Wednesday, January 9, 2019

When Less is More

Sometimes we have a tendency to forget. We forget how things really and truly are. We forget our audience and end up being disappointed with the results. When in reality, it's our fault.

I want to share with you today a moment where I realize how far I have come. How much I have improved over the years as a teacher. This week, I decided to resurrect an old assignment. It's probably been 6-8 years since I did it last (I know this because the last modified date was 2013). I'm surprised it even opened up on my computer.

I was reading it, cringing the entire time.

Good idea.

Poor execution.

I had a HUGE paragraph as the instructions on the page. How stupid of me. For a two main reasons...

First. I forgot who I was teaching. 13-14 year old kids. They don't want to read paragraphs. In reality, non of us want to fuddle through an entire paragraph filled with detailed instructions. I'm sure the kids NEVER actually read it.

And I'm sure I was frustrated when they would ask me questions that were "hidden" in that paragraph. I'm sure I responded with... "Didn't you read the instructions?"

Second. It wasn't CLEAR. Yes, I had included all that they needed to do, but it read more like a blog post instead of getting right to the point. Kids need clear expectations on what to do. They are capable of doing great things, following directions, and being independent... if we, the adults, are crystal clear on what we are asking.

In the case of teaching middle school students... LESS IS MORE.

The last few years, I have almost lived by that phrase... I try to see how much can I tell my students in the fewest words possible. My directions on worksheets now consist of one sentence if that and bullets or steps if a larger project requires multiple steps.

And when you really sit down and think about it... we are the same way.

No adult wants to read three paragraphs of information to be told to do one thing. Why would we think kids want to? We are who we teach.

Less is more people.

Try it out. Cut your directions down to the exact NEED TO KNOWS and I bet you get just as good or better results.

Be clear. Be short. Don't ramble.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Social Studies Shorts

Wanna a quick and easy project for your students, that embeds content and technology, doesn't eat up a ton of time, and has LOTS of options????

Look no further than "Social Studies Shorts."

This isn't a new idea for a project. Our English teacher has done it in her ELA classroom before, and I thought it was cool and filed it away into my "someday I'll try that" folder.

Then I was reminded of it by Adam Topliff, an awesome teacher in my PLN. He did it with his 8th graders over the Articles of Confederation, and I figured it would be a great thing to use as my "semester final project" for my 8th graders over Lewis and Clark. I believe he got the idea from education consultant, Curtis Chandler. (You should follow both on Twitter @mrtopliff and @CurtisChandler6 ) for great ideas.

As I've said before, I don't typically do the same thing year after year. I am always looking to revamp and find new ways for students to work with the content. One thing that does typically stay the same in my history classes is starting with an essential question.

I love to present the question at the start of a lesson and then spend the next few days having the students investigate and prepare to answer the question. It's HOW they answer the question where I'm always looking to shake things up.

This year, I took a lesson over Lewis and Clark that I've done pretty much the same way the last two or three years. The lesson is a good one, a Structured Academic Controversy (SAC). I wrote a blog about it last year...find that post here. That lesson comes from SHEG. I am using the same materials from the SHEG lesson, but the end result isn't a structured debate between students, but a short film created instead referred to as "Social Studies Shorts"

Check out this video example of a Social Studies Short.


When Mr. Topliff tweeted that he was planning one of these for his students, a little light clicked! That would be a fun alternate way to answer our big Lewis and Clark question. So I set to work creating the project.

***I will note, that I may have been VERY specific about requirements and details on the rubric. I find that the first time I do a certain type of technology project the more specific I am helps the kids figure it all out. Later in the year, if this is presented again as an option, students are given more "freedom" for creativity.***

The Essential Question
Were Lewis and Clark respectful to the Native Americans they met on their journey?

STEP 1: Gather Evidence by completing the evidence analysis chart. There will be 5 stations for students to rotate through. Each station has a different document to analyze. This will be done at the student's own pace and can be done with a partner if they choose. (Evidence from SHEG activity… https://sheg.stanford.edu/history-lessons/lewis-and-clark )

Quick image of the document. For full access scroll to the bottom of the page.

Quick image of the document. For full access scroll to the bottom of the page.

STEP 2: Fill out the Persuasive Graphic Organizer Sheet. This will be done individually using the information learned while studying the evidence provided. (I just searched for "Persuasive Essay Graphic Organizer" and picked one that I liked)
STEP 3: Prepare the Social Studies Short
  1. Create a Script of what to say on camera.
  2. Content MUST HAVES:
    1. Introduction: Title, who, what, when, and where (basic information about the expedition.)
    2. Answer the "essential question"
    3. Provide at least THREE pieces of evidence to back up claim.
    4. Acknowledge the counterargument and its weakness
    5. A conclusion Statement.
  3. Visual MUST HAVES
    1. Essential Question Typed and printed.
    2. Locate images and create other text that can be used as you narrate your video.

