As the new school year quickly approaches (sorry New Englanders, I know you don't want to think about it yet, but the rest of the country is heading back), we are all starting to think about those first few days of school.
Over the years my "first day of school" plan has evolved. It has become more complex, and yet more simple. I used to spend that day going over the syllabus, class procedure, and rules. What an awful thing for students to spend their first day of school doing! Can you imagine going from class to class hearing rule after rule after rule? No wonder so many kids dread going back to school!
As I've evolved my thinking on the first day, I've also evolved my thinking on the first five days. What we do in those first few days of school makes all of the difference for the rest of the school year. I'm proposing a change. I'm proposing that we spend the first five days of school getting to know our students, really actually know them. I want to start a conversation around this using the hashtag, #thefirsfive. So check out the video below where I explain why it's important (it's a bit long, but if you're time crunched skip ahead to the 6 minute mark) and join me on Twitter (or here) to share some ways to make #thefirstfive days of school energizing, impactful, and amazing!
Have you ever asked a group of middle school or high school students to circle up for story time? I have. Do it. It's awesome. At first they'll complain, then they will say that they are participating, but they are doing it "ironically." At the end everyone actually enjoys it.
I remember reading Alice in Wonderland and learning all about what the different characters represented. I literally went "down the rabbit hole" of researching Lewis Carrol's world. I still remember how much I learned just from curiosity I had about the text. I have learned that using children's books can prompt the same kind of "getting lost in the research" moment, and I love to see kids experiencing it.
Children's books are awesome, even at the secondary level they can be a great way to introduce a concept to kids. That's what your students are remember...kids. Even if they have beards and a drivers license, they are still kids. Somewhere (sometimes deep down) there is still a potential for wonder and excitement. The same wonder and excitement that they felt in first grade during story time.
This post isn't about reading though, it's about writing. One of my favorite activities is to have my students create children's books. If they can take complex ideas, and whittle them down into a story that a ten year old can understand, they understand it too. It opens the doors for my students who thrive in the arts to show their talents. Whether a student loves research, layout, illustration, editing, or a myriad of other roles, there is a way for each student to shine.
As part of my unit on Immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries I have students pair up and write children's books. The first thing they do is research several countries of origin to get a feel for what was happening globally during that time that may have been push factors contributing to people leaving particular countries.
After selecting a country, they then listen to oral histories from immigrants using the Oral History library on the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation's website. It's an awesome resource if you haven't checked it out. They have over 1900 interviews from every country imaginable.
In addition to the Oral Histories, they conduct research to find out how much the journey cost, typical travel time and condition, and ultimately the experiences of that group in America. They research pull factors, why different people settled in particular places. Finally they research the lasting contributions made to society.
After their research is complete they pick one of the stories that inspired them and they create a children's book. They add additional details from their research to bring the story to life and add illustrations. As a final step after they "publish" the book, they can go to a local elementary school and read it to students there and continue the conversation.
I am always so impressed with how the books turn out. I give them some initial research questions to get them started, but ultimately I let them go in the direction that they want. For example, in some of the interviews the interviewees mention broad things like, "the war." If students want to use that information in their books, they have to research to determine what wars might have been occurring at that time, and what war this particular person was most likely referencing based on other knowledge.
To bring the pictures to life they need to look into typical clothing of the time period and also the country of origin. If they want to reference food, currency, music, religion, or anything else, they will need to conduct additional research. I get them started by asking them to look for push and pull factors, but they decide the other avenues the go down.
Some students use computer software to produce their book, others use old fashioned paper and colored pencils. I let them go where they feel confident. If they want help with using a layout software, I'm here. If they want to storyboard it on the whiteboard first and draw it by hand, that's okay too!
Although they are not writing a "research paper" and in the end the writing they do is far more simplistic than if they were responding to a prompt, I think they end up doing far more research, and it is of interest to them.
I encourage them to choose countries that their families (or they themselves) immigrated from. We also make connections to what is happening in the world today and discuss push and pull factors in their own lives.
By the time they read the books at the elementary school, they have become experts on their "story" and can conduct a good discussion.
I think children's books can be worked into curriculum in any subject area, and I would encourage you to consider it. My students are just starting this year's projects, I will share some final projects when the are done.
Each year this project grows a bit more, next year I plan to have the books professionally bound and eventually I'd love to have students actually submit them to publishers to go through that process. Perhaps we will create "audiobooks' or "ebooks" as well, there are so many possibilities!
Have you used children's books in your classroom?
