Saturday, December 29, 2018

Social Studies Shorts

Wanna a quick and easy project for your students, that embeds content and technology, doesn't eat up a ton of time, and has LOTS of options????

Look no further than "Social Studies Shorts."

This isn't a new idea for a project. Our English teacher has done it in her ELA classroom before, and I thought it was cool and filed it away into my "someday I'll try that" folder.

Then I was reminded of it by Adam Topliff, an awesome teacher in my PLN. He did it with his 8th graders over the Articles of Confederation, and I figured it would be a great thing to use as my "semester final project" for my 8th graders over Lewis and Clark. I believe he got the idea from education consultant, Curtis Chandler. (You should follow both on Twitter @mrtopliff and @CurtisChandler6 ) for great ideas.

As I've said before, I don't typically do the same thing year after year. I am always looking to revamp and find new ways for students to work with the content. One thing that does typically stay the same in my history classes is starting with an essential question.

I love to present the question at the start of a lesson and then spend the next few days having the students investigate and prepare to answer the question. It's HOW they answer the question where I'm always looking to shake things up.

This year, I took a lesson over Lewis and Clark that I've done pretty much the same way the last two or three years. The lesson is a good one, a Structured Academic Controversy (SAC). I wrote a blog about it last year...find that post here. That lesson comes from SHEG. I am using the same materials from the SHEG lesson, but the end result isn't a structured debate between students, but a short film created instead referred to as "Social Studies Shorts"

Check out this video example of a Social Studies Short.

When Mr. Topliff tweeted that he was planning one of these for his students, a little light clicked! That would be a fun alternate way to answer our big Lewis and Clark question. So I set to work creating the project.

***I will note, that I may have been VERY specific about requirements and details on the rubric. I find that the first time I do a certain type of technology project the more specific I am helps the kids figure it all out. Later in the year, if this is presented again as an option, students are given more "freedom" for creativity.***

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

STEP 1: Gather Evidence by completing the evidence analysis chart. There will be 5 stations for students to rotate through. Each station has a different document to analyze. This will be done at the student's own pace and can be done with a partner if they choose. (Evidence from SHEG activity… )

Quick image of the document. For full access scroll to the bottom of the page.

Quick image of the document. For full access scroll to the bottom of the page.

STEP 2: Fill out the Persuasive Graphic Organizer Sheet. This will be done individually using the information learned while studying the evidence provided. (I just searched for "Persuasive Essay Graphic Organizer" and picked one that I liked)
STEP 3: Prepare the Social Studies Short
  1. Create a Script of what to say on camera.
  2. Content MUST HAVES:
    1. Introduction: Title, who, what, when, and where (basic information about the expedition.)
    2. Answer the "essential question"
    3. Provide at least THREE pieces of evidence to back up claim.
    4. Acknowledge the counterargument and its weakness
    5. A conclusion Statement.
  3. Visual MUST HAVES
    1. Essential Question Typed and printed.
    2. Locate images and create other text that can be used as you narrate your video.

STEP 4:  Video your short.
  1. Find a video partner.
  2. One videos with the iPad while the other presents
  3. Switch roles
  4. Complete any final editing need and upload final product to Google Classroom.

Here is an example of a finished video from Nolan.

All in all, they enjoyed this project, I was able to integrate technology effectively with my content, students studied primary and secondary sources in order to back up their claim, and work collaboratively to film their videos. Social Studies Shorts will definitely make a repeat appearance in my class this year! 

I love the versatility of this project. So many options... and it can be as long and detailed or short and sweet as you need it to be. Individual or team project...larger project answering an essential question...or explaining a single vocabulary word in context. Lots of options to fit your classroom needs!

I will mention, that when I told the students that this project "used to be done as a small round-table debate" they REALLY wished we would have done that. I found that they were really into the topic and wanted to discuss their opinions. If I do the "Social Studies Shorts" with this topic next year, I will do it as a follow-up to the debates.

Want the resources for this project and not just pictures? Click HERE for my Google Folder!

Friday, December 14, 2018

Reflecting and Making Tough Decisions

I have said this many times, the best teachers are reflective teachers. They make changes based on what went well and what didn't. They listen to the students, because sometimes these "kids" have some pretty great ideas on how they would like to learn. 

And when they're not ready. 

Sometimes, they come right out and tell us. And sometimes they are a afraid to say just what's on their mind. But if you get to know your students as more than just the "kids in your class" you'll start to be able to pick up on what they're NOT telling you... but showing you. 

My 7th graders have been working on a really cool project over our "Bleeding Kansas" unit. I stole the idea from a high school teacher. The project involved the kids researching a person and then "becoming" that person for a press conference style interview.

I LOVE this project idea. I love the depth of knowledge and rigor attached to it. The kids don't just research and regurgitate the information back, they truly have to get to know the person they researched and infer their answers based on their knowledge. Cross-curricular research skills, oral communication skills, and historical thinking. Win - Win - Win. 

For me. 

And then last night, while I was awake and couldn't sleep at 3:00 AM, I started playing little signs over and over in my head. As much as I didn't want to admit 7th graders weren't ready for this.  Some of the signs were...
  • The questions I kept getting... "Is this really in front of the class?" "How long do I have to be up there?" "Can I have my research form while I'm presenting?" 
  • The kids in tears during our "soft deadline" because they were so anxious and nervous. 
  • The emails I got the night before our due date. I NEVER get emails from kids at home. I got three after 9:00
  • The emails from parents giving me a "heads up" about their child's nerves.