STEP 4:  Video your short.
  1. Find a video partner.
  2. One videos with the iPad while the other presents
  3. Switch roles
  4. Complete any final editing need and upload final product to Google Classroom.

Here is an example of a finished video from Nolan.




All in all, they enjoyed this project, I was able to integrate technology effectively with my content, students studied primary and secondary sources in order to back up their claim, and work collaboratively to film their videos. Social Studies Shorts will definitely make a repeat appearance in my class this year! 

I love the versatility of this project. So many options... and it can be as long and detailed or short and sweet as you need it to be. Individual or team project...larger project answering an essential question...or explaining a single vocabulary word in context. Lots of options to fit your classroom needs!

I will mention, that when I told the students that this project "used to be done as a small round-table debate" they REALLY wished we would have done that. I found that they were really into the topic and wanted to discuss their opinions. If I do the "Social Studies Shorts" with this topic next year, I will do it as a follow-up to the debates.

Want the resources for this project and not just pictures? Click HERE for my Google Folder!

Friday, December 14, 2018

Reflecting and Making Tough Decisions

I have said this many times, the best teachers are reflective teachers. They make changes based on what went well and what didn't. They listen to the students, because sometimes these "kids" have some pretty great ideas on how they would like to learn. 

And when they're not ready. 

Sometimes, they come right out and tell us. And sometimes they are a afraid to say just what's on their mind. But if you get to know your students as more than just the "kids in your class" you'll start to be able to pick up on what they're NOT telling you... but showing you. 

My 7th graders have been working on a really cool project over our "Bleeding Kansas" unit. I stole the idea from a high school teacher. The project involved the kids researching a person and then "becoming" that person for a press conference style interview.

I LOVE this project idea. I love the depth of knowledge and rigor attached to it. The kids don't just research and regurgitate the information back, they truly have to get to know the person they researched and infer their answers based on their knowledge. Cross-curricular research skills, oral communication skills, and historical thinking. Win - Win - Win. 

For me. 

And then last night, while I was awake and couldn't sleep at 3:00 AM, I started playing little signs over and over in my head. As much as I didn't want to admit it...my 7th graders weren't ready for this.  Some of the signs were...
  • The questions I kept getting... "Is this really in front of the class?" "How long do I have to be up there?" "Can I have my research form while I'm presenting?" 
  • The kids in tears during our "soft deadline" because they were so anxious and nervous. 
  • The emails I got the night before our due date. I NEVER get emails from kids at home. I got three after 9:00
  • The emails from parents giving me a "heads up" about their child's nerves.

And then I started to think more about my classroom and why they may not actually be "ready." 
  • This is their first BIG project with me that involves research, cited sources, and a presentation. 
  • The presentation is not only an individual one, but it also requires some high-level thinking skills...in front of their peers.
  • We haven't actually done ANY type of oral presentation in class. Nothing. 
  • They haven't even done any speeches or presentations in their ELA class for me to "piggy back" off of. 

One of the things I love about being a teacher is the amount of control I have in my day. For the most part, my principal trusts me to teach my kids the content I'm required and do it to the best of my ability. HOW I decide to do that is completely up to me. I can make changes as I see fit. Sometimes those changes are easy. Sometimes they're more difficult. 

By 3:30 AM I had made the decision to change it up. The focus of this project wasn't the oral presentation. It was the research skills and content surrounding the important people during the turbulent time period leading up to the Civil War. Instead of orally presenting to in front of their peers, 7th graders would create a Spark Video about their person. Within that video they were still required to make inferences based on what they learned and answer specific content-related questions. 

This was not an easy decision. I LIKE the press conference project, and I am a big advocate for challenging your students and making them step outside their comfort zone. I put A LOT of work into creating it, but it's not about me. This was a HUGE jump outside the comfort zone for some. Creating fear and anxiety was NOT the goal. For the record, I still think this is something middle school students can do, but I think it is more suited for the end of 7th grade (at the earliest) or 8th grade. I will revisit this project again.

Sometimes doing what's best for students means putting aside your own pride and the amount of work that you put in to it, in order to get the quality of work your students are capable of. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

100 Things...

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever received was this...

"Find the best teacher you can, stick close to them, and steal any ideas you can from them to use in your own classroom."

And the best teachers out there will always let you steal from them. The best teachers are those who aren't only trying to improve themselves, but they love to see other teachers get better too. That's what we all want...to see those in our profession get better everyday. 

Today's blog post is an idea that I stole from one of the best. 

T.J. Warsnak. And he really is one of the best...a finalist for Kansas Teacher of the Year this year. So, yeah, I'm going to steal anything I can from him...and this is a good one!

