How Can We Help Students Learn to Grow and Improve?

Have you ever tried something new and realized you made a huge mistake?  I’m sure we’ve all been down that road before.  I was completely convinced, due to their fantastic marketing campaign, that the new ice cream brand with the chocolate shell around the outside was going to be my new go-to dessert treat.  Unfortunately, it was a bust.  The ice cream lacked genuine flavor and the shell was super difficult to scrape away from the walls of the container.  I went out on a limb, only to have it crack and fall away from me.  That’s life though, right.  We take risks every day when we leave our dwellings.  Roof tiles could fly off and hit us.  We could be in a car accident.  We could trip and fall down a hole leading to Narnia.  Good things can also come our way on a daily basis.  We could buy a scratch ticket and win thousands of dollars.  We could rescue a puppy.  The sun could shine and remind us of how lucky we are to be alive.  Life is a gamble.  We just try our best to get by and do what we believe is right for us and the world.  We never really know what’s going to happen tomorrow.  We should live our lives to the fullest each and every day.  We should take risks and try new things whenever possible.  Sure, some of those risks will not pay off and in turn be mistakes, but that’s how we learn.  We learn by making mistakes, by failing.  I learned how to ride my bike by falling off of it 17,000 times.  I still have the scars on my left knee to prove it.  We need to break free of our comfort zone and embrace life.  Some days will be hard, really hard.  Some choices we make may result in tears or loss, but the best things in life are only the best because the journey to acquire them is long and arduous.  If I had learned to ride my bike on the first try, I would not have spent every waking moment each summer on it.  Because learning to ride a bike was challenging, when I finally did learn, it so amazing.  My perseverance and quest were what made it so sweet.  So, even if that one new thing you try doesn’t work out as expected, don’t give up, just, as Joe Dirt once said, “Keep on keepin’ on.”

As a teacher, I have to embrace new ideas and risks on a daily basis if I want to be the best teacher for my students.  I need to try new approaches and practices in the classroom to best support and help all of my students.  What works with one student may not work with another.  How I teach a unit one year may be really effective, but it might not work the next year due to the students in my class.  I need to be flexible, adaptive, and open to trying new things.  Talk about a Growth Mindset.  Great teachers must always possess that “I can” attitude.  We can’t crumble under the mountain of work we have to do each and every day.  We can’t walk away when things become difficult in the classroom or during a parent conference.  We keep going and going like the Energizer bunny, until we have helped all of our students taste and feel success.  Yes, some days are tough.  The emotional scars our students have would shock most ordinary folk who do not work with children.  As teachers and caregivers, we need to face this baggage head on.  We need to help our students learn and grow in the face of adversity.  We need to fight the good fight no matter how hard it may be.  But isn’t that why we became teachers?  To help students?  To help them see the light at the end of the struggle?  Indeed it is.  We didn’t get into education because we thought it was going to be easy.  We got into the teaching profession to make a difference, to struggle, to be uncomfortable, to try new things, to fail, and to have fun.  When our students smile because they finally understand a challenging concept or realize that they can do something they thought impossible, it makes the journey totally worthwhile.

To help my students gauge their progress in the fifth grade, I provide them with feedback on their effort, focus, and attitude in the classroom on a daily basis.  I want my students to know what they do well and what they still need to work on to improve.  Life and learning are non-stop adventures.  We can always grow and improve.  I want my students to know and understand how they are progressing in school.  I want them to see that their choices impact themselves and others.  I want them to know the great things they do.  I also want them to understand that mistakes are opportunities for learning.  So, I enter a grade and much specific feedback on Google Classroom for the students to see each and every day.  This process takes about 15 to 20 minutes each afternoon or evening.  I have found that it really helps the students know the expectations as well as ways they can improve, especially during the first few weeks of the year.

While most of the students read this feedback quite regularly during the start of the school year, they stop checking their daily effort grade and feedback after a few months.  Despite the great advice that lives in these comments they receive each day, the students only find them useful for a short period of time.  Does that mean they no longer need the feedback?  Do they know themselves as learners in two months and can draw their own conclusions about how they are doing in school?  Why do some of the students stop checking their grades and feedback?  So, I began thinking of new ways to provide my students with feedback on their progress, and that’s when it hit me like a sack of Honey Crisp apples.  At our school, we empower our students to own their learning.  Our goal for students who graduate from the Beech Hill School is that they will know themselves as learners.  They will understand their strengths and weaknesses, and have strategies to address challenges faced in and out of the classroom.  They will be self-reliant and independent young people who are reflective and thoughtful.  But, does that happen by having teachers tell them how they are doing in their classes?  No, they learn to advocate for themselves and truly understand how to continue to learn and grow.  They ask questions and seek guidance on their own.  That’s when I realized that if I want my students to get to that point by the time they graduate the eighth grade, I need to change my practice of giving them feedback.  I can’t steal their thinking.  I need to help them learn how to think for themselves and self-assess.  I need my students to learn how to know themselves as students and learners.  I need them to see their strengths and weaknesses.  By providing them feedback on all of these things, I’m preventing them from being able to do so on their own.  Perhaps that’s why they stop reading them, because they see no value in the empty feedback I am giving them.  So, what if I turn the tables and have my students provide themselves with feedback on their progress?  Ownership is something we value at our school.  Do fifth graders really have the metacognition needed to genuinely know how they are doing in school?  Perhaps some of them might.  How do they learn to be aware of themselves as students if we don’t allow them to practice?  What if I scaffold the process in the fifth grade?  And that is just what I did last week.  I moved away from me providing them with feedback and transformed it into a dialogue.

Throughout the day, the students self-assessed themselves on their effort, focus, and progress in each class or activity last week.  They made notes on paper they kept on their desks or in their pockets.  At the close of each day, the students checked in with me to review their progress.  They shared their self-reflection and self-assessment with me.  In most cases they were spot on.  They were able to see what I saw.  They really do understand themselves as students and learners.  These conversations were very quick and short.  I agreed with the student and asked them what they need to work on for the following day.  Once or twice though, a student’s perspective was slightly askew and so they needed guidance in how to accurately understand their strengths and weaknesses.  These were the fun conferences because they forced me to brainstorm specific and meaningful ways to help them understand their struggles or successes in the classroom.  I have one student who doubts her abilities in Math.  She doesn’t believe that she is a strong Math student, when in reality she is quite strong.  Because she had negative experiences in Math at her past school, her self-esteem in regards to Math is very low.  I’m working to help her believe in herself and see the strength she has within to do great things in Math.  Even these longer conversations took no more than two minutes to conduct.  I would share my insight with the student and ask them what they need to work on for the next day.  That was that.

While it’s only been one week, I feel as though turning the process over to the students has made a difference.  They are now owning their learning and choices, as they have to summarize and discuss their daily progress with me.  They have to admit their struggles and areas of success to me each afternoon.  The students seemed to be more thoughtful in the classroom towards the end of the week, I believe, because of this new feedback method.  Who wants to admit, aloud to their teacher, that they were completely rude and disrespectful in class or unfocused?  The students want to share positive things and so they are working towards being more focused, thoughtful, and mindful in the classroom so that the conferences are short, concise, and positive.  Will they always be that way?  Of course not, because life happens.  No one is perfect and students will have bad days, as will their teachers.  Some conferences may be difficult for the students, but they will most definitely be useful and helpful for them to learn how to be self-aware of themselves as students.  I’m really liking that I took a risk and tried something new to better support and help my students continue to learn and grow.