And then I started to think more about my classroom and why they may not actually be "ready." 
  • This is their first BIG project with me that involves research, cited sources, and a presentation. 
  • The presentation is not only an individual one, but it also requires some high-level thinking front of their peers.
  • We haven't actually done ANY type of oral presentation in class. Nothing. 
  • They haven't even done any speeches or presentations in their ELA class for me to "piggy back" off of. 

One of the things I love about being a teacher is the amount of control I have in my day. For the most part, my principal trusts me to teach my kids the content I'm required and do it to the best of my ability. HOW I decide to do that is completely up to me. I can make changes as I see fit. Sometimes those changes are easy. Sometimes they're more difficult. 

By 3:30 AM I had made the decision to change it up. The focus of this project wasn't the oral presentation. It was the research skills and content surrounding the important people during the turbulent time period leading up to the Civil War. Instead of orally presenting to in front of their peers, 7th graders would create a Spark Video about their person. Within that video they were still required to make inferences based on what they learned and answer specific content-related questions. 

This was not an easy decision. I LIKE the press conference project, and I am a big advocate for challenging your students and making them step outside their comfort zone. I put A LOT of work into creating it, but it's not about me. This was a HUGE jump outside the comfort zone for some. Creating fear and anxiety was NOT the goal. For the record, I still think this is something middle school students can do, but I think it is more suited for the end of 7th grade (at the earliest) or 8th grade. I will revisit this project again.

Sometimes doing what's best for students means putting aside your own pride and the amount of work that you put in to it, in order to get the quality of work your students are capable of. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

100 Things...

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever received was this...

"Find the best teacher you can, stick close to them, and steal any ideas you can from them to use in your own classroom."

And the best teachers out there will always let you steal from them. The best teachers are those who aren't only trying to improve themselves, but they love to see other teachers get better too. That's what we all see those in our profession get better everyday. 

Today's blog post is an idea that I stole from one of the best. 

T.J. Warsnak. And he really is one of the best...a finalist for Kansas Teacher of the Year this year. So, yeah, I'm going to steal anything I can from him...and this is a good one!

The idea is to get the students involved in discussion and brainstorming. This is when you're looking for a large list that the class can use to start something new. In my case I wanted the kids to brainstorm different ways to present information. T.J. used the goal of 250 things for his high schoolers, I modified it down to 100 for my 7th grade students. 

Today we needed ideas on ways to present information. You the middle school level, when I say create a "presentation" 9 times out of 10 I get some sort of slide presentation...Google Slide or PowerPoint. The kids get tunnel vision. Today, I didn't want a slide presentations, so we started with the whole class brainstorm activity 100 Ways...

My students sit in teams. I have 6 teams in my room and each group was given a small white board and an Expo marker. I explained that we need to come up with as many ideas on how to present information as we can. Their task was to write down as many presentation ideas as possible in 3 minutes. They could (and should) use their Chromebooks to Google ideas. As a class I set a goal for 100 ways to present material.

When time was up, we shared out. I typed up their responses as they shared out. It was OK to repeat ideas, so "talk show" might have showed up 3 different times. Who cares. They came up with talk show. And debate, and mock trials, and Spark Video, and Game Shows, and Timelines, and over 100 more!

This was awesome! A great way to spur discussion, get all kids involved and give them a goal to reach. You should have seen the eyes of my 7th graders when I said our goal was 100 things. And how proud they were at the end when we reached it! 

Then we preceded onto our activity for the day...Mystery Box Challenge. A SUPER fun way to engage students, force creativity and collaboration, while working under pressure. Want to know more about here!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

"Polish it Up" Day

As a building this year, we've discussed the topic of mastery grading quite a few times. We look at the positives and challenges of moving in this direction. The results have been that I am engaging in some serious self-reflection on my policies in class, and how I go about allowing for kids to truly show their best work and continue learning.

I've started small. Allowing redos on assignments and assessments for students who struggled. This is largely student-initiated. I make a comment on their grade in the grade book simply stating "Can be redone for a better grade" and pretty much leave it up to the student to take it from there.

This is a challenging shift. Students aren't accustomed to having the opportunity to redo their work. Middle school kids often fall into the "just get it done so I don't have homework" trap all too often. How do we shift their thinking from "get it done" to "learn the material"?

It's a work in progress. I'm working on ways to find time within our school days to work with students who need help. It's hard. There's only so much time within the school day, and outside of that just isn't a possibility between activities that students have and the current demands of my family life. I am currently expecting baby March I'll have four kiddos under the age of 7. I don't have the luxury (or the energy at the moment) to spend much more time on school outside of the contracted school day. So that leaves me with trying to search for creative solutions within the 8 school hours of the day.

Enter... .Polish it Up Day!

While scrolling through Twitter one night before bed (the MAGIC of Twitter PLN is the effortless scrolling that results in great ideas!) I came across a teacher who was doing a "Zap Zeros" day on the final day of the semester. Allowing students to turn in any late assignment that was a 0.

Ohhh...that's something I can work with.

