about baseball.  “If you create the right project, they will work and love it,” I believe one of the characters said at one point in the film.

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Throughout the week, the students worked on their different projects, making the school and our community better.  Each group is totally invested in their project and tasks.  It’s amazing, and I get to observe it all.  On Friday, I walked around the school in awe, watching my students work like busy little BHS Beavers working on their projects.  I didn’t have to remind anyone to stay focused on the work at hand.  I was able to bask in the glory of their hard work and awesomeness.  It was amazing!

The Projects

  • One group is making a community garden in an area that at one time did have a garden on it, but has since turned into a grassy meadow.  They spent much of this past week trying to cut down the grass and get to the dirt of the matter.  As we have a landscaping company take care of mowing and trimming the grass, we don’t have many garden tools or lawn care items available to us at the school.  However, this did not stop that group of dedicated young ladies.  Oh no.  On the second day they were outside and the grass became too long for them to simply pull out of the ground by hand, they asked for the mother of all grass cutting tools.  “May we use the scissors to cut the grass,” they asked with authority.  Holding back laughter, I replied, “Of course.  Give them a try.  That is one way to cut grass.”  Later that same period I went outside to check on them.  While I thought for sure that they would be complaining about how the scissors are useless and not really making a dent in cutting down the grass, they were hard at work on their hands and knees snipping the grass with the scissors.  They seemed incredibly content cutting the grass with small little scissors.  Their perseverance was phenomenal.  Knowing that we had two weeks and not two months to complete this project though, I brought in a weed whacker for them to use the very next day.  Although they liked that the weed whacker got the job done much more quickly than the scissors, they almost seemed to miss the quiet nature of cutting the grass with scissors.

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  • Another group decided to create and operate a school store.  As our school is but seven young years old, we don’t have any sort of school store for the students to purchase things like snacks, pencils, or school swag.  Two dedicated fifth grade boys want to change that.  Their goal is to grow this store into something that will sell all sorts of fun things like that to the students on a daily basis.  However, they do realize that they need to start small in order to become a giant like Amazon.  They worked diligently to create a spreadsheet that will document their earnings and expenses, make posters advertising the new school store, and research and then select the few items they will start selling first.  This past Friday marked their first day of business.  They were so excited to open that they spent the entire work period prior to the Grand Opening, setting up the store, reorganizing the price tags, and making sure that everything was just right.  It was so fifth grade.  They raked in about $20 on day one, and were planning to buy new items this weekend so they could reopen again on Tuesday of next week.

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  • The third group wanted to find an easier and more student-friendly way to organize the books in our class library.  While the students can use the 5-finger rule for finding a new book, these two students wanted to make it even easier for future fifth graders to find books on their reading level.  So, they found a system for labeling the books that they liked and began re-shelving our class library this past week.  They went with the Accelerated Reader system of classifying books.  They used colored stickers on the spines of the books to denote their level.  They created a key for the students to use as well.  But, they didn’t stop there.  No, they took it a level further.  They then organized the books by genre.  So, each genre shelf or section is organized by reading level as well.  If you’re looking for a historical fiction book that is above the fifth grade reading level, they’ve got several for you to choose from.  It’s so cool.  I can’t wait to unveil this system for my new students in September.

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  • The final group wanted to do something that would help more than just our school community.  They wanted to help our local town community too.  As we spent a lot of time at the start of the school year learning about the town of Hopkinton and it’s rich history, the students seem to be more aware of things outside their immediate zone of proximity.  This partnership decided to build a free community lending library that would be housed near the road, but on our property, for all to use.  We will stock it with donated books first and see how the community takes to it.  This week, they designed and started constructing the small library house.  As our town has zoning laws that must be adhered to, I sent the students to Town Hall to find out what they might need to do in terms of fees or paperwork.  It turns out that, as long as the structure is on the school’s property, no paperwork or fees are required.  That was good news.  This experience was a valuable one for the students to understand and realize that things don’t simply, magically happen, there is much procedural work that takes place behind the scenes.  Being an adult is hard work.

