Sixth Graders are Weird…

…and Kind.

I find myself saying that a lot these days: “Sixth graders are weird.”

Sometimes I say it in frustration. Sometimes in commiseration. Sometimes in good humor. Its an all-purpose description of my students. I’m starting to think it should actually be the collective noun for them.

A “weird” of sixth graders. I’m pretty sure it works.

I expressed frustration in a post a couple weeks ago, and I admit that things are better. Maybe they’ve just had two more weeks of maturing, but I’m back to enjoying my job.

The weirdness is usually part of the fun. As a teacher, one of the things I enjoy most, is figuring out how to motivate a student. What is it that will help them overcome whatever is preventing them from working on a given day? in a given moment? Sometimes a student needs someone just to listen while they vent. Sometimes they need a confidence boost. Sometimes they need a pencil. Whatever it is, the psychology of figuring that out is something I enjoy.

And the weirdness that seems to be part of sixth grade makes it even more entertaining. Sometimes, they seem to need to crawl under a table so they can be alone. Sometimes they need to write with a pencil rather than a pen, but they just can’t find a pencil (even though there has been a jar with extra pencils in the back of my room for the past six weeks…). Sometimes they need a lap around the second floor to calm down because the “world hates them.” Figuring out how to calm them down/get them motivated/help them organize….that’s the real challenge.

But at the same time, the weirdness is also fun. I think this is going to be the group that fulfills my career-long dream of having a Glee moment in class. There are times when a song comes on Pandora while the kids are working and they start singing along. This week, one of them actually started waving his hands and trying to teach the choreography to kids around him. (It’s only a matter of time before they learn it and the flash mob of dancers appears…I can’t wait for that spontaneous weirdness to happen!)

weirdAt the same time, my students are also generally pretty kind to each other. They like to help out. When someone is absent, I usually have multiple volunteers to help out and complete the “While You Were Out” sheet and collect handouts. They like to pitch in and clean or straighten book shelves. I have a couple that often stay after the last bell to put up the extra chairs so the custodians can vacuum. Just when I hit my limit on the ‘weird/irritating’ scale, one of them performs a random act of kindness that reminds me why I love my job.

Because students grow and change in a year. They like to be successful. And because sixth graders are weird…and kind.

 

 

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Developing a Reading Identity

I love silent reading time in my classroom. I try to protect those first 10 minutes at all costs because it is so valuable for student readers.

Usually, even the most talkative students are quiet and immersed in a book. It is amazing how quiet some of them can be when they find a book that they are interested in.

I love that book from my shelves get used during this time. Many of them were favorites when I was a child, or belonged to my kids when they were growing up. (Hey, they moved out and left them behind! They were fair game for my classroom shelves! I have more room there than at home…)

reading 2

Students find the weirdest places to read during silent reading…

What do we do in education to kill this love of reading? I’m not sure. But I have enjoyed the pure love of reading that so many 6th graders seem to have. I was often sad at the “wrestling match” that silent reading time produced in my high school classroom – something had changed from this first year of middle school to high school. It’s only a few short years away, but I wonder if these students will still be able to immerse themselves in a book like this when they get to the 9th grade classroom.

 

This is also our dedicated library time. Students who need to renew, return, or check out a book can do this during Silent Reading. It is something to celebrate when a student writes another title on their “Books I Have Read” list and asks to go to the library for a new one.

 

Perhaps I should take pictures of students now, while they read, to show those high school teachers in three years, and ask if anything has changed. Will they still find joy in reading? I’m determined not to be part of whatever we do in education to crush that joy.

We developed a list of “Rights as a Reader” to help the kids own their reading life. The ones common to all of my Reading classes included:

  • I have the right to read what I want during Choice Reading
  • I have the right to abandon a book
  • I have the right to reread a book
  • I have the right to my opinion of the books I read
  • I have the right to visit the library during silent reading time
  • I have the right to borrow books from the classroom library (if I bring them back)

I hope they internalize these and think of themselves as Readers, with a capital R. And that they keep that title for themselves into adulthood.

Monday Reads: Restart by Gordan Korman

RestartLast spring, one of my sixth graders ordered Restart by Gordon Korman through one of the Scholastic flyers. When it came in, we were all excited about the Book Box, and I was reading the teaser on each of the books as I passed them out.

