Grading Rubrics Not Required

Picture this… It’s Christmas morning.  You wake up super early, filled with excitement and glee.  What did Santa bring you this year, you wonder as you leap from your bed.  You run downstairs to check out all of the awesome gifts the jolly man in red left waiting for you under the tree.  It’s that remote-control car you asked for.  Yes!  You tear into the box and attempt to extract it.  Unfortunately, it is screwed down.  So, you ask your parents for help.  After hours of trying to find the only screwdriver in the house, they finally manage to pull the car and remote from the box for you.  Your eyes sparkle like waves in the blue ocean.  You can’t wait to play with your fancy new car.  You try to turn it on when realize that it requires batteries.  You scream to your parents that you need 16 AA batteries for the car and remote.  Sadly, they respond, “We only have four AA batteries.  You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”  Tomorrow?!  You can’t wait until tomorrow to take your new car out for a test ride.  You need to do it today.  So, you scavenge the house for batteries.  You take two from the television remote, two from the VCR remote, and two from each of the four smoke detectors in your place.  You now have enough batteries.  Let’s just hope that nothing catches on fire in the next few days.

Ahh, the good ol’ days of needing an excessive amount of batteries for everything.  While you always seemed to have batteries when you didn’t need them, you never had them when you did need them.  Although times have changed, many other things haven’t.  We still need batteries for almost everything, you still shouldn’t walk home alone, and remote-control cars are still super fun to play with, no matter how old you are.

Like remote control-cars need batteries, teachers have always thought that every graded assignment or project should include a grading rubric to guide students through the task.  “How will the students know what to do unless we tell them exactly what is expected of them?  We need to force feed them everything.  Students can’t think for themselves.  We need to take thinking out of the equation.”  And this line of thinking is exactly what has led to such a decline in American students going onto become engineers, mathematicians, or scientists.  If we want students to think critically, creatively, and learn to become problem solvers, we need to empower them to do the thinking.  Rather than explain in great detail what they need to do to meet an objective, we should provide the students with a very brief outline of a task or project and allow them to figure out the specifics on their own.  This way, they will learn to ask questions and think outside the box when working toward mastery in a particular area.  Unlike how the world still needs batteries, schools and learning don’t still need grading rubrics.

In my Humanities class today, I introduced the final project for our foray into poetry.  I made no rubric for this project, but instead created a simple outline of the requirements.

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I introduced the project to the students by going over this outline.  I then fielded the numerous questions the students had, which I had hoped they would.  By not providing them exact parameters on how to meet or exceed the three graded objectives, they have to think about what they will need to do to solve the problem.  This contemplation leads to questions, which I love because then I know they are the ones doing the learning.  They asked lots of clarifying questions, which I joyfully answered.  They even asked questions that I didn’t even think they would ask.  I love how my students continue to surprise me daily.

By not having a detailed rubric for this project, I’ve put the ownership and learning on the students.  Am I worried about the outcome?  No, because I’ve created an atmosphere of compassion, learning, and challenge in my classroom.  My students put great effort into meeting and exceeding every objective because they know it’s the right thing to do.  They work hard because they want to and see the benefit in doing so.  They are motivated because of the family spirit I’ve worked very hard to create in the classroom.  They don’t need me to explain and spell out every aspect of how to meet or exceed each of the three graded objectives, because they want to do well to exceed them, and will, therefore, do whatever it takes to solve problems encountered or address questions that arise, on their own.  Students who want to do well, will do well with or without a grading rubric.  Why waste my precious time as a teacher and steal their creativity and thinking by crafting a rubric for every project?  That just doesn’t make sense to me.

After this short preview of the project, I let them get to work on editing and revising their Haiku and Sonnet poems.  This is the point when I saw, firsthand, how unnecessary grading rubrics are when you foster a sense of challenge and can-do-ness in the classroom.  Some of the students revised their poems on their own, while others worked with a table partner to edit and revise their work.  They coexisted in such meaningful ways, helping to make their partner an even stronger and better poet.  It was amazing.  Those students who worked independently, took the time to carefully comb through every word and line of their poems to make sure that they included figurative language and really painted the perfect image in the mind of their readers.  I was so impressed.  One student who had quickly thrown together the sloppy copy of his Haikus a few weeks ago, took the time to make them meaningful, relevant, and brilliant.  He changed words and added new meaning and dimension.  Wow!  Other students wanted to challenge themselves one step further by crafting all new poems.  They wanted to be sure that they displayed their growth as a poet over the course of this unit, and utilized all of the tricks, tips, and strategies learned to craft new, better poems.  It was so much fun to watch and observe the students working.  The positive energy in the room was palpable.  The boys were having fun revising their work and growing, right in front of my eyes, as writers and poets.  And, they didn’t need a grading rubric to tell them to do this.  They just did so because that’s what we do in my classroom.  The bar of excellence is set high so that they are constantly able to grow and challenge themselves as learners.

I’ve realized, throughout my research into grading rubrics this year, that they are an old technology.  Teachers no longer need to provide their students with grading rubrics.  Instead, great teachers inspire their students to ask questions, think creatively, and solve their own problems so that they learn to become critical thinkers who can tackle any problem encountered.  So, my advice to you all is to ditch the grading rubrics and turn the learning over to your students.

