A Time for Change

Everyone, literally everyone, has found themselves face-to-face with challenge and sacrifice, worry and strife, confusion and questions in recent days and weeks. No one in the world has encountered what everyone in the world is encountering today. Tell me then, who is anyone to judge the actions and choices made by others during this unparalleled scenario in which we find ourselves?

As a teacher during this time, I have been witness to conversations regarding how teachers, administrators, and districts at large are handling the sudden change in school dynamics. Social media has become an outlet for people to raise their voices about what should or should not be done or said by this group or that. Some think what is being asked of students is too much while others feel it is not enough. I ask – how does anyone know? And how can districts, administrators, or teachers possibly provide equitable access or expectations knowing every household is different from the next? And of course, there is the amount of time we are all being provided to establish such things.

The truth is, no one knows best practice for this scenario because no one has been faced with this scenario before. Instead of raising our voices about what is or is not being done correctly or quickly enough in this moment, why don’t we take some time to look at what we DO know?

What Is Most Important?

First, let’s think about what this pandemic has revealed about what schools believe to be most important for our students. Safety, full bellies, and human connection. The need for student safety is evident in the very fact that our school doors are closed at this moment. Upon learning that it might come to this, our district did everything in its power to organize and gather two things as quickly as possible. The first was finding a way to provide food for those students who rely on school for one or two meals every day. The second was providing access to technology from the home by sending devices and free hot spots with any students in need so they could stay connected to their teachers and school.

Because we have never faced an immediate need to transition to digital learning like this before, my school district administration is taking time to discuss its options and best practices. Because my district is so large, it often takes longer to implement changes of this scale. The bigger the ship, the more time it takes to change course. However, despite the time it is taking for our district to land on a solid decision about how to move forward with academic instruction and expectations, one thing has been very clear. The one thing teachers are being asked to do is to connect. Be there. Reach out. Provide opportunities for human connection with each student whenever possible. That’s what my district finds most important at this time: safety, food, and connection.

What Is Not Most Important?

In a crisis like this, when schools are forced to decide what stays and what goes, when it matters most, what have you noticed? What have we seen put on the chopping block? Quarter three was immediately cut short by one week, prohibiting any end-of-quarter tests, projects, or other assessments from occurring. State testing was cancelled for all schools. And now, as we wait for further direction, teachers in our district have been guided to only offer supplemental activities, which at this point equals a loss of two weeks of instruction, leading to more.

As I speak with colleagues and friends from other surrounding areas, the discussions being had and decisions being made by each district are very interesting to me. I have heard phrases like “cut your content down to just the basics” or “ only the essentials.” One district told their teachers to scale their content back by 70% and then to cut that in half. First of all, who determines what is “essential” or “the basics” or what “35%” to keep and what to toss? But more importantly, when the rubber hits the road, can we admit that schools are now realizing and accepting that every single bit of content thrown at our students during the school year is not actually necessary?

So What’s Next?

I don’t have an answer for this question, but I know it cannot go back to how it was. This is a chance for the world, the entire world, to rethink a lot of different things. For our country and our state, one of those things is education. We have been gifted an opportunity to really discern what is and is not most important when it comes to what school provides its students each day. Education should not, cannot, look the same when we return.

Imagine a school year where students only learned 35% of what is currently being taught. How much quality time could be spent on those “essential” skills? How in-depth could teachers go? How creative could they be if given the time to innovate?

What if we did away with standardized testing completely? If it’s okay for one year, why can’t it be okay for the next? And the next? What impact could removing this one thing have on teacher morale, student confidence, and family concerns?

Is there a version of school that exists where secondary students participate in one digital learning day each week or each month, providing teachers with collaboration and professional development time without intruding on student learning days? Is there a version that exists with no bell schedule shuffling students from one core content area to the next and the next and the next and the next?

What changes would you like to see? Because there will be change. An event like this doesn’t take place without a good amount of change following in its wake. What that change looks like depends on a lot of factors though, and voices is one of those factors. Perhaps we could use our social media and other communication outlets to raise our voices about positive change for the future of our schools. Our students, our teachers, and our families deserve it.

