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.

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Is it Possible to Reach ALL of the Students in my Classroom?

In college, I had to take a Spanish class as part of my dual major.  I wasn’t psyched about it as learning a language has always been challenging for me.  I’m not sure exactly why, but trying to learn how to speak in another language has always proved difficult for me and my brain.  So, on day one, I went into class thinking that it would be just like the last Spanish class I had taken during the previous semester.  Oh boy was I wrong.  The teacher walked into the room and began talking completely in Spanish with no translation.  My peers and I shared odd and scared expressions.  Are we in the right class?  What is going on?  What is he saying?  Do we have to write down everything he’s saying?  Ahh, I thought, this is terrifying.  After my brain acclimated to this new way of thinking and learning, I began to really get into the class.  I actually started to enjoy learning Spanish.  It was becoming easier for me.  By the end of the course, every student in the class was almost fluent in basic, conversational, Spanish.  It was amazing.  Despite the very horrific start to the class, we all felt a strong sense of accomplishment.  The teacher had found a way to engage and reach each and every student in the class.  He had made learning a new language something I wanted to suddenly start doing.  While I don’t remember much Spanish from that class, I do remember the feeling I had leaving the course.  I felt cared for and attended to.  The teacher made sure that I understood Spanish and could speak it by the end of the course.

As a teacher, I strive to make my students feel the same way that my Spanish teacher made me feel over the course of the class.  I want my students to understand what they learning while also feeling successful, safe, and cared for.  In STEM class, I often find it challenging to be sure I am reaching each and every student in my class.  The ELLs in my class struggle to understand new concepts covered as they have never learned them in their native language.  Their prior knowledge is limited and so it is very hard sometimes to help them understand the concepts being covered.  So, every time I begin a new unit in STEM class, I try to find new and inventive ways to introduce the concepts so that every student in my class gains at least a basic, foundational understanding of the big idea being covered.

Yesterday in STEM class, I introduced our new unit on Climate Change to the students.  As this concept is often confusing for all students to really wrap their minds around, I wanted to make sure that I found a meaningful way to explain the concept to my students.  I began by asking the students what Climate Change means.  What is Climate Change?  This allowed me a chance to assess the prior knowledge of my students while also correcting any inaccuracies they have about the concept.  This question proved to be a valuable way to begin the unit as many of the students confuse global warming with Climate Change.  So, I made sure to explain the difference between the concepts so that any confusion would be eliminated.  I then asked the boys to think about why Climate Change is an important issue or topic of discussion.  Why should we care about Climate Change?  The students seemed to understand why Climate Change is a big idea that all people should know and care about.  I was impressed.  To help the students really solidify their understanding of Climate Change and what is causing our weather on Earth to change so rapidly, I then put on a little show for the students.

I placed some sand in a bowl to represent Earth.  I then put a hunk of ice on the sand before placing a cover over the bowl to represent Earth’s atmosphere and ozone layer.  I then aimed a blow dryer at the bowl, explaining how the gasses in Earth’s atmosphere create a shield to help block the sun’s harmful ways from entering our atmosphere and planet.  I explained how the sun’s rays enter the atmosphere and then exit again in a cyclical nature.  I made sure to state how this process was happening long before humans inhabited our planet.  Then, when humans began inventing and growing, carbon gas was being emitted into Earth’s atmosphere at a very rapid rate, creating a wall of sorts, within the atmosphere.  The carbon molecules linked with the other gasses in the atmosphere to build a one-way wall.  Earth’s rays could enter the atmosphere but the heat wasn’t allowed to escape Earth like it once did prior to the evolution of humans.  At this point, I removed the cover and replaced it with a piece of plastic wrap.  I then aimed the blow dryer at the bowl.  The students were able to see how the heat from the blow dryer was now melting the ice at an alarming pace.  I then got into an explanation on the ozone layer and how that helps keep much of the sun’s harmful rays away from Earth.  I then allowed the students to ask any follow-up questions they still had about Climate Change and how it has happened over time on Earth.  One of the ESL students in my class asked a clarifying question about how humans caused Earth’s climate to change so quickly.  I drew a diagram on the whiteboard to help this student understand what happened.  This seemed to really help.  By the end of this portion of the period, every student seemed to have formed a pretty strong foundation of knowledge regarding Climate Change.  I was excited as I had finally found a way to engage and reach every student in my class regarding this new STEM concept.  All of my hours of reflecting and refining my approach paid off.  I gave myself a mental high five and did a little dance.  Yah for me!

