Thursday, March 1, 2018

Note Card Confessions - A Reboot!

I once wrote this statement...

"If you were good teacher five years ago, but are still doing the same things from the same coffee-stained notebook you're no longer good anymore. Period."

I meant it and still do. I truly believe that teachers must be always on the lookout for how they can "step up their game." I and try to live by that.

I always want to be asking myself...

"What's next?"

"What can I do to improve this?"

"What would make this cool project better?"

And that also goes for some of my best. The Note Card Confession project is one of my best.  The blog post (found here) gets consistent reads, and it is the most requested materials when teachers contact me. It's good. I can't even take credit for the idea, which came from an amazing teacher, Paul Bogush. Find his post here.

But I'm always looking to make it better. This year a few things meant that I needed to make it better if I wanted to continue the project.

First, and probably one of the biggest reasons was the move from 1:1 iPads to Chromebooks. While there have been many advantages to having Chromebooks, one of the disadvantages is the lack of creation type apps. The iPad was made for those kind of projects. iMovie in particular is the easiest movie editing app out there, and for this project I only need minimal editing. I just haven't found any other online program that is as user friendly. I had access to only a few iPads in order to do this, that means the project needed to be a team/group project instead of an individual one.

Second. I have done this project for two years, with 60 students each year. That means I have graded 120 Note Card Confesssions of Mary Chaffee Abell. It was starting to get to the point where I was bored with it and there wasn't much that could impress me, because I've seen it. I needed a change. Plus making this a group project means I would be grading 20, instead of 60.

Third. I've really been focusing this year on ways to raise my expectations, require the students to do more independently, and require them to dig deeper. Changing up this project would allow for me to incorporate some of these goals.

So here's what I did.

Old Way: Students all created a note card confession over Mary Abell. We analyzed the primary source letters she wrote in class and discussed how it represented the things we talked about during the Homestead Act. Students worked individually on the note cards, but had to collaborate to do the videoing.

New Way: Teams would each get their own primary sources. They would be responsible for analyzing it themselves, and connecting it to the challenges that we discussed during our Homestead Act unit. I used the book, Pioneer Women and selected certain parts of the book that discussed various challenges and adaptations that we have talked about throughout our study. They were allowed to choose any person who was mentioned in the text to create the note card confession about. Students were able to work within their teams to video and edit the project.
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Some of the topics were:

  • The weather/cold/rain/drought
  • Grasshopper Invasions
  • Loneliness on the prairie
  • Dugouts and Sod Houses

Here is one of the results created by 7th grade students, Reagan, Brennan, and Aidyn, right?!?

Why this was better:

  • Students were required to use their historical thinking skills to analyze the primary sources. This used to be done as a group, now required students to do this on their own. They CAN do these things on their own! (After they've been trained)
  • Students still had to practice empathy by putting themselves in someone else's shoes in order to write the confession from the perspective of someone else.
  • Working in teams, I had the students figure out ways that everyone was involved in each step along the way. They were to give me "daily reports" on what their role was for each day we worked on the project. 
  • I had less to grade! 
  • I did keep Mary Abell as one of the sources and was able to differentiate my groups, and students who struggle a little more with their reading level were able to complete the assignment over something we have read together in class.
  • This took a little less time with the kids working together as opposed to when they did it on their own. 
Want to do Note Card Confessions in your class? Click the following links for all of my materials and resources or contact me to get more information!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Technology and Relevancy

This year I entered into a new role in education. The role of parent.

I sent my 5 year old to kindergarten this year.

When she walked into that classroom she knew how to say her ABCs and could recognize most of her letters, she could not read yet, and she could not write her own name. We didn't have a way to get her to preschool (and financially afford it) so she didn't go. She did go to gymnastics and swim lessons in order for her to learn how to listen to a "teacher."

However. That 5 year old knew how to punch in the code on my iPad, open YouTube, and find the video she wanted to watch. She could get into my phone can call grandma when she wanted. She knew how to take pictures, swipe, and edit them. Netflix was easy to operate (and it takes 3 different remote controls to get it going...)