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While class projects are wonderful and fun for the students, the engagement factor usually fizzles out after a day or so.  However, with this real-life project that has genuine outcomes for the school community and beyond, the students remain 100% invested and engaged because it isn’t just a fun thing to do, it’s the real-world.  They are doing something that matters and will make a difference in our community.  They are gardening, earning money, learning about zoning laws, and determining how to better help future students.  They are doing adult things like adults do, and I think that is the piece that is engaging them and keeping them motivated.  Project Based Learning allows for students to learn real-world skills as well as grade-appropriate skills in an engaging and fun manner.  Most of the learning that happens in projects like the one my students are working on now is hidden from the students.  The group running the school store doesn’t realize that they are practicing math skills as well as the economics of supply and demand while developing a store and selling snacks and drinks to their peers.  PBL experiences weave the learning discretely into the project itself so that the students don’t fully comprehend how much learning and school work they are actually doing.  It’s all about subterfuge, baby.

Instead of spending the last few weeks of school finishing chapters in our Math textbook or reviewing what was learned this year, I’m engaging the students in an exciting project that will help them give back to our school and greater community.  I want my students leaving the fifth grade feeling like they made a difference, learned a lot, made life-long friends, and created memories that will stick with them for a lifetime.  Before I start sobbing again, I’ll wrap up this week’s blog entry with a quote from one of my students, “They looked gross at first, but then I tried them and realized they were super soft and chewy.”  Here’s the big question, was he referring to an actual food product or sticks he found outside during Forest Friday?  Ponder that.

The Benefits of Teaching Students Time Management Skills

Let’s take a quick ride in the Way Back Machine to last week’s blog entry….  I wrote all about how I was trying to teach my students the value and benefit in effectively managing their time.  I detailed how I had the students create and maintain a Daily Work Schedule to keep themselves on track for a lengthy project we worked on in Social Studies class.  I explained how I was hopeful that this little activity would help my students.  Now, let’s return to present day…

It’s a bright, sunny, and warm Memorial Day, as I sit and ponder the events from this past week.  My amazing fifth grade class completed their Social Studies project on the Silk Road and finished their Book Reviews in Language Arts class.  It was a banner week filled with much hard work.  But what about the Time Management activity, you ask.  How did that go?  Well, I am happy to report that this activity totally helped teach my students the benefit of managing their time in relevant and meaningful ways.

At the start of each Social Studies class, I had the students review and update their Daily Work Schedule.  Did they finish what they had set out to accomplish for homework the evening before?  Do they need to make any changes to today’s plan?  Then, they got right to work.  During almost every work period, ALL of my students diligently worked on meeting their goals and finishing the work they set out to do.  It was quite remarkable.  This Daily Work Schedule seemed to really motivate my students to work more effectively than ever before.  How did this happen though?  What about the Daily Work Schedule helped motivate them to work harder than ever before?  Was it the fact that they had generated this daily schedule and so ownership was higher?  Did that help make them want to work more effectively?  Or was it something else entirely?  Have my students simply figured out how to be great students?  Or, were they transformed into robots while I left the classroom to print a document?  Interesting thoughts.  While it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly what was at play during the project, having the Daily Work Schedule did seem to really help my students.  It seems that they really do see the benefit in breaking down large tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks.

And talk about the quality of their work.  Wow!  They really stepped it up in this area for this final project.  They went above and beyond.  Students sought me out for feedback on their work multiple times before turning it in to be graded.  I was amazed.  For the previous project, students waited until the day it was due to seek feedback from me on their work, and by then it was too late.  This time, they demonstrated that they had learned from their mistakes.  Students also wanted to make their work look really impressive.  As the students were creating a journal imagining themselves as travelers on a caravan during the time of the Silk Road, they wanted their final product to look authentic.  So, they made tea that they then used to make the pages of their journal look old and worn.  They also crumpled their pages and burned the edges to bring authenticity to their finished journals.  It was so cool for me to observe my students pushing themselves to create their best possible work.  They held the bar for themselves very high.  Because they had managed their time effectively using the Daily Work Schedule, they had time to jazz up their work.  I was so proud of how they persevered through the struggles faced in the previous mapping project to complete quality work for this final project.  Again, I say, failure is so crucial in the learning process.  Because some of my students had failed to effectively manage their time well to complete a quality tri-layered map that met the graded objective, they were able to learn from their mistakes and try again.

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At the close of the project, I had the students provide me with feedback on the entire Social Studies unit.  In one question, I had them consider the usefulness of the Daily Work Schedule, and here is what they had to say about that:

  • “It helped a lot.”
  • “The schedule helped me budget my time.”
  • “Because it helped me to see what I needed to do.”
  • “It helped because I knew how long I had to do something and it also helped me so that I was on task.”
  • “It helped to keep me on track and know what I should be doing.”
  • “It helped because I new exactly what I had to do every day instead of trying to plan the day of.  I had something to look at.”

