Posted in Co-Teacher, Co-Teaching, Education, Math, STEM, Student Support, Students, Teaching

The Benefits of Working with a Co-Teacher

When I first started teaching, I used to think I could and had to do it all.  I would arrive to school early and stay late just so that I could accomplish everything.  I would never think to ask for help and certainly never accepted it when offered as I thought it was a sign of weakness.  I was an island unto myself and I liked it that way.  Little did I know how harmful it was to me and my teaching.  By not talking to other colleagues and bouncing ideas around with them or asking for help, my teaching became very stagnant very quickly.  I figured that everything I did was great as I had no one to say otherwise, and so I kept doing the same thing year after year.  Then, I worked with a co-teacher and everything changed.  I realized that I was far from perfect and needed to change my approach in the classroom.  So, I did.  I grew and became a better teacher because I had someone who could provide me with feedback and offer help and support at every turn.  My first co-teacher became one of my best friends as we worked so closely together.  I offered her suggestions on her teaching and life and she did the same for me.  We both grew and became effective educators because of this collaboration.  Working with someone else who can offer me advice, feedback, support, and help is one of the greatest things that has happened to me in my professional life.

Today’s STEM class provided me with yet another prime example of how vital and important a co-teacher can truly be.  My students are in the midst of a project that will allow them to understand where they stand mathematically,  Are they ready for seventh grade math?  If not, what gaps still exist in their learning that need to be filled?  Are they ready for pre-algebra or algebra I?  This project is all about helping them figure out what they need to do over the summer to prepare for the math course that they would like to be in next year.  In class today, the students were working on filling in their learning gaps by watching videos, working with a peer, or asking the teachers questions.  It also meant that I needed to be available to provide them with practice problems and worksheets.  As I was busy setting the students up with practice activities, my co-teacher fielded questions the boys had and monitored their work habits to be sure they were focused and working to prepare for Thursday’s final placement exam.  We worked together like a well-oiled machine.  It was phenomenal.  The boys were all on track learning new skills and reviewing old ones.  While there was a lot going on in the classroom, it was very controlled and focused.

Today’s class went so smoothly because my co-teacher was in the room providing support and help to the students while I was busy creating their practice assignments.  If she wasn’t there to help, chaos would have ensued very quickly.  The students would have been yelling and screaming for help and perhaps even swinging from the lights.  Our STEM class works so smoothly on days like today because of our co-teaching model.  We support one another and the students very well.  It’s great.  I can’t imagine trying to do what I did today without her support.  It would have been nightmarish.  Having extra help in the classroom, a person to provide you with feedback, and a creative sounding board are just some of the amazing benefits of working with a co-teacher.  While I realize that it’s just not feasible for every classroom or teacher to have a co-teacher with whom to work, when complex projects are being worked on, it is hugely helpful for both the teachers and the students to have a co-teacher in the classroom.

Posted in Challenges, Curriculum, Education, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Being Flexible with Time in the Classroom

Downward facing dog, no thank you.  Yoga is not for me.  The repetition drives me nuts.  While I wish I was a bit more flexible, physically speaking, I do try and stretch at least once every day.  I find stretching to be therapeutic, unlike yoga.  I rarely have muscle and joint problems because of this stretching and resultant slight flexibility.   Sure, I could work on my flexibility a bit more on a daily basis, but I do feel as though completing my back arches and sunken bridges for ten seconds every morning, Monday through Friday, have made a huge difference.  I can now bend over and touch my toes without bending my knees all the way forward.  Progress, thanks in part to my flexibility and amazing stretching routine.

As a teacher, being flexible in other ways is a crucial skill to possess.  Things don’t always go as planned and students don’t always do what we’d like them to no matter how many reminders with which they are provided.  Life happens and teachers need to be able to go with the flow.  Although I am a creature of habit, I’ve tried in recent years, to be much more willing to just be and accept life and all its craziness for what it is, life.  So, rather than get all bent out of shape, mentally speaking that is as my physical body never falls out of shape due to my rigorous daily stretching routine, when a student doesn’t hand in his homework, I try to find out the root cause of the issue and support the student appropriately while also holding him accountable for the learning.  It’s made a world of a difference in the classroom because I’m making it all about us rather than a students vs the teacher situation.  We’re all in this together and so we need to take care of one another, is the message I am trying to convey to my students by being more flexible with due dates, time, and options.