I love you. I know some of you don't hear it enough in your lives, if at all. I know it's not something that we often think of a teacher saying, but I do, I worry about you, I care about you, and I think about your futures. I love you, and I think more people need to start telling you. Obviously we are talking agape here, but I wanted to take a few minutes and tell you just why I love you:
1. You show up. In spite of what is going on in your lives. You fight battles each day both seen and unseen. Whether it is pressure in school, struggles at home, faltering friendships, or the sting of unrequited love. You carry a lot more than books and pens, and yet you sit in front of me. It not only shows how much courage you have, but how much hope you have for your future. It speaks volumes of the faith you have in yourself, and in me. I know there are days you don't want to be here. I know there are days when your world is crumbling and the last thing you care about is the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. You walk through the door anyway, and I love you for that.
2. You care about each other. I feel lucky to spend my days working with the future. I think teenagers get an unfair rep for being self absorbed and indifferent. I am constantly surprised by your random acts of kindness towards one another. You volunteer your time, you share your resources, and you love your neighbor. Does that mean that bullying doesn't exist? Of course not, but I have seen examples time and again of you accepting instead of dejecting, loving instead of hating, and giving instead of taking. You celebrate your differences and you fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. If this is what the future looks like, I know we're going to be okay, and I love you for that.
3. You make me laugh. I mean that in the best possible way. I chose to make a career change to education because it was the first time that I was excited to go to work in the morning. I still feel that way (most days, I'm human ya know)! You enrich my life in ways you couldn't possibly see. I learn so much from you, and I look forward to seeing you each day. In a world that can seem too serious at times, that is full of "doom and gloom" you give me a moment to pause and simply laugh and enjoy just being, and I love you for that.
4. You're game for anything. No matter what crazy technology, game, lesson plan, or idea I throw at you, you try it! I love that you are open to trying different methods of learning, that you accept my quirky teaching style, and never (okay rarely) complain! I know that if I learn about something in a workshop or conference, I can implement it the next day, I don't have to wait until next year, and I love you for that.
5. You're you. You as an individual bring something to our class, to our school, to our community that nobody else can. You have your own insights, thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and ideas. You see the world in a unique way. You have your own ideas about what the world should look like and what the future holds. It is because of unique individuals like you that the human race continues to strive and make amazing changes. It is because of unique individuals like you that in a future history class, students will be learning about all that your generation contributed to the world. You are unapologetic in your "you"ness, and I love you for that.
So dear students, if no one else says it to you today, I love you. For the above reasons and many more. You need to hear it. No matter what you have done, no matter what you feel about your self-worth, you deserve love and appreciation. You are making your mark on the world in the best way that you know how, with what life has handed to you. You make me a "teacher" but even more important, you make me strive to be a better person, and I love you for that.
Happy Valentine's Day,
We finally had our first snow day of the year here in New England. Sometimes it's nice to work from home and change up the routine a bit. I was thinking about a post I wrote a few years ago on my old blog about snow days. I had to dig back a little ways (to February of 2013 to be exact), but I found it!
I'm re-sharing here as I think it still holds true four years later:
What if School Days Were Like Snow Days?
The smell of cinnamon rolls wafting up the stairs. Even as an adult, I still expect snow days to begin like this. As a kid, there is nothing more exciting and magical than waking up to find out that school has been canceled. I'll admit, as a teacher, I often experience the same excitement. I recently read an article that discussed snow days. The article itself provided no new information; how superintendents make their decisions, how it impacts parents, teachers, and of course students. What did surprise me were many of the comments that were made in response to the article. Some I expected to see- working parents noting how difficult snow days are for them, which is very understandable. Surprisingly though there were quite a few comments citing how a snow days took away from education and what a shame it was. Those comments made me reflect back to my own years in school. I will admit, as I went through my memories there weren't too many that I had where I was sitting in a desk absorbing facts being thrown at me. There were however a lot of memories of working with neighborhood kids to build snow forts. This required not just team work, but some engineering to ensure that the ice tunnels could with stand the weight of a snowball attack. I remembered watching Gone With the Wind with my mom and first understanding that the Civil War had more than one perspective to it. I also remember curling up with a good book, the American Girl series when I was little, and as time went on everything from Johnny Tremain to Les Miserables was enjoyed with a cup of hot cocoa by the fire on a snowy gray New England Day. To say that snow days are a wasted opportunity for learning is to assume that learning takes place solely in the classroom.
As I went through my own snow day today, I realized not only was today not a wasted opportunity, but a great opportunity for learning. Though I'm a teacher and do my best to make my classroom a hands on experience, I'll be the first to admit that a lot of real and true learning takes place outside the classroom all the time, and it should! I'm going to throw out a crazy suggestion, not only do I think snow days are a great opportunity for learning, but I wish school could be more like snow days...let me explain.
