In the Battle Between Skills and Content, Who Would Win?

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, blog readers of all ages, genders, and ethnicities, welcome to a match-up for the ages.  (Imagine loud claps and screams of excitement coming from an imaginary audience.)  In this corner, (which could really be any corner you choose as this is a blog and not an actual arena,) we have the ever sturdy and reliable, full of facts and information, Content.  Can I get a woo hoo?  (Picture screams of joy and boos coming from that same imaginary audience.)  Who doesn’t love content?  I mean, it’s the backbone of game shows like Jeopardy.  Can learning really happen without subject area content?  Is this even going to be a fair contest?  (Hear shouts of YES and NO coming from the imaginary audience you’ve been picturing in your head.)  But wait, because in the other corner, (which should just be the opposite of whatever corner you pictured Content in,) we have the trusty, always dependable, super useful and necessary, Skills.  (You should be hearing screams of joy and boos coming from the imaginary audience of really cool and riled up people.)  I mean, can you even learn content knowledge without the skills to do so first?  The skills to work, take notes, and study make it so that you can learn the content.  Shouldn’t Content just throw in the towel right now?  (Screams of YES and NO come from the amazingly imaginary audience.)  Well then, let’s get ready to RRRummmbllle!

Imagine a WWE style wrestling match between content and skills.  How cool would that be?  I would totally pay the exorbitant amount of money to see that pay-per-view match.  It would be epic!  In the end though, I do believe that skills would be crowned the victor.  Sure, content knowledge is important.  I mean, we can’t expect our students to fully digest what they are reading, listening to, or watching in the world around them if they don’t have a strong foundation of background, content knowledge.  However, that sturdy foundation is useless if there are no skills built upon it.  Students must learn how to assess the credibility of websites in order to locate and find trustworthy content knowledge online.  Our students need to know how to attack a textbook and take effective notes on the main idea before they can glean any content from that book.  Skills should be at the heart of what schools are teaching our students using the content as delivery receptacles.  History class shouldn’t really be about learning history.  It should be about the skills of analyzing information, differentiating between fact and fiction, comparing and contrasting events throughout history, understanding the culture and traditions of our diverse and unique world, and being able to view this beautiful crucible around us through the lens of critical thinking.  Class titles should merely be masks, subterfuge for what’s really happening inside classrooms.  Our students should be learning vital skills to become safe, thoughtful, creative, and open-minded global citizens.  Right?  (At this point, you should be excitedly applauding or clicking the tiny X at the top of your browser to close this window.)

As teachers should really be the best students, I make it a priority to stay up to date with current educational research and pedagogy from around the world.  I read several articles and blog entries on a weekly basis to be sure that I am always working towards becoming the best possible teacher for my students.  Each weekend, when I dig deep into the goldmine of educational research, I find articles talking about the importance of content over skills as well as articles all about how skills are more valuable than content knowledge.  So, which articles speak the truth?  Who would win in a battle between skills and content?  Is one more important than the other?  Can you teach students skills without using content knowledge as the delivery vehicle?  Is it possible to regurgitate content class after class without teaching or having the students utilize any skills?

I see it more as a symbiotic relationship.  It shouldn’t be a skills vs. content kind of discussion, it should be a skills and content sort of hybrid discussion.  Our students need to learn content knowledge nuggets in order to navigate this strange and wonderful world in which we live; however, they can’t effectively learn or keep those nuggets of knowledge safely stored in their brains without skills.  Our students need to know how the brain learns and operates so that they can then learn effective ways or skills to effectively store information in their memory banks.  All teachers and classes should be teaching students about the neuroscience of learning.  Our students need to gain important life and learning skills in order to become effective global citizens, and content is the perfect way for teachers to be sure that their students are effectively, and in engaging ways, learning and practicing these crucial skills.  Content and skills go hand-in-hand like sun butter and jelly or red and green.  Students need both to succeed in life.

I’ve recently been contemplating this dual role of content and skills in my classroom.  My fifth graders and I are in the midst of a wonderfully engaging unit on Mesopotamia in Social Studies class.  I’m using the content of this ancient civilization to help my students learn the valuable skills of effective and organized note taking, being able to pick out the main idea over the details in passages of text, comparing and contrasting two different ideas, using specific examples to support their claims, and problem solving and critical thinking as they pertain to particular situations.  On Thursday and Friday, I used the history of writing and the creation of Sumerian Cuneiform as the vehicle for which I could teach my students how to sift through details to get at the main idea as well as how to think critically about a topic in order to answer open-ended questions.  My students were enthralled with the video we watched and were totally engaged in the discussion that grew from the knowledge of how the Sumerians created writing.  It was so cool to observe my students getting excited about ancient history.  They were asking high-level questions and able to comprehend and address the challenging questions and scenarios I posed to them.  It was so much fun.  I thought about the skills and content the students were learning together.  It was pretty remarkable.  It wasn’t about the content or skills, it was about the relationship between them.  My students crave knowledge and content.  They are like sponges in the classroom, always asking why and how.  As they love learning about topics and things, I need them to gain vital skills.  I give them what they want while teaching them what they need to become and grow into successful students and global thinkers.  I need to utilize the content in order to help my students gain the necessary skills they will need as they matriculate into the next grade and so on.

I used to think that teaching was all about the content.  Isn’t that why there are so many different textbook companies in existence?  Then, like a pendulum, I started to see skills as the important part of educating students.  When I focused solely on the skills, I found that student engagement went down.  That’s when I started to see content and skills as a duo and not hero and villain match-up.  They need to be used together to help students learn and grow.  I can’t teach my students necessary learning skills without the attraction of the content area knowledge.  The facts and information are like the bait I use to get students hooked onto the line of learning how to be effective students, thinkers, and individuals.

Instead of a wrestling match, we should be picturing content and skills frolicking through a field of daises and sunflowers, holding hands and smiling at each other, while in the background, soft jazz or elevator music plays as the sun shines down upon our two lovebirds.  Ahh, how cute would that be, right?

My Students Have the Best Ideas

For years, whenever I showered, the best ideas came to me like epiphanies.  It was amazing.  Almost every day, great ideas about how to solve problems I faced popped into my brain almost like magic.  Was I the reincarnation of Houdini?  Or was the water tainted with some strange chemical that caused my brain to work in strange ways?  Or perhaps it was a chemical reaction caused by the water mixing with my perspiration.  Well, for years, I couldn’t explain this bizarre phenomenon any other way than to say that the water inspired me.

Over the past few years, I’ve been doing a lot of learning regarding neuroscience and the brain.  How do my students learn?  I wanted to know how to best teach my students so that they could effectively and genuinely learn what I was teaching them.  In this self-learning process, I came to understand that most of the work, in terms of thinking, that our brain does happens when we don’t even realize it’s going on.  When we are doing something that does not require a ton of focus like showering, our unconscious brain is trying to help us solve some of the problems we encountered earlier that day.  A great example of this is when you try to name the song currently playing on the radio and you seem unable to do so, despite having heard the song many times before.  Later in the day when your conscious brain is doing something that doesn’t require a lot of brain work, your unconscious brain finds the answer for you and slips it into your conscious train of thought.  I’m sure you have all experienced this phenomena before.  The brain is such an amazing tool.

