Sometimes You Just Gotta Let ‘Em Complain a Little

“If you ain’t got nothin’ good to say, don’t say anything at all,” is one of the oldest rules in the book on how to be a kind and compassionate person.  At a young age, children are taught to keep their negative thoughts and emotions bottled up inside.  “Don’t say mean things.”  “Don’t say something that might hurt someone else’s feelings.”  Due to this culture of political correctness, children grow up unaware of how to deal with negative emotions, as they have kept them bottled up inside for so long.  Schools around the globe teach children to share only positive, happy thoughts with one another, while repressing any negative thoughts or feelings.  This, as we know now due to the numerous studies and reports being done on children around the globe, leads to an increase in the suicide rate, depression, homicide rate, and abuse.  If children are never taught how to navigate the rolling waves of emotions that sweep over them on a regular basis, they will struggle transforming into fully-functioning adults.  We need to provide children outlets for ALL of their emotions while teaching them how to manage both positive and negative feelings.  It’s perfectly normal to feel sad, mad, or upset, and we need children around the world to know that.  It’s our duty as adults to help teach children how to manage and handle all types of emotions.  What do you do if a peer in your class makes you angry?  What should you say if you are mad at someone?  What’s the right way to deal with the flood of emotions children feel on a daily basis?

As a teacher, I’ve made it a goal and mission of mine to help my students learn to be comfortable feeling and expressing, appropriately, all of the emotions they experience.  I want my students to learn how to tell someone that what they are doing is making them very angry.  I help my students learn to address all of their emotions.  At the start of a new school year, this is messy and can be and feel very chaotic as the students are learning how to express themselves.  For many of them, this is their first go-round of this type of activity, as they were unable to share their true feelings at their past schools.  I often find myself stopping class to help teach the boys how to deal with how they are feeling.  “It seems like you are really upset right now.  That must be very frustrating for you.  How are you feeling?”  Their response to this question allows me to do some teaching in the moment.  “Instead of cursing at your classmate when you are upset with him because he accidentally pushed you, you should tell him how you are feeling.  ‘I feel very angry right now because you pushed me.'”  These short, impromptu mini-lessons allow me the opportunity to help students learn how to interact with their peers in meaningful ways as they learn how to appropriately deal with positive and negative emotions.  I don’t ever want my students to feel like they need to bottle up their feelings or keep them hidden inside.  It’s completely normal to feel upset or mad, and I want them to learn how to deal with those types of feelings as they grow and develop throughout the year.

As most students that I work with come from schools, countries, and places that often prevent them from expressing negative emotions or feelings, this process takes a while to get through as a whole class.  However, occasionally, I am able to work with a student who comes from a place, environment, or family that have embraced feelings and emotions.  These students are fun to work with because they wear their feelings on their sleeve and aren’t afraid to tell it like it is.  “I hate this class.”  “You smell bad.”  “This is stupid.”  These students have learned how to share their feelings already.  My duty is to help these students learn how to share their feelings and emotions in appropriate ways.  “Instead of saying this is stupid, is there a more compassionate way you could express your frustration and anger right now?”  These students learn how to control the words they use when sharing their feelings so that they will be heard.  If a student calls someone else stupid, everything else that comes after the word stupid will not be heard, as it’s a trigger word.  Instead, I help my students learn to express their actual feelings and emotions.  “I feel angry right now because you are not understanding what I am saying even though I am using words that I think should help you understand me.”  This way, that other student is able to hear what that one student is saying and begin to change his behavior so suit the situation.

What I truly enjoy about these students who wear their emotions on their sleeves is their brutal honesty.  “I hate that class because it is stupid.  I don’t understand why we just tell stories all period.  That isn’t teaching me anything.”  If I ever want honest feedback with no filters, I will ask the one emotionally open student in my class questions.  These students also struggle to contain their negative thoughts and feelings, which can make for some interesting situations.  I have a student from Europe in my class this year and when we started our unit on Africa, he asked, “My mom is paying thousands of dollars to send me here to learn about America.  Why are we learning about Africa?  That makes no sense to me.”  At first, I was taken aback by this comment, but addressed his question in a meaningful manner.  As we got into the unit, he was one of the hardest workers in the class during the project phase because he enjoyed his topic so much.  As we debriefed the unit, he had clearly learned much.  “I loved this unit and it taught me a lot about a part of the world I didn’t know much about.  It changed my perspective a lot.  I loved the project too.  That was so much fun dressing up in costume.”  It was at this moment that I realized, that this student, like many with whom I have worked with in the past, just need to be allowed to share their thoughts and feelings in order to process the influx of new information.  By allowing students like this one to share his true feelings, negative or otherwise, he is able to then open his mind to new information.

Case and point, today’s study skills class.  The students needed to reflect, in writing, on their academic goals and make a plan for what they will do to keep working towards the goals they have set for themselves.  This one honest student asked, “Why do we have to do this?  It is stupid.  I already made my goals.  Why do I need to write about how it’s going?”  I listened as he spoke and provided him with a brief response on the power of self-awareness and ownership.  I then walked away and allowed him to get to work.  Walking by him a few minutes later, he was hard at work, focused on reflecting on his progress in working towards his goals.  He even asked me for feedback when he finished.  Amazing.  So, even though this student seems angry and confused at first, he just needs the time and opportunity to share his feelings aloud in order to process what he needs to do.  I’m so glad that I came to this realization, because I had started thinking that he was just a negative individual.  Now I see that he just has a different way of working and solving problems.  Awesome sauce.  Sometimes, you just gotta’ let ’em complain a little.

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Reflections on My Time as a Teacher

16 days.  18 class periods.  Until my time at my current school comes to a close.  Giddy with excitement, I sit in my favorite spot in the classroom in one of the cool rocking chairs I picked out a few years ago.  It’s hard to believe that 15 years of service and teaching have come and gone.  I’ve been at this one school for 15 years.  That’s a long time, filled with numerous challenges, heartbreaks, and memories that I will forever treasure.  This school and my students are permanently ingrained within me like a tattoo.  Even though I’m moving onto a new school, a new adventure, my time at this school will not be forgotten.  Every new teaching decision I make will be indirectly influenced by my past at this school.  Who I am as a teacher is because of this school and how it allowed me to grow and develop.  Reflecting on my time, I feel moved to craft my teaching obituary.  A little dark, yes, but fitting, because as in life, all things are cyclical.  What goes around, comes around.