Clearly, my students saw the benefit in having a plan for how to best utilize their time to accomplish a task or goal.  Mission accomplished.

As the end of our school year is closer than I would like to admit, I do feel confident that my students are prepared for the rigors of sixth grade.  They have the skills needed to be successful in completing quality work in a timely manner.  They know how to overcome obstacles.  They have the problem solving skills needed to tackle any challenge thrown their way.  They know how to think critically and analyze the world around them.  As much as it pains me to start saying my goodbyes to my wonderfully talented, kind, and caring fifth graders, I know that it is time.  They are ready to move on, like young birds.  They are no longer baby birds in need of me chewing up their food and regurgitating for them to consume.  Oh know, they can now eat food on their own without my help.  I’m so proud of how far they’ve come.  Fly little birdies, fly.

Lessons for Learning in my Fifth Grade Classroom

When I was just a wee young lad with luscious red hair, completing homework was a hoop I had to jump through in order to go outside and ride my bike or watch television.  Homework always came first in my house.  Once I got home from school, I sat down and did my homework.  Because I viewed it as a hurdle to having fun, I rarely devoted great effort or care to the completion of my homework.  I did it to get it done.  In school, my teachers graded homework on the check system: A check minus meant that it did not meet the expectation, a check meant that it was done, and a check plus meant that it was done very well.  Therefore, I made sure that I put forth just enough effort to earn checks consistently.  That was good enough for me.  My teachers never took time in class to discuss the importance of effort or what quality work looked like, and so it took me quite some time to learn the value of hard work and great effort.  Not until college did I start to understand that I should care about the work I completed as it is a reflection of who I am as a person.  I wish my elementary and middle school teachers had taken time to help me learn the value of effort and taking pride in my work.  I wish I had cared more about the quality of work I completed when I was younger, as I feel it could have helped me grow into a stronger student sooner rather than later.

As a teacher, I try exceedingly hard on a daily basis to make sure that I provide my students with the best possible educational program so that they can more rapidly transform into the best versions of themselves.  I don’t want my students feeling the way I do in 30 years because I didn’t support them in meaningful ways when they were in the fifth grade.  I want my students to see the value and benefits in completing quality work in a timely manner.  I want my students to constantly be challenging themselves to grow and develop as thinkers, problem solvers, mathematicians, and individuals.  I want my students to leave my fifth grade classroom in June feeling as though they know how to be effective and successful students in sixth grade and beyond.  I want my students to value the vital study skill of time management.  I want my students to understand what quality work looks like.  I want my students to strive for excellence in all areas of their life, because they are worth it.

One of the many ways I can help challenge my students to grow and develop in the classroom is to be mindfully aware of every opportunity for learning.  This past week was filled with teachable moments for my students.  On Tuesday, my students had a large assignment due.  They had been working on it since the middle of the previous week.  They had to hand-draw a tri-layered map of the Silk Road region.  As they had already completed a similar assignment during a prior Social Studies unit, my students knew how this complex assignment was to be completed.  Before the previous weekend, I had informed a few students that they would need to spend some time over the weekend working on the task so that they would not have hours of homework on Monday evening.  I contacted parents to let them know what I had asked of them, as fostering strong school-family relationships is crucial.  On Tuesday morning, only three students turned in their completed maps at the start of class.  At first, I felt frustrated.  Why did many of my students not complete the only homework assignment they had last night?  After I processed my feelings of anger and frustration during our mindful meditation in Tuesday’s Morning Meeting, I had an epiphany.  My students are only fifth graders.  How can I expect fifth graders to be perfect and do everything just so?  The fifth grade is a year filled with growth and opportunities to practice study skills.  As I began to accept the fact that my students need to fail in the fifth grade in order to learn vital study and life skills so that they are more effectively prepared for the sixth grade, a sense of serenity consumed me.  I shouldn’t be frustrated, but instead, I should feel elated that I have another opportunity to help my students learn the value of time management and great effort.

