Posted in Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, Students, Teaching

What Does Differentiation Look Like in the Humanities Classroom?

While effective teachers have been differentiating their instruction to best support and help all of their students for years, it’s only become known as differentiation in the last 20 years or so.  Before, it was just called good teaching: When a teacher noticed that some students seemed to be grasping the content or curriculum faster or slower than other students, the teacher created alternative tasks or or mini-lessons for those students to help support or challenge them.  Great teachers have always been doing this.  Now, good teaching has been provided a catchy name and seems to be the in-thing to do.  While I’m all in favor of promoting good, evidence-based teaching practices, I wonder if branding differentiation as a new approach to teaching is really the best way to help all teachers see the value in good teaching.  Perhaps, regardless though, differentiation is a good teaching practice for all teachers, at all levels.  Just like snowflakes, no two students are alike, and in order to best help each and every student, we need to treat them as unique individuals.

While I do try to differentiate my instruction at every turn in the classroom, I find that sometimes I struggle to do this with whole-class instruction.  I sometimes treat each student the same and lump them together for instruction that should be differentiated based on ability-level and prior knowledge.  One of my informal goals for the year is to work at differentiating my full-group lessons.  Students who are proficient in English don’t need to participate in a lesson in which I explain, step-by-step, how to complete an assignment or task.  This lesson would not engage students who have a strong understanding of the English language.  Therefore, it would not be in the best interest of my students to force them all to participate in a lesson that would bore them.  This year, I’m working at making sure that I best engage and support all of my students.

Yesterday provided me with an opportunity to work towards meeting my goal of differentiating full-group instruction.  In my Humanities class, five students struggled to meet the objective of being able to write about their reading recently, and so, I had them participate in a mini-lesson on creating effective Goodreads Updates.  I want those five students to completely understand how to think critically about what they read so that they can write about it in an explanatory and interpretive manner.  Now, the rest of the students demonstrated their ability to master this objective on a recent assessment and I felt as though they didn’t need to be a part of this mini-lesson; however, I also didn’t want to exclude them if they felt like they needed more practice on the skill of writing about their reading.  So, at the start of the lesson, I gave the five students who met or exceeded this objective two options: Stay at their desk and participate in our mini-lesson or move to the back table and work on the historical fiction story they began in class yesterday.  All of those students chose to work on their story in the back of the room while I worked with the other half of the class in the front of the classroom.

This differentiation provided me with ample time to help these students who are struggling to write about their reading in a critical manner.  I reviewed the requirements for an effective Goodreads Update by asking the students to list them.  I was impressed by how much they remembered.  Lack of effort isn’t what caused most of these students to struggle with this recent assessment.  They care a lot about completing quality work.  Unfortunately, their English proficiency is limited and so they are unable to fully comprehend what they are reading at grade-level, and thus, they unable to write about it in any sort of meaningful manner.  This differentiated mini-lesson freed me up to work with this small group in a supportive and relevant manner.

I then discussed two examples of exemplary updates other students in the class had crafted.  We talked about what allowed them to exceed the graded objective.  The boys seemed to understand this.  I then went over the next topic on which they will be updating for homework due on Thursday, as setting can sometimes be a difficult concept for ELLs to grasp.  Next, I worked with the students to craft an effective Goodreads Update for a novel one of the students is currently reading.  I had every student in the small group add to the update so that I know they understood the expectations for the graded task.  I closed the mini-lesson by fielding the few questions the students had about how to write about their reading in an appropriate way.  I had these students spend the final ten minutes of class working on their next Goodreads Update so that I could offer assistance and feedback as they worked.  This helped me keep the students focused on the task at hand and allowed me to provide the students with guidance as they began working.

Meanwhile, the other group of students in the back of the classroom were working very well on adding to their historical fiction stories.  They seemed very focused and accomplished quite a bit in the short time they had to work.  When I observed them during the final ten minutes of class, it seemed as though some of them had a hit a writing wall and were in need of some inspiration.  So, I suggested an alternative task that they could work on: “One of you create a shared Google Document and each add two sentences from your story to this new story.  Once all ten sentences are in, work together to revise, restructure, and bring sense and order to this new story.”  While not all five students partook in this new activity, those who did seemed very engaged and excited about it.  This was yet another way I was able to differentiate my instruction to best support and help all of my students.

At the end of the period, I felt as though I had provided the students with just what they needed to be supported and challenged as we work through the Humanities curriculum.  Those students who struggled with the skill of writing about their reading, received the help they needed, while those students who mastered that same skill were able to work on their writing piece, which kept them engaged and challenged in a meaningful manner.  While I know there are many other ways I could have differentiated this lesson, this approach seemed to work for me and my students yesterday.  Moving forward, I want to try this same approach with other mini-lessons or whole group instruction lessons so that I can support those students who need the extra attention while helping those students who master a skill to jump to the next level of understanding.  Like great teachers of the past, I’m just going to utilize the good teaching practice of differentiation as much as possible.  It’s not a passing fad or new trend for me or other great teachers, it’s just good teaching.