The Teaching Obituary of Mr. Holt

As the sun is about to set on Mr. Holt’s teaching career at this fine educational institution, we feel it prudent to reflect on his many years of service.  In his 15 years of teaching and employment…

  • He consumed more than 5,000 tasty meals in our Dining Commons, with only a few repeats.  Who doesn’t love Fried Egg Mondays?  Sadly though, he can never again eat meatballs due to the fiasco of 2008.  A person can only vomit so much meat.
  • He missed only a handful of teaching days due to illness.  Well, perhaps they weren’t all sick days.  He was spotted at the Aquatic Center with his family on one of those “sick” days.  Interesting.
  • He dripped only a few drops of blood onto our hallowed grounds.  Actually, it was onto the asphalt in front of one of our dormitories.  You see, it was a hot day in July when he came barreling out of his dorm to speak with his wife, who worked at our school at the time, and failed to recall that a chain fence lined the pathway leading out of the dorm.  He tripped over the chain and smacked his head against the asphalt path.  It was a kiss he will forever remember, mostly because of the stitches and scar.  Fortunately, his blood washed away with the first hard rain that week.
  • He plunged over 25 toilets, although most of them were repeats.  Who knew that middle school boys could produce that much fecal waste?  He even needed to use a duty knife on one occasion.
  • He wrote a textbook that was used in a course that became what we now call PEAKS class.  It took him thousands of hours over an entire school year to craft this brilliant masterpiece that is now defunct and used by many faculty members as a paperweight or door stop.
  • He transformed the boring Birthday Poems, once recited by a former teacher, into works of art that rivaled the poems of Charles Bukowski.  Sadly, a former headmaster thought the lyrical verses were a bit too sophisticated for our clientele and replaced them with a bland and unoriginal birthday jingle that is sung off-key at least three times a week.  Oh the humanity.
  • He taught over 1,000 students, which means that our world is now filled with people who only learned 25% of the truth regarding history, English, math, science, and social studies.  As his wife often told us, believe only 25% of what Mr. Holt tells you.  He certainly is quite the storyteller.

His eccentric sense of humor and demure clothing choices will not soon be forgotten.  You see, Mr. Holt is known for his wit, mis-matched socks, music trivia, and suspenders.  He is a man of many layers, much like an onion or one of those chocolate oranges people often give to others when everything else is sold out for the holidays.  His memories and time here on the Point will be treasured forever more, like that side-view mirror he took off of Mr. Hart’s car when he tried to drive one of our activity vehicles down a narrow road on campus during his first year of teaching.


Okay, so I’ll admit that I did have some fun crafting that one, but I only wrote the truth.  I’m not one for goodbyes; just ask all of the “friends” I’ve not spoken to since they left this wonderful school.  While I do like a good cry, as my wife will attest to when we watch any movie or commercial on the Hallmark Channel.  I don’t know how they do it, but man, they make amazing movies that tug at the ol’ heart strings like nobodies business.  Anyway, I also wanted to give my emotions a chance to speak and reflect on my time at this place.  So, here is my more serious and dramatic goodbye written in verse…

My Ode to Cardigan

Straight out of college, Dr. Dewar took a chance on me,

and for that, I am forever grateful

because the teacher I am today

is because of my time here.

 

I was like a piece of fresh wood dropped from

a truck onto the dirt-laden road during my first year here.

I couldn’t manage a class of students,

and certainly couldn’t teach Spanish.

But, I tried real hard and persevered daily,

and just like that piece of wood rolling on the ground,

I found my place here on the Point,

until I left;

but not for good, you see,

this place has a way of getting its claws

stuck into your heart and soul

real deep-like.

 

After a two-year hiatus, I returned to

the green, rolling hills of Canaan, NH

with my wife, to continue my teaching career.

My time away taught me some valuable lessons

that I carried into my classroom here.

I held my students to the highest expectations

and put up with no gruff or disrespect.

I commanded my class like a captain commands

his dingy in the mighty ocean,

very carefully.

 

Since my return, I’ve bopped around departments

and grades, teaching English, study skills,

ESL, invention class, history, science, and math.

My favorite will always be sixth grade.

I love working with those chatter box sponges.

They love learning as much as I love donuts.

They are curious and compassionate

and challenge me daily.

They keep me young at heart,

despite the many grey hairs littering my beard.

 

Like any adventure, my time here

has been filled with all sorts of memories.

 

I’ve said goodbye to a former student

as he laid, dead on a hospital bed.

I’ve waved goodbye to students as

they parted ways with the school

due to their poor choices.

I’ve seen many amazing teachers

and people come and go over the years.

While I’m no good at staying in touch

with people, they have all become

a part of me, somehow.

I make sure that my students

keep their shirts entirely tucked in,

just like the Doctor would have wanted.

 

As I settle into my final weeks here

at this amazing school,

I am saddened.

I love this place.

I love teaching sixth grade.

But, like Robert Frost reminds us,

“how way leads on to way,”

it’s time for me to take that other path

and see what happens, and

who knows, maybe those claws

won’t ever retract and I’ll be coming

back to Cougar-ville soon.

For now though, I must say

so long and thanks for giving

a strange looking guy like me a chance,

when other schools would not.

While my blood may look red

as it comes in contact with oxygen,

know that inside, it’s green and white.


That was hard.  I almost cried a few times writing that.  While I’m super excited for the next challenge and adventure at my new school, it’s going to be difficult to say goodbye to all of my memories here.  15 years is a very long time.  This place is all I’ve known.  My son grew up here.  I grew into a great teacher here.  This school is my life, and will always hold a special place in my heart.  But, alas, it’s time to move on; it’s time to make new memories and forge new relationships at my new school.  Luckily though, I still have a few days left here at my old school to embrace all of what makes this place so special.