I told Lily that her book looked good and that I wanted to read it. Being the darling girl that she is, she remembered what I said and, three days later, brought me the book to borrow. It was the end of the school year but she offered to let me keep it over the summer so I could read it.

In August I happened across the bag of books from school that I thought, back in June, that I wanted to read over the summer. On top, was Lily’s book. Knowing that I would see her at school in a couple weeks, I decided I’d better get to it!

And I’m so glad I did…

The book is about Chase, a boy who fell off the roof, hit his head and now suffers from amnesia. He has forgotten every person he ever knew, including his parents. After leaving the hospital, he meets people who are essentially “new” to him, and realizes that many of them (including his four-year-old half-sister) are afraid of him. He starts to wonder why.

Chase also observes that the group of boys that his mom identifies as his friends, are mean to other students, and he is embarrassed by them a number of times.

As we’ve been teaching the Notice & Note signposts, I chose this book as a read-aloud in one of my writing classes, and it has been a great source for “Aha Moments” and “Again and Again” signposts. As we read, students have been noting where the signposts appear and we discuss them at the end of the chapters. There have been other signposts, but the novel has provided an especially rich discussion of those two signposts.

The novel develops as Chase learns about himself before- and after-the-fall. He is forced to make some decisions about honesty and self-identity that provide a lesson and discussion for readers.

I don’t want to include any spoilers but, I recommend the book as YA fiction for middle-school. I also recommend it to anyone looking for resources for the signposts.

Some Days…

Some days I don’t like my job. Most days I love it, but some days I get home and just collapse on the couch and think, “Why did I ever think I would be good at this?”

This teaching thing is hard.

And it isn’t so much the lesson planning, although that definitely requires a time commitment. It isn’t so much the energy required to repeat the same lesson 3 or more times in a day, with different classes. It isn’t even the fact that my 30-minute duty-free lunch is usually more like 21 minutes by the time I answer questions from students in my last class before lunch and help students get their lockers opened when the combination proves, once again, to be more than they can turn successfully.

It’s the classroom management.

fidget stick

Staying calm in the face of repeated distractions during a lesson. Staying calm when 20 out of 27 students in 5th period need a fidget stick to help them stay on task. Staying calm when Student A pokes Student B with a really sharp pencil, putting a hole in Student B’s pants. Staying calm when I have to call Student A’s and B’s parents to explain the situation and discuss consequences.

 

 

I really try not to raise my voice. But some days…it’s all I can do not to yell…really loudly…at the walls and at students.

For some reason, this year, this group of students seems to include more distractible individuals than usual. And my toolkit of interventions doesn’t seem to include the right mix for them.

I feel bad for the students who are trying to pay attention, and for whom distraction isn’t a problem. I also (sometimes) empathize with the students who can’t focus. It has to be frustrating because they miss things, which puts them further behind and means more homework than other students have. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to scream about it, but it helps me stay calm in the moment when I think, “How frustrating this must be for you too…”

So I’m trying to adapt. I’m trying to include more mindfulness activities this year to give everyone strategies to focus and deal with stress.

We’ve learned a couple of yoga poses and practiced deep breathing. We breathe in slowly for five seconds, hold it for five seconds, breathe out slowly…hold it…repeat…  and many students sigh, and say, “That feels good…” (This also helps me stay calm…so it is a coping strategy for all of us!)

To fit some movement in, we do sunrise/sunset stretches. Tree pose lets them challenge themselves to hold the pose for longer periods. I can’t wait til I get to teach them savasana – “corpse pose” – though some of them may not be ready for it. (It’s harder than it sounds to be still, and be quiet with your own thoughts, especially for some students!)

I want to like my job again. I want students to enjoy my class, and be respectful of each other.

So I will continue to look for strategies to help these very distracted students, and to help all of us focus and stay calm.

If you have any suggestions, I am open to ideas!

 

Loving Letter Writing

Who knew letter writing could be so fun?

