Posted in Education, Humanities, Learning, Presentation, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

The Stress of Being Observed by a Colleague

After having been teaching for over 16 years, you’d think I’d be comfortable when peers or mentors join my classroom to observe me, my students, and my teaching in order to provide me with feedback to help me grow and develop as an educator.  You’d think that, but unfortunately, that’s not the case.  I still get a case of the jitters every time a fellow teacher observes me.  Despite knowing that their purpose and goals are all positive and coming from a helpful place, I still get nervous and anxious whenever I’m being observed by a colleague.  I couldn’t tell you why I’m filled with such worry every time someone tries to provide me with constructive feedback on how I can grow as a teacher.  Maybe I’m worried that I will mess up and embarrass myself or perhaps I’m scared that I won’t demonstrate effective teaching practices.  Maybe I’m thinking that I might lose my job if I mess up.  While these are all possibly true worries, I can’t allow them to penetrate my brain while I’m teaching and being observed.  I need to separate my worries from the present.  I need to apply the mindful techniques I’m teaching to my students, to me.  I need to be present in the moment and focus only on that, and nothing else.  I need to learn to not hold onto my worries or fears as let them eat away at me.  I need to forget that I’m being observed and focus on teaching my students.

Yesterday provided me with yet another opportunity to practice living in the moment and being mindful when I’m being observed by a fellow teacher.  A colleague of mine came to observe me today as part of the three-year teacher development process of which I’m in the midst.  I knew he was coming and so made sure that I was very prepared.  I had photocopies made, a relevant agenda slide prepared, and lots of specific ideas on how to execute today’s lesson with poise and precision.  I felt completely ready to go.  Then, my fear and anxiety took over, and all of the great ideas and precise words and phrases I had intended to use were lost.  I didn’t freeze up or totally mess up the lesson, but I just felt off.  Things didn’t seem to go as I had planned them in my mind.

My plan for Saturday’s lesson introducing the historical fiction story final project…

  • Tell a story about how Mrs. Dunkerton contacted me after Wednesday’s field experience to issue a challenge to the students.
  • Remind the students that this project is like the big game for our unit on Canaan.
  • Discuss and explain the project overview and rubric sheet to the class.
  • Field questions the students have.
  • Explain what the students will do to begin working.
  • Meet with small groups of students to discuss the grading rubric and be sure the students feel completely comfortable with the expectations.
  • Observe the students as they work.
  • Have volunteers share lines or parts of their story aloud with the class.

Instead, because concern and worry wormed its way into my brain as class began, things got slightly off track…

  • While I told the story about Mrs. Dunkerton contacting me regarding a writing challenge for my students, I didn’t properly explain why she wanted us to do this.  I focused more on the conversation with her and not on the meat of the story itself.  I was trying to draw the students into the project with a fictional story writing contest but felt as though I didn’t explain it well at all.  My explanation felt verbose and clunky.  The message seemed lost.
  • I then jumped right into the project overview sheet without reminding the students how this project is like the big game for our Canaan unit.  I explained the process in an awkward and overly specific manner.  It didn’t feel right to me.
  • I then fielded the very few questions the students had, which I would usually take as a good sign, but it felt strange in the moment.  As I worried that I didn’t explain the project and expectations well, I was sure the students were confused, but there were only one or two questions.  I wondered how well they will be able to work on this project.
  • I then explained how the students will begin the writing process, again in a very verbose manner.  When I get nervous, I tend to repeat myself and over talk.  I probably said way too much.
  • I then met with my students in three separate, small groups.  The first group contained my ELLs.  I wanted to meet with them first so that I knew they completely understood what was being asked of them and how they were being assessed.  I went over each part of the rubric, having one of the students read the sentences aloud.  I then explained what that meant to the group.  A few of the students asked some clarifying questions.  One student seemed a bit confused, but his English proficiency is so very low.  He did eventually seem to get it and was working in a meaningful manner.  The second group contained two students who tend to struggle processing information in oral form.  I went over the rubric with them and explained each part.  They seemed to get it and asked only a few follow-up questions.  The final group I met with included my advanced English students.  For this group, I had them read over the rubric individually and then fielded any questions they had.  They had only one question.
  • I then walked around the classroom, observing the students as they worked.  They all seemed quite focused and engaged in the project.  However, because I had spent too much time earlier in the period explaining the project, I had only about two minutes to monitor the students as they worked.
  • I had no time to have students share their writing aloud with the class.  So, instead, I asked a question, “How many of you are loving your story and how it’s coming together?”  Many of the students raised their hands for this one, which felt promising.  I then reminded the students of their homework and what we’d be doing after Morning Break.  I do regret not having time for the students to share their work aloud with their peers, as this tends to be something they love doing.

As I reflect, in writing, on this process, it doesn’t seem that it went as poorly as originally thought.  The students seemed engaged in the writing process and seemed to understand what they were being assessed on.  Despite not introducing the project exactly as I had wanted to, I feel like I still did a pretty good job introducing and selling the students on the project.  I liked that I met with my class in smaller groups to go over the grading requirements as they had a chance to ask questions and feel at ease with what was being asked of them.  This process went very well.  While I do wish that I hadn’t been as mentally preoccupied as I was with being observed yesterday, the lesson went well overall.  I think I may have rushed to the conclusion that the lesson didn’t go well, which just goes to show how important the reflection process is.  Because I reflected on yesterday’s lesson in writing today, I was able to see that things didn’t go as poorly as I had thought.  I would like to work on better controlling my thoughts and emotions when being observed though.  That is one thing that never changed in how I thought about my lesson from yesterday.  I was overly stressed about being observed by a colleague.  Hopefully when I’m observed again, I won’t be quite so nervous.  I just need to work on being more mindful, like I’m asking of my students on a daily basis.  I now need to practice what I preach.

