Lessons for Learning in my Fifth Grade Classroom

When I was just a wee young lad with luscious red hair, completing homework was a hoop I had to jump through in order to go outside and ride my bike or watch television.  Homework always came first in my house.  Once I got home from school, I sat down and did my homework.  Because I viewed it as a hurdle to having fun, I rarely devoted great effort or care to the completion of my homework.  I did it to get it done.  In school, my teachers graded homework on the check system: A check minus meant that it did not meet the expectation, a check meant that it was done, and a check plus meant that it was done very well.  Therefore, I made sure that I put forth just enough effort to earn checks consistently.  That was good enough for me.  My teachers never took time in class to discuss the importance of effort or what quality work looked like, and so it took me quite some time to learn the value of hard work and great effort.  Not until college did I start to understand that I should care about the work I completed as it is a reflection of who I am as a person.  I wish my elementary and middle school teachers had taken time to help me learn the value of effort and taking pride in my work.  I wish I had cared more about the quality of work I completed when I was younger, as I feel it could have helped me grow into a stronger student sooner rather than later.

As a teacher, I try exceedingly hard on a daily basis to make sure that I provide my students with the best possible educational program so that they can more rapidly transform into the best versions of themselves.  I don’t want my students feeling the way I do in 30 years because I didn’t support them in meaningful ways when they were in the fifth grade.  I want my students to see the value and benefits in completing quality work in a timely manner.  I want my students to constantly be challenging themselves to grow and develop as thinkers, problem solvers, mathematicians, and individuals.  I want my students to leave my fifth grade classroom in June feeling as though they know how to be effective and successful students in sixth grade and beyond.  I want my students to value the vital study skill of time management.  I want my students to understand what quality work looks like.  I want my students to strive for excellence in all areas of their life, because they are worth it.

One of the many ways I can help challenge my students to grow and develop in the classroom is to be mindfully aware of every opportunity for learning.  This past week was filled with teachable moments for my students.  On Tuesday, my students had a large assignment due.  They had been working on it since the middle of the previous week.  They had to hand-draw a tri-layered map of the Silk Road region.  As they had already completed a similar assignment during a prior Social Studies unit, my students knew how this complex assignment was to be completed.  Before the previous weekend, I had informed a few students that they would need to spend some time over the weekend working on the task so that they would not have hours of homework on Monday evening.  I contacted parents to let them know what I had asked of them, as fostering strong school-family relationships is crucial.  On Tuesday morning, only three students turned in their completed maps at the start of class.  At first, I felt frustrated.  Why did many of my students not complete the only homework assignment they had last night?  After I processed my feelings of anger and frustration during our mindful meditation in Tuesday’s Morning Meeting, I had an epiphany.  My students are only fifth graders.  How can I expect fifth graders to be perfect and do everything just so?  The fifth grade is a year filled with growth and opportunities to practice study skills.  As I began to accept the fact that my students need to fail in the fifth grade in order to learn vital study and life skills so that they are more effectively prepared for the sixth grade, a sense of serenity consumed me.  I shouldn’t be frustrated, but instead, I should feel elated that I have another opportunity to help my students learn the value of time management and great effort.

So, instead of beginning Social Studies class that day lecturing my students on the value of hard work and how disappointed I am that many of them did not complete the homework, I started class by explaining how fifth grade is a time of learning and development.  “I expect that many of you will fail in certain ways throughout the year so that you have the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and grow as a student,” I told them.  This seemed to shock a few of the students, as their eyes grew big.  “Why is this crazy man telling us that he wants us to fail,” they were probably thinking.  I then had students share why they were unable to complete the homework assignment.  I listed their many reasons on the board.  I made sure to explain to the students that while this year I am referring to their rationales for being unable to complete the map task as reasons, the sixth grade teachers will view their reasons as excuses next year.  “Use this opportunity as a chance to learn the importance of budgeting your time effectively,” I said to my students.  I then had the students brainstorm possible ways they could prevent these same reasons allowing them to not complete their homework in the future.  The students suggested wonderful ideas such as asking for help, making a plan or time schedule of how and when they would accomplish various parts of a task, and using their free time more effectively.  It was a very insightful discussion, which I feel benefited the students well.  They seemed to all understand the importance of completing their work by pre-set due dates.  Later in the week, I gave the students another chance to practice this skill of time management.

