Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Short on time? Try a Mini-Breakout

A few posts ago, I wrote about BreakoutEDU and how cool it is for the classroom.  I just LOVE the concept and how it can combine collaboration, problem solving, and critical thinking with content. (Read that post here.)

But I get it.  Sometimes teachers don't have the time to sit down and plan or set up an entire breakout that's going to take a majority of the class period (if not a couple days depending on time and post-breakout discussion.).  And sometimes it's just plain over-whelming.  Too much to think about during the precious few minutes of plan time.

Today I scaled it back.  Instead of creating a game filled with a variety of locks and clues, I used just one.  One lock, one locked box, with one "puzzle" to solve.

I really had no real idea how it would go.  I decided to try it on my HS class of future teachers. (Read about my Teaching as a Career Class here).  I have told them many times this year...since it is the first year for the program...that they are my guinea pigs.  This time, I was testing out how a Mini-Breakout would work to teach new vocabulary terms.

It was awesome!

Here's what I did.

I selected four of the most difficult vocabulary words on our next topic and  used a basic "Frayer Model" type of vocabulary template.  Word. Definition. Example. Image.  I filled in all areas of the chart with correct information. I did this for each word giving me a total of four Frayer model vocabulary cubes.

I then went to work making my QR codes.  Using Google Docs and a free QR code generator I created the link the code would take the students to, looking something like this...

Whoop Whoop!

I created a separate one for each word, each with a different number.

I placed the QR Code in the center of the Frayer Model square, printed off the four vocabulary cards and cut them into four separate pieces.

An example of one of cards I made. I had a total of 4.

Shuffle the pieces all together.

Now the fun part.  I placed a 4 digit lock on a small lock box (anything that locks would work here...even a zipper pouch with at least two zips in order to lock it.)  Wrote the words "Alphabetical Order" on the board as a clue... some saw that right away, others had to be directed.

When class started students were randomly placed at a table which had the lock box and set of cards. We briefly reviewed the Frayer Model and reminded them that each block of 4 cards would include a word, definition, example and image.

I smiled, told them that this would be MUCH MORE FUN than copying down definitions on a worksheet, and told them to begin.

That's it, no other instruction on what to do and how to figure it out.  I just let them go and attempt to work with their partner to figure it out.  Some groups knew what to do right away, while others had to practice a little "growth mindset" before realizing what they needed to do.

Eventually all groups had it figured out.  If all four squares were correctly put together, the QR code would take them to a number for that word.  If you put all the words (with their numbers) in alphabetical order you would have the correct 4 digit combination to get into the locked box.

Success!  This "trial run" on my high school class told me that I don't have to spend hours pouring over clues and locks and content to create something fun and engaging in class.  This is definitely something I will do again with my middle school classes.  It took me one day to pull it all together.  Definitely time worth spent!

***My HS students have had experience with Breakout EDU and understand the basic idea behind using QR codes and trying to figure out how to break into a locked box.  If your class hasn't ever done anything like this before, you may need to give more instruction than I did.

Seriously...Stop Talking!

Let me know if you've heard this before...

"My students just will not read instructions. Ugh...they should be able to do that by now."
"These kids are soooo needy.  They are driving me crazy with all their questions." 
"How come these student won't just try to problem solve and try to figure something out on their own?" 
"I gave those instructions five times already...how is that you haven't heard me?" 
"I cannot get those kids to work together.  They just won't listen to each other."

If you're a teacher (or a student) you have probably said and heard a variation of the above statements multiple times. And as a teacher it is extremely frustrating to say something and have to repeat yourself time and time again.  I have a solution for you.

Stop talking.


By the time students have entered middle school they have become experts at toning out the teacher's voice and thinking about whatever is interesting.  They know how to play the game of group work and do only what it necessary.  And they know that teachers with an apologetic smile they can get a teacher to repeat the instructions again.

Kids are smarter than we give them credit for...

Kids are smarter than they think they are.


So make them.  Remove yourself from the tedious work of "reading instructions."  Give it to them, tell them to read it with their teams, collaborate with others if they don't understand, and figure things out if they get stuck.  Remove the temptation.  Tape your mouth shut!

It is AMAZING what they will do on their own, when they don't have you to tell them.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Zoom In to History - Lesson for Students...and Teachers!

About 3 years ago I was first introduced to a new web program called Zoom In.  They were financed by the Bill and Linda Gates Foundation and were trying to create an online platform to help students use historical thinking skills, and help teachers learn how to best instruct these skills.  Because, let's face it.  Most of us were NOT taught this way, and most of us were not instructed on HOW to teach this way.