A Balance in Control

Yesterday, I blogged about focusing on what’s in our own control. It’s funny because just over a week ago, I began to write a post about knowing how and when to find a balance in control in your classroom. I had about two paragraphs complete, and then I had to step away because of recent events. Yesterday’s post seemed more fitting, but I wanted to jump back in and finish my thoughts about “control” from before we were hit with this pandemic. So here goes…

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One of the most common frustrations I hear from teachers who have or are planning to transition to a PBL approach in their classroom is knowing how to give up their control to their students. It’s a huge leap for teachers to make. Most of us grew up with our own teachers standing at the front of the classroom, deciding the agenda for the day, determining our next steps in our curriculum, telling us what to do or to read or to make next. When we went to “teacher school,” we likely imagined ourselves taking that spot at the front of the room, imagining all of the ways we would emulate our favorite teachers from our past while adding our own flare to our own classrooms. I know I did.

So when we look around and agree that school maybe doesn’t look quite the way it should, and you begin to dip your toes into what you think might be a more authentic approach to real-world learning, one of the toughest things to face is stepping out of that spot at the front of the room. Releasing your control to your students. Letting them call the shots. Allowing them to choose their own paths. It’s hard for many reasons. You can’t know what’s going to happen. It’s unpredictable, and that can be scary. It’s also difficult to watch students fail, even when we know the powerful learning that can come from failure. When I read about PBL or when I talk to others doing it, giving up control is one of the most challenging parts for most people.

It was the opposite for me. This was one of the things I was most excited about when transitioning to a PBL model. I couldn’t wait to step aside and figure out my new role as a “guide on the side,” if you will, while my students were able to explore their own interests and ideas and dreams, making mistakes along the way, adjusting as they went. I love to be the person who stands up for the capabilities of my students. I dare people to approach me with a comment about how they’re “only in middle school.” I pounce at the opportunity to defend and brag about what I have seen my students accomplish. I am very good at scooting over and letting my student grab hold of the reins. It’s been one of my biggest strengths throughout this process, but it has also been a weakness.

Where most people struggle to know how to let go, I have realized, especially recently, that I need to hold on a little tighter than I have at times. I do not pretend to know everything when it comes to best practices in delivering a PBL model, but I believe I pay attention pretty well and do a decent job of reflecting on each project, each quarter, and each year as it passes. I believe I am improving in knowing when to release and when to hold tighter on my reins of control.

A good example I have of this is our annual Film Festival quarter project. Each year, during third quarter, our students participate in the same project. It’s the only project we repeat from year to year. Being that it is our only annual repeat project, it has allowed us ample opportunity to evaluate the successes and struggles with the project each year and to adjust accordingly in the coming year. I believe the following descriptions display my need and my ability to pull a little tighter on the reins each year until finding the right balance.

With each Film Fest project, we introduce a new challenge…

In year one, students were tasked with using cause and effect to explain a medical discovery that has impacted our world today. They could work alone or in a group. They could plan out and create the film however they wanted. It was our first time trying a project like this, and the expectations and requirements were pretty loose. “Make a movie!” How cool does that sound? What we found is that it’s way easier said than done. We ended up with some okay films that had good information in them but were either boring or confusing to view. 

In year two, we decided to focus our efforts on cinematography. If we were asking our students to produce a quality film, it is only fair that we provide ample guidance in how to do that. The challenge was to tell a true untold story and why it’s important for the world to know about it. If you’ve seen the movie Hidden Figures, this is the idea we were going for – a story that is not well known but is deserving of an audience. We decided to require that students work in a group this time around so that roles could be split up among students for such a lofty project. We also brought in a local filmmaker who taught about various elements of cinematography like how to prep your film ahead of time with a screenplay and storyboard, how to make camera shot and angle choices, and how to properly edit your final product. With a bit more control in our court, we ended up with some higher quality films that still lacked in many areas. Mostly, quality suffered because groups were struggling to manage their time throughout the quarter and found themselves cramming at the last second.

