The Power of Mindfulness with a Dash of Social and Emotional Learning

As the research proves, mindfulness is highly effective in helping students stay engaged and focused in the classroom.  Teaching students to be present in the moment allows them to address their emotional baggage appropriately so that they can be the best students possible inside the classroom.  Earlier this year, my co-teacher and I completed a unit on mindfulness with our sixth grade class.  The students learned how to use various mindfulness techniques to self-soothe and stay focused on the task at hand.  They learned how to experience life in the moment rather than watching it play out in a series of Instagram photographs or Snapchat videos.  Most of our students explained how beneficial this unit was in helping them become more effective and engaged students.  They learned how to calm themselves down when they became overly excited, which prevented them from making poor choices and missing out on learning in the classroom.  My co-teacher and I have observed a dramatic change in the attitudes of our students since completing this unit.  They seem more open to new ideas and changes and are able to better control themselves and their choices during the academic morning.  Teaching our students how to be mindful and why it’s vital to their success as students and people, has made all the difference in the classroom this year.

While we completed this unit during the fall term, we haven’t spent much time revisiting the mindful techniques learned since early November.  Although we haven’t noticed much of a change in their overall demeanor and behavior in the classroom, we were beginning to worry that they may forget some of these useful strategies in the near future.  And then I did some reading, that made it very evident that we need to bring back mindfulness in the classroom.

After reading about how schools in Nashville, Tennessee effectively integrated social and emotional learning into their academic day and curriculum, I was curious.  Could I make a version of this model work in my classroom?  As it incorporates mindfulness practices into helping students learn to be kind and compassionate, I felt as though adding components of social and emotional learning to our class day might help all of our students feel more cared for, able to focus, and engaged in the process of learning in the classroom.  Recently, my co-teacher and I have noticed that a few of our students seem unable to leave their emotional baggage at the door when they enter the classroom, which makes it difficult for them to stay focused on the task at hand.  They often struggle to stay on task in class.  We thought that adding a piece of the SEL curriculum that some Nashville schools use might make a difference for at least those few students who are challenged by the daily expectations of our class.  So, this morning, my co-teacher and I revisited mindfulness while adding in some social and emotional learning skills.

We began by explaining why we were doing this activity at the start of class, as we always want our students to understand the purpose behind what we are doing and asking of them in the classroom.  Then, as the students took three mindful breaths, we had them think about all of the distracting, worrisome, exciting, and other thoughts that seemed to be clouding their brains.  Having them focus on these mental clotting factors, allowed them to be mindful of what they were really thinking about.  The students then shared these thoughts with their table partner, focusing on releasing them as they spoke them aloud.  We concluded this first part of our activity by having the boys take two more mindful breaths, focusing on being in the present moment.  We asked them to pay attention to the sounds they heard, sights they saw, and things they felt as they took their two breaths.  We had volunteers share their observations after completing the final mindful breathing exercise.  For phase two of our SEL activity, we had the students focus on appreciations.  What have their sixth grade Cardigan brothers done to help them recently?  How have their peers supported them in or out of the classroom?  What have their classmates done to help them?  We had several students share their noticings.  The boys had very nice, complimentary words to say about their fellow sixth graders.  It was amazing to listen to their kind and caring words as they spread happiness and joy throughout the sixth grade classroom.  We closed the activity, by reminding them to stay self-aware and present in this joy and mindfulness throughout the remainder of the period.

The results of today’s mindfulness and social and emotional learning activity were numerous:

  • The students were much more focused and on-task while working on their Africa Project today than we’ve seen since the start of the project.  They were engaged in what they were doing and learning about.
  • One student who frequently struggles to hear and accept feedback from the teachers, almost immediately changed his mindset and began making the changes suggested to him.  I was thoroughly impressed by how quickly this change took place.  He seemed to understand why he needed to make the change and did so of his own free will.
  • The students were far less distracting than they were yesterday, as they were committed to completing the task at hand.
  • There seemed to be a peaceful atmosphere about the classroom during the work period.  The boys seemed happy and content living in the present moment.  It was very cool.
  • Later in the morning, I asked the students to provide me with some feedback on the SEL activity we completed during first period.  Every student who shared with the class, noted how this activity seemed to help them be more focused and better utilize a growth mindset while working.

The moral of this story is short and sweet, teaching students how to be mindful in the classroom holds much power.  It literally changes their mindset and helps them focus on the learning and not all of the other distractions filling their minds.  So, if you are not incorporating mindfulness techniques into your classroom or curriculum, I highly suggest you give them a try with your students.  A huge plus in all of this is that I have found myself being more mindful and self-aware than in past years.  When I’ve felt overwhelmed in the past few months, I’ve tried some of the breathing techniques I taught my students, and found that I was able to calm myself down and focus on the present moment.  Not only can mindfulness help your students, but it can also help you grow and develop as a teacher and person.


Why Does Teaching Sometimes Feel Like Car Maintenance?