After the weeks of state testing and end-of-the-year projects, I was trying to find some shorter, fun ways to engage students in writing at the end of the year in order to avoid complete sixth grade melt-down as the year was winding up. And (let’s be honest) some shorter assignments gave me time to get the bigger ones graded before grades are due!

So I borrowed an assignment from my brilliant colleague Tiffany, and asked the students to write a letter to a former teacher. Yes, it was after Teacher Appreciation Week, but I just reminded the kids of the major research papers that they were working on during TAW, and set them free after introducing letter format (date, address, salutation, body, signature…)

They were SO excited! Students discussed their choices in table groups and several students asked if it was ok to write more than one. (Of course! Who am I to deny anyone the chance to do extra work?)

I asked them to let the teacher know what had mattered to them, and why they chose the teacher as letter recipient – the letter version of “be specific” and “include evidence” which happen in most other assignments.

They wanted to know if I would actually send them (yes, even out of district – if they gave me the school and enough info to locate the address) and if I would read them. I told them that I would read the letters before I sent them, just so I could make sure they’d met the parameters of the assignment (letter format, thank you, and specifics), and everyone was ok with that.

I learned some new things as I read – some had struggled with moving to a new school or new country, one had lost a parent, several had struggled with different subjects until they had a particular teacher…and students were thankful that a teacher had helped them overcome a struggle.

Most of the letters were a full page long – in some cases, longer than their research essays had been. <sigh> And…almost every single one included lots of specific examples of how a teacher had helped them. (Specific evidence included, with no teeth pulling and revision, on a rough draft? Wow!)

letter writingThat assignment went so well, and they enjoyed it so much, that a few days later I decided to have them write another letter – this time to a “future sixth grader”.

I asked them to think back to that first day of middle school, when they were all so tiny (lots of laughs here – some of them are still tiny) and scared. What would have helped them to read that first day? Reassurance? Advice? Warnings? I suggested that they could advise students about things so next year’s kids will be successful in Faircloth’s class (“don’t throw things”, “bring a writing utensil every day”, “don’t lean back in your chair”, “Faircloth likes chocolate”…)

Again, awesomeness erupted!

Their writing voices were clear, and they had fun with deciding what to include. Some earnestly reassured the new student that locker combinations would get easier as the weeks went by, or that they would get used to the floating schedule by the end of the month.

Others gave advice about not just my class, but about my colleagues as well (Exclamation points abounded!!!!!):

  • “Don’t ever tell Mr. P that you don’t like BACON!”
  • “Don’t take your phone out in the hall by Mr. L’s room, he’ll take it!!!!”
  • “Mrs. W gives you LOTS of projects, but she’s still chill!”
  • “Don’t chew gum in Mr. G’s room!”

And about the 8th Grade hallway:

  • “Don’t ever go down it or they will shove you in a locker and leave you!” (Not true, but apparently it is funny to perpetuate this myth.)

And then there were the friends who created warnings about throwing things in my class (I really hate that). One group of boys explained how I once threw one of them out the window, and he “broke every bone in [his] body! Thank goodness there (sic) was snow out or [he] would have died!”

Then, his friends made sure to include a warning: “If you throw things in Mrs. Faircloth’s room, you will get in trouble. Just ask my friend W – she threw him out a window!”

The stories-as-warnings continued, though most of the letters ended with a caveat not to take the letter too seriously.

(After I stopped laughing, I went downstairs and let my principal know that he might be getting some concerned parent phone calls during the first week of school, and showed him some examples so he can reassure parents that the students had their first lesson about satire in sixth grade.)

This is all going so well, that I’m not done yet. I’m going to try this letter thing one last time – taking a cue from Dickens – and have them write a letter introducing themselves to their 7th grade teacher. I will give those to my colleagues when the schedules are done in the fall. I was telling that brilliant colleague who got this started (remember Tiffany?) about the letters and she actually requested the letters of introduction to help her get a sense of the students she will have next year.

The kids are enjoying writing, learning the conventions of a letter, and I’m loving this way to end the year!

 

 

Monday Reads: A Man Called Ove

I just finished A Man Called Ove and can’t stop telling everyone I know about it. I’m sure I’m late to the game, since the book has been made into a film that already showed in our second-run theatre, but I just fell in love with the story!