For me it was love at first sight.

And then I got the bad news.  The program wasn't completely iPad friendly, and we are 1:1 iPads.

But I was too much in love with this idea to just let it go.  So I did what I do best...I changed it up to fit the needs of my classroom. (What I would later find out is just what the creators of Zoom-In wanted me to do.) For this post I will be detailing what I did with the Zoom-In lesson over Lowell Mill Girls.  I will also provide a link to a Google Doc that has everything I did to make this paper/pencil or iPad friendly lesson.

Here's how it works.

Each lesson has an essential question and is divided into the following sections:

  1. The Hook
  2. Context Information
  3. Document Analysis
  4. Deeper Thinking Discussion
  5. Making Connections
  6. Written Response
Lowell Mill Girls:  This is the first Zoom-In on History lesson we will do for the year, so I will spend more time going through each of the different sections listed.  Eventually we are able to get to where I only participate in the discussions and they are able to do the rest independently.

The Essential Question
I take some time to break down the question and make sure the students know exactly what we are trying to answer.  Once they "get it" I show this quick video for some brief background knowledge (and the video plays the "unremitting clatter" noise that is talked about in the "Hook" activity.)

Students are placed in "Zoom-In" teams and given a folder which has all the materials they will need for this unit (a bunch of work to set up ahead of time, but saves valuable time later).

The Hook:
In their teams, students read and discuss the two quotes mentioned on this page.  We discuss the differences in the two opinions of working in the mills, identify any vocabulary we don't understand and start to see that there were some very different view about the opportunities for women and the hardships they encountered.

Setting up some background information.  I converted the activity from the website into a PowerPoint which share with the students.  They go through with their teams reading the slide, answering questions, and are prepared to discuss with the class.  **I do not read the slides to them. This is done in their teams.***  We then go through what they came up with on their slides and make sure they all understand. 

Document Analysis:  
Again, these are taken directly from the Zoom-In website.  I copied the documents and sourcing information into a Word document and then saved it as a PDF.  This allows my students to be able to open it in various apps on their iPads so they can highlight important information in the text to use later.  Students work in their teams to complete the document analysis form.  **This may seem like tedious worksheets, but it does help them to understand the document and start to pull out important details that will be used later to help form their opinion and in their written response.

Deeper Thinking Discussion: 
During this time I take specific questions that I want to go over, and use the teacher manual that comes with each Zoom-In lesson on their site. (Seriously...they have created such an awesome resource for teachers to instruct historical thinking).  We usually play some sort of Kagan game in order to make sure students have grasped the concepts of each document and the context of the time period.  My favorite is Numbered Heads Together.  I don't want this to take too long, just a quick over-view before they begin working on their own.

**Up until this time kids have been working in their Zoom-In teams.  I don't do much in the area of grading for the first three exercizes.  That was all team work, discussed in class, and not something I want to spend hours upon hours grading.  I usually take some sort of "completion" grade.  The bigger scores come next (and are worth my time grading) because the next activities are done individually.  This is where they prove to me what they know and can do.

Making Connections:
Here the students start to organize all the information they have learned about life as a Lowell Mill girl.  This "sets the stage" for their written response, which comes next.

Written Response:
Students now answer the essential question in written form.  The website actually walks them through step-by-step how to write a 3-5 paragraph essay, depending on the type of essential question.  Unfortunately, I just don't have the time for that in class, so my students usually need to respond with one or two paragraphs.  I always have a rubric for them to use (and to make grading SO MUCH EASIER).

And there you have it.  The first "Zoom In on History" lesson that I do with my 8th graders for the year.  We will do 3-5 more depending on time available within the year.  I have modified five of the lessons from the website to this version.
  1. Lowell Mill Girls
  2. Conflict of Nations - Indian Removal Act
  3. Underground Railroad (my personal favorite)
  4. Lincoln and Emancipation
  5. African American Soldiers during the Civil War
I don't always require a "written response" to answer the essential question.  Sometimes we do an interactive game such as Cut-Throat History or History Chef, or we might do some sort of technology integrated presentation.  

Want to check out Zoom-In site.  Cool Stuff and many more lessons to choose from!  Click Here

Want the materials to this lesson that I have modified?  Click HERE

Want more?  Contact me via Twitter @JillWebs or leave a comment!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

BreakoutEDU and the Serious Awesomeness it Brings to my Classroom!

