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.

Advertisements

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 Foolproofme.org.  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.

IMG_2248

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.

The Power of Being a Role Model for my Students

Staring at the computer screen, my mind wandered…  I thought about thoughts unrelated to my day.  Why is this screen so bright?  Who made this computer?  How did someone come up with the idea to make computers?  Why do we rely on computers so much as a society?  Then I started to think about other innovations and inventions, like the light bulb and sliced bread.  How did they come about as inventions?  Was it one person or many people who pondered those problems?  Were they successful on the first try or did it take multiple attempts?  As we know, the greatest inventions did not come about on the first try.  Great inventors and scientists spent much time trying out ideas, failing, revising their work, and trying again.  The best things in life take lots of practice, hard work, and failure.  Just imagine, though, if people didn’t take risks and try new things, I might be typing this blog entry on a typewriter and submitting it to my local newspaper for publication.  Risks, hard work, failure, and perseverance lead to innovation and change.

As a teacher, I see the value in this problem-solving formula.  If I want my students to live meaningful lives in a global society, then I need to help them see how important risk taking, hard work, and perseverance are to creativity and innovation.  I need my students to know how to solve problems they encounter in new and unique ways.  I want my students to fail so that they learn how to rise up and overcome adversity.  So, I teach my students this process day in and day out.  I constantly challenge my students to think big and ask why.  I want them to always be looking for how they can make this world a better, safer, and more effective place for all to live.  I empower them to question everything.  I want my students to find problems in their world and then devise and create viable solutions for them.  I train my students to be change makers and innovators, because, as I’m always telling them, “One of you could find the cure for cancer or the solution to poverty around the world some day.”  I teach my students to be self-aware so that they can change things and make the world a better place for all people.

One easy way for me to help my students learn these valuable risk-taking skills is by modelling the desired behavior.  If I want my students to take risks and try new things, then I need to do the same.  So today, I unveiled a new grading procedure, with the caveat that it’s something new and it might fail.  It might not work out the way I have intended, but I want to try and see what happens.

As we utilize the objectives-based grading system in the sixth grade, we are often entering grades with meaningful feedback into our grading portal.  The students always know how they stand in terms of meeting the standards in preparation for the seventh grade.  They can check their grades via our online grading system at any time and know how they are progressing towards the graded objectives.  As my school requires that we also grade our students on their effort in class, we also need to assess their effort on a daily basis.  Although I take mental notes on their daily effort in class, I don’t necessarily make note of this anywhere.  I don’t enter their daily effort into our grading system.  I wait until the end of each marking period to enter their effort grades.  For many of our students, this is frustrating.  While they always know their achievement grades, they are always wondering about their effort grades.  “What is my effort grade in Humanities?” my students will often ask.  Sure, I can answer them with a ballpark number and some trite feedback, but I feel as though I can’t provide them with meaningful and relevant feedback that will promote growth and development.  So, this got me thinking…  How can I help my students know the reality of their effort on a daily basis, so that they can make the necessary changes to become the best students possible?

So, I decided to pilot something for the final term of our academic year.  Every day, I will enter an effort grade for each of their major classes, based on their daily effort.  Are they focused and on task during the period?  Are they prepared for class?  Did they complete the homework?  Are they being a good classmate?  Along with the effort grade, I will include specific feedback on their performance.  If they need to improve in certain areas, I will include that in the feedback.  If they do well in other areas, I will also cite that in the feedback.  I want my students to know exactly how they are performing in all areas of academic life so that they know their areas of strength and weakness.  These daily effort marks and feedback comments will help my students see what they do well and what they still need to work on.  I’m hoping that this change will better support my students as they grow into the best versions of themselves.

Now, I don’t know if this change to how I grade and assess the students will work with our grading system.  Perhaps it will mess things up.  Maybe the average won’t work right or explain the reality of their effort to the students.  Maybe the students will be confused by the data that appears in their grading portal.  What if I don’t have time to enter these grades daily?  What if this change doesn’t make a difference for my students?  What if they still keep asking me for more feedback or help in interpreting their grades?  What if this change ends up being a failure?  What if Einstein said, “Oh, this Theory of Relativity stuff is too hard.  I’m just going to give up.”  What if Thomas Jefferson gave up on making the light bulb?  We’d be in the dark right now.  I can’t let the possibility of failure prevent me from trying new things.  If this effort grading trial fails, then I will make some changes and try something else.  I will not let setbacks and failure prevent me from trying things.  Like my students, I will learn from my mistakes and find a new way to solve my problem.  I won’t give up, no matter what.  I’m hopeful that by me modelling this idea of trying new things, taking risks, and persevering, my students will see the value in the problem-solving process.