I don't have a ton of 0's...I pretty much accept work throughout the semester, BUT I can use this idea to help with our "time" issue and allowing students the opportunity to improve. Growth mindset.

The last day of the semester before Christmas break, I plan on offering the class period to any student who wants to improve their grades. I'm calling it... Polish it Up Day! Students can work on any assignment, essay, or assessment that could improve their overall grade. This opportunity won't just be open to the students with low grades, but ANYONE with ANY chance at improvement will have the opportunity.  So the student with the 68% has a chance to bump up to a C and the student with a 94 has a chance to increase also! Growth mindset and continued learning is something that we should instill in all our kids, not just the ones who struggle.

This is the first year I'm trying this. I plan to promote it to students and parents in the next coming weeks and hope to have many students take advantage of this opportunity. Could you think of the possibilities if we were able to offer this throughout the school on that last day? How many kids would love the time to improve?

Does your school have a system for allowing students the opportunity and time for redoing assignments and assessments? Have you run into some struggles with this? Do you have solutions? I'd love to talk with you more!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Let's Talk About Rubrics

One thing I love about the teaching profession is that we are always constantly learning, growing, trying new things...all in the process of becoming better. This is true whether it's your first year and you're improving from the first month of school to the second and it's true if you're a veteran teacher who decides to try something different to "shake things up." There is always an opportunity to learn and improve.

One thing I am learning more and more as I keep going is how important it is to have clear expectations. Now, it's not that I didn't know that I needed that when I started, but I keep learning that what I think is "clear" doesn't necessarily translate that way to my 7th and 8th grade students. I find that they ALWAYS do better when I am as simply specific as possible with my expectations.

Don't let that fool you. I didn't say I lower my expectations.

I simplify my explanation of the expectations so that it is as clear as possible.

I am constantly getting better at this.

And one of my favorite examples is with my rubrics.

I am a FIRM believer in having rubrics to score students on. Nothing is more frustrating for a student to receive a score on a project or assignment and not have a clear picture as to why they were given that score. So when I'm making and using rubrics in my classroom, I'm always keeping in mind this #1 major rule...

As the teacher...the person setting the expectation...I will NOT take off points if it's not listed on the rubric.

I just don't feel like it's ethical for me to hand out a lower grade to a student for something that wasn't mentioned in the expectations. This means at times, when I'm doing a brand new project or assignment, I have left off something that I should have graded on. Opps. My bad. I don't just "make it up on the spot." I write it down for something to add to the rubric next year. This year's kids get a pass on that issue.

Having this #1 rule has also lead me to having a variety of rubrics in the past. I started with using something sort of a scale (one of my favorite versions from my college methods class). It looks like this.

Then after about 5 years of teaching, our curriculum director challenged me to paint a truer picture of what the students would get by using the traditional 5-3-1 chart rubric. This would give clear expectations as to what a "5" score would get, what a "3" score and below. I liked it. It allowed me to give VERY DETAILED lists of what I expected and what the students needed to do to achieve a specific score. Here is an example...

BUT... I discovered something. A problem that many teachers seem to face. The kids DON'T USE THE RUBRIC. If I'm lucky...they glance at it right before turning in the project. Only a handful of the students actually spend the time using the rubric to guide themselves through the project. I found that those detailed 5-3-1 charts were almost TOO DETAILED.

Too detailed? How can something have too much detail. Well...if you're 12-14 years old (or older or younger) you get overwhelmed with having to look at too much.

I do still use the 5-3-1 rubric with my students, primary with their written responses. I try to make it as specfic as possible with little clutter. This is an example of my writing rubric (from a non-ELA teacher trying to score content primarily.

I've been on a recent mission to give kids a rubric that tells them the requirements, gives them the information they need to know with as few words as possible. This next example is one of my recent favorites and I've found myself using this as a template more and more.

And finally, sometimes I want a rubric that is as generic as possible, but allows me the freedom to provide comments and feedback for the reasoning of the score. I stole this idea on Twitter (I can't remember the original if it was you, thank you!)

Sometimes creating the perfect rubric for a project takes a lot of research about rubrics and what you're trying to achieve, and what you want your students to achieve. These are just examples of some of my favorites. I still use all of these types of rubrics depending on the assignment or project. Don't hesitate to steal anything from this blog post or contact me to talk more about it!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Projects: Mid-Point Status Check

Confession. Once upon a time, in the early days of my teaching, I use to assign a project when I need time to "catch up."

I would create some kind of project, usually that involved drawing/illustrating something, that could take 2-3 days, just so the kids would leave me alone and I could sit at my desk and grade papers, send emails, and take care of other "things" that always seem to pop up.

I am now older and wiser...

Today I proved just that.

My 8th graders are in full swing of their archaeology dig project. This is a long-term project that ends with the students presenting their findings to a team of judges. With this project there are LOTS of "real life" lessons to be learned. Teams create a working contract, use resources provided to them, make daily goals, keep track of the work they do, and are tasked with trying to develop self-management skills.

Self-management skills are H-A-R-D for 14 year old students to develop. There are so many things that can distract them from accomplishing their goals. But it is a skill that we must develop. So I sort of "leave them alone" so they can figure it out. For a bit...