This year, we decided to share the driver’s seat even more. The challenge was storytelling – to tell a compelling story. We required multi-grade-level groupings so every group had at least one student who had the cinematography lessons from last year to apply to this year’s film. Then we deliberately chunked their tasks and timelines for them. Certain parts of the project were done entirely in Humanities class, guided by me, while other parts were done with their groups in a CHILL time we had them set aside for Film Fest work only. I had my hand on the reins more than usual this time around, but I’ve come to realize that’s necessary from time to time. Our films this year are the best we have seen yet. They are more complete and creative than we have seen before.

I believe these successes were there because of the control we decided to take back within this project. PBL isn’t about giving up all control to students. They aren’t prepared for that. Nor are most teachers. It’s about finding a balance in control. Giving and taking. In many ways, the ARCTIC Zone is my own PBL project, in which I continue to make mistakes, reflect, adjust, repeat. Each year, each project gets a little bit better.

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Would it Help?

Friday evening, as I stood on top of one of the cafeteria lunch tables, clapping and facilitating the choreographed curtain call for our school play performances coming up on what would have been tonight and tomorrow, another adult in the building called me over to tell me the news about schools closing midweek. This would likely impact our play performances, and I was not about to interrupt our rehearsal to deliver the bad news. So we finished the night, the painting of the set, the running of lines, the grapevine in the curtain call, and when we gathered as a cast before saying our goodbyes for the evening, I broke the news.

I was honest about what I don’t know – which is a lot. All around me, I listened and watched as students absolutely fell apart. I mean full-on tears from many of them. They were just devastated. And it wasn’t only because the show they’ve worked on for months was being postponed. I had several of my students from class approach me in a panic about how they were going to finish their projects in time because this was supposed to be the last week of the quarter. One girl looked right at me and told me through sobs that school was the only social interaction she had. Ouch. Try responding to that without needing to swallow a lump first. This really hurts. I imagined some groans about the play, but honest tears about getting to miss school for a while? It wasn’t the reaction I had expected.

I settled the room and took a breath. Then I explained my favorite mantra to them. If you’ve seen the movie Bridge of Spies, you may remember the Russian spy who is held as a prisoner throughout the film. Numerous times, the men holding him ask him if he’s nervous or if he’s worried about what is to come. His calm reply is always, “Would it help?” I’ve tried, in all aspects of my life, to hold onto that mindset. I think it applies here perfectly.

We can only control what we can control, and what is happening to the world around us in recent days is very much out of our control. There are a million unanswered questions and confusing circumstances. No one knows what to expect tomorrow or next week or next month. Not knowing, not having any control over the matter, is what scares people. But worrying won’t help the situation. We can only control what we can control. That’s what I tried to communicate to my cast on Friday evening. This is one of those times when all we can do is breathe and move forward together, one day at a time, adjusting to new circumstances where needed.

I feel very fortunate. The ARCTIC Zone uses an online classroom daily, and we practice student discipline and independence with every project. We felt very prepared to transition from a face-to-face instructional delivery to a purely online platform. In fact, the last 24 hours alone have been enough to convince me to advocate for students bringing their school devices home all the time. I could barely keep up with the student emails and online submissions I was receiving last night and all day today. I’m proud of the discipline my students are already showing in such a unique set of circumstances.

With so much out of our control right now, we need to focus on the things that remain in our control. We can control our words. Our actions. We can breathe. We can smile. We can show love and kindness to others. As we begin to navigate these new waters ahead of us, when we begin to feel worries creep in, let us all remember to stop ourselves once in a while to ask, “Would it help?” Because this, too, shall pass…

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Developing Purpose

One of the most commonly asked questions about the ARCTIC Zone is “Who is your target student population?” As in – which kinds of students benefit most from our learning environment and structure? We have been guided and encouraged by many people to try to narrow our answer down to help students and families make decisions about registration or to help the community better understand our goals. The truth is, though, we don’t have a good answer for that question, and I don’t know that we ever will.

We have students across the board, of all different skill levels, from all walks of life, with varying degrees of academic achievement leading up to middle school who absolutely thrive in the AZ. We also have students from each of those categories who flounder. We see students who start out really rough until one day, something clicks, and they are off and running. We see some who start off really strong and motivated but for one reason or another fall into poor habits and struggle to correct them.