Advertisements
Posted in Boy Writers, Education, Humanities, Learning, Teaching, Writer's Workshop, Writing

How to Help Students Find their Writing Flow

When I was a younger, I used to love writing.  I would sometimes just write stories for fun when I was bored at home.  In elementary school, we were rarely provided time to write, but when we were, I would craft magical stories of fantasy and action.  Possibly due to my numerous hours of practice when I was younger, I became quite a fine writer and minored in it in college.  To this day, I find great joy and comfort in creating new pieces of writing.  Writing to me is more than just typing letters on a keyboard or pressing a pencil against a piece of paper.  Writing is an art.  It’s about playing and experimenting with word combinations: What words working together conjure up just the right image or emotion.  Writing is so much more than just something I do to be done with.  Even in school, I rarely finished stories I started as I never wanted to be done with the journey or writing process.  When I write, I can escape into new and uncharted worlds or ponder ideas no one else has ever thought of.  Sometimes when I write, I find myself lost in the act.  I get so caught up in writing that time flies by.  That’s the writing flow.  When I’m in my writing flow, nothing else matters.  I just write.  It’s a pretty amazing experience.

As a teacher, I want to try and inspire my students to find their writing flow.  I want them to be so engaged with the process of writing that they lose track of time.  I want my students to fall in love with the words they type.  I want writing to feel like fun time for my students.  To help foster this love of writing within my students, I use the Writer’s Workshop model of writing instruction.  Today’s Writer’s Workshop block went like this…

  • I completed a mini-lesson with the students on historical fiction.  I posed several questions to the class in order to generate a discussion around the following questions: What is historical fiction? and What makes a good historical fiction story?  I want my students to think of the writing process as a recipe.  Begin with a fact or historical knowledge nugget and then add in some realistic characters, a dash of a historically accurate setting, and a pinch of an overall sense of reality based on a happening in history.
  • After I was sure they understood the ingredients of a well made historical fiction story, I explained the process that they would go through to transform their homework writing piece into a historical fiction story.  “You need to revise or change what you wrote last night about something you learned regarding the history of Canaan from Wednesday’s field experience and transform it into a historical fiction story.”
  • With that, the students got right to work.  While a few students had clarifying questions and needed a little support to get started, most of the boys jumped right into their historical fiction story with ease.  They almost seemed excited to get started.
  • As I fielded questions, I also observed the students as they worked.  I read sentences they had written and praised the students for their fine focus and effort.  I even asked one student to reread his first sentence and decide if he thought it was interesting or provided enough of a hook to draw readers into his story.  Even though he had written it, he didn’t like it and found a more creative way to begin his story.
  • Many of the students were so enthralled in their story that they didn’t even notice I was walking around and observing them as they worked.  I had some soft instrumental music playing as a way to keep the boys mindful and focused on the task at hand.  Several of the students seemed to be in the writing flow.  When I asked them to finish up the sentence they were working on, very few of them wanted to stop.
  • I wrapped up today’s Writer’s Workshop block with some questions and a brief share.  “How many of you are in love with your story?”  Many hands shot right up into the air, as I had predicted would happen.  “How many of you felt like you were in the writing flow, as Mr. Wilkerson mentioned in yesterday’s Chapel Talk?”  Five or six hands went right up.  The boys thoroughly enjoyed crafting new stories of Cannan’s involvement in the Underground Railroad, how the town was founded, and Noyes Academy.  They just couldn’t get enough.  Then I had three students share aloud a few sentences from their piece.  Wow! was just about all I could say.  They had crafted masterpieces of intense scenes and action.  They seemed to take today’s task seriously and really dove headfirst into their historical fiction stories.  I was amazed.

So, how did this happen?  Why were my students so engaged in the writing process?  What allowed them to enter the writing flow?  Was it my introduction or explanation of the assignment?  Were they excited to craft action-packed stories about Canaan’s rich history?  Or was it that they take their academics seriously and just wanted to be sure they put forth their best effort?  Was that it?  Did their great effort help today’s writing period go so well?  Almost every student had at least a half-page of text by the end of the 20 minute period.  Was it the subject matter?  Were they so engaged with what they learned from Wednesday’s field experience that they were inspired to craft lyrical works of art in class today?  Perhaps it was a little bit of everything all rolled into one.  Maybe some of the students were enthralled with the history of the town while others were motivated by grades to work well.  I do feel though that flow events don’t happen accidentally.  I believe that something else was at work in the classroom to cause such brilliant writing to happen.  Something magical and special must have occurred to allow so many of the students to fall into the writing flow within minutes of beginning the writing process.  Maybe that’s what it was.  Well, no matter what happened today, I was impressed and amazed by the work my students completed.  They worked like published authors.  I just hope I can inspire this same kind of magic during our next writing period on Tuesday.