Other than checking in with a are things going as I make "rounds" around the room, I try to give them some space to figure out their roles, a timeline for progress, and using the resources I provide them. Some teams and students are good at this. Most aren't. I let them try to figure it out, I let them struggle a bit...but I'm not going to let them fail the project because they were going off in the wrong direction. Most groups need a redirect, and they got that today.

Today we had a mid-point "status check." I went around and had a little meeting with each group. In this meeting we discussed their progress so far. If they were behind, I gave them tips on how to divide the work to make up for some of that loss time. If they were missing key requirements, I shed light on that. If they need some formatting tips, I show them some things they can do to help the "look" of their presentation.

The most impressive group of the day! TWO THUMBS UP!

Talk about VALUABLE time spent! So much progress was made today by each group. Some realized they hadn't been following the instructions at all, some saw simple things they could do to improve, others asked questions they've been "thinking" but felt silly coming to me to ask.

Now that I am older and wiser, my projects are much more in-depth and require higher thinking skills. This means that I can no longer just sit at my desk and catch up on paper-work. I have to be moving around, involved with their progress, observing, guiding...but still allowing them to develop. It's a process, and one I'm still improving on everyday.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Reflection: A Skill Worth Teaching

I have talked in previous posts, how important it is for teachers to reflect on their teaching in order to grow and become better. I have talked about how hard it can be to take a really good honest look at ourselves and where we might need to improve. I have become passionate about reflecting on what I do and helping spread the message to others. 

But I've been leaving out a very important group of people. 

My students. 

It's the first day with my 8th graders since I entered their project grades they completed last week. They decorated and then dedicated ceiling tiles to my classroom. The grades were low. Overall the kids didn't come close to the expectations I had set. I set high expectations. I kept telling them, that in order to get an A they were going to have to go above and beyond. It was going to have to knock my socks off for what I would expect an 8th grader to do. And for the most part, they didn't.

They were coming in today, and I felt like I couldn't just continue with class as normal. I have kids who are straight A students getting C's and D's on this project. They needed to debrief. They needed to be taught how to reflect so they can learn and GROW from this first misstep.

I have been reading a book by Jimmy Casas, Culturize, as part of a faculty book study. Yesterday I was reading  when it was talking about how important it is to have high expectations of kids. I felt like this part of the book was talking directly to me and this project with my 8th graders. I'm NOT going to lower my expectations because they fell short the first time out...but I can't just let them flounder.

Here's what I did. 

I wrote a paraphrased version of the quote from the book that "spoke" to me on the board. 

When the kids came in and got their rubrics, with comments, I gave them some time to read over their scores. (I did NOT sit them with their original teams from this project...I didn't want this to turn into a blame game. I wanted individual reflection). We discussed the phrase I put on the board and why it's important for me to have high expectations of them. I told them, in no way would I lower my expectations. We talked about how important it is to reflect, how future employers will want to hire someone who can reflect on their strengths and weaknesses in order to improve. And then I had them grab a piece of paper and create this T-Chart on the paper. 

I told them to think about this last project and what they did well and where they needed to improve as a teammate. I had to be specific. I didn't want to know what they needed to do to improve their ceiling tiles, I wanted to know what they, personally, can do to be a better teammate the next time around. What are they good at, what value do they bring to a group? I gave them some time to write this down.

And then they were instructed think about the areas they need to improve on, what they need to do to be more successful the next time around. 

And then we went into writing our contracts for the next project with new team members. 

The hope is that they take the information they reflected on, their strengths and weaknesses, and they use that to help guide them in what their new team needs to do to to be successful in their next project. 

As I read through their T-Charts of positives and improvements, I was impressed with many of their ability to honestly reflect. These are definitely not perfect, but its the first step in self-identification and improvement. In order to grow, we must first understand where we struggle and what steps to take. 

My plan is to do this exercise after each project, and see if there's improvement as we go. If someone is continuing to write down "stay on task" on their paper...we need to have a conversation about strategies to help stay on task. This helps me know where they need assistance and what I can look out for.

We do so many things as an adult, as part of our job, that we know are important skills these students need to develop. I wonder how many other things I do, as a teacher, that would be good skills to teach my middle school students... 

Definitely something to reflect on.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Let's Talk About Grades...

Grading is always a difficult topic to discuss. Teachers tend to be very passionate about how we grade and our philosophy behind it. It can also be one of the more difficult things to reflect accurately on...because we are passionate about it, confident in our method, and generally don't view it as a weakness.

Here's the thing...

It is easy to reflect and change in areas that we know we are weak...It is much more difficult to accurately reflect and be willing to make changes in areas that we feel we are strong. It is important to do both

I will come right out and say that I don't know the best way to grade students. What I know is what happened in my own classroom, how I recognized a problem (when I previously didn't believe there was one), and what I did to change it. I am in no way saying that my method is better, or even that much different than the next person... I'm just here to share the changes I have made in the last few years. I am sure there will be more change to come, as grading is and always will be a "hot-button" issue.

At least five years ago...

We were holding conferences in the gym. Each teacher had a table and parents rotated from content teacher to content teacher listening about their child's performance in those classes. I have always had positive conferences with parents, striving to always present them with strengths of their child, and adding helpful suggestions for any areas of improvement. I enjoyed meeting parents face-to-face and I liked it even more when the students came.