On her first day of kindergarten her digital literacy was ahead of her print literacy.

Let that sink in for a moment.

And she's not alone. The class of 2030 is filled with kiddos just like her.

You can debate my parenting skills and whether or not I should be allowing my children to have "screen time" and how much all you want. But the reality is...these kids are growing up in this world. My daughter will NEVER know a time without smartphones and social media. Chances are, the career she will have hasn't been invented yet...or will be greatly changed by the addition of technology.  And she knows it. 5 years old she may not grasp the greater picture of how much her life will be directed and impacted by technology, but she knows that it's not going away. I am currently relying on YouTube to teach her how to tie her shoes (because I already know "nothing").  Her favorite rotation at school is the one with technology.

When I think about makes me think about my classroom and how I'm using technology to help enhance social studies education.

Because you see...

If I'm not effectively integrating technology into social studies, she and her classmates will not see it as relevant. Period. And we NEED them to find social studies relevant.

So how do I do this? Where's the training and professional development? How do I use technology in my classroom and connect it to historic content? How do I use it so that I'm not just giving them a digital worksheet?

Ok...truth. If you're waiting for your district to provide technology training and professional development, you're going to keep waiting. Most districts don't provide much PD on using technology effectively in the classroom. You might get an hour here and there, or if you're luck a day. But the reality is, most schools don't provide much "in house" PD on tech. You're just gonna have to dive in and start clicking around. Seriously. That's my answer to how I got more involved in technology in the first place. I just opened a program, created a log-in, and started clicking around to figure it out.

Then I'd lean on a student. I'd find the kids who were talented in technology and I'd have them try out the program from a student's point of view. They'd help me figure out the best way to use it and if the program was worth the time.

Bottom line. If you've got more than 5 years left in your teaching career, it's time to jump on board. As teachers we need to set priorities on where we spend our time and effort. Technology NEEDS TO BE  one of those priorities. It's not going away and our kids deserve and education that's going to benefit their future. Not attempt to force them to live in the past.

Want technology ideas for your classroom? Follow my blog. More posts will be coming on things you can do to embed it into your content. Want ideas now? Check out these previous blog posts I've written below.

Monday, January 29, 2018

How Things Change

I have a student teacher this again this year. She is the fourth one in four years. I love having student teachers because if there's something I love more than teaching students it's helping teachers. Having a student teacher allows me the opportunity to teach someone the things they can do to LOVE THEIR JOB and search for ways to make their classroom AWESOME!

The other day, I pulled out my student teaching notebook from 12 years ago. (Teachers don't throw anything away). And as I was showing her an example of what it looks like to reflect on your lesson plans, I noticed something.

This lovely little classroom management ticket that I apparently used for the middle school students in my placement. I'm sure at the time I thought it was cute and a great way to manage all those "unnecessary" trips students take out of the classroom.

I took one look at those tickets and then looked straight at my student teacher and said, "I would NEVER do that now. How times have changed."

You see, as we get older more experienced in our line of work we start to set priorities. Things that used to be used to manage my classroom are now no longer needed. And I no longer have a desire to need them.

Maybe I've worked on my empathy a little over the years, but if a student needs to get a paper, pencil, or water bottle out of his or her locker, I let them go. If kids need to go to the bathroom, go. Even if they just need a little break and don't really have to "use the facilities" I let them go.

But why?

It all comes down to what my biggest priority is. Student Success! If a student needs a break from class in order to be successful, go for it. If he left a paper in his locker that's due today, go get it. If she needs a pencil to be successful, I'm going to let her go get the pencil. My goal is to help students become successful by planning activities in class that are relevant, engaging, and challenging. Restricting students from access to breaks and their lockers actually work against my goal.

And you I've pushed to have a more active, student-directed classroom there are less and less of those "unnecessary" trips that need to be made. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Point Counter Point - Hamilton VS. Jefferson

I've been on a quest the last few years. Less lecture, more student directed learning. It's been difficult. One minute I think it sounds like a great idea, the next I'm doubting whether or not I can really "step back" and allow the learning to take place without being specifically directed (or explained) by me.

It's been an ongoing quest, that I really kinda put into high gear this year with my 8th grade classes. More PBL, more activities, and in November I realized that I only had given two lectures so far the entire semester. This has been a HUGE accomplishment for me, but I wanted to see if I could do more. You see, after Thanksgiving break marked the return to my traditional units. Starting with Washington's presidency and the Hamilton/Jefferson fued.

I set a goal for myself. No more lectures this year.

That meant changing up how I did this unit. Because when I opened my lesson plans, there were three lectures I usually gave. I needed (wanted) to see if these middle school kids could really understand the same concepts without direct instruction from me.

So I dove in. Below you'll find a general outline and explanation of how I approached this unit and the results and reflection that follow. (Note...We are on a block schedule with 75 minutes every-other day.)

Days 1-2: Jefferson/Hamilton Hyperdoc (Not sure what a Hyperdoc is?? Click HERE)
**This alone replaces a guided reading worksheet, sorting worksheet, and a lecture**

I created a Hyperdoc over the information I wanted the students to know about Washington's first presidency and his cabinet members. Below are some pictures of what that looked like.

I had a little fun with the kids and technology... After doing a sorting exercise to identify the opinions of Hamilton and Jefferson, students were to use GIFs to answer a series of questions. Talk about a FUN way to incorporate technology into my content. The students LOVED it and were totally focused on finding the perfect GIF to represent George Washington's view on political parties. When everyone was finished I projected a few of the kids' GIF answers for all to see. It made for a great discussion!

Click HERE to view the entire Hyperdoc.

Click HERE to view a completed Hyperdoc from an 8th grade student. 

Days 3-4: Prepping for the Hamilton vs. Jefferson Point CounterPoint Debate.

The last few slides of the Hyperdoc provide an explanation (and rubric) into the final activity for this unit.  The inspiration for this activity comes from working with my social studies PLC (Professional Learning Community) group. The basic idea comes from the old debate show Point Counter Point. Saturday Night Live did a memorable skit on this one..."Jane you ignorant..." (Do not show that clip as an example to your students!)

The idea of the activity is that working in groups of three the students write out a script for a debate show. They will be playing the roles of Moderator, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson. They will then spend some time preparing to present their debate "show" to the class. I require specific issues that must be explained by each politician and why he has that opinion. This requires that the students not only know the positions on issues, but also why.

Students are given the creative freedom to produce their debate show in any way including adding in humor. I've had kids jump in a time machine and take their show back in history, summon Hamilton and Jefferson back from the dead. Some groups have done more research and looked at primary sources for quotes that Hamilton and Jefferson had used about each other. But my favorites are when students take something from modern day and incorporate Hamilton and Jefferson debate into it.

The best one this year was a boxing match between Hamilton and Jefferson. They really got creative with their content...and did a little more research. Check out the knuckles of "Jefferson" (the fists of Aaron Burr land the knock-out punch to Hamilton.) SO AWESOME!

I have done the Point Counter Point activity for the last 6-7 years, but this is the first year that I didn't do the direct instruction on the content prior to the project. The only thing I had to "go over" to make sure they understood was the concept of a tariff. Everything else was completely student directed learning. I provided the resources, added some relevant technology fun, and an activity at the end that required them to collaborate, apply what they learned, add some creativity and practice some speaking skills. I was so very excited to see that these debates were just as good as the years in which direct instruction was the primary method for information.

Feedback from Students: 
If you're not asking your students for ideas...start. Seriously. Sometimes I think we, as teachers, assume that students will just want to make things easier, but they have REALLY good ideas. I had one student suggest that instead of a typed out script, that each student had to learn their character's opinions and answer without a script, making it more like a true debate. I LOVE this idea, and frankly thought it would be too challenging for my students. Now, I have confidence to give it a try!