The students began working on the final project for our unit on the Silk Road in class on Wednesday.  Before they began working in class, I had each student create a daily schedule of the work they will complete so that they can be sure they are finished by the deadline of next Thursday.  I had the students briefly write what part of the project they will work on each day in class and for homework outside of class.  On Thursday and Friday, I began and concluded each Social Studies class by having the students review and update their daily work schedule.  Did the students complete what they had intended to do for homework the night before or in class that day?  If not, they revised their schedule to reflect the reality of the situation.  This has seemed to really help many of the students stay on track with this complex and large final project.  No one is falling behind, as they had on the previous mapping task.  I am hopeful that this time management task will help the students be and feel successful next week when their final project is due.  I intend to debrief the entire project and schedule task with the students in class next Thursday so that they are able to see the value in effectively managing their time regarding academic tasks and assignments.

As I assessed the mapping assignment when all of my students had finally completed and turned in their work, I realized that many of the students failed to meet the graded objective.  Why is that?  Were they rushing?  Did they not understand what to do?  As they had all been able to meet this same objective a few months ago with a similar assignment regarding ancient Mesopotamia, I knew that they understood how to complete the assignment.  So, was it that they were not as engaged or didn’t care about this unit?  They seemed to really like learning about the Silk Road when we began this unit, and so I don’t believe that engagement was an issue.  Then what was it that caused many of the students to turn in work that lacked effort and did not display fine quality?

During Thursday’s Morning Meeting, I took time to share my findings with the class.  I explained how the quality of work that many of the students completed was low and lacking effort.  I discussed the value of holding the bar high for themselves and completing only work of which they are proud.  I reminded them that while they have the opportunity to redo work in the fifth grade, they may not have this same opportunity in sixth grade and beyond.  I want my students to value hard work and put forth more effort in reviewing their work against the requirements before turning it in so that they are handing in their best possible work.  They seemed to understand what I was saying, but only time will tell.  Plus, they are only fifth graders and have plenty of time to continue learning the value of completing quality work.

I’m hopeful that these two mini-lesson chats helped my students begin to see the benefits in completing quality work in a timely fashion.  Next Thursday will be telling; however, even if not every student turns in a high-quality final project on time, I am confident that they are still learning and working out the kinks of the challenging skill of time management.  Learning to be an effective student is an on-going journey full of failures and successes.  While my journey to understanding the value in effective time management and challenging myself to complete quality work took longer than I wish it had, I did eventually learn these vital skills, as all of my students will too one day.

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Preparing Students to Effectively and Maturely Converse with Others Through Real-World Practice

In this techno-verse in which we live, it seems as though people have forgotten how to make eye contact.  As we are all so glued to our tiny little devices, our necks seem to be stuck in a downward state.  We’re missing the amazing things that are happening all around us.  I can’t tell you how many people I see walking around, staring at their phones as if they possess some sort of magical key to the universe.  People get into car accidents, fall down holes, and die at an alarming rate due to these tiny little devices that seem to be controlling humanity.  Why?  Are we afraid of missing out?  What can be so important that we would risk our lives to see or hear it?  While the answer should be, nothing, sadly, it seems as though any ping, vibration, ding, or other irritating noise is more important than keeping our eyes on the road, looking up, or making eye contact with others.  This is a problem.  We are becoming a society of lazy individuals who are more concerned about capturing the perfect selfie than caring about others and making the world a better, more meaningful and thoughtfully communicative world.  While the media makes it seem as though plastic straws and global warming will be our downfall, I worry that Armageddon is already upon us in the form of apathy and selfishness.  Change needs to happen quickly.  We need to stop looking down and start looking up.  We need to revel in the beautiful hues of the sunset and those lingering looks into the eyes of our partner.  We need to put down our phones and talk to the other people that are all around us.  Yes, you are not alone.  There are other people here on Earth with you.