Rachelle and I were texting about the book last week, because she loves it as much as I do. According to Rachelle, the “similes, metaphors, and analogies are uncanny and as far from cliche as possible.” One of her students told her, after reading Ove, that the author “seems to say things you’ve thought about your whole life, but were unaware of having thoughts about.”

I am drawn to books with vivid characterization. Plot and setting are important, but I have to care about the characters to be willing to finish an entire book.

I cared about Ove. I wanted him to be my neighbor. I wanted to invite him over for dinner just so he could frown at the way I do things at my house. I imagine that he would huff and puff and then fix the hole in the wall in our hallway (don’t ask, it will just get my husband fired up if I tell the story). I think he would tell me off, and then repair the cupboard door that has a crack in it. I imagine that he would frown at my cat, but then he would let her follow him around, hoping he would deign to pet her.

Man Called OveAside from being a book that MUST go on your “Books I Want to Read” list, Frederick Backman has given us a mentor text for teaching students about indirect characterization.

Ove is, on the surface, a grouchy old man. But he is also lonely and sad after the death of his wife. He contemplates committing suicide, but wants to do it “properly”, leaving little mess behind for anyone. As his attempts are continually interrupted by his neighbor, Parvaneh, along with her family, the reader wants him to see the joy that surrounds him in neighbors that care about him.

Ove is a man who has never had children. His discomfort with them is apparent in the indirect characterization in a scene where he has given Parvaneh and her children a ride to the hospital. Then Parvaneh leaves the kids with Ove for a moment while she goes to a patient’s room. The three-year-old asks him to read a book to her:

“Read!” she orders him in an excitable manner, holding up a book with her arms stretched out so far that she almost loses her balance.

Ove looks at the book more or less as if it just sent him a chain letter insisting that the book was really a Nigerian prince who had a ‘very lucrative investment opportunity’ for Ove and now only needed Ove’s account number ‘to sort something out.”

Students can consider what information the second paragraph gives us about Ove. The letter from Nigeria is so ubiquitous that most readers can relate to how “icky” they are. But they are also almost laughable – something that few people with any common sense will get tricked by today. So comparing the children’s book to the letter shows the level of discomfort Ove feels about being asked to read to the child. If he actually reads to her, in his mind he will be succumbing to a ruse being implemented by a swindler of grand proportions.

There are any number of incidents of indirect characterization like this, showing Ove’s thoughts about something, revealing his true feelings about a person or task. With 5 or 6 different examples, small groups could analyze what the indirect characterization reveals about Ove and consider how the author uses the internal thoughts to reveal aspects of his personality.

Regardless of whether you teach, or what age you teach, this book is now one of my absolute favorites. And I leave you with this thought:

You. Must. Read. It!

 

Monday Reads: Airborn – A Student Recommendation

In this guest post, written by one of Cyndi’s students, sixth-grader Cassie shares her thoughts about one of her favorite reads from this year:

The book Airborn by Kenneth Oppel is an absolutely amazing book. My teacher, Mrs. Faircloth, recommended this book to my class and I with a booktalk, and to me it sounded interesting.

airebornAirborn is a fiction book about Matt Cruise, a cabin boy aboard the airship Aurora, and a rich girl named Kate de Vries, and the two of them go on this adventure filled with pirates, magical sky creatures, and much more.

In the very beginning of the book Matt spots a small air balloon with an unconscious explorer inside. The explorer is the grandfather of Kate, and without his death the story would have never happened because of his journal…but you will have read the book to learn more about him.

My favorite part is when they get shipwrecked, an important part. Why? Read it to find out!

My favorite quote was, “Beautiful creatures. They. Were. Beautiful.” This was spoken by the explorer as he died, being almost saved by Matt.

I recommend this book to you because it is an amazing one, and I really enjoyed it. And also, if you enjoy reading this book, there are two more books after this one.

You better get reading!

Rollercoaster Ride to Summer

I had a moment of real anticipation last week. Followed by a moment of near panic.

The anticipation felt a bit like that moment at the top of a roller coaster, right before the train of cars starts swooping downward at intense speed. You know what I mean – the moment before the part of the ride that you know will include people screaming, some waving their hands in the air,  some gripping the safety bar so tightly that they are white knuckled.