The idea is to get the students involved in discussion and brainstorming. This is when you're looking for a large list that the class can use to start something new. In my case I wanted the kids to brainstorm different ways to present information. T.J. used the goal of 250 things for his high schoolers, I modified it down to 100 for my 7th grade students. 

Today we needed ideas on ways to present information. You see...at the middle school level, when I say create a "presentation" 9 times out of 10 I get some sort of slide presentation...Google Slide or PowerPoint. The kids get tunnel vision. Today, I didn't want a slide presentations, so we started with the whole class brainstorm activity 100 Ways...

My students sit in teams. I have 6 teams in my room and each group was given a small white board and an Expo marker. I explained that we need to come up with as many ideas on how to present information as we can. Their task was to write down as many presentation ideas as possible in 3 minutes. They could (and should) use their Chromebooks to Google ideas. As a class I set a goal for 100 ways to present material.




When time was up, we shared out. I typed up their responses as they shared out. It was OK to repeat ideas, so "talk show" might have showed up 3 different times. Who cares. They came up with talk show. And debate, and mock trials, and Spark Video, and Game Shows, and Timelines, and over 100 more!

This was awesome! A great way to spur discussion, get all kids involved and give them a goal to reach. You should have seen the eyes of my 7th graders when I said our goal was 100 things. And how proud they were at the end when we reached it! 

Then we preceded onto our activity for the day...Mystery Box Challenge. A SUPER fun way to engage students, force creativity and collaboration, while working under pressure. Want to know more about that...click here!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

"Polish it Up" Day

As a building this year, we've discussed the topic of mastery grading quite a few times. We look at the positives and challenges of moving in this direction. The results have been that I am engaging in some serious self-reflection on my policies in class, and how I go about allowing for kids to truly show their best work and continue learning.

I've started small. Allowing redos on assignments and assessments for students who struggled. This is largely student-initiated. I make a comment on their grade in the grade book simply stating "Can be redone for a better grade" and pretty much leave it up to the student to take it from there.

This is a challenging shift. Students aren't accustomed to having the opportunity to redo their work. Middle school kids often fall into the "just get it done so I don't have homework" trap all too often. How do we shift their thinking from "get it done" to "learn the material"?

It's a work in progress. I'm working on ways to find time within our school days to work with students who need help. It's hard. There's only so much time within the school day, and outside of that just isn't a possibility between activities that students have and the current demands of my family life. I am currently expecting baby #4...by March I'll have four kiddos under the age of 7. I don't have the luxury (or the energy at the moment) to spend much more time on school outside of the contracted school day. So that leaves me with trying to search for creative solutions within the 8 school hours of the day.

Enter... .Polish it Up Day!


While scrolling through Twitter one night before bed (the MAGIC of Twitter PLN is the effortless scrolling that results in great ideas!) I came across a teacher who was doing a "Zap Zeros" day on the final day of the semester. Allowing students to turn in any late assignment that was a 0.

Ohhh...that's something I can work with.

I don't have a ton of 0's...I pretty much accept work throughout the semester, BUT I can use this idea to help with our "time" issue and allowing students the opportunity to improve. Growth mindset.

The last day of the semester before Christmas break, I plan on offering the class period to any student who wants to improve their grades. I'm calling it... Polish it Up Day! Students can work on any assignment, essay, or assessment that could improve their overall grade. This opportunity won't just be open to the students with low grades, but ANYONE with ANY chance at improvement will have the opportunity.  So the student with the 68% has a chance to bump up to a C and the student with a 94 has a chance to increase also! Growth mindset and continued learning is something that we should instill in all our kids, not just the ones who struggle.

This is the first year I'm trying this. I plan to promote it to students and parents in the next coming weeks and hope to have many students take advantage of this opportunity. Could you think of the possibilities if we were able to offer this throughout the school on that last day? How many kids would love the time to improve?

Does your school have a system for allowing students the opportunity and time for redoing assignments and assessments? Have you run into some struggles with this? Do you have solutions? I'd love to talk with you more!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Let's Talk About Rubrics

One thing I love about the teaching profession is that we are always constantly learning, growing, trying new things...all in the process of becoming better. This is true whether it's your first year and you're improving from the first month of school to the second and it's true if you're a veteran teacher who decides to try something different to "shake things up." There is always an opportunity to learn and improve.

One thing I am learning more and more as I keep going is how important it is to have clear expectations. Now, it's not that I didn't know that I needed that when I started, but I keep learning that what I think is "clear" doesn't necessarily translate that way to my 7th and 8th grade students. I find that they ALWAYS do better when I am as simply specific as possible with my expectations.