Enter educational institutions like the one at which I teach, the Beech Hill School.  In this crazy world in which we live, it’s nice to know that there are places where our children can go to learn how to slow down, look up, engage in meaningful conversations, care about others, and enjoy all that life has to offer.  Every Friday in my fifth grade class, we leave the confines of the school building and spend over an hour in the forest, exploring, learning about, and enjoying the natural beauty of the forest located right outside the doors of our school.  Yesterday, we spent an entire hour learning how to start a fire without matches or any other sort of instant fire making objects.  The students had only flint, steel, magnesium, and whatever naturally occurring objects they could easily gather in the forest.  They were hooked and engaged the entire time.  Some students whittled marshmallow roasting sticks, while others helped tend the fire.  It was amazing.  We were talking to each other, looking around, and learning much about ourselves and the magnificent world around us.  No one was looking down at their phone or other small tech gadget because what was going on around us was so much more interesting and wonderful.  Who doesn’t like to start a fire or learn how to identify edible flora?  Schools like mine help students learn that there is so much more to life than looking down and being sucked into a mass of metal, plastic, and forgotten hopes and dreams.

Recently, my students completed a project that provided them with the opportunity to look up and share their learning with others.  I believe that as teachers, we need to not only educate our students, but give them meaningful and relevant skills that will allow them to be successful in all facets of their lives.  Public speaking is a skill that many high school students around our nation seem to be lacking.  They don’t know how to or feel comfortable talking to adults or other people.  While not every job or future occupation these students may get into will involve the need to converse with others, everybody should know how to speak to other humans in a mature and appropriate way.  Even introverts will need to be able to talk to others at various points throughout their lives.  I feel that it is our responsibility as effective educators to provide our students with the necessary public speaking skills and opportunity to practice using them in a real-world context.  Rather than sprinkling class presentations into the curriculum, teachers need to give students the opportunity to practice the skills they are learning in purposeful, real ways.  Students need to learn how to answer questions other adults, aside from their parents and teachers, pose to them.  They need to know how to begin a conversation, greet people, and then close the talk with a salutation in ways that they will need to apply these skills outside of schools and later in their lives.  More than ever, it is crucial that our students learn how to look up, make eye contact, and convey their point to others in a mature way without uttering ah, like, or um.

In Social Studies, we’ve been learning about our community.  We went on three field experiences to learn all that we could about the history of the town in which our school is located.  We went on a walking tour of Main Street that was led by the director of our local historical society.  We then visited the workshop of a local spoon maker whose family has lived in the Hopkinton area for generations.  Our final trip was to the historical society to learn about the indigenous people who once lived on the land that we now call home.  The final project had the students choose a topic or fact that they learned about throughout our unit, create a visual representation of some sort, and then present their findings in an exposition of sorts at our local historical society.  This past Thursday, the students shared their learning with local community members as well as their families, inside the historic building that is home to the history of this beautiful area.  The students did a fantastic job speaking to our visitors.  They made eye contact while they spoke.  They held themselves in a very mature manner as they explained all about their topic and what they learned during our unit.  The students were able to field the many questions that were thrown at them.  They had neatly organized digital presentations, free of spelling and grammar mistakes, that showcased the big ideas they learned regarding the topic they had chosen.  They spoke with confidence and ease, as though they were proposing a new plan to a room full of business executives.  It was awesome.  My students are ready to take on the world.

While most people these days seem to be preoccupied by their digital devices and unaware of the wonderful things happening right in front of and all around them, students at my school, and many other wonderful schools around the world, are learning the value in being mindful, experiencing life in all it’s grandeur, and looking up.  They are happy and enjoy coming to our schools because they are actively involved in their education and learning.  They are doing, creating, making, researching, talking, failing, exploring, and meaningfully experiencing the world around them as they develop and grow into mature global citizens who are sure to have a big and positive impact on our world in the very near future.