On a snow day most students will sleep in, contrary to waking up in the dark and rushing off to school, snow days allow for waking with the natural rhythm of the body. This morning I awakened refreshed, a whole hour after my usual rising time, and that glorious glorious hour gave me such energy that I've forgotten how over worked and under-slept we as a human race really are. As I woke up and eased into my day I had time to create a "To Do" list for the day, things I had to accomplish. Wouldn't it be nice if our students could get that little bit of extra sleep they need and create their own "agenda' for the day? If they could really contemplate what they need to get done, rather than it being dictated to them?
After waking up I made myself a hardy breakfast, the kind that I would never have time for on a regular school day. I remember this being one of my favorite things about snow days when I was little- sitting at the table eating breakfast- instead of grabbing a piece of toast as I ran out the door. The majority of my students do not eat breakfast before school, I can't blame them, I too don't like to eat that early in the morning. I usually have something during my prep period while I correct. My students don't have that luxury, as a result by the time mid-morning rolls around they are so hungry that any attempt to disseminate information prior to the feeding frenzy that is seventh grade lunch is lost. Wouldn't it be nice if students could actually sit down and enjoy their breakfast, thus coming to school with energy to face whatever tasks lay ahead?
As I ate breakfast I turned on the news and caught up on the world around me. For twenty minutes as I ate I became engrossed in all the information that I had missed out on over the weekend. While I make sure we watch the news in my classroom, many of my students have little knowledge of the world around them. I used to think it was apathy on their part, or their parents lack of willingness to discuss current events. I've come to realize its about timing and priority. My students are so over scheduled. They barely have time to sleep, so expecting them to sit down and catch up on world events seems unfair given their demanding schedules. Wouldn't it be nice for them to have time to become lost in world affairs, if only for 20 minutes?
After breakfast I set out on my to do list. For me it was mundane household tasks that I had been putting off for quite some time. The snow day gave me the found time to get all of them done. As I checked each task off of my list I felt accomplished. While I gave myself a set time that I wanted to have everything done by, I did not dictate how much time I could allot to each task, therefor I just worked at each thing until it was done, giving myself time to make sure that I did a good job, and did not stress about the workload. Each day my students rush from class to class, attempting to finish all of their tasks for each one in the allotted forty minutes. Its no wonder they are so stressed, there's no regard to the fact that some tasks, and subject areas are going to be more challenging for some students, and therefore require more time. Yet we expect everyone to work at the same pace and comprehend subjects in the same amount of time. Wouldn't it be nice if students could be focused on getting tasks done in a way that provides them with understanding and a sense of accomplishment, instead of always rushing to beat the clock and keep up with their peers in meeting deadlines?
Finally once all my "to do" list tasks were done for the day I was free to take advantage of the off time to pursue a few items of pure interest for me. I caught up on some blog reading that I had been putting off, watched an episode of History Detectives that has been sitting in my DVR for a while, started "The President's Club" a book that I have been carrying around for weeks with no chance to jump into, and finally looked up a new recipe and spent some time working at it and perfecting it. I googled several conversions, researched the best wine to use and even looked up a new way to mince garlic, all because it was something I was invested in. Wouldn't it be nice if once their "necessary" tasks were out of the way, students had the chance to explore what they were interested in, reading about what their passions are, teaching themselves something new?
I realize that not all of this is possible, and furthermore I realize that more of this has been possible within my classroom because of my flipped class set up, but I can't help but think as a whole there's more to be done. Snow days just have a different pace to them, they're relaxed, lazy in a way that doesn't make you feel guilty, they are honestly totally self absorbing. I think some times we need to tell our students to chill out, to be a little lazy, to jump of the point grubbing, overscheduled conveyer-belt and enjoy the beauty of an unstructured day.
While snow days may not have their "magical" feeling that they did when I was younger, they certainly still have a sense of wonder to them- an entire day, a blank slate ahead, to be filled with whatever I choose, whatever I need to get done, and whatever I want to learn. Snow days allow us to peacefully explore, quietly learn, and calmly accomplish. Wouldn't it be nice, if in school, students felt the same?
This post first appeared on Flipping History, on February 11, 2013.
If a throng of students wearing sweat pants and wielding number two pencils can only mean one thing- standardized tests! When I think back on any "high stakes" test that I have taken (SAT, ACT, MTEL, Comp Exams) I really can't remember the actual test. If we're being honest, I can't even remember what my scores were. I can remember however fishing my way through a sea of people, feeling over tired and trying to find out what test room I was in. I can remember hoping that my growling stomach was only audible to me. I can remember rubbing my hands together because the test room was too cold, and having my knuckles white from the pressure of two hours of bubbling answers. In short, I really remember the physical discomforts. Yet, this is how we ask students to demonstrate their knowledge.