IMG_3357It was the moment that I realized we had only 10 weeks of school left. (Reminder that I teach middle school, so I probably WILL see kids waving hands in the air, screaming, and gripping their pencil and planner tightly because they are terrified about change, or that the person sitting next to them will notice them, or that the teacher will call on them and they won’t know the answer…but that aspect of the metaphorical rollercoaster is probably another blog post)

It was the moment when I remembered how the 10 weeks (now 9) will fly by. I remembered that there will be weeks given over to state assessments and time will be lost to kids being pulled from class for their testing windows. Teachers have to plan flexible activities for those weeks, because many kids are tired, stressed, and/or overwhelmed by change and the interruption in routine can be really difficult.

It was the moment when I remembered that many of our sixth graders will be at Science camp for a week.

And then there is the last week of school which, for all practical purposes, won’t include much new material. We will focus on wrapping up projects, giving kids time to finish missed work, and doing all the end-of-year things that have to happen: cleaning lockers, turning in library books, music performances, finding missing classroom books, turning in PE clothes, awards ceremonies….the list goes on. All of those things are important in their own way, it just changes classroom planning.

And they take time.

Those weeks will go quickly. I started breaking down our research unit from the final product into pieces in my head:

  • Typing and editing final drafts (3 days)
  • Revising drafts (2 days)
  • Writing intermediate drafts (1 day)
  • Researching (2-3 days)
  • Writing first drafts (1-2 days)
  • Researching (4-6 days)

With a four-day week, this amounts to about 4 weeks worth of learning – but this is for one assignment, and they are supposed to write two more informational pieces so I’m potentially a week short of the time needed to do it twice.

Because, of the 10 remaining weeks, we will have serious engagement for about 7 of them. Which, all of a sudden, made me really excited (Yay! Spring! Sunshine! Summer is almost here!), and then panicked (as I processed the list above), about the approach of summer.

(I’m not the only teacher to notice the problems that Spring Fever brings. Amber Chandler shares some ideas for addressing this in a blog post. Though we disagree about metaphors – because she feels that time stops for her students, rather than speeding up!)

We’ll figure it out – somehow we always do. But my thought that “I have 3 months till the end of school” became “Oh wait! We don’t really get to count June because we finish right at the beginning and, oh yeah, what about testing…and Science Camp…and end-of-the-year…Rats!”

This isn’t an unfamiliar feeling; I think I feel the “rollercoaster effect” every year.

Just when we are hitting our stride – kids really know the classroom routines (even the kids who have been distracted have finally figured out that the bell activity is written out on the slide at the front of the room) – I realize that it’s time to start winding down the year.

We’ve slogged slowly (metaphorically) up the hill on the rollercoaster of the school year, creaking and listening to the machinery clack (like the rattling heater in my room…am I carrying this metaphor too far here?) and now we realize that it is a downhill race to the end of the year.

IMG_3360It stresses me out, but it is also part of why I love my job. So many things go smoothly because kids are demonstrating mastery of things (well, many of them are). But time also goes by quickly because we are busy and (mostly) having fun. That routine and the anticipation of summer break brings happy smiles more often than not.

Despite the rollercoaster, I really love being a teacher. Or, maybe, it’s actually because of it.

Class Size Matters

The assistant principal met with one of my students before class today. He called to let me know that the student was coming in late, and then emailed me with the student’s request that I not “give him any more attention than the other students.” Apparently, the student is feeling overwhelmed and singled out.

Funny, I was actually thinking that I might not have paid enough attention to him last quarter.

He didn’t do well, having missed turning in a lot of assignments. But then, he also missed a number of classes.

Based on my past experience with students who had 504 plans or a diagnosis related to anxiety, I was thinking that he might be struggling with that. I’m not a counselor or doctor, so who knows for sure, but as most teachers can attest: we often recognize patterns in student behavior that make us part of the first line of defense in student mental health. (That’s why schools have procedures for teachers to make referrals to the counselor as a ‘heads up’ – but that’s another blog post…)

An article in The Atlantic cites a study that reported : 

There has been a significant increase in anxiety and depression from 1950 to present day in teens and young adults and…. five to eight times as many children and college students reported clinically significant depression or anxiety than 50 years ago.