What’s the difference? What makes one student successful in the AZ and another not? Honestly … I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll ever know the answer. Perhaps after a few more years, it will become more clear. Until then, though, I will continue to work on reaching each student at their level, on their terms, and to build the necessary skills and habits for success in and out of the AZ.

Once in a while I like to do a read-aloud in each of my classes. It’s something I never tire of, and regardless of their ages, students love to be read to. In one of my classes, we’re reading a book by Gordon Korman called The Unteachables. It’s about a bitter teacher counting down the days till his early retirement being placed with a small group of self-contained 8th grade students who have been removed from a general education setting for various reasons. We’re nearing the beginning of the end, and despite earlier events in the book, a positive relationship has been growing between the teacher and students.

In the chapter we read today, they took a field trip to a local automotive shop. One of the students, who struggles with Dyslexia, which is mentioned nearly every time the character is discussed – clearly a major hardship for him, has an emotional aha moment at the shop. He has his hands under the hood of a vehicle and just finished replacing a gasket to fix an exhaust leak. In this moment, he feels like he has a purpose for the first time.  He mentions how dumb he feels at school not being able to read as quickly as those around him, but that here, he’s found something he is good at, something that feels meaningful and right.

I stopped reading at this point and went off on one of my many tangents – another great reason to read aloud. You never know where a book might take you and your class discussions. Quick tangent – in another class, we watched a video about Emmett Till today off the cuff because he was mentioned in our read-aloud for that class. That’s for a different post, though. Back to my first tangent – we talked about how school, in many ways, focuses on a few things it values in students… reading, writing, math, test-taking, etc. If you’re not great any those things, the first 18 years of your life can be a real downer.

That’s why, in the AZ, we try to bring out the strengths of each student, even if they don’t realize them in themselves yet, and to apply those strengths to projects that can incorporate all the other stuff “school” wants them to know and do. By starting there, we work to develop weaker skills to apply to future projects and life endeavors.

Yesterday was not a school day. Teachers had professional development and instructional planning time, so students had the day off. At the end of the work day, four of my AZ students showed up to work on a current project. They showed up on their day off, to spend two hours with me, building wooden flats to be used for the set in our upcoming school play. One of these students is my stage manager for the play and another is a cast member and student who plans to use the time as volunteer hours for National Junior Honors Society.

The other two created this as a 3rd quarter project. They have applied science and technology standards and conducted research regarding supplies and pricing. For one of these students, this is HIS thing. School is definitely not his thing. But he showed up … at school … on his day off … to work on a school project. Everyone has a place and a purpose in this world. School’s job should be to help them find it and develop it.

My Net

I have not written in a while. A lot of life has happened for me between my last post and now. The kind of life that causes pause and reflection. The kind that provokes pondering about priorities and purpose.

In recent weeks, I have come to know a new version of myself. A version who doubts and questions. A version who struggles to get herself up in the morning. A version who, more than ever, feels lost, confused, and broken. Through these challenging days, I have landed on some realizations.

When I was a kid, there were times I argued with my siblings. There were times I got in trouble. There were times I went through breakups. There were times I didn’t get the part in the play I wanted or I earned a poor grade or I disappointed people I care about. In every difficult moment of my childhood, there would come a time when my dad would call me over to sit beside him on our couch, where he would explain to me that though the world seemed to be upside down or nearing its end, life would go on. That over time, my worries or disappointment would diminish, and that I would look back and wonder what the big deal had ever been about.

Six years ago, I was teetering on the idea of applying for a teaching position at Northstar Middle School. At the time, I was in my fourth year teaching 7th grade in Bloomer, Wisconsin, and I loved it there. There were certain draws pulling me to Eau Claire, but there wasn’t anything pushing me from Bloomer. I had an amazing group of colleagues in a sweet, small town in which I had begun to make a name for myself. The decision felt selfish and greedy on my part. I was uncomfortable abandoning my students.