Don't let that fool you. I didn't say I lower my expectations.

I simplify my explanation of the expectations so that it is as clear as possible.

I am constantly getting better at this.

And one of my favorite examples is with my rubrics.

I am a FIRM believer in having rubrics to score students on. Nothing is more frustrating for a student to receive a score on a project or assignment and not have a clear picture as to why they were given that score. So when I'm making and using rubrics in my classroom, I'm always keeping in mind this #1 major rule...

As the teacher...the person setting the expectation...I will NOT take off points if it's not listed on the rubric.

I just don't feel like it's ethical for me to hand out a lower grade to a student for something that wasn't mentioned in the expectations. This means at times, when I'm doing a brand new project or assignment, I have left off something that I should have graded on. Opps. My bad. I don't just "make it up on the spot." I write it down for something to add to the rubric next year. This year's kids get a pass on that issue.

Having this #1 rule has also lead me to having a variety of rubrics in the past. I started with using something sort of a scale (one of my favorite versions from my college methods class). It looks like this.



Then after about 5 years of teaching, our curriculum director challenged me to paint a truer picture of what the students would get by using the traditional 5-3-1 chart rubric. This would give clear expectations as to what a "5" score would get, what a "3" score and below. I liked it. It allowed me to give VERY DETAILED lists of what I expected and what the students needed to do to achieve a specific score. Here is an example...

BUT... I discovered something. A problem that many teachers seem to face. The kids DON'T USE THE RUBRIC. If I'm lucky...they glance at it right before turning in the project. Only a handful of the students actually spend the time using the rubric to guide themselves through the project. I found that those detailed 5-3-1 charts were almost TOO DETAILED.

Too detailed? How can something have too much detail. Well...if you're 12-14 years old (or older or younger) you get overwhelmed with having to look at too much.

I do still use the 5-3-1 rubric with my students, primary with their written responses. I try to make it as specfic as possible with little clutter. This is an example of my writing rubric (from a non-ELA teacher trying to score content primarily.



I've been on a recent mission to give kids a rubric that tells them the requirements, gives them the information they need to know with as few words as possible. This next example is one of my recent favorites and I've found myself using this as a template more and more.

And finally, sometimes I want a rubric that is as generic as possible, but allows me the freedom to provide comments and feedback for the reasoning of the score. I stole this idea on Twitter (I can't remember the original poster...so if it was you, thank you!)


Sometimes creating the perfect rubric for a project takes a lot of research about rubrics and what you're trying to achieve, and what you want your students to achieve. These are just examples of some of my favorites. I still use all of these types of rubrics depending on the assignment or project. Don't hesitate to steal anything from this blog post or contact me to talk more about it!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Projects: Mid-Point Status Check

Confession. Once upon a time, in the early days of my teaching, I use to assign a project when I need time to "catch up."

I would create some kind of project, usually that involved drawing/illustrating something, that could take 2-3 days, just so the kids would leave me alone and I could sit at my desk and grade papers, send emails, and take care of other "things" that always seem to pop up.

I am now older and wiser...

Today I proved just that.

My 8th graders are in full swing of their archaeology dig project. This is a long-term project that ends with the students presenting their findings to a team of judges. With this project there are LOTS of "real life" lessons to be learned. Teams create a working contract, use resources provided to them, make daily goals, keep track of the work they do, and are tasked with trying to develop self-management skills.

Self-management skills are H-A-R-D for 14 year old students to develop. There are so many things that can distract them from accomplishing their goals. But it is a skill that we must develop. So I sort of "leave them alone" so they can figure it out. For a bit...

Other than checking in with a simple...how are things going as I make "rounds" around the room, I try to give them some space to figure out their roles, a timeline for progress, and using the resources I provide them. Some teams and students are good at this. Most aren't. I let them try to figure it out, I let them struggle a bit...but I'm not going to let them fail the project because they were going off in the wrong direction. Most groups need a redirect, and they got that today.

Today we had a mid-point "status check." I went around and had a little meeting with each group. In this meeting we discussed their progress so far. If they were behind, I gave them tips on how to divide the work to make up for some of that loss time. If they were missing key requirements, I shed light on that. If they need some formatting tips, I show them some things they can do to help the "look" of their presentation.


The most impressive group of the day! TWO THUMBS UP!

Talk about VALUABLE time spent! So much progress was made today by each group. Some realized they hadn't been following the instructions at all, some saw simple things they could do to improve, others asked questions they've been "thinking" but felt silly coming to me to ask.

Now that I am older and wiser, my projects are much more in-depth and require higher thinking skills. This means that I can no longer just sit at my desk and catch up on paper-work. I have to be moving around, involved with their progress, observing, guiding...but still allowing them to develop. It's a process, and one I'm still improving on everyday.