Playing the Devil’s Advocate: Challenging Students to Broaden their Perspective

English 101 was supposed to be an easy Freshmen class at my college, unless you had Professor Cunningham.  Then, it became one of the most difficult classes on your schedule.  Of course, as luck would have it, I had the pleasure of taking the easiest English class with the hardest professor on campus.  He demanded excellence at every turn.  Despite working on my first essay for his class for numerous hours, I received a C-.  Yes, that wasn’t a typo, C-.  I had never earned below a B- in any of my high school classes.  What was going on? I thought.  Prior to handing back that first essay to my class, he laid into us.  “Your high school teachers taught you nothing.  You are the worst writers I’ve ever had the displeasure of working with.  My grandson, who is in kindergarten writes better than any of you.  You have much work to do this semester if you want to be successful,” he screamed at us.  He yelled at my class at least once, every period.  He was intimidating and intense.  He was the person who broke me of saying “like, uh, ah,” and “um” all the time.  While I feared him and dreaded going to his class, he forced me to become a better, stronger writer and speaker.  After successfully completing his class, I was a far better writer than I’d ever hoped I would be.  He challenged me to become a better writer each day.  For that, I am eternally grateful; however, I do wish the nightmares would stop.

Over the years as a teacher, I’ve learned to harness the effective and appropriate parts of Professor Cunningham’s approach to teaching, so as to help challenge my students to be the best version of themselves possible.  I want my students to learn how to expand their perspective and see the world through multiple lenses.  I want my students to push themselves to complete quality work because they want to do so.  I want my students to hold themselves to high expectations.  I want my students to see the value in learning and growing.  To do this, I have high expectations for my students.  I expect that they send me properly formatted emails.  I expect that they proofread and edit their work prior to turning it into be graded.  I expect that my students help their peers to understand difficult concepts.  I expect that my students read at least four books during every trimester.  I expect that my students use proper keyboarding skills when typing on a computer.  I expect that my students raise their hand to ask a question during class.  I expect that my students are kind and compassionate community members.  I expect that my students practice mindfulness techniques to free their minds of distractions in order to be completely present in the moment.  I expect that my fifth grade students stay focused during lessons.  I expect my students to ask difficult questions.  I expect much of my students, because if I don’t, then they will do the same of me and themselves.  I want them to constantly strive to grow and develop as students and people.  While I don’t yell, scream, and belittle my students like Professor Cunningham did, I do challenge them to complete only their best work on a daily basis.

One way I help my students learn to broaden their perspective in Social Studies class is to play the Devil’s Advocate during current events discussions.  Each Friday afternoon, we spend about 30 minutes discussing a relevant and controversial current event from the world.  After introducing and briefly explaining the topic or event, I then open the floor to the students.  After each comment, I respond with a question to poke holes in their thinking.  I want them to be able to challenge themselves to think critically as they alter their perspective.  This past Friday, we discussed the Migrant Caravan issue taking place as we speak.  We watched a short news clip on the issue so that the students would have a basic understanding of the topic.  I then posed a question to the students, “What should America’s response to this issue be?”  The first student responded, “We should let them in, provided they have proper identification.”  My response was, “These poor people from Central America will likely not have any sort of identification on their person.  So then what?”  The student paused for a moment and said, “Well, we could then do a brain scan on them to determine any mental deficiencies or give them a lie detector test.  Those who pass one or both of the tests would then be allowed safe passage into our country.”  I then poked back with, “Do you know how much the machines for brain scans cost?  Who’s going to pay the bill for that?”  I let her process this information before moving onto the next student.  For every statement, I countered with the opposite side.  Another student said, “We should only let them into the country if they can prove that they are going to have a positive influence on our nation.”  I then reminded the class that sometimes people lie to gain access to a country in order to commit acts of terrorism.  “What if a person lies about their intentions and we let them in?  What if they then commit a horrible act of terrorism?”  After this back and forth, I explained to the students that my role is to challenge their thinking.  “I am playing the Devil’s Advocate to help you broaden your perspective and think more critically about issues.  In order to successfully debate serious issues like current events, you need to be able to examine an issue from all sides.  I’m not picking sides in this discussion by probing your thinking, I’m helping you to see the other side of your take on the issue.”  After my short dissertation, the conversation continued fruitfully for the remainder of the period.