“To Cardigan, our favored school,

by nature’s gift benign…”

Understanding that Students Learn in Many Different Ways

I am very much a haptic, hands-on learner.  I need to try out something in order to learn it.  I don’t process information auditorily very well at all, unless I write it down.  I need to be doing in order to learn.  I know that about myself as a learner and student.  I don’t learn well by watching others perform a task.  I need to take each new skill out for a test ride before I can add it to my repertoire of skills learned.  That’s how I learn best, but it’s not how everyone learns best.  What helps me learn may actually hinder other people from learning, as everyone learns differently.  What works for one student or person, may not work for someone else.  These differences are what make the world go ’round.  Imagine a world in which everyone learned the same way.  How boring would that be?  I love the challenge of finding just the right way to empower students to become effective learners and students.  This aspect of teaching and education is like putting together a puzzle.  Until you actually study what the puzzle should look in its finished state, you will never be able to see how the pieces fit together.  Supporting students to find out how they learn best requires the same process.  You need to really know the students before you can help them determine what method of learning will best support them.  Understanding that students learn in many different ways is crucial to being an effective and great teacher.

Today’s Humanities class provided me with yet another example of how important it is to really know and understand my students before drawing conclusions or making hypotheses about their ability to meet or exceed the learning objectives.  Despite our best intentions, sometimes, even teachers make mistakes.  Thus was the case for me in the sixth grade classroom today.  While I thought I had the full picture regarding a student’s capabilities, I was mistaken.  I made a mental judgement call about a student’s ability to meet a learning objective before I truly had the whole story.  Like some of my students, I utilized only one, single story to form my opinion.  Although I teach my students about the danger of a single story or viewing through world through only one lense or perspective, I did just that in class today.  Time for me to eat some humble pie and swallow it down with a dose of my own medicine.

In class today, we read and discussed the play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose.  The students read their parts aloud, acting their their lines at points.  It was super fun.  They seemed to be thoroughly engaged throughout the class.  I paused, periodically, throughout the reading to discuss some big ideas, as I want to prepare my students to be able to analyze literature using a critical and creative perspective.  We talked about how the eighth juror is beginning to transform and unravel a bit.  We also spoke about what the words we read tell us about the story and characters.  How can one word say so much?  We dug into that idea a bit today in class.  It was quite exciting.  Towards the end of class, I provided the students with the opportunity to add notes to their worksheet packet on the twelve jurors from the play.  I had volunteers share what they had written in their packets regarding some of the jurors, while other students added details and thoughts to their packets.  Most everyone jumped at the opportunity to be able to work towards exceeding the graded objective of analyzing literature.  As the students worked, I observed.  I looked at what they had written in their packets.  One student had very little written in his packet regarding the jury members.  Even after listening to our discussion on personality traits we know about each member of the jury, he didn’t seem to add much to his packet.  This concerned me.  Does he know what’s going on?  Is he able to analyze the play?  Will he be prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English?  I started to wonder about this student’s ability to think critically.  I wasn’t sure, in the moment, if he could meet this objective.  What do I do?

As I began forming an opinion about this student’s ability to meet a graded objective, the students completed an Exit Ticket assessment on a big idea.  The students needed to explain what the eighth juror is trying to prove to the other members of the jury and why he is doing that.  Following class, I read through the assessments.  Every student seemed to be able to at least meet the objective of being able to analyze a text in written form.  This provided me with much relief, as I was concerned about a few other students during class as well.  I then happened upon this one, particular student’s Exit Ticket, remembering the hypothesis I had made regarding his inability to analyze literature.  Boy, was I wrong.  His response was thorough and detailed and included an example to support his claim.  Wow!  So, even though this student isn’t completely adept at taking detailed notes in a worksheet packet during a class discussion, he is able to think critically about a text when there are no distractions in the room.  What I thought was the truth, turned out to be a misguided and uninformed falsity about this one student.  Just because this student, currently, lacks the executive functioning skills to listen to a discussion and record notes, in his own words, doesn’t mean that he is incapable of analyzing literature on his own, without distractions.  Instead of drawing conclusions about this student, I should have taken the time to genuinely analyze his actions and abilities.

To develop a culture of transparency and honesty amongst my students, I like to model good behavior.  So, after classes today, I met with this student and shared my inaccurate assessment of his ability to analyze literature.  I apologized for my biased opinion, even though it was completely internal and never shared aloud with anyone.  I want him to see how actions do sometimes influence our thoughts and lead to opinions being formed.  He listened and seemed to understand how my false opinion formed.  He then shared with me that it is difficult for him to take notes during class with so many distractions.  He is going to add to his notes packet for homework tonight.  Not only did I have a chance to share my thoughts with this student, but he was also able to shed some light on why his packet seemed so vacant.

Reflection allows for amazing things to happen.  If I hadn’t stopped to think about this one student and the opinions I was forming of his academic abilities, I never would have thought to speak with him about the issue that led me to think falsely of him.  Reflection is a powerful tool, and one that not enough people wield.  Imagine how much greater the world could be, if everyone took five to ten minutes at the end of each day to reflect and think about the pluses and minuses of their daily experiences.  The crime rate might drop, the divorce rate could dip, and the happiness factor would increase exponentially.  That sounds like a pretty awesome world in which I would love to live.  So, help me out world, and start reflecting today so that tomorrow we will be happy.

 

Reflections on the 2016-2017 Academic Year

It’s hard to believe that I have reached the end of yet another academic year.  How did that happen?  I made it through the late and harsh New England winter that pounded us with snow right on through to May.  I survived our numerous overnight field trips and fun activities.  I survived a new co-teacher.  And I made it through all of this with only one or two extra gray hairs sprinkled into my beard.  Where did the time go?  I know that seems like a huge cliche, but this year seemed to fly by faster than normal.  I guess they were right when they said that the good times can’t last forever.

And good times they were this year in the sixth grade.  My co-teacher and I were so lucky to have such an amazing class of fine young men.  They were kind, compassionate, creative, intelligent, curious, and hardworking students.  While it is always hard to say goodbye to a class at the end of a school, this year may be one of the most challenging as we were blessed with 14 amazing students.  But alas, we can’t purposefully fail them just so that we can keep them for another year, or can we?  They are ready to spread their wings and fly into the seventh grade.  We feel as though we have prepared them well.  They are open-minded, self aware, and creative boys who now know how to effectively coexist with their peers, think critically to solve problems encountered, and own their learning.  They are good to go.

