Thursday, January 28, 2016

History Chef

Sometimes I think I should rename this blog...."A View of What Mrs. Weber Takes From Other Teachers and Uses in Her Classroom."  But that would be too long.

However, it is true.

I get so many awesome ideas just clicking on link after link, reading teacher blog after teacher blog, and then sometimes, I do actually come up with an idea myself.  (Like this one.)

This post is, yet again, my take on someone else's awesome idea. (The original idea is found here.)  The point of this kind of activity is to get kids thinking creatively.  To some people, that comes easy.  To others, it is very difficult.  This is a way to set the stage and get kids to think "outside of the box."


The idea comes from popular cooking shows like Chopped and Master Chef.  I think the original idea used "Chopped" as the inspiration, while mine uses a little of Master Chef in there too (because Gordon Ramsay is just awesome.)  If you're unfamiliar with those shows, both have a "mystery box" type of competition.  The chefs are surprised with random ingredients and have to create a dish using the items in the box.

This is the inspiration for the History Chef activity.  Last week I presented the students with an "essential question" that needed to be answered through the process of analyzing primary sources, identifying the context information, and using various other collaborative and historical thinking skills.  Our topic is the Indian Removal Act and how the Cherokee attempted to fight it.

The essential question is:

How did the Cherokee Nation argue against the U.S. removal policies?

The task:  Students are divided into teams and each team is given a box.  Inside each box are six "ingredients" that must be used.  The team is instructed to work together to create a presentation that must answer the essential question using all items in the box. The lid has this list of instructions on the top along with a sweet logo for our activity.  (Shout out to my awesome husband for creating that awesome "History Box" logo!)

Inside each box are six items.
  • Photo of Andrew Jackson
  • Photo of Cherokee Chief John Ross
  • 2 pieces of laminated paper for supportive quotes from the primary source documents we studies with an Expo marker to write on the laminated paper.
  • 2 SURPRISE items.  -- These are completely random objects I found around the room.  **Each box has different surprise items**

When the 8th graders came in today, I started off class with this cool "teaser."

Once they were "hooked" into the idea that today was not going to be a normal day.    I had each group go and get a box from the back table, but not open the lid yet.  We read through the list of rules, made sure everyone understood the objective of the day, set the timer for 30 minutes, and POOF.  They were off!

After the time was up, I used a random number generator to decide the order the groups would present.  The presentations were entertaining, and some even turned out to be good.  Many kids said that they were disappointing that their presentations didn't turn out they way they wanted, and if they had more time it would have been better.

Here's the thing.  If I wanted a "Good presentation" I would have made this a completely different assignment with the appropriate time, instructions, and rubric to have good quality work produced.  This was different.  The point of this activity was how can you creatively, think critically and produce something different from everyone else in the room in a fraction of the time you are used to.  Most presentations included good ideas, that if I had the time (and desire) each team could spend a week perfecting that idea into awesome presentations.

After the completion of our activity and a chance to clean up and prepare the boxes for the next batch of students to come we had a chance to debrief and discuss their thoughts on the History Chef activity.  Some of the thoughts of the day....

  • "This is my favorite day in social studies this year."
  • "Can I be held back this year so I can do this again next year?"
  • "We should do this again, but add in a money value where we have to purchase items or supplies we want to use in our presentation."
  • "Can we do this again this year?"
  • "This was awesome!"

The kids  loved this idea, and wanted to help brainstorm other ways that this activity could be used.  My favorite idea that came from discussions is to have a multi-subject Mystery Box type of activity.  The whole class would compete in a Language Arts competition and then be judged on their presentations.  There would be one team that would be cut.  The remaining groups would move on to the History themed box, and then from that competition the last few would compete in the final science competition.  They were really pumped up with all the possibilities with this project.

What ways could you take this activity and twist it to fit your class?  What other reality/competition type shows could be used in a school setting?  

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


...ideas just pop into my head and I literally shriek in excitement.

And scare my students while they are working hard, breaking up the nice and quiet sound of 7th graders thinking critically.

It happened today.  They looked at me like I was crazy.  I might be.

If you have been anywhere near Facebook or Instagram in the last few days you have probably noticed the little stick figures that give "worldly" advice about what you should and should not do based on a silly little name generator thingy.  They come from a site called "Blobla"  I put my name into it and got this.
Click here to make your own!
Then, being the smart-ass that I am, I decided to use this "template" as a humorous way to convince my 7th graders during Target Time (study hall) to actually use the time to get homework finished before having to do it at home.  (The actual point of the 27 minutes they get everyday.)

So I drew this up on my board.

They loved it.