So, instead of beginning Social Studies class that day lecturing my students on the value of hard work and how disappointed I am that many of them did not complete the homework, I started class by explaining how fifth grade is a time of learning and development.  “I expect that many of you will fail in certain ways throughout the year so that you have the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and grow as a student,” I told them.  This seemed to shock a few of the students, as their eyes grew big.  “Why is this crazy man telling us that he wants us to fail,” they were probably thinking.  I then had students share why they were unable to complete the homework assignment.  I listed their many reasons on the board.  I made sure to explain to the students that while this year I am referring to their rationales for being unable to complete the map task as reasons, the sixth grade teachers will view their reasons as excuses next year.  “Use this opportunity as a chance to learn the importance of budgeting your time effectively,” I said to my students.  I then had the students brainstorm possible ways they could prevent these same reasons allowing them to not complete their homework in the future.  The students suggested wonderful ideas such as asking for help, making a plan or time schedule of how and when they would accomplish various parts of a task, and using their free time more effectively.  It was a very insightful discussion, which I feel benefited the students well.  They seemed to all understand the importance of completing their work by pre-set due dates.  Later in the week, I gave the students another chance to practice this skill of time management.

The students began working on the final project for our unit on the Silk Road in class on Wednesday.  Before they began working in class, I had each student create a daily schedule of the work they will complete so that they can be sure they are finished by the deadline of next Thursday.  I had the students briefly write what part of the project they will work on each day in class and for homework outside of class.  On Thursday and Friday, I began and concluded each Social Studies class by having the students review and update their daily work schedule.  Did the students complete what they had intended to do for homework the night before or in class that day?  If not, they revised their schedule to reflect the reality of the situation.  This has seemed to really help many of the students stay on track with this complex and large final project.  No one is falling behind, as they had on the previous mapping task.  I am hopeful that this time management task will help the students be and feel successful next week when their final project is due.  I intend to debrief the entire project and schedule task with the students in class next Thursday so that they are able to see the value in effectively managing their time regarding academic tasks and assignments.

As I assessed the mapping assignment when all of my students had finally completed and turned in their work, I realized that many of the students failed to meet the graded objective.  Why is that?  Were they rushing?  Did they not understand what to do?  As they had all been able to meet this same objective a few months ago with a similar assignment regarding ancient Mesopotamia, I knew that they understood how to complete the assignment.  So, was it that they were not as engaged or didn’t care about this unit?  They seemed to really like learning about the Silk Road when we began this unit, and so I don’t believe that engagement was an issue.  Then what was it that caused many of the students to turn in work that lacked effort and did not display fine quality?

During Thursday’s Morning Meeting, I took time to share my findings with the class.  I explained how the quality of work that many of the students completed was low and lacking effort.  I discussed the value of holding the bar high for themselves and completing only work of which they are proud.  I reminded them that while they have the opportunity to redo work in the fifth grade, they may not have this same opportunity in sixth grade and beyond.  I want my students to value hard work and put forth more effort in reviewing their work against the requirements before turning it in so that they are handing in their best possible work.  They seemed to understand what I was saying, but only time will tell.  Plus, they are only fifth graders and have plenty of time to continue learning the value of completing quality work.

I’m hopeful that these two mini-lesson chats helped my students begin to see the benefits in completing quality work in a timely fashion.  Next Thursday will be telling; however, even if not every student turns in a high-quality final project on time, I am confident that they are still learning and working out the kinks of the challenging skill of time management.  Learning to be an effective student is an on-going journey full of failures and successes.  While my journey to understanding the value in effective time management and challenging myself to complete quality work took longer than I wish it had, I did eventually learn these vital skills, as all of my students will too one day.

How Can Teachers Help Students Gain Important Study Skills?

While this past Tuesday was Teacher Appreciation Day, I look at every day as Teacher Appreciation Day.  Each new day, my students enter my classroom full of excitement, courage, wonder, and perhaps a little anxiety, and I am the lucky one who gets to work with them all day long.  I am able to help them grow and develop as individuals, people, thinkers, readers, writers mathematicians, scientists, and problem solvers.  I see them through their challenges and successes.  I have a student in my class, who at the beginning of the year viewed punctuation as optional.  She would craft an entire paragraph with only one period.  After working with her all year on this skill, she is now able to proofread and edit her own work.  Just last week, she crafted an amazing, properly punctuated paragraph.  I am so proud of how far she has come.  When I celebrated this great accomplishment with her, the biggest smile I’ve ever seen filled her face.  That right there is an appreciation.  It doesn’t get much better than that.  I don’t need a week to receive special gifts from students and their fantastic families because I’m given gifts each and every day.  This week, a student who had been struggling with his multiplication facts all year, had a moment of clarity recently and was able to totally ace his multiplication assessment.  That’s just one of the many gifts my students bring me on a daily basis.  I got into the field of education because I want to help students, because I see the value in making learning engaging and fun.  I got into teaching so that I can help those struggling students overcome their adversity.  I didn’t get into teaching for the money, thanks, or gifts.  So, while having a week in which families and students shower me with donuts and wonderful gifts is nice, I am fortunate enough to receive amazing gifts from my students each and every school day.