Like the rain falling outside, I am flooded with nostalgia and great memories from the year:

  • The amazing science fair that took place in the sixth grade classroom during Parents’ Weekend in October of 2016.  The boys explained their projects and what they had learned to parents and faculty members as though they were college-level scientists.  I could not have been more proud in the moment.  The boys did such a phenomenal job showcasing their learning and the process involved in acquiring that learning.
  • Our field trips to the Sargent Center and Cape Cod.  Not only did the boys learn a lot about the natural world around us, they also learned how to be good teammates, community members, and friends.  This group of students was more closely bonded together than any other past group I’ve worked with at the sixth grade level.  They all seemed to really like each other and got along swimmingly.
  • The American Presidential Election Process unit we completed in Humanities class.  While I’ve always wanted to conduct a unit about the presidential election, I never have.  This academic year felt like the right time not just because of the circumstances of the election but also because this group seemed really curious and interested in learning more about the American political system.  The speeches they gave at the end of the unit were remarkable.  I was amazed at how brilliantly they spoke.  If the election had been between the two fictional candidates my students created, it would have been a much more mature and sophisticated election.
  • The Farm Program we implemented within our STEM class.  Every Friday, we traveled to a nearby working hobby farm so that the boys could learn about how our human world depends on the natural world for food and so much more.  The students had a blast learning all about life on a farm, raising and taking care of bunnies, crocheting, spinning wool, planting vegetables and flowers, and living a sustainable and environmentally friendly life.  This new program ended up being everything I had hoped it would be and so much more.  I hope my new co-teacher for next year continues with this beneficial component of our STEM curriculum.
  •  My third new co-teacher in three years.  Is it something I said?  Do I smell funny?  I’m hopeful that none of those reasons apply to why my co-teachers continue to leave me year after year.  I feel like I’m a great guy.  Well, this year I was fortunate enough to work with another wonderful co-teacher.  She is intelligent and creative and her brilliant ideas helped us to create more meaningful units and activities.  Her approach to the teaching of our health curriculum in the study skills class was amazing.  She had insightful discussions and conversations with the boys on relevant and important topics including drugs, sex, and relationships.  She wasn’t afraid to jump into difficult topics and conversations so that the students could be well-informed and educated on life in the crazy world in which we live.  It’s going to be hard to see her move onto teaching ninth grade history at my school next year, but I’m also excited to work with another co-teacher next year.  Who knows, maybe this one will stay with me for more than a year.

While my list could go on and on as many fine memories are forever imprinted within my long term memory, I also realize that I have much work to do to get ready for our final two days of class parties and activities.  Although reflection is good and useful in so many ways, so is sleep and family time.  So, off I go to finish the un-fun, paperwork portion of my role as a teacher.  Yuck!  I’d much rather be blogging.

Reflecting on Student Feedback

While I’d like to think that I know everything and have the solution to every problem encountered, I don’t.  I am a work in progress, like every human.  I am constantly changing, evolving, maturing, and growing.  Most of the big changes that I’ve made to my life generally comes from feedback or suggestions from others.  “Hey, you’re really good at helping people understand things.  You should become a teacher,” said a former teacher of mine.  Well, we all know what I did with that feedback.  It’s powerful stuff.

Some of the greatest and most effective changes I’ve made to the sixth grade program over the years stems from feedback provided by the students.  I changed my approach to teaching reading and writing based on the feedback I received from the students.  They didn’t like reading the same book altogether because many of them found my choices boring.  They wanted to read books that they chose.  So, we now utilize the workshop approach to teaching reading and writing so that the boys have options and choices.  Seeking feedback from my students has made me a better teacher over the years.  I crave their thoughts and ideas on what we do in the sixth grade because I know that my perspective is very different from theirs.  I don’t know everything.  I want to craft the most effective and enjoyable sixth grade program possible, and I feel as though asking for feedback from my students is a really easy way to do this.

Today the students completed the end of the year sixth grade survey to provide me with feedback on our sixth grade program.  I kept the questions broad for the most part so that the boys had choices and options when providing my co-teacher and I with feedback.  I made sure to emphasize how important receiving relevant and appropriate feedback is to us, in the hopes that they would put great effort into completing the form via Google Forms.  I was impressed with their responses as many of the boys seemed to really take their time in providing us with valuable feedback.  I feel as though we received some useful feedback that will allow us to develop and change the sixth grade program for the better.

Takeaways

  • The students really enjoyed our field experiences this year.  They loved leaving the classroom to learn.  Most of the boys cited our trip to Cape Cod as their favorite memory.  A few students even mentioned the bonding opportunities that were provided through these field trips.  They seemed to really enjoy spending time together.  It’s great to know that the students have noticed how we try to foster a sense of community within the class.  They see the value and importance of this aspect of our program.  That feels good.  So, while our budget will be cut for next year, forcing us to remove some of the traditional field trips we’ve done in the sixth grade for years now, we will need to be mindful of how important these community bonding opportunities are for the boys.
  • The students really treasured the freedom and choice with which our curriculum provides them.  They loved reader’s workshop and being able to choose their own books.  They enjoyed having the freedom to choose their topics for the research project we completed during the spring term in Humanities class.  They loved the STEM projects that allowed them to creatively solve problems and generate unique solutions.  Although the brain research tells us that students learn best when they are engaged and see the relevance in the learning, which is why we have developed our program accordingly, it’s always excellent to hear that it’s working and that the students truly are engaged in our classroom.  I’ll be sure to keep these components firmly rooted within the sixth grade curriculum for at least the next academic year.
  • The boys thoroughly enjoyed the Stock Market project we did in STEM class a few months back.  They seemed to like the competition component as well as learning the basics of investing and all about how the stock market works.  While I really like teaching this unit, I was surprised by how much the boys liked it.  I thought for sure that they would have liked the hands-on projects a bit more, but I was mistaken.  Perhaps they saw the relevance of the unit as I feel I did a fine job explaining the reasons why we were covering the Stock Market in STEM class.  Maybe.  Regardless of the reasons why they enjoyed it so much, I need to make sure that we include competitive projects and units in the sixth grade program next year.
  • Every student seemed to have a blast in the sixth grade this year.  They loved almost every aspect of our program and seemed to learn a lot about the world and themselves.  So many of the boys responded with something to the effect of, “Nothing needs to change because it’s already perfect.”  It feels great knowing that my co-teacher and I created a phenomenally challenging and supportive sixth grade program this year.  Although we were a bit worried about how the students would take to the program this year as we tried some new approaches and teaching strategies as well as some new content and units, it’s good to know that all of our hard work didn’t go to waste.  The boys really liked their time in the sixth grade this year.  Yah for us!