A few years back...okay many years back...I took the GRE in a computer based testing center. This was when they were first experimenting with computer based tests so I wasn't sure how taking it at a computer based testing center would impact my performance on the test, but I figured at least the chairs would be more comfortable.
The experience was a positive one, while there was a learning curve to testing on the computer, the actual set up was great. I had my own little "cubby" and headphones, it was peaceful just before the test (no throngs of test takers clambering to find their room) and yes the chair was comfortable.
Why am I even bringing all of this up? Well, as many of you know, some standardized tests are going to computer based delivery models. While I'm sure they will not have the resources to provide comfortable chairs and cubbies, it is certainly a change from how our students have been used to filling in the dreaded bubbles. My principal sent out an email just prior to our midyear exams (the equivalent of a semester final) asking if anyone was interested in experimenting with giving their midyear exam on the computer. This was just the push I needed to experiment with this delivery model. I decided if I was going to have students use computers, I was going to take advantage of the situation and really try to give them the best experience possible. So, if you are considering giving any large scale test to your kiddos via computer, here is what I used, what I learned, what worked and what didn't!
First of all I knew I wanted students to be able to take the test in my room where they would know what to expect in terms of the environment. I'm lucky in that my school has a cart of 26 Chromebooks to check out, so that solved the problem of student devices.
I set the test up on Google Forms. I did this for a few reasons that I'll get into detail on later. The actual typing in of questions was tedious, but now I have a copy saved for next year that I can easily tweak, add to, and delete from. Additionally Forms predicts the type of question you're inputting (i.e.: multiple choice or short answer) making it a relatively smooth process. I was concerned about being able to set up a "matching" section but I was easily able to do that with the "graph" option.
The real reason I wanted to use Forms though was the ability to add colorful pictures, videos, and maps to the exam. I thought this was a benefit to computer based testing that could really help my students. For example, they had a question analyzing the Gettysburg Address. Rather than simply put the text of the speech on the test, I was able to embed a video of the speech being performed. Students brought their headphones and were able to listen as many times as they liked. When a question about a specific general came up, I was able to put a picture of him, thereby helping out my students who our more visual. I was also able to use colorful charts, graphs, and maps, that would previously have been black and white. I just think overall this was a really great benefit and I took advantage of it throughout the test.
I was also able to set it up so that each page only had one or two questions, which allowed students to focus and not be overwhelmed by the whole page.
The day of the exam I had a Chromebook on each student's desk when they came in. To get the test on the computer for the students, I used Google's URL shortener to create a small link to the form and wrote it on the board. I had students put this into their browser and once everyone was pulled up, we were ready to start. If you use Google Classroom with your students you could easily just push the code out to them.
In addition to the pictures and videos, it was also helpful for me to be able to use some extensions to further help my ELL and SPED students. I had my SPED and ELL students using the Read&Write extention during the exam. This allowed them to translate words as needed. This saved them time as normally they would be using a dictionary. It also allowed them to have the test read to them if they chose. I have many students that benefit from having the test read to them. However, this requires them to go to a separate room with a different proctor to read. It also means that they have to move at a consistent pace with the other students being read to. By using this extension students simply highlighted the text they wanted read, put their headphones on, and had it read to them.
Overall I thought there were a lot of benefits to having the test this way and student feedback was positive.
I'm sure some of you may be concerned about cheating. In theory a savvy student could open a separate browser during the exam and look up the questions. I'l be honest that I wasn't that concerned. For one thing, I could see all the screens. Frankly though, I'm not obsessed with constantly catching my students in the act of cheating. I explained to them that they were selected to pilot computer based midyears and they were to follow the honor code. I'm not naive and I do know that for some students that means nothing. I also know that for many it means something. I believe if you set the bar high most rise above, and the few that don't have a way of revealing themselves. I digress, if cheating concerns you, there is software that your school can purchase that would only allow students to be in the exam window and not open any other browsers. I think if this was a school wide delivery model it may be worth looking into, but not for my individual class.
The thing that I was more concerned with was the fact that if a student accidentally closed out of the browser they would loose their entire exam. I made a BIG point to students about this and begged them to be VERY careful when clicking buttons. Thankfully we only had one problem, and the student was only six questions in. I did have a few students loose part of their open responses and I give them so much credit for retyping them. I have since learned of a solution to this. There is an extension called Lazarus that will "resurrect" form answers if you accidentally close out. Clever name, no? So problem solved for future tests! I had the great fortune to attend a workshop by Jenn Judkins of www.teachingforward.net and she introduced me to this game changer. If you don't already you should check her out on twitter @TeachingForward, she is Google Certified and has some great tips!