My students love discussing current events because I challenge their thinking.  I create a back and forth debate with the class on serious issues impacting our world.  I choose controversial topics that spark conversation.  I want them to care about what is happening around the world so that they will want to make a difference in the world.  I want them to see the value in exercising their civic responsibility to vote.  I want my students to see problems in the world and then create viable solutions to them.  I challenge my students to be change makers in our world.  They are the future of our country, and so I must equip them with the skills they will need to be successful, think critically and creatively, and make the world a better place.  By pushing my students to think about their perspective and broaden it, I am helping them to become better versions of themselves.  I am helping them to gain empathy and compassion about people and topics they knew nothing about before beginning the year in my fifth grade class.  I challenge them so that they will hold themselves to high standards and expectations.  When the bar is set high, students find a way to leap over through perseverance and much struggle.  They work hard to be successful and mature so much because of the experience and journey.  When the bar is set low for students, they easily hop right over it.  Because they aren’t challenged to work hard and think critically, they aren’t able to learn as much as they could.  In my class, the bar is high because I care about my students and want them to do the same.

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How My Students Helped Put Things into Perspective for Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Risks and Try New Things; if You Fail, Fix Your Mistakes and Try Again

Recently, my school decided to partner with a local community outreach group to better help our students understand gender-based issues.  While we in the sixth grade loved what the group did with our students, I have heard many other teachers vent about how inappropriate and ineffective the special programming was.  Not everyone is going to like everything schools try, but I love the fact that we tried something.  Although it perhaps didn’t work for everybody, I’m hoping that we can learn from this experience and tweak it for next year.  Just because something fails when you try it the first time, doesn’t mean you should give up on it.  We need to learn from this experience so that we can make it better for next year’s students.

Risk taking and failure is how innovation and invention come about.  We can’t expect that every idea we have will succeed.  We are bound to fail, and that’s okay.  What matters is what we do when we fail.  If we use the failed experience to teach us how to not do something, then we will grow and develop.  This same rule applies in the classroom.  When our students take risks and try new things, we need to applaud their effort regardless of the outcome.  If they fail, we need to help them understand how to learn from the experience in order to grow and develop.

As a teacher, I need to practice what I preach.  Today in my Humanities class, I tried a new method of class discussion.  Every Saturday, we discuss current events in the world around us.  For the fall term, I guided the discussion by calling on students.  At the beginning of the winter term, I introduced the concept of Socratic Discussion and had the boys guide their own discussions based on a topic or question.  While I was not involved in the conversations, I observed the discussions and graded them on their ability to participate in a class discussion.  This week, I wanted to provide the students with a bit more choice as a way of engaging them in the topic of current events.  So, I had the students suggest five major topics or news stories that they wanted to discuss, and I listed them on the whiteboard.  I then had the boys self-select a group based on their interests.  While one group being led by a student went swimmingly, the other groups were disastrous.  The boys were mostly unfocused and distracted.  They were not even discussing the topic at hand.  They were loud and made it difficult for the effective group to hear what was being discussed.  At the close of the activity this morning, I shared this feedback with the students.  I also told them that we would be changing the method with which we discuss current events next week as they couldn’t handle the independence and responsibility that came with small group discussions.  While my initial reaction was to never utilize this method of discussion again, once I had time to reflect on the experience, I realize that I just need to make some slight alterations to the activity before making use of it again in the classroom.  I don’t need to throw it out and start over; I just need to fix what is broken.

Ideas for improvement:

  • Allow the students to offer suggestions for the discussion, but then select the best three topics on my own.  Less options might make the decision easier for the boys.  It would also allow me to eradicate ineffective ideas, which I should have done today.
  • Set ground rules for the discussion.
    • Students need to stay in one group for the entire time.
    • Students need to actively and appropriately add to the discussion.
    • The volume needs to be one that is not distracting to the other groups.
    • Students in the group will grade each other on their performance in the discussion at the close of the activity.  This will push the boys to make good choices and utilize the Habit of Learning of Ownership.
  • Have the student who suggested the idea be the facilitator for the discussion.  This will help bring form and function to the discussion.

So, although today’s new discussion method did not go as planned, I am going to use this experience as a learning opportunity.  I’m not going to stop trying new things in the classroom.  I’m going to continue taking risks to better support and challenge my students.  When lessons or activities fail, I’m going to determine what went wrong and fix it so that it can be recycled instead of just throwing it out altogether.  As teachers, we need to be constantly challenging ourselves to grow and develop.  Trying new things in the classroom, allows us to do just that.  We can’t be afraid of failure.  In fact, we need to embrace failure so that we learn as much, if not more, than our students.  I tell my students all of the time, “I’m not sure who the real teacher in this classroom is, you guys or me?”  Isn’t that what we want?  We want to be role models and students ourselves.  So, let’s go out and try new things.

Fostering Meaningful and Appropriate Discourse in the Classroom

I was educated in a school that believed in the mantra “children should be seen and not heard.”  Class discussions did not happen in many of my classes.  Students were not encouraged to ask questions as they detracted from the teacher’s lecture.  We were not allowed to engage in or interact with the class lesson or curriculum in any way.  We were passive consumers of our education, which turned me off from learning quite a bit.  Luckily, I had an amazing English teacher in my senior year of high school who challenged me to help others and give back to my community.  This experience made me realize that teaching should be active and fun.  It should be hands-on so that students are doing rather than watching and observing.