So, now the fun, yet challenging work begins.  How do we make our sixth grade program even better for next year?  Over the next three months, I’m going to take a hard look at the feedback we received from our students and try to find ways to capitalize on what they enjoyed and change what they didn’t like.  Just think, if I didn’t ask the students for feedback, I would have to deduce all of this on my own.  How do I know what my students liked and didn’t like if I don’t ask them?  Feedback is one of the most powerful tools we have as teachers; it not only makes us better teachers, but better people too.

Teaching Teachers May Not Be Easy, But it Certainly is a Ton of Fun

Thursday and Friday of this week, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the New England League of Middle Schools’ annual conference in Providence, Rhode Island.  It was a hoot.  I had so much fun learning new techniques for teaching math to students, how to effectively utilize data to enhance my teaching practices, and how to construct and implement a meaningful and relevant unit on mindfulness.  I met some amazing educators from other cities and states and enjoyed some tasty food at the Providence Place Mall.  Despite all of this awesomeness, my highlight was definitely being a presenter for one of the last sessions of the day on Friday.

I presented my session on The Power of Teacher and Student Reflection.  I was of course nervous and scared.  Will they like me?  Will I speak clearly?  Will I forget what I wanted to say?  What if the projector doesn’t work?  What if my computer breaks?  What if the Internet flakes out on me?  What if the snowstorm prevents anyone from attending my session?  So yes, I was a big ball of nerves.  The presenter before me went over her time a bit, which also stressed me out as I was worried that I wouldn’t have sufficient time to get set up for my session.  However, like I frequently tell my students, I just needed to relax, take a deep breath, and jump in feet first.  So, I did just that.

I was set up with ten minutes to spare and so I used that time to interact with the teachers who had wandered, hopefully purposefully, into my session.  I passed out some paraphernalia on my school to them and shared pieces of student and teacher reflection I had compiled and created over the course of the year.  It felt good.  Everyone seemed excited and interested in my topic.  Yah, I thought.  I was feeling pretty good, despite still being quite nervous.

As I got started, things seemed to go smoothly.  I made sure to start out by telling the teachers in attendance that I would not be offended if they left my session part way through.  “I want you to make the most of this conference.  So, if you feel like this session isn’t giving you what you had hoped it would, please leave and find a session that will help you grow as an educator.  I will not at all be offended.”  I hope this statement helped the attendees feel a little more at ease.  I then jumped right into my session.  I posed questions to the audience and stirred up some conversations early on.  I even made them laugh once or twice.  I did my thing and tried to showcase why teachers should reflect on a daily or regular basis and why we, as teachers, should help our students see the benefit and value in self-reflection.  I shared examples from this very blog as well as samples of student surveys my co-teacher and I used in the classroom.  The attendees asked some clarifying questions and seemed engaged.  As my session was drawing to a close, I gave those in attendance some options, like what we do for our students as teachers.  “As this session is almost over, feel free to leave and head home or stay and work on applying some of what we talked about today.  I’ll be here if you have any questions or would like help on anything at all.”  I wanted the teachers to feel supported but also not bound to stay and work if they needed or wanted to leave.  I then wrapped my session up with some closing remarks, reminding the teachers to complete the online survey for this session to provide me feedback that I can use to reflect upon later regarding this session.  Phew, I made it without throwing up or peeing my pants.  Yah for me! I had taught teachers how and why they should reflect and teach their students to do the same.  It felt good to finish.  I felt a true sense of accomplishment.

Several of the teachers in attendance came to me before leaving the session to thank me for my time and ideas.  “They liked me, they really, really liked me!”  It felt great.  I had helped teachers.  I kind of felt like a superhero, but not one of those famous ones like Aquaman or She-Hulk, but one of those extra special super heroes like Eddie Vedder or Kevin Spacey.  I was helping to make a difference in the lives of others.  It felt quite rewarding.  So, my initial thought on how my session went was positive and upbeat.  I feel like things went well with yesterday’s session.  But of course, we all know how critical we can be of ourselves.  On my drive home, I then started analyzing every aspect of my session and realized that I could have done a much better job.  I didn’t help those teachers in attendance as much as I could have.  I could have done more, said more, and made my presentation much more useful and relevant.  Here is my true, thoughtful analysis of my presentation:

  • I didn’t really explain how to help students understand why they should learn to be reflective.  A teacher asked how I help my students see the value in reflection and really take it seriously.  I didn’t have much of an answer for her.  I did say that it comes down to building a culture of reflection and mindfulness in the class and school.  The teacher needs to explain why the students are reflecting so that they see the relevance to them.  While my response did address her question, I feel as though I left this aspect out of my presentation.  I didn’t really go over how to make powerful student reflection happen in the classroom.
  • I didn’t show an example of an eportfolio that I use in the classroom with my students.  I wish I had been able to share an example with the teachers in my session so that they could see how we use reflection to help the students begin to take ownership of their learning and be self-aware of their habits as a student.  A teacher asked about this and I just verbally explained it.  I wish I had thought more about showing specific examples in my presentation.  I felt like that was a big piece missing from my slideshow.
  • I wish I had asked the teachers more questions.  I felt like I did a lot of the talking.  While I did ask the teachers to share their ideas on how they reflect as teachers and how they have their students reflect, I wish I had made the session more of an open forum or discussion rather than teacher-directed.  I know that having some sort of skeleton to drive the presentation is crucial, but I feel like I had the whole body, flesh and bones and all, and didn’t allow for too much flexibility.

I know that the age old adage, “We are our harshest critic,” rings true in this situation.  After reflecting on my presentation, I noticed things that didn’t stick out in the moment.  I saw mistakes that I felt I had made.  Sure, it’s always good to reflect on one’s work and look for ways to grow and improve; however, I also want to make sure that I celebrate the good things in life as well.  I did a pretty amazing job sharing some knowledge nuggets with fellow educators so much so that they provided me specific, positive feedback on my session before leaving.  So, I clearly did some things correctly yesterday.  Yeah, I made mistakes too and I now know what I need to do the next time I present at a conference for teachers.  Self-reflection helps me see the big picture, rather than just looking at the minutia or focusing on one aspect of my work.  I take both the good and the bad into consideration when learning from my mistakes and successes.  Life is a never-ending learning process.  Just like Dallas Green so wonderfully tells us in his song Save Your Scissors, “And I’ll keep on running this never ending race,” I need to remember that I will never do anything perfectly, but I will do plenty of great and amazing things; in the meantime though, I’m just going to keep on running this figurative race to the best of my ability.

Looking Back on the First Sixth Months of the Academic Year

As our lengthy March Break begins tomorrow, it feels like a fine time to reflect on the first two-thirds of the academic year.  It’s hard to believe that when we return from spring break, we will only have about nine weeks until summer vacation.  Where did the time go? It feels like just yesterday we were getting the students acclimated to the world of sixth grade at Cardigan, but alas, they are seasoned veterans on the ways of the classroom and are almost ready for seventh grade and all of the adventures that they will experience next year.  As the end nears, I feel myself getting nostalgic.  Remember when we went to the Sargent Center?  Remember when we had our first Marble Party?  Remember when we first met our bunnies on the farm?  At the same time, though, I’m excited for the fun we still have left and and all of the learning I’m sure to do.

This has been a fantastic year filled with many new experiences:

  • I worked with a new co-teacher this year, who has taught me a lot about teaching and working with students.  While I did have to train her on how our sixth grade program works during the first few weeks and months, she was a fast learner and asked lots of great questions.  I am blessed to have her on my team.
  • I piloted a Farm Program in the sixth grade this year, which the boys love.  They have enjoyed learning how a farm works, raising and caring for bunnies, planting various flora and vegetables, and learning about the importance of caring for the natural world while understanding our place in it.  The boys have learned much as is evident in their weekly journal entries.  This hands on experience was definitely worth all of the hard work that went into planning and preparing for this new program over the summer.  All classes and schools need a Farm Program like ours.  It’s beneficial to the students in numerous ways.
  • I made use of a computer coding online computer program called Code Combat this year.  The students have enjoyed learning all about the Python coding language as they play games and complete various tasks.  It’s helping prepare the students for the technology class they will take as seventh graders.  It’s also opening windows for students who never realized, prior to this year, that they were interested in technology or computer coding.  It’s planting seeds of curiosity within the boys.  I’ve really enjoyed using it and am glad that I happened upon this fun little program over the summer.
  • My mission to have all of my students learn how to solve the Rubik’s Cube fizzled out a bit in the past few weeks.  Earlier in the year, the students would spend ten minutes every week working on learning to solve the cube.  They seemed engaged and excited.  While several students were quick learners and figured out how to solve it within a month or so, there were a few who never really devoted the extra time to figuring it out and have gotten stuck.  No matter how many different ways I try to help those few struggling students, because they are employing a fixed mindset when it comes to this skill, they are unable to figure out how to successfully solve it.  Of course, because our last two units required more in-class work time, the students haven’t had a chance to play with their cubes in almost two months.  I’m hoping to get back into a weekly routine following our long break.  While I don’t want to give up on the challenge I put before myself back in September, I also want to be cautious of not setting myself up for failure.  I’ll have to wait and see what happens in April and May.  Fingers crossed.
  • I utilized Little Bits in my STEM class this year as part of the Astronomy Unit.  The students, working in small groups, had to develop and build a working prototype of a space rover that would help them solve a problem.  The students thoroughly enjoyed this unit.  They loved playing with the circuits and figuring out how to put them together in a meaningful manner.  This new addition was a huge success.  I’m so glad I piloted them in the classroom this year.
  • I restructured our math units so that they were more aligned with the Math in Focus book series we use.  I made sure that the introduction of each new skill was accompanied by a mini-lesson.  I wanted the students to feel successful as they practiced new math skills in preparation for next year.  After a bit of a disastrous math experience last year, I have been very pleased with the outcome I’ve seen so far.  My students are making progress and seem to feel good about math.  Many of my students spend time outside of class working on their assigned Khan Academy course because they want to learn more.  This leads me to believe that the changes I brought about this year in how I taught the math curriculum were successful.

It has truly been an epic year in the sixth grade.  I’ve been pleased with how our classroom community has developed since September.  All of the students seem to really like each other.  They are kind and compassionate and go out of their way to help each other.  It’s quite amazing to see this in action.  They are a fun and insightful group that have made huge strides in many ways.  Our ELLs have made tremendous growth regarding their English writing, reading, and speaking.  Their vocabulary has grown exponentially.  Our shy students have blossomed into social butterflies and our class leaders have become even stronger.  Because we put so much time and energy in during the first two months of the academic year to help our students hone their social skills and develop their emotional intelligence, our students have been able to grow and mature in so many other ways at such a rapid pace.  Fostering a sense of care, trust, and safety in the classroom is crucial to helping support and challenge students.  Our year has been so great in the sixth grade because of the effort and dedication my co-teacher and I put in early on.  I can’t wait to see what excitement and fun will be had during the final two months of the school year when we return from break in late March.

One of the Many Benefits of Teacher Reflection

Doing difficult things is hard.  It’s not easy to do challenging things.  If it were, everybody would climb Mt. Everest or learn how to play the guitar.  Accomplishing difficult and hard tasks takes time, energy, effort, and much struggle.  Many people don’t like trying new or hard things because of this.  Struggling and failing are no fun for anybody.  However, completing a difficult task or doing something hard, offers great rewards and benefits.  They’ve written oodles of books about people who do hard things.  Some lucky people even have movies made about the difficult things they’ve accomplished.  Hard work does indeed pay off.

Several years ago, before I started this teaching blog, I used to think that I didn’t have enough time in my day to do something extra.  I couldn’t possibly take time to reflect on my teaching every day because I don’t have any extra time, I thought, but that was a lie.  I was really just scared.  I didn’t want to think about my teaching or reflect on what went wrong in the classroom because then I might realize that I’m not the world’s best teacher.  I was afraid of what would happen if I reflected on my teaching.  At the time, creating a teaching blog seemed too formidable.  It was a challenging task for me that I had avoided because it would require time, energy, and much effort.  I didn’t want to do it, but then I realized that in order to grow and develop as a teacher, I needed to try something different.  So, I went for it.  I did something hard, and I am thankful every day that I took a risk and tried something new.  Even though it takes precious time out of my day, reflecting on my teaching has made me a far better educator than I ever was before I started this blog.  Thinking about my failures and successes allows me to learn from my mistakes or capitalize on what went well.  True, doing hard things is hard, but if it wasn’t for people accomplishing difficult tasks, I wouldn’t be able to share this blog with the world.  In fact, without technological advances that took much effort and hard work, I’d be reflecting in, dare I say, a journal using **GASP** a pencil or pen.  Doing hard things has made the world a better place for all people, especially those needing to write things like this here blog.

Last week, I posted an entry about how I felt like the mini-lesson I conducted in my STEM class was a bit of a disaster.  I rushed through a discussion on mathematical formulas and the stock market.  I didn’t adequately answer questions my students asked, and my students left class clearly feeling confused and anxious.  It was a giant mess.  However, because I took the time to reflect on it in this blog and think about what I should have done, I was able to make sure that I structured today’s mini-lesson in a much more meaningful and relevant manner.

Today in STEM class, I wanted the students to understand the difference between stocks, bonds, and funds.  I began the lesson by asking the students what stocks are as we have already covered this concept in class.  I then simplified the complex and slightly confusing response provided by one of my students.  The boys understood this definition.  I then showed the class a video that visually highlighted the main differences between the three types of investments.  Following the video, I asked students, who I called upon at random by pulling popsicle sticks, to define bonds and funds.  I then clarified the responses provided by the students to simplify the terminology for the students.  I then addressed questions the students had about the new ideas introduced today.  Following this discussion, I then handed out the worksheet packet, explained that they would be working on this packet with their Stock Market Game partner, and then instructed them to get to work.  They had 40 minutes of class time to work on the packet and ask questions that came up as they worked.  The students left the classroom feeling prepared and positive as they now had less homework and understood exactly what they needed to do.  Some of the students even began applying this new knowledge of stocks and bonds as they invested in a mutual fund in the Stock market Game.  I was so impressed.  The boys seemed to fully comprehend these new ideas and understood what was being asked of them in the worksheet packet.  Mission accomplished, I thought as I walked to lunch following STEM class today.

Having learned from Friday’s horrific mistakes, I constructed today’s mini-lesson in a way that allowed the students to understand the new concepts introduced, ask any clarifying questions, and feel positive and successful.  There was no confusion amongst the students as they worked through the worksheet packet with their partner.  Utilizing a video to help explain these new investment terms allowed those students who struggle to process information auditorily, a chance to comprehend this new information in a visual way.  Restating this new information orally for the students in kid-friendly language after viewing the video, helped the students to process what was covered in the video.  It also allowed time for the boys to ask any further questions that they had about bonds and funds.  The final work period portion of the lesson allowed the students to ask questions as they came up rather than having them figure out if they had questions before they even began working on the packet.  Having the ability to collaborate with their partner on this packet also helped them feel prepared and able.  They asked each other questions and solved problems as they arose.  Changing the structure of my mini-lesson based on Friday’s result allowed for a much more positive outcome today.  Had I not taken the time to stop, think, and reflect on Friday’s awful STEM class disaster, I might not have known what I needed to change or how I should have changed today’s mini-lesson to better help and support my students.  Reflecting on my teaching not only helps me grow and develop, but also allows my students to grow and develop because of the changes I make to my teaching.

When You’re in Need of a Wake Up Call, Just Stop and Reflect

Sometimes my ego is too big for my body.  While I feel as though I am an effective educator, I am far from perfect.  I do like to toot my own horn, a lot.  Just ask my wife.  She is forced to listen to my rants on teaching and schools on a daily basis.  “Our public school system is broken and until our society values teachers and treats them with the respect they deserve, nothing is going to change,” I often say.  I’m not sure how she puts up with my craziness.  I am truly blessed.  Before I get too far off track, let me get back to my focus.  So, while I do like to constantly grow and develop as a teacher, sometimes, I get a bit hung up on the little things and allow them to cloud my judgement.

Today played host to one of those negative moments.  While my students were in Art class this morning, I took the quiet time to read the current issue of AMLE Magazine.  I’m a huge fan of this publication, and not just because I once had an article published in it, but because it is filled with insightful articles about teaching and education.  So, I was pumped to crack open this brand new issue as I was excited by the headline on the front cover, “Feedback for Students, by Students.”  As I’m going to be presenting at the upcoming NELMS Conference in Providence, RI at the end of March on the topic of teacher and student feedback, I’m always looking for new perspectives on this subject.  Are there other ways to incorporate feedback into the classroom?  As I read through the article, I started growing enraged.  This article is talked about using student input to make class rules, having students peer edit each other’s work, and the power of group work.  This is old news, I thought to myself.  Actually, I think I said that part out loud in my empty classroom.  Why are they printing old news and ideas as something new?  These are basic Ed 101 concepts that all great teachers already know and apply in their classrooms.  Why did they waste the space on this article?  Effective teachers are already doing this.  I want something more.

As I started feeling the anger bubble up within me, I started to realize that not all teachers are or were trained in the same way as I was.  Perhaps some teachers were never informed of the concepts of building a community in the classroom by fostering a sense of communication and respect amongst the students.  Maybe some new teachers haven’t yet heard these ideas and will read this article, inspired to bring about changes in their classroom.  Or, maybe a few veteran teachers who forgot some of the brilliant ideas they once learned in college will happen upon this article and recall how important fostering a sense of family and community within the classroom is to creating strong, compassionate relationships amongst the students.  So, while I got so caught up in my own ego and was blind to all other perspectives regarding this wonderfully written article, I realized the importance of being humble and grateful for the skills I do have.  I shouldn’t look down upon articles or ideas discussing teaching practices of which I may already be aware.  Instead, I need to think of ways I can help others learn from these ideas, because, even though I may already be well-versed in utilizing student feedback in the classroom, other teachers may not be.  I can facilitate discussions with colleagues or present at teaching conferences on such topics.  I can be a catalyst of change by inspiring others to take risks in their classroom, like I once did.  I used to be so afraid of giving up control.  I thought a good classroom was one that was run by the teacher.  Students can’t handle directing their own learning or making decisions.  I needed to have the courage to try something new in order to realize how valuable creating a student-centered classroom is to the success of my students.  My students grow and develop throughout the year because they feel trusted, supported, and challenged.  They learn to solve problems by failing and finding new solutions.  It took me reading a very similar article many years ago on this same topic to realize that I needed to bring about change in my teaching.  Perhaps other educators around the country will read this article and feel the same way I once did.  I just needed to change my perspective a bit.

I am far from perfect and so thinking that I am all that and a cup of tea is only going to prevent me from continuing to grow and develop while helping other teachers grow and mature.  Today, I received a wake-up call from myself.  Thinking negatively about teaching and other teachers only breeds more negativity.  Although I don’t know everything about teaching, I do know quite a lot about effective teaching practices.  I could use what I do know to teach other educators to help them grow and develop.  The power of using a growth mindset in all avenues of life helps foster a sense of self-awareness and understanding.  I just needed to deflate my ego a little bit so that it could fit into this seat and allow me to ponder my teaching and open my perspective for today’s entry.  Sometimes, it just takes a little reflection and a lot of honesty to admit when mistakes are made.  The most effective learning comes through failure and mistakes.  Even though I used a fixed mindset filled with negativity this morning when reading an article on using student feedback in the classroom, because I take time every day to stop, reflect, and learn from my mistakes in this very blog, I was able to broaden my narrow perspective.  Yah for reflection and the AMLE Magazine!

The Student Becomes the Teacher

When I was in school, most of my teachers subscribed to the belief that students should be seen and not heard.  They felt as though they were the only ones who should be speaking in the classroom.  Those same teachers thought it was all about feeding students information and making us regurgitate that information in written form on tests.  In those classrooms, students didn’t talk for fear of being yelled at or having to sit in the corner.  Things were different back then.  Luckily, times have changed and a lot of those, what I like to call old-school teachers, have retired or passed away.  Schools are now hiring teachers who believe in a student-centered approach to education.  When the students do the learning, questioning, and teaching, engagement increases exponentially and learning becomes relevant and genuine.  In classrooms around the world, teachers are guiding students by talking less and allowing students to talk more.  This is how all classrooms should be structured and run.  When this approach to teaching and education happens, it’s often hard to tell who learns more on a daily basis, the students or the teachers.  The students teach the teachers sometimes more than what the teachers are trying to convey to the students.  This is what effective teaching is all about.

Today in Humanities class, I was able to experience, first-hand, the value in empowering students to talk, think, question, and reflect in the classroom.  At the close of class today, I provided some time for the students to reflect on what worked really well for them during the mapping activity that we spent the last three days working on.  After I shared some observations with the students about what I noticed regarding their work habits as they crafted their maps in class, I asked them the following question, “What do you need to remember to do when tackling or completing a challenging or lengthy project or activity such as the mapping activity we completed today?”  The students shared some awesome insight with the class: “I need to use a growth mindset when working on projects like this,” “I need to persevere and never give up even when the work seems hard,” “I need to ask questions to be sure I understand what I need to do,” and “I need to focus on my work and not compare myself to others.”  Wow, I thought, they really understand themselves as learners and students.  I was thoroughly impressed by their contributions to the discussion.  However, the best part was yet to come.

First, an aside so that the next part of my story makes sense.  To help my students focus on positive attributes and fully understand what is expected of them, I find that I try to point out what students are doing well so that others who are struggling to meet the expectations might be able to learn from a role model.  This generally helps those students who seem confused, figure out what to do and transition or redirect themselves.  I make sure that I’m also using different students as examples every time so that I make sure not to play favorites.  Until today, I felt as though this strategy was successful and effective.  I’ve used it for years as a way to highlight the good and not point out the negative behaviors.

Now, for the best part.  So, following the class discussion about positive behaviors to utilize when working on a challenging task, a student asked this powerful question, “If you say that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, why do you point out role models in the classroom during transition times?”  Wow, I thought.  That is insightful.  Although I felt put on the spot, I also started to realize that maybe this practice of highlighting the role models in the classroom isn’t an effective practice to help the students focus on themselves.  While comparing and contrasting ourselves to others can be a fruitful task to hold the bar for ourselves high, it can also be detrimental to helping us develop our individuality.  In a society that is constantly bombarded with pictures, chats, and messages, about what everyone else is doing, it’s nice to be able to block out this white noise and focus on us as individuals.  So, my response was this, “You make a valid point.  Perhaps I will have to keep this in mind when I’m trying to help others see and understand what they need to do.  I shouldn’t be forcing you to compare yourself to others.  This is very interesting.  I never thought about it like that.”  I wanted the students to see an example of how one might respond to critical feedback.  I took it in, acknowledged what I had done, and pointed out what I will try to do moving forward.  While I was trying to help teach the students the value in using a growth mindset, persevering, and problem-solving when working on challenging tasks, this one student taught me something about my teaching practices that will cause me to reflect and adapt so that I can best support and help my students grow and develop.  Sometimes I wonder who the real teacher in the classroom is, me or my students.