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Posted in Co-Teacher, Co-Teaching, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Presentation, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

Embracing Teachable Moments for Teachers

Teachable moments aren’t solely reserved for students, oh no.  Anyone can experience and learn from a mistake, choice, or action.  You don’t need to be a student in a classroom to learn from something you did.  Think of the greatest minds and innovators of our time: Albert Einstein, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan to name a few.  They all suffered great setbacks early in their lives that they learned from.  Albert Einstein was kicked out of school because of his poor behavior, Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first on-air job, and Michael Jordan didn’t earn a spot on his high school’s varsity basketball team when he first tried out.  Of course, we all know that they learned from their mistakes or learnable/teachable moments and went onto to change the world.  Any person can learn from their past errors, not just students in a classroom.

Today, my co-teacher and I experienced a learnable moment that caused us to completely change our lesson.  Walking to our classroom this morning, my co-teacher and I discussed the lesson we had planned for our first period study skills class.

“So, are you all set for PEAKS class today,” I asked my co-teacher as we left the dining commons to head to our classroom.

“Yeah, I’m all set.  We’re going to finish that worksheet from last time,” she responded.

“Ahh, no.  I did that on Wednesday during your unscheduled morning.  You’re doing the study plan, remember?” I said, concerned that I had messed up and hadn’t informed her of the proper lesson plan.

“Umm, I don’t remember that, but I can fix it,” she quickly responded back as we walked into the classroom.

I then worked with my co-teacher to help her revise the agenda slide to reflect the accurate lesson plan.  As she was typing in the new topic for today’s class, I remembered that the students were going to be taking a test in her math class next week.  So, I said, “That’s cool that we’re discussing making study plans today.  Maybe they could make one for their math test.”

She then responded, “Yeah, that’s right.”

At that point, I was inspired.  “Wait a minute,” I said, “Let’s change things up a bit.  Let’s not use this boring worksheet I created but instead have the students create a study plan for their math test.  Yes.  I will model how to create a study plan and then they will make their own.  What do you think?”

She loved the idea, and so we changed the agenda slide one more time.

Today’s class was a huge success as each student created his very own study plan to prepare for next week’s math assessment.  The students know what they need to do to get ready.  Not only did we teach them a valuable strategy for planning ahead and making good use of their time to properly study for an exam, we also had them apply the skill to practice getting ready for an exam they have in class next week.  Talk about interdisciplinary work.  And to think that this brilliant plan and idea would not have been fostered had my co-teacher had the agenda slide properly completed for class.  Because of some miscommunication between the two of us, we were able to revise today’s lesson and craft a more meaningful and relevant activity based on the nucleus of the original idea.  Making a mistake lead to a Eureka moment for us both.  We better helped the students learn how to enhance their learning and study habits by changing what we had first planned.  The moral of this epic story is that learnable or teachable moments happen for everyone; you just need to be prepared to take in the lesson or learning.

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Learning, New Ideas, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

Making our Makerspace Even More Maker-Friendly with the Makey Makey

While the name is certainly fun to say, I feel as though it doesn’t truly encapsulate the awesomeness and possibilities provided by the Makey Makey.  It’s a toy, tool, new gadget, game pad, circuit board, keyboard, and so much more.  It’s a small box filled with endless projects and solutions.  After happening upon this fun little resource a few years back, I thought that it was high time to really learn more about it and find useful ways to incorporate it into our sixth grade curriculum, which is why one of my professional goals for the summer was to become better versed in using this learning tool.  So, I spent many hours tinkering, trying new things, and exploring the online tutorials in order to fully grasp what’s possible with this fun little tool called the Makey Makey.

While we will be adding several Makey Makeys to our classroom Makerspace for this upcoming academic year, this resource could also be utilized in Humanities, PEAKS, and STEM classes.  There are so many possibilities that exist with this tiny little gadget.  Combined with other elements including materials and the coding program Scratch, the Makey Makey could be used as a solution to a problem, project possibility, or almost anything else our students can dream up.  I’ve even thought about having the students use this resource during our unit on the brain in PEAKS class as they explore growth mindset and the plasticity of the brain.  The Makey Makey Website is filled with creative ideas and possible uses of this innovative learning tool.  I can’t wait to see what the students create and design with the Makey Makey come September.

I created an enticing little Screencast O Matic video of my fun time with the Makey Makey to inspire and ignite the spark of learning within my future sixth graders.  A big thanks goes out to the amazing, skilled, and innovative thinkers at MIT for creating such amazing learning tools such as the Makey Makey and Scratch.  I can’t wait for my students to learn all about circuits and computer coding through the use of these fine tools.  I wish I could use the Makey Makey to create a fast forward button so that I could skip ahead to September to watch my students build, explore, fail, try something new, and have fun learning with the Makey Makey.  Perhaps my wish could indeed come true if I just keep tinkering and playing, as I’m sure there is some way I can use alligator clips to manipulate time and space.  Anything’s possible…

Posted in Curriculum, Education, Learning, New Ideas, Planning, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, Student Support, Students, Summer Reading, Teaching, Trying Something New

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Education, Reflection, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

Reflection on My Professional Goals for the Year

It’s time to take a trip in the wayback machine.  Let’s set the clock for September of 2016.  The academic year had just begun and excitement was in the air.  My class was off to a great start and I was thinking of ways to grow and improve as an educator.  To challenge myself to improve as an educator, I set some goals for myself.  They weren’t overly lofty goals but they did push me to be better able to support and challenge my students.  Now, fast forward to May of 2017.  The school year is four days away from completion.  It’s been an awesome year in the sixth grade.  Each and everyone of my students has grown and improved in so many ways.  I’m really going to miss this group.  They’ve impressed me throughout the year due to their effort and compassion.  They are a kind group of intelligent and creative young men.  I am one of the luckiest teachers I know because I had the pleasure of working with them this year.  Like my students, I’ve grown and changed a lot throughout this year as well.  I’ve become more patient and open to allowing for flexibility in the classroom.  I learned a little bit about computer coding.  I learned how to almost solve a Rubik’s Cube.  I became the math teacher that I have always wanted to be.  I could go on and on, but I won’t as I’m sure you all have far better things to do than read about my amazing school year.  Instead, my blog today will focus on the progress I made in working towards meeting the two professional goals I set for myself at the start of the academic year.