Today marked the final Reader’s Workshop session in my Humanities class for the academic year.  My goal was to conference, one last time, with each student to review his reading goals and go over his current Humanities class grade.  As next Thursday is the last day of school for my students, I wanted to be able to help them wrap up their reading progress and let them know what they will need to focus on next year, as readers, in the seventh grade.  I figured I would have enough time in the 80-minute block to meet with each student, but I was sorely mistaken.  Some of the conversations went on a bit longer as I wanted to be sure that the students understood the strategies they will need to employ next year to be successful readers.  I also wanted to provide the students ample time to ask any questions they had regarding their grade for the course with only one week remaining before grades close.  Because of this, I ended up cutting into my STEM class by about 10 minutes.

Now, while some teachers might have had a conniption fit regarding this loss of class time, we are all about flexibility in the sixth grade.  From day one, we told the students that the time limits and constraints stated on their class schedules were merely suggestions.  Because my co-teacher and I are with the students for almost every class period on a daily basis, we are able to use more or less time for classes and lessons depending on what is being covered.  The class start and end times are approximations of what we try to shoot for, but we also realize that life happens in the classroom and we want to make sure we allow time for that as well.  The boys have gotten very comfortable with this approach to class times and know that class is over when we transition into the next one.  So, when the official class time had been breached today during Humanities class, no one said a thing.  The students kept right on reading while I finished up conferencing with every student.  It was amazing.  Once I had completed conferencing with every student, I talked to the boys about what had happened.  I praised them for their flexibility and willingness to just go with the flow.  I mentioned how important these conferences were and that I wanted to be able to meet with every student before transitioning into STEM class.  I didn’t look at the time until I had met with every student, I said to them.  One of the students commented, “I didn’t even realize what time it was.  I was having so much fun reading.”  Statements like that one embody the wonderfully caring, compassionate, and engaged class I am so lucky to be working with this year.  They get it.  They understand why we approach things the way we do in the sixth grade.  They all seem to realize that everything we do in the sixth grade is to best support and challenge the students so that they can grow into the best possible version of themselves.

Time shouldn’t be fixed.  It should be flexible to allow for creativity, questioning, deep dives into the material, and anything else that happens to come up.  As time is a human creation, it’s not the end-all-be-all of life.  Effective and great teachers realize that and are flexible with their schedule.  Wouldn’t it be great if all teachers were to take this approach and be open to having less time for a class, lesson, or period one day and then more the next?  Imagine how many more cool things could be accomplished if this were the case.  Imagine how many more insightful questions and discussions would be had in the classroom.  Imagine how many more projects could be completed if all teachers were open to being flexible with time.  Wow, anything could be possible if time was merely a guide and not a wall created to keep life in neat and organized boxes.

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

Breadth vs Depth: How Much is Too Much?

School for me was like being in a shoe factory where only one type of shoe was made.  Every day was the same: Listen to the teacher talk and take notes or complete a worksheet.  That was basically the formula, day after mundane day.  Learning was the same for every student as we were supposed to all be the same at the end of our experience just as all pairs of shoes need to look the same when coming off of the assembly line.  My teachers just scratched the surface of every topic covered.  While I was sometimes interested in a particular topic covered, we never got to go deep into any one area.  We learned just enough to be able to answer questions on a test or write an essay.  This always frustrated me as a student.  Just as I was becoming engaged in school, the topic changed, causing my interest level to decrease significantly.  Whis was that?  Why did my teachers feel the need to cover so much, but only so deeply?  Why could we not spend a month or more on a topic or unit of study?  Why did we have to rush through the curriculum at such a breakneck speed?  Genuine learning can’t possibly happen when the material and content is taught and assessed over such a short time period.  Brain science tells us that it takes more time than a few days to move information from the working memory to the short term memory and then into the long term memory; therefore, it was not possible for me to learn anything in a meaningful manner when I was in school.  So then, back to my previous question, why did my teachers do it that way?

As a teacher, I feel that covering so much content and curriculum at such a fast pace is ineffective.  In order for relevant learning to happen, the students need to be provided time to play with the new skills and content learned before they can be assessed on it.  They need to have opportunities to engage in the material, question the information learned, and process it so that they can make connections between the information learned and their prior knowledge.  This approach takes time.  As a teacher, I’m all about depth.  I want my students to jump into the material being covered and swim around for a while rather than simply dipping their toes in, which was my experience as a student.  While I believe, based on my past experience as well as my knowledge and training as an educator, that depth is more important than breadth when it comes to curriculum and content, I do sometimes wonder if my approach is the most effective one.  What if there’s something I’m missing?