One of my most treasured gifts as an educator is when students learn valuable study and life skills in my class.  As my small, yet wonderfully caring and supportive school begins in the fifth grade, I have the terrific task of helping my students prepare for the rigors of life in sixth grade and beyond.  My job is challenging because I have to find a way to marry fun and engaging learning activities with high-level study skills.  I need to help students see the value and benefit in properly completing homework.  I need to help students learn that proper typing form will only make life easier for them as they matriculate into high school and need to type 10+ page research papers.  I need students to be self-motivated to want to complete high-quality work.  This is a year-long process.  As many students began the year in my fifth grade class not having to complete much homework, never having typed more than a few sentences, and never having had the quality bar held very high for them at their past schools, I had to help them transform themselves into students who see that homework helps them grow as students, that proper finger placement on the Home Row keys helps them become faster, more effective keyboardists, and that taking pride in the work they complete will help them grow into the best possible version of themselves.  Being witness to my students growing and developing is one of my favorite aspects of teaching.  I love when a student comes into my classroom in the morning, so excited to share with me the work that he or she completed outside of the classroom for homework the evening before.  It’s so awesome to see them value hard work.

As I know that my students will be receiving a bit more homework in the sixth grade than they do for most of the year in fifth grade, I have ratcheted up the homework load since May 1.  I want my students to practice learning how to best manage their time effectively now so that they are much better at it by the time they move into the sixth grade in September.  I’d much rather have my students fail, make mistakes, and not be able to complete their homework this year, so that I am able to work with them to find ways to help them be successful before they graduate from the fifth grade.

This week in Social Studies class, the students had to finish reading a handout on the Silk Road and completing notes from it for homework.  We began the task in class.  At most, this task would have taken an hour to complete outside of class.  While we haven’t had too many lengthy assignments like this for homework over the course of the year, I know that they will be expected to complete tasks like this on a more regular basis next year.  So, I wanted to see how they would do.  While three students were unsuccessful in attempting the assignment, everybody else was able to complete the homework.  Because the task was tied to an in-class assessment, those three students who did not complete the homework, did end up not being able to meet two graded objectives.  I could tell this was unsettling for those students, as they value success.  That evening, the students had another night of challenging homework.  They needed to work on their Tri-Layered Map of the Silk Road region.  I made sure to touch base with each of the three students who struggled to complete the homework from the evening before, prior to them leaving.  I stressed the importance of learning from their mistakes and making amends.

The next day, only one student came to class unprepared with his homework not done.  The other two students put forth the effort, as they saw the value in hard work and completing their homework.  I made sure to praise those two students for their effort.  They seemed very pleased and proud of themselves.  A little positivity and meaningful praise goes a long way.  While I did have one student who still struggled with the task of completing his homework this week, I had what felt like a very good conversation with him on Friday.  I talked to him about how this lack of effort is affecting his grades and ability to be prepared for sixth grade.  I got the impression that he understands why this is an area on which he still needs to work.  I’m giving this one student another chance to practice the skill of completing work outside of class this weekend.  While I don’t assign homework over weekends or vacations, this student clearly needs to practice this skill.  As he has much more free time on the weekend, I am hopeful that he will be able to work on his map for 30-45 minutes with still plenty of time to play and relax left over.  So, I made sure he left school yesterday with all of the required materials to work on his map outside of class.  I also made sure to ask him what he needed to work on over the weekend with his mother present.  Because I have worked hard to form strong partnerships with the school and families, I am confident that this information will also elicit a few conversations between the student and his parents over the course of the weekend.