Sometimes though, ideas and solutions come to me in other ways, outside of my being.  A great example of this occurred in my classroom yesterday during the first day of school.  My students worked on an activity that had them decorating a superhero cape with facts about themselves through the lens of superheroes.  Instead of simply plastering their name on the back of their capes, they had to generate a unique superhero name, super power, and other fun facts about themselves.  All of my students were super engaged in this activity as they created interesting superhero personas for themselves.  One student named himself Burger Boy because he enjoyed eating tasty cheeseburgers.  I was excited that the students were so enthralled with this activity.  While planning this Orientation Day task, I hoped that the students would enjoy it as much as I assumed they would, but we all know what happens when one assumes.  So, watching the awesomeness unfold during the execution of this activity filled me with joy.

While my students worked on crafting creative and colorful capes that helped to tell their life story, one student made a most magnificent suggestion.  She said, “Mr. Holt, we should write a class graphic novel all about our superheroes fighting crime at our school.”  Wow, came to mind as she uttered those words.  My response, “That is a most amazing idea.  I think we might have to try that on for size during Language Arts this year.”  The other students chimed in, noting that it is a great idea.

For the rest of the day, I thought about this amazing idea that one of my students had generated during class.  I love it.  I think it would be an epic way to get my students working together as a community of learners, creators, and writers.  I could have the students completely own this writing task.

  • They could brainstorm ideas for a story theme.  Perhaps they want the story to be about a series of crimes or one larger crime.
  • They could then map out the story, as they find a way to somehow incorporate each of their superheroes into the story.
  • They could then assign roles and tasks for writing and illustrating the story.  Each student would required to write and illustrate at least one part of the story.
  • We could then submit their story to one of those online bookmaking services to have it transformed into a fancy, bound graphic novel.  We would be sure to order enough copies for each student to have one.  We’d order an extra copy to donate to our local public library.
  • The students could even host a special superhero night at the library where they read their book aloud to other children.

I love, love, love how this idea is metamorphosing into so much more as my unconscious and conscious brain dwell on it.  I do believe that this will be our first Language Arts project of the year.  I had something else planned, but this seems to be a way cooler idea that will better engage my students.  I’ll still be able to cover similar writing strategies through this task, and so, it’s not like I’d be losing any “teaching” time.  I’d still be covering the curriculum and writing objectives that my students will need to master by the end of fifth grade.  I feel like it’s going to be awesome.  I can’t wait to jump into this project sometime during the first few weeks of school.  I’m so excited.

To think that this idea came from one of my students.  Seriously, my students are brilliant.  Just when I thought I had good ideas, one of my students blows me away.  I love it.  This one of the many enjoyable aspects of teaching: When students become so engaged in a task or topic that they generate innovative new ideas.  Amazing!

How Will I Grow as an Educator this Summer?

Anger is an emotion I rarely experience.  Frustration and madness, sure, but not anger.  I just don’t find myself getting angry that often.  However, in the last two years, or ever since our sitting president took office, I find myself being brought to the verge of anger on a more regular basis while reading news stories and current events about happenings in our world.  Things just aren’t like they used to be, oh no.  Humans are going a little bonkers.  But this kind of angry is good, because it means that I am paying attention to the world around me.  As some person once said, “If you’re not angry, then you’re not paying attention.”  I watch and observe what is happening in our country and abroad because I care.  I vote, I watch, and I try to make a difference if I’m not liking what I’m noticing.  So, sometimes I do get angry when I’m reading stories on the news app on my phone.  The crazy things that are happening boggle my mind.  It’s as if we are living in a reality television program.

Yesterday, I read a story online that made me a bit angry.  Surprisingly enough though, it wasn’t about the political side of things.  No, it was about something even more near and dear to my heart: Music.  This author had the audacity to proclaim that rock music is officially dead.  What is he talking about, I said aloud to myself while reading this absurd piece.  One of my all-time favorite genres of music is rock.  I listen to rock music on the radio almost daily.  Bands are crafting new rock tunes all the time.  Rock music will never die.  Especially with what’s going on in our world, people need rock music.  Rock is the genre for the counter-culture movements happening globally.  Rock has always provided those invested and knowledgeable angry people with a safe haven, an outlet will you.  Rock music saved my life when I was growing up.  Things were a bit difficult for me as a teen, but fortunately, I had my rock cassette tapes and CDS to comfort me and provide me with an escape when things got too challenging.  I remember listening to Guns N’ Roses’ masterpiece Use Your Illusions I and II so frequently that the tapes eventually broke.  Axl Rose’s lyrics helped me through some tough times.  Then came Pearl Jam’s Ten.  Epic is the only way to describe this album.  Black was my favorite tune from that disc.  Amazing.  As hardcore, metal, punk, and rock evolved in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the landscape of rock music changed as well.  Bands like Coheed and Cambria and Thursday blended genres together and took listeners on a completely new musical journey.  Other bands grew out of this new movement and rock music flourished through the beginning of the 21st century.  New bands and old ones are still crafting and constructing new rock music all of the time.  The author of that ridiculous article clearly has no idea what rock music really is.  You see, in the article, he only referenced bands like Avenged Seven-fold and the Foo Fighters.  While I do like both of those bands, they aren’t the only rock bands around, and they certainly don’t encapsulate the genre.  So, to make this rant come to an end so that I can get on with my blog, this article is completely false and rock music is alive and well, and will always be that way.

Unlike that fictitious article I just referenced, my summer plans are shaping up to totally rock and roll as I prepare for my first year of teaching fifth grade at my new school.  I’m so excited.  I get to set up a new classroom, meet new people, create new curriculum, challenge new students, and be a part of what is sure to be an amazing learning community.  YES!  So, to prepare for all of this awesomeness, I need a plan of action.  So, this summer, I’m going to keep the pedal pushed all the way down to the rocking metal as I work to prepare for the upcoming school year.