BUT...I was frustrated. I kept finding myself saying "your son/daughter's score in my class is a C, but their knowledge of social studies really is at a B or A level." Or...there were grades of A's or B's of students who didn't really exceed expectations in the content of social studies. That means that there was a good portion of my grading based on something other than my content level. Students losing points (or getting zeros) for late work, points based on participation and citizenship, and lots and lots of daily work grades...daily work that was very low-level thinking and/or completion assignments. I felt that there was too much "stuff" hiding the true results of the students abilities in social studies.

So...I started changing things up.  Slowly at first. I started with the 0's in the grade book. Those were the ones that bothered me the most. If papers were over a certain time limit, I would no longer accept them. Seemed typical. BUT...sometimes students would bring me work that was completed, just too late. there a way to still hold them accountable, but let it be reflected in the grade book that he or she actually did something?  So I started offering 50% credit to any completed work that was turned in before the end of the grading period. Look...the students are still getting "penalized" for not having their stuff in on time, they're still getting an F...but there's a HUGE difference in a child's grade between a 0 and 50% credit. I wanted it to show that they actually DID SOMETHING.

Today...if a student has a 0 in my class, it means one of two things; either the student missed every, single, question OR there literally was nothing ever turned in or completed for me to see. I have very few 0's because very few times to kids do NOTHING on an assignment. Many times that have at least something they can show me, something I know they've done. I will always give credit for work, when work is done.

The next thing I looked at was my categories. I had probably 15 different categories. Daily Work, Completion, Extra Credit, Writing, Vocabulary, Tests, Projects, Quizzes, Performance Assessment, Bell name it. I operated under the idea that if you want students to do the work you have to give a grade for it.

I'm here to tell's NOT TRUE!

Stop with all the grading y'all!

I now have three categories. Knowledge - Application - Assessment

These three things describe everything we do in my classroom and what level of thinking it requires. Knowledge based assignments are very simple things we do in class to gather new concepts. This could be vocabulary activities, discussions, reading activities, stations, etc... Anything in the Knowledge category is a small grade (5-10 points) and I rarely grade it. It is either completion, participation, or I just flat out ignore it and don't grade it. Yup...I said it. I don't grade everything my kids do in class. And yes...they know I don't grade everything. They just don't know WHAT I grade and what I don't. I never tell them.

You see...knowledge information (in my classroom) is many times done as a class or small group. On the off chance that it ends up as homework, I am fully aware of the fact that many middle school students copy. Do I care...nope. Cause it's basic information.

Why do I need to read through 60 copies of a vocabulary sheet and see if each student copied the definition down correctly???

I don't have time for that.

Application assignments are always worth more, and always graded. You see...application always follows knowledge. While I don't really care if a student copied the vocab definition correctly, I DO CARE if he or she can use that word correctly in the context of my content. THAT'S what I grade.

That's what I have time for.

Here is an example.

The knowledge part of this assignment involved reading and pulling information from various letters that talked about treatment of Native American Tribes on various reservations throughout Kansas. Students did this with a partner or team, we discussed it as a class. I didn't grade it.

The application piece was a short written response provided by the student. This is where I find out if he or she can apply the knowledge they learned, provide evidence to back up his or her answer, and use appropriate spelling and conventions. Students did this on their own, in class. I graded this.

You see... instead of grading 60 copies of both assignments and clogging up loads of my time, I am going to spend my time on the one that really shows me what the students know. Not what they can copy down from a discussion. Yes...the writing piece takes a little longer to grade than a simple vocab assignment...but at least I'm not stuck grading everything.

This also has an impact on their grades. Now instead of having the "fluff" assignment that doesn't truly represent what the child knows, I have a more concentrated grade composed of what the students show me they can do.

The results. 

After changing my grading, system to this I have noticed a few changes. Most of them are ones I'm happy with.

Less Grades: I have less grades in the grade book. Period. I don't put in every single daily activity/assignment that we do. I'm in week 2 of school and, right now, I don't have a single grade in the grade book. We are working on projects and gathering basic information. Grades will come...just not everyday.

Less A's: I don't mean this to be harsh...but this is good. When there's less "fluff" in the grade book, the grades are more reflective of what students really truly can do with my content. Not whether or not they're responsible enough to show up.

Less F's: Again...this is a good thing. An F in my class represents very little completed close to grade level. I shouldn't fail a student based on whether or not he/she turned in work, but based on the work done by that student. Don't get me wrong...this doesn't mean that no one just means that those F's are students who are in serious need of intervention and skill work.

Less Grading: Seriously! This should be a reason to start looking at your own grading system. How can you reduce your workload and show an accurate picture of what students are capable of?

Less Worksheets/Copies to make: The fact that I don't need to pick up and grade every-single-thing that we do in class, allows me the freedom to be creative with the knowledge-type information. We can do stations, sticky notes, white boards, technology activities...and it doesn't have to involve 60+ copies! This means I can spend more of my time doing the fun things, like creating cool activities, instead of in the workroom running copies!


Whew! That got a little long-winded...but I wanted to give a clear picture of some of my changes and how it effected my classroom. I will also mention, that my school district has been very supportive of these changes. I know at some schools teachers are required to have a certain number of grades in the book each week. I know I am completely blessed to be in a school in a state that truly allows for teachers to do what they feel is best for the students in their classroom.