In my Humanities class, the students have spent the last month working on a research project regarding a self-chosen topic.  The boys are in the midst of finishing their class presentations.  They are being so methodical with how they present all that they’ve learned about their topic.  They are crafting amazing documentary videos, learning how to use new digital tools, and really trying to think about how they will share their knowledge with their peers so that they will be engaged.  It’s impressive.  None of the students are rushing to finish their work and meet the objectives.  They are enjoying the opportunity to deeply and meaningfully learn about a topic of interest.

Imagine if I had condensed this project into a week or two so that I could cover more material and content.  Would the students be as engaged in their projects and presentations?  Would they have the chance to really get excited about learning if they had to worry about completing their work on time?  Would meaningful learning be happening if the students weren’t provided the ample time needed to delve into their research topics?  I think not.  I think the students would dislike the project if they didn’t have the time to dig deeply, question, process, learn, and play with the material.  For me, helping my students find the joy in learning is all about time.  I want them to have the time necessary to fall in love with the material and learning involved.  It’s all about depth and not breadth.  At the end of the day, knowing how to be a thinker, learner, writer, reader, student, problem solver, and person is so much more important than knowing a lot of useless facts about various topics.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Learning, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

Competition vs Cooperation

In a WWF (or as we now know it WWE) style steel cage match, competition would totally crush cooperation’s butt.  Blood would be shed and someone would lose a tooth or three.  It would probably be close for most of the match as cooperation would work well with itself to get the job done driving in punches and dodging jabs, but in the end, competition would fight hard to be number one and deal cooperation the death-blow in the final seconds of the match.  It would be an epic battle that I would totally pay to see on TV like back in the day.  Summer Slam was always my favorite wrestling event as it came in the middle of summer when I was on school vacation and so my dad would let me stay up to watch the whole thing.  For Wrestlemania, my parents would record it on the VCR for me as it was generally on a Sunday night and I had school the next day.  Ahh, the good ol’ days of shouting matches and fake fighting.  It didn’t get much better than that.

As a classroom teacher, I’ve read all the research on creating a competitive classroom environment versus creating an atmosphere of cooperation amongst the students.  Both approaches have their positives and negatives.  Competition drives students to put forth great effort so that they can earn more points or do better than their classmates.  This motivation helps students to do well, generally, when competition is involved in the classroom.  Team games or projects that have a prize or winning component energize the students and get them excited about learning and accomplishing a task.  At the same time though, this extreme competition can drive students to be unkind to their teammates or act in a disrespectful manner as they try to best their classmates.  On the flipside, cooperation pulls students together towards a common goal.  The students act as a singular, family-like unit to complete a task, game, or project.  They help one another and utilize compassion when interacting with their classmates as they are all trying to complete a task together.  Sometimes, though, when cooperation is involved, those students who lack the social skills or strategies needed to be an active member of a team usually do nothing to very little, forcing their teammates to pick up the slack.  This then creates tension amongst the students as fairness plays a huge part in their mental state when issues like this arise.  So, which learning and teaching approach is most effective to help students best learn vital skills needed to be successful students living meaningful lives in a global society?

Today in STEM class, the students finished working on their presentations for Saturday’s big Climate Change Solutions Exposition taking place in the classroom.  Faculty members will be serving as judges while the students present their solutions regarding the problems of global warming and climate change.  It will be organized very much like a science fair.  Each pair of students will be assigned a table and area of the room in which they can set up their digital presentation, prototype, and other materials.  The boys will then try to convince the faculty judges as to why and how their solution is the most viable and best solution to help solve the problem of climate change on Earth.  The students have spent the past several weeks working on creating their solution, prototype, and presentation.  Much research, energy, problem solving, and critical thinking has gone into completing this project.  The boys are pumped and excited as they are vying for a huge prize if they have the solution voted best by the judges.  The energy in the room during the past several work periods has been incredibly positive.  The boys have been focused on their solution and presentation, without being negative or trying to bring other groups down.  The students will even help members of other groups when problems are encountered.  It’s been quite amazing.  For me, competition has been a valuable motivator and tool for the students.  They have worked harder on this project than they have on any previous STEM group project.  Why is this?

I think the big answer is because of the way we have structured the class this year.  We worked tirelessly during the first two months of school to foster a sense of caring and kindness amongst the students.  We explored how to work effectively with others as well as how to encounter and approach problems faced when working with other students.  This atmosphere of support and compassion helped us to create a culture of caring within the sixth grade.  No matter what the project or task is, the students support and care for each other.  It’s amazing to see this in action.  The boys truly do act like a family, taking care of one another.  I think, because we created this family environment within the classroom, the students approached this competitive STEM group project like any other task faced with this year, with love and respect.  For this reason alone, competition is a strongly motivating force of good for the students.  If we had not fostered this sense of trust and support amongst the students, this project based on competition would not be going as well as it is.  Setting students up for success isn’t just about academic content and standards, it’s about teaching students how to be good and kind citizens.