Posted in Education, Humanities, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Field Experiences: Bringing History to Life for Our Students

I don’t remember much from my days as an elementary school student, but I do vividly recall a field trip I went on in the fourth grade.  We had just finished learning about the American Revolution and early American history, and so, we went to Old Fort No. 4 in Charlestown, NH.  It’s an old revolutionary war era fort that’s used as a museum to teach students and people all about the history of our country.  The employees were all dressed in period costumes and reenactments filled the grounds.  It was awesome!  Not only did I get to hang out with my friends having fun, but I also learned so much about America’s history that I never learned or found interesting enough to learn in the classroom.  I needed to be outside the walls of my school for genuine learning to happen.  Instead of hearing my teacher drone on and on about the weapons of the Revolutionary War, the field trip allowed me to see these weapons in action, up close.  Learning about history became fun for that one day.  I want every day to be like that for my students.

While I understand that every day cannot possibly contain a field trip, there are easy, inexpensive ways to bring history to life for our students right in our own backyards.  If we want to make learning fun and engaging for our students, we need to make use of the history that is close to our schools.  As I like to begin the year in my Humanities class focusing on the importance of community, our first unit is all about the community of which the school is a part, Canaan.  Today marked our first of three field experiences, during which the students will explore and engage with the town of Canaan and its rich and diverse history.  As I took the students on a walking tour of a famous street nearby the school, I shared stories and facts with them about Canaan’s past.

  • I began our journey with the sad, and totally made up story, of one of the original buildings on the school’s campus, Clark-Morgan Hall.  I told a carefully crafted tale of horror and intrigue about the children of the Clark and Morgan families.  “The Clark daughter fell in love with the eldest Morgan son and were married despite their families grievances and hatred of one another.  On their fateful wedding night, as they slept in the Clark mansion, the Morgan family came and put an end to their vows and lives.  If you listen closely at night, you can still hear the screams of the married couple as they were brutally murdered.”  The boys loved this story.  I got them hooked on history right out of the classroom.
  • Noyes Academy was the first integrated school in the US when it began operating in 1835 in Canaan, NH.  I shared some fun facts with the students about the school, making sure to emphasize how amazing it is that such a small town had something so significant and tremendous occur within its long history.  I took the students to see the original site of the school so that they could feel the power of its history.  They seemed in awe.
  • I pointed out how many of the houses on Canaan Street have black stripes atop their chimneys.  These markings denoted safe houses along the Underground Railroad as Canaan Street was on the road that led directly to Canada.  The students seemed very impressed with this fact and had lots of comments about it.

While our field experience lasted under two hours, we covered much ground and many interesting facts to get them curious and excited to learn more about our great town’s unique background.  Sharing these lively stories and vignettes with the boys while we looked at black-rimmed chimneys or the first church in Canaan, helped bring the history of the town to life for them.  The students all took copious notes, listened intently, and asked great questions throughout today’s field experience.  They were engaged with learning about our town’s interesting and sometimes sordid history.

This field experience cost no money and took very little planning on my part, but provided the students with much real-life history.  It doesn’t take much to transform simple historical facts into real pictures and hands-on experiences.  Rather than talk about the first integrated school in the country, I took them to the site of the actual school.  Helping students to form neurological connections in their brains so that learning becomes tangible and genuine is more important than any curriculum or list of standards.  Sure, I could have just lectured the students about our town’s history, but I want them to care about it.  I want them to feel and experience history.  Field experiences like this one, help bring learning to life for our students.  So, why not expand the walls of the classroom and bring the students to the learning?

Posted in Education, Humanities, Language, Learning, Reader's Workshop, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

What’s the Best Way to Engage All Students During Class Read-Alouds?

When I taught second grade many eons ago, I would read aloud to my students following their lunch recess.  As they were all usually so tired and exhausted from running around, they sat in their chairs and listened intently as I read from our current read aloud novel.  They were captivated by the stories and hung on my every word.  You would have thought I had stolen their prized puppy when I finished reading each day as they were so sad to pause the story and move onto the next activity.

While I realize that sixth graders are very different than second graders, I’m struggling to engage this year’s group of sixth graders.  The classes from year’s past have all thoroughly loved the class read-alouds and ranked them as one of their favorite parts of Humanities class every year.  So, why is this year’s group not as engaged.  They don’t seem to be liking the novel or trying to listen in any sort of active or appropriate manner.  During every read-aloud this year I’ve had to redirect students who were making distracting or distracted choices, remind students not to speak to their peers, and refocus students who were moving around the reading area or playing with various toys or gadgets.  Instead of focusing on the story and getting lost in it, they are getting lost in each other.  This is the first year that I’ve struggled with engaging students during this weekly activity.  So, what’s the issue?  What’s causing the students to not engage during class read-alouds?  Is it the book?  Do they not like Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman?  Is it no longer a great choice for our community unit?  Should I choose something different?  Perhaps.  Or is it the language issue?  I do have four ESL students in my class who struggle to comprehend English orally.  Could this be impacting their focus and in turn affecting their classmates?  Maybe.  Regardless of the reasons why, I am now focused on solutions.  How can I best engage my students during the class read-alouds?