NEVER underestimate what your kids are capable of doing. Challenge them with things that are hard, provide the tools necessary to meet that challenge and watch your students explode with confidence and engagement! 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Structured Academic Controversy - Lewis and Clark Edition!

Sometimes it all goes right. Thursday morning I didn't think the day was going to turn out. It was just one of those rough mornings. Bad news and frustrations everywhere I looked. Before class started I thought...."man, I'm gonna really have to fake-it-to-make-it today." But then class started, and we got rolling with our topic and activity. By the end of my first block I knew I wasn't gonna have to "fake it." Today was AWESOME!

And it was made possible by the Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) activity I found using Stanford History Education Group (SHEG). If you aren't using SHEG in your classes...get on it! Seriously one of the best resources out there for incorporating and teaching with primary sources.

The SAC provides a controversial questions, documents for research, and the procedure for students to participate in small group debates. Students learn how to argue with evidence! And middle school students LOVE to argue!

The entire activity took two full class periods (we are on a block schedule, so two 75 min. classes) Here's how it went down... Want the SHEG lesson? Click HERE

Day 1: 
Introduce the activity by telling your kids... "Today I am going to teach you how to WIN an argument. Whether you're arguing with your parents, teachers, girlfriend/boyfriend, this is how you WIN." (The KIDS LOVE that intro, cause they all can relate to arguing with someone, and they ALL want to WIN that argument."  You will NEVER win an argument if you don't have evidence to back up your claim. Today is about learning to back up what you say!

I now tell my students the controversial question and their teams. Today they will be doing research in groups of four. Our question comes from the SHEG activity.

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

Students know that they will eventually be debating over this topic, but they do not yet know which side they are arguing. This time is just purely spent analyzing the documents and trying to understand what they are saying.

The next step is locating specific evidence for both sides of the argument, think of an upside down triangle. They started with a BUNCH of information in five different primary source documents, and we're trying to narrow the focus a bit. Students identify 3 direct quotes from the document that would support "YES, Lewis and Clark were respectful to the Native Americans..." and three direct quotes that support "NO, they weren't respectful."

Day 2: 
Within their groups of four, students are paired up 2 and 2. I tell one pair that they will be arguing "YES, Lewis and Clark were respectful," and the others that they are arguing "NO." The team of four now separates in order to prepare for their argument.

This is a very important step, for it teaches them how to search for evidence that will back up their claim. It also forces them to learn about BOTH sides. You see, not only are they preparing points of emphasis and evidence for their own argument, but they are also looking at what points the OTHER SIDE is going to make and how they can argue against that.

After about 20 minutes of prep time, I bring the team of four back together. I go over the rules of the debate. Team "yes" gets to start by bringing up their reasons and providing evidence from the documents. Then team "no" has a chance to give their points of view. (At this time, no rebuttal can be made.) Once each side has had a chance to explain their reasoning, the groups can begin to debate over specific issues mentioned. This is where you start to see the volume increase!

After debating for 10-15 minutes it's time to assess. Students are asked to construct a written response on their own PERSONAL opinion over the topic. They must use evidence from the documents provided in their writing. I usually ask for 5 sentences, but with this activity they always write more. The debate caused them to have a personal opinion on the issue and they tend to have LOTS to say about it.
Big Goals:
Ok...this activity is AWESOME on it's own. Give it a try (you can do this same structure with ANY topic that is argumentative.) It's great!  However, I have plans for this in the future. No matter how good any lesson turns out to be, there's always room to improve and make it better. In the future...

I want to turn this into a court case. I want the Native Americans to sue Lewis and Clark. Think about the possibilities...