I have stumbled onto a recent passion in education these last few years.

Putting more FUN into the everyday content that I teach.  This includes but is not limited to...
  • Using Kagan Cooperative Learning strategies to get kids up and moving.
  • Replacing lectures and worksheets with more active forms of learning in which students are still able to grasp an idea of the content.
  • Using reality TV shows to force students to be creative with historic content.
  • Find technology programs, apps, and games to transform the history into something else.
  • Creating projects that have more student voice and choice.
Basically I'm stealing anything that is fun, challenging, or different in order to make my classroom more "student-friendly."

Don't let that fool you.  There are still traditional days in here, but to give you an example.  My 8th graders will have listened to a grand total 6 lectures (all 20 minutes or less) the entire first semester. This number is down from approximately 15-20 just 3 years ago.  The cool part is, my kids are still learning the material without the seated, note-taking format.

And then last year I encountered my first "breakout" experience.

Breakout EDU comes from the "escape room" concepts in which a group of people are locked into a room and have to use a variety of clues and puzzles hidden throughout the room in order to escape. These are very popular forms of entertainment in cities throughout the country.  By participating in an escape room activity the participants use a variety of skills such as collaboration, problem solving, creativity, and perseverance.  All great "buzz" words in education today...and the workforce!

Bringing these skills into the classroom is as simple as locking a box.  That's about where the word "simple" ceases to exist.  The box is locked with many different lock options and the keys or combinations to the locks can only be found through solving a series of content related clues throughout the room.

Without a doubt one of the most fun ways to embed content into those "buzz word" type skills that can be hard (if not impossible) to teach in a traditional classroom.

The website houses over 250 already pre-made games that range from general team building to high school algebra, small group and large group games, even games for adults as well as the little ones in elementary school. (Click here for BreakoutEDU site)

I have now ran all of my classes through a breakout game.  Two of them have been made specifically by me.  I created a breakout on the Executive Branch to kick off our election unit.  My 8th graders loved it and are constantly asking to do another one.  My 7th grade breakout was created over Bleeding Kansas.  This could easily be adapted for a "Causes of the Civil War" Breakout and I'm sharing that here.  Feel free to try it out!

I now see the world completely different.  Everything is a potential puzzle, lock, or clue that could somehow be used to help engage kids in my classroom.   And as much as I love using it to help jazz up class, it's nothing compared to how excited the students get when they know a breakout is coming!

Monday, October 24, 2016

My New "Go-To" Historical Thinking Tool

If you have ever stopped by this blog before you have probably see me make mention of the fact that I am a HUGE believer in the power of professional development and developing a professional learning network.

If this is your first stop on this blog... I am a HUGE believer in the power of professional development and developing a professional learning network.

Awesome strategies, cool classroom ideas, growing in content knowledge as well as gaining new and useful techniques.  Always moving, changing, adding to lessons in order to make good things in your classroom become great.

All can be found through networking with other teachers.

Just like my new favorite historical thinking tool.  It's called the Evidence Analysis Window Frame, and it is awesome.  It's just a little plastic with some historical thinking questions, but it helped turn a lesson that I have done for 9 years...and done well, into a great lesson. With much less work required by me!

I tried them out for the first time while analyzing the American Progress painting by John Gast.  I have had my students analyze this painting every single year I have taught.  I have always felt like it was done well and students always seemed engaged and involved in the conversation.

This took it to a whole new level.

I printed off 12 color copies of the painting on 8x10 paper.

I split my class into two groups, one group went out into our large open space to work on another assignment, while I spent time with the other analyzing the painting.  This allowed me to focus on a small group of students at a time as well as accomplish multiple things in class that day.

I passed out the plastic covers and some small dry erase markers to the class.  We reviewed what historians do with a source as soon as they get it.  Source it.

These awesome overlays have the basic sourcing questions on the left side of the window.  I can have the students either circle where they find the answer on the painting or write the answer under the question.   Totally depended on the question and type of document.  Since this was a painting/image I had the students do a lot of marking up on the actual document itself.

Then we moved to the contextualization and corroboration side of the window.  I love it!  The work was done for me.  I had the questions to go off of and they had to locate the answers, or proof of their answers on the document.  SO MUCH LESS WORK THAN I DID BEFORE!

So...what were the results?

You can already guess what my thoughts were on the activity for the day.  Less work for me, engaging for the students, at least the same or even better understanding of the document than the previous lesson I had used. Win. Win. WIN!