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Highlights from an Interesting Monday

I look at Monday as the beginning of a new adventure, a new challenge to try and overcome.  If you messed up last week or made some poor choices, today is your chance to start over.  Your score is reset to zero and anything is possible.  I love Mondays; however, many people see Monday from a very different perspective.  To most people, it’s the end of a free weekend and the beginning of a horrible new week.  Most people tackle Monday like I tackle complex math calculations, hesitantly and with much trepidation.  Therefore, while I jump into Mondays with a smile on my face and a fire in my soul, most people act like Mr. Scrooge, bah-humbugging everything.  This can be difficult to combat, but not impossible.  I try to smile a bit wider and spread joy and love a little louder than others trying to spread their message of awfulness on Mondays.  It’s all about perspective and attitude.

As the clouds began to part, allowing the bright yellow sun to peek through as it slowly climbed its way out of its bed of mountains and trees in which it appears to rest overnight, things seemed a little different on this particular Monday.  Normally, when I arrive to the dining hall, everything is quiet and still.  As I’m almost always the first to arrive each morning for breakfast, I’m often filled with a sense of calm and serenity.   This morning however, the dining hall was abuzz with activity, as it is a faculty member’s birthday.  So, our colleagues decided to decorate his table with Justice League fixings.  It was great.  While he didn’t love it, he completely appreciated the sentiment and effort.  This occurrence struck me as a bit odd, but I didn’t realize how unique and special this Monday would be until much later.

  • As many of the students transitioned into Reader’s Workshop this morning during Humanities class, a few of my students sat and finished their reading check-in assessment.  One student then said, “Can you read more of our read-aloud novel?  We love it!”  As this specific student loves Reader’s Workshop and reading in general, I was a bit taken aback that he wanted to have me read aloud to the class.  He usually doesn’t seem that engaged during our read alouds.  Perhaps I need to adjust my perspective a bit, in class.  While I didn’t waver from my plan, as I wanted to have the chance to conference with every student regarding their reading progress, this revelation did open my eyes a bit.  My students love the read aloud novels I have chosen so far this year.  That’s awesome!  It’s good to know that they are enjoying what we are doing in the classroom.  I’m filled with warm and fuzzy feelings.  Or is that just gas from lunch?  Either way, good things are happening in the sixth grade.
  • The relationships I have with my students have developed so much over the course of the year, that the conferences I have with them during Reader’s Workshop have evolved into something more, something bigger.  They are no longer simply conversations about reading and their books, but about life.  We joke around, have fun, and talk about books their reading.  Today’s conferences were certainly no exception.  They felt even better than ones from the past weeks.  My conferences today were pleasant and enjoyable.  Sure, we discussed their progress as reader’s, but I also asked them about their weekend, which led us to chat about a whole slew of other topics.  My students trust me and know that I care about them as learners and people.  These conferences were pretty sweet.  It’s hard to believe that we only have one more session of Reader’s Workshop to go until the end of our time together in the sixth grade.  How time flies when you’re having a ton of fun.
  • Each morning, prior to the start of every class, my co-teacher and I play soft music for the students as the lights remain off.  This quiet and peaceful atmosphere allows students to recalibrate and prepare for the next class.  I have a set playlist of songs that I have been using for the past few years, as I’m very much a creature of habit.  While I do sometimes hear my students singing or humming along to the songs, I have always thought that they didn’t really like or appreciate my musical selections.  Well, it turns out that I was happily wrong.  They do like my music.  This afternoon, two of my students came to me, giggling, and said, “Mr. Holt, you know the music you play before class?  We were singing one of the songs loudly during sailing practice on Saturday.   Could we check out the rest of your playlist to have more fun songs to scream out during today’s practice?”  I was so flattered, and of course said, “Yes, sure thing.”  So, they sat and listened to some of the other songs played in the classroom.  They had fun reminiscing about each song and when they remember hearing it.  And here all this time, I thought they hated my music.  They really love it, but just don’t ever have the opportunity to tell me about it.  So cool!
  • The most interesting happening of my Monday did not happen until later in the day.  During the afternoon study hall block, as my students relaxed, completed homework, and listened to music, an oddly familiar face popped into the doorway of my classroom.  “I thought I heard your voice Mr. Holt.  Do you recognize this face?”  Of course I did.  It was a student of mine from many years ago who is know in college.  On his way home from school, he decided to swing on by and say hello to his old teachers.  We talked for quite some time as he filled me in on his life.  He’s happy, has a great girlfriend, and is loving college.  He shared a few stories from his time in the sixth grade with my current students.  They seemed to enjoy his tales and peppered him with many questions.  Then he asked, “Have you gone to Cape Cod yet?”  I informed him that we no longer go on this trip, to which he asked, “Was it because of the fight that Will and I got into?”  So then he and I regaled the students with this fun story about how he and another former sixth grader got into a bit of a tussle on our field trip to Cape Cod.  He added some details that I had forgotten, which made the story sound much cooler than it really was.  Regardless, the current sixth graders sat, transfixed, as this massive and large man talked about when he was in the sixth grade.  It was awesome to see how far this student has come and how fondly he looks back on his time in the sixth grade.  This unexpected visit made me realize how much of an impact I have had on my sixth graders over my many years at this fine institution.  Although I will be departing for a new job, at a new school, in a few short weeks, my legacy will live on in the stories of my students for years to come.