  • I get to be a judge. Getting to announce myself as "the Honorable Mrs. Weber" is probably half the reason for wanting to do this :-)
  • Various parts for students to play: Prosecuting/Defending lawyers and their associate layers, Characters called to testify (Sacajawea, Charbenneau, York, Lewis, Clark, Thomas Jefferson, Native American Chiefs...think of the research those students "playing the part" have to do into those people.) Not to mention, the jury.
  • The opportunity to bring in some guest speakers (Lawyers) to talk about court procedures and terminology.
  • The learning that can take place, more than just oriented!
  • Did I mention I get to be a judge and use a gavel. :-) 
  • And if I'm gonna dream REALLY BIG, it would be awesome to bus my kids to the county court house and have court in the real court! :)

If you would like copies of the worksheets posted above, want to 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Perfect Teachers; There Are None

I once had a lesson that I titled "Constitutional Scavenger Hunt." I had a list of questions, all of which could be answered from looking in the constitution. I didn't want students to just Google the answer so I also wanted them to tell me what Article and Section number the answer was found in. In order to try and SPICE it up a little, I placed the question in random places around the school, created a map and sent my students on their way.

Sounds good?

Nope. It was awful.

I forgot to take into account how BIG the constitution is, and how hard it would be for 8th graders to locate a specific answer, when their background knowledge on the subject is was very little (this was the start of our Constitutional unit).

I also sent them around the school with copies of the constitution located in the back of a textbook. Talk about awkward. Book, worksheet, pencil, clipboard, and locating random questions throughout the school.

They hated it.

They let me know they hated it.

I hated it.

This was just this last month.

I just finished up with one of the busiest months of my teaching career to date. I presented multiple times at a couple difference conferences and workshops, parent teacher conferences, huge 8th grade project that involved outside guests serving as judges, and that's just the work side of October and November. It doesn't even begin to count the birthdays (2), holidays, and mountains of laundry that sat unfolded in my bedroom.

I love it all.

I love presenting. I love teaching. I love my family. I love blogging about it and connecting with other teachers though social media or face-to-face. But there is a danger in all of that. I present on the things that are going well in my classroom. Strategies that I use to SPICE up your classroom and increase student engagement. And I do it all hoping to show the passion and drive I have for teaching.

But, I don't want to send out this notion that I'm a perfect teacher. That I have 100% engagement, no student/parent issues, and that I don't struggle with my own intensity from time to time.

Because it's not true.

There are no perfect teachers. There are no perfect strategies for the classroom. There isn't a teacher out there who doesn't have a bad day, week, or month and question whether or now he or she should continue in the profession.

The difference is, what do you do on those types of days, and what are you doing to continually improve.  I am WELL aware that the Constitutional Scavenger Hunt was a dud. I reflect (honestly) on my lessons, ask students for feedback, and know that I'm gonna have to either make some MAJOR changes to that lesson, or toss it completely.

As teachers, we should always be looking for ways to improve our lessons. Always be searching out the next best thing, and always be looking to collaborate with other's to gain good ideas. Trying to make our classrooms better.

And no matter how good things are going, no matter how great we may be...there's always room to improve!

Friday, November 3, 2017

Taking Risks: 8th Grade Congressional Hearing Simulations

This is NOT meant to be easy. It is meant to CHALLENGE you. 

Because when you are CHALLENGED you discover talents you never knew you had. You learn what AMAZING things you are capable of. 

If it was easy...we wouldn't be spending out time on it. 

I probably said this everyday for the last two weeks to my 8th graders. We were all embarking on something new. Something we were a little unsure of how it would look on the final day. And it was going to challenge us all.

This year, I decided to leap forward and attempt the "We the People Congressional Hearing Simulation" project.

I was first exposed to this, last year when I was asked to sit as a "Constitutional Expert" judge for the Seniors of Halstead High School who were preparing for their congressional hearings. I was BLOWN AWAY.  The level of constitutional knowledge the students portrayed really impressed me. I decided, that day, that I needed to do something like this with my 8th graders.

Luckily the materials for "We the People" have a middle school section with topic questions that are more on the 8th grade level. (But still above what my students are used to when we study the Constitution.)

Here are a couple of examples of some of the questions:

The very first amendment, added to the Constitution in 1791, contains guarantees freedom of religion.