As far as grading was concerned I used an app called Flubaroo, which again I think a lot of you already know about. This app (almost) instantly corrects tests given in Google Forms. It does the "multiple choice" part atomically and I really liked that for hand corrected questions (i.e.: Essays, Open Response) it allows you to decide if you are going to correct each students answers all at once, or each question all at once. The only drawback is you have to wait for all the tests to be complete before you can correct, so this could be a problem for makeups. You could always make a copy of the test and grade their's separately.
Flubaroo also puts all the data into a nice spreadsheet for you, so there's that!
Okay, so how did the students do? Did they like it?
I will say I got really positive feedback in terms of the test. Most said they wrote more than they would have on the open responses since they were typing. Their only caveat was that they wished they had a mouse, so maybe in the future a computer lab would be the better testing option.
As far as performance, I gave two sections of my honors classes and one section of my CP classes the test on the computer. I gave one honors section and one CP section the test on paper. In terms of scores there was not really much difference between the paper and computer tests at the honors level, though I will say the written portion was much better from the computer testers. However for my college prep kids there was a notable difference. The mean score for my computer based class was an 84 and the mean score for my paper based class was a 70. Now this could not mean anything, we all know each class is different and that there are a myriad of factors that contribute to students' performance. I just thought it was worth noting.
I'd like to close by saying I'm not a fan of tests. I see the anxiety they put students through. I use lots of alternative assessments in my class. I dislike multiple choice tests, I think you learn more about students through writing. Sometimes however, you have to give a test, and sometimes it has multiple choice. If you do have to give a test, and especially for a large scale test like a final or midyear, I think using the computer added a lot of benefit for my kids. I will definitely continue to explore methods of delivery for them.
Although they didn't each have their own cubbies, I like to think I made an otherwise uncomfortable experience a little better for them. Now if only I could get them comfy chairs....
My students have recently turned in their "Road to the Civil War" projects. It's evident that they put a lot of time and effort into them. It seems a shame for them to simply hand them in, and have the only audience be me, the teacher.
Those of you that know me, know that I believe the most important step in student work is, "publishing." I have a bulletin board outside my classroom expressly for this purpose. However with over one hundred projects coming in, and limited display space, not every student can see their work in the case. Additionally due to fire codes, I can't simply cover all the walls of my room with them.
How then, do we ensure that students get to view each others work in meaningful ways. How do we ensure that the work students are producing is viewed by not just me, their teacher, but their peers as well?
Some may say "present." We do in fact do presentations throughout the year, but many of my students have anxiety around speaking in front of the class, and that ends up clouding the sense of accomplishment they should feel about their work. It's a constant struggle of pushing them outside their comfort zones, and not diminishing their enthusiasm for the work.
One of the things I love to use when students culminate a large project, is 'Gallery Walks'. They can be used in various ways depending on the class or the assignment. Below I've detailed three ways that I have used them. There are many more! 'Gallery Walks' are nothing new, I certainly didn't invent them, but there's definitely something to be said for them.
Option 1: Hang projects around the room. Half the students stand next to their projects, the other half work their way around the room, as though in an art gallery. I usually have them staggered in small groups so not every student is in front of one presenter. Students are encouraged to ask the "presenter" questions about their project and engage in dialogue. After students have made their way to each project, the groups switch, and the "presenters" become the viewers.
Pros/Cons: It's a low-risk way of presenting. Students are only speaking to a small group, rather than the class at large. However some students will still find this to be uncomfortable, you have to know your students. It gives students a chance to really engage with their peers and ask questions, however (especially in younger grades), students may have trouble initiating a discussion. I find giving them question starters can help with this.
Option 2: Hang projects around room and place students in small groups (no more than 5). Give each group a pack of post-it notes. Groups will work their way around the room adding post-its with compliments, suggestions, and observations to each project.
Pros/Cons- This doesn't require a student to stand next to their project, which is a great way to ensure you are still involving students who didn't turn one in, or are too shy to be in front of their classmates. I find it helps to have "parameters" in other words, at each stop the group should make at least one suggestion for improvement, one compliment of something done well, and one general observation. I find this helps students to give better feed back than if they were left to their own devices.
Option 3: Set up desks in groups of 4-5. Have students place their project on their desk. Give each student several post-its (or have them tear small pieces of paper). Have students critique as in option 2, but have them rotate from table to table.