As a teacher, I have seen first-hand the power of active teaching.  Engaging students in the content and curriculum in meaningful and relevant ways is how genuine learning takes place.  Great teachers don’t lecture the students.  Great teachers pose questions for their students to discuss and debate.  Great teachers pose problems for their students to solve.  Great teachers make learning fun.  As I strive to be a great teacher every day, I make sure that each lesson is filled with lots of doing, asking, and thinking.

While today’s introductory lesson on Africa could have easily been structured as a boring and unfun lecture, I made sure to set it up in such a way that the students were interacting with the material in new and unique ways.  One of my goals for the period was to be sure that my students understand stereotypes, how they form, and how we can prevent them from spreading.  After a quick review of Wednesday’s introduction on stereotypes, I had the students draw an outline map of Africa with their table partner.  Inside the map, they wrote everything they both already know about the great continent of Africa.  They could draw pictures or use words.  The boys did a fantastic job coexisting and communicating throughout this short activity.  Following this activity, I had each student share one fact they already know about Africa.  I jotted their facts down onto the whiteboard at the front of our classroom.  I didn’t respond to their facts in anyway other than to thank them for their contributions.  I didn’t point out the accuracy in what they said.  I made sure not to bias the discussion in any way.

I then asked the students to point out any stereotypes that were listed on the board.  One student said, “Hunters is a stereotype because hunting is not allowed in Africa now.  You have to smuggle out animals if you want to keep or kill them.  That’s a not true fact of Africa.”  I then allowed the student who added Hunters to the list to defend his addition.  He said that he was referring to those who hunt for food and survival, not sport.  The other student then had an A-ha moment and responded to what the student said, “Oh, that makes sense.  I thought you meant hunting for sport.  Yes, there are hunters in Africa.”  Because I foster a sense of community and care within the classroom, the students feel completely comfortable appropriately arguing and disagreeing with what their peers say.  It’s about creating discourse while engaging the students in the lesson.  I want the students to think critically and listen intently to what their classmates say so that they can challenge each other to think even more deeply about the big ideas being discussed.

Creating a classroom culture that fosters an appropriate level of openness and honesty helps students grow and develop into global citizens who will positively impact our world in the near future.  I want students to be active listeners while others are talking.  I want students to question the world around them as a way to more effectively understand it.  Allowing students opportunities to challenge each other and discuss big ideas brought up in class, creates a true classroom community.  Students learn to respect each other and take care of one another as they all learn together.  Allowing students to ask each other questions about their contributions to the class discussion, helps them to develop their critical thinking, communication, and growth mindset skills.  A classroom in which students are driving the content and curriculum is one in which students are actively learning.  I don’t want my students to feel like I did in school.  I want them to enjoy coming to school and learning.  I want them to hunger for knowledge.  Empowering students to debate and discuss big ideas in school will hopefully help them grow into adults who will make powerful differences in their communities.

Creating a Culture of Conversation within the Classroom

I was never much of a talker when I was a younger student.  I pretty much kept to myself.  Sure, I had some friends, but not many.  I was very much a quiet, introverted individual.  I didn’t like talking in front of my classmates or other people at all.  As I matured with age, like tasty cheese, I became much more comfortable with speaking in front of and to others.  I now feel much more confident in my ability to chat it up with strangers.  I wouldn’t say that I’m a talker now, but I am more willing to and open to speaking with others than I was many years ago.  I’ve come to realize the power in conversation and discussions.  Much can be learned from talking to others.  I’ve grown most as a person by talking to my wife and bouncing ideas off of her.  I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for her.  Talking with her has made me a better person.  I’ve also grown as an educator from talking to and working with my various co-teachers.  We planned lessons and graded work together.  My co-teachers helped me to change my perspective on teaching.  Two voices are far better than one.  Becoming an individual who converses with others, shares ideas, and listens to what other people have to say has been transformational.  The power of conversation is amazing.  I wish I had been courageous enough as a student to see that.  I wish I had been in classrooms in which the teachers promoted conversation and group work.  I can’t even imagine how my life would be different if I had been more of a talker when I was in school.  It’s crazy to think about.

As a teacher, I see the value in talking and conversation.  I embrace it.  I want my students to share their ideas with the class and others.  I want them to ask questions and think critically.  I want them to appropriately challenge others.  Over the years, I’ve created a culture of conversation in the sixth grade.  Our students complete group projects on a regular basis so they can utilize the power of collective thinking.  We teach our students how to discuss controversial ideas in meaningful and appropriate ways.  We promote question-asking and curiosity in every class.  The students have table partners that they can work with or talk to as they work and grow as students.  We want them to see the power that comes from talking with others.  So much can be learned by asking questions and listening to the ideas and thoughts of others.  We want our students to see the value in this.  While this can be challenging for many of our students and different from what they are used to, by the end of the year, they all grow into talkers who can carry on conversations and discussions that promote growth and great thinking.

Today in class, the students were provided several different opportunities to think critically, grow, learn from others, listen, and talk.  In our study skills class, the students had a popcorn discussion with a peer they don’t typically work with in the class.  They discussed the purpose of being able to assess the reputability of online sources.  Why is it important to be able to judge the credibility of websites?  Many insightful discussions took place.  This then led into a whole-class discussion on the topic that allowed their ideas to bloom with meaning and power.  Later in that same class, the students worked with an assigned partner to complete an activity that allowed them to practice the skill of assessing the reputability of online sources.  They worked together to investigate a website and complete a worksheet.  They coexisted with each other to accomplish a common goal.  Later in the day during Humanities class, the students discussed cartography and questions about maps with a table partner to open our unit on mapping and perspective.  These short partner discussions bled into a large group discussion on the purpose of maps and how the students use maps in their daily lives.  The boys shared some great ideas that provided much fodder to jumpstart our unit.  The boys were engaged in the discussions, which allowed them to become interested in the topic of mapping that can sometimes be a mundane or boring topic for students.  The big activity for the period involved the students, working in small groups, in observing four different kinds of maps.  They discussed what they noticed and saw.  How were the maps different from each other?  What did the maps show?  What do the maps mean?  The students discussed the accuracy of the maps as they pointed out interesting observations they were making.  It was very cool to watch the students learn and explore maps.  I closed Humanities class with a final discussion on what was learned from the various maps they observed.  How were they different from one another?  Which map was most accurate and why?  The students all seemed to have different thoughts on these questions, which allowed for some interesting discussion and further questions to be asked.  So much learning took place in the sixth grade classroom today through conversation.  The students shared ideas, listened to their peers, and processed information learned to formulate their own new ideas.  It was awesome.

Imagine what would have happened in class today if conversation and talking was not the vehicle used to promote learning.  Would the students have been as engaged in the topics being learned?  Would they have generated such insightful and unique thoughts and questions?  Would they have had as much fun?  Would as much learning have happened?  While I can’t say with 100% certainty that the answer to my previous questions would be, “No,” I do hypothesize that very little genuine learning and fun would have happened in the classroom today if conversations and discussions did not take place.  Talking and listening are crucial life skills that lead to growth and maturity.  Without talking or sharing ideas, where would our society be right now?  We need to prepare our students for meaningful lives in a global society, which involves teaching them the power of conversation.

How Do I Let Go of my Insecurities in the Classroom?

Growing up in a conservative town, the school I attended had many old-school teachers who had been teaching at that same school for decades.  They believed in the completely inaccurate and horrific old adage of, Children should be seen and not heard.  My teachers trained me to raise my hand when I had something to say.  If students shouted out in the classroom, they were sent out of the room, lectured at, beat with a ruler, or sent to the principal’s office.  I learned that the safest way to make it through a school day was to just be quiet.  I rarely spoke in class because of this model of education.  Even now, in faculty meetings, when I have something to say, I raise my hand rather than just speak out.  Old habits die hard.

Because of my life experiences, when I first became an educator several years ago, I believed that children must raise their hand to speak in class.  So, I held my students to this high standard for a few years.  I would penalize or speak with those students who did shout out instead of raising their hand.  I think I did it out of respect.  I felt as though the students should respect me as their teacher by raising their hand to share an idea or thought with the group.  Not raising one’s hand and shouting out seemed disrespectful to me.  So, I followed the mantra my teachers used even though I hated it when I was a student.

Luckily, I was able to break this vicious cycle a few years after taking a course on the neuroscience of education.  I learned how students really learn.  They need to explore, collaborate, communicate, try, share, fail, and try again.  They need to feel safe and supported.  While forcing students to raise their hand in order to speak in class, allows me as the teacher to be in control of the students at all times, it also makes the classroom very teacher-centered, which is not a good model to follow.  The students need to feel like they have ownership over their learning.  They need to be engaged in what they are learning.  Although I do ask my students to raise their hands when they have a question or thought to share with the class, I try not to penalize those few students who do struggle to keep their ideas inside.  I want my students to feel heard, as long as they are doing so in a compassionate and respectful manner.  I no longer think of shouting out as disrespectful towards me, but rather, I don’t want my students to be disrespectful their peers.  This new approach has allowed me to foster a student-centered classroom in which the students feel heard and respected.  They feel like an integral part of the learning process.  It’s no longer about me vs. them, instead, we’re all in this together like one big happy family.

Every once in awhile though, I do find myself falling back into old habits and speaking to the class about not shouting out.  Today felt like one of those days.  One student in particular shouted out on several occasions.  Rather than point him out directly, I said to the class, “Shouting out is disrespectful behavior that needs to stop.  Thank you to those of you who are raising your hand to participate in our discussion.  I really appreciate that.”  While I wasn’t calling the student out in particular, I was highlighting the fact that shouting out is negative behavior.  Now, on occasion today, this student did add his insight and questions without raising his hand, but he did so, at times, in a respectful manner.  Rather than talk over his classmates, he waited for openings in the conversation.  This is perfectly appropriate behavior.  I didn’t comment on those moments.  Instead, I focused on the moments during which he was talking over students, as this is rude disrespectful behavior.  However, I do wonder if this message was made clear to my students.  Do they understand how to appropriately add to a discussion by not raising their hand?  Well, they do because we’ve taught them the Socratic model of discussion.  They have lengthy group discussions run by the students during which no hands are raised.  They wait for breaks in the conversation to add their thoughts.  Perhaps I should speak with them, as a class, about how to appropriately participate in class discussions.  Shouting out while others are talking is not an effective method.  Waiting for breaks in the conversation like our Socratic discussions is the best way to jump into a conversation without raising one’s hand.  After I return from presenting at the NELMS Conference in Providence, RI, I will tell this to the students.  I want them to understand that it’s not disrespectful to appropriately add to a discussion without raising their hand.  I just need to be sure that I hold myself to this line and not fall back into old habits and try to maintain control of the class at any cost.  Sometimes, this insecurity that I posses, causes me to make mistakes and not be the most effective teacher possible.  Writing about it on this here blog helps me name it and understand how I can grow and change for the better.  One of my many goals as teacher is to guide and not lead or control students.  I need to give up control and help my students effectively learn how to be respectful and compassionate citizens.

The Trials and Tribulations of Conveying Information to Students

When students approach me at any time of day, but especially in the morning, and ask me how my day is, my response is always the same, “Best day of my life, thanks for asking.”  The boys seem to get a kick out of it.  Most of the students just accept it for what it is, a positive outlook on life.  They know me as the happiest teacher on Earth and so it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for me to take an optimistic approach to life as well.  There are a few brave questioning and doubting students who wonder if I’m telling the truth.  Today, one of those students called me out.  He asked, “Mr. Holt, if today is the best day of your life, how can tomorrow be better than today?”  My response to him was, “Each new day is a gift because one day I won’t wake up or go to sleep and so each new day that I get to enjoy and experience is the best day of my life.”  This explanation seemed to satisfy the student and usually assuages those who doubt my integrity.  Of course, you’re probably thinking, “You’re crazy.  You can’t possibly believe that.  It must just be what you tell the students.”  And you’d be half-right.  Sure, some moments and days are more memorable than others, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t embrace each new experience with the same gusto as the last.  I know my time on top of Earth’s crust is limited and so I want to carpe diem as much as possible.  I’d rather employ a positive outlook on life than dwell on all of the negative and depressing things that could easily weigh me down.  Research shows that happy people live longer and have more fulfilling lives.  I want to be one of those lucky people.  Each new day is a gift and also a challenge.  Seeing the good in the world is not easy, but every day my heart beats, my mind’s eye looks for the positive and good in every situation, no matter how difficult or challenging it may appear.

This approach to life bleeds over into my teaching as well.  I try to approach each new class and student interaction with an open mind and positive attitude so that I can not only grow as an educator but also help support and challenge my students to grow and develop in their own ways as well.  Of course this isn’t always easy and I fumble from time to time.  I’m not perfect and I’m sure to point this out to my students regularly as I don’t expect perfection from them.  I do remind them that the best and most meaningful way to learn is to make mistakes and then learn from them.  Failure is part of the learning process.

Today in STEM class, I reviewed, with the whole class, the geological timelines the students had all created individually.  I pointed out the big happenings in Earth’s rich history and celebrated the learning and work my students had accomplished.  I asked students, at random, questions throughout this discussion to be sure they were taking in and processing the information being conveyed.  I didn’t expect that they would remember everything covered and I’m certainly not going to test them on the information discussed in class today; however, I did hope that the boys would be able to paint a picture for themselves, mentally, that showcases how big, full, and diverse Earth’s geological history is.  The students had the opportunity to ask questions throughout the activity and many high-level questions were posed and discussed.  The students seemed very interested and curious in how Earth evolved and changed over time.  While this portion of the class took about 45 minutes to complete, it wasn’t until the last few minutes that I noticed the body language of two of the students start to slip and display disinterest and boredom.  I was impressed.  Usually, I am only able to hold their focus and attention for 10-to-20-minute chunks.  I didn’t even realize how long the activity was taking until the last few minutes when I started to notice the change in those two students.  The boys mostly all seemed engaged and were asking great questions.  They seemed to be taking in the information being discussed.