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

Fidget Tools or Toys?

I used to love playing marbles when I was a youngster in school.  I was the king of marbles at my school.  One time, I used a giant marble my grandfather had given me to win a mini-basketball.  It was epic.  Every recess, my friends and I would bring our marbles outside and have a blast seeing who could get the most in the small dug hole in the ground.  Once recess was over though, if the teachers saw your marbles outside of your backpack, they would be confiscated at once.  No toys of any kind were allowed in the classroom.  Even in the 90s when school counselors and doctors began suggesting that students with attention disorders should use stress balls in their pockets to stay focused, my teachers always said no.  I had a few friends who lost many stress balls that way.  If the teachers saw what they thought was a toy, even if they smelled it, they would take it at once and usually never give it back.  I lost a very rare and valuable Garbage Pail Kids card that way.  Toys of any type, even if they were used appropriately, were considered toys back when I was in school.

As times have changed, the definition of toy has also changed in the classroom.  Counselors and medical professionals around the country are suggesting that students with ADHD use fidget toys in the classroom to help keep themselves focused.  Some of these fidget objects work, when used correctly.  However, most of the times, I find them to be much more of a distraction than an actual helpful tool.  Case and point, the silly fidget spinners that have made their way into schools around the country.  It seems as though many schools have also already begun to ban them.  While students who use them effectively and appropriately do find that they to help keep them focused at times in the classroom, for most students, they are a total distraction.  Students treat them like toys and thus they are used like toys in the classroom.  Although my school doesn’t have a policy on them yet, my classroom policy is that if I see them, I will take them for the period.  If students use them under the table and they are not a distraction to the user or their nearby peers, then I’m fine with them.  I think that only one or two of the seven students in my classroom who use them regularly, use them correctly.  Today alone I confiscated three spinners over the course of three periods.  If students are using them appropriately and they are helping them stay focused in the classroom, then I’m all in favor of these fidget spinners; however, the percentage of students using them effectively is miniscule.  They are much more of a toy than a tool.

However, being the open-minded teacher that I am, I wanted to find out what the students thought.  Are fidget spinners a focus tool or a distracting toy?  If the students could persuade me with hard evidence and facts that they are toys and not tools, then I might be open to allowing them to be used more freely in the classroom.  So, for this past Saturday’s current event discussion, my co-teacher and I found a very interesting article all about these fidget toys that would drive the class discussion.  After reading the article together as a class, we had the students discuss the guiding question posed in the article, Are Fidget Objects Toys or Tools in the Classroom?  Surprisingly, almost every student noted how distracting the fidget spinners and cubes can be.  The boys shared personal stories of how they have used them in the classroom and found them to be more of a distraction than a tool to help them focus.  The boys cited examples of other students they’ve seen use them ineffectively as well as excerpts from the article.  Most of the students agreed with me and felt as though these fidget toys are just that, toys of mass distraction.  Those two or three students who saw the benefit in using fidget spinners in the classroom also agreed with me that the spinners should be used under the table or in a way that is useful to the user while also not distracting their peers.  Those same few students also felt as though teachers should take them away if they are used ineffectively.

So, wait a minute.  Are you telling me that my students, who seem to love using these fidget spinners, agree that they are toys and not tools?  What is going on with the world?  My students know what helps them focus or not?  What?  My students know themselves as learners?  How crazy is that?  Actually, that’s quite amazing and awesome.  I’m proud of my students for taking ownership regarding their learning.  They know what works best for them as students.  I’d like to think that this self-awareness my students possess is because of all the work we’ve put into helping them learn and utilize the crucial habits of learning, skills, and reflection this year in the sixth grade.  Perhaps though, they are just very conscientious and careful students who know what is right and what is wrong.  Nahh, it’s gotta be what my co-teacher and I have done in the classroom this year.  Regardless, I was a bit shocked following this discussion to learn that my students realize these spinners are a distraction.  But, if they do see these toys as toys, why do they still try to misuse them in the classroom on a daily basis?  No matter how much ownership and self-awareness they have, they are sixth grade boys who struggle to sit still on a daily basis and think that the word poop is still super hilarious.