In a phone conversation with my dad, something that rarely happened given his revulsion to talking on the phone, through tears, I expressed my worries to him. My dad taught me another lesson I will never forget. He told me I had to defuse my ego and realize that I am completely replaceable. That if I were to accept a position elsewhere, another teacher would fill my spot, and life would go on for everyone. He was not trying to insult me but instead to remind me that my wants and needs mattered – that there were students in every city, in every state needing positive role models and mentors. With or without me, life would go on.

It was after that conversation that I submitted my application which landed me in my current spot. Sort of. It was the launch pad by which I was able to find my way to my current position, doing my best to provide challenging, engaging opportunities for students to create and thrive. Every day, I immerse myself in my classroom activities. I coach sports after school. I direct the school play and the talent show.

Some people wonder why I throw myself into so much all the time. It’s not because I think my students and athletes need me or that I think no one else will do it. I learned from my dad I am replaceable in that way. I know someone else would step in. I know my students and athletes would be just fine with another teacher, coach, or director. It’s because in times like now, when I am in free-fall, I need my students to catch me. They don’t know it, but they are my net.

My dad passed away a few weeks ago. He was living with stage four lung cancer that had metastasized to several other organs and eventually made its way to his brain. He was a remarkable man. Words do not suffice in trying to explain just how remarkable.

There are many things I have questioned in recent weeks. Things both personal and professional. My students, though? No question – they are the reason I do what I do. They are the reason I walk through the school doors each day. They are my purpose and my net. Their unique personalities, their deserving hearts, and their creative minds are what catch me each day and place me back on solid ground. They are my proof that life will go on.

 

We’re Engaged!

According to 5 million national surveys done by Gallup in 2018, less than half of our nation’s students in grades K-12 are engaged in school. Less than half?!? Think about that for a moment. School takes up the majority of those 13 years in their young lives. For what kind of success are they being set up if they’re spending that time feeling disengaged and unmotivated? Am I the only one alarmed by this? Isn’t this an absolute reflection of our nation’s educational system?

What does engagement actually mean, though? I looked it up and was actually surprised by the definition. The “action of being engaged” is “participating,” “partaking,” “sharing,” “involvement.” That’s it. Just being part of something. Students need to be included in the decisions related to their learning. Teachers need the freedom and flexibility to stray from the script and develop authentic relationships and learning experiences for their students.

I’m not sure if project-based learning is the answer to this crisis, but I believe it to be a start. Not every project is a success. Not every project strikes all students with as much enthusiasm as we hope it will. Our current quarter project, though, has everyone buzzing with excitement. As I looked around my room last week, I knew we had struck it big with this project. Students who often lag behind with their work and struggle to stay on track were asking for help and checking things off their lists left and right. They were engaged. For some reason, this project grabbed them, and because of that, those students will feel success in school this quarter. Who knows, maybe that feeling of success will lead to more next quarter. We can’t get this lucky with every project, but we can strive to make every future project just as engaging or more.

Experiences like these cannot be created for students if teachers are disengaged with their work. According to those same Gallup surveys, our nation’s secondary teachers are worse-off than our students with only about 1/3 reporting high levels of engagement. People become teachers because they have a flame within them. A flame to inspire, help, and mold young minds. Teacher engagement drives student engagement, and unfortunately, many of the conditions in our nation’s existing educational system are extinguishing those flames at a rapid rate.

An 8th grade student stopped in the middle of her work yesterday and asked me from across the room, “Ms. McMahon, do you ever start a project wondering where you’re going to go with it, but then once you get started you get so in the zone that you just don’t want to stop?” That’s engagement. Students learn very quickly how to go through the motions, and those students grow into adults joining the work force. We don’t want citizens to just do as they’re told. We want them to participate, to partake, to share, to get involved … to engage. All students deserve to feel that “in the zone” feeling in school. All teachers deserve it. And furthermore, all people should strive to feel that regularly in our own personal and professional lives. Otherwise, what’s the point?

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Unveiling Passions

When Andy and I set out to create an alternative learning environment four years ago, we had a few goals in mind, all surrounding flexibility – flexibility in environment, curriculum, and pacing, but we didn’t quite know what it might look like or how we might pull it off. As we began our research and sought out schools to visit, conferences to attend, and other resources to review, we were immediately struck by an idea witnessed while visiting the FLIGHT Academy in Waukesha, WI, an alternative personalized learning environment. The idea was Passion Projects.