Goal Number 1: Learn to better support and help the ESL students in my class.

  • Although I did not finish reading the professional development book I started back in October that I had hoped would provide me many great strategies regarding this goal, Educating English Learners by Loyce Nutta, Carine Strebel, Kouider Mokhtar, Florin M. Mihai, and Edwidge Crevecoeur-Bryant, I did make strides in this area.  I tried some new techniques in working with the ELL students in my class.  I tried simplifying the English vocabulary I used and found other pictorial ways to explain directions or new ideas to those students.  I also spent lots of time working with this group of students outside of class to provide them the one-on-one support they needed to get to the place at which they are today.  I am impressed by how much each of the ESL students in my class have grown this year.  Their English vocabulary improved exponentially while their written and oral comprehension also grew quite immensely.  By implementing new and different strategies throughout the year, I was able to best support and challenge the ELL learners in my class.  While I am far from an expert on this topic and will finish reading the book I started almost a year ago, this summer, I do feel as though I made progress in working towards this goal.  I wouldn’t say that I completely met or exceeded this goal, but I did focus much energy, especially early on in the year, in learning new approaches to best supporting and helping the ESL students in my class.

Goal Number 2: Follow through on the new curriculum add-ons I started this year.

  • In trying to tackle quite a few new activities and lessons this year, I might have set my sights a bit too high.  While I didn’t set myself up for failure by any means, I do feel as though I tried to implement too many new things in the classroom this year: I tried to use Khan Academy as a challenging supplemental to the math curriculum for my STEM course; I tried to have the students learn computer coding by using the online application Code Combat; I tried to have the students all learn how to solve the Rubik’s Cube; I tried to have the forest plot project stretch the entire year.  With four new activities and lessons, one or two were bound to slip through the cracks.
  • I feel as though I did a fine job having the students regularly, on a weekly basis, use Khan Academy to fill in gaps in their math learning and to challenge themselves to grow and develop as math students.  Each and every student made progress with his account on Khan Academy throughout the year as I graded them on their effort and performance of concepts mastered.
  • The change in the forest plot project for this year was also a huge success.  With the exception of three months in the winter, the students went outside once almost every week to note changes in their plot, learn about the flora and fauna living in their plot, and think like a naturalist.  The students will be completing the final portion of this project on Monday when they create a flipbook of their plot through the seasons.
  • These first two changes I made this year were quite successful.  Although I didn’t devote as much time to the Rubik’s Cube and Code Combat, I do feel as though I put forth great effort to keep these alive throughout the year.
  • The students used Code Combat at least once almost every week throughout the year as they learned all about the Python coding language.  While I wanted to do more with this and really help the students to see why this skill of computer coding may be a crucial life skill for them to possess, I really just had them work on the program independently or with a partner.  I didn’t follow any of the lesson plans or other activities provided on the website to really give this activity clout in the minds of the students.  A few of the students really struggled with this program and I didn’t do much to support or help them.  If I were to continue this next year, I would front load more lessons and activities at the start of the year before they even got into the application itself.  I would make this skill more relevant to their life and goals.
  • I had similar struggles with the teaching of the skill of solving the Rubik’s Cube.  As I only really memorized how to solve the first two layers of the cube, I couldn’t offer much support to my boys on how to finish the final layer.  While half of my students met the goal I set for them at the start of the year, the other half were unable to solve the Rubik’s Cube.  Despite providing them time in class almost weekly, because I was unable to fully support and help them understand the final stages of solving the cube, they were unable to meet this challenge.  If I were to tackle this same skill next year, I would make sure that I knew exactly how to solve the cube from start to finish.  That way, I would be better able to help support those students who struggled to figure out how to solve it on their own.
  • While I don’t feel that I met this goal this year, I do feel as though I courageously worked towards it and persevered through to the end. I never gave up and tried to be mindful of all four new activities so that none of them would completely slip through the cracks.  I kept up with every one of them, just not at the level I would have liked.

As another year winds to a close here on the Point, I’m reminded of the many changes my students and I went through this year.  We all grew and developed in many ways.  While my students met many of the goals they set for themselves this year, I too made great strides towards meeting my goals.  While I didn’t successfully meet either of them, I am pleased with my progress.  I developed a lot as an educator this year and can’t wait to see what amazing professional challenges I attempt to tackle this summer.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Learning, Math, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

When Things Don’t Go as Planned in the Classroom

I like to think of myself as a classroom prognosticator.  I feel as though I am generally quite good at predicting the future in my classroom.  I know that if two particular students sit together, they will chat and distract each other all day long.  I also know that my students will be excited in Humanities class on Monday because they love Reader’s Workshop.  My crystal spherical object usually points me in the right direction.  Because I spend so much time planning and preparing for lessons, activities, and field trips, I almost always know how things will go in the classroom.  I need extra time for some lessons and less time for others.  I know these things to be true because I’ve experienced them before.  New things, lessons, or activities, on the other hand, are a different beast entirely.  While I am still pretty good at predicting how new things will go in the classroom, every once in awhile my prediction turns out to be wrong.  Now, why is this, you must be asking yourself.  If I am so good at reading the future on a daily basis, why do I struggle with predicting the outcome of new events?  It’s those unknown factors.  What if the technology doesn’t work properly?  What if students don’t understand my directions?  What if there is a fire drill during the lesson?  Those unknown variables are the ones that mess me up.  They are my kryptonite.  Although I try to prepare for every unknown situation, it’s just not possible.  I occasionally miss one or two variables every time I plan a new lesson.  Generally, those variables are so minute or not relevant that the lesson usually will still usually go as planned; however, there are exceptions to every rule.