How Do We Help Our Students Learn to Like Writing?

When I was in elementary school, I used to dread Language Arts class because it meant that I would have to write.  While I had lots of ideas for really cool stories swirling about in my head, I was not allowed to write them.  Instead, my teachers forced me to write reports about topics I didn’t enjoy or stories based on their ideas.  I could never write what I wanted to write because my teachers always needed to be in control.  This lead to me not liking writing, which was a shame because I had stories and poems festering inside of me, looking for an escape.  For many years, I went about school and life thinking I hated to write.  Fortunately, I did have an amazing high school teacher who saw that I had things I wanted to and needed to write about trapped inside of me.  She allowed me to write what I wanted to write, and because of that experience, I learned to love writing.

As a teacher, I don’t want my students to have the same bad experience I had with writing when I was in elementary and middle school.  I want to be sure that my students like writing from day one.  I want to help those students who already love writing to continue to enjoy the process, and I want to help those students who see writing as I once did, to realize that writing can be a wonderful adventure filled with freedom and choice.  Being a great teacher means giving students ownership over their learning process.  I don’t need to control everything my students do in the classroom to be sure they are learning.  Instead, I need to make sure that my students are engaged in whatever it is we are learning and see it as something that is fun.  Genuine learning takes place when students are engaged, curious, and able to see the “work” as something they want to do.  I give students a choice and a voice when it comes to Language Arts class.  I utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction for that reason alone.  I want my students to want to write because they can write whatever their little hearts desire.  While I do provide parameters for each writing unit used in the classroom, the students can choose the topic.  They can choose what they write about, as I want them to see that they are the ones in control.

Last year, for example, when we learned about various Native American tribes in the Americas, I had the students choose a tribe that they were interested in learning more about, research that tribe using various online resources, and then craft an original historical fiction story based on what they learned about their tribe.  This allowed the students to create unique characters and generate their own plot line based on their ideas.  Many of the students really enjoyed this freedom.  They loved that they could decide the plot of their story.  However, I had two students who struggled a bit with this freedom.  Because I didn’t discuss possible ideas for their story or allow much time for organized brainstorming in class, two of my students didn’t know what to write about.  Even after researching their tribe and learning all about them, these two students felt stuck.  While they did eventually craft stories, they weren’t fully engaged in the process.  So, I knew that something needed to change for this year.  I needed to be sure that I more effectively introduced various writing projects so that the students had more time to get excited and interested in the act of writing itself.

This year, instead of starting with historical fiction, which can be a bit tricky for novice writers, our first writing unit is on general story writing.  I’ve found that fifth graders love making up and writing stories of their own creation.  The unit is divided into four parts.  Part one is about oral storytelling, part two is on brevity in writing as the students will craft a 100-word story, part three’s focus is on using words to tell pictures, and part four is on fan fiction.  In providing the students with more specific parameters and guidelines, I’m hoping that unlike those students who felt stuck last year, all of my students will have ideas and inspiration for their writing pieces.  I chose to start with oral storytelling, as we do it all the time anyway.  I ask the students to tell me about their evening activities each morning.  We communicate with one another through the stories we share aloud.  Hearing unique stories told aloud by their peers will also provide them with more fodder and ideas for their future pieces.

Oral Storytelling

I settled on the 100-word story for part two because I want the students to learn the value in brevity and getting to the point without meandering too far off course.  This year’s group of fifth graders love to talk in circles.  Many of them share one idea and then rehash that same idea in slightly different ways, numerous times.  Some of them do this same thing in their writing as well.  To help them break the cycle of repetition, I thought that having a limited number of words in which to tell their story would help them focus on the important words and ideas, while limiting the unnecessary ones.  Although this could be a restraining activity for some, it will also be a productive one for those who need to learn the power of being more succinct.

100-Word Story

Due to the power of social media and apps like Instagram being how this generation of youth communicate, I thought that teaching students to see how effective pictures or images can tell stories would be great for part three.  This year’s group of students also really enjoys graphic novels, and so I thought that having an activity in which they could create a graphic novel if they desired to do so could be fun for them.

Picture Story

Part four is really what this whole project is all about.  This year’s class loves certain books and movies.  I have a few students that are obsessed with Harry Potter.  I wanted to provide a writing activity that would allow me to tap into those interests that they have.  Plus, Fan Fiction is a great genre for those students who struggle to create their own unique ideas because, with Fan Fiction, you base your story on ideas, settings, and characters that already exist.

Fan Fiction

This past week, I introduced the new unit to the students in class on Wednesday and they began working on creating their story to tell aloud to the class on Thursday.  For me, part of fostering a sense of engagement within the students regarding a new project is the introduction.  How a new unit or project is explained or introduced to the students makes all the difference.  While I already know that this year’s group of students love creative fiction writing, I wanted to be sure that they would be equally invested in each phase of this project.  So, instead of simply explaining the first part of the unit, I detailed the entire unit in class on Wednesday.  Shouts of joy and exultation could be heard when I introduced each new part.  The students are excited to write and try some new things this year.

Once I knew that I had engaged them in this new unit, I decided to take them on a little journey into story writing.  That’s when we discussed what makes a great story.  We brainstormed a list on the whiteboard together as a class.  From our discussion, I know that they now understand what makes an effective story.  I then talked about the importance of preparation and brainstorming.  I explained to them that they must know their story as though it’s their best friend.  “You need to understand every aspect of your characters, setting, and plot like you know your best friend.”  There informal homework that night was to begin the brainstorming process.  “Think about a story that would be good to share aloud with the class.  What kind of story would hold the interest of your peers and listeners?”

The next day, I began class by quickly reviewing the requirements of a great story and then shared my own story aloud with the class as an example.  While I had thought long and hard about the story that I was going to use as an example, I ended up choosing a personal and true story about how my best friend was hit by a car when I was in sixth grade.  Because I lived it, I knew this story very well; however, I had never told it to anyone besides my wife before and did not realize how emotional and personal it truly was.  About two minutes into my story I started tearing up as I spoke.  This was not planned, but it worked well in my favor.  The students were glued to me and my words.  They gasped at just the right parts and expressed sadness when I wanted them to.  I debriefed my story with the class reviewing the project requirements.  I then introduced the brainstorming phase of the project.  “To know your story as if it’s your best friend, you need to think long and hard about every aspect of it.  You will be completing this brainstorm worksheet to help you through this process.  I have left blanks for each section of the worksheet so that you can use the space in a way that works for you.  Some of you may want to sketch out your characters, while others may want to simply write about their ideas.  You do what works best for you.”