Though the ARCTIC Zone has morphed in many ways over the last few years, we have remained grounded in our aim to immerse students in learning that envelops their own ideas,  passions, and interests. This idea often stimulates many questions about how our students are able to cover the same content standards as other middle school students. This past week, four different passion projects were launched by ARCTIC Zone students. I would like to share briefly about the projects and the standards these students chose to focus on for each project.

Class Pet Project

Michelle is a 7th grade student in the ARCTIC Zone who had her heart set on obtaining a classroom pet this year. She decided to work with power standard Science 5 (understanding animal cells and the processes that affect their function) and Tech 4 (showing respect for information on the internet that belongs to others). After conducting research and practice work about animal care and creating a bibliography of the sources used during her research, Michelle made contact with an employee at our school who was looking for a new home for her pet rabbit. We all met Rocket when he was brought to his new home, our classroom, on Friday. Michelle is currently working on a permission slip for students who wish to care for Rocket over our upcoming winter break.

Yoga Class Project

Maddie, a 6th grade student, loves yoga and wants to share what she knows with other students. With permission from administration and our custodial staff, she now has a spot designated for her yoga class which she teaches during Resource at the end of the day, twice a week. Though her first class had lower attendance than she had hoped, her sign-up sheet looks promising for the coming week. Her focus standards for this project are ELA 2 (reading and comprehending informational texts) and SS 12 (analyzing factors that change the perspectives of people during different historical eras). Have you ever thought about where yoga came from and how people’s thoughts toward it have changed over time? Just ask Maddie…

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Ceiling Tile Project

Grace is a 7th grader who thought it would be special to use ceiling tiles in our hallways as a platform to spread inspirational messages to all who walk by. Using power standards ELA 12 (producing clear, coherent writing) and SS 13 (understanding cause and effect), and with the approval of administration and our custodial staff, she installed two tiles this week just outside our downstairs classroom. Voices in the hallway and the ideas spreading from this small project are enough to make anyone smile.

Magic the Gathering Club Project

Two 7th grade boys, Mason and Ben, set out to teach as many people about Magic the Gathering as possible. They created informational flyers and wrote an informational speech that was delivered to all ARCTIC grade level Resources using ELA 4 (proper punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and grammar) and ELA 13 (writing an informational text). They gathered supplies and received a very large supply donation from another student’s family. Then on Friday, they launched their very first club meeting where many students attended to either play or learn how to play. All students were sent home with a practice deck of cards to prepare for next week’s club meeting.

If you look and think hard enough, there are ways to connect what appear to be the most outrageous ideas to the most traditional content standards. The content itself might be different from another classroom, but the knowledge or skill at the foundation of the standard is there. The fun is in finding the connection. The beauty is in seeing them come to life.

What I love most about project-based learning is the other stuff they pick up along the way that does not pertain to content standards at all. In all of the mentioned projects above, students were required to communicate with teachers, administration, and/or custodial staff. They were challenged to plan and organize and in some cases step into leadership roles among their peers. And it’s all because they chose to be there. 

Can I Get a Redo?

One of the things I love most about the ARCTIC Zone is a student’s ability to hit the reset button at the start of a new quarter. It isn’t often that students get that chance. In math, for example, because its content is so linear, if a student gets behind … they’re behind. There is no skipping ahead or starting over. It becomes a struggle for the student and for the teacher to help get that student “caught up.” It can be a deflating experience.

With project-based learning, the goal is always to complete each project, but to expect that every time is unrealistic and, quite frankly, unfair to students. There is far more learning to be done throughout the project process than can be measured by the project product. So with the start of each new quarter, we offer the option of hitting the reset button. We talk about that decision with each student, and we reflect on why it’s being made. Students write down what they learned about themselves and their projects throughout this quarter and what they will use to execute the next project in a more productive or successful way. Then they can breathe again. We watch them dive into their new project ideas with vigor and determination.