And then, somewhere between posting it on Instagram and returning to the stack of essays I needed to grade, an idea just popped in my head.

Why not use this template as an assignment for 8th graders to summarize a person from history that we have studied.  BAM!

Students would have to create a "Be like Bob" picture using historical information.  I could also give them a choice of creating a "Don't be like Bob" option.

I created an example on my iPad using Keynote and the Sketchpad.  I do this because if I'm going to ask the students to do something, I'm going to do it first!  (And because it is WAY MORE FUN than grading essays.)
I think we will try this out next week.  We just finished our study of Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act.  These could be good!  I'll let you know how they turn out :) 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

P.M.I. and the Power of Student Voice

I love involving students in my reflection process in my class.  I am constantly looking for ways to improve my class and make history better, easier to understand, or more fun for the kids  in my room.

Please don't misunderstand me.  They do not make everyday decisions in class.  They don't decide what units I teach, how I teach them, or what I use to assess student progress.  But they are a valuable resource for me when I try something new, or want to know how to make something better.

I have already talked about having the students fill out a survey about me at the end of the here to read that post.  While that is valuable information for me each year, sometimes I want feedback that is more immediate.

This year I have been searching for ways to deliver information to the students without it being a lecture.  I try to use a variety of teaching strategies throughout the year so students are exposed to many different methods.  I do a form of interactive lecture with words, pictures, videos, and an outline that requires the students to fill in the blanks.  Some kids love it when I lecture, others don't.  They are honest with me and I don't take it personally.  They understand that not every day in here will be an explosion of creativity and fun.  Some days are more traditional.  And that's OK.

This week I introduced a new method of note-taking to my 7th and 8th graders.  I am sure there is a technical term for this strategy, but I call it "Visual Note Taking."  I gave my students paper copies of the lecture I was going to deliver and then required them to re-write the content in anyway that they wanted.  They had to follow a couple of rules.

  1. All of the information on the slide needed to be present on the new slide they created.  I made sure to explain that information was not synonymous with words. They could abbreviate, leave off unimportant words, or summarize what was originally on the slide, but the information that is received from the slide had to all be there.
  2. They needed to find four ways to visually add to make something stand out.  This could be done in the form of a simple sketch, drawing a cloud around important words, or using arrows to show cause and effect.  
  3. They were to highlight the most important information about each slide.  They were limited to only highlighting THREE items.  (I was attempting to make my students choose what the most important information was.  Too many times students think EVERYTHING is important.

Since this was the first time students attempted this form of note-taking in my class, I wanted some feedback.  I presented my students with a P.M.I. chart, and required that they fill it in based on their experience with the visual note-taking strategy.  This would help guide my expectations and use of the method in the future.

P.M.I. stands for "Plus, Minus, and Interesting."   Students were to give me both positive and negative feedback about this strategy.  I also instructed them to tell me ONE thing that I could do different or add to this assignment to make it better for them.

At least TWO positive comments about Visual Note Taking
At least TWO negative comments about Visual Note Taking
At least ONE thing you found interesting about this method

I did tell both 7th grade and 8th grade classes that their negative remarks could not be that they had to "work."  I can't go to my boss and tell her I don't want to do hall duty because it is more "work."  Their "minus" comments had to be constructive.  What made this difficult for you, what didn't you like about it?

As always, when I ask for student input, they come up with things I never would have thought of.  Here are some actual student responses for each category.

  • "I understood the information better."
  • "I was able to stay focused with this better than when you lecture out loud."
  • "I liked being able to shorten up the info."
  • "It was easy."
  • "Getting to choose what to highlight and draw was fun."
  • "Drawing pictures made it stick in my head better."
  • "It makes you think a lot about the topic."
  • "It is time consuming."
  • "I didn't like that we HAD to add pictures."
  • "Sometimes it was hard to decide what was the most important information."
  • "My hand hurt from so much writing."
  • "It isn't good for the auditory learners."
  • "I wish we would have shared with the class or discussed it some."
  • "It was hard to fit it all in the box you gave us.  I needed more room or would prefer to write it on notebook paper."
  • "I already like to take notes this way, I just didn't know it was an actual strategy."
  • "I thought I would like this better than you lecturing, but I actually didn't."
  • "I actually thought it was fun."
  • "I like that I get to take notes the way I wanted to."
  • "I was surprised that I still understood the information without you explaining it."
And the final piece of gathering their opinions was having them tell me one thing that would make this better in the future.  
  • "take out the highlighting requirement, it was hard to figure out what was important."
  • "let us do this on our own paper."
  • "have a break half way through since it took so long, my hand was tired."
  • "Maybe have questions after two or three slides to make sure we understand the information."