As the students were already so excited for this unit and beginning part one, I had them in the palm of my hands.  They couldn’t wait to get started with brainstorming their story.  A few of the students had already shared their ideas with me earlier in the day, as they couldn’t contain their excitement.  I then began meeting with each student as they finished the brainstorming process, to discuss their story.  I wanted to be sure that they understood their story very well before they began writing.  I didn’t want any of my students to get stuck like those two from last year did.  The students shared their ideas with me as though they were telling me what they wanted for Christmas.  Smiles and looks of excitement covered their faces as they spoke with me.  When I informed the students that they could begin the writing process once I approved their idea, they literally jumped out of their seats to snatch their computers and begin the drafting process.  It was so cool to witness the joy they were finding in the writing process.  I could not have been more proud in that moment.  Amazing!  I had students working on their stories after school that day.  I even had students ask me if they could work on it for homework.  Let me repeat that once more so you can let it sink in, students asked me if they could have extra homework to work on writing their stories.  What?  Usually students cringe at the thought of homework, and I now had students asking if they could pile more work on top of the already assigned work they had.  Talk about engagement.  Students came into school on Friday ready to share with me what they had written outside of school.  They were fully invested in this new writing unit, and I couldn’t be happier.  Mission accomplished.

While students do need to take ownership over their writing and enjoy the freedom of being able to choose what they write about, some students need a bit more guidance and support during the writing process.  While everyone has stories within them, some people need help extrapolating those stories.  This new writing unit that I began in my classroom this past week allows for student choice and voice while also providing extra parameters and guidance for those students who need it.  It’s really the best of both worlds.  I can’t wait to see what happens in class next week as they continue crafting the stories they will recite aloud for the class.  It’s going to be magical for sure.

From Bad to Great: How my Difficult Math Past Has Helped Me Make Math Fun for my Students

“Okay children, take out your math books and turn to page 32.  Today we are going to learn about Long Division.  Who would like to complete problem one on the board for us?”  Direct instruction like this was commonplace in my Math classroom when I was a student in elementary school.  My teachers explained each new math concept by reviewing the material in the textbook.  Did they think we couldn’t read?  Why did they teach us from the book?  They would also have students complete problems on the board, in front of the whole class.  What fourth or fifth grader wants to be embarrassed in front of his or her peers when they incorrectly complete a math problem on the chalkboard?  Certainly not me.

While this style of teaching may have worked for some of my peers, it did not meet my needs as a learner.  I was not the “typical” student in a classroom.  I learned very differently than many of my classmates when I was in school.  I processed new information slowly and needed time to let that new “stuff” mentally simmer.  If I was to genuinely learn something in elementary school, I needed to interact with the material, play with it, and take it out for a test drive.  I didn’t fully learn by simply listening to someone speaking.  Because my learning style did not align with how my teachers taught Math, I struggled to authentically and completely learn numerous mathematics concepts.  Thus, I was always at a disadvantage in class when learning new material, since Math is very much a pyramid-style subject as topics and ideas build upon previously learned content.  How could I possibly learn new concepts in Math when I hadn’t mastered the foundational material needed to comprehend this new skill?  As a result, I earned low Math grades throughout my years in elementary school and gained a dislike for the entire subject.  I despised Math class, as if it were my sister’s Cabbage Patch doll.  I just didn’t get it.  Why are some numbers written with a horizontal line between them while others have a dot separating some numbers from others?  Why can’t all numbers be written the same way?  Why does division need to be so long?  If you mess up on one tiny step, it ruins the whole problem.  I remember telling my parents on many occasions back then, “I hate Math.”

As a Math teacher, I have made it my goal to ensure that students don’t feel lost or confused in my Math class.  I want my students to fully understand material before learning new concepts.  I want my students to see the fun and joy in Math.  Yes, Math can definitely be fun and exciting.  Just watch a group of students trying to beat their teacher at the game “1, 2, Nim.”  The joy is palpable.

After growing up disliking the subject, I went on a mathematical journey of discovery in adulthood.  Learning how to effectively teach Math allowed me the chance to see the subject in a whole new way.  Math is like a beautiful puzzle; when you carefully put the pieces together, they create a work of art that explains something.  Completing a complex algebraic equation is so satisfying for me, now that I have come to view Math with a more open and growth mindset.

While I was not fully satisfied with the way I taught  Math last year, I made sure to focus on changing my game plan for this year.  Instead of jumping right into the curriculum and textbook, my hope was to provide students a chance to see Math through the lens of fun games.  I also wanted to help challenge my students who see themselves as “not Math students.”  I wanted my students to be excited about their year in Math class, not dreading it like I once did.

I believe that, so far (don’t worry, I knocked wood), I have been successful in my quest of helping my fifth graders see Math as fun and enjoyable.  Here is how I’m going about doing that:

  • During the first four days of Math, I taught the students various Math games and puzzles.  I had them interacting with their peers to master “1, 2, Nim” in order to defeat me, the Nim Master.  I challenged them to find a number that didn’t fit for the Math Magic Trick, with which I presented them.  There were no assessments given, textbooks handed out, or worksheets completed.  We laughed together, played together, and saw Math as a series or fun games and experiments.
  • Step two involved helping the students to change the way they view themselves as Math students.  We watched a fun and short video on mindset and read an article on how every student can be a “Math Student.”  I had the students discuss what this means for them.
  • From there, we created a list of steps or things the students should do when learning a new concept or completing a difficult problem in Math class.
    • Step 1: Think, “I can do this.  I’ve got this.  While it may be hard, I will become the master of this concept or problem.”
    • Step 2: Persevere and don’t give up no matter how challenged you may feel.  Work through the mental pain with guidance from your teacher and classmates.
    • Step 3: Try, fail, try again, and keep trying.  Remember, it’s process over product.
  • Then, I had students brainstorm possible strategies they could use when attacking difficult problems in Math.  This then led in to the students creating their own Problem Solving Plan that they can use in Math class throughout the year.  I allowed them to personalize it anyway they wanted as long as it included the three steps discussed in class and at least three strategies they could use to tackle a challenging math problem.  The students used glitter, markers, and so much more to create their own Problem Solving Plan.  They really got into it.
  • The following day, I provided the students with a difficult and multi-step word problem, as a way of testing out their Problem Solving Plans.  Did your plan work?  Were the strategies helpful?  Is there anything you should add to your plan?  I had the students reflect, in writing on how useful and helpful their plan was to solving the problem.  A few students revised their plans based on their reflection.  I closed the lesson by telling the students that their Problem Solving Plan is a living document and may need to be added to or altered during the academic year, as they try it out and use it more.
  • Yesterday, I then introduced the online math program Prodigy to the students.  I explained that they will be using this throughout the year to practice math skills covered in class and to fill in any gaps in their math learning process.  While this is not the main vehicle for math instruction, it is a great support system.  It’s also very interactive and fun for the students.  It game-ifies Math instruction.  They began using it in class yesterday.  They created their characters and worked on the placement exam that is built into the program.  For 35 minutes, they were in the Math Zone.  It was awesome.  Each and every student was completely enthralled by and engaged in showing off their prior math learning.  The following are direct quotes from my students, shared with me during Math class.
    • “Mr. Holt, thanks for making Math fun this year.”
    • “Mr. Holt, I know we don’t have homework over the weekend, but can I work on Prodigy over the weekend?”
    • “This is so much fun.”
    • “Check out the cute little pet I earned in the game.”
    • “Mr. Holt, you are a Miracle Worker for making us like Math this year.”
  • This coming week, the students will be placed into the level of Beast Academy that meets them where they are, mathematically speaking, based on their results from the diagnostic test they completed via Prodigy.  Beast Academy is the Math program I use in the fifth grade.  It is rigorous, yet engaging for the students, as it uses fun monsters and a graphic novel approach to teaching new concepts.  Using this program allows me to individualize and differentiate my Math instruction for each student.  I employ mini-lessons and work with the students during Math class each day as they progress through the Beast Academy curriculum.
  • I will begin or close each Math class with a fun game or activity that reviews concepts covered and provides the students with opportunities to practice using their problem solving skills.