My Curricular Journey

Once upon a time…  No scrap that; it’s too unoriginal and boring.  What about this?  In a land far, far away there lived…  That’s been done before too.  How can I begin this short little story in an engaging and new way?  How can I start a story that will set up the rest of this entry in a unique way?  I want readers to be inspired by my first sentence so much that they just can’t wait to read the last one too, and all the other ones in between as well, I hope.  I’m searching for the perfect sentence.  It’s like a quest.  Yes, I’m on a quest to find the perfect way to start this story.  But wait a minute, does the perfect sentence really exist?  Can anything really be perfect in every way?  Okay, good point.  So, instead, I’ll go on an adventure to find a really great sentence for my story.  I feel like that is possible.  I can easily find a really great sentence.  But where?  In my closet?  In the ocean?  In my pocket?  Where might I find this amazing sentence?  What if it has yet to be written?  How will I find something that doesn’t yet exist?  Perhaps I should just create it.  That’s it!  I’ll design the right sentence for my story.  I can do that, I think.  Okay, here goes nothing…

Some said he was special, while others said he was just ordinary.  To his tribe, he would become the anointed one.  (OMG, how great is that opening?  I want to run to the precipice of the highest mountain and scream at the top of my lungs, YESSSSSSS!  I feel like my brain just earned a bonus point.  I love it!  It seems unique and engaging.  It’s interesting.  If I was a reader, I’d be clamoring for more right now.  I did it, I did it.  I came up with an epic opening.  Okay, now on with the rest of my short little story.)

This boy was more than just special, you see.  Although he didn’t realize it yet, he had great power buried deep within him.  It was written in the stars that he would grow to become a most powerful man and leader within the tribe.  However, he wasn’t quite there yet.  This boy faced numerous challenges from the earliest years of his life.  The river on which his life traveled meandered more than most during his early years.  Struggles pounded his shores like a great storm ravaging a countryside.  While many a men would have perished under such pressure, this boy persevered.  He was a survivor, but not without scars to mark his journey.

This wavy, white-capped trek left him unable to experience life like many others.  So, as he grew, these challenges shaped him in dangerous ways.  His true self became buried deep within him, as he was afraid of what others would think if they found out who and what he truly was.  Because he lied to himself and others for many years, he became a bit of an outcast in the tribe.  While fate knew what he would become, others saw a wasted, troubled life.  Something had to happen for this boy to transform into the great man the tribe so desperately needed.

Rather than push him away, the chieftains devised a plan to bring him back into the fold of the community.  They decided to send him on a quest to find his true self and uncover the power within.

So, this boy ventured out into the wilderness for several weeks.  While at first he seemed lost and unsure of his goal, he never gave up.  He kept searching, despite the many obstacles in his way.  On one evening, a wild animal, large in stature, approached the boys as he slept.  Startled, he awoke, unable to move at first.  Then, like magic, he knew what to do, and the wild beast seemed to simply disappear.  As the boy ventured further into the unknown wilderness, his mind began to uncover the buried secrets of his past.  As he faced these memories head-on, he found himself becoming more powerful.  Instead of only being able to walk a few miles during the first portion of his quest, by the end, he was walking many miles in a day.  His soul was growing stronger as well.  He began to accept himself for who he truly is.  While life dealt him a tricky hand of cards, he wasn’t going to let that spoil the whole game of life, oh no.  He was going to make the most of his future.

After seven weeks away from the tribe, the boy miraculously found his way back home.  He wasn’t the same boy who had left, the tribe soon realized.  He had grown into his powers and become a leader.  For once he faced his inner demons, he was able to see his true self and accept that he was different.  This trying quest in the wilderness had changed him in many ways; most importantly, however, it afforded him the opportunity to see that he is a kind and capable individual who has the power to change the world.


Much like the boy in the story, I too went through a transformation this summer.  What I thought was once too difficult to tackle, became a challenge I gleefully accepted.  Knowing that I had to prepare the curriculum for my new fifth grade class was a daunting task, and one that I put off for many weeks.  I left this unbearable mission for August, hoping that it would magically get accomplished on its own, without any effort from me.  But alas, I live in Hanover and not Narnia or Hogwarts.  Magic doesn’t exist in the same way here on Earth.  In order for something to get done, I need to do it.  So, like the boy in my story, I faced the wild beast that was my curriculum, and through dedication and hard work, slayed it.