Sometimes, teaching feels like an art form: A tiny swath of direct instruction layered upon mostly student-centered learning.  Lesson execution is open to interpretation like great paintings of old, and there are incorrect ways to manage the behavior of students in a classroom, much like there is only one way to play a particular chord on a piano.  I love this type of teaching as it takes much practice to constantly be present and mindful in the moment to allow for changes or transitions to take place as needed.  On most days, as a teacher, I feel like an artist, sculpting great statues of intelligence and critical thinking.  Then, there are those days when teaching feels more like car maintenance.  Just when you think you’ve fixed the problem, something else goes wrong or stops working.  While those days are challenging, difficult, and usually require much perseverance, they are what make teachers great.  When I’m able to reflect on a lesson or class and learn from my mistakes, I grow and develop as an educator.  Sure, when teaching feels like finger painting on a blank canvas, we’re as happy as could be, but not much forward progress happens on those days.  We need the challenging days, like those of old car owners, constantly repairing their vehicles, to make us better teachers.  Great rewards and benefits require much hard work and effort.

Earlier this week, I noticed that my students were very dependent on me, their teacher, for help.  They struggled to answer their own questions using critical thinking and self-awareness.  After taking the time to reflect on what happened in class that day, I made some changes, and then saw a dramatic change in the work ethic of my students.  They transformed into independent students, answering their own questions.  I assessed the situation, made the necessary repairs, and had a fully functioning automobile of learning.  It was quite amazing.

Today, while the students were able to work much more independently than earlier in the week, I noticed another faulty part on my classroom vehicle.  The students seemed disengaged at times, distracted by their peers and distracting to others.  While this lack of focus and dedication was not consistent throughout the period, I did notice it happening quite frequently throughout today’s longer work period.  Although they love their topics and seem to thoroughly enjoy learning more about Africa, the boys seemed to have difficulty staying on task the entire period.  So, what was going on?  What caused this change in their behavior and work ethic?  Why weren’t they able to stay committed to working hard throughout this morning’s Humanities class?

After some reflection, I realized what was causing this leak in learning: I wasn’t chunking the work period for them.  I was expecting them to stay on task, researching their topic, without a break of any type for 30 minutes.  Sixth grade boys need to be active and moving.  They need to be able to stretch and move around.  Learning needs to be active and not stationary.  I wasn’t allowing them the time to move.  So, back to the shop I go with my car of learning.

My plan of repair for tomorrow is simple, break the work period into smaller chunks.  After ten minutes, have the students share their work with their table partner.  After another ten minutes, have the students walk around the room and stretch a bit before getting back to work.  Hopefully, these transitions will be just what the students need to stay focused and on task during those ten-minute chunks.

While I did wallow in self-pity for a short period after class today, I quickly realized the learning opportunity at my disposal.  I could look at today’s class as a failure after putting in such hard work earlier in the week, or, I could change my perspective and learn from the error of my ways and make tomorrow’s class even better than the last one.  When I treat my old Subaru with love and care, keeping on top of the preventative maintenance schedule suggested by my mechanic, it continues to purr like a kitten; however, if I fail to take care of it like I should, then it will certainly fall apart.  Effective teaching is the same way.  If I learn from my mistakes in the classroom and fix things for the next period or class, then I will be able to grow and develop into the best teacher possible.

Helping Students Realize that they May Already Know the Answers to their Questions

One of my favorite movies growing up was The Neverending Story.  I mean, who wouldn’t want a flying luck dragon?  Falcor was so cool.  Plus, a band even named themselves after one of the main characters from the movie, Atreyu.  If that’s not a sign of how amazing the film is, than I don’t know what is.  One of my favorite parts of the whole film came towards the end when the princess is shouting at Sebastien to say her name.  Then he’s like, Lady, I don’t know your name.  Why are you asking me?  Then she says, You already know my name, you just need to say it.  And he’s like, What?  Then he shouts something inaudible into the storm, and so the audience never actually figures out what name he gives the princess.  I love the mystery of it all.  Years later, I did some digging online and found out that he named her after his mother.  What really got me is when the princess tells Sebastian that he already knows her name, but until that moment when she reminded him that he did in fact have the answer she was in need of, he had no idea that he did actually know her name.  I feel like that most of the time when my wife asks me, “Did you remember to get the thingy at the store like I asked?”  Well, of course I did remember it, I just needed a friendly reminder to pull it out of my short term memory.

Middle school boys are very similar to Sebastian and I in this way.  They often need friendly reminders about what they already know in order to recall it from their memory.  Once they are are made aware of what they should know, they will usually have an aha moment.  Ohhh, yeah, I remember that? they’d say in response.  Prompting is a very useful educational strategy to help students extract information from their brains.  It’s also a great way to help students link new information to prior knowledge.  Sometimes, we all could benefit from some helpful hints on knowing what we should know.

Today during my study skills class, the students continued working on the Africa Project.  Before allowing them to get to work on creating a bibliography regarding their sources this morning, I explained to them what I noticed in class yesterday.  “While I enjoyed helping many of you in class yesterday, I wonder if I needed to answer all of the questions you posed.  Could you have addressed your own questions?” I said to them in class today.  I then told them what I would like to see them try today so as to empower them with the ability to solve their own problems.  “When you feel like asking me a question, take a deep, mindful breath and ask yourself, using critical thinking, if you really need to ask the question or if you already know the answer.  If after 20 seconds, you feel like you don’t have an answer, please feel free to turn your stop and go card to ask for help,” I said.  I want the students to value their talents and abilities.  They know more than they realize.  They just sometimes need to be reminded of that fact.