That’s how I do Math in the fifth grade.  After two super fun weeks in Math class, I can’t wait to see how much progress my students make as they continue to see the subject as fun and enjoyable.  I truly believe that each of my students will become a “Math Student” this year because of my approach.  I’ve found a way to transform my horrid Math past into engaging and exciting Math instruction.  It’s all about perspective and mindset.  Just like the “Little Engine That Could,” my students and I are going to work together to overcome challenges and obstacles in Math class this year.

Staring at the Sun: Reflections on my Summer Work

My parents had a very long “Don’t Do This” list for me growing up: Don’t talk to strangers, don’t stick your tongue on metal in the winter, don’t stare at the sun, don’t listen to music with Parental Advisory stickers (I’m still a little angry at Tipper Gore for making that craziness happen), don’t go swimming right after eating, and don’t shower during a thunder storm.  While some of their demands were reasonable, I mean, who wants to lose part of their tongue or get struck by lightning in a shower, others were just plain silly.

“Why can’t I listen to the new Guns ‘N’ Roses double album?” I asked my parents in complete dismay.

“Because it includes inappropriate lyrics and has a Parental Advisory sticker on it,” my mom said, all matter of fact-like.

This ridiculous rule forced me to secretly save my allowance for a few weeks, which was really hard to do as I loved spending money right away back then.  But, I did it anyway.  I saved my money until I had enough to buy both Use Your Illusions I & II.  Then, when my parents when shopping at Ames, I went over to Coconuts, the record store in our town, and bought both albums on cassette tape and shoved them into my pockets.  My pockets were too small to hold CDs.  I met my parents back at Ames like nothing devious or evil had just occurred.  I got away with my crime, and I do believe that it made the songs on those two albums sound a little bit sweeter.  They forced my hand.  I had to covertly purchase those two albums, as they changed the musical landscape of rock music.  I couldn’t possibly live my life without ever hearing November Rain.  That would be sacrilegious.

Once I was finally freed from the controlling wraith of my parents and went off to college, I was filled with thoughts of rebellion.  Freedom tasted like fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, at first.  I stayed up way past my bed time, listened to music with curse words, and went swimming while eating.  It was awesome.  However, this freedom did come at a bit of a cost, as I began to realize that the rules my parents set up for me were done so to keep me safe and healthy.  After several days of staying up very late and waking up early for class, I grew very tired.  I ended up having to skip a few classes to get caught up on my sleep.  Then, when I stared at the sun, my eyes burned for days afterward.  That was so not fun.  While I was unhappy having to live within the confines of the cage my parents built for me, it was exactly the cage I needed.  It just took a few bad experiences for me to see this.

With school beginning next week, I’m filled with excitement and joy, like when I first listened to the Guns ‘N’ Roses Use Your Illusions I & II albums, minus the feeling of betrayal.  I can’t wait to meet my new students and jump into the school year.  I’m looking forward to trying lots of new games in Math class, bringing real substance to our Morning Meetings, and completing a real-world project for my community unit.  As my summer vacation is coming to a close, I feel compelled to reflect on the work I completed over the past two months.  Did I accomplish what I had set out to do this summer?  Am I fully prepared for the upcoming academic year?  Is there more that still needs to be done?  How’d I do in meeting the professional goals I set for myself back at the close of the past school year?

  • Goal 1: I want to switch up the posters and decorations in my classroom– I feel as though I totally rocked the house on this goal.  I put a lot of time, effort, and energy into transforming my room into an educational oasis of sorts.  I reorganized my Maker Space to bring more order and accountability to the space.  I hung the tools on the wall and labelled them all so that I can quickly and easily see what tools are still in use or have yet to be returned.  Plus, every tool now has a specified place.  I like that.  I also added a Tech Space to my Maker Space so that students can learn to code, create video games, or research a project they’re creating in the Maker Space.  I set up the Raspberry Pi computer that I built last year to a spare monitor that had no use last year.  I’m excited about what the students will be able to do at this new space in my classroom.  In addition to the Maker areas in the classroom, I also had one wall painted blue and thought carefully and logistically about the posters I hung on the wall.  I made sure that each poster was directly tied to the curriculum in some way or provided the students with thoughtful words.  I attempted to remove the clutter and disconnected and distracting posters from the wall.  I’m very pleased with what I do have hung up.  I also tried to mount the posters to the wall in a more professional looking manner.  I wanted to make my classroom look more like it was put together by professional classroom designers rather than by a 42-year-old man who doesn’t even match his socks.  I’m also thrilled about the curtains I added to the library area to make it more of a fun and inviting reading cave.  I believe the students will thoroughly enjoy this new touch.  My wife is also in the process of making valences for the windows in my room.  I can’t wait to see how they inject fun and whimsy into the space.  So, mission accomplished with goal one.
  • Goal 2: I want to change-up some of my Social Studies and Science units– While this will be an ongoing journey of mine for this new school year, I haven’t quite met this goal.  I am looking to change some of my Science and Social Studies units, but I haven’t fully realized them yet.  I have been working closely with the Hopkinton Town Administrator to enliven Our Community unit with an engaging and real-world project.  He’s brainstorming some possibilities as I type this entry.  I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with.  I also want to complete some sort of unit on civics and the upcoming presidential election.  I’m not exactly sure what this will look like, but I want to teach the students about how the election process works while they learn about the candidates in the running.  I’m hoping to have the students complete some sort of debate for this unit.  Other than that, I will have to assess the completion of this goal at the close of the 2019-2020 school year.
  • Goal 3: Determine if I will use Classcraft as a tool in my classroom– After much research on the program and time spent pondering my approach to how much screen time my students have on a daily basis, I’ve decided not to utilize Classcraft in my classroom for the upcoming school year.  While this tool may work for some teachers and students, I really want my students to be focused on the entire classroom community rather than themselves as individuals.  I worry that the program would instill a sense of inappropriate competition within the class and force the students to focus too much on approaching school like a checklist.  I want my fifth grade community to operate in a free and organic manner.  So, no Classcraft for me this year.
  • Goal 4: I want to jazz up my Math class a bit– I devoted much time this summer to this one goal.  I researched various math programs that other teachers and schools use.  I read several studies on how to help students see Math as fun and engaging rather than difficult and unnecessary.  I am going to begin the year in my Math class by having the students play a series of math games to help them see the subject as a class on problem solving instead of a class that is problematic for them.  I made use of the numerous resources on the Mathforlove website.  I am going to use  pieces of the curriculum for mini-lessons and fun games in class as well.  I really want to make Math class something the students will look forward to instead of something they will dread.  I can’t wait to see how things go with Math this year.  I’m filled with hope and excitement for what is to come.  Mission accomplished with goal number four.
  • Goal 5: I want to find more engaging games to incorporate into our Morning Meetings for next year– All you have to do is revisit my entry on the first professional development text I read this summer to know that big changes are in the works for our daily Morning Meetings in the fifth grade.  I have the first two weeks of Morning Meetings planned and ready to go.  I can’t wait to get my students sharing, caring, and playing as we build and foster a strong sense of community in the classroom.  D for done on this goal too.