Helping students learn vital study and life skills in a supportive, caring, and low-stakes  environment will allow them to move into the sixth grade more prepared and ready to attack almost any task thrown their way.  For me, it’s all about the journey.  My students begin the year excited, but lack some important academic skills.  As their teacher, I need to provide my students with quests or opportunities for them to practice and gain these skills that they will need in order to be successful in all that the future holds for them.  My many gifts to my students are these skills that will greatly benefit and empower them with knowledge and know-how.  In turn, I receive the gift of transformation from each of my students.  Looking back on where my students were in September to where they are now, I am filled with happiness and joy.  They are effective, fifth grade critical thinkers and problem solvers.  While a few of my students still have some work to put in to fully transform into effective sixth graders, they are making progress with each new day.  I can’t wait to see what Monday brings.

The Evolution of a Meaningful Classroom Activity

I used to be very much a creature of habit.  I did the same things, the same way, every day.  I craved routine and loved it.  Perhaps it was more about control for me.  I liked feeling that I was in control of my life and destiny.  The way I looked at it was, that if I am able to make things in my life go the way I want them to go, then my life will turn out just as it is supposed to.  That strange theory once made a lot of sense to me, until I realized that I am not in control.  When I saw that my ideal life was slipping through my fingers, great stress fell upon me.  I began living life in a very fearful way.  “I shouldn’t do that because then this horrible thing might happen,” I constantly thought.  I got to a point where I wasn’t able to focus on everyday life because I was so afraid of everything.  It was no way to live my life.

So, I made some mental changes.  First, I realized that I need to live life on life’s terms.  I gave up trying to control every little thing.  I thought of myself as a tiny stone in a river’s bed.  I couldn’t control what other people did no matter how hard I tried.  Instead, I focused on controlling my choices, thoughts, and actions.  I allowed the river of life to take me along for a ride.  I turned when one side of my beautifully bumpy rock got a bit too smooth of course, but I tried very hard to just let life happen.  Because of this huge mental switch, I’m much happier than I ever was.  I’m no longer filled with stress and worry because the parking spot I usually take was filled with someone else’s car.  I don’t allow the actions or reactions of others to cause me discomfort.  I realize that everyone is their own rock in this giant river of awesomeness.  I can’t control what other rocks do, but I can control what I do and how I view what these other rocks do.  I used to allow what others did to frustrate me or cause me great stress.  Now, I just go with the flow and enjoy the ride, and what a beautiful journey it is.  Life is so wonderful, beautiful, amazing, sad, and joyous all at once.  It’s like that painting in a museum you once saw that left you transfixed and in a state of awe and wonder.

Now that I have given up trying to control things, I’m very happy and at peace.  As a teacher, it has allowed me to create an open classroom that is flexible and student-centered.  The students are involved in most of the classroom decisions.  They choose where they sit and how the tables and chairs are organized in the classroom.  Before I plan any field experience, I ask for their input.  While I have generated a curriculum for each subject, it is not rigid nor set in stone.  If I ever feel as though my students need more time with a particular concept, I can put the rest of my activities on hold to review and re-cover that challenging topic or concept.  I have come to realize over the years that if my students are not engaged in what is happening in the classroom, then no genuine learning is taking place.  Being able to craft an individualized and fluid curriculum for my fifth grade class has allowed me to become a better educator and support system for my students.  As my number one goal is always to help my students feel safe as they grow and develop into the best possible version of themselves, I am completely open to making changes to my schedule or daily lessons.  Even the morning of, as I write the daily agenda on the whiteboard in my classroom, I think about each lesson.  How can I make it more engaging, meaningful, or tangible for my students?  Nothing is ever fixed.  Like how I now live my life, I allow my students, classroom, and lessons to take me on daily adventures.  I don’t ever go into a day thinking I know how it’s going to turn out, because I truly have no idea until the end of that particular day.  While it’s a bit scary living like this, it’s also so much fun, as I’m open to all possibilities.

This past Friday, I drove to school thinking about my plan for that day’s Morning Meeting.  What was my goal for the meeting?  What did I want the students to gain from that morning’s meeting?  I knew that I wanted to provide the students an opportunity to share their thoughts on Bucket Filling, but I wasn’t completely certain how I wanted this to look.  Did I want to simply engage the students in a discussion on how they have filled the buckets of others?  Or, did I want something more than that?  As I parked my car that morning, I still hadn’t decided how I wanted this activity to unfold.  Knowing that my brain does it’s best work when I don’t even realize it’s doing anything, I began my morning by sweeping and vacuuming my classroom.  This mundane task would allow my brain to keep mulling over the best way to approach the Bucket Filling activity I wanted to complete in class that morning.  By the time I began etching the daily agenda onto the whiteboard in my classroom, I knew what I wanted to do.