See, Mondays are amazing days.  Who knows what tomorrow has in store for me or you.  Maybe you’ll run into someone from your past or have students help you see all of the great things you are doing with them in the classroom.  While today brought with it some strangeness, it also carried lots of happiness and fun.  I can’t wait to find out what happens in the sixth grade classroom tomorrow.  Each new day truly is a gift.

How My Students Helped Put Things into Perspective for Me

The word perspective is very much like a Transformer.  Yes, I mean those really cool robots in disguise.  What does a word have to do with a toy, you’re probably asking yourself.  My simile is much more figurative in nature than literal, of course.  Although words can have alternative meanings when used in particular situations, their spelling or phonetic composition doesn’t change.  So, here’s where I’m going with this comparison…  While artists view the word perspective one way, teachers of the humanities look at it through a very different lens; however, the nucleus or core meaning stays the same, much like Transformers.  Optimus Prime was a compassionate and kind being in robot and vehicle form.

Whether we’re using the word perspective to discuss the vantage point of a piece of art or how one views the world, it comes down to view point and how one is looking at something.  My view of the world most likely greatly differs with how you all see the world around us and happenings within it.  The same is true of artists, how one painter chooses to create an image for the viewer will be different than how another artist approaches the same task.  Perspective is open to interpretation.  It’s a personal word.  While it’s something we all posses regarding many different topics, it’s different for each person.  Our experiences, history, culture, and language all shape our perspective of the world in many different ways.  Despite these differences though, just like Bumblebee, we all jump into each new adventure life throws at us armed with our perspective, and charismatic wit.

In my Humanities class, Saturdays are devoted to discussing current events in our world.  As our students are the future of our world, it’s important that they are equipped with all of the necessary knowledge to move our world forward and live meaningful lives in a global society.  In order to make decisions in the future, our students need to understand their past and what led to the current state of affairs.  Learning about what’s going on in the world outside of the walls of our school not only broadens our students’ perspective, but it is vital to the success of our students and our world.  If the future leaders of our globe don’t understand how the leaders of North and South Korea came together for a common good, then they may not know how to approach a situation involving the countries or solve problems plaguing that region of the world.  Therefore, I make sure to educate and inform my students about major news events happening around the world.  Although I only give them the Twitter-ized summaries of news stories, I help to foster fruitful discourse amongst my students so that they learn how to view the world through a critical eye in order to solve problems creatively.  I provide my students with the facts and then let them analyze and infer.  What does all of this mean?  How is this story news and relevant to the world?  What can be done to address or solve this problem?  How does this story impact and affect me now and in the future?  To be sure that my students will indeed live meaningful and compassionate lives in our world, it’s important for them to see the world through many different lenses.  They need to see all sides of a story, fact, or current event in order to make informed decisions or draw appropriate conclusions.  I want my students to be like the word perspective itself, adaptable and flexible for every situation, much like a Transformer.

Yesterday during our current events discussion in my Humanities class, we talked a bit about the interesting and provocative quote recently uttered by the musician and artist Kayne West.  “When you hear about slavery for 400 years … for 400 years?” he said. “That sounds like a choice.”  I tried to frame the crux of his statement in a way that would allow my students to draw their own conclusions.  I never want to paint my students into thinking one way or another.  I try to create an open dialogue, free of bias and my own opinions.  So, I didn’t tell my students what I thought about his words, but instead, tried to inspire them to think about them.  Was slavery a choice for black people in America?  Why might Mr. West think that?  As we dug into this story for a brief moment, an international student in my class from Europe asked, “What is slavery?”  So, I used ESL-friendly language to describe what the term means, for this student.  He got it, from my explanation.

This reminded me of what I’ve noticed over the years teaching students from numerous different countries around the globe: They don’t know about slavery because it didn’t happen where they are from.  While all countries have their own sordid stories and histories of how they came to be, most countries in Asia and Europe didn’t experience this same kind of racial slavery and degradation.  The first time I realized that this big, important chunk of American history is so foreign to outsiders, I was perplexed.  How can they not know about something as big as slavery?  Slowly, I started to see that it wasn’t that they didn’t know about it, they just couldn’t wrap their minds around it.  It didn’t make sense to them.  Why would one race of people enslave and mistreat, for so many years, another race of people?  This kind of horrible abuse didn’t necessarily happen in these other countries, or at least not in a racial manner.  They couldn’t fathom how America and its people could allow for such atrocities to take place.  The country was founded by people who fled their former homes in search of freedom, peace, and fairness.  So, why were those same people robbing other humans of their freedom, peace, and fairness because of the color of their skin?  It just doesn’t make sense to many people from other countries learning about American history.  This epiphany helped to open my eyes to a whole new perspective and view on the world.  Just because I understand and know something, doesn’t mean that everyone else has that same perspective.  My viewpoint on the world is very different from that of someone from a different country.  Knowing this, has allowed me to approach the teaching of big events in a more open, broad manner.  Rather than spewing out facts to the students, I pose questions and try to generate empathy for the people involved.  Teaching about slavery is not an easy undertaking for any teacher, but is one that can be interesting to teach to people not from America.

So, once again, my students helped me to broaden my perspective and see the world in a more open and real way.  Nothing should ever be taken for granted, especially facts or the rights afforded to all human beings, regardless of the color of their skin, religious preference, or any other difference that makes someone special and unique.  My students reminded me of this once again in class yesterday.  I often wonder who the teacher in the classroom truly is, me or my students.