  1. After I noticed many of the students exhibiting distracting and unfocused behaviors during our first read-aloud, I decided to share my concerns with the students and brainstorm possible solutions.  While no big ideas came out of the discussion, one student suggested using his chair in which to sit in the reading area and another student asked about standing during the read-aloud.  So as to be open-minded, I accepted and permitted both of their ideas from taking place during read-alouds.  Unfortunately, their ideas did not make much of a difference in keeping students focused during class read-alouds.  Therefore, I went back to the drawing board.
  2. As I do realize that some students do need to fidget to stay focused, I wondered how many of my “distracted” students were actually paying attention and focused on what was being read and discussed.  So, to test my theory, I created a check-in assessment for my students to take today in class.  Most of the students did very well and seemed to fully comprehend what is happening in our read-aloud novel.  The only students who struggled are our ELLs, which is to be expected as auditory processing of a new language can be much more challenging than speaking or reading the new language.  Then, what does this data mean?  Does it mean that even though the students seem distracted and unfocused they are actually paying attention and fully engaged?  Perhaps.  To test this hypothesis, I need an outside perspective.
  3. On Tuesday of next week, during a class read-aloud, my co-teacher will be observing me and the students.  What are the boys really doing while I’m reading aloud to them?  What am I missing or not seeing?  Am I most effectively supporting all of my students during this activity?  Could I be doing anything else to keep the students focused and engaged?  I’m looking forward to receiving some specific feedback on what I might not be seeing.  I’m hopeful that it will shed some light on how I can best engage all of the students during the class read-alouds.

I clearly don’t have any answers to the question I’m posing in my blog title today.  I’m curious and want to learn how best to support my students as they learn and grow as readers.  How can I best engage the students during class read-alouds?  Why is this group not buying into the read-alouds like every other sixth grade class I’ve had?  Am I doing something differently?  So, over the next few weeks, I’m going to be analyzing these questions as I look for new ways to engage all of the learners in my classroom during class read-alouds.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Humanities, Reader's Workshop, Students, Teaching

How to See the Good in Bad Choices

When I was in the fifth grade, I witnessed a fight between two of my friends during recess.  Because I was a witness, I needed to go to the vice principal’s office to share my side of the story.  Even though I wasn’t in trouble at all, I was terrified of being in the office.  I thought that just being in the office was trouble enough.  I was so nervous and anxious that I don’t even remember what I said.  Despite the fact that I was called into the office to help and do good, I felt only bad feelings.  There was no good for me that day in what could have easily been a fine and good situation.  I was helping to solve a crime but felt more like I had committed one.  It was a horrible experience.

To be sure my students never have to feel the pain of being called to an office, I’m very mindful about how, when, and where I speak with students about the choices they make.  I go out of my way to praise the good choices in the classroom as frequently as possible while I make sure that the difficult conversations about bad choices happen in private, away from other students.  I usually speak quietly to the student, “Please see me after class.”  While this statement alone can instill fear, I make sure to notice good choices that student makes later in class, before I speak with him.  This usually assuages their fear and helps them realize that as their teacher, I am there to support and help, not scare and hurt.  I also make sure that my conversations with the students about their bad choices are short and to the point or lengthy and more of a discussion if time permits.  I try to use Ross Greene’s Plan B when talking to students about their bad choices.  If time allows, I dig into the discussion with the student, but if time is limited, I focus on what their bad choice was, how it affected others, and what they should do next time instead of committing the bad choice.  I want difficult conversations to be easy and painless while also informative and relevant.  Talking to students about their bad choices shouldn’t cause them anxiety like it did for me when I was a student.  If I want students to learn from their bad choices, I need to be sure they are not operating from the fight or flight portion of their brain.  Scared or nervous students don’t learn anything from conversations about their choices as they are so focused on survival.  I want to alleviate fear for students when having conversations that should be used as learning opportunities.  Difficult conversations should not cause angst for students.  Sometimes, discussions about bad choices can also include positive aspects.