Take Risks and Try New Things; if You Fail, Fix Your Mistakes and Try Again

Recently, my school decided to partner with a local community outreach group to better help our students understand gender-based issues.  While we in the sixth grade loved what the group did with our students, I have heard many other teachers vent about how inappropriate and ineffective the special programming was.  Not everyone is going to like everything schools try, but I love the fact that we tried something.  Although it perhaps didn’t work for everybody, I’m hoping that we can learn from this experience and tweak it for next year.  Just because something fails when you try it the first time, doesn’t mean you should give up on it.  We need to learn from this experience so that we can make it better for next year’s students.

Risk taking and failure is how innovation and invention come about.  We can’t expect that every idea we have will succeed.  We are bound to fail, and that’s okay.  What matters is what we do when we fail.  If we use the failed experience to teach us how to not do something, then we will grow and develop.  This same rule applies in the classroom.  When our students take risks and try new things, we need to applaud their effort regardless of the outcome.  If they fail, we need to help them understand how to learn from the experience in order to grow and develop.

As a teacher, I need to practice what I preach.  Today in my Humanities class, I tried a new method of class discussion.  Every Saturday, we discuss current events in the world around us.  For the fall term, I guided the discussion by calling on students.  At the beginning of the winter term, I introduced the concept of Socratic Discussion and had the boys guide their own discussions based on a topic or question.  While I was not involved in the conversations, I observed the discussions and graded them on their ability to participate in a class discussion.  This week, I wanted to provide the students with a bit more choice as a way of engaging them in the topic of current events.  So, I had the students suggest five major topics or news stories that they wanted to discuss, and I listed them on the whiteboard.  I then had the boys self-select a group based on their interests.  While one group being led by a student went swimmingly, the other groups were disastrous.  The boys were mostly unfocused and distracted.  They were not even discussing the topic at hand.  They were loud and made it difficult for the effective group to hear what was being discussed.  At the close of the activity this morning, I shared this feedback with the students.  I also told them that we would be changing the method with which we discuss current events next week as they couldn’t handle the independence and responsibility that came with small group discussions.  While my initial reaction was to never utilize this method of discussion again, once I had time to reflect on the experience, I realize that I just need to make some slight alterations to the activity before making use of it again in the classroom.  I don’t need to throw it out and start over; I just need to fix what is broken.

Ideas for improvement:

  • Allow the students to offer suggestions for the discussion, but then select the best three topics on my own.  Less options might make the decision easier for the boys.  It would also allow me to eradicate ineffective ideas, which I should have done today.
  • Set ground rules for the discussion.
    • Students need to stay in one group for the entire time.
    • Students need to actively and appropriately add to the discussion.
    • The volume needs to be one that is not distracting to the other groups.
    • Students in the group will grade each other on their performance in the discussion at the close of the activity.  This will push the boys to make good choices and utilize the Habit of Learning of Ownership.
  • Have the student who suggested the idea be the facilitator for the discussion.  This will help bring form and function to the discussion.

So, although today’s new discussion method did not go as planned, I am going to use this experience as a learning opportunity.  I’m not going to stop trying new things in the classroom.  I’m going to continue taking risks to better support and challenge my students.  When lessons or activities fail, I’m going to determine what went wrong and fix it so that it can be recycled instead of just throwing it out altogether.  As teachers, we need to be constantly challenging ourselves to grow and develop.  Trying new things in the classroom, allows us to do just that.  We can’t be afraid of failure.  In fact, we need to embrace failure so that we learn as much, if not more, than our students.  I tell my students all of the time, “I’m not sure who the real teacher in this classroom is, you guys or me?”  Isn’t that what we want?  We want to be role models and students ourselves.  So, let’s go out and try new things.

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.

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.