Pros/Cons- This is a good option if you don't have a lot of wall space. You could do it until every student has seen every project, or simply have them critique one project in each group (whatever seat they are in). For this, i have them write all of their critiques on one piece of paper (to keep it simple). Sometimes I have them write a compliment, a suggestion, and one new thing they learned. It all depends on the students.
There are many, many other ways to do gallery walks. Students can use their notebook to write observations, rather than putting them directly on the projects. You could have students simply converse and not write anything. There's a lot of possibility.
One thing I will note is that you need to iterate with your class that they are "critiquing" and giving helpful feedback. There should be nothing mean spirited in this. This is why I always have them write both a compliment and a suggestion.
After the Gallery Walk is complete there is a final important step, reflection. Too often we rush students to the next activity (I was guilty of this today) and we don't give them time to reflect on the feedback they receive. Allow students to go through their feedback. Ask them what their favorite compliment was. Ask them which suggestion they agreed with and would consider in the future. Ask them which suggestion they didn't agree with and why they felt that way. Give them a chance to put some thoughts into words about their project.
Overall I find this a great way to "present" without presenting. I don't use it all the time, but for the right project, it can be great.
Do you use Gallery Walks? What does it look like in your classroom?
The new school year is definitely in full swing. Your classroom is set up, your spreadsheets and grade books are updated and calendars are synced and ready to go.
Even if you are a few weeks (or a month) into the school year, I'd like to propose a small change to your room that will impact how students feel (and if we're being honest how you feel as well). It's no secret that I love making my classroom as calming, colorful, and creative as possible. I think creating a space that students feel safe in but also inspired is one of the most important preparations I make for the year ahead.
This year I added a piece of decor that I believe sends a bigger message about the type of teacher I am and classroom I run than any syllabus could have. I added a welcome mat next to my door. It's simple and was inexpensive. In the larger picture it's not that big of a deal. However, I really love the idea that each day as students cross the threshold from the hallway to the classroom, the first greeting they have is a "welcome."
The first day of school many students commented on it, it was something different. While the novelty is wearing off, the message is not. My students are welcome in my classroom. We place welcome mats outside of our homes. I want students to feel at home in class.
In a way it has also changed how I view my class. When I walk in the door each day and tread over the mat, it reminds me that this room is a happy place, a welcoming space.
Consider adding a welcome mat, you'll be surprised at the difference it makes!
Finals season is upon us. Students are stressed, teachers are frazzled, and the copy machines are doing their best to keep up with the demands. One of the things I have always loathed about finals is creating a study guide for my students. Reducing months of inquiry, research, and discussion into a few key terms seems counterproductive to the entire learning process. Handing students a list of things to focus on can help them, but it can also limit them. Many of my students peruse the study guide, focus on those terms of bullet points, and feel that it suffices. It feels very reactive, they don't really reflect on what they have learned. I strive for content creation in my class, not content consumption. Why then, should I throw away that core belief at the very end?
Despite my dislike of study guides, I realize that without some kind of guideline students are floating in the middle of the ocean without a compass. Many do not have the tools and skills to wade through all of the content from the semester and chunk it into manageable pieces. With this in mind, few years ago, I started having students create their own study guide for exams. I would be lying if I didn't tell you that I always receive push back from them on this, they hate it (at first). Usually they say things like, "Why can't you just tell us what we need to know." "How do I know what's important from the semester?" "This is a waste of time, I wish you'd just give us a study guide."
Usually by the end they understand the method to my madness, and I think that they leave with a genuine feeling that they know and recall way more information than they realized. There are probably a million great ways to have students create their own study guides, but here's how I do it:
Prior to students coming to class, I come up with 6-8 (depending on the number of groups) broad categories from the semester (ie: WWI, The Progressive Age, etc). You want to keep these very broad.
When students arrive I split them up into groups of 4-6. I think I've mentioned it before but with less than 4 they can struggle with generating ideas, and more than 6 they tend to split into subgroups. I then give each group a different color marker and ask them to designate someone to write (I emphasize that it should be the person with very legible writing). I then put a giant post it (but you could use poster paper, or any other large paper that you have) in the middle of each group and assign them a category. They then have 5 minutes (or however long you want to give) to generate as many "items" as they can related to the category. They could put people, places, dates, ideas, concepts, acronyms, anything and everything that we've covered.
At the end of five minutes the paper stays but the groups and their markers rotate. I have them count up the total "items" that the first group came up with, I then tell them that they have five minutes to produce that number plus one. Beware, students will groan and say its impossible, that all of the terms have been taken. Explain to them that just the obvious "big picture" things are probably written down, they will have to do some digging and deep thinking to come up with more.