Happy Grading!

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Cave Drawings and Historical Thinking Skills

OK...if you're a social studies teacher and you've been following my blog, you'll know that I start out my 7th grade social studies with a Boot Camp (read about it here) where I train them on how to think historically. We learn what it means to source, contextualize, corroborate, and close read. By the end of their 7th grade year they are very familiar with the process and those words. Now I will have those same students their 8th grade year. They don't need to go through "boot camp" again, but they may need a refresher.

This year I came across a new activity that would allow me to review the process of thinking like a historian and let the students have a little fun too.

I stole borrowed the idea from a post on Facebook from Mr. Walke when he responded to a request for first day activities for social studies students. I loved it so much, I changed up my plans for the first day of school.

Cave Drawings

Introduction: I pass out a brown piece of construction paper and tell the students that I want them to think of an event in their life that has meaning. It can be good or bad, just something that sticks out in their memory.

The Task: Students must illustrate their event as if it was a cave drawing. We talk about what the first cave drawings were like and what they had (and didn't have). Students quickly realize that this means absolutely NO WORDS, LETTERS or NUMBERS! Pictures only!

The Time Limit: I don't want this activity to drawn out too much (pun intended!) so I give them a 15 minutes to complete this. Now I have some 8th grade students who will think...OK...I'll get my stick figures drawn and be done in 2 minutes and play games on my device for the rest of the time. I make sure to tell them I want them to use the entire time. If they finish their drawing before the time is up, they get to add color. This also gives those students who like to be very detailed a stopping point. **Also I make sure they know, they can't tell anyone what their picture is about**

The Activity: Once the time limit is done, I have the students place their drawings on the edge of the paper and stand up. Groups rotate from one table to the next and their task is to figure out what story is being told based on the illustration.

**Important** I make sure and reinforce again and again that I don't want the "topic" of the picture I want the entire STORY.  It's easy to tell that the topic is about a roller-coaster, but I want to know why there's a picture of the roller-coaster, how did the person feel, what caused them to go on the ride, did they like it after? I want the WHOLE STORY!

The Discussion: Once the groups have made the rounds, we sit back down and talk how difficult it was to gather the entire story based on the images. Throughout the discussion we talk about making an inference based on the evidence. The students placed the event in "dating" it without even realizing it. They know that everyone in the room is 13-14 years old, meaning the event had to have taken place within that time period. They corroborate with who the author is and what they know about that person. And they make a claim with supporting evidence.

Look at all that great historical thinking goodness that occurred within a 30-40 minute activity! I just love the way it worked out. It was a great exercise in reviewing those skills, a fun way to start the year, and allowed for us to get to know each other a little better.

Win. Win. Win.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Drawing Skills...Who's Got 'Em?

As a student you probably fit into one of these three categories when it came to illustrations.
  1. AMAZING. Your drawings were envied by other classmates and you ROCKED the art world.
  2. were really good at stick figures and simple sketches. Basically you could make things look "neat."
  3. Uhhh...what exactly is that? Even your stick figures and houses were sloppy and you HATED any assignment that required illustrations. 
Our students today aren't much different. Most of the time, in my class, it doesn't matter which one of the three categories kids fall into. They can (and are) successful in my class whether or not they're the next Picasso.

But...sometimes there's a project or activity that does require some artistic ability. Many times these are done in teams. As a student I would hate to be a "category 3" in a group with other "category 3's." That just sets them up for failure from the beginning, judging them on something they don't have complete control over.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon an idea from one of my amazing colleagues, Melodie Harris. Her method of differentiating teams based on illustration skills is one that I must share with you! It's genius! 

On the first day of school (or one of the days before a project requiring artistic ability) I have my students complete a different kind of bell work. They pick up a piece of paper that looks very much like this....

Then they get to work, drawing simple illustrations of the topics provided. Most of the time they're confused as to why I have them do this...but there's always a point. 

Once finished and turned in (I do not grade these), they are used for me as a tool to differentiate. I rank them from best to worst and keep them in a folder in my desk. Now anytime I want to group students for a project that is in need of some illustration skill...I start with my best ones and make sure each group gets at least ONE person who can handle a pencil and go from there. 

BONUS...many times the most artistic people in your classroom aren't the most academically successful ones or the most popular "first pick" teammates. BUT this is a great chance for you to brag on these kiddos a little by saying... "Wow, I hope your team realizes what a gift you have to have Mary in your team. Have your SEEN her artwork?!?!" This gives Mary a boost of confidence and stops any grumbling that may occur because she was assigned that group. 

Give it a try...I bet you'll find it useful! 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Tips on Time Management: Say NO to Being Overwhelmed!

I came back to my classroom this week. We are required to be here on Friday, but I started Monday. Why start early? most teachers work on updating their curriculum, classrooms, or just dive into professional development during the summer, I don't. I need the break...and I have three little kids at home ages 6, 4, and 1 1/2. I'm busy enough. I can barely keep up with laundry and dishes, let alone make time for school.'s easier to start back with daycare on a Monday. And as you'll see in this post, I'm all about making life easier.

Seriously. My goal this year is to NOT become overwhelmed and stressed with things that aren't important right now. And it started yesterday when I walked into my classroom and started moving my tables.