What about the students?  I told them I was writing a blog post on these overlays and the lesson for the day, and asked them what they thought.  Here are just a few of the responses.

"This was awesome.  I loved the way we could actually write on the picture."
"I could see everything much clearer than before."
"This was interactive.  I totally understand Manifest Destiny better now."
"It was fun!" 
These will be used throughout my class on a pretty regular basis.  I can do a whole-class activity or small group or even use it as a station activity when I'm trying to incorporate many different concepts in one class period.

Ok...real deal now.  What about cost.  How much are these babies and how can I convince my district to get them for me?  Here's the deal.  You can get a set of 5 of these for less than 10$.  That's pretty good!  Order 25 and it's less than 40$.  I'm not sure what your school's financial state is and how willing the district is to help purchase items for the classroom.  But I will say, these are incredibly useful and worth the money.  PLUS...double bonus.  I if you're doing any kind of cross-curricular work with the language arts department, these can totally be used in that class as well!  I already gave one to our 8th grade language arts teacher!

Click here for the website to order.  This link will take you to the secondary version, there is also an elementary one if you click here.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Teaching as a Career

I took on a new challenge this year.  I like challenges.  I like to reflect and see how being challenged has helped me become a better teacher, friend, mother, or wife.  Challenges, although scary are exciting and good.

This year, for the first time since I student taught for 16 weeks 12 years ago, I am teaching a high school class.  And it's not even a class in my subject area (Social Studies).  The class I get to teach is exciting to me because it's something that I have grown passionate about in the last few years.


I have the opportunity, the challenge, and the privilege this year to teach a class for high school teachers who want to be teachers "when they grow up."  The class is called Teaching as a Career.

It is the most difficult thing I have done in 10 years.

There are days I feel like I have no clue what I'm doing.  I have no idea where to go from here.  What concept to teach next and how long to spend on each idea.  I have lost more sleep over this class in the last two months reflecting about the activities and lessons than I have in a very long time.

Because I don't just want this class to be good.

I want it to be awesome.  If these kids get nothing else out of the class, I want them to walk away knowing that being a teacher is awesome.  It's hard work, much harder than most know.  It often comes without an appreciation for all the time and work put in.  But there is no better feeling in the world than to watch kids walk away from your class with a smile or continuing the conversation in the hallway or at home.

Today my "Future Teachers" (as I like to call them) had the opportunity to put some of the things they have learned into action.  They had to prepare a professional development session for their high school teachers on Breakout EDU.

Let me just say that again and let it sink in a bit.

These...HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS presented a new concept for the classroom TO THEIR TEACHERS on a day they normally could have slept in.

Talk about an intimidating crowd.

They did an awesome job!  I was so proud of them as I walked around today watching them lead this activity.  They weren't perfect, there's room for improvement, but they did something today that many current TEACHERS have never attempted.  To speak and instruct other teachers.

What an awesome learning experience for everyone!

And now I have to figure out what to do next week.

PS...haven't checked out Breakout EDU yet?  Google it.  Now.  It's awesome.  More on that little gem coming later!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Archaeological Dig - Presentations & The Soft Deadline

The last few blog posts have been detailing the project that my 8th graders have spent the first portion of the school year working on.  I wanted to introduce the various topics of the school year to my students through the interaction and identification of historical artifacts.  I have split the blog posts about this project into three different sections.  (Click on the first two to read those posts)
  1. The Set-Up
  2. The Dig & Identification of Artifacts
  3. The Presentation and Reflection
The students spent the previous week(s) working on learning the basics of archaeology, participating in an actual dig, and identifying the artifacts they found.  And now that they have a good idea of what they uncovered and what the event of their dig represents, it's time to put it all together in order to present their findings to the class.  

I originally set out to have this blog post be about the requirements I set up for the presentation the students would give.  But then, on one of my evenings of attempting professional development in the comfort of my PJ's and watching Facebook Live videos about PBL (an area I'm very interested in, and slowly learning more about).  I stumbled upon some cool ideas...which happens often with PD in my PJs!  (Try it sometime!)

The first.  Allowing for student voice and choice in their presentations.  And while I absolutely love the idea of including more student voice and choice in my classroom.  I decided that this project wasn't the place for it.  Why?  Because past experience with allowing students to choose their presentation format ends up with one or two REALLY COOL ONES and the rest barely above crap. Harsh?  Yes, but part of allowing student to choose the way they present means that the learning is more focused in the process and the final product doesn't necessarily end up "pretty."

You see...I wanted these to be "pretty."  As in, I wanted to teach the students what makes a good presentation.  Otherwise, I end up with paragraphs typed in calligraphy font and no pictures.  Ugh. I wanted to use this time to show the students how to make a quality presentation.  At the same time, I did relax on requirements of font types and background themes.  Spending more time on getting students to learn how to "talk to the audience" and not just read sentences that are projected on the board.  Later in the school year I can provide options for more voice and choice in student products, but for this particular project, part of the learning was also learning how to use the technology well.

Which brings me to probably one of my favorite new strategies that I discovered.  This will become standard in my class for all presentations given by my middle schoolers.  Are you ready...

The Soft Deadline.


Yeah, I hadn't ever heard of this before either.  But I'm telling you.  If you only pick up one thing, one strategy to use from my blog posts about the archaeological dig we did.  Take this one.  It's that good.

The idea of the "soft deadline" is to offer the students an opportunity to practice their oral presentation for the teacher in order to gain immediate feedback on what they could do to improve.  I LOVE THIS!

You see, this project/presentation was going to end up a pretty substantial chunk of the students' grades.  After hearing about the soft deadline idea, it really made me think about the fairness of that grade.  All the time, work, and effort put into a huge presentation with a huge grade and the only time they get to receive feedback from me is after it's done?  I didn't like that.  I have always made it a point that I am not out to trick my students or keep them from succeeding.  In fact, I want to do as much as I can to help them along the way.  This was simple.

To create sort of a timeline for you.  The students had 5 total days to work on the last portion of the project (identifying artifacts, theme, and creating the presentation).  We are on a block schedule so that meant 75 minute class periods.  The 6th day would be due date...presentation day.  On the 5th day (which was a Tuesday) I sent all groups to our large open lab to work.  Their goal, which they knew since day one, was to be ready to give a "practice presentation" to me in the classroom.

This would allow them to not only see what it looked like projected on the wall, but also interact with the technology, make sure the document was shared correctly with me, and go through who would be speaking and when.  I would provide them with immediate feedback that could help them take their presentation to the next level, if they chose to make the changes I suggested.

Out of about 24 groups total I had over half who were ready for the soft-deadline in time to practice their presentation with me.  The results were awesome.  EACH ONE OF THOSE GROUPS ended up with MUCH BETTER PRESENTATIONS and better overall grades than they would have had.

What about the half that weren't ready???

That ended up being a little bit of tough love from me and a lesson learned for them.  One of the biggest things that I end up trying to teach my students it to be independent workers and use the time given to accomplish goals.  Each day I would write on the board a list of things they should attempt to finish on a daily basis.  This was done to help them stay on track and keep them going.

This looked a little like...
  1. Complete the artifact analysis sheets.
  2. Begin corroboration chart to identify overall theme of tub.
  3. Show Mrs. Weber completed corroboration form.
  4. Read through instructions and begin to assign roles for Google Slides Presentation

However...other than walking around and checking on groups periodically, I DID NOT tell when to move from step to step.  They were in charge of making sure everything got done.

A chance to learn some natural consequences.  I had groups that were on task and busy the entire time.  They were my first to present on the soft-deadline day.  They were also some that received the highest grades.

I also had other groups that weren't on task all the time.  You know what?  That's ok...to a certain extent.  As long as the project got completed.  Some of those groups just missed out on the soft deadline opportunity.  Some needed it.  Badly.  Natural consequences.  Learned lessons.

At the conclusion of the project I had a couple outstanding presentations that were asked to come and repeat it again for the Board of Education at their monthly meeting.  This was a huge confidence boost to them and a chance to allow my students to "show off" for an audience outside of the classroom.  Awesome.

Interested in the project documents including rubrics?  Have questions about KCSS or the Walmart Community Grant?  Want to talk about different options to modify this project without funds, let's talk about it! Contact me on Twitter @JillWebs or on Facebook - Jill Weber-cms and we can collaborate!

Curious about PBL and the Live Facebook chats I've been following?  Find them on Facebook at LifePracticePBL and/or follow Ginger Lewman on Facebook and Twitter.  Seriously.  Follow her. I promise you'll find something you can use.

I am sure there will be more to come with my journey into PBL.  I am thinking our next project over the election will be a great time to allow for complete student voice and choice.  I may even dabble at having them create their own grading rubric and be part of the evaluation process.  What!?! Seriously. I think it could be awesome.  Stay tuned!