I grabbed 8 differently colored pieces of paper and wrote the name of a student on each one.  I then drew a very simple picture of a bucket onto the paper.  I taped these “buckets” onto the front board in my classroom.  They added a nice splash of color to the board.  As the students entered the classroom, that was one of the first things they noticed.  Many of them asked, “What are these for?”  Like any great teacher, I responded with, “That’s a great question.  You’ll have to wait and see.”  Students do not like that response, but it kept them thinking and wondering, which is what I wanted them to do.

When it was finally time for the Bucket Filling activity, I explained the activity to the students after a quick review of Bucket Filling: “Each of you will be given three small pieces of paper.  On each piece of paper, you will write one thing that someone has done to fill your bucket or one character trait that you respect and appreciate about that person.  You will then tape that slip of paper to the person’s bucket.  If you want more paper, feel free to grab extra slips from my desk.  Like you usually do, be mindful as you are writing and filling each other’s buckets.  Make sure that everybody’s bucket has at least one slip attached to it by the end of the activity.  Spread the love.”  I then addressed questions the students posed.  One student was a little confused by the activity, and so I clarified it in a way that helped her understand what she needed to do.  Another student then asked about a bucket for a student who wasn’t in class at that point.  “Shouldn’t we make a bucket for him too?” he asked.  And so, I did add a bucket for that student.  I love how compassionate my students are, thinking about others.  Then, another student suggested that I should also have a bucket.  While I did intend for this to be an activity for the students to be filled with joy and happiness, I did add a bucket for myself.  Why not?  I can never have too much joy.  My favorite question during this time had to do with the activity itself.  “Could we do this activity during our Closing Meeting instead of the Gratitude Wall each afternoon?” he asked.  Oh, I thought.  What an interesting idea.  “Let’s see how this all plays out first, and then we can talk more about it,” I responded.  I was amazed that this student could already see the value in this activity before it even started.  Wow!

What I thought was going to be a very quick activity, turned into something much greater.  As the students began taping their positive comments and thoughts of thankfulness for their peers to the various buckets, they saw that not everyone had the same amount.  So, they all grabbed more slips of paper to balance the buckets.  While I thought for sure that I’d be recycling the extra thirty slips of paper I had made that morning, each and every extra piece of paper was taken and used by the end of the activity.  Smiles covered the faces of my students as though they had just been told there would be no homework for the remainder of the school year.  They seemed so happy filling the buckets of their peers with kind words.  I was bewildered yet again.  My students never cease to amaze me on a daily basis.  What could have been a quick task that would have allowed them to move into the reading of their Reader’s Workshop book within a minute or two, transformed into a very special 10-minute activity of awesomeness.  Seriously, I am such a blessed and fortunate educator.  Not only do I get to work at an amazing school like BHS, but I am able to wake up each morning and learn from a group of amazing fifth graders.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

After the students had literally filled each other’s buckets on the board with caring words of kindness, I then read the slips of paper aloud to the class.  The positive energy filled the classroom like helium in a balloon.  It felt wonderful.  I then asked the students how they felt after having been a part of this activity.  One student said, “It feels good to know that our classmates appreciate what we are doing.”  Another student said, “While it was hard at first to think of something to write for one student, it became easier, and then I couldn’t stop filling buckets.”  Another student said, “It felt good to make other people feel good.”  I then closed the activity by asking the students if they would like to replace the Gratitude Wall with this activity each afternoon.  All but one student wants to complete this activity in place of the Gratitude Wall during our daily Closing Meeting.  As this is a version of a Gratitude Wall, we aren’t really losing that wonderful activity;  instead, we are replacing it with something more specific and special.  I can’t wait to see how our Bucket Filling activity goes Monday afternoon.

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Because I allowed this activity to unfold as it did, it grew into something unexpected and remarkable.  What I thought would be a short discussion on Bucket Filling, turned into a heartwarming activity that further united my class together.  Had I not been open to the possibility of this brief little discussion becoming something more, then my students and I would have missed out on a very special opportunity.  Allowing life to take me where it will in the classroom, has made me a more effective teacher.  I just need to have faith that things will work out as life intends.