I have a weird sense of calmness about this year, that I don't normally have. I think it's because I'm starting to do some small things that help me keep from getting in over my head. I thought I'd share some tips. Some are mine, some are from other teachers, and some are from friends in other industries that keep VERY busy schedules.

Make your list. What HAS to be done today, by then end of the week, and what can honestly wait until Christmas?

This is one that I have taken to heart and fully practice. You see. I have a cabinet that needs to be cleaned out and organized. It needed it back in May, but my "gotta get to summer break" brain just piled more things in there so I could check off my list and head out the door. Now that I'm back, it STILL needs to be organized. But ya know what? It's not walking through my door in a week ready to learn. I have lesson plans to get ready, copies to make, and projects to prepare for. Those come first. IF I get everything that HAS TO BE DONE by the first day of school done, then I'll tackle the cabinet. If'll have to wait.

Do you have student aids? Do you have students who always finish early and need/want something to keep busy? What from your "to-do" list can students do for you?

This is where some teachers get stuck in the struggle of getting it all done. How picky are you about how things look? If you can "let go" of some of the perfection, your teacher-life will be much easier.

Have a Student Directed Classroom
This one is huge. Let your students do the work for you. How should your room be arranged this year? How about letting your kids decide? What posters need to go on the wall, anchor charts to make? Let your kids make them. Think about it. What better way to have them learn about the "rules of commas" than to have them make the informative poster that goes on the wall. Yeah, it probably won't be as pretty as yours...but it will be there's. The students will have a stake in the classroom. They'll feel like they're truly welcome.

What can you "Let go of" and pass on to students in order to keep some August sanity?!?!

Be Goggle Focused
I learned this one outside the world of education...but boy is it helpful. You know how we get sidetracked and end up working on five different things at one time? Well...that's actually a huge time-suck. You end up leaving the day with five things started and none of them finished.

Solution: Put your Goggles on. When a swimmer swims laps, he/she isn't very effective if they're not wearing their goggles. They eye-wear helps them reach their destination. Take that same logic with your classroom. Put your "goggles" on and focus on ONE task, ONE destination, ONE goal. Accomplish it and move on to the next. You'll be amazed at how fast you are able to get your list crossed off when you tackle it one at a time and not all at once.

Stick to Six
This one, I just recently learned about. I like the idea of it and I'm going to give it a shot. Pick six. Six things that you're going to put on your list. ONLY six. Prioritize those and go for it! Get that list all checked off. You'll feel accomplished and productive. But what if you have a lot to do? Pick six. Get those done...use your "Goggles" and just get those done. Tomorrow, make a new list.

Pick Your Battles:
This is sort of up there with prioritizing, but with a different mindset. My advice here is to not stress about the things that you don't have any control over. For example. I need to make classroom seating charts, but I can't do that until I have a class list. Now, I know I won't get a class list until at least Monday, at the earliest and that the seating chart is going to be probably one of the things I do on my last work-day before kids. No need to have it on my list yet. No need to stress about it.

Tech issues? This is where coming in early has it's benefits. Go seek out some tech help with printing, your smart board, or whatever before the entire staff is chasing after the tech support!

Don't Fix it if it Ain't Broke:
Year after year, I get caught up in the race of trying to make everything better than I did it last year. I end up filling my plate with new tasks, when the previous lessons were perfectly fine. This year, I'm attempting to do a better job of making small, but powerful adjustments when needed and focusing my energy in other places. I have some really great lessons and activities that will still be great this year. They don't need to change today. But my Constitution Unit needs some changes...that means I'll focus on the place where change is needed and not changing everything.

This holds true for bulletin boards. Unless you have a rule in your school that bulletin boards need to change every month and be theme based and Pinterest Pretty, don't. My bulletin boards stay the same every year because they are based on the learning in the classroom. They are tools for the students to use. I just cover them with paper before going off in the summer and rip it down when I get back. No need to hassle with the paper, cute boarders, or spending hours cutting out letters.

Stop Comparing Yourself with Other Teachers: 
Stop it. Just stop. Don't feel like you have to "keep up" with the teacher down the hall or that awesome teacher you follow on Social Media. Focus on you, your strengths and go from there. What's important to you and your classroom. Do you need to make improvements somewhere? Sure...we all do, but focus on how you can improve in those areas using your strengths to help you.

I hope that some of these suggestions help you with the start of your school year. Don't stress what doesn't need to be stressed and relax. It's going to be a great year! Let's do this!

Monday, July 9, 2018

Time to Toot

I get to talk to a lot of teachers. I love it. I love connecting with other educators and picking their brains to helps spark great ideas for the classroom whether it be a project, hands-on activity, or a way to better establish relationships and develop a positive classroom culture.

However, one thing I seem to run into a lot of the time is the lack of confidence teachers feel in their own profession and their own work. Most teachers are proud to be teachers and LOVE working with kids of all ages. But many teachers won't say that they're a "good teacher" or feel hesitant about sharing their lessons or activities.

Here's the things. Sometimes, we as teachers are too humble.

Yep. I said it.

We do amazing things in the classroom...but either we don't think it's amazing or we are afraid to sound like we're "bragging" or "tooting our own horn."

I say...TOOT AWAY!

We NEED the world to see how awesome we are.