I’d say that I had quite the productive summer as I worked to meet the five goals I set for myself back in June.  I feel confident, inspired, and excited to meet my new students, create a strong sense of community within the fifth grade, have fun, and learn lots.  After this lengthy summer break, I say, bring on the students and let’s get this educational party started, without any sort of Parental Advisory stickers, of course.  Smiley faces, scratch-and-sniff, and motivational quotes are the only kinds of stickers that will be allowed in my classroom.  So, although Axl Rose probably wasn’t talking about a new school year in the song Locomotive, I feel as though it totally relates to this new journey all teachers and students are about to embark upon in the coming days and weeks: “Let it take you where it may, we live and learn.”  See mom, Guns ‘N” Roses do have songs filled with inspirational and thoughtful lyrics.

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.

Taking a Risk and Trying Something New in the Classroom

As humans, we are creatures of habit.  We do not like to be stagnant or bored.  Our bodies and brains need us to be moving and doing for survival.  We are wired to be engaged in tasks, especially those that are routine and repetitious.  Eating at the same time every day or parking in the same spot day after day, for example.  It feels good when we know what to expect, but our brains are also wired to expect the unexpected.  We are animals, after all, prepared to live in a world in which other creatures are trying to attack and eat us.  Being ready for any type of situation is an evolutionary survival tactic that is hard-wired into our DNA.  However, in the very modern world in which we currently live, we don’t need to worry about an attack from a saber-tooth tiger, and so getting comfortable with a repetitive routine is quite common and calming.

I love knowing what to expect.  Because I have a long commute to my amazing school each morning, knowing what the weather and driving conditions will be is vital to my schedule and plan, especially during the winter months, as I live in New England.  I check the weather on a daily basis so that I can allot myself extra time if the roads may be slippery the following morning.  My brain feels very happy when it knows what to expect.  This knowing brings about a sense of harmony within my life.  When I am prepared for the weather and have a plan for everything, everything in life seems to fall into place just so.  I like that, but at the same time it can also make me complacent and bored.  If things always go as expected, my brain isn’t able to flex its survival-skills muscles.  As I’ve aged and matured, I have found absolute value and beauty in trying new things, taking risks, and being open to not having a plan.  It’s nice to mix things up from time to time.  I’m not advocating free-form living, I’m just suggesting, that for me, occasionally going into an experience without a plan feels good, as it allows my brain the novelty of something new.  What do I do now?  How do I solve this problem?  I try to be open to not having a plan or being open to all possibilities at least three to five times each day.  While the unknown can be scary, it can also be enlightening and magical.

Thursday morning, I set my classroom up for our monthly Yoga session with the amazing and talented Lisa Garside, a local Yogi.  My students began that morning learning about the five Tibetan Rites.  They were really into the mindfulness of it all.  The atmosphere in the classroom was serene and peaceful.  In the past, following our Yoga sessions, I had the students reorganize the classroom and return it to its normal configuration.  It just seemed to make sense to me.  Having a huge physical change will help them ready their minds to focus and work.  However, as I observed my students during our most recent Yoga session, I realized that they seemed very at home on their mats.  Their effort and joy were both very high.  So, I decided to throw caution to the wind and take a risk following Thursday’s Yoga session.  I asked the students, before we reorganized the classroom, “I notice that you all seem calm and peaceful right now, and I  wonder if putting the classroom back together is really the best option for you all at this moment in time.  What do you think?  Should we conduct our math lesson on our Yoga mats or return the classroom back to its original configuration with desks and all?”  The students unanimously voted to keep the Yoga mats.  And so, Math class was completed on Yoga mats.  The students lied down on mats to complete their Mad Math worksheets and various modules via  They were more focused and happier than I’ve ever seen them during Math class before.  It was awesome.  They worked effectively and efficiently to complete their assigned modules using the online financial literacy curriculum Foolproofme. They were attentive and scored better on the final assessments than in past weeks.  They helped each other through challenges faced in quiet and appropriate ways.  They did not distract each other, but instead, helped motivate each other to work well.  It was so cool to observe this outcome.  They were mindfully present and aware following our Yoga session.  It was awesome.


So, what was the catalyst for this outcome?  What allowed this peaceful atmosphere to be cultivated during Thursday’s math class?  I don’t believe that it was one single thing that led to this outcome; instead, I feel as though many different factors contributed to what happened.

  1. I went into the day with an open mind and growth mindset.  I wasn’t married to having the students reorganize the classroom after our Yoga session.  I was flexible in my thinking and open to possibilities.
  2. Our monthly Yoga sessions help center and relax the students so that they are more open to being able to focus and work hard.
  3. Thursday’s Math class was a bit different from a normal work period as the students were completing Mad Math worksheets and a module within the Foolproofme program.
  4. I have created a classroom culture that promotes student choice and engagement.  I want the students to feel heard so that the most effective learning environment is created within the classroom.

When you combine these four ingredients together, magic happens.  And that’s exactly what happened in the fifth grade classroom on Thursday.  Because I was open to any sort of outcome or plan, I allowed for anything to happen.  While structure and routine have their place in middle school, student choice and voice are also a necessary part of creating an engaging atmosphere in the classroom.  Students love to feel as though they can choose how learning happens.  Perhaps that was the biggest contributing factor to this epic outcome.  Maybe, due to the fact that I allowed the students to choose how Math class was conducted, they were more engaged and motivated to work hard.  I suppose, anything is possible when you are open to everything; and as teachers, shouldn’t we always be open to allowing our students to tell us what they want and how they learn best?

My Summer Professional Development Plan in Reverse

I read an article recently that explained the power in backwards planning for students.  Now, this isn’t news to me as a teacher, as great teachers have always been planning in reverse.  Start with the desired outcome, project, or assessment and plan your lessons off of it.  That makes a lot of sense, which is why I’ve been utilizing that practice in my teaching for years.  But, what about backwards planning for students?  Does that work too?  According to the research cited in the article read, it does indeed work.  A study was completed recently in which they had one group of students prepare for an exam or essay in the traditional forward-thinking model, while the other group utilized the planning in reverse model of preparation.  What they found, which should come as no surprise to anyone, is that the group who planned in reverse, was more successful and prepared, felt better about the task, and performed better than the other group.  So, backwards thinking isn’t just for teachers to utilize in the classroom; it’s a model of planning that all people should use, all of the time.

As I think about my summer plans, I’m going to put this new information to use.  One of the big things I want to accomplish this summer is to plan out the first units I will cover for my new class.  As I have already put together the social studies and science curricula for the fifth grade program, I feel as though this will be my first focus.  So, now I will plan out, in reverse order, the first integrated unit for my new class.