What was it that helped this dream become a reality for me in class yesterday?  I believe that because I began the class by briefly explaining the concept through clarifying the limited prior knowledge that some of my students had regarding Climate Change, I was able to set my students up for success.  I gave them a basic definition of the concept to help them begin to question and process this new information.  I then used a visual display and model to specifically explain, in detail, the concept of Climate Change and how humans brought it into existence.  This helped the students take that basic understanding of Climate Change and solidify it within their minds.  They began to see how it came to be and what caused it.  This tangible representation seemed to help my ELLs really make sense of what could be a very confusing idea.  They saw, on a small scale, what Climate Change is all about.  I then provided the students even more time to process this new concept so that they could ask any clarifying questions they still had regarding this new big idea.  Breaking the introduction of this new concept down into manageable chunks seemed to help the students fully understand this very complex idea.  Rather than just talk at the students about a new idea or topic, having them see the concept come to life, helps those students who struggle to process information auditorily.  This approach to introducing a new idea allowed me to reach each every student in my class.  Isn’t that what we as teachers should be striving for?  We want to help all of our students be and feel successful and I feel as though the introductory lesson I implemented yesterday allowed just that to happen.

The Benefit in Digressing from the Point in the Classroom

One of my favorite things to do when I was younger was to try and take advantage of substitute teachers.  I used to love asking random questions to lead the sub astray.  If we were talking about WWII in history class, for example, I might have asked the substitute, “Was WWII necessary?”  This would then lead into all sorts of other questions and discussions about issues regarding the war.  By the time the discussion was done, the class would be over and nothing important would have been accomplished.  It was quite a feat.

As a classroom teacher now, I find myself going astray while talking or teaching without being prompted by my students.  I love to dig into interesting topics or thoughts I have while introducing a new concept or covering some aspect of the curriculum.  I just can’t help myself.  The problem is, I usually run out of time to cover the “real” meat of the lesson because I end up getting so distracted by the thoughts I share with the students.  The question is though, is that a problem?  If I get the students interested and engaged in a topic that is loosely connected to what I’m teaching, is it okay to hold off on other content, skills, or topics?

As today was the first STEM class of the year for the sixth grade, I spent a bit of time at the start of the class explaining and describing what STEM class is all about and the purpose it serves our sixth graders.  I want the students to see how the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math curricula fit together.  I provided the students with several examples and engaged them in conversation.  I discussed the idea of allowing students to see the relevance in the math skills learned.

At first, my discussion was focused and on track.  Then, for some reason, I started thinking about empowering the students.  I want the boys to see problems in the world and try to fix them.  I want them to be angry about certain things in the world so that they are motivated to bring about change.  I cited the Climate Change crisis in our world to help make my point.  I passionately explained the issue and impact of it all.  I explained to the students how they are our future and they are the ones who will need to solve this problem.  They need to find solutions and foster big changes before it’s too late.  The students seemed very excited and engaged.  Lots of questions were brought up.  It was quite a cool little discussion, but not really at all related to what I had planned on covering today.  As I realized I was derailing my own class, I quickly tried to right the train so that I would have time to begin the gummy bear lab.  But then, the unexpected happened.

I called on one final student to share his thoughts on climate change before moving on.  He said, “Mr. Holt, I wish we had recorded everything you just said about climate change and had a way to play it on televisions for everyone in the world to see because then everyone would change the way they live to prevent the climate from changing so quickly.”  I was blown away.  The students were listening and realized how important an issue this really is.  This one student was so moved by my words that he thought all people should hear it.  For a split second I thought about running for president.  Hey, if I can convince sixth grade students that climate change is a problem in need of fixing, then perhaps I could rally the country around me in other ways too.  Then I realized I hate the sordid world of politics and love teaching too much to leave.