The article reports that a similar trend is true fanxiety-quoteor 14 to 16 year olds between 1948 to 1989.

That’s scary. Because the article goes on to discuss the increase in suicide for teens and young adults. Connected? The article seems to suggest this.

I often hear adults commenting about how “busy life is” and how “things are different” from when they were kids. The Atlantic article focuses on how over-scheduled children are today, so they miss out on many chances to play. Kindergarten teachers can tell you how important play is for students to practice social skills and to make friends.

I don’t know the background of my student and what causes him to be so anxious in class, but I have seen other students who have similar behaviors:

  • regular stomach aches in class whenever we start a new assignment
  • a “surface smile” (while they tell me that they are almost done with a missing assignment)
  • Almost every grade spot in the gradebook is empty behind their name
  • Regular absences
  • Kind, giving personalities that demonstrate that they want to make others happy
  • Often (but not always), there are family stressors happening at home

This is an example of one of those areas of societal health and social behaviors that schools can influence but not fix. Teachers are often part of the touchstone for whether a student is doing ok or not.

Please don’t mistake me: Parents are definitely the first line of defense. But teachers often have some perspective that parents don’t. We see dozens of students for extended periods of time every day. That helps us notice when a student is acting in way that doesn’t fit the age group.

When teachers and parents work together, we can catch students who are at-risk at a much earlier point. Early interventions in student health may be a factor in how they respond to treatments.

class-sizeThis is one reason that class size matters so much in education. When the class is a manageable size, it allows a teacher time to work one-on-one with more students or with small groups. We get to know individual students better, are able to intervene and differentiate as needed, and we can note when those strategies don’t work and work with parents to develop new ones and engage outside help, as needed, to help the student.

In this age of over-scheduling and busy families, it seems even more important to focus on schools and how we can support the student.

    

 

Matchbook Summaries

My brilliant teaching partner, Paige, came up with this idea for our students. She calls them “matchbook summaries” and we’ve used them in several ways this year.

Most recently, we were teaching students about plot and how each chapter should move a story forward. In the classic novel, The Cay, each chapter has a mini-conflict that moves the story toward the ultimate climax. Sometimes the mini-conflict is resolved, sometimes it isn’t.

We wanted to see how students understood this concept, and asked them to create a matchbook summary as a formative assessment.

The process to create the format is easy:

  1. Give each student a 3×5 index card.
  2. They turn it sideways and fold it almost in half, leaving a ¼ inch or so at the top.
  3. Fold over this last little bit, so the final product looks a bit like a matchbook.

matchbook-summary-how-toWhen they finished, we asked students to choose a chapter from the previous day’s readings. They labeled the ¼ inch flap with the chapter number, and then drew an illustration of the major conflict in that chapter. (Note – my students are 6th graders, so the artistic ability tended heavily toward the stick figure).

Then, inside the matchbook cover, they had to write out:

  • matchbook-summary-product

    Examples of matchbook summaries from my Fall 2016 students.

    What they thought the major conflict was in the chapter

  • Whether it was man v. man, man v. nature, man v. society, or man v. self
  • Whether they thought it was resolved within that chapter and
  • If “yes”, they said how the resolution happened; if “no”, they made a prediction about how it would be resolved later.


This could be used as a formative assessment in other ways too:

  • Write a claim to answer a text-based question on the outside and list three pieces of evidence on the inside.
  • Identify a key character and draw a picture with details from the text on the outside, include a key quote from the character on the inside, along with an explanation of why that quote is significant.
  • Make a prediction about a story on the outside, along with evidence from the story and reasoning for the prediction on the inside.

The format is simple, allows for a creative output from students, but lets the teacher require text-based answers to a specific learning target.

When we did this for The Cay the first time, it felt like a trick. Students were actually excited about the task, were looking for details in their chapter – rereading and thinking more deeply about what they had read. While the products weren’t brilliant pieces of artwork that will be hung in the Louvre, most demonstrated critical thinking about the concept of conflict, and an understanding of how the plot in the novel was developing.

What ideas have you used for formative assessment that incorporates drawing or another non-written product?