I want this new unit to employ the Project-Based Learning method of creating a meaningful, engaging, challenging, and authentic learning opportunity for my students.  I’ve done some research this week, including participating in my first LIVE webinar, on PBLs, and realized that I have created multiple projects over the years for my students, but never a truly effective PBL opportunity.  So, I want to use what I’ve learned this week to create my first PBL unit for my new school.  While I know that my first unit will be focused on community, I don’t know much more than that.  So, now what?

  • In reverse, the last step would be to finalize the unit after having revised it based on feedback I received from various colleagues at my new school.
  • Prior to that, I would have put all of the pieces I’ve been working on together into a cohesive unit that would allow my students to demonstrate their ability to meet the learning targets I decided on at the start of this process in a meaningful and engaging manner.
  • Before that, I would figure out the pacing of the unit.  When would we go on our various field experiences versus in class work and learning.
  • Prior to doing that, I would figure out which field experiences we would embark upon during the unit.  As I’m sure that I will find many great places to visit regarding the history of Hopkinton, NH, I also know that I have limited time; thus, choosing the most meaningful and engaging ones would be an important step in the process.
  • Before doing that, I would create the in-class lessons and lab experiences that the students would complete during the unit.  What labs do I want the students to do to help them learn about the scientific method?  How will I go about teaching those lessons?
  • Before that, I would make sure that that the unit is indeed an effective PBL unit.  I would make sure that it includes opportunities for authentic learning, a finished product that would be shared with others, intellectually challenging learning, chances for the students to learn project management skills, group work, and an opportunity for the students to reflect on the entire process.
  • Prior to creating the lessons, I would create a skeletal outline of the unit.  What do I want to cover and how do I want to do it?  This part of the process will be crucial to understanding how everything else is going to come to fruition.
  • Before the unit can even begin to come together, I need to determine the learning targets I am going to use.  What objectives do I want to cover, and how can I transform them into student-friendly language?
  • The first step in the whole process of creating this unit is the planning and research.  What do I want to do?  How might I put it all together?  Who do I need to speak with to learn about the history of this new-to-me town?  How can I create an engaging and challenging unit for my students that will allow them to complete authentic and real-world learning?

That was quite challenging.  While I usually plan my units in reverse order anyway, that wasn’t the difficult part.  It was hard for me to think about the steps involved in the process of getting everything together.  However, it did offer me a chance to think about the entire process of constructing a new unit from a completely different perspective.  I’m not sure I would have created this same list of steps if I had put them together the way I have in the past, starting at the beginning.  I think I may have left out some steps if I did it in the traditional way of planning.  As I worked from the finish to the start, I was forced to contemplate my process from a different angle.  It was kind of cool, and super fun.  As this is a new school for me, in a new town, I have much work to do this summer to learn about the history of Hopkinton, NH.  I just discovered today that it was the first capital of the state.  Who knew?  Not me, for sure.  This process is also fun and exciting, as I realize that I get to meet a whole bunch of new historians and people affiliated with the town.  I get to hear new oral histories and learn a much about a new place.  That really fills me with glee.  I’ve already scheduled my first meeting at the Hopkinton Historical Society.  Yah for me!

So, as I dig into my new PBL unit on Our Community, I’m excited to learn much, try new things, take risks, and push myself as an educator.  Like I will require my students to do all year, I am going to challenge myself to be uncomfortable and put forth great effort to create the most engaging and meaningful PBL unit my new students have ever seen.  Well, maybe I’m setting the bar a bit too high for now.  How about I just try to do my best to create a great PBL unit on community?  That sounds like a more realistic goal for now.  So, off I go to learn, forward now.

Trying to Find Awesome in the Unknown

“It’s time to move on, time to get going.  What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing,” wrote the late and great Tom Petty.  These words certainly ring true for me.  While I’ve been teaching at my current school for 15 wonderful years, it’s time for me to begin the next chapter in my life.  It’s time for me to put my family first and head out into the great unknown.  And I am scared out of my wits.  Being a person who craves routine, taking this great leap makes me incredibly uncomfortable.  What if I fail?  What if it doesn’t work out?  Like the trailblazers before me, I need to trust that everything will work out as planned.  Now I just need to jump into the pool of endless possibility.  Scary?  Yes, terrifying.  But what if things go right?  What if this is the fork in the road I am supposed to take?

Yesterday, I was provided an amazing opportunity.  I was fortunate enough to attend an Open House at my new school.  I saw what will be my new fifth grade classroom for next year.  The windows and light in the room are phenomenal.  I can make a Reading Nook in the back left area of the room with a Maker Space on the opposite side.  I can get some movable tables and chairs for work spaces towards the front of the classroom.  The possibilities are so exciting.  I can’t wait to get in and set it up over the summer.

While churning the creative cogs in my brain was definitely super fun, my highlight from yesterday was meeting three of my new students.  They are amazing, creative, curious, intelligent, and wonderful young people.  They asked insightful questions and shared fun stories with me about their lives.  Although one of my goals for meeting my new students was to help them feel at ease with making the transition to a new school and classroom for the next academic year, I felt as though I learned more from them than they could have possibly gleaned from what little I said.  One of my students is a fantastic speller and wants my new school to host a school-wide spelling bee next year.  Awesome!  I can’t wait to see about setting something like that up for next year.  Another one of my students is way into fencing and taught me some of the crucial moves in the sport.  Awesome!  I can’t wait to learn more about this unique sport.  The other new student I met yesterday is quite the actress and can’t wait to dance around the classroom learning all about coding, engineering, and chemistry.  Awesome!  The energy these students brought with them yesterday was so contagious.  I can’t wait to help them unleash their potential in the classroom in a few short months.

After meeting my new students and their families, I had a lovely and engaging conversation with my new headmaster about the curriculum and program I will be working to create this summer.  I can’t wait to jump into formulating the interdisciplinary units to create a cohesive fifth grade program that will foster a strong sense of community, compassion, curiosity, growth mindset, and problem solving.  I want to empower my students to tackle any problem, with which they are faced, with enthusiasm.  The social studies curriculum will be the driving force for the theme of the core subjects.  The science and language arts pieces will grow out of this wonderful seed of ancient civilizations.  The students will learn about the native people that once inhabited the land that American’s now call home while digging into the scientific discoveries of the time.  We’ll be going outside to explore the natural world and learn about how the Native Americans made clothes, food, and so much more.  Every aspect of the fifth grade program will fit together to form a phenomenal community puzzle.  I am so excited about the endless possibilities that exist.  I can’t wait to get started.

Despite all of the unknowns that exist in this new adventure I am about to undertake with my family, the excitement and possibilities far outweigh the feelings of doubt that try to penetrate my mind from time to time.  While saying goodbye to the home I’ve known for many years is going to be difficult, it’s time for me to move on and tackle a new challenge.  So, get ready new school because here I come, cape and all.

Impromptu Superhero Fun in the Sixth Grade Classroom

As we know, our brain loves new and novelty things, which is why infomercials and those wacky Made for TV products are so popular.  Who wouldn’t love an easy way to put on socks or a pan made from copper, I mean, c’mon.  In the classroom, Kahoot! was super fun for my students the first few times I utilized it, and then it became just another activity.  Therefore, trying new things and taking risks in the classroom, helps educators keep their lessons fresh and their students engaged.  What’s really exciting is that this novelty engagement and learning can come in many forms.  Sometimes it can be in the form of a fun activity, new tech gadget or application, super cool project, or something else entirely.  Our students’ brains crave new and exciting images and chunks of information.  As teachers, we need to harness this power as much as possible.