This continues until the groups arrive back to their original place. I do change up the number of required items on the third and fourth round as it does get tricky.
Once students arrive back, they go through the paper, now filled with everyone's ideas. This time they look for things to fix, any mistakes made, and add anything missing. When they are satisfied we begin rotating again. During this rotation students have five minutes to "expand" on as many of the items as they can. They may define a term, give more details about something written, anything that they need to do in order to connect the item to the original category.
Once we have rotated through all of the groups again, I take the sticky notes and post them on the board. As a whole class we go through each category and refine, correct, and add as we need to. We talk through and review each item on the list. This is also where I add in anything I feel that they missed that they will need on the exams.
I then take a picture of each piece of paper and create a PDF of all of them to give out to students.
I really like doing study guides this way because it has a review inherently built in, and I think students are really proud of themselves when they see the papers filled with all of the things that they learned. It gives them ownership of their studying and helps them to reflect on what we learned and generate their own ideas about what is important. After we're done, students usually agree that they liked creating the study guide and that it did force them to think.
I spread this activity out over two days, but you could cut down the rotations or how many minutes you give and do it in one period. Sometimes I also have students copy from the post-its on to their own paper to make the study guide, but in recent years I have found the PDF to be the best way to ensure everyone has everything they need.
How do you approach study guides?
Normally I try to post about generic resources and tips that can help any teacher regardless of subject area. Today, I'm going to get a little specific, but it's still applicable across curriculums, more on that in a minute.
I was very fortunate today to attend the inaugural conference on civic engagement and learning entitled, "Serving America: Promising Practices for Building Literacy and Civic Learning." The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education teamed up with the new Edward M Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. For those of you outside of Massachusetts, the Kennedy Institute is one of our newer resources that opened in March of 2015. The Institute sits adjacent to the John F Kennedy Library and our Commonwealth Museum, so it has really created an awesome resource for educators. Field trips are free, and they even have some money available to fund busses if transportation is an issue. If your an educator in Massachusetts it is definitely worth checking out, and if you are outside the state it's worth stopping into when traveling through Boston.
Anyways, the institute contains a replica of the Senate Chamber. I have to tell you, that alone was worth going to the conference for. I've been to Washington D.C. several times, but I have never been in the Senate, even though it was a replica, it definitely gave me goosebumps.
There was a ton of information provided at this conference but I'm going to highlight my two big takeaways. The first was a breakout session I attended on Service-Based Learning. Service-Based learning may immediately make you think "Community Service" or "Community Based Learning" but it actually goes a step beyond that. While we as educators are really great at utilizing resources in our communities and getting our kids involved in community projects, we are not always good at handing over the reigns. In service-based learning, students identify a problem organically as part of their studies. They then create a plan to solve that problem. It is through their research of the problem and their creation of the solution, that they learn various content pieces. Finally they share that solution with the community in some way. The teacher's role in this is more of a guiding one. We are not posing the problem or posing the "correct" solution. Rather we are enabling students to access resources and find community partners that they need in order to create their solution. In this model their are three key components; academic integrity, apprentice citizenship, and student ownership.
Academic integrity means that the project has clear learning objectives related to the standards and class curriculum. Apprentice Citizenship means that students forge partnerships with local resources and engage in civic participation. Finally, student ownership means that the students are making the decisions and that the adults are acting as partners and coaches.
I really loved this model and cannot wait to incorporate it into my history classes. The workshop I went to though demonstrated examples from all across the curriculum. One example they gave was that students through work in their science class discovered that where the busses parked at their school was reducing the air quality on one side of the building. The students researched this and performed tests on air quality using skills from their science class to determine that this was happening. They then wrote a grant to get covers for the busses to convert the emissions and improve air quality. The key to this was that it was student driven. The students were the ones doing the research and in the end it was their idea to write the grant. They were involved in the project from start to finish.
There are many opportunities to apply this in our classrooms regardless of what we teach, I will definitely be blogging about this in the future. For more information on service-based learning I recommend checking out the Kids Consortium, they provided some great resources.
My second takeaway from the conference was from a lecture given by Meira Levinson, PhD. Levinson is a Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (and my newest educator crush). She spoke about why civics is important. While she made many, many amazing points and had some great information to share, I was really struck by her idea that civics should be practiced daily. She likened it to the fact that we as a society believe it's important to have students practice reading and writing daily (and it is) and we also believe that it is important to practice mathematics daily (and it is). However, we do not expect them to practice civics every day, when civics, regardless of what field they go into, or what they end up doing in life all grow up to have civic rights and responsibilities. She was in no way diminishing the importance of reading or mathematics, but was pointing out that we are failing to allow students to understand something that they will inevitably be part of.
