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 :)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Kings for the Day

Today I resurrected one of my favorite old activities that I used to do.  It got pushed out a few years ago due to a number of reasons.  This year, I decided to bring it back.  It is called "Kings for a Day."

In the activity I create a scenario in classroom in which a few "select" students get to have complete control of the room for the day.  Only two things must be allowed to continue from my previous rule...

1. They can't banish me from the room.  (They can make me sit quietly or quack like a duck if they choose, but I still need to be there.)

2. They can't disturb other classrooms.

Everything else is fair game.  I give them 10 minutes to write down the rules or "laws" of the class for the day. 

They LOVE it.

The "Kings" spend the next 10 minutes deviously creating as many rules as they can.

We spend a couple minutes going over the laws and laughing at the silliness of the rules before I get to make my point.

I always have a point. 

I have done this activity over 20 times in my teaching, and two things remain consistent. 
Every. Single. Time.

1. The "Kings" attempt to figure out how to make sure there "power" is long-lasting.  Often times requiring that I extend this activity for the entire year, they get to continue to add rules anytime, that no one is allowed to take their "King" status away, etc... 

And probably the most disturbing realization to the kids...

2.  The "Kings" create a slave-like system in which they are in charge and the others must either do their bidding or complete some embarrassing task. 

At this point during they day, my "Kings" slouch a little lower in their seats and start shifting their eyes nervously. 

Slaves...  No one likes that word.

In this day in age it can be hard to convey to the students how slavery ever existed.  They learn the horrors of the institution and wonder why we honor our Founding Fathers, when many of them were slave owners.  Many times they just respond with "well, that was over 200 years ago," or "we know better now that it was wrong." 

This activity lets them learn two very important lessons. 

1.  That power is easily abused.  Good kids, who know right from wrong, in less than 10 minutes created a very powerful dictatorship.  They learn why it was so important for our government to create a system of separating the governmental powers and having them checked by other branches.

2.  That slavery was a very easy concept to adopt.  It is very easy to believe that you are "better" than another person based solely on something silly like skin color.  My 8th graders did it based on the kings and queens of a deck of cards. 

As we prepare to study the Civil War and the reason it was fought, I thought this was a good lesson for my kids to learn.   Why didn't the South want to give up slavery?  Why didn't they see how wrong it was?  How could anyone treat another human like that?  How easily is power abused?  These are all great questions for the students to ponder.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Century of Progress: A Jouney to Become a Better Teacher

It was over three years ago that I first received an email asking me to take part in a survey our education cooperative (ESSDACK) was needing for a grant project provided by the Teaching American History program.  It would be called Century of Progress. 

If I participated in the survey I would be one of the first teachers selected for the program.  If I was part of this program there were several things I would be receiving and several things I would be required to participate in. 

I hate the word "required." Automatically I got a yucky taste in my mouth. 

It didn't improve as I read the list of other required items...
  • Participate in four scheduled conference dates throughout the school year - GASP!  Take me out of the classroom.  No way.  I HATE being gone from school, I HATE making sub plans, and I HATE having my time wasted by boring meetings.
  • Submit lesson plans and allow for you to be videotaped.  These will be available on the web for other teachers to use as a resource.  - Uhhhh...I'm not a good speller and my work is filled with typos, most of my lesson plans are copied and modified from another teacher, no one would want to use them anyway.  Oh, and I am NOT going to be video-tapped. 
  • Required participation in a week long conference over the summer. - Are you kidding me?!?!  A week.  Out of my summer???  I'm busy enough as it is with school stuff over the summer, and they want an entire week. Never.
  • Book studies, lectures from American History professors, required attendance - No. No. No.
  • This project will last for three years - THREE YEARS?!?!  That's a long-term commitment.  NOPE.  Not gonna do it!
I stopped reading the email.  (I should have continued, I never got to the part about what I would receive...)

I dismissed the thought, deleted the email, and went about my day.  Until I checked my email again that afternoon.

Forwarded to me was the exact same email from my building principal, our district curriculum director, the librarian (really???), and the superintendent. 


I get the point.  I'll do it.  (But I am NOT going to like it.)

Famous last words...

It turns out, I couldn't have been more wrong about this project, how I would respond to it, and what it would do for my teaching. 

There are many things a teacher can do to grow professionally, but I truly believe one of the biggest is to collaborate with other teachers, and for secondary teachers it is almost more important to collaborate with other teachers who instruct the same subject.  I can work all year long with the math, science and language arts teachers in my building and get some ideas, many that I'll never use, but put me in a room with 39 other middle school social studies teachers FOUR times a year and I walk out of there with my head BUZZING of new ideas, strategies, and resources, and feeling like my professional career has jumped forward.

Century of Progress has done more than just improve the methods of which I teach, but it has taken away the fear.  The fear of trying something new and failing, the fear of a completely different set of standards and expectations, the fear of working with primary source documents which can be VERY intimidating.  I was so afraid of people reading my lesson plans and watching me on tape, that I forgot that I created my lesson plans by reading and watching what others have done.  Century of Progress helped to to realize that I can be that idea for someone else.   There are so many possibilities when ideas are shared from teacher to teacher.  When good ideas are shared and teaching practices increase that all translates into more learning and better experiences for kids.

I used to fear changes because it meant so much extra work.  (Work to be completed in our "copious amount of free time...")  I used to sit back and wait to be told what was coming.  Now, because of Century of Progress, I feel like I am a leader.  I am confident in what I am teaching, with new ideas, resources, and a strong belief that what I am doing is promoting learning and student engagement.  I have a network of teachers who not only have many of the same fears and concerns because we face the same challenges, but also have the same passion and drive.  That energy is exciting.  I want to share that excitement. 

Starting next school year, social studies teachers in the state of Kansas will have a brand new set of standards, very different standards to follow.  They will be scary to some, but because of Century of Progress I have already been given so many of the skills and tools needed to transition my classroom into one of the future, and some of that transition has already taken place.  I feel ready.  I feel excited.

Century of Progress will hold it's last summer conference in June this year.  I am dreading it, but not for the reasons I thought I would three years ago.  I have come to enjoy these meetings and the people so much, I don't want it to end.  It may sound cheesy, but there is a bond there.  We understand each other.   We have been through a lot in three years.  We are middle school teachers, we are history geeks, and we are awesome! 

Thank goodness for the forward button.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Only in a Middle School Classroom...

A conversation today in my classroom.

Me:  *Bobby* you have until the end of the day to turn in your current event.  By "end of the day" I mean 11:59.  That's one of the perks of Edmodo, you can turn in your assignment at the exact last minute.

*Johnny*:  OR!  You could be real Ninja-like and sneak into the school and turn the paper copy into the basket at 11:59.

Me:  Nope.  I don't accept paper copies anymore, only online.  Plus, you shouldn't worry about anything but being a ninja and getting your project done.  Ninja's get their work done. 

Explode various background conversations from all students...

Like me.  I get my homework done.  I'm a ninja!

No I'm a ninja.

I get my homework done.  Ninja's get their homework done. 

Ninjas are smart.  There are no stupid ninjas. 

What about Beverly Hill's Ninja?  He was pretty dumb.

Ha! I'm a real ninja.  I'm Asian!

Hey guys we better stop.  You made Mrs. Weber cry.

She's not crying.  She's ok.  She's just laughing.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Last Minute Ideas = the Best Lessons

It is amazing how many teachers are procrastinators.  Myself included.

Actually, when I really think about it, I wouldn't necessarily call it procrastination, but making big changes to lesson plans in order to make learning improve at all times.

Lately, in my world "at all times" has referred to my drive on the way to school.  I live 18 minutes away from my driveway to the school parking lot.  Or 23 minutes if I have to drop off baby at daycare.  Like I said...I drive a lot.

More times this school year I have been thinking, pondering, or even talking on the phone to my husband or mother and ended up thinking up some new activity to do in class.  This usually involves me hibernating in my classroom before the kids come in trying to scurry and get the last little bits completed.  It makes for stressful beginnings, but more often than not, great results.

Today was one of those days.

As I was driving in to work and chatting with my husband, I was feeling just a little guilty.  You see, yesterday was an in-service day.  Sometimes in-service days can be motivating and full of great ideas to transfer to the classroom.  Sometimes they can be full of meetings where you struggle to find a point.  Monday was mostly good.  We did have a speaker to lectured to us for two hours about student engagement and disengagement   One of his biggest points was lecture is bad and causes students to be disengaged.  (You picking up on the irony of the two hour lecture??)

Guess which subject has the teachers who lecture the most?

If you said Social Studies, you were right.


Now guess what I had in my plans for today.

Yup.  Lecture.

Not an entire hour of lecture, at most 20 minutes.  Still...lecture. (And on a side note, I call mine "interactive lectures" with pictures, explanations, little video clips, me pacing around the room, and questions and answers throughout...I'm no Ben Stein.)  Still lecture.

Ok.  New plan.

In less than an hour of students entering my room bright-eyed and ready to learn, I move from lecture to a four day project that involves partner work, group work, class collaboration  competition, thinking subtextually (is that even a word?), higher level thinking, placing events into political, social, and economic categories, work with primary sources, secondary sources, cooperative learning, differentiated instruction, and a back-up assignment for students who are so sick they miss the majority of the project.  The "experts" of educational strategies for higher-level learning would be impressed.

Did I mention that there were also classroom visits by members of the Site Council.  Instead of walking into my classroom during a lecture or worksheet they walked in on groups of students spread out around the classroom working in pairs engaged in the lesson and hardly taking notice of our visitors.

Now that's what I call a fantastic day!

Friday, January 18, 2013

What Will Become of Them?

You know who I'm talking about.

Those students who misplace everything.

Their locker looks a little like this...

Their binders look a little like this...

The moment class starts they ask if they can go get the assignment, pencil, book, paper, eraser, bottle of water, phone, agenda, or any other imaginable object they should have in class.

Sometimes, when I'm frustrated with what seems like the 500th time "Johnny" needs another copy of an assignment, I need to remember something.

My desk looks like this...

Today I spent two blocks standing in one place during a lecture because I somehow misplaced my clicker.  (My students know how much I HATE to do that!)  It was later found by a student in the office.  I have no idea how it got there!

Last week I had to ask my principal for another copy of my self-evaluation because I'm pretty sure I threw it away on accident (or it's buried somewhere on my desk).

What will become of them???

They will be fine.  They will graduate.  They will get jobs.  They will adjust to the world around them.  

And they may just become teachers...