Fortunately for Andy and me, the reset button is open to us, as well. The ARCTIC Zone is in its fourth year, and every single quarter, we find ourselves discussing ways to improve our processes and expectations. I have to laugh because at the end of each of these talk sessions, where we adjust and tweak and change as we see fit, we always look at each other and say something along the lines of, “This is going to be so great – so much better than what we had before.” Although I believe we truly ARE sooooo much better than we were when we started in 2016, I am convinced our quarterly check-ins and improvement sessions are far from over.

We spent this past summer infusing our power standards into every step of the project process. Our thought was that it would help to align and connect the standard to the project in a more cohesive way for students. I remember the look we gave each other this fall, “I can’t wait to see this play out with projects this year.” In reality, we caused one of our own worst nightmares. We unintentionally sucked the excitement and enthusiasm out of every project by expecting standard “work” at the front end of every project. We watched all quarter as students became bogged down by standards and less and less engaged in their original ideas. Argh! What were we thinking???

RESET!

Between first and second quarter, we worked frantically to redesign the project process once again. The absolute most important part about project-based learning is that students should be excited about their projects. Otherwise, what are we doing here? What a difference these small tweaks have made in just the first week of the quarter! Students have some great ideas in the works, and their confidence is soaring now as they’re cruising through the first few phases of the process. The work is still there. It just reveals itself in a different way and at a different time.

What I love most about making a huge change like this one in the middle of the year … Modeling quality reflection and revision. Explaining our rationale for designing things the way we did in the first place and then explaining our rationale for redesigning. Admitting to them we screwed up … big time. Proving to them once again we’re human and we want what’s best for them and their learning.

We can all use a redo once in a while…

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Forgot My Deodorant

Yesterday, I forgot to put on deodorant. It happens once in a while. I get out of my morning routine somehow and miss that step. So what did I do as soon as class started? I told my students! I made a really big deal about how I forgot to put on my deodorant and how uncomfortable I was likely going to be the rest of the day.

I know some of you are probably raising an eyebrow. Why would I share this kind of information with my students? I’m human. That’s why. They need to be reminded of that once in a while.

Every teacher I know has stories of bumping into students at a restaurant or grocery store where the student looks absolutely dumbfounded and doesn’t know how to respond to seeing their teacher outside of school!!  It’s hard enough for them to believe we exist outside of these walls. They surely don’t believe we deal with the same day-to-day things as them like deodorant and relationships and emotions and life.

I was recently asked what the ARCTIC Zone’s goal is – what are we hoping to accomplish for our students? Someone else in the conversation retorted quickly, “Well, obviously they’re trying to increase engagement.” That’s part of it, of course, but I found the question to be more complicated than I realized. On my own, later that day, I began jotting down a quick list of the things I personally hope the ARCTIC Zone is able to support or improve for our students.

I do hope to increase engagement. I want to practice and improve executive functioning skills like time-management, organization, and prioritization. I want to develop and grow soft skills like creativity, collaboration, and communication. With the development of all of those things, it is also a hope that student achievement is positively impacted. I found it to be really difficult to narrow down my hopes and dreams and wants for this program. Above all, I think what I want more than anything is for my students to gain confidence in themselves and with their place in this world.

Of all blurbs of time from my past, the one I would never want to repeat is middle school. Whenever I mention to people that I teach middle school, responses are all the same, “Oh, bless you!” “Middle school?! Yikes!” “Oh my gosh, all the hormones!” It’s true middle school is one of the toughest times to experience as a human. Bodies are changing. Emotions are flying. Kids can be mean. Society can be critical. School can be tough. Finding your place in the mess of emotions and criticisms and discomfort and judgment is SO hard.

We live in a time where symptoms of depression and anxiety are appearing at younger and younger ages.  Family dynamics, societal expectations, school, childhood trauma, environment, diet, medication, technology, politics – all supply pressures from different angles. Add to that puberty, identity-seeking, and relationship-navigation, and you have your typical middle school student. We often warn our students with threats about their future, “It’ll only get harder from here…” Really, though, doesn’t it get easier?

