Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Confederation Blocks!

My 8th graders are learning about the Articles of Confederation.

Articles of...what?

Confederation.  Yup, that was the first constitution that governed America during and after the Revolution.  Most Americans have forgotten that they ever learned about it.  If they did...

The Articles of Confederation didn't last very long.  It was our first attempt at creating a new country.  There were errors, weaknesses.  It needed to be changed.

I have always seemed to struggle teaching the kids about the Articles of Confederation and it's weaknesses.  I've done it through a mix of lecture and illustration in the past.  They always seem to struggle to understand, and even remember it.

This year I added a new piece.  A simulation.

I love simulations.

Especially when the students start off with a cool task, having no idea how it is connected to our current topic, and then see their faces when it all "comes together."

Today's cool task.  Build a castle.

I had the kids sitting in six groups.  Each group received a box with blocks.  The blocks were NOT distributed evenly (on purpose).  I gave them these instructions.

1.  With the materials given to you, create the biggest and strongest castle you can.
2.  This is a COMPETITION.  Winners get prizes.
3.  You may share, trade, or give blocks to/with other groups, but again this is a COMPETITION.
4.  You have 5 minutes.  GO!

Immediately the group who received the least amount of blocks start going from group to group asking for any blocks they might be willing to spare.  None give any.  The poor group ends up with a very tiny and sad looking castle, which took all but 30 seconds to put together...if they took their time.  While the other groups are working on getting the best they can out of the blocks they were given.

Times up!

The group with the most blocks wins.  (No real surprise here...)

My point.  I always have a point.

I ask the students "What if I told you that the group given the least amount of blocks was in charge of having a castle strong enough to protect our entire class?"

They all look worried, and someone says "well, we're dead."

If I would have told you that, at the beginning, how might that have changed the look of that group's castle.

"Oh...we would have all pooled our blocks together!"


What they just experienced was one of the major weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.

The Federal Government had to ask the individual states to provide troops for the nation, but each stated wanted their own troops, for their own military.

We may have been called the "United States of America," but we definitely weren't UNITED.

I think this year's 8th graders will remember and understand the Articles of Confederation and why it failed better than any class I've had in the past.  They had fun, got to build something, and learned!

Once again...this idea was not mine.  Teachers beg, borrow, and steal ideas from each other and then modify to fit their classrooms.  I am no exception.  Thank you Nathan Mc for this activity, you are awesome!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Needs for Survival: CHUCK!

We had a great day today in 7th grade Kansas History.  Very cool things happening in class with an activity that examines humans using natural resources to survive. Which then leads us into studying different buffalo parts the Native Americans would have used.  

The activity starts out with the kids brainstorming the top 5 essential needs to survive.  The list is very basic and every class ends up with the same five items.

The next step is to have the kids brainstorm in their groups the materials that would be needed to fulfill the top five.  (Such as weapons to hunt animals for food, or trees for wood to use as shelter, etc...)

As we prepare for the class discussion I ask the question again.  "What materials do we need for our five items?"

And without missing a beat, someone yells out "CHUCK NORRIS!"

I love middle school!  :o)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

"Write a summary about what you just read..."

As a student I dreaded, no I HATED seeing that requirement on a worksheet.

How in the world do you actually do that.  I'm pretty sure no one ever actually TAUGHT me how to write a summary.  It was like as soon as I got in middle school the teachers just assumed I knew how.

I didn't.

I didn't know how in high school.

Even college.

I just wrote stuff down and hoped it was different enough that the teacher wouldn't think I plagiarized.

As a teacher I hate it even more.  It's a question that I've always felt like I should include at the end of an assignment.  But I'm no better than the teachers I had when it comes to asking for summaries from the kids.

I just assume that they know how.

And then ignore it (or blame writing teachers or elementary teachers) when the summaries they turned in were terrible.

I have never taken  the time in class to TEACH my students HOW to write a summary.

Until now.

The new KS State Social Studies standards are in, and we are off and running with new requirements asking the kids to stop spitting out random facts and start looking at history like historians do.  Stop memorizing dates, and start DOING.  Part of that "doing" includes much more reading and analyzing of primary source documents.

Here's the thing.  Many historic primary sources are government documents.  Important government documents, like the Declaration of Independence.  Our Founding Fathers (and anyone else in the government world) did not take into account the reading level of middle school students when they set out to change history.  (The nerve...)

Government documents are hard to read.

Trying to get my students to write a summary of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence would have been an EPIC ASSIGNMENT FAIL.  They would look at it, spend so much time trying to figure out what "unalienable" means that they would just slap something on the paper and pray that I would just take a "completion" or "participation" grade on the assignment.

This time I'm preparing them.  I'm going to TEACH them HOW to do this.

**I should mention that we did ALL of this TOGETHER as a class, kids have to be trained on how to do this process first before attempting it on their own.**

Step 1:  Vocab.  I had the kids complete a vocab matching sheet as their bell work.  Words that needed to be explained to 7th graders.  Such as; endowed, dissolve, station, self evident, instituted and so on.  They were to keep this vocab sheet out and use it during our entire activity.