Today during my Humanities class, I introduced the students to a book in our class library through a Book Talk.  I really tried to persuade the students as to why they should want to read the novel Armstrong and Charlie by Steven B. Frank.  I provided the students with an overview of the book before reading a snippet from a very funny scene.  After my Book Talk, we moved into the class read-aloud portion of Reader’s Workshop.  Once we had finished reading a chapter in the book Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, I had the students transition into the quiet reading portion of Reader’s Workshop.  Now, as I was wrapping up our discussion on the class read-aloud book, three students began moving towards the outside of the circle, closest to the exit for the reading area.  These three students were also making hand and face gestures to each other as they moved and positioned themselves towards the back of the circle.  Fortunately, I knew their motivation and so I had them wait while I dismissed the other students.  I then spoke with these three boys in private after everyone else began silently reading.

The issue was that these three boys all wanted to read the Book Talk book I introduced earlier in the class, and so they were jockeying for a prime position in the reading area to be sure that they were the one who would grab the book from the shelf first.  I knew this, which is why I stopped any shenanigans from happening.  The boys knew exactly why I wanted to speak with them and were very apologetic.  “Sorry for being rude and disrespectful, Mr. Holt,” they said.  I then said, “I don’t want to be the one who decides which of you gets to read the book.  I want you three to determine that.  How will you do that?”  One of the students then said, “I can read it later.  You two can decide who gets it.”  I thought that was very polite and kind.  Then, another of the three students said, “Yeah, I don’t need it right now.  You can have it.”  The irony in all of this was that as the third student who was going to choose the book turned to grab it from the bookshelf, it was gone.  Another student from the class had grabbed it.  It’s nice to know in times like this that karma exists.  So, none of those three students who made bad choices were able to read the book they all wanted to enjoy.  Everything worked out just as it was supposed to in the end.

As this whole situation was unfolding and happening, I was secretly celebrating inside.  My students love reading so much that they are willing to argue and compete to read a book.  What more could I ask for as their Humanities teacher?  I was so happy and excited despite the slightly disrespectful behavior the boys exhibited.  I called them on it and they understood the error of their ways.  I’m overjoyed that I made a book seem that appealing to my students.  While it is a fantastic novel about school integration during the Civil Rights Movement, I don’t think it’s worth getting in trouble over; however, I did add fuel to the fire by reading an incredibly hilarious and risque scene from the text to inspire the boys to want to read the book.  I can’t help that I’m a great salesman.  Regardless, I was able to find the good in what many saw as a bad or difficult situation.  I got my students so excited about reading that they were willing to make a bad choice just so that they could read the novel that I explained during my Book Talk.  So, I guess you could say that I inspired my students to make bad choices.  Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound like a good thing at all.  I need to change the way I think about this occurrence so that I don’t come across as a horrible teacher.  How about this?  I got students excited about reading.  How they dealt with that excitement was on them.  Yeah, that sounds much better.  It makes me sound less like an awful educator.  I inspire students to want to read.  I’ll let them own their bad choices.  Those were not on me.  Yes, now I’ll be able to sleep tonight.  Thank you Mr. Wordsmithing for allowing me to make a terrible statement sound delightful and positive.

Posted in Education, Humanities, Learning, Presentation, Students, Teaching

The Value in Purposefully Introducing Graded Assessments

I’ve never been a big fan of books that begin with an introduction of sorts.  I don’t want to read a story that begins with “once upon a time…”  Introductions in books create stories that lack creativity and pigeonhole readers into analyzing the novel in only one or two ways.  I enjoy reading books that jump right into the story or action.  If I want an introduction, I’ll read the back of the book.  While I understand the value in the introductory start to some books, it’s not for me.  I feel as though it ruins the story a bit as it takes away from the author’s message.  An effective author paints beautiful images that are open to interpretation, not fixed photographs that can only be analyzed through one lense.

Now, is there ever value in using introductions?  Of course.  Introductions serve a key purpose: They set the scene for what is to come.  While I don’t personally like stories that begin with an introduction, that’s not to say that writers shouldn’t use them or that there is no place for introductions in life.  We need strong, meaningful beginnings in relationships, movies, life, and the classroom.  Great teachers know how to effectively utilize introductions in their classroom.  Introductions to lessons, projects, activities, or assignments serve a vital purpose.  They allow the students to process what is being asked so that they can mentally transition from one action to another and be prepared to properly process what is being asked of them.  Good introductions employ great teaching practices that best support how our students learn.

My Humanities lesson from today included a great example of this effective teaching practice in use.  I began the first of two activities with an introduction: I explained the grading requirements for participation in a class discussion.  I made sure that the students understood what it takes to meet or exceed the graded objective of being able to participate in a class discussion, by explaining a list of rules and requirements that I had written on the whiteboard.

  • Appropriately raise your hand at least once during the discussion to add your thoughts, ideas, questions, or comments to the discussion.
  • What you add to the discussion must move the conversation forward and build upon what was previously stated.
  • Positive body language
  • Active listening: Eyes up, heads up, sit up

I explained each bullet point thoroughly with examples.  Last year I did not specifically or purposefully explain this process and felt as though several of the students struggled with this objective for the first few times it was assessed.  I want to make sure that this doesn’t occur this year and so I made sure to be very clear and specific in my expectation.