Today saw one of those exceptions play out in my STEM class.  My goal was to help the students learn how to use the flashcard making application Quizlet to create flashcards for the vocabulary terms we’ve covered in our math unit.  I had the list of words already prepared and posted to our learning management system.  I checked it twice yesterday to make sure that it still worked.  I played around with Quizlet to be sure I knew how to navigate the website as well.  I even made a test set of flashcards to try out the games and test.  I felt ready and prepared.  I had thought of everything, except the biggest, most crucial part: What if the students can’t locate the vocabulary terms in their math book?  I failed to think about how they would locate the terms in their book.  What if the definition wasn’t in their book?  What if they needed to infer the meaning of the word from the book?  What if they couldn’t remember a certain concept?  Then what are they supposed to do?

After explaining the activity to the students, modeling how to use Quizlet, and answering all of their questions, I let them get to work.  Soon after they started working, the questions started pouring in.  “I can’t find the definition.  What if I don’t know what the word means?  I don’t understand this word?” many of the students said as they worked on the task of making math vocabulary flashcards.  I had forgotten to tell them how to use their book to find the words and what to do when a word wasn’t directly defined in the text.  While most students were able to draw conclusions on their own to solve the task, a few students struggled to complete this task because of the directions I had omitted.  Had I better explained this portion of the activity, they might have felt more successful and needed less of my support.  What I thought was going to take 15 minutes, ended up taking more than 30 minutes to complete.

The moral of this story is, I can’t predict the future no matter how hard I try.  Unknown variables are called that because no one knows what they are.  They are unknown for a reason.  I can’t possibly plan for every single issue, dilemma, or happening.  Luckily, I rolled with today’s lesson and most every student was able to finish the task by the end of class.  I felt a bit off though because I hadn’t properly prepared my students to complete the activity successfully.  Next time, I need to be sure I model how to complete the task and not just how to use the technology tool.  At the end of the period, I shared my thoughts and noticings with the students.  I explained how I thought this activity was going to be short and simple but ended up being a bit convoluted and took much longer than anticipated.  I shared with the boys how I need to better prepare for an activity like this in the future.  I need to be sure I show them how to complete an activity like this.  Although today’s STEM lesson didn’t go entirely as planned, it taught me an important life lesson and allowed me to show vulnerability to my students.  Even teachers make mistakes.  With a growth mindset, failure can quickly be transformed into an opportunity to learn.

Posted in Challenges, Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

What’s the Best Method for Helping Students Learn About Music?

In the summer before my fifth grade year of school, a big decision stared me straight in the face?  What instrument should I play in school?  Saxophone?  Clarinet?  Drums?  Students had the option to play an instrument in the fifth grade at my school.  While we didn’t have to do anything, many of my friends were talking about which instrument they were going to choose, and so I felt like I needed to fit in.  I didn’t really want to play an instrument, but I succumbed to peer pressure anyway.  So, I chose the clarinet.  Lets just say that it’s not the sexiest of instruments to play, but I went with it anyway.  After about three weeks, I gave up and stopped playing because the lessons were during recess.  What fifth grade boy wants to miss recess to learn how to play a musical instrument?  Not me.  The lessons were all about repetition and rote memorization.  Everybody had to do the same thing at the same time.  This method of learning about music didn’t work for me.  I do however, to this very day, still wish I hadn’t given up on the clarinet.  I wish I had persevered and stuck with it.  Listening to and enjoying music is a big part of my life, and I wish I knew how to read music or play a musical instrument.  Perhaps, if I had been taught the true value of learning to play an instrument or had a more engaging instructor, I might be playing in the philharmonic orchestra somewhere in the world right now instead of posting a reflection on my awesome day of teaching.  I’m glad I’m where I am doing what I love though.

Teaching is all about engaging students in the content.  While I’m not a music teacher, I do feel obligated to impart some musical knowledge and wisdom to my students.  I want them to understand the power of music.  Music, like a photograph, speaks volumes without saying anything at all.  We can learn so much about people, culture, and history from studying music.  As a teacher, I want to be sure my students understand the great power that music holds.

Today in Humanities class, I lead a foray into the music of the Middle East Region.  We’ve been learning all about the region, forms of government, types of religion, and roles of women in this region of the world.  For our final mini-lesson on this region, I wanted to help the students piece everything we’ve been giving them together, and what better way to do that than through music.  First, I introduced some of the basic instruments used by musicians in the Middle East.  We listened to the sound that each made.  Then I shared three different pieces of music from that region with the students.  The first piece was a traditional piece of Arabic folk music that made use of many of the instruments we discussed in the opening of the lesson.  I then had the boys listen to a modern piece of Arabic pop music.  The final song was a piece of traditional Jewish music from the region.  Following each piece, we discussed what they noticed, similarities and differences.  We didn’t dig into the complexities of music composition or anything deep like that.  Instead, I wanted the students to share their thoughts and feelings on the pieces.  How did the music make you feel?  What can we learn about the culture of the Middle East Region from listening to these pieces of music?  The students provided great fodder for our discussion.  They noticed things that I hadn’t even thought about.  They heard so much more in the pieces than just the music.  It was amazing.  The boys shared the emotions that were conjured up by the pieces.  “This pieces sounds energetic and happy.  It doesn’t sound like it would come from the Middle East region based on what we’ve learned about this part of the world.”  We had a great discussion on a region of the world and its music.  We talked about history, music, religion, and culture all by simply listening to music.  The students were so engaged that I ended up not being able to call on every student who wanted to participate due to lack of time in the period.  We could have spent the rest of the morning talking about music and what it teaches us as they were that into it.

Unlike my horrible experience with music instruction in school, I’m trying to provide my students with opportunities to see music as something more than instruments and reading music.  Sure, some students in my class do play an instrument and take lessons outside of the academic day.  That’s amazing.  I’m so impressed that they have the wherewithal to do that, as I didn’t when I was their age.  I want my students to see the power that music holds as well.  Music is not just about sounds and words, it’s about emotions, feelings, history, culture, dance, and so much more.  Music is an experience, and I feel as though I was able to convey this idea to my students today through our short mini-lesson on the music of the Middle East Region.  They seemed curious and engaged.  Perhaps they will learn more about music outside of class on their own as their appetite for more was awakened in the classroom today.  Maybe, or maybe not.  Perhaps most of my students walked away from class today feeling like they got just enough musical knowledge and will not dig any deeper.  That’s okay too, as long as my students don’t see music as something unfun.  I want them to see that music is about life and can be fun and engaging.  Luckily, I feel like I did that today for most of my students.