If a student can hang on through middle school, his maturity will eventually catch up with the mature level of topics and scenarios he will face in his older years. And with time, he will become more and more equip with the necessary knowledge and skills to face those scenarios with ease. So how do we help him hang on?

We make fools of ourselves and remind him that we are all only human. We let him know that sometimes we forget to put on deodorant. Sometimes we make poor decisions. Sometimes we fail.

My biggest goal with the ARCTIC Zone and with my everyday interactions with students is to remind them we are not perfect. To sprinkle them with bits of love – sometimes a little tough love when it calls for it. And to provide a boost now and then when they’re struggling to hang on.

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Benefits of Blending

Don’t ask me where September went. It’s hard to believe we’re already discussing parent-teacher conferences and looking at the end of first quarter. Many things have happened over the last month to warrant a blog post, but because time has gotten the better of me, I’ll do my best to sum it all up.

September came and went, and with it came a whirlwind of beginning-of-the-year experiences. Our 6th graders attended their annual overnight trip to Camp Manitou in New Auburn where they spent the day outside hiking, kayaking, cooking over a campfire, and playing games. Attempting to sleep in bunks with a group of their peers is always sure to enhance the bond between students. Another camp success!

Our first quarter project, The Green Project, is well on its way. We have students organizing highway cleanups, tree-planting programs, a composting program for our school, and some even looking into what it would take to get solar panels. Some are working on eliminating the plastic bottles of water being sold in our school vending machines, while others are looking into the invasive species of plants and animals that exist locally.

Overall, the thing most evident to me so far this year is the positive impact blending grade levels has had on our students. It is by no means our first year blending students of varying grade levels, however it has been the first year we have begun with a large amount of consistency overlapping from the previous year. In our first three years, we were continuously changing our project process, classroom protocols, and schedules to accommodate our new ideas and the addition of grade levels from year to year. Though we continue to tweak and refine our methods as we see a need, many of our practices and processes have remained close to the same since last year. With some consistency in place, our 7th and 8th graders have been able to model appropriate expectations and lead with comfort and confidence in a way I have not seen before.

I have seen it most evident during my Humanities classes during activities like the Concentration Challenge, Cooperation Challenge, and our Friday Design Challenges. For example, the Cooperation Challenge is a grouping challenge that is taught in two parts. It challenges students to form groups of various sizes in a very short amount of time. The class is not successful unless ALL members of the class are in appropriate groupings. It forces individuals to think beyond their own success. When reflecting about group failures, students are required to use “I” statements regarding what happened and what could have been done differently. They are challenged to accept responsibility for the entire group.

When attempting this challenge for the first time as a class last year, it took a long time for the “we versus me” mentally to take hold. Fingers were pointed at others and statements would slip out about why someone else screwed things up for everyone. It took us weeks to successfully complete part one of the challenge and more to complete part two. However, when the challenge was reintroduced this year, students from last year took ownership of their actions and were voicing things they could be doing differently to help out their classmates right from the start. The modeling of this accountability and dedication to the success of their class created an immediate ripple, causing our new students to think about the challenge through a group-focused lens. It shouldn’t be surprising that part one of the challenge was successfully completed within two days or less for each class this year.

The benefits of blending grade levels are at least three-fold. I say “at least” because there are likely more than what I’m about to describe. First, our 6th graders have peer models helping them to begin their time in a unique setting with supports built in all around them. Second, the peer modeling from our older students helps us manage our time and our expectations as we set the pace for a new school year. We are able to rely on them in ways other teachers are not, as they begin fresh with a brand new batch of students each year. Finally, the boost of confidence is very visible in our older students as we hand over our trust in them to explain procedures and to model appropriately. They are  handed an unexpected leadership role within their classes every day which causes a visible difference in so many of them. I’ll mention a fourth benefit … friendships blossoming across grade levels break through invisible barriers that might otherwise exist between them.

This year has been the smoothest start for us yet, and I attribute that to our blended grade levels matched with a level of consistency from last year to now that we have been able to sustain. I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to experiment with practices not traditionally used in classrooms. This is just one of many wonders I get to experience every day.