During the work period in both the study skills class and my Humanities class, they asked very few questions as they solved their own problems.  They transformed themselves into great, independent workers once they realized of what they were capable.  When a student did ask a question, I asked him if there was anyway he could locate the answer on his own.  In many cases, he was able to determine the answer to his own question without my support.  Instead of answering basic questions that the boys could easily answer on their own, I was able to have meaningful discussions with the students regarding the information they were learning about their topics.  One student was baffled by how the British and German forces used Africans as the frontline of their defense in attacks during WWII battles that took place on African soil.  He had no idea that Africans were involved in WWII prior to researching his topic.  He was enthralled and disturbed by this fact.  I was also able to help a student realize that when one switches their mindset, great things can happen.  He was struggling to find a third resource for this topic, but seemed fixated on only the ten items that first appeared on Google.  He did not understand that he could narrow or broaden his search to include other aspects of his topic.  Once he took some time to process what I told him, he was easily able to find another reputable online source.  If I had to spend all of my time answering comprehension or recall level questions, I would never have been able to engage the students in these fruitful conversations.

At the close of the period, I explained what I observed in class and praised the students for demonstrating great self-awareness, ownership, and critical thinking during class today.  I was amazed and impressed at the change that occurred in due to the one little reminder with which I provided them.  Sometimes all it takes a little nudge for someone to realize of what they are truly capable.  The students know how to answer their own questions, but they just rely on the teacher to do the thinking for them sometimes.  By reminding them of the expectations I have for them in class, I empowered them to solve their own problems, and what a huge difference that made.

How Can I Help Empower Students to Work Through their Struggles and Move On While Working Independently?

Thinking back to my days in middle school, I struggled to work independently.  While I could easily stay focused on the task at hand in class, I had very low self-esteem, and constantly doubted myself and my work.  Was I doing the assignment right?  What do I do next?  So, I found myself asking my teachers for much help and support during independent work periods in class.  When I finished an assignment, I needed to have my teacher check it over to ensure that it was done well.  I was not self-aware as a student and struggled to demonstrate ownership over my work.  Because of these struggles, I was not able to move through an assignment, project, or task without asking the teacher numerous questions. This proved problematic for me, my classmates, and my teachers.  Because I asked so many questions during work periods, my teachers were unable to provide fair and equal support to the rest of the students.  I wish my teachers would have helped me to understand how to be more self-aware and solve my own problems as I worked, so that I didn’t need to ask as many questions, taking away from what I was able to accomplish in class.  As I have yet to find a working time machine, I can’t change my past and correct my mistakes, but I can help my students learn how to solve their own problems in order to work independently in a productive manner.

Today in my Humanities class, the students worked on an independent research project regarding our unit of study on Africa.  The boys gathered reputable online sources, appropriately cited their sources, and extracted notes from their various sources.  Every student seemed to be at a different stage of the project.  It was very cool to see the students work at their own pace as they learned about self-chosen topics.  While most of the students were engaged and on task during today’s work period, a few of the boys were distracting their table partner or distracted by the process itself.  As the students worked, I observed their work ethic and habits, assessed their ability to meet the graded objectives, provided feedback to them on their work so that they could revise it before it is turned into be graded, and answered questions the students had.  This kept me quite busy throughout the entire period, as I bopped around from student to student, offering assistance.  While it felt good to provide the boys with meaningful feedback and support throughout the period, I noticed that some of the boys, while waiting to ask me questions, were sitting at their desk completely unproductive.  A few of the students literally did nothing for 10-20 minutes while they patiently waited for my assistance.  Although many of the students waiting did not misbehave or distract their peers, they were also not on-task during some of the class.  This was frustrating to me as I don’t want to see them waste their time.  I also feel bad that I couldn’t help all of them, all of the time.  While I reminded the class that I am only one person and want to be equitable and respectful to everyone, I feel as though that wasn’t enough.  If I want to empower my students to learn how to solve their own problems and move on while working independently, then I need to restructure future work periods so that they are able to practice self-awareness.

Some ideas I will try tomorrow, in hopes of helping empower my students to be more productive, independent workers:

  • I will describe what I witnessed in class to the boys, explaining how this is unproductive behavior.  Pointing out the problem will hopefully bring the issue to light for the students.
  • I will then elicit ideas and solutions from the students.  What do they think they should do if they are waiting for help or have a question?
  • I will then remind them of what they should do when they are waiting to meet with me to be sure that they understand the expectations.
  • During the work period, I will only meet with those students who are effectively showing self-awareness.  I hope that this strategy will be a good reminder as to what they should do instead of sitting and waiting unproductively.
  • I will then debrief the work period at the end of class, pointing out what went well and what struggles the students had practicing the skill of self-awareness and ownership.

I’m hopeful that these tweaks and strategies will help empower my students to be more productive and self-aware during class tomorrow.  As I don’t want my students to be like me in middle school, I need to change things up a bit from today.  I can’t wait to see what happens in the classroom tomorrow.