I then told the students, “In a moment, you will have the opportunity to practice the skill of effective class participation and receive feedback on your performance so that you understand how this objective will be formally graded beginning next Saturday.”  I want the students to be and feel completely comfortable with the expectations regarding how to meaningfully participate in a class discussion.  Throughout the practice discussion, I paused and provided the students with feedback.  “You did a fine job building on what was previously said and then brought up your point.  Nice job!  That would earn you a 4/4.”  or “You did not build on what was previously said and would have earned a 2.5/4 on this assessment if it were being formally graded.  You need to be sure that you add to the discussion by growing the conversation.”  I believe that this specific feedback will help my students know exactly what they need to do to meet or exceed this graded objective beginning next Saturday.  I closed the activity, with some general feedback about the types of comments made and the level of discussion, as well as a reminder that formal grading of this objective will begin next week.  I’m hopeful that this specific and detailed explanation of how to effectively participate in a class discussion will help them be more prepared and involved in next week’s first, graded, current events discussion of the academic year.

While I will not have any concrete evidence to back up my hypothesis on the importance of having a purposeful introduction for a new activity or graded assignment until next week’s class discussion, I left class feeling confident that each and every student knows what is expected of them in one week.  Providing students with a clear and meaningful explanation and introduction is like having a well-built foundation; without one, your house may not remain as strong and solid throughout its lifetime.  A methodical and purposeful introduction to a graded assessment helps students to fully comprehend what the teacher is asking of them.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Humanities, Learning, Presentation, Students, Teaching

What’s the Most Effective Way to Engage All Students?

I was in school during the worksheet boom.  Sometimes I wondered who was doing the teaching, the teacher or the worksheet. It felt like every class had worksheets.  Worksheets kept students engaged back then.  Sure, the students hated them because they were mindless busy work, but they kept us focused and quiet in class, for the most part.  Luckily, worksheets are no longer the in-thing in education and are now rarely used.  When students see a worksheet now, they get excited because they are novelty.  It’s so crazy how trends in education change as often as my son changes his clothes.

To engage students in the classroom, teachers use various active learning approaches.  They will engage the students in discussion, Think-Pair-Share activities, Socratic discussions, projects, and other hands on activities.  We find ways to make the learning fun and interactive for our students.  Sometimes, though, I wonder if these new approaches do really engage all students.  Are there other ways to be sure that all students are engaged and on-task in the classroom?

Today in Humanities class, I attempted to engage the students in various types of class and partner discussions to get them thinking about communities and what they want to learn about the community in which our school is located.  I posed several, what I thought were great, critical thinking questions for the students to ponder and discuss.  After explaining to the students the importance of not being a distraction to their peers and staying present in the moment, a few students did not seem engaged in class today.  They were fiddling with various objects and talking to their peers.  When I called on them to see if they were paying attention while fidgeting, as some students can, they were unable to address my question as they weren’t genuinely paying attention.  I then spoke to the whole group again about not staying focused and being unable to meet the expectations of the class.  This didn’t make much of a difference, those disengaged students remained disengaged throughout.

So, what happened?  What caused them to be unfocused and disengaged?  Were they bored or uninterested?  What could have helped them be more engaged in what was going on in class?  In moments like these, I wonder if having a specialized worksheet would have helped those fidgeting, disengaged students.  While I’m not generally a fan of worksheets, if the students had something they needed to fill in that was graded, perhaps this would have helped keep them motivated and interested in what was being discussed.  Is that my only option though?  Could I try other approaches to help keep those two or three other students from distracting their peers?  I’m not sure at this point what other ideas could help but I will definitely be trying the worksheet solution during our next lengthy class discussion period.  Perhaps this will help keep all of the students focused on the learning and engaged in what is being discussed.  Well, it looks like Justin Timberlake isn’t the only one bringing something back.  I’m bringing the worksheet back into the classroom, at purposeful and specific times.  Don’t worry though, I’m not going to make this a regular practice; however, if it helps my disengaged students stay focused, I might implement it during class discussion days.

Posted in Education, Humanities, Learning, Students, Teaching

Fostering a Sense of Community in the Classroom

It’s easy to find examples of ineffective communities in the media today.  Countries are struggling to stay united, families are breaking apart, towns are arguing about rules and laws, and sports teams are having difficulty staying focused and positive.  Bad communities are heavily highlighted on news websites throughout the Internet.  There seems to be so much focus on how communities don’t work, that it leads me to wonder if people remember what effective communities look like.  What about the towns that stand together against violence and prejudice?  What about the families that volunteer together?  What about the countries that go out of their way to help other countries?  Rarely do we hear about the good communities in our world.  While I’m no globetrotter, I do hypothesize that there are plenty of effective communities on Earth.  In fact, there are probably more good communities around the world than there are bad ones.  The problem is, happy news isn’t nearly as popular as sensationalized news, which is why we rarely hear about the great things communities are doing around the globe.  So, as a teacher, I need to be sure my students understand how effective, caring communities function.  I want them to see the value and benefits in being a part of a good community, as they won’t find many good examples of working communities online or in the news.