Was my method of music instruction the best way to teach students about music?  Maybe not.  Was the way my band teacher tried to teach me the most effective method of music instruction?  Clearly not for me.  What about other methods?  What about other vehicles?  What other engaging ways could we teach music to our students?  Digital music making?  Music history?  Music analysis?  Is one way of teaching students to see the value in music better than others?  Does every method work for every student?  Of course not.  As teachers, we need to try new things and take risks like we want our students to do.  We need to learn, try things, fail, and try something different.  Like teaching any subject or content area, there isn’t just one way to teach, but there is always one outcome that we should be shooting for– engagement.  In order for students to learn, they need to be interested and engaged in the content.  So, whatever we choose to teach, music or any other subject for that matter, we need to remember to make it exciting, relevant, and interesting for our students.

Posted in Challenges, Curriculum, Education, Learning, Risk Taking, STEM, Teaching, Trying Something New

Why Do We Need to Teach Our Students to Be Creative Problem Solvers?

Problem solving was not a skill taught when I was a student in school many eons ago.  School back then was all about rote memorization, following directions, and doing exactly what the teacher told you to do.  There was no wiggle room when I was in school.  If the teacher said you needed to use complete sentences to answer the questions, you failed the assignment if you did not use complete sentences, even if you answered the question correctly and used support to back your claim.  Creativity and problem solving were not skills we were ever introduced to or had a chance to practice. In fact, when we did get creative or showcase our ability to problem solve as students, we were penalized. “That’s not what I told you to do.  You need to write an essay explaining why America got involved in WWII, not create a poster.  You are so very wrong.  Now you must redo this assignment by tomorrow morning or you will fail the course.”  It was all or nothing back then.  School for me seemed to be more about falling into line and being a drone than it did learning anything useful.

As a teacher, I’m trying to break free from the constraints of what our society once thought school should be.  School is a place to learn, engage and interact with the content and skills, practice failing and solving problems, and be creative and take risks.  Great, effective classrooms encourage creativity and foster a student-centered approach to education.  The students are provided options and choice to showcase their learning and growth as students.  There is no one way to complete a task or meet an objective.  School is a fun-filled adventure where anything is possible and dreams come true.

If we want our students to be able to live meaningful lives in a global society that is rich in pollution, crime, unpredictable weather due to climate change, and many other problems, then we need to equip our students with the necessary tools.  People no longer have a use for memorizing information as we can access it with the touch of a button.  People need to know how to find creative solutions to problems and think critically about the world around them.  We are living in an ever-changing world and we need to prepare our students accordingly.

In STEM class today, my students began working on the final project for our unit on climate change.  Understanding what climate change is, how it came to be a serious issue, and how it is impacting our planet, it is not enough for my students.  I want them to see beyond the information and content.  I want them to apply this knowledge to creating a solution that addresses the issue of climate change.  What can humans do to make a difference and help slow down or reduce our human impact on Earth?  So, the students, working in pairs, brainstormed possible ideas and solutions to the global problem of climate change.  The students used their critical thinking skills to the max today as they sketched ideas, researched information, and created some creative and unique solutions.  I was so impressed.

Some of the ideas my students brainstormed today included:

  • Attach tiny solar panels to the side pieces of eyeglasses that will collect the sun’s energy and store it in a small USB battery device that would be attached to the end of the ear piece.  This battery could then be used to charge electronic devices.  This solution would help reduce the amount of electricity needed to power gadgets, thus reducing the amount of carbon being released into our atmosphere.
  • Create a small-scale greenhouse within a large tube that would be attached to the top of smokestacks of factories.  The pollution being released from the factories would be filtered through various carbon-absorbing plants.  The air and gas would then be released into the atmosphere, containing a lot less carbon and other harmful greenhouse gasses.
  • Build a robot that would float around in the world’s oceans, sensing salt levels.  When the salinization level becomes too low, the robot would release salt into the water to help maintain a healthy balance of salt within the sea water.  This invention would hopefully help to keep sea life healthy and safe.

Wow!  My students are brilliant.  These ideas were certainly not the first creations they devised today in class.  The students would come to me with their ideas and I would ask questions, probing them to think about the feasibility of their idea.  Most of the initial ideas the students brought to me today were not the ones they are using to complete this project.  By challenging the students to think critically and complete more research, they were able to devise new and exciting ideas and solutions.  Perseverance was alive in the sixth grade classroom this morning.  The students worked with their partner to find a way to make the world a safer and better place for all living organisms.  Not only were the students engaged in this activity and having fun, they were creating real solutions that could one day be in use around the globe to help reduce our human impact on climate change.

In almost every STEM project or activity my students complete, I empower them to solve problems and think creatively.  I don’t need them to regurgitate information learned onto a worksheet or poster, I need them to synthesize what they are learning to answer questions and solve problems.  As the students of today will become the leaders of tomorrow, I need them to know how to encounter problems, solve them, fail, try again, and persevere.  Our world isn’t about knowing information any longer.  Although knowledge is power, if people don’t know how to think critically to solve problems, then our world is sure to fall apart within the next century.

Posted in Challenges, Change, Co-Teacher, Conversation, Education, Humanities, Learning, New Ideas, Student Conferences, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New

How to be Flexible with Time in the Classroom

Despite stretching a little bit every day as I climb out of bed and take the three steps needed to get to my bathroom where the magic happens, I am not a very flexible person, physically speaking, that is.  While I enjoy twisting and turning to crack my back or get a kink out of my neck, I don’t spend more than 10-20 seconds a day actually stretching and working to make my body flexible.  I don’t do yoga and I don’t stretch a lot before working out.  I don’t put in the effort needed to make my body pliable because it’s not a skill or something that I really want to master.  I’m okay not being able to do a split or put my legs behind my head.  Sure, it would be pretty awesome to be able to do that as a parlor trick or as part of a Cirque du Soleil show, but I’m also quite content being my inflexible, lumpy self.  It’s who I am and I’m happy with that.