The Luxury of Time in the Academic Day

We live in a scheduled world.  Be here at this time.  Do this at that time.  It seems as though we always have something to do, somewhere.  Time is more of the cage in which we are contained, than a frame for how we live our lives.  We are bound by time and seem unable to change that fact no matter what.  There is only so much we can do in 40 minutes.  Wouldn’t it be great if time didn’t matter or exist?  Wouldn’t it be nice to just do and be whenever we wanted?  We could live our lives according to the sun and seasons, like early humans did.  We could stay outside until it’s too dark to see and tend our gardens until the first frost arrives.  Wouldn’t that be grand?  Time would never factor into any decision made.  We would and could do whatever made the most sense.  If I want to teach a class for 80 minutes instead of 40 minutes, I could.  I would be like a small, weathered pebble in a stream, just going with the flow.

I have structured the sixth grade program at my school so that we don’t have to live our lives by time.  If we need more than the allotted 40 minutes for a class, we can take it.  Because my co-teacher and I teach all of the major, core courses, we have the luxury of time.  If my co-teacher wants to take the boys on a field trip during the normal Humanities time slot, she can.  If I need more time for an activity or lesson in Humanities class, I can use time that would normally be taken by STEM class.  Our program is structured in a way to best support sixth grade boys.  Learning needs to be hands-on, engaging, interactive, and challenging for middle school boys.  Genuine learning takes place when lessons and activities aren’t bound by time.

Yesterday, we began a lengthy unit on Health and Relationships in our study skills class.  We set the class expectations and sought feedback from the students on what they already know and want to know regarding health and relationships yesterday in class.  Today, I reviewed these expectations with the students before digging into the heart of the lesson.  Our focus for today was on comparing and contrasting puberty for males and females.  I started by having the students explain what puberty is all about.  Many of them seemed to at least understand the main idea of this phase of human life.  I then explained why this process happens in the human body and what causes it.  The students seemed to understand this very well.  We then discussed the five different stages of puberty for males and females.  I explained what is happening internally and externally.  As this information is crucial for students to understand, as they are in the process of experiencing puberty, I took my time to dig into each of the major changes.  Along the way, I fielded the numerous questions they asked.

As they wondered about so many different parts of puberty, the allotted 40 minutes for the class period seemed to disappear very quickly.  Rather than stopping midstream, leaving my students perplexed by erections, wet dreams, and circumcision, I let the lesson continue on without saying anything.  I answered all of their questions as we talked about the importance of personal hygiene and societal norms.  It was great.  The boys seemed to really like having all of this extra time to discuss issues that they have clearly been wondering about for quite some time.  This extra time allowed me to help my students understand that people will love you for who you are and not what you look like or the size of your genitalia.  A few students seemed to be put at ease during this discussion as they began to realize that finding the right partner in life isn’t about physical attributes but instead about intelligence, personality, and what can’t be seen by the human eye.

Imagine if I had stopped class at the 40-minute mark.  I wouldn’t have been able to field most of the questions my students asked, and they would have left feeling empty and confused.  We wouldn’t have been able to examine puberty differences in males and females.  If I had been unable or unwilling to allow class to flow like a river, I would not have been able to help my students understand that everyone is different, and that is what makes our world so special.  We should never compare ourselves to others, regardless of what society tries to tell us.  The big messages I was able to convey to my students today would not have been possible if I didn’t have the luxury of time.

While this great flexibility is not found in the other grades at my school, I often wonder why.  Why shouldn’t other teachers be able to do deep dives into their curriculum during the academic day?  If a science teacher needs more time for a lab on one day but less time on another day, why shouldn’t that be allowed to happen?  Why can’t the teams of teachers work together on a regular basis to formulate a weekly schedule that would allow for great flexibility based on what the teachers want or need to cover in their classes?  Why can’t all teachers feel the way my co-teacher and I do about the wonderful flexibility we have in the sixth grade?  Shouldn’t we be in control of how we support and challenge our students instead of the almighty enemy known as time?

The Fabulous Life of a Sixth Grade Teacher

I don’t have millions of dollars or fancy cars, and I don’t live in a mansion with an indoor swimming pool.  I can’t make it rain dollar bills and I have no pull in the White House.  But what I do have, is way better than anything money could ever buy.  I am the proud teacher of an absolutely amazing, talented, bright, and funny group of sixth graders.  They laugh at all my jokes, even the really bad ones.  They still think bodily functions are hilarious, which let’s be honest, they kind of are.  What kind of sixth grade teacher would I be if I didn’t silently giggle, in my head, every time one of my students let one rip.  That’s funny stuff.  Of course, I do make sure they say, “Excuse me,” and work with them to understand the right times and places in which they should be passing gas.  My students are incredibly intelligent and able to analyze the world around them with more insight than many published authors or talk show hosts.  They are the reason I jump out of bed with a hop in my step, well, them and the fact that I usually need to take care of some personal bladder issues first thing in the morning.  I am one of the luckiest teachers in the world, as I am blessed to be working with a fabulous group of sixth grade students this year.

During Humanities class today, my students again reminded me how truly wonderful they really are.  It all started with a poem and a challenge.  After having one of the students explain to the class why I am having them practice and learn how to analyze literature, I handed them all a copy of one of my all-time favorite poems O Captain!  My Captain by Walt Whitman.  I explained how this will be the first poem they will be analyzing with their table partner this morning.  After reading it aloud to the class so that they could feel and hear the emotion in Whitman’s brilliant words, I issued them all a challenge.  “Working with your table partner, analyze this poem and try to determine who Whitman based his poem on.  I’ll give you two hints and nothing more to get you started: 1. This poem is based on an American Hero and 2. This poem was written in the late 1800s.  Now, go forth, analyze, annotate, discuss, and try to figure out what this great poem is all about.”  I did tell them that in the six years I’ve been using this poem as part of my poetry unit, no student has ever been able to decipher who and what this poem is all about.  It’s a difficult poem to analyze and comprehend, in my opinion.  Not until college, did I understand who Whitman’s muse was for the piece.  While I did not voice this thought aloud to the students, I was almost certain that they would be unable to figure out to whom the captain was in reference.

I set the bar high, as this is a difficult challenge, I told the boys.  The students were so inspired by my challenge, that they got right to work.  They were all determined to solve the problem placed in front of them.  They annotated the poem, discussed, made notes on their whiteboard table, philosophized who the captain in the poem is, and worked well together with their partner.  It was so much fun to observe them talking, working, and running ideas by me.  I tried hard not to give any clues, with my body language, as to the accuracy of their hypotheses.  But OMG, it was so hard not to smile or celebrate their amazing accomplishments as two groups had figured out the mystery of the captain and the ship.  I was blown away.  Their analysis and support of their thesis statements were absolutely brilliant.  They were using so much critical thinking and problem solving to interpret the words of one of America’s greatest poets.  Wow!  While not every group had come to the same conclusion as two groups had, every group had completed amazing work, analyzed the poem, and had examples to support their claims.  Impressive!  I was floored by the commitment, higher-level thinking, and perseverance displayed by my students today in class.  They were analyzing literature as though they were in high school or college.  I was never able to think and discuss the way they did in class today until I was in college.  “While I’d like to think,” I told them after they finished working, “that so many of you were successful today because you have a wonderful teacher, but perhaps it is because you are just so gifted and talented.”

This amazing group of sixth graders ceases to wow me on a daily basis.  They think critically and creatively, solve complex problems in new and unique ways, and are kind and caring.  They have really come together as a family over the course of this year, and today’s awesomeness during Humanities class shows just how far they’ve come.  Life doesn’t get much better for a teacher than this.  Who needs money and fancy cars when you have a stellar group of students to work with on a daily basis?

How Can We Most Effectively Engage ALL of Our Students in the Learning Process?

Engagement seems to be a catch phrase in the education world these days.  How can we most effectively engage our students in the classroom?  Numerous books have been written on the subject, while teaching conferences around the world have engagement as their theme.  Why does does it seem that all of a sudden we now need to care about student engagement as part of the learning process?  Why now?  This seems like a common sense strategy that great teachers should have always been using.  The most meaningful learning happens when students are engaged in what they are learning about.  So then, why does it seem that my email inbox is constantly inundated with email blasts about new books and articles written on how to effectively engage students in the classroom?  Why isn’t this idea and topic covered in colleges or teacher preparation programs around the country?  Why does it seem that student engagement is the new hot topic or trend in teaching?

While engagement has always been a concern for teachers, because times and our society have changed so much in the past two decades, what we as educators learned or know about how to engage students in the classroom has changed and evolved.  Our world has changed.  Technology has changed.  Engaging students now isn’t anything like it was when I was a student.  The children of today are different.  Their attention spans have grown incrementally smaller in size due to technology, movies, television, and video games.  Engaging the students of today is much different than it was when I was a student in school.  I used to be able to focus and pay attention to teacher-directed instruction for thirty minutes to an hour when I was in sixth grade.  Now, our students struggle to stay focused or on task for more than ten minutes.  Student engagement is a whole new beast because of all of these changes that have taken place.  Staying current with and abreast of research and information on how to effectively engage students in the classroom is crucial for teachers.  We need to know how to best support and challenge all of our students in this “Brave New World” in which we live.

The issue that I often struggle with in the classroom is engaging all of my students, all of the time.  How can I best support the ELLs in my classroom while also challenging the more advanced students?  Sure, differentiation works well for this, but if I’m teaching a mini-lesson for the entire class on a topic, how can I most effectively reach and engage all of my students?

Today in my Humanities class, I introduced the concept of Epic Poetry.  I began the lesson with a class discussion regarding what the students think they know about this form of poetry.  Several students made some great hypotheses based on simply interpreting the word epic.  A few of the boys even drew connections from the previous forms of poetry studied to epic poetry.  That was pretty neat.  We then read and discussed excerpts from two great epic poems of long ago.  This was when the issue of student engagement popped up.

As I work to engage all of my students, all of the time, I try to call on students who seem disengaged, distracted, or bored in class when something needs to be read aloud.  So, I called on two students, who seemed to not be paying attention during our mini-lesson on Epic Poetry today, to read a stanza from one of the epic poems we studied.  As these two students happen to be ELLs, they faced great adversity when reading the lines aloud as they were filled with large vocabulary words and strange names from ancient Greece.  It took the boys several minutes to get through each stanza, as they had to sound out almost every word and stumbled over every other word.  I heard a sigh from one of the other students in the class during this time.  He was clearly frustrated that this process of reading the poem aloud was taking so long.  While my goal was to keep everyone focused by helping to redirect distracted or disengaged students, I ended up creating an atmosphere of disengagement in the classroom.  How can I best engage all of my students without taking away or distracting from anyone?  During a lesson like this, what’s the best way to help keep everyone focused, engaged, and involved in the learning process?

  • As I was mindful and living in the moment, I was able to react to what was happening this morning.  To help remedy the situation, I read the second poem aloud so that I could emphasize word choice, flow, and meter.  This choice refocused those students who seemed a bit distracted when their peers were reading the poem aloud.
  • What if I had the students read the poems independently, making written observations.  This way, those students who read and comprehend at faster rates could move onto our class Things to Do When Done list while waiting for their peers to finish.  Also, it would allow me to individually support and help those struggling readers in the class.  We could have them come back together as a class to discuss their noticings and observations.  Perhaps this method would have been more fruitful.
  • What if the students had read the two poems together with their table partner, engaging in a conversation about what they noticed and wondered?  Would that have been a more effective way to introduce the epic form of poetry to the students?
  • What if I had read both poems aloud to the class?  While that would have helped that one disengaged student who sighed during class, would it have kept my disengaged ELLs focused?

As the students will be analyzing two poems tomorrow in class, I will try having them work with a partner to read and analyze each poem on their own first, before discussing them altogether as a class.  I hope that this approach will foster more engagement from the students.  We can spend the class discussion focusing on analyzing the poems and not reading them together in a way that might create disengagement.  I feel good about this new idea, but I still wonder, is it the most effective way to engage all of my students?  As of late, I have been interested in the concept of student motivation and I feel as though student engagement is directly connected to it.  I’m hoping to glean some data from tomorrow’s lesson that will help me find new ways to motivate and engage all of my students in the learning process.

Why Students Just Don’t Understand the Big Things in Life

Growing up, I took many things for granted.  I wasted food because I could, without realizing how many people go without food on a daily basis.  I assumed that money was available whenever and wherever, and so I generally wasted lots of it.  I struggled to appreciate how fortunate I was to have parents who cared for me and kept me safe, food on the table, clothes on my back, and a roof over my head.  Not until I was older, did I fully understand how lucky I actually was.  While I wish that I could go back in time and better appreciate my life as it happened, I do now realize that this lack of understanding and compassion wasn’t due to anything I did wrong or as a result of something my parents did incorrectly.  This is a common problem amongst children and teens, as their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed.  They can’t analyze life and empathize with others the same way someone who has a fully developed prefrontal cortex does.  It’s just not possible.  Sure, we can help young folks understand what is happening in their brains so that they may understand why they do what they do, but will it really make a huge difference?

My co-teacher and I just got back from a four-day field trip with our class of sixth graders to an amazing place in Wiscasset, Maine.  The boys learned how to erect a tent, build a fire, chop wood, sleep and survive in the wilderness, work together, solve problems, cook meals over an open flame, and deal with changes in the weather.  It was so awesome!  Despite a little rain, the week was great.  The boys were forced to step outside of their comfort zone, take risks, and try new things.  This was incredibly challenging for many of our students.  While my co-teacher and I loved this trip, many of our students greatly disliked it.  Yes, it’s uncomfortable to go four days without showering.  Yes, it’s hard to sleep when your pillow and sleeping bag are wet from the rain.  Yes, it’s tough when you don’t like the people you are forced to share a tent with.  Yes, life is hard and not always fair.  We can’t always get what we want.  And that’s exactly the reason why my co-teacher and I found this trip to be so beneficial: It was hard.

This trip forced the boys to do things that made them uncomfortable.  Whether they realize it or not, they have all grown from this trip.  This adventure that we went on together changed all of them in some way.  Although they will probably not see or understand the true value of this trip for weeks, months, or years to come, they will one day see why we embarked on this wonderful mission together.  They will one day see how important this trip was to their overall development as people.  They know how to overcome adversity now because of this trip.  They know how to deal with difficult peers now due to having had this experience.  Despite what their brain is able to process right now, they all got a lot from our amazing field trip to Maine this week.  While we wish that our students could see now what my co-teacher and I see, we do know that many great memories and vital experiences took place during the past four days for our boys.

The words from one of my all-time favorite films comes to mind as I reflect on this transformational experience that I just went through with my students…

“And I can feel anything but gratitude for every moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I’m talking about do you? But don’t worry you will someday.”  American Beauty

It’s totally understandable that my students can’t fully appreciate what a fantastic experience they were all just a part of, as their brains are not fully developed yet.  They can’t do the higher level thinking and analyzing that would allow them to understand and appreciate how the challenges they overcame will help them later on in their lives, and that’s okay.  I get it.  I was them once.  I didn’t understand why my parents made me do certain things back then.  I couldn’t fathom why I had to sit through special ceremonies or go on family vacations because my brain wasn’t ready to understand.  Like me, my students aren’t ready to see what really happened to them this week on our field trip to Chewonki, but they will one day, as Lester Burnham reminds us in Sam Mendes’ masterpiece.

The Art of Preparing for Field Trips

While I enjoyed field trips as a student, I absolutely love them as a teacher.  Some of the best highlights of the year occur during our field excursions.  Field trips allow for meaningful and memorable experiences to take place.  They get the students outside of the classroom and create novelty opportunities for challenge, education, growth, and failure.  Genuine learning takes place within the middle school brain when something is new and different.  Our brains love taking in new sensory details and information.  Some of my favorite memories from school happened on field trips.  These special trips allow the students to bond together, solve problems, and have fun.  They will probably not remember how many countries are in Africa, but they will remember flying down a zip line or working with their peers to make pizza that will be devoured for dinner.

Field trips help to enhance the education our students receive in the classroom.  In Science class, the students recently learned about climate change and composting, and so, beginning tomorrow, we will have the chance to experience these ideas and concepts in action, as we are going on a field trip.  Tomorrow morning, we will be departing campus for four days and three glorious nights as we head to Wiscasset, Maine to a place called Chewonki.  We will be camping outside, making our own food, learning how to survive in the wild, growing together as a family, learning about nature and how humans positively and negatively impact it, and having a ton of fun.  I told the boys this morning, “I can’t wait for tomorrow.  I probably won’t even be able to sleep tonight as I’ll be too excited.”

Although field trips are awesome experiences for any class, they require much planning and preparation.  My wonderful co-teacher and I have been organizing tomorrow’s big field trip for over a year now.

  • We found a location, and spoke to the director last May to set a date and coordinate a plan and schedule.  We reserved our spot by putting down a deposit.
  • Back in October of 2017, we confirmed the details of our trip and set up a time for the camp director to come to our school and speak with the boys about the big adventure.
  • We then had to pay for the rest of the trip.
  • Once the camp director visited, then things started to get crazy.  We sent a packing list and permission forms home to the families of our students back in February.
  • In late March, we finished collecting all of the required forms.
  • We then reserved a school vehicle for the trip, money for fuel, and coverage for our other responsibilities, as we’ll be off campus with the students.
  • As the behind-the-scenes work was coming to a close, the big dance grew closer.  Two weeks ago, we reviewed the schedule and plan for our trip with the students, while going over the packing list with them.  We fielded many questions that morning, as the boys were beginning to process what was going to soon be taking place.
  • Over the last two weeks, we reminded the boys to begin the packing process and let us know if they did not have any of the required materials.  While a few of the boys needed to borrow things from us, most of them were already prepared.
  • This past Saturday, I reviewed the packing process one final time as they needed to bring their packed bags to class this morning to be checked.
  • To begin the morning, my co-teacher and I met to review the trip details: Get meal and gas money, make sure the activity vehicle is fueled up, get a snack for the ride, and get any medicine our students will need.
  • Later in the morning, we checked each student’s bag to ensure that everyone is prepared for our big trip.  Most everybody was ready to go.
  • We then reviewed the specifics of tomorrow with the students, including time to meet in the classroom, dress code, and what the students will be expected to do.  The boys had several questions during this time, which is to be expected, as this is a new and different experience for many of them.

Now that my co-teacher and I, as well as our students, are ready to go, we can relax a little bit and get excited.  The energy is high as the students are ready to have some fun and explore the outdoors.  Despite all of the leg work that goes into orchestrating a field trip, it is totally worth it.  The key, however, to a good field trip is the preparation.  Being ready and prepared for a trip takes the stress away and invites relaxation and fun to creep in.  We can’t wait for tomorrow’s big adventure to begin.  It is sure to be a ton of fun.  So, we implore you, if you haven’t taken your students on a field trip this year, please try to make something happen for later in the year or organize a bigger adventure for the next school year.  As much as we would love to think that our students will remember every book we read to them in class, they probably won’t; however, they will remember going on a ropes course, bending metal like a blacksmith, making a campfire, and spending quality time together as a family of learners.  Field trips help to bring learning to life for our students.

How John Tesh Helped Me to Help my Students

So, I have a confession to make.  It’s a pretty big one, and may change the way the world sees me.  While I don’t hide this fact from others, I don’t often throw it into regular conversation either, and so, I totally understand if you choose to unfollow me after the big reveal.  Here goes nothing…

I like listening to the John Tesh Radio show on a local radio station in my area.

Crazy and strange, I know.  You’re probably asking yourself, how can you listen to a Top 40 easy listening radio station when you like Coheed and Cambria, Slipknot, and City and Colour?  The truth is, I do change the channel during the music portion of the show and generally only listen to the John Tesh parts.  I mean, he gives great advice on intelligence for your life.  I’ve learned a lot of really cool, and sometimes, gross facts from Mr. Tesh.  For example, remember those fun bath toys we used to play with as kids while we bathed in our own filth?  They are full of nasty germs and stuff including viruses, bacteria, and things that can get you really, really sick.  Perhaps that’s why I was often sick as a child?  Think about it?  Did you play with those squirty bath toys or rubber duckies as a child while bathing?  Did you get sick?  The two are clearly connected.  Anyway, that’s just one of the numerous fun facts that I’ve learned from listening to his show over the years, I mean months.  While this Earth shattering news on Earth Day of all days is quite disturbing, I hope that you can find it in your hearts to understand why I do what I do when I’m not teaching, spending time with my family, or writing this amazing blog, because, I have another wonderful fact to share with you that I learned from listening to Mr. Tesh on the radio.

John Tesh said that looking at pleasant scenes of nature or the outside world for just 40 seconds, can make people more productive and happy than those who do not have the luxury of “seeing” the outside world.  That makes sense, I thought, but what if they look out a window and see the same thing?  Would they be even more productive and happy?  John Tesh really gets me thinking.  I love it.  Thank you, Mr. Tesh.  While his music is really just a rip off of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and other such bands, his advice is original and thought provoking.  Perhaps he should devote more time to finding fun facts to share on the radio instead of recording more unoriginal music.  Just an idea.  Before I digress too far off track…  I started thinking about this idea of nature and how it can promote productivity and happiness within people.  While the study that he shared pertained to adults at work, I wondered if the same would be true in schools.  So, thanks to John’s inspiration, I did a little test in my classroom yesterday to see if John and I were right.

During my Humanities class yesterday, we read and discussed the wonderfully engaging play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose.  Prior to starting the class, I opened the curtains covering two very large windows that looked out onto Mount Cardigan, the Canaan Street Lake, trees, the brilliantly blue sky, and the natural world.  It was like looking at a Bob Ross painting, magnificent.  So, after looking out the windows for a few moments while I shared a mildly boring story about why we still have the curtains in the classroom, we got right to work.  The students read their lines with emotion, focus, and gusto.  They acted out their lines as if they were performing on Broadway.  The reading of the play flowed like the mighty Mascoma River, quick and dirty.  Well, there are a few curse words in the play that the students get to read.  Don’t worry though, we spent several class periods discussing the power of words and when it’s appropriate to use some words.  I’m not teaching them to talk like crazy pirates of old.  The students performed the play yesterday in class better than they had since we started reading it a few weeks ago.  Even the discussions that we would have, periodically, throughout the period, were deep and fruitful.  The students shared great insight and were really analyzing literature.  It was amazing.  This was, by far, the best period of reading and discussing the play we’ve had.  The boys were on-task, engaged, and super excited during the period.  What’s strange, is that having the curtains open was the only difference between yesterday’s class and previous classes.  I provided the students with the same reminders about reading their lines with emotion and acting them out.

So, is my hypothesis accurate?  Does looking out of a window to see beautiful scenes of nature, promote even more focus, productivity, and happiness amongst people?  While I should gather a bit more data so as to be all scientific and such, I feel as though the answer is, Yes.  I have posters of nature on the walls of my classroom, and they haven’t made much of a difference on a day-to-day basis.  Clearly, allowing the students to look outside before beginning yesterday’s lesson made all the difference.  They were relaxed, focused, productive, and happy.  I had one student come to me and say, “This is the best activity I’ve ever done in school,”  referring to the reading and discussing of the play.  Although I love the play and know how great it is, I do often wonder how much my students enjoy reading and discussing it.  However, yesterday, they seemed super into it.  Was it the rays of sunshine that penetrated the double-paned glass?  Did that help to promote more focus?  Was it the rolling hills?  Did looking at those for a few moments fill them with glee?  Maybe, or maybe it was something else.  But for now, I’m going to go with, I’m right.

So, there you have it.  Listening to the John Tesh Radio Show inspired me to try something new in the classroom, and it paid huge dividends for my students.  They got more out of Saturday’s class than they have in a while, and it was all because of John, sunshine, and my brilliant creativity.

Having Fun with Poetry

“Poetry shmoetry.”  “I hate poetry.”  “Poetry is for girls.”  “Flowers, sunshine, and birds.  Yuck.”  “Poetry is so boring.”  I could go on, but you get the idea.  Most students with whom I’ve worked over the years feel this way about poetry.  They just don’t like it, for whatever reason.  Perhaps their previous teachers did not effectively introduce poetry to them in an engaging and meaningful way.  Or, maybe, they just weren’t ready to learn about poetry prior to entering the sixth grade.  With this much disdain towards the art of poetry, I make it a yearly mission to change the way my students think about poetry.  I work to help them see poetry as something that is fun and challenging to do.  I want my students leaving the sixth grade with a broader perspective on poetry.

Today in my Humanities class, I introduced the concept of a Poetry Slam to the boys…

A poetry slam is

like a play with a

cast of one.

Words create the scenery

as your body weaves

emotion throughout

the audience.

 

Have fun as you

recite your chosen

haiku for all to hear.

Act, perform, and paint

pictures with your

words and body,

Leaving the audience

stunned and wanting…

 

I tried to convey a sense of excitement and fun through my description of this amazing event, with which we were about to embark.  I didn’t model a sample, as I really wanted the students to draw their own conclusions and interpret the parameters creatively.

First student read his haiku

as if he were dead and lifeless.

I was bored, as were the others.

Do I stop and correct him?

I wondered as he finished.

Holding the bar high for

my students, I knew what

had to be done.  I didn’t snap

my fingers like the others,

when words stopped flowing

from his lips.  Instead I called

him out saying, “You can do better

than this.”  Then I performed

a haiku in the Poetry Slam way

to show him what fun could be had.

He went again, and nailed it

like it was the final piece in

a ship of words he built

for us all to ride upon.

Amazing, I thought. “Now,

that’s how you perform

at a Poetry Slam,” I said

to him as he walked off stage

grinning in excitement.

 

The rest of the students blew me away, as they read their haikus aloud for us all to hear and enjoy.  It was a banquet of awesomeness for our ears and eyes.  The boys writhed around the stage, as they recited their poems, adding emphasis and emotion for impact.  They had so much fun performing in front of their peers.  Students who are usually so quiet, got into character and read their poems with gusto and panache.  I was thoroughly amazed.  The boys had a blast during our first Poetry Slam, as they realized how much fun poetry can be when you change the way you look at it.  It’s not just words on paper.  It’s emotion, blood, sweat, and tears pouring from one’s heart.  Poetry is all the stuff that makes life what it is: Alive and real.