Step 2:  Read the original text.  I gave the kids a worksheet that had the original text RIGHT THERE for them to see.  We read through it as a class using the choral reading strategy (everyone reads aloud together, including the teacher.  LOVE this strategy!)

Step 3:  The Top 10 Key Words.  The next step is choosing the key words of the document.  What has to be there.  There are some rules for the top 10.

  1. Students MUST know what the word means in the context of the document. 
  2. More than one word can be grouped together if splitting it up would alter the meaning of the word.  (United States needs to be kept together.  I allowed my kids to group "unalienable rights" if they wanted as well.).  
**Be careful here.  Middle School students will think they are outsmarting you and just go through and pick all the big words, or just choose the words you used for vocab at the beginning of the class.  Just because a word is big or on the vocab sheet doesn't always make it a "key word"**

For step 3, I did have the kids divided into groups of 4 and they worked in their groups to come up with a top 10 list and we compiled the lists together and made a class top 10.

Step 4:  Write your summary:  This is the point where the magic happens!  The goal is to now take your top 10 words and use them in your summary.  (It is very important to DO THIS STEP TOGETHER the first few times you do this activity.)  We started slow.  We took the first statement.  "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  All of my classes had chosen "People" and "Equal" and "unalienable rights" as three of their top 10 words.  Most of my classes ended up with something like this "It is obvious that people are equal and have unalienable rights."  We continued this process throughout the remainder of the text.

 The results?  Awesomeness!

The kids were able to follow the process.  They all participated.  And probably best of all... when we finished they all had a better understanding of the Declaration of Independence!

A few things I realized as we went through this activity.

  • I intended to do this ALL aloud together as a class, but found that there were too many kids who weren't paying attention.  So we did parts aloud as a whole class and parts where they would work to rephrase a statement as a group. Then would share results with the class and pick the best one.  The combo of whole class and small group worked wonderfully!
  • We had some of our top 10 words left over at the end, and that was ok.  I felt we had a good solid summary at the end of each block.  
  • Sometimes the kids realize after they get going that the important words they picked needed to be changed out.  For example, none of my classes chose "government" as a key word, but all of them realized while writing the summary that it needed to be there, so we added it to the list. 
  • Summaries should be shorter and more simple than the original text.  I found some of my advanced students wanting to use more complex words than what were originally there.  The point is not to try and sound smarter than the original author.  The point is to SUM it up. 

I am not the creator of this activity.  I learned how to do it through an awesome group called Century of Progress where we got to learn from some of the BEST Social Studies teachers out there.  Tim Bailey is one of them.  He is awesome.  This activity is awesome.  You can read more about it, find examples of worksheets, and probably a better explanation of it) here.

After completing this activity, I am super excited to do it again!

Friday, August 16, 2013


As of yesterday, we are off and rolling into another school year.  Things are going great in my room.  I have officially told my 7th graders, that they have started their toughest year in the middle school, scared them just a bit, and then made them laugh, and hopefully look forward to the next time they walk through my door.  The 8th graders are just as goofy and fun as they were last year...and there's just as many of them.

Last year our students, staff, and community helped develop a way to increase the culture and climate of our school.  The kids were the driving force in helping create a set of guidelines that would define our school.  They did a fantastic job.  The culture and climate of our school was to be guided by P.R.I.D.E.

P - Perseverance
R - Respect
I - Integrity
D - Dependability
E - Empathy

P.R.I.D.E is a major focus of our school this year.  It's on everything, the students are familiar with it and hear it often, and everyone, students and staff are expected to model and follow P.R.I.D.E.

This was fantastic news for me.  I now just have ONE rule in my class.  Follow P.R.I.D.E.

That's it.


And today I had my first run-in with P.R.I.D.E and needing to correct someone not following it.

It was me.

You see...our school collects box tops for education.  Very cool way to earn money for your school.  We have a little competition with our advisory classes (advisory is a combo class of 6-8th graders at the very end of the day).  Prizes are given to the class who gets the most.

I like competition.

As my 7th graders were organizing their notebooks with tabs, I noticed that one boy's notebook still had that sticky stuff on the spine.  So I went to help him take it off.

Then I noticed it.  4 bonus box tops on the paper.

He noticed it too.

We raced to get it off.

I won!

And proudly took the box tops to my desk to begin cutting them out.

He went quietly back to work.

As I was cutting them out, I was hit with P.R.I.D.E.


Was I being "respectful" of his notebook.  No.

Was I acting with "integrity."  Nope.

Did I have "empathy" for him in that situation.  Not even a little bit.


P.R.I.D.E won over my competitiveness.

(And that's saying something...)

I asked him if he would like to have the box tops for his advisory.

He said yes and I gave them to him.

And then used the story in my later classes as an example of how, even teachers are trying to follow P.R.I.D.E. and even when we really really really want to keep those box tops.

But if I find those box tops on the floor...they're MINE :)