Now, being physically flexible and mentally flexible are two different things.  While I care not to be physically flexible, I do strive towards mental flexibility.  I want to be able to go with the flow, make changes on the fly, and be open to trying new things and taking risks in the classroom.  If my students ask lots of questions regarding a topic being discussed, I want to be able to field their questions and foster a meaningful discussion rather than not allowing them to ask their questions because I feel the need to continue with the lesson and push forward with the curriculum.  I want my students to be curious and engaged, and so, if allowing them to ask questions and chat about a topic holds their attention and is relevant to them, then I am all in favor of it.  Even though I say that in this here blog post, I still do sometimes get stuck in my thinking and will not allow questions to be asked or other activities to be completed because I want to plow through my curriculum.  I’m still always working towards mastering the skill of mental flexibility.  It’s very easy to get caught up in the schedule and lesson plans I worked so hard to put together and forget why I went into teaching in the first place.  I want to help students, inspire students, and allow students to see that school and learning can be fun and engaging.  Being the kind of educator who is open to switching things up in the middle of class, is what I continue to work towards day after day.  I’m far from perfect, but I want to engage my students in the process of learning; being flexible with time and activities is one of the most important strategies I can employ to accomplish just that in the classroom.

Today proved to be one of those “finish up work” kind of days.  My students had spent the last several days working on creating a tri-layered map of the Middle East Region as well as crafting an Inspiration map of the three main causes of Climate Change on Earth.  As both assignments are due on Monday, my co-teacher and I wanted to provide the students an opportunity to work on these pieces over the course of today.  So, today during Humanities class, when the students finished their map of the Middle East Region, they worked on their Inspiration map regarding Climate Change.  While most students had completed the Humanities map last night for homework, a few of the students spent the period finishing their map.  That worked for them as they needed more time to process the information and transfer it onto paper in the form of a map.  This task can be cumbersome and challenging for students who struggle with hand-eye coordination and attention to details.  Three of our students needed extra time today in class to complete this task.  The other students worked on finishing their STEM Inspiration map showcasing the causes of Climate Change.  This work period provided the students the opportunity to complete their graphic organizer or receive feedback from my co-teacher or I on their work so that they could revise it before turning it into be formally assessed.  I had some great conferences with the boys on their maps and learning processes.  While most of the students understood the assignment and just needed feedback on how to exceed the two graded objectives, one student needed clarification on the assignment.  He was very confused as to what he should be doing.  Instead of listing facts explaining the three main causes of Climate Change, he summarized each topic into one bubble or part of his web.  I was able to redirect him and help him fully comprehend what was being asked of him.  This really helped him focus his energy and feel successful as he now knows what he needs to do.  I had several other similar conversations and chats with my students regarding their graphic organizers.  It was great to have the time to conference and converse with the students about their work before it was due.

Although Humanities class is usually reserved for working on writing, reading, discussing, and thinking about the world around us, we do like to be open to new possibilities when they present themselves.  Today seemed like one of those opportunities.  Not all of the students needed to work on their map of the Middle East Region for Humanities class and so it seemed silly to press on with the curriculum when I knew that I would not have time in STEM class to meet with the students today to review their Inspiration maps.  So, using Humanities class time to conference with students on their STEM work just made sense.  It’s all about flexibility and being open to trying new things all in the name of better supporting and helping our students.  While I am sure to struggle with being mentally flexible next week in class, at least today provided me the chance to apply the skill of mental flexibility so that I don’t forget the great value it holds.  Life doesn’t unfold in a pretty, scripted manner and so I need to be aware that life in the classroom also doesn’t need to follow a linear, organized path.  I can switch things up from time to time when the changes will best help my students.

Posted in Boys, Challenges, Co-Teaching, Curriculum, Education, Grading, Humanities, Learning, Math, New Ideas, Objectives Based Grading, Reader's Workshop, Reflection, Sixth Grade, STEM, Student Conferences, Student Support, Students, Teaching, Trying Something New, Writer's Workshop, Writing

Why I Love Teaching Sixth Grade

On this day of love, I find myself in a loving and reflective mood.  I am so grateful that I have been allowed to create such a strong sixth grade program over my years here at Cardigan.  Because the administrators at my school have faith in my abilities as an educator, I have been able to take risks, try new things, fail, try other new things, and develop a sixth grade program that best suits the needs of each of my students.  So, to celebrate this great freedom and amazing program I’ve been able to create over the years, I’ve devoted today’s blog entry to discussing the sixth grade program.

Introduction

Going through the adolescent stage of development is like being on a roller coaster without a seat belt.  When you flip upside down, you fall out of your seat unless you are holding on with everything you’ve got.  Each benchmark within adolescence brings new turns, curves, and loops.  Working with adolescent boys is like trying to dodge raindrops.  You can’t avoid the inevitable.  Craziness and chaos will ensue.  But heck, that’s why middle school teachers work with this age group.  We’re a little crazy too because we remember what it was like to be this age.

At Cardigan, we make it our mission to mold young boys into compassionate and mindful young men.  It’s a wild and sometimes frustrating journey, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  Boys who attend sixth grade at Cardigan begin this adventure earlier than most as it is the youngest and smallest grade at our school.  Because of this, we have created a very unique  program that will help our boys foster a family spirit and connection that they carry with them throughout their time at Cardigan; to help provide them with some safety features on the bumpy roller coaster of adolescence.

Rationale

Brain-based research on how learning really happens reveals that students learn best when they are engaged, motivated, feel safe, are challenged and supported.  The sixth grade program has greatly evolved over the years due to this research and, as sixth grade teachers, we are always trying to find new and innovative ways to inspire and effectively educate and prepare our boys for meaningful lives in a global society.