Today in my Humanities class, the boys completed a Quick Write activity in which they had to craft a piece telling the story of a school without adults.  What might that look like?  How might you feel?  What would you do?  The boys spent 17 minutes furiously writing or typing their story.  Most of the students thoroughly enjoyed this task and had almost a page of single-spaced text by the end of 17 minutes.  It was awesome to watch them work.  They all seemed so focused and engaged.  What else could I hope for as their teacher?

Once they completed the writing phase of the activity, I had them share their story with their table partner.  After reading their partner’s story, they had to provide him with one nugget of positive feedback.  What did your partner do well in his story?  They all seemed to have fun reading their partner’s creative piece and providing him with feedback.  I heard lots of laughter and saw many smiles.  Once every group had finished this portion of the task, I had volunteers share the feedback provided to them by their partner and explain how it made them feel.  I wrote the feedback and feelings on the whiteboard.  Every student reported how happy this positive feedback made them feel.  Some of the boys were proud while others were feeling good about themselves because of what their partner had said to them.  I wrapped up the activity by telling the students, “We are a family and we need to always take care of each other.  An easy way to do this is by providing each other with kind words.  When we help someone feel good, they may in turn help someone else feel good, and then that person might help someone else.  Kindness and compassion creates a domino effect and spreads like fire.  So, be sure to provide each other with positive feedback on a regular basis as it makes a huge difference in building a strong and healthy community in the classroom.”

My goal was to help my students see how powerful kindness and compassion can be.  I want them to realize that using kind and caring words can make people feel good, and in turn, strengthen our community.  The boys left class today feeling happy and proud of their accomplishments because I provided them with time to be kind and nice to one another.  As our screens today seem to be filled with nothing but negativity, it’s important to remind our students how vital positivity is to fostering a strong sense of community within the classroom.  We need to take time out of every class day to focus on the positive aspects of our world communities so that our students see how valuable kindness and compassion truly are to the success of these communities.

P.S. As I reflected on today’s Humanities class and how important it is to foster a sense of community in the classroom, I had an epiphany.  I want to have my students participate in a Kindness Project.  Now, I have no real, concrete idea as to what this will look like, but I’ve got ideas.  I want the students to complete acts of kindness around the community and within the class over the next several weeks.  How we go about doing this will be up to the students.  I’m going to introduce this idea to the boys during tomorrow’s Humanities class.  I’m hopeful that they will have some brilliant ideas that we can use to drive this kindness ship.  But that’s not all, oh no.  My hope is that this project takes off in the sixth grade so that I can then introduce it to the whole school and inspire a campus-wide Kindness Project.  Spreading compassion and kindness are two easy ways to help unite and strengthen communities as well as change the world.  I can’t wait to see what comes of tomorrow’s discussion.

Posted in Education, Humanities, Learning, Reader's Workshop, Students, Teaching

Helping Students Increase their Reading Stamina

In this day and age, sports are a huge draw for people.  Most everyone likes playing in or watching some kind of sporting event, whether it’s boxing, baseball, football, tennis, or soccer.  The sport industry is a money making machine.  It’s also a great way to help motivate kids and adults alike to stay healthy and in shape.  Building one’s stamina can lead to a longer life, healthy heart, reduced stress level, and so much more.  The benefits are staggering.  Exercise or participation in a sport of some kind can help improve one’s life in numerous ways, which is why schools and towns devote vast resources to creating physical fitness programs or sport teams in which students can participate.  Developing one’s physical stamina can help people in so many ways.

Like physical stamina, helping students increase their reading stamina is vitally important.  “The more you read, the more you know,” is a line from a famous commercial that aired on television in the 1990s.  Knowledge is power, and an easy way for students to acquire knowledge is through reading.  To help students learn more, they need to read more, and in order to read more, they need to be able to read more efficiently and for longer periods of time.  As teachers, we need to provide our students with opportunities to develop their reading stamina throughout the year so that they can become more effective students, learners, and thinkers.

Today featured a Reader’s Workshop block in my Humanities class.  Following a short mini-lesson on the reading strategy of reading with a purpose, the students spent the remainder of our time together, which was about 45 minutes, reading silently.  While many of the boys were thoroughly engaged throughout the class, a few of the boys were a bit distracted and distracting.  For those boys, they will need direct instruction on how to stay focused on their reading for a long period of time, as they clearly currently lack the skills needed to be successful in this area.  So, over the course of this year, I will work with those few students to help them learn how to increase their reading stamina so that they can become more effective readers and students in preparation for the rigorous reading requirements of the seventh grade.

Teaching Practices to Promote an Increase in Reading Stamina

  • Modelling: After conferencing with students each week, I pull out my current reading book and read right along with the students, so as to be a good role model.  I want my students to see the value in reading, and if they see me doing it with them, they be more apt to see the direct correlation.
  • Time: The students have several chances each week to sit and read for long periods of time, at least 30 minutes.  We have Reader’s Workshop once a week and they are assigned nightly reading homework at least three times a week.  This practice offers the students opportunities to develop their ability to read and stay focused for large chunks of time.
  • Conferencing: I meet with the students weekly to review their reading progress.  During these conferences I help students set goals to increase their pages per day goal if they are struggling to keep up with the reading requirements.  This generally motivates them to stay focused and make good use of their free time to read.
  • Choice: Once the students begin to love reading and find the joy in it, they will devour books like I devour cookies.  As many students have never been given the option to choose the books they read, some students begin sixth grade not liking reading.  Once they begin reading books that they select and enjoy, they will want to read more, this increasing their reading stamina.

Building stamina, whether it’s physical or academic, is important to the overall success of our students.  The more they exercise their brain and body, the longer they will be able to live and prevent mental and physical decay.  Helping students see the value in increasing their reading stamina is important for many reasons, which is why all teachers should be advocating for this in the classroom.  We are all reading teachers and need to remember that on a daily basis.  Reading is everywhere, in every class, and needs to be supported and celebrated.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Humanities, Learning, Students, Teaching

Is Modelling an Effective Teaching Strategy?

When my son learned to do new things growing up, he had to try them out for himself.  He is very much a kinesthetic learner.  No amount of watching or modelling would have helped him learn how to do anything faster.  He needs to do it in order to learn.  Then there are other people who need to watch it being done first in order to learn how to do something.  Modelling a new skill or task is crucial for this type of person.  They need to see first and do later.  Me, I’m a mix.  Sometimes I need a little modelling to help me get started and for other new things, a quick explanation will suffice.  Being a teacher, I know that I have all different types of learners in my room.  Some students learn by doing, others learn by listening, some need to watch, and others learn in completely different ways.  As their teacher, I need to take this into consideration when leading or planning a lesson.  For some of the more complex tasks, I try to model what is being asked of them, while if it is an easier task, I will try verbal or written instructions.  I also try to help build critical thinking and problem solving skills within my students by occasionally providing very little instructions for a task.  Using a variety of instructional methods is vital when trying to tap into the learning styles of my students while at the same time trying to help them learn how to develop their listening, watching, and doing skills.

Yesterday in my Humanities class, the students had the task of creating an account on the Goodreads website, friending me, and adding various books.  I wanted them to really understand how to navigate the website as we will be using it regularly in class.  As it is early in the academic year and many of them are unfamiliar with their laptops and the Internet, I thought it best to model this entire process for them.  So, I imagined I was a student and modelled how to create an account on the website while also accomplishing the other tasks.  I verbalized my thought process as I modelled so that they understood what they needed to do and how it was supposed to be done.  I then addressed questions the students had about how to complete the task being asked of them.  Very few questions were raised.  As the students worked, very few of them needed assistance.  Was it because of my modelling?  Did that help them understand the process and task better?  Could I have introduced the assignment in another way that would have been more beneficial to them?  Perhaps, but this early in the year, modelling seemed the way to go.  My students now all understand how to use this website.  Could they have figured it out on their own?  Maybe, but I do feel as though I would have had many more questions if I let them try to complete this task on their own.  I would have fielded the same questions over and over.  By showing them the basics of how to accomplish the task, I provided them with just enough information to do what was needed.  While a few of the students didn’t understand all of the English language words I used to describe what they needed to do on the website, they all understand how to do it.  Perhaps I could have given the students the option to fly solo and figure it out on their own or watch me model the process.  This way, they could own their choice, and those who learn best by doing would have the opportunity to do so while those who learn by watching and listening would also be provided with what they need.  Maybe I will try this approach next time I’m introducing a task of this nature.

Although all of my students were able to successfully accomplish yesterday’s task, I did learn that there is always more than one way to do something.  Teaching is definitely an art, open to interpretation.  We do what we believe will best help our students learn and grow.  Sometimes this means taking risks and trying an approach that will help most students.  Varying the instructional methods used in the classroom is very important to the learning process and so as long as I provide my students with opportunities to solve problems on their own later on, then what I did yesterday to model a task was not an incorrect choice.  Learning from doing taught me that there are other ways to solve problems and accomplish the task at hand.  Was modelling the best instructional method to introduce yesterday’s task?  Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t, but either way I helped my students learn and grow during class yesterday.