I LOVE involving students in the reflection process.  They really have great ideas, that can ignite an even better one.  I think sometimes teachers just assume that all kids want to do is get out of work.  As you can see from their suggestions above, they really do have good ideas that I can incorporate into this strategy in the future.  Some of their ideas even require them to do MORE than what I had required. 
I often involve my students in dialog about my teaching style, assignments and projects we do, and suggestions they have to improve class.   I take their suggestions seriously, they know this.  Because I have created that type of environment, I do feel like students are honest with me and really try to improve their education.  They know that I do not do everything they ask or want, but I do use some of their ideas.  If you aren't willing to seriously consider student input, don't ask.  

Friday, January 8, 2016

Note Card Confessions - Teaching with Emotion

"Mrs. Weber, I'm not sure I like this, it's making me all emotional and stuff."

Studies has shown multiple times, that people learn through emotion.  We may not remember every single day, but we remember the days where we experienced emotion.

Enter, note card confessions.  Note card confessions are a social media trend to bring attention to a story that needs to be told.  They tend to be very powerful and emotional.  I first got the idea to use note card confessions in class here.  (I get a lot of good ideas from this site!)

A note card confession style video was the perfect way for my 7th grade classes to complete our unit on the Homestead Act.  I have a series of letters that were written by a woman named Mary Chaffee Abell.  Mary lived with her husband, Robert, and their children on a homestead in Western Kansas.  Mary wrote about her life and the experiences her family went through while surviving on the dramatic Kansas plains.  Every year we look at these letters my students walk away feeling the sadness that Mary pours into her letters. I wanted the note card confessions to take that to the next level by requiring that the students take on the "persona" of either Mary or her husband Robert.  The students would have to "step into the shoes" of the character.  The results were powerful.

An example of Robert's story created by 7th grader, Mason S.

An example of Mary's story created by 7th grader, Bailey B.

How did the students create these videos?

I used this blog post to guide much of the requirements.  If you want to attempt one of these with your students, I highly recommend reading it in entirety!  Here are the basic requirements for the note cards I gave my students.
  1. Must have at least 20 note cards
  2. 5 note card introduction of who you and where you are
  3. No more than 8 words per card
  4. No spelling mistakes
  5. Words written clearly with one dark colored marker. Do not switch colors.
  6. The audience must clearly understand the life of a homesteader in Western Kansas.
  7. Words should be powerful and include sensory details.  At least 5 examples of sensory details. (Piggy-backed off of the Language Arts class who had just been studying about words that used sensory details.)
  8. Do not distract the reader with sarcasm or something silly
  9. This is to be emotional and powerful.

Then I also had a set of requirements for the technology piece:
  1. You will edit your video to make it black and white.
  2. Add a title and end credits.
  3. This will be put together in iMovie (our students all have iPads).
  4. Add music that will fit the theme of your video.  There should be no words in the song and the artist and title of song will be credited at the end of the video.  -- This is HUGE.  The right music helps set the tone for the video.  I had many students not really realize the true emotional value of this assignment until seeing the finished product with the music.

What went well?
  • The students LOVED this project!  
  • Over and over I heard kids mention how this was hard to start because it was such a different concept to them, but once they got going and figured it out, it was fun.  This is exactly what I wanted.  Something that would challenge them to think differently, and at the same time be possible for them to figure out on their own.
  • The emotional connection to Mary's story was awesome!
  • Each student walks away with their own project to showcase to parents at our student lead conferences in March.
  • The majority of this project was student centered.  A great example of this happened on the day we were recording the note cards.  I was late to my last class of the day because of a meeting and my principal covered the start of class.  All she said was "you guys know what to do, right?" and they took off!  I was sure to tell the students how impressed she was with the way they were able to just get to work without the teacher directing their only move.  I had very little questions about "What do I do?" and only had to help specific technology issues.  It was AMAZING to see the independence and collaboration that occurred. 
  • This inspired some students to create their own personal note card confessions!

What would I do differently?
  • Set a limit to the number of cards.  I required at least 20 note cards, but never set a limit.  I had some students who had over 100 cards.  WAY TOO MANY!   
  • Next year I will only allow two direct quotes from the letters.  I had some kids who just tried to copy the letter word-for-word.  
  • Depending on the time available for this project and student need, I can group kids together and make this a team presentation instead of individual, however, the individual method is preferred.
This project not only provided a way for students to experience empathy, show creativity, think critically and collaborate with others it also provided an emotional piece for them to showcase to their parents at our Spring Student-Led Conferences this spring!  In reflecting about this project, students mentioned that it was a much better way to learn about the Homestead Act and what life was like than just reading it and taking a test.