Our Philosophy: We’re a family, and families take care of each other

The first ten weeks of the academic year are focused on building a strong family atmosphere amongst the students.  One of our biggest goals in the sixth grade is to foster a sense of family within the boys.  We want the students to understand and be able to effectively coexist with one another in a way that celebrates their differences.  First, as teachers, we model the behavior we expect to see from the students.  Second, we spend time each week talking about what makes an effective community.  We have the students share personal information about themselves including interests, hobbies, sports, and social identifiers.  We help the boys examine all parts of their personality that remain hidden to most of the world.  In exploring this, the students begin to think deeply and critically about themselves and how they fit into the world.  They also have a chance to share this information with their peers.  While making them vulnerable, it helps the boys make deep connections with each other.  We provide the students with specific strategies on how to communicate with their peers effectively, how to solve problems amongst themselves, and how to work together as a team to accomplish tasks.  We utilize numerous team building activities as catalysts for these mini-lessons: The boys build spaghetti towers in small groups, create a scavenger hunt with a partner, and solve various tasks that provide opportunities to practice and learn how to be effective teammates.  We want the boys to understand what it takes to be Cardigan community member.  

During the first month of school, we take the boys on an overnight trip to our school’s CORE cabin to help build a sense of family and community within the boys.  While the location of the cabin is on our campus, it feels very like it could be miles away.  We build a fire together and then roast marshmallows.  We tell stories, play games, and interact as a family.  If problems arise, we take the time to help the students learn how to work together to solve them.  It’s an amazing experience that helps lay the groundwork for future whole-class experiences we will provide the boys with throughout our year together.

Towards the end of the first term, we put our teamwork and family to the test with a three-day trip to an outdoor center in southern New Hampshire.  The focus of the trip is teamwork.  The students work together to solve problems, accomplish tasks, and have fun learning about how to survive in the wilderness.  It’s always one of the big highlights for the sixth grade boys.  They will never forget how they overcame their fears and learned to help and support their classmates in new and fun ways.

Co-Teaching

While our class size fluctuates from one year to the next, in recent years we’ve had a smaller sixth grade class.  A tight-knit team of two lead teachers is the most effective method for our program.  We plan, grade, and teach together.  Having another person to bounce ideas off of allows for more ideas to come to fruition.  As units are developed, we work together to generate engaging lessons.  With two people working together to complete this process, ideas can be built upon and added to.  Good ideas become great ideas.  Grading together allows for conversations about objectives and work.  How can we create objective objectives that don’t allow room for interpretation?  Having two teachers in the room for classes allows the students to be fully supported, and those students who need one-on-one time have the chance to receive it with two teachers in the classroom.  We can conference with students more effectively during humanities class and the boys are able to safely conduct investigations in STEM class.  We constantly model effective teamwork skills for the boys so that they see what we expect from them.  Co-teaching has fostered a sense of compassion in the classroom.  In order to create a family atmosphere amongst the students, we need to be able to effectively care for them, and  with two trained educators in the room, we can more effectively challenge, support, and ensure the safety of each and every sixth grade student in our class.

Classroom Organization

In order to help foster a sense of engagement in the classroom and to allow our students to feel as though they can focus on the lesson or activity at hand, our classroom is organized in a very specific manner.  

We have a reading nook area for small group work, independent reading, and movie viewing when appropriate.  The boys can sit or lie on the carpet squares in any way that allows them to feel engaged and focused.  We also have a small group work table for those students who need to be sitting to work and stay focused.  The desk table area is towards the front of the classroom near our interactive board and projector.  We use whiteboard tables to allow the students the opportunity to take notes, brainstorm, solve math problems, or just doodle upon them while working or listening.

We instituted this change just this year and it has made a huge difference.  We also use rocking style chairs at the desk work area to allow those students who need to move and stay focused.  These chairs help create a sense of calm and focus in the classroom during full group instruction lessons.  While every student is rocking, they are able to pay attention and listen intently.

These classroom organizational choices are based on the neuroscience of learning.  Students are able to genuinely learn the concepts and skills covered when they feel safe, engaged, and motivated.  The classroom furniture we use and the spaces we’ve created help our students to learn in a meaningful way.

Curriculum

Our goal is for our boys to feel connected to and engaged with the curriculum we employ in the sixth grade.  We want the students to enjoy coming to classes because they are excited and interested in what is happening.  We are constantly revising and updating what we do and how we do it, and because of this, our curriculum is a living and breathing entity.

Humanities

In our humanities class, the students develop their critical thinking skills to become community-minded young men with an awareness of the world around them.  We begin the year with a unit on community so that they learn to accept and appreciate differences in others.  Through completing various activities during the first two weeks of the academic year, the students begin to understand how they fit into our sixth grade family as well as the greater Cardigan community.  The boys also learn much about their peers through this first unit.  Everything else we work on throughout the year in humanities class builds upon this foundation we create at the start of the year.  

The humanities class occupies a double block period that covers both the history and English curriculum for the sixth grade.  This integrated approach allows students to see how the big ideas in History and English go hand in hand.  We cover various communities and cultures from around the world so that we can provide the students with a macro view of the world in a micro manner.  Our goal is to help the students understand perspective and how it can change based on many different factors.  We utilize the workshop model of literacy instruction so that a love of reading and writing is fostered within the boys throughout the year.

For Reader’s Workshop, the students choose just-right (engaging, grade-level and reading-level appropriate) books so that they are interested in what they are reading.  While at the start of the year, several students often seem uninterested in reading, they grow to become voracious and excited readers because the boys can choose books, novels, texts, and e-books that interest and engage them.

For Writer’s Workshop, the students choose the topics about which they write within the confines of the genre requirements.  The vignette form of writing is the first genre covered in the sixth grade.  Rather than mandate that it be a personal narrative vignette, we allow the students to choose the topic.  This choice and freedom empowers the students.  “I can write a short story about anything?” we often hear our students exclaim.  For boys, writing is generally not something they enjoy doing.  They would much rather go outside and play or explore instead of writing.  We want our students to see writing as something that can be fun and hands-on.  If we allow our students to write about topics that engage them, a sense of excitement develops within them.