This really struck me because it's true that we give student's a half-year course on government and then send them off into the world. Yet we're stunned when voter turn out is low, or people cannot name their representatives. It's no wonder students feel disenfranchised and disconnected from the American political process, they aren't being allowed to practice it. Levinson likened it to baseball. You aren't just born with a love of baseball, you develop it by practicing every day and finding a passion for it. If we don't allow students to practice civic discourse, they will never become passionate. She made an excellent point that we often involve student government in the planning of dances, but rarely the planning of curriculum. Again, similar to service-based learning, the take-away here is student autonomy and student voice. It definitely made me aware that I need to do more to implement civics into my curriculum not just once in a while, but on a consistent daily basis.
There were so many other great talks and workshops, and an amazing recreation of the senate debate on the Civil Rights Act. If you are a teacher in Massachusetts you should definitely consider attending next year. If you teach outside of Massachusetts, consider teaming up with some colleagues and thinking about what you can do to incorporate more civic education into your lessons. It is an area that we often gloss over in our pursuit of other topics. It definitely deserves more attention. Feel free to reach out to me as well, I'm happy to share any of the resources that I received today!
Have you ever tried service-based learning? How can we help student to develop a passion for civic life?
You can find more information about the Edward M. Kennedy Institute here.
Pencils dropping, hands going up, good discussions, bad discussions, weird discussions...group work scares many teachers into straight rows and direct instruction. It shouldn't. I love having students work in small groups, in fact small group "pods" of four desks is the default setting in my classroom.
After years of experimenting and a little help from small group communication theory (love getting to use my Master's degree), I have found four to be the ideal number. Does that mean there can never be five students in a group, or three? No, of course not. It simply means I have found that four seems to be the magic number where students are able to have meaningful conversations, without beginning to divide into "leaders" and "followers." I find when I get over six students, it enables some students to take over and others to back off completely. When I have less than four, I find students can have trouble debating and conversing on certain topics simply because there is a lack of differing view points and opinions. Obviously this is unique to my students and my classroom, you should experiment with what works for you.
So we've established that the majority of the time my students are in class they are sitting in, and engaging in group work. I'm not going to pretend that when you have 26 students working on projects, grabbing supplies, and sharing information with each other it doesn't get chaotic- it does. What can sometimes happen in the process of students approaching me with different requests, is that I miss a student that is truly "stuck." The simplest way I have found to monitor group work, and assure that everyone has their needs met is the "flag system." I didn't invent this, but I have adapted it to my room.
At the center of each table or group of desks you place a cup or holder of some kind. In each holder are three flags; red, yellow, and green. Students decide which flag to place upright in the holder depending on their needs.
Green = Everyone at the table is okay and understands what they are doing.
Yellow = Someone has a question, but it is not urgent and can wait until you finish working with another student.
Red = Someone at the table is fully stopped and cannot continue working until you help them. A red flag indicates that the teacher should immediately stop what they are doing and go to that table.
The first year I did this, I used actual flags that i made out of construction paper. The second year I wanted something a little less "elementary" looking, and I switched to flowers. I went to the dollar store and purchased a vase for each table. I then bought bouquets of fake flowers; red flowers, yellow flowers, and purple (they didn't have green). I cut up the bouquets so that each group had one flower of each color. All in all I think the project cost me $15.00. I then made a poster explaining what each of the flowers meant and set each group up with a vase and flowers. At the start of class students take the flowers out and set themselves up. As they work, they can switch out the flower to let me know where they are at. Meanwhile I circulate checking in accordingly. At the end of class they "re-set" the flowers back in the vase for the next class.
I like that the flowers allow students to indicate that they need help, without having to ask in front of the whole class. If I see a red flower, I immediately go over to that group and check in with them. Often it's more than one student that has a question. It also helps students to assess their needs. Rarely do I see a red flower, most often I see yellows. This means that they are trying to problem solve, and continuing to work through materials but I will be there shortly to help and clarify.
I should note that I circulate throughout the class and check in with the "green" groups as well. The colors are merely a way to indicate if I need to alter my path, or change the order that I check in. Students seem to really respect the system, if I'm working with a "red" group they are very good about understanding that I may need to spend more time there on that particular day.
If you are looking for a way to streamline group work a bit, I recommend trying it out. You could use cups, flags, flowers, markers, anything that can act as a signal.
How do you prioritize while students are working in groups?
Here is the poster I use, feel free to adapt it for your own uses: