Why I Love Teaching: Part 732

I love challenging students to think creatively and critically.  I love observing students as they overcome difficulties and solve problems in new and unique ways.  I love watching students grow and develop.  I love being a teacher.  I love the hard days as much as the great ones.  I love working with students and colleagues as we work together to change the world and make it a better place for all people.

My Humanities class today provided me with yet another reason why I love teaching.  As the boys worked on finalizing their Africa Project presentations in class today, I walked around and observed.  I occasionally fielded questions, but mostly just provided the students with feedback on their work.  What impressed me the most, aside from the great focus and dedication on the part of the students, was their diligent work ethic and ownership.  The students weren’t okay with just finishing their presentation, oh no.  They wanted to make their poster, slideshow, or website, the best it could possibly be.

I had students ask me:

  • “Can I draw a ski lift going up my poster towards a mountain peak and then add in skiers to give my poster some color and creativity?”
  • “Can I talk to the drama teacher to get a costume for my presentation?”
  • “Can I make a quiz to go along with my presentation to make sure people are listening and learning?”
  • “Can I add a Google Maps portion to my presentation so that people can see where the battles happened?”

I was so proud of their self-awareness and ability to use a growth mindset while working.  They weren’t simply working to get things done, they were working to create the best final project possible.  Those students who didn’t necessarily know what to do to improve their presentation, asked for feedback from me.  They wanted suggestions or ideas on what they could do to make their visual aides even more meaningful and engaging.  After I provided them with some ideas and possible solutions, they got right to work revising their project presentations.  I was amazed.  They want to be sure that they WOW! the faculty members attending tomorrow’s Learning Exposition.  It’s not about checking things off of a list for almost all of my students; it’s about showcasing their learning and talents.  “Look at what I know, learned, and can do,” their presentations will be shouting tomorrow during the big event.

At the close of today’s work period, I shared these noticings with the class.  As I talked to them about their phenomenal work ethic and effort, my body shivered in excitement and joy.  My students have come so far since September and I am so proud of each and every one of them.  It’s on days like today that I’m able to celebrate this growth and progress with them as a class.  And this is yet another reason why I love teaching.


Fun with Revision

I wonder if early man ever looked at their cave drawings and thought, “Wow, I could have really done a lot better.  That elephant’s left leg is disproportional to the right.  And that tree is actually on the other side of the field.”  While our cave dwelling ancestors probably didn’t take the time to reflect on their work because they were fighting for their lives against wild creatures, in retrospect, I’m sure they wish they had.

While creating something like a story or poem is super fun and enjoyable, the act of revising, polishing, editing, and rewriting can sometimes be so much more meaningful.  My fifth or sixth drafts are always way cooler than my sloppy copies, as they should be.  For me, it’s like looking for a diamond in a minefield.  Although I try not to be married to my ideas and writing, I find it challenging to separate me from the words.  So, any change I make is a bit heartbreaking.  But when I find the right changes to make, wow!  The story starts to really come together.

Although I’m sure my students aren’t quite at that stage of abstract thought and reflection yet, they sure did seem to enjoy the revision process yesterday in Humanities class.  In years past, the students seem to finish the revision and editing phases in about 10 minutes.  “I’m done.  I changed a period to a comma and added two adjectives.”  Oh, yah for you, I would always think to myself.  They were too tied to their work and couldn’t really see the forest through the trees, or is it the trees through the forest.  I suppose either one would work for my analogy.  Anyway, they really stunk at the drafting process.  This year is different.  This group of students spent at least 40 minutes reviewing, rereading, revising, peer revising, editing, and peer editing their work.  They color coded all of their changes so that we can see their revision process when we grade a future draft.  Their vignettes looked like Jackson Pollack paintings.  They were so pretty and colorful.  To see how deep in the revision process they were, I did ask a few about their changes.  Why did you change that word or how does that change positively impact your piece.  “It helps the reader better picture what is going on and when I first wrote it I didn’t think about that.”  They were in deep.  It was awesome.  I’m so proud.  Not only were they making their pieces better, they themselves were growing as writers.  It’s like watching a newly formed rock become polished and eroded at the bottom of a river.  While that takes years to watch happen, and this only took a few weeks, it’s basically the same thing.

The power of the revision process can be overwhelming for our students, but it is so important in helping them reach their true potential as writers.  We need to model, explain, and provide plenty of time for the students to dig deep into their writing in order for meaningful revision to take place.  The end result though, is so worth it.  Take the time to allow your students to really work on their writing so that they can improve as writers and appreciate the process of revision.

Teaching Teamwork

Thinking back on my numerous years of schooling, I don’t recall ever having more than one or two group projects.  My teachers veered away from group work.  I think that they were afraid of what might happen when three to five students get together to accomplish a task.  Perhaps chaos would ensue.  Or maybe it was because they didn’t really know how to teach effective collaboration and teamwork.  Teachers can’t just assign group projects without some sort of scaffolding or guidance regarding how to work together as a team.  It would be like giving a group of 24 students a rugby ball and saying, “Now go play rugby.”  They would probably have no idea what to do.  Plus, rugby can be a very dangerous sport if you don’t know how to play it safely.  Teachers need to guide students through group projects.  But, how?  How do you effectively teach teamwork?  That is the big question.

Today in STEM class, the students worked on the Synthesis Group Project portion of our Astronomy Unit.  Despite explaining how to effectively coexist in a group, some of the students still struggled in class.  They’ve been learning and practicing teamwork strategies for the past several weeks in Leadership and PEAKS classes.  We’ve also discussed effective collaboration skills in STEM class.  So, what’s the problem?  Why are some students struggling to figure out how to work together effectively?  Working in a group is difficult and challenging.  It requires compromise, a growth mindset, patience, delegation, leadership, listening skills, and so much more.  These aren’t skills that develop over night.  These skills and techniques need to be practiced again and again.  Teaching students how to utilize a growth mindset once in class doesn’t mean they’ve mastered the skill.  They need constant remodeling and reminders.

During class today, one group worked effectively and accomplished the assigned work quite well.  But even that group struggled a bit.  Not every team member was actively participating.  Two groups really struggled in class today.  One of those groups had much internal strife.  We’ll call that group, Group B.  Two members of Group B stuck together and argued with the third group member.  They refused to compromise and argued about their roles and duties.  The leader was the main culprit in all of this turmoil.  Group C began the work period on a strong note, but then started to fall apart when the leader delegated work to the other two members.  Those two members were lethargic and uncooperative.  They accomplished very little during class.  This upset the leader a lot.  He then started complaining and arguing with his other group members.

Replaying the double block in my head, things were a bit crazy in class today.  However, this is all part of the process.  It was time for the groups to start having problems.  No group is perfect.  Issues and problems will arise.  It’s what the group members do when those problems arise that will make all the difference.  How do they react to their peers?  How do they communicate their emotions and concerns?  Does the leader facilitate or add fuel to the fire?  During all of this, I roamed around and asked each of the groups some probing questions.  I didn’t tell them what to do to solve their problems, but I wanted them to think about alternative solutions to the problems they faced.

Yelling and arguing was getting Group B nowhere.  So clearly, they needed some guidance.  I gave the leader some instructions as to what his role should look like and things improved over the course of the class.  By the end of the period, they were sitting near each other and collaborating effectively.  They just needed some support and help.  Odds are that they would not have been able to troubleshoot things on their own.

Group C had social issues that needed to be addressed after class.  One of the unproductive students needed to be told how to effectively communicate with his peers.  Instead of using his words, he just didn’t do anything.  That one student realized the error of his ways and will hopefully be able to change his behavior next time.

While I didn’t step in and solve every issue that arose in every group, I did need to guide them to the light a bit with questions and suggestions.  The students need to be reminded again and again how to work together in order to learn how to do so.  While they do need to figure out how to solve their own problems, the boys are only in sixth grade and so some problems are out of their sphere of understanding, which is why I stepped in when I did.  During other times, I let them figure things out on their own.  Critical thinking is a crucial habit of learning that students need to practice applying.

Another key to helping students learn to effectively coexist is reflection.  The students need a chance to reflect on their actions and behaviors.  So, prior to the end of class, I took a few minutes to have students self-assess their ability to coexist and create a goal for the next group project work day.  This provided the students with the opportunity to think about what went well and the struggles they faced and how to solve some of these problems next time.  What did they learn today?  Then, I had conversations with each of the students regarding their reflection.  Most of the boys were very honest and self-aware.  They know what they need to do to improve and be more productive and effective group members.

Teamwork is not a skill that can be introduced once and then assessed.  It needs to be practiced again and again in a supportive environment.  Teaching effective coexistence isn’t easy and requires perseverance, but when done well, will forever help the students become responsible global citizens.

The Power of 1-on-1 Student Conferences

I used to sit in the back of the classroom so that teachers would never call on me.  Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that totally worked, especially in my public school.  The teachers didn’t seem to really care.  They seemed to only be in it for the paycheck back then.  Or, at least that’s what it felt like.

Having been bullied in elementary school with no recourse from the school or teachers, I carry a bit of disdain for some of my early elementary school teachers.  They didn’t try to help me or step in and prevent me from being teased.  So, I tried to hide from my peers and the teachers.  Sitting in the back of the room allowed me to do this, until my vision became an issue.  I almost failed the fourth grade because I couldn’t see the blackboard and always wrote down the wrong thing.  However, this didn’t change how I acted in class or where I sat, I just got glasses.  I tried to avoid contact with the teacher as much as possible.  My teachers seemed totally fine with this as well.  I don’t remember ever having to chat with my teachers prior to sixth grade.  I just coasted by.  Those first seven years of school prior to fifth grade, I had to go to transition following Kindergarten, were not memorable or happy times.  I was like an invisible child back then.  No one saw me for who I was and I was okay with that.

Then came sixth grade.  I had an English teacher who cared about me.  She wanted me to like reading and writing and brought out the best in me.  It started with workshop conferences.  We would meet once a week to discuss my reading and writing.  It was a magical time.  I had Mrs. Lacombe all to myself.  It was great.  I could ask her anything and talk to her about everything.  I felt special for the first time in my academic life.  Those conferences inspired me to enjoy school and want to do something more with my life than just be.  I wanted to be someone.

In Humanities class yesterday, we had our weekly Reader’s Workshop double block.  We began the class with a mini-lesson regarding the reading strategy of Back-Up and Re-Read.  We used our class read-aloud text Seedfolk by Paul Fleischman as our mentor and model text for the lesson.  Following that, the boys moved into their reading time.  Some of the boys chose to read at their tables while the others read in our reading nook area.  They had a full 40 minutes to sit and enjoy their books.  During this time, my co-teacher and I conferenced with our small reading groups.  I had the chance to conference with all five of my boys in class.  It was phenomenal.

These conferences gave me a chance to check-in with the student.  How’s it going?  How was your weekend?  I engaged them in a personal discussion before we even began talking about reading.  These weekly meetings are crucial in building respect and rapport as well as a safe and caring classroom community.  I then get into the heart of the conference.  I asked the student about their current reading book.  What page are you on?  What’s happening?  Do you like it?  I then had the students read aloud to me from their book so that I could gauge their fluency.  I followed that up with some comprehension questions to see where they are at in that area.  While we don’t always do this next part, we sometimes take the opportunity to share grades with the students individually so that we can provide them meaningful feedback regarding their progress in the class.  Yesterday, I shared the grade the students received on the current events discussion that took place in class on Saturday.  I gave them feedback along with their grade.  I also made suggestions for how they could improve for when they are assessed regarding this same objective again.  I wrapped up the conferences by allowing the students to ask me any questions they had.  I then sent them back to their reading.  Each conference only took about 5-8 minutes, but they were vital and important minutes for both the student and me.  It’s all about relationship building.

These one-on-one conferences allow me to be sure the student is emotionally feeling well.  They also give the student a chance to share things with me that they don’t feel comfortable sharing in front of their peers.  Some students will occasionally tell me about how another student is mistreating them.  They might also share insight regarding their roommate situation.  The chats help the students feel safe and cared for.

The conferences also allow me to help the students grow and develop as readers.  I can ask them questions and check their reading skills weekly to be sure they are progressing.  I assign some of the students weekly goals to work on.  This gives them a focus for their reading and allows me to challenge and support them appropriately.  In one conference yesterday, a student explained to me that he had finally found a just-right book for himself.  He was very happy.  This is great.  Luckily, I had a chance to praise and support that international student as he grows as an English Language Learner.

Despite the brevity of these conferences, I worry that I would not be able to build such strong relationships with my students without these weekly meetings.  The classroom community is formed around the respect and closeness that we share as teachers and students.  I know my boys on very different levels because of these weekly meetings.  They pack a lot of power.  I hope that my students feel the same way.  I hope that this sixth grade year is a transformational one for them like it was for me.  It’s all about making connections and allowing the boys to feel heard.

Engaging Students in a Current Events Discussion

Growing up, my parents subscribed to the local newspaper in my town.  So, every morning, I had something to read while I enjoyed a tasty breakfast of Lucky Charms and orange Juice.  In high school, this habit helped me stay on top of current events in my world.  I knew a little about what was happening outside of my sphere of influence.  This made me more empathetic to others and self-aware of the world.  I was interested in politics and cared about what happened in the world.  While I don’t read the newspaper every day anymore, I do try to stay abreast of news happening around the world.  It allows me to facilitate discussions amongst my colleagues and students, as well as be informed.

My students, on the other side of the spectrum, care very little about current events and the world around them.  They are still so self-absorbed that if it doesn’t directly affect them, they don’t seem to care.  My goal as their teacher is to change that.  I need to prepare them to live meaningful lives in a global society.  Part of this means being aware of the world around them.  So, each week in Humanities class, we discuss current events.  The students read about various, engaging current events for homework and then we have different types of discussions about what they learned in class the next day.  While many of the boys read about topics that interest them, they sometimes miss the big subjects or events.  So, to be sure they cover what we feel they need to know and be aware of, we, as their teachers, also discuss one or two events as a whole class.

Over the years, we’ve tried different ways to engage the students in discussions about current events.  We’ve tried the whole class discussion model, which works for some but not all of the students.  Plus, staying focused for 30 minutes in a whole group setting is quite challenging, even for adults.  So, we try to keep the whole class discussion to no more than 10 minutes in length.  Then we tried having them meet in small groups to discuss pre-selected current event topics.  This can work if all of the participants are focused and interested.  That’s not always the case.  So then we tried providing the students a broad guiding question to discuss in small groups.  For example, how does your current event affect the world around us?  This seemed to foster better conversations, but was by no means the perfect solution.  Is there a better way to engage the students in a discussion regarding current events?

In Humanities class yesterday, we tried something a bit different.  We had the students share what they learned from reading about current events the previous night with their table partner.  This kept most of the students focused.  We had this go on for about five minutes.  Then, we brought them back together as a whole group and generated a list of possible small group discussion topics.  The boys created three groups.  We then had the students split into one of the three groups.  They could choose which one they went to.  Most of the groups struggled to stay on task.  One group was composed of two students, both of whom had not read about the topic but were interested in it.  So, they hypothesized about the topic.  This lead to them acting out epic battle scenes.  Clearly, not effective, albeit fun for them.  The other two groups included conversations and discussions lead by only two of the group members.  The other students sat, doing nothing.  Were they even listening?  They certainly didn’t seem engaged.  So, after about eight minutes, we brought the class back together and discussed noticings.  What did you see happen in your group?  Was it productive?  One student pointed out some of the flaws he saw in his group while another student raved about how much he liked the discussion group he was in.  My co-teacher and I provided the students with feedback on what we noticed to help them learn from their mistakes and improve for next weekend.

While this lesson was certainly not a disaster, it made us realize that we need to rethink how we discuss current events in class.  There are clearly more effective ways to do this.  What about giving the students one of three articles to read on Friday night and then break them up into groups based on the current event they read about?  This would give them a chance to be educated on the topic they are discussing.  It would also give them a shared text from which to pull.  I like this idea.  Or, what about giving them a news focus each week.  Next week they could read about national news from America.  Then we could have a full class discussion on the state of affairs in America.  We could even break up into smaller groups based on subtopics such as politics, government, military, etc.  This too is a great idea.  Wow, I’m full of brilliant ideas today.  It must be the sun and tasty coffee I’m drinking.  So, I have some fodder for next week.  I’ll bring my new ideas to the discussion table with my co-teacher and see what we come up with for next Saturday.  I’m excited about the prospects.  Our students need to be aware of what’s going on in the world outside our little school bubble.  But, doing it in an engaging manner is vital to the weight and value it carries  for our students.

The Language Conundrum

In college I needed to take a full year of a language per the requirements of my English/Elementary Education major.  In high school I had taken several years of Spanish and so I said, “Spanish it shall be.”  My first semester went well.  It was an introductory course and so it was rather easy.  The teacher spoke mostly in English and translated well when she spoke in Spanish.  This isn’t too bad, I thought.  Then came the second semester.  From day one, the teacher spoke nothing but Spanish in the class.  Oh man.  It was quite challenging, but I learned a lot in that class because I needed to.  The full immersion program worked well for me.  I needed to learn the language to survive.

At my school, we have several different languages and nationalities represented. This means that we have six students in the sixth grade whose native language is not English.  As a school, our stance is, one of the reasons you are here is to learn and master the English language and so during the academic day, English is the only language spoken with the exception of the World Language classes.  This works for us.  It can be challenging for our boys though.  The start of the year is particularly difficult because some of our students have very limited English skills.  However, with more practice and being reminded to speak English throughout the academic day, they make great strides over the course of one year.

Now, one interesting caveat to all this is that some faculty members at my school try to push the use of English all the time.  We used to have a rule, “Common space, common language.”  However, over the years, this saying was abused by the students quite a bit and lost its power, which is why we’ve changed to the method mentioned above.  But, like all changes, residue from the past still lingers.  So now, some teachers try to hold the English standard all of the time, even when students are not in a common space.  Why can’t they speak their native language when it’s just a group of students who all speak the same language?  Why do we have to force English upon them all the time.  It’s hard enough to think in English during the academic day, don’t they deserve a break?  Some teachers think not.

Our ELL students need a break from English every once in awhile.  They need to be able to speak with their friends who speak the same language.  It helps them feel comfortable and safe.  It must be very challenging to be in a foreign country having to speak a new language all day long.  Taking a few minutes off each day to speak in their native language will not hurt their English language acquisition.  As a school, we need to embrace the differences while also helping these boys grow and develop.  Yes, during the academic day, they need to use English to grow and develop as learners.  However, during their free time or transition times, they should be able to speak in their native language.  For me, it’s about empathy.  If I were in their shoes, I would want a taste of safety and freedom every once in awhile too.  It’s hard work listening, thinking, and speaking in a language that is not your first language.

So, what’s the solution?  What’s the best way to address the language conundrum?  Do we allow faculty members to police the issue as they see fit or do we need to all get on board?  If we all need to be on the same page, what is that page?  Do we need to push English all the time or just during the academic day?  Is there one solution that might work better than others?  As a school, we wrestle with this each new year.  On the playing fields, can the students speak in their native language?  What about in the dining hall?  What’s right and what’s best for the students are two different things, which need to be considered when addressing the language issue.

Telling it Like it Is: The Secret to Success in the Classroom?

Being a very positive person, I’ve struggled at times, providing negative information or bad news.  It has always been a challenge for me because I didn’t want to upset others.  In college, I stayed with a girl much longer than I should have because I didn’t want to break up with her.  I was worried about upsetting her.  I like to keep things happy and positive.  I don’t like to make people sad.  Sometimes this meant hiding the truth or telling little white lies.  While I wasn’t proud of these choices, I was more worried about making someone angry or mad.  Only until recently have I realized that I need to be honest.  Telling people how I really feel is quite freeing.  While it does sometimes make people upset, it’s better than pretending that everything is okay.

In the classroom, I’ve tried to incorporate this honesty strategy when working with my students.  While I don’t want to negatively impact their self-esteem, I also don’t want them to think that they are awesome at everything.  In this age of “here’s your trophy for just showing up,” students need to realize that they have work to do.  They are not perfect and achieving their goals comes at a cost.  So, when a student turns in a piece of writing that does not meet the graded objectives, I will first find one positive thing to say before getting to all the areas in need of improvement and then I will wrap up with a positive comment.  This way I’m giving them the truth in a compassionate manner.  This method usually works and motivates the students to revise their piece and thus, grow as a writer.