Now, here comes the BUT and questions.  Was it the most effective way to wrap up this activity and project on Earth’s geological history?  They had worked on these timelines for over a week in and out of class.  I wanted them to share their brilliance and knowledge with their peers.  I wanted to celebrate their fine work.  But, was every student genuinely engaged or were they just faking it like I sometimes do?  Were they really processing information and taking in knowledge or thinking about their afternoon sports practice or whether or not they have lint in their belly button?  While I wasn’t grading or assessing the students on a particular objective for this overview discussion of Earth’s geological history, I did hope that some big ideas were conveyed to the boys.  I wanted them to understand how long Earth’s geological history truly is.  I also wanted them to realize how long it took major geological changes and developments to occur.  I hoped they learned this.  Do I know for certain if they did or not?  I did have the students complete an Exit Ticket check-in assessment on which they wrote one big idea they learned from today’s discussion on Earth’s geological history.  Almost every student was able to share one important, overarching theme I had hoped they would extract from today’s discussion.  Two students had difficulty completing this task on their own, but with scaffolding, even they were able to demonstrate their understanding of big ideas they had learned today.  I was impressed.  So maybe I was able to accomplish my goal.  Even so, I wonder if the discussion was the most effective and appropriate way to convey information to them.  Could I have tried another technique that might have been more beneficial to them?  What if they shared their outlines with each other in a rotating pair-share activity?  Would that have worked better?  This might have reduced the amount of time spent on the activity as well.  Without specific instruction and questions from me, would the learning have been as tangible and meaningful to them?  What if I had printed out their timelines, put them together in packets for the students, and had them review them as a homework assignment, taking margin notes along the way?  Would this have been a more appropriate way to accomplish the same task?

Who knows what might have happened if I had taken an alternate route to today’s destination.  I do know that conveying information or knowledge to students can be a challenge.  How do I do it in an engaging manner?  I don’t want to lecture at my sixth graders or have them take copious notes as I drone on and on about Earth’s geology.  Their brains need to develop a bit further for them to be capable of successfully accomplishing a task like that.  I struggle with knowing how to provide information and content to my students in an effective manner.  I doubt myself frequently.  Isn’t that a good thing though?  It means that I am always trying to grow and become a better, more effective educator by reflecting on my practice.  Yeah, I think that’s exactly what it means.  Go me!

Celebrating Growth and Progress in the Classroom

In the third grade, my teacher gave us weekly spelling tests.  Those students who received a perfect score of a 100% found a special sticker, usually a scratch-and-sniff one, at the top of their paper when it was returned the next week.  That was a huge highlight for me.  I put forth great effort on a weekly basis to receive one of those stickers.  It wasn’t about learning how to spell words, it was all about the celebration and sticker.  My teacher did very little else in the classroom to celebrate growth and progress.  Those stickers were one of the only ways I was able to feel as though I had accomplished something.  I felt good about myself as a student because of those stickers.  In retrospect, it seems quite silly that I found such happiness in those smelly pieces of sticker paper, but I did.

As a teacher, I want my students to feel celebrated and supported in their learning process throughout the year.  I don’t want them to long for stickers or silly rewards.  I want them to be able to see their growth as students and be pleased and proud of themselves.  I want them to continue to work and develop their habits of learning throughout the year because they want to grow as students and not because they earn special prizes or stickers.  I try to consistently provide my students with relevant and meaningful feedback and praise on their learning process and effort throughout the year.  I want the boys to see themselves as I do, growing and developing students.

Today in Humanities class, the boys participated in various small group discussions regarding current events.  The students shared the news worthy events they had read about for homework with their table partner.  They explained the big ideas regarding their self-chosen articles and events.  My co-teacher then shared one relevant current event topic with the class to provide them with fodder for the small group discussion they would be participating in towards the end of class.  The boys learned about how Cam Newton, quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, wants the media and others to stop making a big deal of the fact that he is a black quarterback.  He wants to be referred to as just a quarterback as he feels race is not a factor in his ability to play at the quarterback position.  After the students understood the who, what, when, where, and why of the issue, the boys were placed into small groups with four other students to discuss the issue using a guiding question to focus the discussion: Does the race of an athlete impact his or her ability to play a sport or position on a team?  The boys did a tremendous job exploring how race is used to judge athletes and the negative outcomes of doing so.  I’m constantly amazed by the critical thinking our students put forth to discuss the issue of the day in an insightful and meaningful manner.  They build upon each other’s comments and questions, use support from the text studied or referenced, and include others in the conversation.  It’s quite an amazing sight to behold.

However, the big win for me today was in celebrating one particular student’s growth and progress.  Prior to today’s conversation, this one specific student struggled to effectively participate in group discussions of any kind.  He generally hogged the conversation, not allowing others to contribute or participate.  He sometimes had trouble compassionately arguing with his peers.  Rather than citing evidence or support to make his claim or argument, he sometimes used words that lacked forethought or respect.  He had not been able to meet this one objective all year, until today.  He was focused and deliberate in his actions and participation.  He made sure to only participate in the discussion when appropriate, allowing his peers to also be included in the discussion.  What he did add to the discussion moved it forward in interesting directions.  His body language sent positive messages to his group members and showed respect and compassion.  He was like a different student in class today.  I made sure to take him aside after the discussion and praise his effort and actions.  He nicely demonstrated his ability to meet the objective and did so with grace and glory.  He added fine insight to the discussion in meaningful ways.  He was an active and appropriate discussion participant today because of his effort and restraint.  I made sure to tell him how proud of him I was.  He smiled and seemed to really hear the words I was saying.  It was amazing.  It’s moments like these that make those other more difficult classroom experiences all worth it.

While we certainly don’t want to over praise students or celebrate them for just being students, it’s also important to remember the value in specific and meaningful praise.  Students who are able to grow and develop in order to overcome challenges in the classroom need to be recognized and celebrated.  Not with a sticker or big fan fare in front of the class, but with personal and private conversations and words of praise.  When these students reap the benefits of their hard work, they will see the value in utilizing feedback provided by their teachers and peers in order to mature and grow.  This is crucial to the learning process.  Students need to see that their effort has positive consequences so that they will want to keep trying and working hard.  Recognizing and celebrating the successes of our students breeds more success, happiness, and a sense of well-being within them.  The more we can take notice of their growth and progress in and out of the classroom, the more they will want to grow and progress as students and learners.

Empowering Students with Knowledge

To celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights pioneers from around the world, my school cancelled classes yesterday and in their place arranged powerful presentations and insightful discussion sessions for the students.  Our goal for this special day was to help the students broaden their perspective and see all of the injustices happening around the world.  Our hope is that by opening their eyes to child soldiers, sex trafficking, racial profiling, religious persecution, and many other social crimes against people, they will be moved to make a difference and bring about change in the world.  Knowledge is power.

I led a session for ninth graders on the issue of child soldiers.  As I began my lesson, I realized how challenging teaching ninth grade is.  They sat in their chairs like bumps on a log.  Getting the students to participate in the discussion was like trying to cut my dog’s nails.  He hates it.  I was jumping around the room, changing the tone of my voice, showing emotion, and calling them by name.  And still I got nothing from them.  I don’t know how high school teachers do it.  I could not teach high school.  Give me energetic and excited elementary students any day of the week over those kids who seem to be too cool for school.  However, there were a few students in each group that got involved in the discussion.  They answered some difficult questions and a few boys shared how outraged and shocked they were by some of the statistics.  It was something.

I began my session having the students discuss some basic questions regarding their prior knowledge on the topic.  Where are child soldiers being used?  How does being a child soldier impact young people?  What do you know about child soldiers?  I had them participate in a quick pair-share to get them talking and thinking about the topic.  They had some good conversations while I walked around and observed.  Some of the boys seemed to think that the problem was easily solvable.  “The government can stop the groups from employing child soldiers.”  If only it were that easy.  While I applaud their willingness to solve the problem, their perspective on the issue is quite narrow.  I then had the groups share out big ideas discussed.  This then led into a definition of child soldiers and some statistics.  I showed them a map that highlighted the many areas worldwide where child soldiers are used in conflicts.  They seemed a bit shocked by this.  They also seemed a bit horrified when I told them that four out of every 10 child soldiers is female.  The looks on their faces when they heard this was powerful.  Some of the boys in the group have younger sisters.  That must have been difficult to process.  I then showed them some videos of how child soldiers are used in various places around the world.  After each video I provided them the opportunity to reflect in writing on their emotions, thoughts, and questions.  A few of the boys wanted to share what they had written.  They were processing the information learned while still trying to rationalize how this issue is possible.  A few of the students were angry and upset.  My response, “Good.  If you’re not angry, then you are not paying attention.  My hope today is to make you so mad and angry about what is going on around the world that you want to do something about it, bring about change and make the world a safer place for children everywhere.”  I closed the session talking about how the students can help make a difference.  I talked about Red Hand Day that is celebrated in some European countries.  I mentioned how we in America don’t recognize it, but perhaps we should.  I wanted to get them thinking about what they could do to bring about change in the world.  I then emphasized the importance of awareness and education.  The more we know about a problem, the more knowledge we have when trying to brainstorm solutions.  I told the boys to further educate themselves on this topic so that they can find a way to help prevent two million more children from killed because they are child soldiers.  The students left my session equipped with knowledge and power.  While the topic discussed was very serious in nature, they seemed to understand it.  I’m hopeful that it struck a nerve in some of the boys so that they will spread the message and find a way to bring about change and make a difference in the world.