Story Time in Verse

Writing in verse

allows me to

subtract the unnecessary

while adding meaning

through carefully

chosen words and images.

Thus, I will share a story

in the form of a poem…


Frigid, cold air penetrated

my bones like a scalpel

cutting into flesh.

BBBrrrr, I said as I

walked outside this morning.

Despite the calender telling

me it was April ninth,

everything in my cold car

screamed, WINTER!

Driving to school,

excitement replaced

the coolness in my bones

as I thought about

my Humanities lesson.

As ideas swirled about

my mind like ballerinas

in an antique shop,

the announcer on the radio

broke my concentration

when she said, “Ever

wonder what your superhero

name is?  Well, I’ll tell you

how you can find out

coming up on the morning show.”

What, I thought.  Why

can’t you just tell us now?

I don’t have time to wait

to find out how I can

determine my superhero name.

All of these questions

were quickly swept aside

as I walked to the dining hall.


Fortunately, my brain does

most of it’s best work

when I don’t even realize

I’m doing any thinking at all.

Later in the morning,

I remembered what the DJ

had said about superhero names.

While I used to think

that sliced bread was one

of the best inventions ever,

I now believe it is Google.

I Googled “Superhero Name

Generator” and found tons

of online resources.

Curiosity may have killed

the cat, but luckily, I’m no feline.

I ventured into one of these

fun websites and took a quiz

that allowed me to discover

my superhero name,

which happens to be Mr. Sunshine.

Fitting as I tend to be

optimistic and warm like

the sun.

All sorts of figurative

bells and whistles

began going off in my brain

as I started thinking about

how I could incorporate

this fun little activity

into my class.

That’s when it hit me,

take a risk and just

try the activity in class

with no real learning objective

or plan in mind

except to inspire and engage

the students in something

fun and novelty.

And so, I did just that…


The Experiment

I decided to wrap up my Reader’s Workshop block a bit early this morning so that I could complete this teenzy little activity with my students.  If a 40-year old man has fun creating a superhero name for himself, just imagine how excited sixth grade boys will be with this same task.  I introduced the activity with a shortened version of my driving to work story, which I shared in verse earlier in this very blog post.  I then shared my superhero name with the class, informing them that I would be perfectly fine if they decided to use my new superhero name, Mr. Sunshine, instead of the bland ol’ Mr. Holt that I usually go by.  They seemed quite amused by this.  Giggles erupted like a Hawaiian style volcanic eruption.  But, I didn’t stop there.  I then said, “But, I can’t have all the fun now, can I?  It’s time for you to determine your superhero name.”  I showed them how to find a superhero name generator online, and then let them run wild.  Laughter and excitement filled the classroom as they began crafting and discovering their superhero personas.  I closed the activity by having each of the students share their superhero name aloud with the class. This was the really fun part.  Some of the names included The Procrastinator, Dasheye, Super Flame, The Grouch, Witty Wonder, and Mr. McDab.  While some of them sounded more like super villain names, the students all seemed to be thoroughly engaged in this fun little break from the routine.

Now, you’re probably all asking yourself, “Where’s the learning in this?”  And, that is a fantastic question.  I’m not sure at this junction, but I wanted to take a risk and try something new.  I wanted to break from my normal routine and mix things up a bit.  Is it possible that learning did come about from this activity today without me even realizing it?  Were the students super excited at the end of class?  Yes.  Did this novelty activity stimulate something within their brain that might come to fruition in the near future?  Possibly.  Could I have the students use these names in some writing they will be doing very soon?  Yes.  In fact, I think I will try just that on Wednesday.  As they create Twitter exchanges using words in new and interesting ways, I will have them use their superhero names as the ones involved in the Twitter dialogue.  That should prove to be quite hysterical and fun.

As student engagement comes in many different forms, I wanted to try this activity with my students this morning to see what would happen.  Well, the good news is that fun happened.  My students had fun changing things up a bit and thinking creatively.  They were engaged as they created and chose superhero names.  Excitement and possibility filled the sixth grade classroom this morning.  Who knows what learning this short little break will inspire in the coming days within my students.  Perhaps nothing will happen, or maybe, something great or grand will crystallize from this activity.  Like great infomercial inventors of the past, I had to take a risk and try.  Maybe like the Flowbee, it will flop.  Or maybe, like the copper pan craze, it will be a huge success.  Only time will tell.

Reflecting on my March Break

As the sun sets over the hills, I’m feeling very reflective.  You see, today marks the end of my lengthy March vacation. During the first week, I lived on my couch as I recovered from the flu.  Being sick is horrible. I felt so helpless. Thankfully, I am blessed to have an amazing wife who took care of me and nursed me back to health.  During the second and third weeks of break, I did much school work. It was a ton of fun. I love planning new units, learning about new teaching practices, and finding out what other teachers do to help their students find success in and out of the classroom.  In between all of this work and healing, I spent tons of time with my family. We watched basketball and had fun together. That was my favorite part of the entire vacation. I felt alive again. I wasn’t just going through the motions like a robot, instead, I was experiencing life.  It felt amazing!

While on vacation, I did much research, reading, and thinking about teaching, and more specifically, learning about my research topic.  You see, this year I’ve focused my energy on gathering intel and data on how best to introduce and present new activities and projects to students.  Are rubrics the most effective way to do this? What makes an effective grading rubric? Do rubrics prevent students from being creative and solving problems?  So, I’ve devoted the past 10 months to trying to uncover the answers to the many questions I have about rubrics and project introductions. And what I’ve discovered isn’t too surprising, but has allowed me to think more closely about how I craft units and projects.

Throughout the course of this year, I’ve tried out numerous rubrics and project introductions to determine what works best.  I’ve even engaged my students in a discussion on the topic, explaining my research project to them. My conclusion is this, grading rubrics and project introductions only do so much.  Those students who strive for academic success, will triumphantly complete any task thrown their way with or without a grading rubric or project overview sheet. They will do well no matter what, because they want to do well.  Those students who struggle academically don’t often reference the rubrics while working because they haven’t found their passion yet, in most cases. So, spending the time to craft a relevant and useful rubric is futile as most of the students don’t even give rubrics a second glance while working on a project or task.  So really, rubrics and project introductions make no difference in how the students perform on various projects and activities.

This then got me thinking…  So, how can I help engage all of my students in a way that allows them to see the relevance in what we’re doing in the classroom?  How can I create projects and assignments that get my students excited about the prospect of learning and doing? How can I help all of my students see the value in learning and growing in school?  Simple, it comes down to the project or task itself. Is it interesting? Is it engaging? Is it relevant to my students? Will it be fun for the students? Will it challenge students while also providing support for those who need it?  

So, during the month of February, my students worked on a research project regarding Africa.  I constructed it in a manner that provided the students with much choice and flexibility. Here’s what that project looked like for the students…

What’s This New Project All About?

