Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Good vs. Great

What makes a good teacher?

What makes a great teacher?

What is the difference between a good teacher and a great teacher?

Which one am I?

These are questions that I seem to be coming back to time and time again this school year.

I am in the middle of probably the best teaching year I have had in the last 5 years.  Not saying that I haven't had great moments, but this is the first year in a while where I have felt very confident in what I am doing and optimistic about being in the classroom.  This is the first year in a long time, where I haven't already started a countdown for the summer.

I love teaching, I always have, but since having kids I have struggled to keep that love for the classroom.  The last few years I seemed focused more on the fact that I am spending more "awake" hours of the day with kids who are not mine, while my kids go to daycare.  I has been a struggle, one filled with guilt.  And the guilt doesn't stop with my own kids.  I felt guilty about not getting those tests graded right away and back to the students the next day.  I felt guilty for busting out of the school doors at 3:30.  And guilty about not spending any days in my classroom over the summer.

I am positive that I am not alone.  Many parents/teachers/workers go through these same emotions.

However, on the flip side of this whole internal conflict are the questions...

What is the difference between a good teacher and a great teacher?

Which one am I?

I know which one I want to be.  I want to be great.  I want to do great things all the time.  I want my students walking out of my classroom feeling like they had the best possible education of early American history that they could have had.  I want them excited to learn more.  I want to inspire future teachers.  I want to be GREAT.

But I also want to be a great mom.

And my heart sinks just a little, because I think I know the difference between "good" and "great."


When I think about the great teachers I had while in school and the great teachers who work in the rooms next to me, I know how they got that way.  Sacrifice.

Really, sacrifice is what makes anyone great.  The great athletes, philosophers and scientists, actors, and great moms all sacrifice something else so they can be great.  So they can focus on the things that need to be done to be great.  None of it happens by accident.

And I realize that my desire to be great at any one thing, right now, is impossible for me.  I am not willing to sacrifice my time with my children to be great in my classroom.  And (right now...) I don't want to sacrifice my teaching to be a stay at home mom.

So for now, I will have to be OK with being good.  A good teacher who does some great things now and then, and a good mom who does some great things with her kids.

And I feel great about that!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Marbury vs. Madison: A Case for Modification

If you are a social studies teacher in the state of Kansas, and many other states around the U.S. who have adopted a new way of teaching social studies, you should be using primary sources in your classroom on a regular basis.

Letters, diary entries, maps, photos, artifacts and government documents such as; laws passed by Congress, speeches from Presidents, and Supreme Court Cases.

And if you are using primary sources in your classroom on a regular basis, you have probably run into the heated debate of whether or not to modify those documents.

The debate centers around two basic ideas.  1) that primary documents shouldn't be messed with.  Students should read, analyze, and infer from the original wording.  2) Documents should be modified to make them easier for students to read and understand. Modification of primary source documents can be as simple as copying the text in different font and size to make it easier to see or as detailed as substituting confusing words for a simpler version.

Most teachers have no real problem with changing font or the size of words in order to make it easier to see.  As some elementary schools have cut out cursive writing, reading primary documents written in cursive will become a bigger problem in future years.

The debate tends to get heated with the "substitution of words" portion of modification.

While I do believe that the students should be exposed to written primary sources in their exact form, I believe it VERY important to take into account the ages and types of students in your classroom.

I teach 7th and 8th graders, 12 to 14 years old.  They do great reading and understanding most letters.  They can analyze photos, artifacts, and political cartoons with out too much guidance.  However, when it comes to government documents, that is where I lose them.

And I mean, LOSE them.

We, as educators, should completely understand why.  Government documents are HARD to read.  They are small in font, LONG, and use every big word known to man.  I have no shame in saying that teaching with government documents are my LEAST favorite source to use and the hardest primary sources to design lessons so students can understand what they are reading.

This is where modification comes in for me.  Today's example, Marbury vs. Madison.  I have no problem saying that I STRUGGLE to teach using the John Marshall's official written decision of Marbury vs. Madison.  I don't necessarily struggle with the reasons behind the case or the result.  But the document sucks.  It is hard.  When I read it I am looking up over half of the words and I'm an adult!

If I give this document, even excerpted, to the students without ANY modifications to the words they WILL SHUT DOWN.  Again, I can't blame them when I struggle to get through it.

So what do I do?  The state requires that I teach this document to my students.  It could show up on their assessments.   If I don't at least expose them to it, I am doing them a huge disservice.

After much longer than I usually spend planning activities, searching online for idea after idea, and reaching into my differentiated instruction, cooperative learning, and multiple intelligence bag of tricks, I finally came up with a lesson that I can stand behind.

It is still not my favorite lesson, but it was manageable, the students had to use the document (original wording as well as modified), and they walked out of my room with a greater understanding of Marbury vs. Madison than classes in the past when I just skimmed over the details and made them memorize the importance.

Here's what I did.

**This took place over two class periods**

  • Bell Work:  Students came in and were given a scenario in which they were running for Mayor and the current Mayor (whom they defeated) gave jobs to several people of his political party.  They had to choose whether or not they would honor the jobs given by the previous Mayor or hire people of their political party for the jobs.  Then defend their answer.
  • I gave a very brief presentation on the background of the court case.  John Adams appointing Marshall as Chief Justice, as well as other "Midnight Judges."  William Marbury didn't receive his commission in time and Adams was replaced with Jefferson.  Jefferson refused to give Marbury the commission preferring a member of his own party.  
  • Students were then given more details in a summary reading assignment.  You could use a textbook or article found on the web.  I made my students complete the front side of a worksheet called "Just the Facts" using the information from this text and/or our discussion earlier. I made them use a strategy called TAG.  (Turn the question into a statement, Answer the question...sentence one.  Give more detail...sentence two).  Here is a picture of the front side of that worksheet.

  • The next part of the lesson took a lot of prep work.  I found 10 different 2-4 sentence excerpts from Marshall's decision and I created 2-3 questions to go with each excerpt.  Along with pulling sourcing information and some vocabulary work, students would be paired up with a partner and required to fill out a chart over their assigned excerpt.  Here are a few pictures of those charts (printed on the back side of the "Just the Facts" sheet).

  • Now, once students have been working together for a while and trying to make sense of their excerpt of Marshall's decision, I then give them a modified version of the excerpt.  Easier-to-understand language and shorter.  This way students were required to struggle with the original wording, but were then given a modified version to help them out.
  • Finally after all 10 pairs are done, they share out with the class what they found about their excerpt.  In order to insure all students pay attention, they are to write done ONE important thing learned from each "share." 
Whew!  That's intense, and it took a long time to put together, but in the end I believe it was worth it.  I was able to expose the students to original wording of the document with very little modification, just typing the words in larger font and excerpting the document.  After they struggled for a while I was able to provide some relief with the more modified version of their expert.  

The cool thing?  Most kids were able to get the answers to the questions from the excerpt itself and didn't end up needing the modified version, but there were some who were very relieved to have the modified version given to them.  Allowed them to understand the information and come away feeling accomplished.  

I did not write this piece with the purpose to advocate for or against modification on primary source documents, but the highlight a time in my classroom where I thought modification was necessary.  I believe first and foremost that you have to look at the kids in your classroom.  Exposing them to primary sources is importing.  Analysis is important.  But when trying to read documents that are grade levels higher than the average reading level in the room, kids need help or they will shut down.  

What is best for your kids?

Friday, January 16, 2015


Sometimes it works.

You plan a lesson, activity, or project that just hits all the right marks.

Creativity.  Technology.  Content.  Learning.

And the kids deliver.  They participate.  They enjoy it.  They learn.

And that is how I started 2015 with my 8th graders.


I came up with the initial idea for an infographic project towards the end of the year last year.  However, it was too close to the end and there wasn't time for me to squeeze it in.  So instead of trying to rush something that wasn't quite ready, I put it off.  Stored it in the back of my head as an end of the year final for my 8th grade students.

Throughout the summer, the basic idea of making an infographic grew.

I wanted there to relevance.  Validity.  I wanted my kids to create something that wasn't just regurgitating facts that I presented earlier in the year.  I wanted this project to have some SUBSTANCE to it, so the kids would think "wow, I really have to step up my game.  This has to be good!"  

The project is this...  The 8th graders at Cheney Middle School will create an infographic poster over social studies topics taught in the elementary school.  The infographics will be printed off, laminated, and given to those teachers to use at teaching tools in their classroom.

I decided this year to start with the 4th grade teachers.  (Future years I will try to hit each grade level in the elementary school...this will ensure that the project can last as long as I want it to.)  I have a list of their topics and will assign each student a different topic to research and create a 4th grade level infographic.

Cool right?!?!

But Mrs. Weber!  It is January.  Why are you talking about an infographic project that you are planning to do in May???

Good question.

One thing that I have learned as I try to incorporate more technology into my classroom is that you have to build in time for the students to learn the programs before adding in the content and specific requirements.  I was worried that I wouldn't have that kind of time in May.  So I wanted a "practice round" for students to learn the infographic program, a website called Piktochart, and play around with the fonts, design elements, and graphics.  At the same time, this let me practice the process for grading, printing, and what requirements were realistic and/or necessary.

Which brings us to January.  It just so happens that I wasn't able to finish our current unit of study before Christmas break.  In December, we spent a lot of time talking about the origins of America's first two political parties; the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists.  Then we hit the much needed two-week break.  I decided to have the students review those two political parties by creating an infographic.

This accomplished everything I wanted it to.  Here are a few things I learned about Piktochart and this type of project.

  • These turned out awesome!  Some of these kids will be future graphic designers!  They have an eye for this kind of thing!  Here are some of my favorites....

  • Some were not awesome...  Some of these kids will not be future graphic designers, and that's ok.  There are a few students who need more help in appropriate color schemes, fonts, and graphic placement.  It will be important for me to have the students peer review by selecting those kids who have a good eye for graphic design to review the students who struggle.  
  • It's not always who you think... The students who had really good infographics weren't always the strongest academic students, and some of my strongest students didn't end up with an attractive poster in the end.  It is cool to see kids succeed who always struggle, and it is good to have to struggle a little at something if school typically comes pretty easy.
  • I will not allow uploaded pictures.  This makes students lazy.  They just go to google images, find a picture and upload it.  Not cool.  Many times the picture doesn't fit the scheme of the infographic. They will have to use only the graphics provided on the site.  Harsh...maybe.  But the students who stayed away from just searching for a picture on the Internet had better overall final products.
  • I will have the students print a black and white copy for me to write on as I grade them.  I had a pretty basic rubric for this assignment, but many times found myself wanting to write on the actual poster to show them exactly what I meant.  If I had a black and white copy as well as their colored one I could do that. 
  • I was very blunt with some students.  I think I even said at one time "that font is ugly, change it now."  I need to be sure and continue that the next time.  Some kids are very good at understanding sugar-coated phrases like "you may want to rethink that font."  But in this case, it is better for the final project (and their grade) if I am blunt.
  • Collaboration!  The kids worked together to figure out how apply different effects to their project, how to change colors, or layouts that worked best.  No two infographics were the same!  They were all different, yet multiple times I saw students assisting each other and complimenting others on cool ideas.  

With every activity, lesson, or project I always take time to think about what went well and what I need to change for the next go 'round.  I made notes as I was grading the posters and overall was very pleased with the results.

I have even heard a few kids say that they can't wait until the final in May!


Monday, January 12, 2015

Highs and Lows At the Half-Way Point

Annnnndd...we're back!  The 2015 portion of the 2014-2015 school year is now a week underway.  I thought this would be a good time to list some of the things that I think are going really well and some things I still think need to see more improvement.

So I present to you... The Highs and Lows!

High:  The students are getting better and better with technology.
I am more and more amazed at how fast they pick up new programs, and quickly figure out easier and faster ways to do something.  I had an assignment at the start of 2015 that required my 8th graders to use a brand new program.  They did the tutorial and were off and running!  It is the same when they learn new apps.  Teenagers definitely speak the language of technology and are fast to absorb the information.

Low:  They struggle with writing out complete and total thoughts and answers.
I don't think the problem here is that 7th and 8th graders can't write out complete thoughts.  The problem is, they don't like to and don't want to.  They are smart.  They are smart enough to know that they will still get partial credit for an answer if they don't use complete sentences, give details, or only answer the first half of the question.  Basically, either they don't read an entire question or they choose not to answer it fully.  I am working to incorporate written responses in more and more of the assignments I create.  Which means, they are required to write much more than 5 years ago.  They hate it!  The problem for them...it's not going away.

High:  Primary vs. Secondary sources.  They got it!
We work with primary and secondary sources every single day.  And every single time I quiz them on the difference or which is which, they get it right!  Whoo Hoo!

Low:  Analysis of primary source documents is still hard.  
Of course it is.  13 and 14 year old students are asked to analyze Supreme Court Cases from the 1800's.  Yep.  They struggle.  I am continually looking for strategies to teach these higher-level documents better and help explain them.  The majority of my lesson planning time is spent searching for documents, figuring out good, tough questions, and developing better ways to teach it.

The other part of the analysis problem is in answering the questions.  The answers to questions requiring a higher thinking level, typically aren't smack dab in the middle of the reading, word for word.  Kids like answers to be staring them right in the face.  They don't like to have to "think deeply" and use the reading to help infer an answer.  It is work.  It isn't easy.  They still struggle with this.  They will come and ask for help and say "I can't find this in the reading..."  Well, it's not gonna be there word for word. You have to use the information provided and infer to come up with an answer and then give the reasons why you inferred that answer by citing evidence from the text.  I think the words "provide evidence from the text" are the most hated words seen on an assignment.  Besides, "write using complete sentences."  :)

High:  Collaboration among students is starting to become second nature.  
One of the coolest moments for me so far in 2015 happened in the computer lab while my 8th graders were working on an assignment to create an infographic poster.  They had to use a program on the web, which non of them had used before.  They did the tutorial and were off and running.  The amazing thing I saw...collaboration.  Not cheating, collaboration.  Students who were trying to figure out how to get that cool effect on their graphic or how to change the color of their background.  Heads were together discussing different ways to create the same boring information.  Not unlike many of us teachers trying to figure out new ways to teach and the technological tools we have available.  I loved seeing my students put their heads together to solve a problem.

Low:  The students (and parents) want an A but fail to realize the amount of work it's going to take.
One thing that I have noticed throughout my 9 years as a teacher.  There are fewer A's per number of students that I have.  Social Studies in the state of Kansas has seen a huge change.  No more is memorizing random facts in chronological order going to get you an A.  You have to think, write, and explain your reasoning with evidence.  This is higher level thinking.  Making that A a higher level to achieve.  Many times students and parents expect that if all the work gets turned in, an A is given in return.  A's are exceptional, which means the work that is turned in is exceptional.  I always tell students on the first day of my class, "It is hard to fail my class.  You basically have to do nothing.  However, on the other side of that...you are going to have to work hard for an A."

There you have it!  Technology, collaboration, primary source analysis and hard work make up the first half of the school year.  And those exact things will make up the second half.  Here's to a good start, leading to a better ending!