The Evolution of the Faculty Room

The Teachers’ Room, Faculty Room, Faculty Lounge, or Teachers’ Lounge.  Regardless of its name, shouldn’t the space where teachers gather during free periods or unscheduled time be a safe, positive space in which educators can discuss effective teaching practices and how to grow as teachers?  Teachers need a place where they can ask their fellow colleagues for help or support regrading a challenging student or issue in the classroom.  The Teachers’ Room should be place where educators collect to discuss the art of teaching.  While I know that these spaces have evolved over time from places to make photocopies of worksheets and to grab a cold cup of coffee into smaller spaces to grab a warm cup of coffee and sit for a few moments between classes, it seems as though the pendulum has swung too far in one direction.

When I worked at a small Catholic school in Maine many years ago, the Teachers’ Room was a small space with a bathroom, refrigerator, and microwave.  Teachers did not gather in this space during their free periods due to its limited size.  Instead, teachers sat in their own classrooms and did work or meandered the halls in search of other teachers who were free and wanting to discuss teaching.  I often found myself sharing lesson plan ideas with my colleagues during these free periods or asking for help regarding certain students.  I attempted to effectively utilize these short snippets of time so that I could have very little work to do outside of school.  I also enjoyed learning from more experienced educators, and found myself asking for their suggestions and feedback on situations that occurred in my classroom.   While the traditional Faculty Room was not utilized the way in which it should have been at that school, teachers found spaces to discuss teaching and to grow as educators.

At my current school, the Faculty Lounge as evolved greatly in my 15-year tenure.  It used to be a large space where teachers would gather to grade papers, plan lessons, check their email, and talk to other teachers about students or lesson ideas.  It was a sweet place to hang out and grow as a teacher.  After a few relocations over the years, our current Faculty Room is a very small space where very few teachers can collect.  It’s often hotter than most saunas in that room and I’ve found that many educators find other, cooler spaces in which to collect and talk about teaching and students.  Perhaps due to the extreme temperature of our current Faculty Room, it has transformed into a negative space where teachers come to complain about our school, their classes, their responsibilities, and students.  It’s no longer the welcoming and open place that it once was.  It’s now a place that I try to avoid so that I don’t get sucked into the negative drama happening behind the scenes at my school.  I’m more of a glass half-full kind of guy and I find it difficult to hear so much negativity in one tiny space.  In fact, I rarely visit the Faculty Room anymore despite the fact that it provides easy access to coffee.  I’d rather take the extra steps needed to walk to our dining commons to grab a cup of tasty coffee than wade through more negative comments.  As negativity breeds more negativity, the Faculty Lounge has grown into this black hole of despair.  If I wanted to wallow in bad news, I’d simply click over to and read about the state of affairs around the world. So, to make a short story even longer, I do not even use the room in my school that is devoted to teachers.

A Faculty Room should be a place where educators come to learn, grow, and relax during the academic day.  It should be a safe space in which teachers share effective lessons or ask for help with challenging lessons.  The Teachers’ Room should be a place where people want to flock to, not away from.  Sadly, the Faculty Lounge at my school has turned into a stinky landfill full of negative trash.  Why is that, you ask.  I have no idea.  Maybe it’s because faculty members feel overworked or unsupported.  Perhaps these negative comments stem from the great discord that is felt at the school.  Maybe some of the faculty members don’t really want to be teachers and so they are apathetic toward the entire field of education.  Who knows exactly what caused this horrible transformation to take place, but it has, and the Faculty Room at my school is now a Complaining Room.

But, it doesn’t need to stay that way.  Like we empower our students on a daily basis, can’t just one person make a difference?  Can’t I try to foster change at my school?  Couldn’t I try to change the atmosphere of the Faculty Room and bring it back to what it once was and now should become?  Well, the short answer is, Yes, I should.  But, you know me, I’m not one for brevity.  So, here’s the full story…

Today, after quickly ducking into the Faculty Room to add some cold water to my coffee to cool it down a bit, I was filled with a sense of gloom and sadness.  Why do people feel the need to talk so negatively all the time?  Why can’t we spread joy instead of anger and frustration?  After making the long trek back to my classroom, I shared my frustration with my co-teacher.  “Why is the Faculty Room such a negative space?  Why can’t it be a place for teachers to gather and discuss teaching?” I asked her.  She then shared her disdain for the Faculty Lounge.  “I just don’t get it,” she said.  As we talked about this problem facing our school, we both started to realize that we were complaining just like the teachers in the Faculty Room.  And that’s when it hit us, the answer to our problem that is.  We can try to bring about positive change within our Faculty Room.  So, my co-teacher and I designed a little social experiment that we are going to try out tomorrow.  During our free period tomorrow, we are going to visit the Faculty Room and start talking about teaching or some great lesson that we have recently done in class.  We’re hoping that this conversation sparks more talking and sharing amongst the other teachers in the small room, which will then lead to more positive discussions taking place, transforming the space back into a productive and meaningful place where teachers can gather to grow and learn.  Maybe we’re too optimistic, but we feel as though it might work.  But, even if it fails, at least we can say that we tried.  Now, we know that trying this one time will not provide us with the benefits we’re hoping for, and so our plan is to keep at it from now until the start of our March Break.  Hopefully, we are able to create a small wave of positive teacher talk that will eventually build into a tsunami of awesomeness.  Who knows what might happen, but we need to try something because we are both sick and tired of having a Faculty Room that breeds negative thoughts and emotions.  We want to work at a school that helps and supports it teachers by creating a culture of change and development.  Perhaps our social experiment will do just that for our Faculty Lounge.