Hey, do you remember how at the start of the year we talked about the purpose of PEAKS class?  How it’s the most important class you will take while at Cardigan? How it will help you learn and understand the basic, foundational skills you will need to be a successful student at Cardigan and beyond?  Well, here is a prime example of how PEAKS class can and will support you as a student…

Now that you understand the importance of using an open mind when learning about new people and places to prevent the use and creation of stereotypes, it’s time for you to venture out into the world of the unknown regarding Africa.  What do you wonder about the continent of Africa? What do you want to know more about? Sure, you know about the basic geography of Africa, but what about the specifics of the Nile River or how the Atlas Mountains impact northern Africa?  What about the people of Africa and the forms of government used in the numerous countries within the great continent? So, go forth, challenge yourself, and learn more about the amazing and mysterious continent of Africa.

What Now?

  1. This is a solo project, which means you will be embarking upon this adventure on your own.
  2. Start by creating a New Document in the Humanities Folder of your Google Drive.  Title it Africa Project and share it with Mr. Holt. You will use this Google Doc to record your research process.
  3. Choose a lense through which you want to study Africa: People, Government, or Geography.  Record in Google Doc.
  4. Choose a specific topic, about Africa, that you want to learn more about regarding the lense you chose.  Examples: Nile River’s Impact on Eastern Africa, How the Government of Sudan Led to War in the Country, Compare and Contrast Governments of Zimbabwe and South Africa, Tribes of the Sahara, etc.  Record in Google Doc.
  5. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be sure you’ve chosen a challenging and appropriate topic.
  6. Find at least three reputable sources regarding your topic.  Your sources could be print sources, online sources, or interviews.  Record in Google Doc.
  7. For each source, explain how you know it will provide you with the information you are looking for.  Record in Google Doc.
  8. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be assessed on your ability to choose reputable resources.
  9. Create an MLA-style Sources Used page in your Google Doc for your three sources.
  10. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be assessed on your ability to utilize the MLA format when documenting sources used.
  11. Now you’re ready to start digging for knowledge nuggets.
  12. Choose a note taking form to record your findings: Bullet-Style or Two-Column Style.
  13. Take notes from each of your sources.  Be sure to include lots of fun, interesting, and important information regarding your topic.
  14. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be assessed on your ability to extract information from a source.
  15. Here comes the really fun part of the project.
  16. How do you want to present what you’ve learned about your topic?  Poster, Trading Cards, Speech, Historical Fiction Story, Play, Report, Diorama, etc.
  17. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be sure you’ve chosen an appropriate vehicle to present your research findings.
  18. Create your visual aide.
  19. Meet with Mr. Holt or Ms. Levine to be assessed on your ability to think critically and be creative.
  20. Now, here comes the hard part.  Get ready for the challenge of your life.
  21. Participate in the first-ever Learning Exposition, in which you will present your visual aide and what you’ve learned about your topic and research process to visitors.  Be prepared to answer difficult questions, wow the visitors, and teach others about your unique and engaging topic.
  22. Reflect on your learning process.

On What Am I Being Graded?

PEAKS Class Graded Objectives

  • Students will be able to choose reputable resources regarding a research topic.
  • Students will be able to utilize the MLA format for citations when documenting sources for a research project.
  • Students will be able to extract important facts and information, in written form, from various resources.
  • Students will be able to convey information orally to an audience regarding a specific topic.

Humanities Class Graded Objectives

  • Students will be able to think critically about a topic in order to compile relevant and appropriate notes.
  • Students will be able to utilize creativity when making a relevant yet unique visual aide regarding a research topic.
  • Students will be able to design an engaging presentation for an audience regarding a specific topic.

When is Everything Due?

  • You must choose your lense and topic by the start of class on Saturday, February 10.
  • You must choose your three reputable sources by the start of class on Wednesday, February 14.
  • You must complete your MLA Sources Used page by the end of Humanities class on Wednesday, February 14.
  • You must have your notes completed by the start of class on Friday, February 23.
  • You must have your visual aide finished by the start of class on Friday, March 2.
  • Learning Exposition will take place on Saturday, March 3.

That’s it.  Nothing more specific than that.  No formal grading rubric, just an overview of the project.  That’s all I equipped the students with. I introduced the project in a way that highlighted the freedom and choice with which they were provided.  While I didn’t go into detail about each aspect of the project, I did answer all of the questions the students had about the expectations of the project.  Throughout the project, I made sure to do that. I didn’t give information unless they asked for it, and even then, I generally answered their question with a question.  I want my students to learn how to solve their own problems by using creativity and perseverance.

The result?  The boys loved it.  They had so much fun with this project.  Almost every student when above and beyond my wildest dreams and expectations.  Although they only had to create one visual aid, many of them had numerous pieces to share with the audience members during the exposition in the class.  The advanced students in my class challenged themselves to learn as much as possible while creating an engaging and relevant presentation, and the students who sometimes struggle in class, challenged themselves to learn much and step outside of their comfort zone.  They all worked so diligently on this project in and out of the classroom. They asked for feedback and used much of their free time to exceed any expectation they felt I had set for them. It was amazing. I created an engaging and relevant project that allowed all of my students to meet and exceed the objectives.  Even without a specific and detailed grade rubric, my students rocked this project like it was a concert.

This experience helped me to prove and solidify what I had hypothesized after collecting much data earlier in the year.  It’s not about what you tell the students in terms of the expectations for a project or task, it’s about the task or activity itself.  Is it engaging and fun? If it is, the students will learn much, utilize their problem-solving and creative skills, ask questions when confused, and meet or exceed the graded objectives.  As teachers, it’s not about how clear and specific we are with the graded expectations of an assignment. It’s about getting the students excited without telling them too much. Let them wonder and make noticings on their own.

As I came to this grand realization, I found myself thinking about how I can transform my curriculum for the remainder of the year to make it more engaging and fun for the students.  How can I get them DOING the learning? Over the course of my school’s March Break, I spent much time creating a brand new Humanities unit that will have my students talking with and to each other, discussing big ideas, writing poetry and plays, playing with words, acting out a play, creating new words, discussing the power of words, and learning the ins and outs of the English language.  After I mapped out the unit in a day by day format, I looked at what I want and need the students to learn regarding figurative language. I thought about each lesson, activity and project in terms of engagement. Will these tasks and lessons engage my students? Will they be learning relevant skills and content that they will be able to apply to their future English and history courses? Will they enjoy the activities and have fun learning about words and the power they hold?  This exercise and experience wasn’t about creating strict and detailed expectations on how the students will be graded and assessed, oh no. It was all about making sure that my students will be engaged in the learning process. If they are interested in what they are learning about, their brains will do the rest.

For me, this year has been transformative.  I’ve realized that rubric or not, it’s about the lesson and learning task itself.  I need to create units and lessons that will intrigue and challenge my students in new and unique ways.  I need to get them excited about what we are learning. If I can do that, then the rest will easily fall into place.  After a productive and restful March Break, I feel more alive about teaching and education than I have in a long time.  I’m ready to engage my students in the learning process in relevant and meaningful ways. I’m ready to challenge them to think critically, ask difficult questions, take risks, be creative, try new things, fail, and have fun as we embark upon the final nine weeks of the academic year.  No more feeling like a robot. It’s time for me to think like my students and find ways to ensure that I am reaching and engaging all of my students so that they can reach their full potential in the sixth grade.