Empowering students with knowledge is our goal as educators.  We want our students to feel like they can tackle any problem and make the world a better place.  Sometimes, to do this, it means that we must discuss sensitive topics and issues.  While these aren’t easy conversations to have, they are necessary.  Change doesn’t happen through ignorance.

How to Tactfully Say, “Oh no, You’re Wrong” to a Student

While as a dad, I tell it like it is to my son.  If he does or says something inappropriate or wrong, I call him on it right away.  I don’t worry about using tact because I want my son to always know what is right.  I praise him when he does or says the right thing, but I also come down hard on him when he makes poor choices.  I don’t yell at him or anything aggressive like that, but I will be stern and say something like, “You made a very bad choice.  Your words hurt another person.  That’s not okay.  You need to fix the situation.  What are you going to do?”  This usually sends him the message that what he did was wrong and that he needs to remedy the issue.

However, when it comes to my students, I feel as though I need to tactfully go about pointing at poor choices or words that could be misconstrued as negative or stereotypical.  While I can, I don’t feel as though I should just come out and say, “No, you are wrong” when a student makes a statement that could be viewed by others as inappropriate.  No, I’m not a fan of the politically correct world in which we live.  I hate that I feel as though I have to walk on broken styrofoam bottles when teaching in the classroom. But, unfortunately, that’s the current state of affairs in our world.  So, I succumb to the pressure and do what society tells me I should do.

Today in Humanities class, we had a great discussion about the recent Paris attacks.  The class began with the students reading through a news article about the current event.  They had four guiding questions to discuss and answer as they read the article with their table partner.  I emphasized the importance of having a discussion and demonstrating effective coexistence.  This activity took about 10 minutes and went very well.  The boys delegated tasks and had some insightful discussions about what happened last week in Paris.  This then lead into a full group discussion on the topic.  We reviewed what happened, where it happened, and when it happened.  Then, we talked about why it happened.  This part was the most engaging for the boys as they had so much to say.  We talked about ISIS and what the acronym represents.  I then got into the motivation and intent of ISIS, which interested several of my students.  One of the boys said, “Members of ISIS are muslim and they are the ones who committed the acts of terrorism in Paris.”  Rather than allow the rest of my students to believe that all muslims are terrorists, I tactfully responded: “While it’s possible that some members of terrorists groups are muslim, it’s also possible that not every member is of that faith.  Not every muslim is a member of a terrorist group.  This line of thinking lead to what we saw in America following the 911 attacks.  People started attacking and killing every person who looked even slightly like he or she might be of Middle-Eastern descent.  We need to judge people by their actions and choices, not their appearance or religious beliefs.”  So, rather than just saying, “Oh no, you are really wrong,” I found a more meaningful way to convey the fact that some of what this student had said was inaccurate and could be viewed as stereotypical or biased.  Yes, I wanted to just call a spade a spade, but I also wanted to model the appropriate and compassionate behavior I expect from my students.  So, I took the high road on this one.  But, I didn’t really like how I worded it.  It felt verbose.  Did the students receive the message I was attempting to convey or because I said so much was my message lost?

Following the lesson, I had a chance to ask my co-teacher, “I really wanted to just say (to that student) you are wrong, but I didn’t think it would be the right thing to do.  That is one area I need to work on when guiding discussions.  How do I point out that what a student said is wrong or inaccurate without saying, ‘You are wrong?'”  She explained how this was handled at her last school.  “We talked to the students about perspective coming from prior knowledge, which comes from one’s family, beliefs, and what they might have heard from the media.  So if a student says something that is inaccurate, we explain how their perspective isn’t wrong, but that the knowledge used to inform their perspective may be inaccurate and so we want to provide them with accurate information on which to base their perspective.”  Oh, I like that.  That makes a lot of sense to me.  Every opinion or thought we have comes from somewhere to inform and create our perspective.  So, rather than point out that they are wrong, we can focus on the information or prior knowledge and point out how that is flawed or inaccurate.  That way, it’s not about the student, it’s about what they had learned.  This makes a lot of sense.  I really like that.  I think this will be my new default response when guiding discussions.  If a student says something inaccurate or inappropriate, I will focus on the behavior and not the student.  It’s like the Parts Language I use with my son.  He is not a bad person, but the bad language parts he sometimes uses are inappropriate.  I like it.  It’s a sensical and not overly PC way to say, “Oh no, you are wrong.”