  • Why did the Founders think freedom of religion was so important?
  • Explain the difference between establishment and free exercise clauses.
  • Do you think limitations should ever be placed on the free exercise of one's religious beliefs? Explain your answer.

Voting is one way a citizen may participate in politics. Many other activities are possible.

  • What activities besides voting are available to citizens?
  • Which of these activities, if any, do you think is the most useful? Explain your answer.
  • How should a citizen decide which of these activities to participate in?

I ordered a set of 10 of the We the People textbooks. I'm not a big user of textbooks, but at the right time they can be a very valuable tool. This is one of those times. I could have my students go out into the world of the internet to research their questions, but I wanted something that they would know would be accurate and written at an 8th grade level. Many reputable websites out there would help answer the questions, but the level of vocabulary would be enough above the majority of my students that they wouldn't understand the material.

Understanding is key.

I divided my classes into teams of three or four students and each group was given a topic and question. Their job was to research and prepare a statement response to their assigned topic/question. I required each team to combine their efforts to write (at least) a 5 paragraph essay. Then they would have to present their answer to a team of constitutional experts who would also ask follow-up questions. Teams would be "under fire" for 10 minutes.

We spent four class periods researching and working on the essay. I gave them a graphic organizer to help plan and write their essay. I'm not an English teacher, so I struggle to tell them the proper way to write a large essay with a solid thesis statement and conclusion. I looked to graphic organizers to help guide the kids along.

On the 5th day, students were given the chance for a "soft deadline."  The soft deadline is something I stole from my work with PBL. This gives students the chance to practice their presentation for valuable feedback before the final due date. I have come to feel that the soft deadline is the best thing for my students when we do large projects for and extended time. The result of the practice and feedback is ALWAYS a better product than before.

Students met with my principal, high school student intern, and the high school social studies teachers for their soft deadline.  This was the final day to prepare for the big presentation with our team of constitutional experts.

Making things REAL. I have worked to make any project my students do have a "real" audience. They take it more seriously and produce higher quality work when they know the work has an audience other than me.

My Constitutional Experts:
Our state Senator: Dan Kerschen
Our local mayor: Linda Ball
High School Social Studies teachers: T.J. Warsnak and Derek Schutte

It doesn't get anymore real that that!

The Congressional Hearing:
The 8th graders showed up that day dressed and ready to impress! And impress they did. I was so proud of how well they did on stage. Sure, there were some groups that did better than others, there were content errors mentioned, and there were times when they couldn't answer some of those tough questions from the committee. But they did a GREAT job overall. They were poised, professional, and surprised themselves with what they were capable of doing.

That's what I wanted. I wanted them outside those comfort zones, challenged in ways they hadn't been challenged before, so they can see that THEY CAN DO THINGS LIKE THAT! Even after it was all over, they admitted that they were proud of what they did and even had fun!


  • I loved the LEVEL of content my students had to deal with. I LOVED that it was difficult for them and they had to find ways to understand it. 
  • As always with group projects, there were some teams that didn't divide the work evenly. My future idea is to have each team member write the essay on their own and then combine the best of each essay. I had this down in my original requirements for each team, but we ran short of time due to a schedule conflict so I had to change it up a bit. 
  • I loved having our state lawmaker and local mayor on my team of experts. It is amazing to me who is willing to participate in classroom activities when teachers reach out and ASK. 
  • I really think this would be an awesome cross-curricular activity to pair up with the ELA teacher, the difficult part with that is timing. Definitely something to consider for the future.
  • I loved taking it to the auditorium. My future goal is to have it held down at City Hall, but this would involve the cooperation of the other teachers in the building, to adjust the schedule so that students would and could be late to classes. Definitely something I think we could discuss.

Whenever I try something BIG that's new, I know that its a risk. There's a chance we could fall flat or not work out in my head the way I see it in my imagination. But more times than not, it is worth it! Taking risks inside the classroom, forcing myself and my students OUTSIDE THAT COMFORT ZONE, yields some amazing results over and over again!

Curious about "We the People"? Click HERE