After that one student’s kind words, I was a bit stumped.  Do I move on anyway or keep going?  Clearly, I’m getting through to them about climate change now so maybe I should just continue.  I know I had planned to cover it later in the year, but if they are engaged now, I should keep going.  So, I did.  I allowed the conversation to continue a bit longer.  I can’t stop genius from happening.  The discussion continued on for a while and probably could have lasted the rest of the period, but I did want to start the gummy bear lab before tomorrow.

Normally, when class discussions veer from the central point, I worry that I’m losing the students or adversely impacting them but not sticking to the curriculum.  However, today’s comment and the engagement and excitement I saw in my students tells a very different story.  Getting off-track helps to motivate and engage students.  By trying to help my students see that one of the benefits of our STEM class is to empower them to see problems and solve them, I fostered curiosity and excitement.  The boys could have talked about climate change for hours because it’s relevant and meaningful to them.  Instead of keeping to a lesson plan or curriculum, great teachers need to know how to take the road less travelled from time to time.  Some of the best learning and most memorable experiences come from happy accidents like talking about something not related to the topic at hand.

Helping Students See the Reality of Climate Change

A few years ago, sadly enough, I still considered myself one of the non-believers when it came to Climate Change.  “It’s just the natural, cyclical process of Earth heating and cooling,” is what I preached to my colleagues and students.  I didn’t see the value in the evidence and nor did I trust the studies and research I did view.  I denied the reality of what was actually happening.  Recently, I have done much investigating and talked with many colleagues on this issue and now see the harsh truth.  Earth is getting hotter at an unbelievably fast pace due to human activity in the form of burning and using fossil fuels.  Because of this, weather patterns are shifting and the arctic ice is melting, causing ocean levels to rise.  The oceans are also becoming more acidic, changing the environment and organisms that live in it.  Climate Change is a serious and real issue and needs to be addressed now.  Yes, the world’s governments are trying to do something about it, but one always wonders how much of what we are told as citizens is actually truth versus politics.  As Bill Gates wrote in a recent letter posted online, the youth of the world will need to help fix this issue.  They are the ones who will be bearing the weight of this problem and so they are the ones who must work to help address it.

As a teacher, I make it my goal to inspire my students.  Since we’ve been studying Climate Change in my STEM class, I’ve been educating the students on the issue at hand through teacher-directed instruction and a partner project.  I’ve also reminded them how important of a topic this is and how this will soon become their problem as they are the future of our world.  At first they didn’t seem to understand this.  I asked one student, “As a citizen of your country, why is knowing about Climate Change and things like the Paris Agreement important?”  He had to really process the question before he was able to truly answer it.  At first he said, “I don’t know.”  After dwelling on it for a few moments as I reiterated the important parts of the issue, he seemed to understand and had a much more complex answer.

The Climate Change Project has the students find a problem being loosely addressed by the Paris Agreement and create a realistic and cost effective solution to the problem.  They have a budget of $1,000 to use when devising their solution.  They aren’t necessarily going to build or complete their solution, but they are going to think it through, explain their idea and the costs involved, and present their idea to a panel of judges.  They have begun to really enjoy this project so far.  They seem very engaged with it.  Perhaps it helped that I tried to inspire self-motivation a bit by suggesting that any extremely realistic and cost-effective idea could be proposed to President Obama and perhaps be implemented in the future.  They seem very focused on this aspect of the project as they are challenging themselves to generate unique and viable solutions to the problem of Climate Change.

I’m hoping that through more discussions like the ones we’ve already had in class and through the completion of the Climate Change Project the boys are currently working on, they will see how important an issue Climate Change is and want to bring about positive changes in the world.  As a great person once said, “If not you then who and if not now then when?”  Perhaps one of the students in my class will generate the next big idea to address the issue of Climate Change.  Because of the plasticity of the developing adolescent brain, they often offer very different perspectives from adults because they are utilizing different portions of their brain to solve problems.  It is highly possible that a student and not a fancy scientist will develop the next great solution to Climate Change.  Could it be one of your students?  Let’s inspire our students to take a stand and see the reality of Climate Change so that they can foster positive change to generate solutions instead of more problems.

Inciting Engagement through Excitement

While I don’t remember much from my ninth grade biology class, I will forever remember all about tapeworms and international travel.  It was a warm autumn day in early October when I learned everything I would never want to know about parasites.  I had Biology class right before lunch, which was usually never an issue.  Yes, we dissected worms and such, but that was fun and not disgusting.  This particular day was different.  About ten minutes prior to the end of class, my teacher decided to tell us a story about the time she got tapeworms.  She went into elaborate detail about her trip to South America and how she tried to avoid all of the water and foods that might make her ill.  She didn’t think lettuce or salad would be a problem.  Unfortunately, she was wrong.  When she arrived back home in the US, she started to notice problems with her digestive system.  She was constantly hungry.  It all became very clear to her what the issue was early one morning.  As she slowly began to awaken from her slumber, she remained lying down for a while.  That’s when she felt the tickle in her throat.  Soon after the tickle, a tapeworm crawled out of her mouth.  YUCK!  Then, the bell rang and we were on our way to lunch.  While I was a bit grossed out, the fear and excitement I felt within were enough to make me overly cautious about where I travel and what I eat.  To date, I have felt no tickle in my throat or worms wiggle out of my body.  Yah for me!  Clearly, my teacher used the fear and excitement of her story to inspire us to want to learn more about parasites and how they affect living organisms.  Because of her story, I was engaged throughout that short unit.  I wanted to learn all about those creepy crawlies.

To help inspire my students to want to learn or become engaged with an activity or unit covered in class, I attempt similar subterfuge.  When students are excited or a bit scared, they become curious and motivated.  I decided to put that to good use today in STEM class as we began the Climate Change portion of our Weather Unit.

I began class by sharing my excitement for what we were about to begin learning and working on today in class.  “We are beginning a brand spanking new project never completed by any group of sixth graders in the history of Cardigan.  You are the first class to ever be completing this project.  I’m so excited to see what great ideas you brainstorm to help save our planet.”  At this point, a few sets of eyes that were not directed my way began to move in that direction.  Yes, I was beginning to hook them, I thought.  Then, came the slam dunk.

We watched and discussed a short video explaining climate change and its causes and outcomes.  I had the students take copious notes on the big ideas mentioned in the video.  After every main idea, I paused the video to allow students a chance to take notes on the important vocabulary terms and facts.  This break also allowed them the opportunity to ask questions regarding the content and their comprehension of it.  I reviewed the facts shared in the video before we continued watching it each time.  At the close of the video, we reviewed the big ideas regarding global warming and climate change.  I closed our discussion with some powerful thoughts: “If we don’t find a way to stop increasing global warming at such a rapid pace, the world will suffer dramatic changes, causing much death and destruction.”  Like dogs, their ears perked up at this point.  Some of them had shocked looks on their faces.  Yes, they are listening and engaged now.  That’s when I introduced the Climate Change Project.  The crux of the project is, working with a partner, to create a unique solution to an aspect of the recent Paris Agreement.  They were fired up about it.  They seemed motivated and excited to be problem solvers.  I even suggested that perhaps one group in our class could generate such an innovative and realistic solution that we will find a way to fund the creation of it through grants.  This excited them.

The students were so focused and productive in class today.  Perhaps it was because of my motivating words.  Or maybe they are just very interested in climate change.  Maybe they were empowered when I reminded them all that they are the future of our world.  They are the ones who will be responsible for bringing about major changes regarding climate change.  Perhaps my excitement was contagious and got them excited.  Or perhaps it was a little bit of everything, much like the seasoning my wife uses when she grills chicken, that produced the results I witnessed today in class.  The students were excited to learn about how the world is changing due to human activity.  They were focused on generating ways to solve the problem of climate change.  I couldn’t have been more proud.  My biology teacher had it all figured out way back then.  Inciting a little bit of fear and much excitement within students motivates them to want to learn more and accomplish the task at hand.