Supporting Some Students Takes Persistence and Patience

Some students are like fluffy little sponges ready to absorb information and adapt to their surroundings.  They are flexible and open to new ideas and approaches.  We love working with students like these because they enjoy school more than anything else in life.  These students are easy to work with and usually put a smile on our faces because they soak up every word that falls from our lips.  Some other students are more like dry sponges in need of a little watering before they are ready to take on the world.  They are very open and willing to learn things with a little help and prodding first.  These students are also easy to work with.  Then there are those few students who are more like a chunk of granite, in need of much work before they can be molded into open-minded young men.  These students need much help, support, and scaffolding in order for learning to take place.  They usually employ a fixed mindset from day one and often face much adversity in their personal lives outside of school.  Over my 17 years of teaching, I’ve had the pleasure of helping to mold quite a few granite slabs into fine, hard-working students.  It’s no easy task, but one well with the undertaking.  While I love all of my students, I do enjoy a good challenge, which is why I look forward to helping shape those few hunks of rock each year.

This year, I have a class filled with mostly porous sponges who can’t seem to learn enough.  They enjoy working on projects and spend much of their free time completing assignments.  It’s pretty awesome.  I’ve been able to extend my units and curriculum a bit more than in past years due to the fact that most of my students are up for and crave a good challenge.  Although this aspect of teaching fills me with great joy, I find it easy to execute and accomplish.  I love challenging students and creating unique and engaging projects and assignments that push the students to think critically in order to creatively solve problems encountered.  In order to truly grow as a teacher, I need to constantly be challenged myself.  Fortunately, I do have the pleasure of working with one young man this year who is proving to be quite a tough chunk of granite.  He has struggles with executive functioning skills, is very self-absorbed, struggles to see the reality of situations, and is very deficient in math, reading comprehension, and writing.  This, combined with the fact that his family just welcomed a new baby into the fold, makes him one hard rock to crack.  He is the only student in our class who is constantly challenged by our expectations and has yet to buy into our sixth grade program.  My co-teacher and I discuss this one student on a daily basis during our free periods and team meetings.  He often does not appropriately complete homework assignments and struggles to meet many of the graded objectives across all of our classes.  Our goal for the year, is to help him find the joy in school and learning.  While we don’t expect him to be an A student by any means, we want to help him see the value in school and learning.  We want him to find the fun in learning about new topics and solving problems in creative ways.  We want him to find the polished gemstone that is buried deep under his hard, rocky exterior.  It’s an interesting and sometimes frustrating journey that we are on with this student this year, but one we are excited to have embarked upon.

We began a research project on Africa yesterday in my Humanities class.  The students chose topics and began locating reputable resources from which they can mine for wonderful knowledge nuggets.  While almost every student had chosen a topic and began searching for online resources by the end of class yesterday, our one special student was unable to choose a meaningful topic.  He struggled to brainstorm appropriate ideas that would allow him to learn new information. He attempted to choose topics he already knew much about.  He wasn’t trying to challenge himself and was clearly using a fixed mindset in approaching the task.  My co-teacher and I worked with him on separate occasions, trying to help him find an engaging and appropriate topic for the project, to no avail.  He seemed determined to do what he wanted to do, which prevented him from being able to demonstrate his ability to meet several of the assessed objectives.

This morning in our study skills class, the students continued working on this research project.  This one student spent the period reading through an article on a topic that we had not approved, instead of trying to brainstorm and settle upon a new topic that would help him to grow and develop as a student.  My co-teacher and I were at a loss.  How can we help inspire him to choose a more meaningful topic?  How can we help him want to learn for the sake of learning?  How can we best support this student?  No answers came to us.  We were beginning to get frustrated, but we certainly were not giving up.  We just needed to be patient and persistent, which ended up paying off later in the day.

During my Humanities class, the students had another opportunity to continue working on this hefty research project in class.  The boys dug into their topics and sources like archeologists on a quest to discover a new dinosaur.  They were so excited looking for information and facts to help them understand their topics.  Many of the boys couldn’t help but share their finds with their table partner or me.  This one challenging student began the period, stuck, unable to choose a topic that he was interested in or knew very little about.  So, I stopped and had a chat with him.  I talked to him about why I am challenging him to choose a topic that would allow him to think critically.  I offered him some examples before providing him with time to work independently.  A few minutes later, I stopped to check-in on him, and lo and behold, he had chosen a more appropriate topic.  While it was still lumpy and needed to be ironed out a bit, it was a topic that will require much critical thinking to investigate.  So, I probed him a bit, trying to help him see how to whittle his broad topic down to a more meaningful chunk that would be easy for him to dig into.  Finally, with much support and scaffolding, he had generated and chosen an appropriate topic for his research project.  While it took much effort, patience, and persistence on my part, I was able to help him find his polished parts buried beneath his hard, outer shell.

This timeline of how he worked in class yesterday and today is very typical of him.  It takes him much time to get into an assignment or project before he buys in and begins to see the fun in the task of learning.  We have noticed that the time between him using a fixed mindset and then changing to a growth mindset is decreasing as the academic year progresses.  He’s breaking down his own walls, as he transforms from a mountain of rock into a stone statue with the ability to solve problems and think critically.  As his teacher, I just need to be patient, offer him much support and help, persist and never give up on him, and he will continue to be chipped away until only a soft and pliable inner core remains.  While this task proves difficult on a daily basis, it is one I frequently get excited for, as it allows me to grow and develop as a teacher.  Finding new ways to help support and challenge my students has helped me to become a better educator.

Learning from My Students

As I stared out onto my empty classroom following my classes, reflecting on my day, I felt a bit uninspired.  Nothing remarkable happened in class today, either good or bad.  My lessons went swimmingly, my students worked hard, and I felt as though I motivated, challenged, and supported my students well.  So, now what?  How can I use what happened in the classroom today to grow and develop as an educator?  How can I better help my students?

Rather than mentally beat myself up over my inability to brainstorm a topic on which I can reflect this afternoon, I decided to get creative.  If I can’t think of anything to reflect upon, why not ask my students for help?  So, I did just that.  During our afternoon advisory period today, I posed a few questions to two of my students.  I told them to be candid, open, and honest.  They were more than willing to help.

What do you like best about the sixth grade program?

“The program is really fun because we can see different things.  We went on field trips to Canaan and had a fun sleepover at the CORE House.  The sixth grade program is really fun and engaging.”

Describe me as a teacher.

“You are really friendly to us and you help us whenever we need help even if you are busy or not teaching the class at that time.  I see you answer students’ questions even when it is not your class.  You have us do great projects too.”

“In the sixth grade, you are a really good teacher because you try to make things fun in the class.  You make students feel loved and you wear a cape.  While that’s a little weird, it’s super cool and fun too.  You move your body around the class and make things fun and not boring.”

What does Mr. Holt need to work on to grow and develop as a teacher?

“Patience.  You need to give us more time and put less pressure on things like being on time to class.  When a few of us came into class late today, you rushed us to get ready and I felt a lot of pressure.”

“Add more things like Weekly News Quiz and Trivia Time.  You can let the students use critical thinking to think about lots of stuff in the world so that they can know more.  You need to teach students with action and less words.  I want to learn more and things like that really help us.”

Does Mr. Holt do a good job managing the class?  Why or why not?

“Well, I understand that you can’t be in more than one place at a time, but when we are working on group projects, sometimes teasing takes place in the groups when you are not watching or observing.  When we are altogether as a class, you do a good job managing the class and making sure everyone behaves well.”

Does Mr. Holt talk to the class in a clear and understandable manner?

“Yes, you explain things very clearly.  We understand what you say.”

What does Mr. Holt do to support or challenge students?

“You talk a lot to us and give us courage.  Whenever we have really big projects, you tell us, ‘I can feel the energy in the air guys.’  You give us extra time to work on projects.”

So, clearly, I’ve created an atmosphere of fun and creativity in the classroom.  The students are having fun learning and growing as students.  That’s good news.  I need to work on making sure I’m observing students more effectively during group projects so that my students don’t feel open or able to tease or make fun of others.  This will be tricky as I can’t possibly observe and help everybody at once.  I need to empower the students to help guide their peers in making good choices.  Perhaps I could work this in during our next group project so that the students understand the expectations and their role in helping to foster a sense of community and kindness in the classroom.  Overall, the two students I interviewed, seemed very pleased with the sixth grade program I’ve worked hard to create over the past ten years.  That’s great to hear, very reaffirming.

Despite not having a topic or idea for today’s entry, I was inspired by my students.  When they feel lost or confused, they ask me for help, and so I did the same with them today.  I reached out for some guidance and advice, and received much quality feedback from them.  Again, my students never cease to amaze and impress me.  Wow!

Stressful Excitement: When Families of our Students Visit the Classroom

When I was a student, the last thing in the whole entire world that I wanted, was for my parents to come to school with me.  That would have been a nightmare come true.  Thank goodness, in my public school, parents rarely attended classes or visited the classroom other than to drop off cupcakes when it was their child’s birthday.  Why was I so dead set against my parents visiting my classes, you ask.  Well, the embarrassment factor for one.  I didn’t want my mom to say something mom-like in front of my peers.  That would have been mortifying.  Things were different back in the 1980s and 1990s.  Parents were generally hands off when it came to the education of their children.  Families trusted the schools to do a good job educating their children.  It wasn’t until the twenty-first century that we saw a shift in the other direction.  Parents started taking note of what was happening in their children’s school.  Parents began visiting classes, frequently contacting teachers, and advocating for their children.  This shift in parent involvement in schools around the country made a huge difference in education: Schools and teachers were being held accountable, ineffective schools were being forced to change, charter schools were popping up everywhere, and students were more engaged in their learning than ever before.  Because parents began to get involved in the education of their children, students began to take their own education more seriously.  This change in how involved parents are in the education of their children has continued into 2018.  Parents are showing schools, teachers, and the government just how important education is to them and their children, and it shows as schools are continuing to grow and develop into places for learning and play as teachers are finding new and engaging ways to challenge and support all students.

As an educator, I love this change in parent involvement.  While I grew up in a very different time and would have hated if my parents were as involved as many parents are in the education of their children now, I have seen the benefits and positive side of this shift.  As I work at a boarding school, it is difficult for parents and families to attend classes or visit the school frequently, and so, I try to bridge this gap by keeping the families of our students constantly connected to what is going on in the sixth grade classroom.  I use the Remind application to send out updates on what is happening, daily, in each of our core classes.  I also have a class website, which I use to post pictures and weekly newsletters, informing parents of big happenings in the sixth grade and important dates to keep in mind.  Even though the families of most of my students are thousands of miles away, I want them to feel as though they are right in the thick of it all with us in the classroom.  I want the parents and guardians of my students to feel like members of our extended sixth grade family.  From all of the feedback I received over the years from parents and families, they absolutely love this constant communication and do feel closely connected to what is happening in the sixth grade classroom.

Although I do love having the parents and families of my students involved in our sixth grade program, when they come to visit classes during our Family Weekend events that take place three times a year, I find myself getting very anxious and nervous.  What if I mess up while parents are observing me?  What if I provide their children with false information?  What if I can’t remember what to do or say?  What if they think my class is boring?  Numerous negative thoughts enter my brain as these big weekends approach.  While I never have anything to fear because the parents already love how we are supporting and challenging their children, I find it hard to suppress these thoughts.

This past weekend was host to the Winter Family Weekend at my school.  Many families and parents descended upon our school Friday morning to attend classes and their sons’ parent/teacher conferences.  We had a slew of families visiting the sixth grade classroom Friday morning.  Although I had a solid class plan in place and knew exactly what I was going to say, butterflies seemed to fly around my stomach as if it was time to migrate south.  Why?  I’m an experienced educator and have been observed on numerous occasions by colleagues and parents.  Why do I still get so nervous and anxious when other people are in the room while I’m teaching?  Who knows, but it really does freak me out.  This time around, I tried taking some mindful breaths prior to teaching my class.  That seemed to help a bit, but I was still nervous for the entire double-block class.  The thing is, the class went great, as they usually do when I’m being observed.  The lesson was a big hit.  The parents loved what they saw and raved about my teaching and the class during their son’s student-led conference.  They feel lucky and honored to have their sons attending a school with such skilled and energized teachers.  So, I had and still have nothing to worry about when I’m being observed.  I know what effective teaching is, and so, as long as I keep challenging myself to grow and develop as an educator, all will be fine in my sixth grade classroom.

Using Group Projects to Highlight Student Growth

In school, I always questioned the purpose of group projects.  Where is the learning?  What is the teacher’s role?  Project time felt like free time for me as a student.  I get to just sit and chat with my friends and pretend to work, I used to think.  This mindset lasted for a brief moment, until I realized that the teachers were actually observing and assessing us during these projects.  In my Humanities class, the teacher would frequently check in on my group to assess our work progress and coexistence.  He wanted to make sure that everyone was pulling their weight and staying on task.  He also provided us with feedback on our work so that we could revise it in order to exceed the graded objectives.  I also noticed that my Biology teacher would take the time during group projects to highlight the great things that we, the students, were doing during the work periods.  It felt good to know that my hard work was getting noticed.  I also liked being held accountable by my teachers.  It didn’t take long for me to see the value in group projects.  They weren’t time wasters, but instead were opportunities for growth and development in the classroom.

As the neuroscience of teaching tells us, students learn by doing.  So, as an experienced educator, I make sure to engage my students in the learning process at every turn.  Sometimes this happens through class discussions, in-class activities, or group projects.  As I learned when I was a student, group projects can be great tools for learning when implemented effectively.  I try to make use of group projects at least once during every unit in my classes.  I find that great projects allow students to be actively engaged in the learning process by discussing a problem, brainstorming solutions, designing and creating something, and then sharing their results with others.  Critical thinking, creativity, coexistence, self-awareness, ownership, and growth mindset are all crucial skills that are practiced and applied during the completion of group projects.

Today in my study skills class, the students worked on a group project that we began last week.  The students, working in groups of 5-6, have to design and make an interesting and aesthetically pleasing window display that teaches viewers about something related to the sixth grade curriculum.  This project allows the students to take ownership over part of the classroom while also highlighting their own work.  The students completed their blueprint, created a plan for how they would spend each work period until the due date, and assigned roles to each group member earlier this week.  Today, the students worked on bringing their designs to life.  They were drawing periodic tables, discussing how to make their displays fun and nice to look at, working together to create posters, asking each other for help and suggestions for improvement, working through problems faced, and overcoming social challenges.  It was amazing to watch them work today in the classroom.  Even when they had disagreements or issues with one another, they solved them on their own without my involvement.   I was so impressed.

What stuck out for me most today, was noting the progress and growth the students have made since our first group project of the year, which looked more like a giant automobile pileup than a productive use of time.  The students were solving their own problems, staying focused on the task at hand, interacting with each other compassionately and with care, and challenging themselves to complete work that exceeded the graded objectives.  They weren’t simply trying to just complete the task today, they were holding the bar high for themselves.  Both groups redid work on a few occasions as they were not proud of it.  While it looked fine to me at first glance, they simply did not think it displayed their best effort and was not as accurate as it could be.  Bravo to them for holding themselves accountable.  The ownership and self-awareness my class has this year is phenomenal.  I haven’t worked with a group of this caliber in many years.

I also loved listening to them work…

“Why are we changing from the blueprint?” one student asked his group.

“The plan was just a start.  We then realized that we could make it better and are doing that now.  Plans can be changed,” a student responded.

“Why don’t you guys work on the second window while we finish the first one,” a student said to members of his group.

“Hey, how does this look?  Is it big enough?  Should I add anything to it?” a student asked his group.

“Hey guys, I have this cool idea for a picture.  Let me tell you about it and you can tell me what you think,” a student said to his group.

“Do you need help with that?” a student asked a member of his group.

WOW is really the only response to today’s work period.  The boys worked so well.  I could not have been more impressed.  I closed class today by highlighting the awesomeness that I observed as they worked.  I mentioned all of the great habits of learning I saw being applied, superb progress I noted, and fine teamwork at play.  Group projects like this one allow my students to practice vital learning and life skills, grow as thinkers, students, problem solvers, and people, and be supported and challenged by their teachers and peers.  Group projects are fantastic vehicles for helping students engage in the curriculum and learn to collaborate as a team.  Life is about knowing how to work with and interact with others.  Group projects provide students with opportunities to practice these skills while having fun and learning lots.

Using Current Events to Teach History

While many people are barely able to recall what they had for lunch yesterday, big memories or experiences stick with us, as they leave emotional scars or tags in our brains.  I remember watching the launch of the spaceship Challenger back in elementary school, filled with confusion and dismay as the shuttle burst into flames on live television.  Although I knew that what had happened wasn’t at all good as my teacher sat at her desk in tears, I was too young to understand the gravity of the situation.  Despite not fully understanding what unfolded on the screen, my brain tagged the experience as powerful and emotional.  Thus, this memory has stuck with me for over twenty years.  Then, of course, everybody who was alive back in 2001, remembers exactly what they were doing and where they were when they found out about the terrorist attack on American soil that occurred on September 11 of that year.  I was teaching second grade at a Catholic school in Maine.  As I had no specials or recess that morning, I was in my classroom with my students from 8:00 a.m. until lunch time that day.  After bringing my students to the cafeteria for lunch, I made my way to the teacher’s room.  Everyone was in tears and very quiet, listening to a radio.  Without asking, I knew that something was terribly wrong.  I then learned what had happened earlier that morning.  These horrible experiences leave their mark on us, ensuring that we will never forget them.  Sadly, positive experiences don’t always hold this same power.  While I do remember celebrating my son’s sixth birthday, I don’t remember specifics of the day.  I just remember that it was fun.  It’s weird how negative emotions seem to hold our memories captive more frequently than positive ones.

History is a culmination of millions of these once current events and happenings, both good and bad.  As teachers, it is our job to prepare our students for meaningful lives in a global society.  In order to do this, we need to help our students understand how and why the world works the way in which it is does.  We do this through teaching our students about the history of civilizations around the globe.  Understanding why wars were fought and how leaders ruled their people helps us understand what led to the way the world is.  We can learn from history’s mistakes, no matter how horrific they may be.

As I am covering a unit on Africa in my Humanities class, when I’ve been perusing the news recently, I’ve made sure to keep my eyes peeled for current events having to do with the great continent of Africa.  Last week, I read a very sad story about the water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa.  They will be out of water by mid-April.  It’s a tragic story, but it’s history.  So, today, I used this current event as a vehicle for my mini-lesson regarding geographical problems facing Africa.  We discussed the issue as the students began to realize how important a role geography plays on locations.  Although I chose this depressing news story as a way to begin the mini-lesson in class today, it was merely an introduction to the heart of the lesson, which was all about solving problems.  We then watched a TED Talk given by William Kamkwamba from Malawi who created a windmill to help bring water and electricity to his rural village.  I told the boys to use this story as inspiration for how to think innovatively and creatively about solving problems facing other parts of Africa and the world.  These current event discussions were the springboard into a problem-solving activity I had the students begin in class today.  Working with a partner, they chose a problem regarding the geography of Africa and then brainstormed solutions to the problem.  Tomorrow in class, they will create a blueprint for their idea and then present it to the class later this week.  The boys were very engaged in our discussions and the activity.  They were excited to solve real problems facing our world.  What started out as a discussion on a negative current event transformed into a positive activity regarding solutions and creative problem solving.  By using a news story that invoked negative emotion at first, the boys may be able to better tag today’s entire lesson in a meaningful and memorable manner.

As we are living in history, I love to use current events to help my students understand what happened over time that led to these issues.  I try to put the present-day world into historical context for the students.  While I do try to focus on major happenings in the world, most of what we discuss tends to be stories that conjure up negative emotions.  While I don’t enjoy focusing on only the bad parts of history, as we know, negative memories and experience stick with people better than happy stuff.  So, perhaps my students will better remember the current events and history discuss throughout the year, as they are mostly stories that bring about negative feelings within them.