The honest approach to individual students also works quite well when dealing with social issues within the class community.  Following Wednesday’s nitpicky issues amongst the students, I talked to the boys yesterday during our Team Time block.  I was very direct with them.  I said, “While many of you have been putting forth great effort and growing as students and members of our community, a few of you have not.  Some of you have been arguing about very petty issues.  Instead of dealing with those issues, you are letting them infringe upon how you act in the classroom.  You need to tell people how you feel.  Remember to use I-Statements.  I feel frustrated when you do this, please stop.  If you don’t use your words to communicate how you feel, the anger and frustration will build up inside of you and turn to anxiety.  When that happens, your brain releases the chemical cortisol which prevents the brain from properly functioning.  It reverts back to its innate reactionary state of fight or flight.  Thus, you will not learn or be able to focus on what is going on in the class.  So, if you talk about how you feel and don’t keep your emotions inside, you will be able to learn and grow in the sixth grade this year.”  This seemed to help because the rest of the day went smoothly.  The boys coexisted effectively and talked to each other about their feelings and emotions.  It was quite amazing.

By not camouflaging the problems in the classroom, the students are able to understand what the issues are and how to solve them.  If I had ignored this lack of peer communication that took place in class on Wednesday, would Thursday have gone as well?  Perhaps, but there’s a good chance that it would not have gone as well.  When the students don’t know what the expectation is or how to solve their own problems, they struggle to move beyond what is in front of them.  By telling the students, honestly, what the problems are and how to fix them, they are able to tangibly see what is wrong and fix it.  In this world of political correctness, we sometimes feel as though we need to tiptoe around social issues because we might upset or offend someone.  That doesn’t work.  We can’t pretend everything’s okay when it’s not.  Allowing students to see their mistakes and errors allows them to figure out how to correct them next time so that history doesn’t repeat itself.  As teachers, we can’t hide the truth.  We need to tell it like it is.  If a student is being a bully, we need to call him out on it, privately of course.  If our students are making poor choices, we need to address the class and tell them what we see so that they can rectify the situation.  We can’t be afraid of upsetting the students or the students will never learn.  It’s not us vs. them.  It’s us as one.  We need to function as one unit.  And that’s the secret to success in the classroom.  Ssshhh, don’t tell anyone.

The Honeymoon Phase is Over in the Classroom

While driving to Prince Edward Island in Canada for our honeymoon, our car began making strange noises and sputtering quite a bit.  It finally became difficult to drive.  It turned out that the transmission was shot.  So, we had to cancel our honeymoon to have the car fixed.  For my wife and I, our honeymoon phase never happened, or did it never end?  In the classroom each year, there is a phase of calm and serenity that lasts anywhere from a day to a few weeks.  This is the time of the year when the students try to figure out what they can and can’t do.  They are nice and kind to each other and the teacher.  They don’t generally test the boundaries during this period.  It’s a really awesome time for teachers.  But, we know what follows and so we cautiously wait for the ball to drop and the storm to arrive.

Today marked the end of the sixth grade honeymoon phase.  The boys began to show their true colors today.  They started to realize how much they dislike some of their peers.  They weren’t afraid to shout out or share their negative feelings.  Today, the peace ended, and reality set in.  Not everything smells like roses and camp fires.

During Humanities class, we saw the storm begin to take form.  Two students sitting next to each other at a table, continued to bicker with each other during the lesson.  One student turned to the other and said, “Stop it!” several times.  The other student moved his chair away from that student and began taking off his shoes and playing with them.  This too upset that other student who continued to share his frustrations aloud while my co-teacher spoke.  Then, two other students began to join in on the twister of confusion.  One student kept saying, “Stop!” to his table partner.  Then, the other student raised his hand and called me over during the lesson.  He refused to use words and just pointed to his partner’s chair.  Apparently it was too close to his.  Really?  That’s a big deal?  What about the starving people around the world?  What about the wars and abuses people are facing everywhere?  Aren’t those the big issues over which we should complain?  No, today, in the classroom it was about a chair that was about to cross a line.  This bickering continued throughout the class.

While both groups of students were addressed and the issues dealt with, this little nit picky stuff is a sure sign that the honeymoon has ended.  After a month of beautiful weather, ironically, it rained today, perhaps to signify the beginning of the normal school year.  Ohh, how I miss the honeymoon stage of the academic year.  For a week or so, I believed I had the perfect class.  While perfection doesn’t exist, it’s nice to think that things are going smoothly for at least a little while.  But not anymore.  Now begins the challenging process of teaching the boys how to appropriately coexist.

Trying Something New Requires Attention

This summer, I borrowed my father’s ladder to do some painting at my house.  I had never used his ladder before and was unfamiliar with how it worked.  While I thought I knew how to use it, I really didn’t  So, instead of practicing with it before actually using it, I just got right to work.  I leaned it up against the side of my house, put it up to the height I needed, and started climbing up.  Apparently, something wasn’t right, shockingly, and the next thing I know the ladder is falling down and tipping over with me on it.  I go tumbling down and bruise my legs up real good.  It hurt quite a bit, but I did learn a lesson that day; trying something new requires attention in order for success to come about.

Today in STEM class, I tried a new way to close the work period regarding the Synthesis Group Project portion of the Astronomy Unit.  After they finished working, I had the students meet in their groups and self assess their work based on three of the Habits of Learning: Coexistence, Critical Thinking, and Communication.  They needed to discuss the three skills with their group members and then give their group a grade out of four based on the objective.  I wanted them to reflect on their teamwork today in class.

As they started working, valid discussions were being had.  Then, I needed to leave the classroom to speak with an administrator regarding a student.  After leaving the room, things went quite awry.  The students began bickering and arguing with each other.  It was loud and unproductively noisy.  The students ended up leaving for lunch frustrated and wanting closure.  While the quick Exit Ticket activity began well, because I had to leave the room and had not prepared the students for this interruption, things ended poorly.  My hands were tied when the administrator came to speak with me; I couldn’t say no.

So, what should I have done?  Should I have told the administrator, “I’m finishing up a lesson, can I meet with you after class?”  Would he have accepted that request?  Or should I have told the students, “Gentlemen, change of plans.  Meet with your group and make a goal for the next group project work day.  What do you hope to accomplish.  Write your goal on a sticky note, place it on my desk, and then head to lunch.”  Would that have worked?  Would it have prevented the chaos that ensued?

Trying new things is risky and requires preparation and attention, which I couldn’t give today.  Sometimes things happen that are beyond our control.  I couldn’t have done much to change the outcome of today’s lesson.  But, it did provide me with some insight: Don’t throw together something new last minute; plan it out first.

Assessing Students’ Ability to Follow Directions

I find directions to be tedious and unnecessary.  When crafting furniture purchased from IKEA, I can’t understand the limited directions provided and so I usually figure out how to construct the piece on my own.  This of course generally results in me incorrectly assembling it.  Sometimes, the directions are too specific or confusing and so I end up choosing one step to start with instead of trying to problem solve and critically analyze the instructions.  I almost never follow all of the steps for instructions when building something as step one seems like a waste of time: Inspect all parts to be sure you have all necessary materials.  While this is clearly a critical step, I always skip it.  This of course has lead me to build something and then find that I’m missing a part.  That’s very frustrating.  You think that I would have learned by now the importance of following directions.  But no, I haven’t.  I still skip steps, ignore directions, and generally do my own thing when building something store bought.  I should really practice what I preach in the classroom.

In the sixth grade, we emphasize the importance of following directions.  However, we don’t grade or assess our students on this objective.  After today’s quick Exit Ticket activity in STEM Class, I’m beginning to rethink my stance on that.  I purposely crafted an assessment regarding inequalities with one specific instruction: When finished, turn into the teacher and use the app Sumdog on your iPad.  Simple enough directions.  I did not explain how to complete the assessment, but instead reminded the boys of the importance of following directions.  I said, “Be sure to closely read and follow the directions.”  Three quarters of the students did not read the instructions and didn’t know what to do when they finished.  I had to remind them all to read the directions.  This was very frustrating.

I’ve also found that the students are not reading and following directions regarding their assigned math unit either.  Instead of just reading and discussing with a partner the practice questions in each lesson, they are completing all of the sample questions in their Math Notebook.  This is wasting their time and preventing them from progressing through the unit.  This too is very frustrating as I remind them every day to read and follow the directions on their Haiku page.

I’ve tried to emphasize the importance of reading and following directions to no avail.  I modelled the process once in class.  This didn’t seem to help.  So, I feel as though I have only one option remaining to hit home the purpose of directions: I will add the objective of effectively following directions to the next assessment or project and see what happens.  Will they more carefully complete the work because they know they are being graded on following the directions?  Or will grading them on this new objective not make any difference in the outcome?  At this point, I’m willing to try anything.