Although I had an inkling of what I wanted my first unit to look like, until I sat down to map it all out, it was just an abstract idea.  The hard work was in putting the puzzle pieces together.

I knew that I wanted my first, integrated fifth grade unit to focus on community.  But how?  What about community did I want to cover?  The class community?  The school community?  The town?  As I was starting at a new school, in a new town, I had not the foggiest notion of Hopkinton’s history or community.  So, I went on my own adventure this summer to learn a bit about the Hopkinton community.  I began by visiting the town’s historical society museum and speaking with the director.  She was especially helpful.  Together, we crafted some amazing field experiences that I believe will tie the unit together.

  • Our first idea was a Walking Tour of Main Street.  The director would lead my students on a tour of Main Street, explaining the different houses that line the very old road.  She would also describe the history of the town to the students during this excursion.  This will be a great way for the students to gain a foundational understanding of the town and its history.
  • Our second field experience for the unit will be a visit to the town museum to learn about the history of the indigenous people who lived in the Hopkinton area.  The students will also learn and practice the art of basket weaving.  This adventure will not only teach the students more about our town’s history but also be a great springboard into our second unit on the indigenous people of New Hampshire.
  • Our third excursion will be a visit to the art museum housed in the historical society building.  I’m hoping that the director can organize a workshop with one of the local artists exhibiting their work.  This will be a great way to help the students understand the current state of our town while also appreciating the talented citizens that live among us.
  • Our final field experience will be a visit to the workshop of a local spoon maker, during which he will show the students how a spoon is made before providing them an opportunity to make a simple spoon of their own.  This hands-on trip will help the students learn a new task while also understanding more about the wonderful people who live in Hopkinton.

I am super excited about these field experiences.  I believe that they will help to bring history alive for my students.  They will also help them become more invested in the town in which the school is located.  Our first trip is scheduled for Thursday, September 13.

As our theme for the year is community, this first formal unit on our community will help lay the foundation for the year ahead.  This unit will tie together the social studies, science, and language arts curricula for the start of the year.

  • The social studies aspect of the unit will focus on the history of the town of Hopkinton.
  • The science portion of the unit will focus more on the school community, as the students will conduct investigations regarding an aspect of the school that they would like to change.  This will involve more of an environmental approach such as energy consumption, food waste, water use, etc.
  • The language arts piece of the unit will have the students craft a historical fiction story based on a piece of Hopkinton’s history that interests them in some way.

Throughout the unit, the students will learn how to appropriately discuss serious issues impacting others, write about facts they learn, analyze information, interpret what they read, question the world around them in meaningful ways, help others, and appropriately share information in a real-world context.  This integrated unit will create the perfect patchwork quilt the students will need as we delve into the more challenging topics during the colder months.

While everything about this unit is sure to be engaging and fun, what I’m most excited about regarding this new unit is the culminating, final project.  For the first phase of the project, the students will choose an aspect of Hopkinton’s history that intrigued them.  They will then create a visual display highlighting what they learned.  For the final phase of the project, the students will present their visual display and prepared speech for all community members to see at a special exhibit at the Historical Society building.  Talk about real-world practice.  Not only will the students be practicing their public speaking skills, but they will also be teaching the town’s citizens all about the unique and diverse history of the town in which they live.  It will be a great way for the students to connect with the Hopkinton community members and for the townsfolk to see what is going on at our small little school nestled in the woods.  This is sure to be a fantastic experience for all involved.  I can’t wait.

So, as you can see, my summer journey was filled with adventure and learning, much like the boy in my story.  Creating a new curriculum and set of units is very challenging and time consuming.  I spent a lot of time this summer just thinking about topics I want to cover.  My goal is to create a unit that will engage and interest my students in such a way that they are curious and want to learn more.  I want to empower them to ask questions, as they think critically about the world around them.  I want them to learn about themselves throughout this wild journey as well.  As the boy in my story learned, we’ve all got great power living within us.  Sometimes, we just need a little prodding to extract it.