STEM Class

An effective way to bring science to life is to create a Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) class.  Students have difficulty seeing how the different math and science puzzle pieces fit together.  They also struggle with the math concepts when they aren’t applied in realistic ways that make sense to them. Helping the students build neurological connections between prior knowledge and what they learn in our classroom is one of the many ways we make our program meaningful for our students.

Our STEM class teaches students to persevere.  They learn how to overcome adversity, think differently, see problems from numerous perspectives, communicate effectively, and be curious. We teach students what to do when faced with a new problem. As Angela Lee Duckworth stated in her well-received TED Talk, we need to teach our students how to be gritty. Our sixth graders are provided with opportunities to explore, try new things, fail, try again, talk with their peers, sketch out new ideas, and then do it all over again.

Our STEM curriculum holds the bar high for our students. Rigor doesn’t mean that we require more work to be done for the sake of doing it, it means that the standards and objectives we are teaching are challenging, specific, and relevant. Our STEM units challenge students to think creatively and solve problems in innovative ways. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Common Core Math Standards (CCSS) are the foundation of our STEM curriculum. These standards promote rigor and problem solving in fun and engaging ways.

PEAKS Class

At Cardigan, while we weave study skills into every course that we teach, we have one class devoted to supplementing and supporting every other core subject: Personalized Education for the Acquisition of Knowledge and Skills (PEAKS).  The true purpose of the course is to help the students understand how they best learn, metacognition.  Through self-inventories and mini-lessons on learning styles and the multiple intelligences at the start of the year, the boys begin to become self-aware of their own learning styles and preferences.  Much reflection is also completed throughout the year so that the boys have a chance to observe their strengths and weakness and set goals to work toward.  They also document this learning process in an e-portfolio that they continuously update throughout the year.  Beginning the year in this way, allows the students to focus on the process of learning and how being self-aware will help them grow and develop.  During the winter term, students learn about brain plasticity and how their working memory functions as a way to build upon their self-awareness and genuinely own their learning.  This course supports and challenges each and every student where and when they need it.

Homework

Student engagement isn’t confined within the walls of the classroom.  What the students do or don’t do outside of the classroom can be equally important.  If students aren’t seeing the relevance or value in their homework assignments, then we’ve lost them.  In the sixth grade, we approach homework in the same manner we approach everything.  It’s all about choice and engagement.  We want the students to further practice the skills learned in the classroom in a captivating way that allows them to continue learning and growing as a student.  Homework is not graded and assessed purely for effort.  If we want our students to practice, fail, try again, and continue to practice, then we must not grade this practice work.  Plus, since the students are completing the work outside of the classroom, it is difficult to know who is doing the work and how it is being done.  Are the boys getting assistance from peers, teachers, or parents to complete the work?  While we promote this self-help approach, grading the individual students on work when we don’t know exactly how the work was completed.  Most of the homework assigned is a continuation of what was worked on in class.  

For example, in humanities class, we do much writing and reading.  So, a typical homework assignment is to read from their Reader’s Workshop book for 30 minutes.  As they choose their Reader’s Workshop books based on ability and interest level, the engagement is already there.  Plus, this practice allows them to increase their reading stamina so that they are prepared for the reading demands of seventh grade.  Homework assignments shouldn’t be separate, stand-alone tasks that overly challenge the students.  Developmentally, by the time the sixth graders get to evening study hall at 7:30 p.m. they are exhausted and unable to focus for a long period of time in order to effectively process information and solve problems.  You might say that our homework assignments complement the classroom curriculum the way a beautiful brooch can bring out the colors of a flowing dress.

Project-Based Learning

To prepare students for lives in the global society in which they will live and work, we teach our students how to effectively work in groups to solve open-ended problems with no right or wrong answer. Students need to know how to delegate tasks, lead groups of their peers, follow instructions, ask questions, and solve problems. Project Based Learning ties all of the aforementioned skills together with ribbons of the required curriculum. While the students are engaged with the content and hands-on aspects of the project, they are also learning crucial life skills that will help them persevere and learn to overcome adversity.

Standards-Based Assessment

To help our students adopt learning skills necessary to grow and develop as critical thinkers and problem solvers, we use a standards-based system of grading. The focus is on the standard or objective being assessed. If our curriculum is set up according to the standards, why should we grade the students on anything other than what the curriculum asks? If we are teaching paragraph structure and the standard is, students will be able to craft an original, properly formatted, and complete paragraph, then we should only be grading student work on that one standard using a scale that aligns with the school’s grading criteria? Points must not be taken away for spelling, grammar, or other reasons unless the paragraph is being assessed regarding those standards as well. Rick Wormeli and other leading educational reform leaders have been talking about standards-based grading for years. It is the only way to accurately grade students on what is essential.

In this vein, we also want the students to understand that learning is a process.  Education is like a living organism.  Our students will grow, change, regress, and evolve throughout the year.  As we expect and want our students to meet or exceed all of the objectives covered so that we know they will be fully prepared for seventh grade, we allow students to redo work that doesn’t meet the graded objectives.  The boys are allowed to redo all and any work for a unit until the unit has finished.  They can seek help from the teachers and utilize any feedback we provide to them in order to showcase their ability to meet or exceed the objectives.  This grading system is dynamic and can be changed to allow for the students to employ a growth mindset and truly own their learning.

Conclusion

At Cardigan, we prepare students for an unknown future in a world that will inevitably be very different from its current state.  Because of this, in the sixth grade, we have devised over many years of data collection, research, and practice, to develop a strong and creative academic and social program that engages students in an applicable curriculum that teaches problem solving, critical thinking, coexistence, and how to manifest and utilize a growth mindset.  Students who attend Cardigan Mountain School starting in the sixth grade and then go onto graduate at the close of their ninth grade year receive a meaningful and rich experience.  They grow up together, and, in turn, a family atmosphere and spirit is created within that group of four-year boys.  While it can be challenging at times to be a sixth grade student at Cardigan, our inclusive program helps the boys feel safe and connected within a special family known as the sixth grade.