  • I need to set up and organize my new classroom.  I’m happy to know that my new school will be ordering new whiteboard desks and rocking chairs for my classroom.  Those will help the students stay focused, attentive, and engaged throughout the day.  I get to figure out how I’m going to set things up.  My new classroom has so many windows that look out onto rolling fields and scenes of nature.  I can’t wait to try some new ways of putting things together in my new classroom.  I hope to get started on this process in early July, which is great because I have a ton of stuff in storage right now to move over from my old classroom.
  • I need to determine which math book or series I will be going with for the fifth grade program.  The school currently uses the Big Ideas Learning math series for grades six through eight.  While I want to maintain consistency for the fifth grade, I’m not sure this book series would be best for the group of students I will be working with this fall.  Some of my new students have noted that math is a bit of a struggle for them.  So, my goal is to choose a math curriculum that will engage my students in meaningful ways so that they are excited to learn new math concepts and strengthen their foundation regarding computational skills.  The founder of my new school suggested I look at this new program called Beast Academy.  Wow, was about all I could say when I checked it out.  It is a math graphic novel that uses monsters to teach math concepts.  It’s rigorous and challenging, but tackles the topics in new and creative ways.  I think this would be a great curriculum to use.  Now, I just need to talk things over with my new headmaster to find out what he thinks would be best.  Of course, I will support whatever he chooses, but I’m hoping that he will allow me to try out the Beast Academy program for next year.  Fingers crossed.
  • I need to complete my first science and social studies units on community and the scientific method.  As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’ve got a plan for this process.  I’m excited to try new things and dig into some cool ideas and learning.  I have already begun this process, as it requires much behind the scenes work.  I’m sure that this portion of my summer work will last the longest.
  • I need to determine what my daily schedule will be for the fifth grade program.  Sometime in the coming weeks, I will sit down with my new headmaster to hash out the daily schedule in terms of time.  When will specials be?  What time is lunch?  Things like that.  Once I have this finalized, I can then begin the planning for things like Morning Meeting, Passion Projects, and outdoor discovery time.  This will be one of the first things I can check off of my summer list, as I need this to fall into place before I can really dig into the daily planning of my class.
  • My summer reading goal is small right now as I only have one book on it.  I also want to read some young adult books that I might use during Reader’s Workshop lessons in the fall.  I haven’t decided on those titles yet.  The only book I have so far is Quiet by Susan Cain.  I just started it yesterday and am loving it.  As an introvert, I can totally relate to a lot of what she mentions in the novel.  The world seems to favor extroverts, but its the synergy of people working together that really makes the world work.  We need to embrace the introverts in our work places and schools and allow them to develop their skills in appropriate ways.  We can’t try to make introverted people into extroverts, as it will only cause future problems.  I’m excited to learn some tips and tricks on how to best support the introverts that I will inevitably have in my classroom this year.  I’m hoping to finish this book within a couple of weeks.  Then I will gather the young adult books I want tackle next.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for now.  I’m sure that other things will crop up along the way, as they always do.  That’s just part of the process of developing new things and preparing for a new school year.  The fun is in the middle.  So, now I will embark upon my summer journey of rocking hard as I ready things for the next academic year.  Oh, and I’ll be listening to plenty of rock music.  Rock on!

Teaching Teachers May Not Be Easy, But it Certainly is a Ton of Fun

Thursday and Friday of this week, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the New England League of Middle Schools’ annual conference in Providence, Rhode Island.  It was a hoot.  I had so much fun learning new techniques for teaching math to students, how to effectively utilize data to enhance my teaching practices, and how to construct and implement a meaningful and relevant unit on mindfulness.  I met some amazing educators from other cities and states and enjoyed some tasty food at the Providence Place Mall.  Despite all of this awesomeness, my highlight was definitely being a presenter for one of the last sessions of the day on Friday.

I presented my session on The Power of Teacher and Student Reflection.  I was of course nervous and scared.  Will they like me?  Will I speak clearly?  Will I forget what I wanted to say?  What if the projector doesn’t work?  What if my computer breaks?  What if the Internet flakes out on me?  What if the snowstorm prevents anyone from attending my session?  So yes, I was a big ball of nerves.  The presenter before me went over her time a bit, which also stressed me out as I was worried that I wouldn’t have sufficient time to get set up for my session.  However, like I frequently tell my students, I just needed to relax, take a deep breath, and jump in feet first.  So, I did just that.

I was set up with ten minutes to spare and so I used that time to interact with the teachers who had wandered, hopefully purposefully, into my session.  I passed out some paraphernalia on my school to them and shared pieces of student and teacher reflection I had compiled and created over the course of the year.  It felt good.  Everyone seemed excited and interested in my topic.  Yah, I thought.  I was feeling pretty good, despite still being quite nervous.

As I got started, things seemed to go smoothly.  I made sure to start out by telling the teachers in attendance that I would not be offended if they left my session part way through.  “I want you to make the most of this conference.  So, if you feel like this session isn’t giving you what you had hoped it would, please leave and find a session that will help you grow as an educator.  I will not at all be offended.”  I hope this statement helped the attendees feel a little more at ease.  I then jumped right into my session.  I posed questions to the audience and stirred up some conversations early on.  I even made them laugh once or twice.  I did my thing and tried to showcase why teachers should reflect on a daily or regular basis and why we, as teachers, should help our students see the benefit and value in self-reflection.  I shared examples from this very blog as well as samples of student surveys my co-teacher and I used in the classroom.  The attendees asked some clarifying questions and seemed engaged.  As my session was drawing to a close, I gave those in attendance some options, like what we do for our students as teachers.  “As this session is almost over, feel free to leave and head home or stay and work on applying some of what we talked about today.  I’ll be here if you have any questions or would like help on anything at all.”  I wanted the teachers to feel supported but also not bound to stay and work if they needed or wanted to leave.  I then wrapped my session up with some closing remarks, reminding the teachers to complete the online survey for this session to provide me feedback that I can use to reflect upon later regarding this session.  Phew, I made it without throwing up or peeing my pants.  Yah for me! I had taught teachers how and why they should reflect and teach their students to do the same.  It felt good to finish.  I felt a true sense of accomplishment.

Several of the teachers in attendance came to me before leaving the session to thank me for my time and ideas.  “They liked me, they really, really liked me!”  It felt great.  I had helped teachers.  I kind of felt like a superhero, but not one of those famous ones like Aquaman or She-Hulk, but one of those extra special super heroes like Eddie Vedder or Kevin Spacey.  I was helping to make a difference in the lives of others.  It felt quite rewarding.  So, my initial thought on how my session went was positive and upbeat.  I feel like things went well with yesterday’s session.  But of course, we all know how critical we can be of ourselves.  On my drive home, I then started analyzing every aspect of my session and realized that I could have done a much better job.  I didn’t help those teachers in attendance as much as I could have.  I could have done more, said more, and made my presentation much more useful and relevant.  Here is my true, thoughtful analysis of my presentation:

  • I didn’t really explain how to help students understand why they should learn to be reflective.  A teacher asked how I help my students see the value in reflection and really take it seriously.  I didn’t have much of an answer for her.  I did say that it comes down to building a culture of reflection and mindfulness in the class and school.  The teacher needs to explain why the students are reflecting so that they see the relevance to them.  While my response did address her question, I feel as though I left this aspect out of my presentation.  I didn’t really go over how to make powerful student reflection happen in the classroom.
  • I didn’t show an example of an eportfolio that I use in the classroom with my students.  I wish I had been able to share an example with the teachers in my session so that they could see how we use reflection to help the students begin to take ownership of their learning and be self-aware of their habits as a student.  A teacher asked about this and I just verbally explained it.  I wish I had thought more about showing specific examples in my presentation.  I felt like that was a big piece missing from my slideshow.
  • I wish I had asked the teachers more questions.  I felt like I did a lot of the talking.  While I did ask the teachers to share their ideas on how they reflect as teachers and how they have their students reflect, I wish I had made the session more of an open forum or discussion rather than teacher-directed.  I know that having some sort of skeleton to drive the presentation is crucial, but I feel like I had the whole body, flesh and bones and all, and didn’t allow for too much flexibility.