Posted in Education, Learning, Math, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

Helping Students to Own their Learning

As a teacher, I sometimes feel as though parents and people in positions of power blame teachers for problems in our country: “Our leaders can’t lead because of bad teachers.  Kids get into drugs because the schools and teachers aren’t doing their jobs.  My son is getting a C in history because his teacher isn’t doing his job”  No one is willing to take ownership for their actions and choices, and so it seems to be easier to blame teachers and schools as students spend so much time at school anyway.  Parents aren’t willing to take responsibility for their ineffective parenting because then it makes them look bad.  Just blame the teachers.  And this is one of the main problems with education in our country.  Our government has made it acceptable to blame teachers for problems facing our country and its youth; therefore, teachers are not given the respect they need and deserve.  Teachers work long hours, all year long despite what many people seem to think, to create engaging and meaningful lessons.  Teachers go out of their way to help support and challenge students.  We care for our students as if they were our own.  We are not paid what we deserve and schools rarely help support teachers when problems arise.  People no longer want to go into the field of teaching or stay there long because of how we are treated by the community and country.  Until our country takes ownership of their actions and choices, teachers are going to continually be viewed like Cameron Diaz in the movie Bad Teacher.

To help my sixth grade students begin to learn the power of ownership as it pertains to their learning, I’ve created a final math project that will help set them up for success in their seventh grade math class.  I want my students to realize that they are in control of what math section into which they are placed next year, and that it’s not fixed based on their work in the classroom this year.  I want them to own their learning so that one day they will own their actions and choices, paying teachers and schools the respect they deserve.

The project is divided into four phases:

  1. The students will complete what I’m calling the Math Pre-Placement Exam, which includes a series of questions based on the three different levels of math offered in the seventh grade.  The first page of the exam has the students reflect and respond on their math ability regarding the specific section they feel they will be or should be placed into next year.  I want them to set a goal for themselves before completing this project so that they can begin to align their self-perspective with the reality.  The final page of the exam is a guide sheet that shows them which questions are related to which particular course.  Once they have completed the exam, they will be provided with the answer key and grade their exam.  This will give them a good idea of where they are currently in their math trajectory.
  2. Then, the students will do some reflecting on their performance on this pre-placement exam.  They will make note of any gaps in their learning, skills they haven’t yet mastered, and then learn those skills via Khan Academy, working with the teacher, or seeking help from a peer.  They will practice these skills by completing problems in the textbook or on worksheets.
  3. Once I feel they have mastered the skills they are lacking, they will complete the final Math Placement Exam, which is very similar to the one they may take at the start of the next academic year.  They will then grade their exam to see how they have progressed and to help them see into which math course they may be placed next year.
  4. The final phase of this unit involves the students reflecting on this whole process as well as creating an action plan for what they will do over the summer to be sure they are prepared for seventh grade math and the course in which they would like to be placed.

I want my students to see where their math skills line up with the math courses offered at my school in the seventh grade.  I find that sometimes students think they are better or worse at math than they truly are.  This way, they can see what is what and then take ownership of their learning.  They get to decide what they want to do to be placed into the math course that they feel would be best for them.  It takes teacher placement out of the equation and puts the onus on the students.  They have the power to change their future.  If they do poorly on the placement exams but really feel as though they should in Algebra I or Pre-Algebra next year, they have the entire summer to prepare for the placement exam come September.  The figurative math ball is in their court.

I’m excited about this project that we just began yesterday in STEM class.  I feel as though it will help the students fill in any gaps in their math learning and help them see the reality of their math skills.  The boys seemed invested in this project and process yesterday when I introduced it.  They asked some great questions and seem to know that the power lies within them regarding what math class they will be in next year.  I’m hopeful that this project will help them feel and be as successful as they want to be while also learning how to own their choices and learning.  If I want my students to grow up to be able to make good choices and then own them, I need to create learning opportunities in the classroom for them to practice showing ownership now.

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

Teachers or Technology Police?

Back when I was in school, computers were far from portable and not that much fun to play with.  The coolest thing I was able to do on the old Macintosh computers my school had was make a turtle go up, down, left, or right on the screen.  And let’s be honest, that wasn’t very cool at all.  I didn’t really enjoy using technology or computers when I was a student.  The coolest piece of technology equipment my teachers used was the film projector.  Now that was a cool piece of technology.  I loved watching filmstrips in school.

Fast forward many, many years to now and everything is entirely different.  Not only have the students changed, but so has everything else.  Technology is small, portable, and really awesome.  You can watch movies, play games, listen to music, and so many other things on a small and very portable device.  Technology and computers can also be fantastic learning devices in school as well.  Students can learn how to code, make movies, create music, and design new products.  The possibilities are endless.  Long gone are the days of moving turtles on a green computer screen.

With this new technology comes new challenges for teachers and schools as well.  How do we address and effectively utilize technology in the classroom?  Do students have computers or devices?  Which device is the best to use?  How do we teach students to use technology as a tool and not a toy when in the classroom?  How do we set our students up for success when using technology in and out of the classroom?  So many questions and so many problems to be solved.  My school decided to go the route of 1-to-1, and so each student is provided a laptop.  Teachers are expected to help the students learn to properly use the device and make use of it as part of the learning process in every class.  Lots of good has come from this.  I have students designing inventions to help solve the issue of global warming and learning how to code in the language of Python using the online application Code Combat.  These laptops have been so amazing for my students this year

Recently though, I’ve noticed that my students have gotten a bit sneaky with how they use them.  They have multiple windows open at once and switch between games, videos, and work while they are learning and working.  They play games and watch videos when I’m working with or helping other students and then actually do work when I walk by.  Despite all of the teaching we’ve done throughout the year in the classroom about how to use the laptop as a tool, some of the students treat it like a toy.  I’ve been feeling a lot more like a technology patrol officer than a teacher for some students over the past several days.  Rather than complete their work to demonstrate their ability to meet and exceed graded objectives and to ensure that they have no homework, some of the boys have been misusing their technology tool.  I mentioned this issue to the boys the other day and asked for their feedback.  While they also noticed this issue to be a problem, they offered no possible solutions.  I don’t want to feel like a technology police officer in the classroom.  I want to help support and challenge all of my students.  So, how can I do this and trust that the other students are making positive choices regarding their laptops?

Three possible ideas I’ve brainstormed to address this issue:

  • Have the students work on the opposite sides of of tables so that all of their laptop screens are facing the center of the room.  This way, I can easily help one student while scanning the other screens for good choices.  We utilize this model during evening study hall and it works very well.
  • If I suspect a student is misusing his laptop during the class day, I can close it and not allow him to use it for the remainder of that particular period.  In order to earn it back, he has to complete a tedious writing activity.
  • Help the students remember our class mantra, “We are a family, and families take care of each other.”  Remind the students to take care of their brothers by making sure they are not misusing technology in the classroom.

I’m at a loss for other ideas and so started by implementing options two and three in the classroom on Tuesday.  It seemed to really help.  I did not have to take away any laptops, as everyone was focused on what they needed to do.  I think they might have also been helping keep each other focused as well.  Today, however, I did have to confiscate two laptops as the students were playing a game.  To earn it back at the end of the period, they had to craft a complete paragraph, by hand, explaining why games should not be played during the academic day.  This took away from their time to work in class, which means that these two students will have extra homework to complete outside of class tonight instead of playing games or doing other fun things.  They seemed to learn from their mistake.  It was also great for the other students to see how serious I am about proper use of technology in the classroom.  Although these two strategies seem to be working so far, will they keep working?  Is there more I should be doing to help my students see technology as a tool and not a toy?  What other strategies could I be implementing so that I feel more like a teacher and less like a technology police officer?  I do believe that there is power in talking to the students about what I see happening in the classroom.  I hope to have further conversations with them prior to the end of the year about proper use of technology in the classroom so that they are ready to be effective technology users in the seventh grade.

Posted in Challenges, Education, Learning, Sixth Grade, STEM, Students, Teaching

The Power of Natural Consequences

When I was about 17 years old, I wasn’t afraid of anything.  I was invincible.  Nothing scared me, except for the police.  I was deathly afraid of getting pulled over while driving, despite being a very safe teen driver.  I feel like that might be a bit of an oxymoron, teen driver; however, I was a relatively safe and cautious young driver because I was afraid of getting in trouble with the law.  Whenever I saw a parked police car, I slowed down to almost a crawl, even on the highway.

In the area in which I grew up, border patrol stops were common.  They would stop every car and check inside to be sure people weren’t smuggling drugs or people across state or country borders.  It was a common occurrence in the upper valley area.  I had seen these kinds of checkpoints on many occasions growing up.  I knew exactly how to react and what to do.  Despite this, after getting out of work late one evening, and knowing that there was a border patrol checkpoint on the highway, I decided to take a different route home.  While this route was much longer and out of my way, it prevented me from having to get on the highway, thus, missing the border patrol stop.  The fear for me was real back then.  As I took this alternate way to get back to my house from work, I ended up getting a flat tire.  You see, I wasn’t particularly familiar with this the route and all of its turns.  So, when I took a sharp turn, I hit the curb, which sliced my tire, causing it to deflate.  As soon as it happened, I was so upset with myself.  Because I had let my fear get to me, I had gotten a flat tire.  The moral of this story is, don’t listen to those strange voices in your head that tell you to make bizarre choices simply to avoid getting in trouble.  Lesson learned for me, as I never took that long cut home again.  The natural consequence of getting a flat tire taught me to ignore that particular fear in the future.  Now if only I could learn to ignore my other irrational fears, all would be well in the world.

Natural consequences are my favorite as a father and teacher.  Rather than having to lecture students or provide them with consequences that may seem fitting, their choices can naturally provide them consequences while also, hopefully, teaching them an important lesson: Don’t do dumb things.  Although not every action comes with its own built-in natural consequence, some things do, as long as the teacher or caregiver is prepared to allow the child to make his or her own choices.  Sometimes as parents and teachers, we are over-protective and don’t allow our children to learn from their choices. We tend to try and shelter children from harm.  Rather than let a student figure out what happens when they eat glue, we constantly monitor the students and remind them not to eat the glue.  What we need to do is allow children to make choices that might not be the ones we would choose for them, but one’s that provide them with freedom so that they can learn from their mistakes.  Choices with natural consequences are perfect for doing just that.

Yesterday in the classroom, I was finally able to take my students back outside so that they could visit their assigned forest plot.  As the weather has been cold and rainy for the past several weeks, and since the snow just recently melted in some places on campus, the students have been unable to observe their forest plots.  So, I needed to capitalize on yesterday’s moderately good weather.  Now, because of the crazy unspring like weather we’ve been having in recent months, I knew that the forest would be a bit damp and mucky.  So, I told the students to be sure they borrowed boots from the classroom so that their feet wouldn’t get wet.  While a few students took me up on the offer, a fair amount of the boys seemed to think like I once did, that they were invincible.  Their feet will never get wet.  Oh how sorely mistaken they were.  Three students wearing sneakers or dress shoes stepped right into a giant puddle or muddy bog, completely soaking their socks and shoes.  Those students, of course, immediately came running to me when this happened, begging to go back to their room to change.  I reminded them of the school rule that no students may return to the dorms during the academic morning.  Being the teachable moment kind of teacher, I then responded with, “Why didn’t you borrow a pair of boots from the classroom?”  They then responded back with, “I didn’t think it would be this wet.”  Of course they didn’t because they are impenetrable.  Oh to be young again.

Walking back to the classroom with one of the students who had drenched feet, we discussed the idea of natural consequences.  He asked me why he couldn’t go back to his room to change.  I reminded him, again, of the school rule and added, “Having to sit in wet shoes and socks for 30 minutes will hopefully teach you a valuable lesson so that next week when we go outside to visit our forest plots again, you will remember to borrow boots from the classroom so that you don’t get wet feet.”  He didn’t have a witty comeback for that.  He just slowly moped back to the classroom.  While I always want to help and support my students in every way possible, breaking the rules for this student or forcing him to wear boots outside would prevent any actual learning from happening for him.  He needs to see that when he chooses to wear sneakers outside in the forest, they will get wet.  Now he knows.  I don’t like to see students suffer, ever, but they do need to learn, and clearly, my words of encouragement and suggestion did not help.  So, natural consequences it was.   I’m hopeful that these students who had to sit through the final 30 minutes of class with wet shoes will remember this experience next week when we go outside to observe the forest.  Perhaps they will heed my advice to wear boots.  I guess I’ll just have to wait and see how powerful natural consequences truly are.

Posted in Education, Learning, Math, Students, Teaching, Testing

Does Study and Preparation Impact the Outcome of an Assessment?

In my previous blog entry from yesterday, I examined the most effective way to help prepare students for a math assessment.  I hypothesized that because we provided the students with lots of extra time to review, practice, seek help, and prepare for the exam, that they would all fare quite well and not need to complete the test redo process.  Following Saturday’s final preparation period, I felt as though each and every student was prepared and ready for the assessment.

Then came the assessment, today in STEM class.  While many of the students did do quite well and felt successful, two of the students in my math groups do need to complete the redo process for one objective.  Now, this isn’t at all a negative outcome.  In fact, today’s result is actually an improvement from past assessments.  Usually, at least three to five students need to complete the redo process for one or more of the objectives.  This time, only two students need to redo one objective.  That’s a huge change from earlier in the year.  So, in my mind, the extra preparation and review time we allowed, helped the students better meet, and in many cases, exceed the graded objectives.  The boys seemed to feel prepared and felt confident, for the most part, when they turned in their completed assessment.  In my mind, today’s outcome was successful and positive in every way, and proved that students do need extra time to process information to prepare for a math assessment.

But what about those two students who need to complete the redo process for one objective?  What happened there?  Why did they struggle to display their ability to meet one graded objective?  Did they not effectively study and review the skills covered outside of class?  Each of the two students struggled with the same objective involving word problems.  They were unable to transform a word problem into an algebraic expression in simplest form.  Was this because the problems were too tricky?  The two problems came directly from previous lesson check-in assessments, and had been reviewed and discussed in class on a few separate occasions.  While they were challenging problems, they were not impossible or meant to fool the students in any way.  So then, why did these two students get both word problems wrong on their chapter assessment?  What happened?  Although their answers were, in some cases, somewhat close and showed an understanding of the skill, they did not simplify their response or properly execute the needed computations.  In this particular case, more review did not help these students understand how to turn written descriptions into algebraic expressions.  Would anything have helped them?  Some students just struggle with word problems, which is why we completed a whole unit on how to tackle word problems earlier in the year.  I even reviewed the four steps involved in the problem solving process when the students worked on this skill of turning words into algebraic expressions.  Nothing seemed to help these two students with this one objective.  While I would have loved to have seen all of my students master every objective covered on today’s assessment, these two students still have a chance to master the skill with which they struggled by completing the redo process.  Some students just struggle with word problems and how to decipher them.

Overall though, I was very pleased with today’s outcome and realized how important giving the students time to review major concepts prior to completing an assessment is to the learning process.  We can’t expect our students to master skills in just a day or two before completing an assessment; they need time to ask questions, complete practice problems, and review the concepts covered before demonstrating their mastery of the skills or topics covered.

Posted in Education, Learning, Math, STEM, Students, Teaching, Testing

How Much Test Preparation is Effective?

I was never a good test taker in school.  For one, I didn’t really know how to study.  Do I reread the pages in the text book?  Make flashcards of vocabulary terms?  Reread my notes a bunch of times?  My teachers never taught me how to study.  So, I usually just glanced over my notes and called it a day.  As I was a relatively good writer, essay exams were my jam.  I generally aced those.  But when it came to standardized tests or multiple guess exams, I struggled.  The questions were tricky on purpose and I didn’t know the material well enough to take an educated guess.  No test prep in the world could have helped me when I took a fill-in-the-bubble test.

As a teacher, I’m armed with my experiences as a student.  I hated tests and still feel as though they prove very little about how much students have learned material.  Most students cram for exams and will often due quite well, but when you ask them about the content learned weeks later, they remember almost nothing.  In those cases, there was clearly no genuine learning taking place.  So, as a teacher, I rarely use tests as assessments, except for math, as that is how they will be assessed in all future math classes at my school.  Being mindful of this, I know that I need to prepare them for next year.  Following each math unit, I have the students complete a math assessment.  I make sure there are no multiple choice questions on the exam.  I also spend much time going over study strategies and techniques.  What’s the best way to study and what does that look like?  Usually though, I only have one day of review in class prior to the assessment, and what I have found is that some students struggled on the assessment.

Keeping this in mind when I planned my current math unit, I made sure to leave more than a week for review, discussion, and preparation.  I want all of my students to feel ready and prepared while also being successful.  I had the students complete a math review packet last week.  Once they completed the packet, I gave them the answer key so that they could correct their work.  For every problem they got wrong, they had to explain why it was wrong, as I want them to own their learning and truly comprehend the skills covered throughout the unit.  Then, I made myself available throughout the week during class and outside of class for extra help.  A few students took advantage of this extra support and saw me for help.  I addressed their questions and had them complete sample problems regarding the skills with which they struggled.  This seemed to help those few students feel much more prepared and at ease for Monday’s exam.

As this lengthy preparation is a big change from past units, I wonder if this new method is more or less effective.  Did I spend too much time preparing my students for tomorrow’s math assessment?  I could have used that week to begin another unit.  Did I spend too much time having the boys review the major vocabulary terms covered in the unit?  Will they be better prepared for tomorrow’s exam because they were provided with extra time to process the information and complete some practice problems?  Will I see a difference on their assessments?  I’m hopeful that they will all do very well as I feel as though I had a chance to check-in with all of them over the course of last week to be sure they understood and had mastered all of the skills covered.  I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out for certain, but I do feel as though giving the students extra time to review for tomorrow’s assessment will help them be and feel successful.