Ok..."world" might be a little extreme to start out with. So let's start out with our communities.

We NEED our communities to see how awesome we are. We need to invite the people in our towns and cities into our classrooms...either literally or virtually.  They need to see what is going on inside the classroom in order to understand the time, effort, and work that goes into it.

It's almost school shopping time around here...and that means we'll be seeing all kinds of stories about how much of our personal money teachers spend on school supplies. It's true. It happens. But that narrative has been told.

So...try this. Instead of taking a picture of your shopping basket with supplies your purchased for your classroom. Take a picture of a lesson you've been working on that your SO EXCITED to do with your kids in August...and then...share a picture of your kids working on it. (Take pictures of the finished results or hands working on it if you can't show your students faces.) Let your community see that. Your parents will thank you! That opens up conversation that they can have with their children at home. "Oh...tell me about that cool activity you did in science today, I saw a picture online!"

Don't be afraid to let someone into your classroom. Don't be afraid to share the awesome stuff you're doing...because I know you're doing awesome stuff! We all are! We just need to take down the walls and stop hiding it.

Because it's time.

Time for people to know how GOOD you are!

Friday, April 6, 2018

Blackout Poetry: Worth Waiting For

Sometimes great ideas come to us, and we're so excited to try them, BUT the pace of the year come crashing in on us and we have to put those ideas on hold. I've had this idea on hold the the last three years, and we are FINALLY getting to it. Blackout Poetry.

Blackout Poetry is using text that has been printed (books, newspapers, magazines, etc...) and manipulating the text to convey a new poetic meaning. By selecting words from the text and then blacking out the remaining words.

Take a minute to Google it and check out the images. So cool!

I first ran across using this in the social studies classroom when I read this blog post by Paul Bogush. He had used it to finish up a unit on the Lowell Mill Girls. I loved the idea and thought it would be perfect to end our slavery unit.

My plan was to find cheap books and use those for the poems, but I lucked out. We were renovating areas in our school and when it was time for the library to go under construction, the librarian went through and purged some old books that were rarely (if ever) checked out. She was going to get rid of them, and I snatched them up. They've been sitting in boxes in my room for 3 years waiting to be transformed into poetry.

To be honest, I was a little nervous about trying this. This isn't any ordinary task. This is deep thinking and challenging. The same things I love about that, also make me worried about my ability to teach HOW to do it. When this happens, instead of throwing the idea away, I go to my favorite resource...YouTube.

If kids can learn how to make slime, braid their hair, or get to the next level on their X-Box game, they can use a video to learn how to do something in class.

I searched for "blackout poem how-to" videos and found a couple that were good. I threw together this slide presentation which has

  • the definition of blackout poetry
  • a quick task for kids to see what the finished product can look like, 
  • the videos
  • requirements for their poems 
  • the grading rubric
Want that presentation?  Click here! 

The day I explained it, my 8th graders looked at me like I was crazy. But once they started tearing through the books, finding their pages, and selecting words for their poems, they got it. This was cool! 

Challenging, rigorous, rewarding, and COOL.

Here are a few examples of slavery blackout poems. 

Broken - By: Harrison

The Race to Freedom - By: Brooklyn

Last Hope - By Madilyn

Monstrous Beast - By Lillian 

I LOVE this project. I love how engaged my students were. It was S-I-L-E-N-T in my classroom when we worked on this. Not because they were bored, because they were focused. One of my favorite quotes... "This is literally the hardest thing I've ever done." That might have been an exaggeration, but I loved that even though he thought it was hard, he was engaged with the content and the project. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Slavery and Student Engagement

Glenn Wiebe is a rock star. If you haven't had a chance to attend one of his sessions...definitely get signed up to receive his weekly emails and follow his blog, History Tech. His recent post got me thinking...and was the perfect segway into this blog post. Read his post titled "I'd Rather Have Them Hate Class." It's a good one.

I talk a lot about having an engaged classroom. I present on the various ways that I SPICE-Up my classroom (blog post in the works on that one). I do a lot of different things and unique activities in class in order to make learning fun and engaging for students (Check out Preamble PeteCutthroat HistoryGummy Governments, and History Chef).

But I want to make something very clear.

My classroom is not like that everyday.

The word "engaged" doesn't always mean that I plan elaborate activities to teach all subjects. Sometimes it means we dig deep. We focus and dive into a topic or subject with a variety of resources in order to come out with a strong understanding. In fact...this is what my classroom looks like a majority of the time. I add in other SPICED UP activities, but I work to try and challenge my kids on a daily basis.

The topic, many times, dictates this.

We are currently finishing up our unit on slavery. There were no Cutthroat History activities, no dressing up in costume, or fancy activities designed to "SPICE" it up.

The topic didn't need much to get the kids interested. They are fascinated by the topic, horrified by the history of it, and curious about how slavery could even have been seen as a necessity.

Thursday, the day before spring break, my 8th graders were totally engaged. And they were writing an essay. They wanted to get their words on paper to the question we've been researching and analyzing for the last two weeks.

Why didn't more slaves try to escape to the north and how were some successful despite the odds?

The question grabs them from the beginning, the sources get them thinking, and I supplement with the book "NightJohn." It's a perfect condition for engaged 8th graders.

No theatrics needed. And just wait until you see what they do with it!

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.