I know that the age old adage, “We are our harshest critic,” rings true in this situation.  After reflecting on my presentation, I noticed things that didn’t stick out in the moment.  I saw mistakes that I felt I had made.  Sure, it’s always good to reflect on one’s work and look for ways to grow and improve; however, I also want to make sure that I celebrate the good things in life as well.  I did a pretty amazing job sharing some knowledge nuggets with fellow educators so much so that they provided me specific, positive feedback on my session before leaving.  So, I clearly did some things correctly yesterday.  Yeah, I made mistakes too and I now know what I need to do the next time I present at a conference for teachers.  Self-reflection helps me see the big picture, rather than just looking at the minutia or focusing on one aspect of my work.  I take both the good and the bad into consideration when learning from my mistakes and successes.  Life is a never-ending learning process.  Just like Dallas Green so wonderfully tells us in his song Save Your Scissors, “And I’ll keep on running this never ending race,” I need to remember that I will never do anything perfectly, but I will do plenty of great and amazing things; in the meantime though, I’m just going to keep on running this figurative race to the best of my ability.

Transforming a Class Debate Into So Much More

When Hurricane Sandy formed in the Atlantic Ocean several years ago, few people predicted that it would turn into a superstorm of epic proportions.  It was like the perfect storm of hurricanes.  Just as it was forming and moved northward, it collided with another system, creating the monster hurricane-storm that ravaged much of the northeast coast.  Starting out as just a tiny hurricane that few people watched closely as it formed, Hurricane Sandy transformed into something unbelievable.  Scientists and meteorologists alike were baffled by the unlikely and coincidental transformation.  While it provided much data on superstorms to scientists and was interesting to follow as someone who didn’t live in the storm’s direct path, it was also a very devastating occurrence that caused much damage and loss to millions of people.  It’s always crazy to me how something so normal and natural can transform into something beastly.

Today in Humanities class, the students began working on the debate portion of our American Presidential Election Unit.  I explained the project parts and requirements, fielded questions the students asked, provided the students with their groups, and had them get right to work.  They seemed quite excited about this project.  I think the idea of a little friendly competition helped to foster the fun and excitement that was felt in the classroom when the boys began working this morning.  My co-teacher and I observed the boys as they worked.  Things were going well.  The students got into their assigned groups, discussed the project, and then began brainstorming the perfect presidential candidate.  They discussed how where he was from might impact how he is perceived by the debate judges.  They coexisted effectively, shared responsibilities, and worked well together in their small groups.  They were mostly focused on the topic at hand.  I was impressed.

Then, I went to the restroom and had an epiphany.  To this day, I’m not quite sure what it is about bathrooms, but I do some of my best thinking when I am in a bathroom.  Perhaps it’s the quiet nature of the space or maybe it’s got something to do with the healing properties of water.  Regardless, while I went to the restroom this morning, an idea came to me.  What if we turn this simple, formulaic debate into something greater?  What if we have the two groups debate each other in a townhall-style debate, much like what the presidential candidates did a few weeks ago?  My co-teacher and I could be the moderators and have the students share their stance on the seven different issues.  We could also invite the student body and faculty members to come listen to the debate and then vote.  We could then work as a class to calculate the popular vote and the electoral college outcome to help the students see the difference in how the two systems of tabulating results work.  Wow, I thought.  What a fabulous idea.  I ran it by my co-teacher as the students diligently continued working, unaware of the awesome change about to come.  She loved the idea and so prior to the break in our double-block class, I gathered the student to tell them about the change.  I tried to put a fun spin on the reveal: “Local newspapers picked up the story of your two presidential candidates.  They are so excited.  Then the New York Times and the Boston Globe got word of the story.  So, to help open our debate to the media and the large crowd expected to attend, the format of the debate is changing to a townhall-style debate in which Ms. Murray and I will be the moderators.”  They were so excited about the change.  I also told them that they will need to create a campaign slogan and posters to help promote their candidate.  This announcement received shouts of Yes! from the crowd of students.  They were so pumped.

Following the morning break, the students got right back to work, creating a campaign slogan, campaign posters, and a biographical picture of their candidate.  Where is he or she from?  What made him or her want to run for president?  Why should Americans vote for him or her?  They were focused and on task for the entire time.  It was absolutely amazing.  They were so engaged with the project that they didn’t even realize how hard they were working and how much they were learning.  The students utilized almost every Habit of Learning we try to foster here at Cardigan.  Wow!  When class ended, they couldn’t stop talking about their great ideas and what they are going to work on tomorrow in preparation for the big debate in early December.

So, what began as a simple enough project regarding our unit on the American Presidential Election, ended up transforming  into this vast masterpiece of amazement.  And, this all happened, because I had to go to the bathroom.  Imagine how class might have gone had my bladder not been full of coffee.  The students probably still would have worked well, but perhaps not as well.  They probably wouldn’t have been as invested in the project as they were.  Just like Optimus Prime, today’s activity transformed into something unbelievable and excellent.  Student learning and engagement were heightened because we made the project more life-like.  A Townhall-style debate is much more realistic than a plain, ordinary class debate with noone in attendance.  Making a project more meaningful and memorable helps make the student learning much more tangible and genuine.  It’s so nice when things work out in strange and bizarre ways just as Superstorm Sandy did a few years ago.

Why I Teach

Being a teacher was never my life’s goal when I was younger.  First, I wanted to be a police officer catching bad guys.  Then, I wanted to be like my dad and become a respiratory therapist.  It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that my life’s calling came to me. I even questioned my decision back then.  “Really, teaching.  How’s the saying go, ‘Those who can’t do teach.’  Do I really want to be a teacher?”  Then, I got to college and things changed.  I knew I wanted to be a teacher after I volunteered at a special school for students who got kicked out of their local public schools.  These students had no one that really seemed to care about them.  They felt lost and confused.  They were angry, and rightfully so.  Their past teachers never took a chance on them, never connected with them, which is why they were in this special school.  On one of my bi-weekly visits, a student got so angry because he couldn’t pronounce a word in a book he was reading aloud to me that he started lashing out.  He ended up picking up his chair-desk combo and throwing it against the wall.  He wasn’t aiming for me, but he was mad and didn’t know how to channel his anger.  Through the whole situation, I remained calm.  Yes I was scared.  Heck, I almost peed my pants, but I tried not to show it.

It was then that I knew what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing: Helping students realize that they matter.  I want all the students I work with to feel cared for and supported.  I will do whatever it takes to help each and every student with whom I work.  I want to be the one person in the lives of those students who don’t seem to have anyone else, to show them love and care.  I want them to feel heard and respected.  All students and people can succeed, not just all in the same way or at the same time.  I teach because I want to help all students feel success in some way.  I want to challenge students to push themselves beyond their limitations.  I want students to see the potential within themselves that I see on a daily basis.  I teach because I care and want to make a difference.  I teach because I can and I want to do it well.  I wake up each and every day with one main goal in mind, to be a better teacher than I was yesterday.  That’s why I’m a teacher.  What about you?  Why did you become a teacher?

Today in Humanities class, the students worked at revising a poem they began during the first week of school.  They crafted a “Where I’m From” poem to help us create a class “Where We’re From” poem during our Academic Orientation time.  Our goal was to help the students get to know their classmates so that we could begin to build a strong community within the class.  Our class poem came out very well.  I was impressed.  I had collected their individual poems and told them, “We’ll be getting back to these later in the term.”  Well, today was that day.

I began class with an overview of the process we would use to finish, revise, and complete a final draft of their “Where I’m From” poem.  I provided each of the students with a handout that listed the requirements for their final draft.  I had the steps they would use to produce a final poem listed on the interactive whiteboard.  As a class, we discussed what makes a great poem so that they would be thinking poetically as they worked to create their revised poem.  I wanted to help them get into the right frame of mind to complete this activity.  I finished our discussion by reading one of my favorite poems aloud to the class: Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.  Before they got to work, I reviewed the process they would use, answered questions the students still wondered about, and then passed back their sloppy copy to them.  They got right to work.  At one point, it was so quiet because the students were hyper focused on the task at hand that I tested out the age-old saying “It was so quiet that I could hear a pin drop.”  So, I dropped a pin on the floor and sure enough, I heard it.  My co-teacher thought I was crazy as I hastily searched the floor for the pin I dropped.  I couldn’t find it and I certainly didn’t want my students stepping on it.  Luckily, with her help, I located the pin and prevented horrible tragedies from occurring within my classroom this morning.

It was an awesome and productive work period.  The boys crafted brilliant poems, showcasing their growth as writers in a mere five weeks.  They revised and edited their own work, tried new things, took risks, looked up synonyms for boring words, and tried to create their best possible work.  My co-teacher and I were blown away.  While today’s class was not too different than any other class in the sixth grade, something truly magical happened at the end of the first chunk of class before the students went to Morning Break.

A student, who struggled a bit, academically, at the start of the year, came to me with a look of disgust on his face.  Luckily, I knew he was about to say something sarcastic and funny or else I might have been scared.  He said, “Mr. Holt, how could you?”  I took the bait and responded, “What do you mean?  How could I what?”  Then it happened.  Angels began to sing from above.  This one student then said, with a smile on his face, “How could you make me like poetry?  I used to hate it but now I’m liking it.  Ughhh!”  My day was complete right there.  The sun could have set at that very moment and I would have been okay with it.  I wouldn’t have questioned anything.  I helped one student learn to like one of the most hated forms of writing.  The thing is though, I didn’t do anything.  He did the work.  In fact, I hadn’t even conferenced with this student during the first half of class.  He was working all on his own.  He made himself learn to like poetry.  I just happened to be in the room.  Now, I’ll take the compliment and run with it, but I can’t take full credit for it.  He put in the effort to make the transformation all on his own.  I remember when this student crafted the first draft of his poem back in early September.  It was a struggle.  After 30 minutes, he had written only one line.  He seemed unable to write anything.  While he did write a few more lines later during that activity, he was unable to finish the task.  As I’ve seen this student make so much progress over the past five weeks, I was excited to read his final poem.  Oh man, it was amazing.  It flowed like a river.  In fact, I don’t even think he included anything from his first poem in this new one.  It was phenomenal because he put in the effort to grow, be open to new ideas, and take risks in the classroom.  He made himself learn to like poetry.  I didn’t do that.

I love days like today when I’m reminded why I teach.  I mean, I don’t need reminders because I love it for so many reasons, but when students say and do things like this one particular student did and said today, I’m filled with a renewed sense of vigor.  I teach to help students realize things about themselves that they just haven’t realized yet.  I know what they’re capable of, but they tend to be blind to the magic that lives within them.  I teach to help my students extract that magic from within so that they can see what I’ve known all along.  Yes, it’s hard and yes, it’s challenging, but the rewards are so great because of it.  So again, I ask you to ponder this question for yourself.  Why do you teach?  What are your goals in life?

Lessons I Learned from My Summer Vacation

Over the years, life has taught me much: Don’t talk to strangers, eat your vegetables, don’t swallow gum, don’t mix Pop Rocks candy with Coke, don’t get into white vans, and don’t use temporary tattoos with strange symbols on them.  Each new experience, brings with it new lessons and morals.  The older I get, the more life seems to throw repeats at me.  Sometimes it feels like I’m watching Nick at Night and that same episode of Full House is playing.  Or maybe, I’ve just grown so accustomed to life teaching me something that I ignore the lessons.  Whatever the reason, over the past few years, I feel as though I’ve learned less than ever before from life.  Everything seems to be bleeding together, like the cup of water used to rinse a paintbrush creating a brilliant picture of flowers using water colors.  However, this summer seemed different.  While I don’t feel as though I learned too many new lessons, I do feel as though my experiences from this summer changed me.  I feel a bit different, like that time I got new glasses after having the same glasses for five years.  The colors are more vivid and things seem four-dimensional.  It’s pretty sweet.

In no particular order, I will recount the summer experiences that helped make my life a bit more vivid.

  1. Experience: Taking my son to a football camp.  In mid-June, my family travelled south a bit to Connecticut, for my son to participate in a Football University Camp.  It was intense, for both him and us.  The weather was hot and sunny, which may be why I dropped some weight that weekend.  I sweat off what felt like 20 pounds.  I hate being hot.  At the camp, my wife and I learned all about football recruiting for our son.  It’s crazy!  He needs to have video footage and a profile online in order for college coaches to see him and thus recruit him.  First off, I didn’t even know my son was that committed to football.  I knew he liked playing it, but him wanting to attend this camp made me realize how serious he is about the sport.  He seems to want to focus on football, moving forward.  While I’m not a huge fan of him doing so because of all of the health and safety risks associated with playing football, I do like that he has found a passion and is setting some goals for himself.  That’s great, I just wish it was with a sport that is a bit less aggressive.  Oh well, since I can’t force him to go pro in ping pong, I guess football is okay.  Life Lesson: Setting life goals and finding one’s passion is crucial to make progress and bring about change in one’s life.  I am now constantly thinking about how I can change and grow as an educator, which perhaps is one of the reasons why I did accomplish so much professional work this summer.  Sometimes I wonder who is teaching whom, me or my son son?
  2. Experience: Helping family friends move from Florida to New Hampshire.  In early July, a friend and I, flew down to Florida, which was hotter than my armpit after a trip to the sauna, to help his in-laws move their belongings back to New Hampshire.  After arriving, we loaded the moving truck with as much of their stuff as possible.  The next morning, we loaded the remainder of their things into the truck and made our long journey north.  We had decided to make a few stops along the way, for fun.  Our first adventure included going to an alligator farm.  Alligators raised in a farm, controlled setting seem very docile and not scary at all.  I almost felt like cuddling up to one as they sat in their tank of water, but then I realized it was way too hot to cuddle.  Our next stop was Hilton Head, South Carolina.  I heard so many cool stories about people vacationing there.  So, I figured, let’s check it out.  What a hot waste of time that was.  There was not much there except a beach and some stores.  Whoopie doo!  We then traveled to Atlantic City, New Jersey.  Now that was awesome.  Well, it was a bit scary being caught in a torrential downpour, but walking around the city and casinos was so neat.  It’s amazing.  Stores in the casinos are open all day and night.  So, if you have a hankering for a cookie at two in the morning, Mrs. Fields is open.  How cool is that?  Atlantic City was definitely the highlight of the trip for me.  Our last stop before heading back to New Hampshire was the Pocono Mountain range in Pennsylvania.  I wanted to go to some epic flea markets.  Who doesn’t love a good bargain.  We went to two amazing flea markets.  The last one was by far the best.  It had a huge inside part with a store that sold old Nintendo games.  For a few moments, I was thrust back into my childhood playing Super Mario Brothers for hours on end.  Ahh, the good ol’ days.  While the trip only lasted five days, we accomplished a lot.  Life Lesson: Take risks and try new things.  Even though we arrived to Atlantic City tired and wet from rain, we decided to walk around the boardwalk a bit.  It was awesome.  So many sounds and bright lights.  It was like that rave I never went to.  As a teacher, I’m going to try new things in the classroom this year, even if they scare me a bit.
  3. Experience: My son having a cardiac event at a football camp in South Carolina.  There we were, my son and I, in hot and steamy South Carolina, for another football camp.  Things started off swimmingly.  The drive down was long but good.  The first meetings at the camp went well.  Then came the first practice.  My son looked really good.  He made some epic catches.  I was a proud dad.  Then, I didn’t see for a while.  I wondered where he had gone.  As I made my way to the water tent to see if he was there, a medic called my name.  “Mark Holt!”  My son was down on the ground, clutching his chest.  It was one of every parent’s nightmares.  What was wrong?  Would he be okay?  He complained of pain in his heart and couldn’t move or really talk.  We were rushed to a strange hospital in a strange place via an ambulance.  Luckily, he soon felt better and it seemed as though we would be discharged after only a few hours at the hospital.  Then, the doctor came in and closed the door.  Now, we all know that nothing good is ever said behind closed doors.  I started to get nervous.  What was going on with my son?  One of the blood tests came back positive for a cardiac enzyme that tells doctors that some sort of cardiac event had occurred.  The doctor in the ER wanted us to see a specialist before going home, and since they didn’t have a pediatric cardiologist at that hospital, they needed to transfer us to another hospital in North Carolina, about 45 minutes away.  What?  My wife was back in New Hampshire and I was alone with my son in South Carolina.  Fortunately, my son had no real idea what was happening because he felt fine.  He said, “Why can’t we just leave the hospital?”  Once we got transferred to the larger Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, they did more tests and found out that whatever cardiac event had happened to him, it was minor and didn’t seem to cause any noticeable issues.  So, they discharged him later that afternoon.  While my wife and I were relieved that he was being dismissed from the hospital, we were still anxious about what had caused the event.  A few weeks later, once we saw a specialist back home, our fears were quelled when a stress test revealed that whatever happened to him probably wasn’t heart-related.  That was great news.  Life Lesson: Fake it ’till you make it.  In the hospital, I appeared to my son and the hospital staff as calm, cool, and collected, while inside I was a complete mess.  I just rolled with it externally while my insides felt like a fish out of water.  I was so scared for my son.  As a teacher, I’m really good at faking it and letting personal stresses stay personal, but, every once in awhile, I do allow my emotions to get the better of me.  This year, I’m going to work on keeping everything in check, all the time.  If I can come across as serene while my son is being rushed to the hospital, then I’m sure I can remain in control in the classroom.
  4. Experience: Family trip to Maine.  My wife’s family rented two cabins on Highland Lake in Bridgton, Maine for a week in August.  My wife, son, and I, along with my wife’s parents, her sister, and her two kids, spent the week together.  The weather was beautiful, sunny and warm every day.  It was only really hot one day, but got really cool one night.  There was so much to do right there at the lake.  My son and his cousins went fishing, kayaking, and swimming.  We played horseshoes and had a campfire every night.  It was so peaceful and relaxing.  It was just what my family needed before school starts back up for me and before we drop my son off at his new school.  Life Lesson: Take YOU time.  Having time to oneself is so beneficial for recharging the emotional battery.  We all need some down time on a regular basis.  Whether you read a book, listen to music, fish, or something else, it’s vital to your sanity and the sanity of those you live and work with to take a break every once in awhile.  As our schedule at my school is so hectic, I do need to remember to take me time more frequently than I have in the past.  Perhaps I should take up a new hobby or just play some of the old school video games I recently purchased.  Anybody up for a game of NBA Jam on the Sega?

Together, these experiences helped shape my summer, and changed me.  I feel a little different.  With faculty meetings for my school beginning tomorrow morning, I’m feeling energized, excited, and ready to go.  Bring on the new students, new ideas, new teachers, and new experiences.  I can’t wait to see how this new year will bring about more changes within me.

Summer Reflections Part III: Home on the Farm

“Ahh, look at the sheep.  They’re so cute,” my mother used to say whenever we passed a farm on one of our many road trips.  That was it though.  We never stopped to see the sheep up close.  We never saw the lice or bugs jumping around in their fleece.  We never got to feel how soft the sheep were.  We never learned what type of sheep they were or what they were being used for.  I just always knew sheep as being cute, but there is so much more to know than that.  

Many schools today teach in this same manner.  “Ohh, science is cool.  When you mix two substances, an explosion occurs.  Isn’t that cool?” teachers might say.  They don’t ever let the students explore or test the substances.  They probably never even allow the students to conduct an investigation.  They move onto notes and a lecture to cover more content.  What about depth?  What about play time and exploration time?  What about letting students ask the questions and make the comments?  In this day of educational testing and a set of curriculum standards longer than Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, students don’t have a chance to get curious, be creative, or explore.

Like Ken Robinson’s Book Creative Schools preaches, we need students to do the thinking, questioning, and learning.  Students need time to play and explore so that they have the opportunity to really delve into the curriculum and content in a relevant and meaningful manner.  So, as I thought about how I could reshape the sixth grade curriculum at my school, a few ideas came to me.

  1. I read a blog post in May that mentioned all different types of technology, one being knitting.  Then it dawned on me, handwork.  So many of our students struggle with handwriting and fine motor skills, which means they were never provided opportunities to develop those skills.  Let’s teach our sixth graders how to knit.
  2. I then took that idea a step further when I let my original idea percolate a bit.  What if we had the students go to an actual sheep farm and learn how sheep are sheared?  Then, we could use that fleece to turn into yarn that the students could use when learning to knit.  What a brilliant idea, I thought.  Now, how do I find a farm that would allow us to do this?
  3. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks, a member of Cardigan’s staff runs a farm.  What if I contact her?  She is also our community outreach contact and so she may have an idea if she can’t directly help us.  So, I reached out to her.  She was thrilled that I contacted her and said she would love to host our class on her farm.  Nice.  It all seemed to be coming together even quicker than I imagined.
  4. When we met, my original idea became only a tiny nugget of what Mary Ledoux and I put together.  My first idea became so built upon, that I almost didn’t recognize it anymore.  I was amazed at how one simple idea lead to an entire program for the sixth grade at my school.  
  5. Each Friday during STEM class, the students will travel to Mary’s farm, which is about a mile from campus.  We will spend two hours there working through various activities:
  • Week 1: Farm Tour and Overview of Everything. Students would make observations in a Farm Journal they maintain throughout the year.
  • Week 2: Newborn bunny time. Learn bunny basics. Calculate data such as size, weight, color, etc in Farm Journal. Learn about bunny care.
  • Week 3: Hay Basics. Learn about baling process, implements, etc.
  • Week 4: Bunny Observation Time. Pick grapes, learn about grapes and how they grow. Make grape jelly.
  • Week 5: Bunny Observation Time. Learn how sheep are sheared and participate in process.
  • Week 6: Bunny Observation Time. Skirt sheep fleeces.
  • Week 7: Bunny Observation Time. Wash sheep fiber. Introduction to Felting.
  • Week 8: Bunny Observation Time. Felting exploration time.
  • Week 9: Bunny Observation Time. Work on felting projects.
  • Week 10: Bunny Observation Time. Spinning wool introduction. Explore spinning techniques.
  • Week 11: Bunny Observation Time. Make a drop spindle and spin their own yarn.

We mapped out the first half of the year and created a Unit Plan to provide data for what we are doing and how we are doing it:
Essential Questions

  • How are human and natural systems interrelated?
  • How do we depend on natural systems?
  • How do natural systems depend on us?

Habits of Learning

Growth Mindset 

The students will learn to be open to new ideas and methods of learning as this farm experience will be new to many of them. The farm is an extension of our classroom and so the same expectations will apply. We will challenge the students to take risks and try new things on the farm. The students will be provided with new and unique opportunities that we will help them embrace and take on with courage and compassion.


The students will learn to be self-aware of their physical bodies when on the farm. As multiple tasks will be taking place at once, sometimes in small spaces, it will be important for the students to understand how to move carefully while also appropriately handling and caring for the animals, equipment, and land on the farm.


The students will learn to effectively work with their peers, animals, and other adults on the farm. The students will need to actively listen and process information with which they are provided in order to solve problems or complete tasks. They will need to be thoughtful and compassionate when interacting with peers, adults, and animals on the farm.

Critical Thinking

The students will learn how to solve various agricultural problems while on the farm. They will need to think critically about the natural world around them and how everything is interrelated in order to solve problems encountered in appropriate ways.


The students will learn how to effectively communicate their ideas, thoughts, and questions with peers, adults, and animals on the farm. They will need to be patient, at times, as the farm facilitator may be busy assisting other students. They will also need to be sure they are using appropriate language when communicating with others on the farm. The students will need to be mindful of their body language when interacting with the animals on the farm.


The students will learn to take ownership of their work on the farm as they will be learning to take on new tasks and responsibilities. As these experiences will be new for many of the students, they will need to put forth their best effort in accomplishing tasks. They will also learn to understand that failure is part of the learning process. They will make mistakes and need to try things again and again. Ownership during these times will be crucial for the students.


The students will learn to see how everything in the world is interrelated. This will require a change of perspective for many of the students as they learn to solve agricultural problems in new and innovative ways when on the farm. The students will also be expected to take risks and learn new skills, which could include knitting, crocheting, felting, fiber dying, animal care, and food preparation.

Student Objectives, Skills, and Outcomes

Students will:

  • Understand how the natural and human worlds are interrelated.
  • Understand the farm as a whole system rather than as discrete human, biological or physical components.
  • Care for, appropriately, based on information provided by the farm facilitator, an angora rabbit.
  • Prepare and make grape jelly utilizing grapes picked on the farm and specific instructions from the farm facilitator.
  • Know the source of various fiber types and the processes involved in obtaining them.
  • Know how to felt various fiber types using appropriate materials.
  • Understand how to spin wool using various instruments including a drop spindle and spinning wheel.
  • Create and make a self-chosen project utilizing the skill of felting.

Cross Curricular Connections


Ecology and Life Science Components

  • The students will learn how natural and human systems are interrelated.
  • The students will learn about the life cycles of various farm animals.
  • The students will learn how grass is used to create food for animals on the farm.
  • The students will learn how to care for a rabbit and document its growth over the course of the year.
  • The students will learn about various flora types growing on the farm and how they can be utilized to help humans.
  • The students will learn about patterns through the completion of knitting and crocheting projects.



  • The students will periodically journal and document their learning in creative ways.


  • To assess students’ ability to understand how the natural and human worlds are interrelated and understand the farm as a whole system rather than as discrete human, biological or physical components, the students will participate in various class discussions on and off the farm as well as various writing activities throughout the unit.
  • To assess students’ ability to care for, appropriately, based on information provided by the farm facilitator, an angora rabbit, the students will take care of an angora bunny and document its growth, in writing, throughout the unit.
  • To assess students’ ability to prepare and make grape jelly utilizing grapes picked on the farm and specific instructions from the farm facilitator, the students will participate in the making of grape jelly on the farm using verbal instructions and a recipe.
  • To assess students’ ability to know the source of various fiber types and the processes involved in obtaining them, the students will participate in various class discussions on the farm.
  • To assess students’ ability to know how to felt various fiber types using appropriate materials, understand how to spin wool using various instruments including a drop spindle and spinning wheel, and create and make a self-chosen project utilizing the skill of felting, the students will design and complete a self-chosen fiber project that utilizes felting in some way.

To think that this whole program came out of an idea I had to teach my students how to knit.  It’s crazy how ideas can grow, multiply, divide, and become something almost unreconizable.  While I am so excited to begin this program, I’m most definitly looking forward to the fiber aspect.  Having the students raise and take care of a bunny that they will then use the fabric from to create an original and unique hand work design is simply phenomenal.   The students will be engaged in hands-on, real-world learning. What is better than that?

For the Love of Co-Teaching

Have you ever met one of those people who just seem to rub you the wrong way or flat out irritate you for some strange reason unbeknownst to you?  You know the type of person I’m talking about.  They may be nice and helpful, but spending time with them is challenging and awkward.  Or even worst, what about those people who are just plain not nice.  Have you ever had to work with someone like that?  For as much as we might try to “fake it ’til we make it,” some people can be very difficult to work with and make our lives very uncomfortable.  What do you do in situations like that?  How do you cope?  What if you have to work very closely with them every day, all day?  Then what?  Do you quit?  Give up?

Although some of us might choose to change jobs, I’m all about compromise and compassion.  I’ve dealt with some very challenging personalities in my many 15 years of teaching, and not once did I give up.  Sure, there were times when I wanted to find a new job, but I didn’t.  I stuck it out.  I found ways to appropriately and effectively interact with those difficult people, and because of that, those people eventually changed departments or roles or left the school on their own accord.  Then, as a result of my patience, new people entered my life and filled those vacant positions.  Have you ever worked with someone who makes you excited to get up and go to work in the morning?  You know, the kind of person who helps you grow and develop as a teacher and/or individual?  Working with people like that make life and time in and out of the classroom way more amazing.  While we all hope and wish all of our co-workers were like the latter type I mentioned, we have to be able to work with all types of people if we want to grow and develop as educators and best support and challenge our students.

Co-teaching, more than any other role in a school, requires close and constant contact between both parties.  The teachers need to work very closely together in and out of the classroom if the teaching model is to work effectively.  Teachers who or schools that utilize the co-teaching model in the classroom need to be flexible, open-minded, patient, and kind.  Well, actually, wouldn’t it be nice if all teachers and people were like that?  But, more than anything, if you are to use the co-teaching model in your classroom, you need to be adept at dealing with all types of people because you may not always have the luxury of choosing your co-teacher.  In the past several years, I’ve been very fortunate to have wonderful co-teachers with whom to work.  However, I had a not so good experience several years ago too.  Like the theme song from that television show taught us though, “You take the good.  You take the bad.  You take them both, and there you have the facts of life.”

One of the keys to a successful co-teaching experience is the relationship between the two educators.  While you don’t have to become best buddies, you do need to think of your co-teacher as a friend and ally.  Because you spend so much time with this person, being able to laugh, have fun, and share life experiences together will make the relationship that much stronger.  Even if the choice of your co-teacher is out of your hands, finding a way to connect with that person is crucial to the success of the partnership.  In order to create a strong-knit community in the classroom, you need to have a positive bond with your co-teacher.  Effective co-teaching starts with the strong connection and positive relationship between the two educators.  Once that’s in place, the rest will fit together like an easy 10-piece puzzle for young children.

The next piece of the co-teaching pie comes directly as a result of having a strong relationship and great communication.  You will need to talk to your co-teacher about pedagogy and co-teaching models.  There are so many different ways to co-teach.

  • One person teaches while the other observes the classroom and helps guide the students to understanding.
  • One person teaches a lesson or class while the other takes a break, goes to the restroom, or plans future lessons.
  • Both teachers share the stage like tag team wrestling.  You might start the class and then your co-teacher might get the main lesson going.
  • Etc.

My favorites are definitely the first and third options.  Striking a good balance between the models is key and will take time, but, you must begin your co-teaching relationship by discussing how you want the partnership to work in the classroom.  Flexibility is also important here as the model or models used will ebb and flow throughout the year.  If you reflect upon each lesson or class and keep talking about what works best and what doesn’t, you will find the co-teaching model that best supports and challenges your students.  After several years of co-teaching with the same partner, we could build upon each other’s ideas, finish each other’s sentences, and ask each other the right questions while teaching or leading a lesson.  We flowed together like a river, but that took about four years to manifest.  Once you become comfortable and work out the kinks in co-teaching, you’ll figure out what works best for you.

Once the relationship between you and your co-teacher starts to take root and bud and you have talked about the co-teaching model that feels right for you both, the rest will just happen because you will utilize best teaching practices.  Plan units together, grade together, organize field experiences and trips together, and talk about the students together regularly.  Try to align your professional development as well.  If you get in the habit of doing everything together, the relationship you’ll have with your co-teacher will grow stronger and stronger like an oak tree.  Yes, your tree will get diseases and insects will try to eat their way through your relationship tree, but if you communicate openly and share compassionately, you’ll work through problems and overcome any challenges with which you are faced.  Compromise and empathize.  Try to see things through the eyes of your co-teacher when issues arise.  Why is he or she upset?  What might I be doing to instigate the situation?  What is going on?  Think things through before reacting.  Just like any relationship, bumps in the road will inevitably happen.  If you have a strong relationship with your co-teacher, everything will work out just as it is supposed to.

My co-teacher and I plan every Humanities lesson and unit together.  We bounce ideas off of one another and challenge each other.  Why should we teach this content this way?  How will it help the students meet the objective?  What’s our focus?  Why are we doing this?  It’s great.  I’ve grown so much as a teacher because of the co-teaching experiences I’ve had.  Working alone, I always assumed that my ideas, lessons, and grading methods were fine.  I never knew anything else.  Sure, I talked to other colleagues and learned new tricks along the way, but the foundation of my teaching really never developed much prior to co-teaching.  Having someone to bounce ideas around with has made all of the difference.  We grade together and debate objectives as we assess student work.  We reflect together and choose new topics together.  Effective co-teaching is all about the togetherness.  While two of the co-teachers I’ve had the great pleasure of working with over the past several years were not my good friends or best buds at the start of our relationship, after a year or two of co-teaching, we became great friends.

One of the most effective ways to help support and challenge students to think critically and grow academically and socially is to utilize the co-teaching model of instruction in the classroom.  Two skilled and gifted teachers working together for a common goal benefits the students exponentially in numerous ways.  Co-teaching allows for the literacy workshop model of reading and writing instruction to be effectively implemented.  It is challenging to conference with every student while also being sure every other student is on task and focused.  Two teachers provide students with opportunities and options.  Co-teaching allows for more Project Based Learning to occur.  Monitoring and overseeing projects in STEM class as one person can create safety hazards.  Two teachers helping guide students allows for more freedom and engagement.  If you or your school is thinking about utilizing the co-teaching model, get excited because it is a life-changing experience when done well.  Not only will you grow and develop as an educator when you co-teach, but you will gain a new friend and better support and help your students succeed in and out of the classroom.

Part of the Problem

One of my wife’s favorite musicians Ani DiFranco once wrote, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”  She also said, “The media is not fooling me.”  She was onto something then and now.

In a previous blog post I mentioned how the defunct public school system is in need of a major overhaul.  Our country’s perspective on teachers needs to change for progress to be made in the area of public education.  Teachers are viewed as public servants whose job it is to take care of kids or make them smart.  The problem is, those ideas are not accurate nor true, but it is what many people in America seem to think about teachers.

All of the teachers I know, myself included, don’t look at our jobs as jobs.  Being an educator is a lifestyle.  To be a great teacher, one must be a great student, always longing for more information and new ideas.  This takes time and effort.  I spend most of my unscheduled time during the academic day and during my “off” time reading, researching, writing, planning, and talking about teaching and how to better support and challenge my students.  Great teachers care about their students and their “job” very much.  However, in recent years in our country, many American citizens don’t see this.  When things go wrong with their children or society, they blame schools and teachers.  Of course, there are bad teachers and failing schools in this country, but the same can be said about almost any country in the world regarding any profession.  Why generalize and past grand judgment on all teachers?  Why not celebrate the great teachers and profession of teaching so that more young people will want to pursue a career and life in education.  Now it seems as though no one wants to become a teacher because of all the bad publicity.  Retiring great teachers are even advocating that young people thinking about going into education should change their life path.  Why is the field of education and the profession of teaching being so lambasted?

The media is partly to blame for this.  When one bad person makes a horrific mistake, everyone under the umbrella suffers.  This bad press and poor coverage makes teachers and schools look bad, as if they are failing our country.  Then, people start to question teachers, and the respect paid to educators drops.  In many other countries, teachers are highly paid and respected by society.  Becoming a teacher in some countries, is one of the greatest honors.  In America, it seems as though becoming a teacher is a laughable offense.  With movies like Bad Teacher and television shows in the vain of Those Who Can’t, the teaching profession becomes a scapegoat for failure in our country.  Society has lost respect for us and what we do.  With that loss of respect comes broken relationships and partnerships.  Families and communities stop trusting schools and teachers.  We’ve seen it happen over the past 20 years in our country.  The number of families choosing to homeschool their children has increased exponentially.  This trend of disdain and distrust for teachers and the public school system in our country needs to stop.

If change is to be made in the education sector, then the way the media perpetuates teachers and schools needs to change.  We don’t need more shows or movies about bad teachers.  We need more coverage that shows the great things teachers and schools around the country are doing.  Let’s stop focusing on how other countries and teachers are doing great things and start looking at all of the wonderful things happening in our country.  Then, perhaps, schools will improve, and teachers will gain respect.  This transformation, will then, of course, be evident in the future as our students will go onto to do great things like creating peace and finding solutions to problems throughout the world.

So, it’s time to get angry and do something about the way American society views teachers and the educational world.  The media has fooled us long enough.  It’s time to take back what is ours: Respect.