Monday, February 24, 2014

Keeping Things in Perspective

Originally Posted on Twitter by @DocbobLA

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Rapid Rigor: Choice, Complexity, and Sticky Notes

Most of my students enjoy reading, some almost openly weep when I give them uninterrupted chunks of time to read in class.  Fortunately, and unfortunately, they devour books in great heaping spoonfuls of text soaked paper. Obliterating the shelves of my classroom library.

I do not expect them to do "something" with every novel they read, in fact we rarely assign novels, choosing to work on comprehension skills in shorter texts that we can move in and out of quickly.

Right now we are focusing our work on the concept of the Surveillance Society. Researching how our lives are monitored on and off line. They have read many short pieces of non-fiction, watched news reports and collaborated about what the current trends in surveillance may lead to in the coming years.

To bring in a literary slant to the study, the students are reading The Giver by Lois Lowry. They are also annotating for the first time, using a dialectal journal to keep track of evidence for the use of surveillance in the protagonists community.

Reading and annotating tends to be an individual process, often leaving students trapped in their own development. I wanted to bring in a piece of collaboration as a chance for them to see a social value to their work and gain a deeper understanding of how surveillance changes behavior.

As the students read I quietly moved around the room giving each student a sticky note, alternating colors as I walked from one desk to another. 

Then, using the work of Sandra Kaplan out of USC, I built a question that I felt created the necessary rigor and complexity that would lead to the understanding I wanted:

How does surveillance influence patterns of behavior in Jonas' community?

I asked the students to write down their thesis on the sticky note and then find two pieces of textual evidence in their annotations that would support their point of view. We have been working with these concepts most of the year, so they understood what I asked.

The use of colored sticky notes allowed the students to have a choice in who their partner was.  Of course I manipulated which color each student received.
After they wrote their thesis and found their evidence I had them partner up with someone with a different colored sticky note and share their ideas. The best thought I heard was how an unlocked door is a form of surveillance.  The students reasoning was if you cannot lock a door then you are always at risk of being "watched."

When they were finished, I revised the question:

How does surveillance influence patterns of behavior in our community?

I left the concept of community open ended and the students brought up a variety of scenarios and ideas they have experienced.  My favorite being the discussion of how behavior changes when the teacher is in the room.

As the discussion quieted down I had them thank their partner and return to their seats. Later this week when I have reading conferences, I will have the students use their sticky notes as a launching point for our talk. I am interested to see if their thoughts changed after their conferring with a peer.

Some big Ah-ha's I took away from this lesson:

  • Sticky notes are not a novel idea but put one down on a students desk with no direction and they are instantly attentive
  • Knowing they would have an audience for their ideas focused them on finding strong evidence
  • The small space of the sticky note made it a non-threatening writing experience
  • Sharing allowed them to see a social purpose to annotating early in the process 
  • Choice in partners, evidence and ideas kept a positive flow to the lesson
  • The structure of the question allowed me to begin a conversation about character motivation and for them to understand the text at a deeper level.
From beginning to end this lesson took about fifteen minutes, so it makes a nice break in a class that is fifty minutes long.  

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Inspire the Creative Process with Rube Goldberg Machines

I am always looking for opportunities for the students in my Design Thinking elective to exercise what they have learned in "real world" environments.  This time last year they were busy working on their entries for the Verizon App Challenge. Unfortunately that competition ended before we left for the winter break so that left a wide open gap in my January curriculum.

For most of the winter break, I restlessly relaxed knowing I needed a plan for January. My teaching partner was not returning due to many mutual agreements so I was alone in my planning.  

One of the best things about our use of technology in 2014 is it allows teachers to collaborate outside of the four walls of our classrooms.  I know this may have never happened to you, but sometimes, we cannot stand the people we have to work with and collaborating seems next to impossible.  Blogs, Twitter, Feedly, Google Alerts, LiveBinders, YouTube, Teaching Channel and a thousand more platforms allow us to find the people who share our visions and many times extend our thinking.

Just days before returning to school for the Spring Semester and still floundering with what I wanted to do with the 64 students in my 7th period class, I happened to find the Rube Goldberg home page. I have been fascinated with Rube Goldberg machines for years but all of the competitions have been geared for high school and college teams.  (Though they now offer an online competition for middle school students.  You bet I will be putting teams together for 2015!)

The Goldbergian concepts of cause and effect, iteration, design, testing, retesting and the need for students to fail faster in order to be successful met with the objectives for my class.  After a quick Google search I found the foundation of what I wanted to do in class for the first few weeks of the Spring Semester.

Debbie Clark, an 8th grade teacher in Wilmette, Illinois, had a video on the Teaching Channel that explained her process and the end result.  Using her ideas as a baseline I began building my timeline.  

Day One:

Students came to class and I shared this document that I put together using images from the Rube Goldberg website.  I let them discuss and talk about what they noticed in the pictures.  I could tell that they were confused by the pictures because stunned silent reading led to escalating discussions about why would someone even design such a completed machine.  After a few minutes I had each group share out their general observations.

I then put together a collection of Rube Goldberg machines from the Rube Goldberg website library The students watched the videos for the rest of class, blown away by how complex these machines can be and how cool it is when all of these steps come together to complete an impossibly easy task.

Day Two:

Using a combination of the work from Debbie Clark, PBS and the Rube Goldberg Rule Book I created a design document for the students to use to guide them through their building.  Students spent the rest of the class period deciding what task they wanted to accomplish, what supplies they would need and what to bring from home.

For the design document I gave my students, I mixed the ideas I found from these three documents:

Day Three and Beyond:

Students began to build, test and negotiate the frustration of setting up rows of domino's only to have a stray hand knock them all down.  Days of exasperated sighs began to give way to small whoops of success and celebrations that the ball hanging from the ceiling finally hit the cardboard which launched the car.  Each minor success led to the group gaining more and more momentum, until each step ran efficiently, the random glitches of failure slowly designed out of the machinery.

There was a conversation about how to drill safely before and after this photo was taken.
 Final Day:  Design Show

On the final day students set up their machines and evaluated each other.  Each team was allowed to run their machine three times and only the two best scores were kept. I graded them based on mashing together rubrics from the sites I mentioned earlier. This is rather open ended because I think you would want to use these sources as guides to help you in designing a rubric that fits your students needs.

One of the best machines was titled Wrecking Bell.  Here is a description of the steps and a video of the final product.

Wrecking Bell Steps:

1. After furiously smashing the table, vibrations will cause the cart to fall down the roller coaster.

2. The cart then smashes into the wrecking ball and causes it to fall.

3. The force of the falling wrecking ball then hits the “building.”

4. The “building” collapses onto a seesaw that lets out 5 marbles.

5. The marbles fall into a pulley system.

6. The weight of the marbles pulls the pulley down and rings the bell directly under it.


No project, no matter how hard a teacher tries, is going to be every students most favorite thing to do. I have found that if the parameters are focused but the process is open ended then a high percentage of students are going to engage in the work at a meaningful level. 

Here's what I noticed about the timeline I mixed together from the many sites I visited:

  • The videos and pictures on day one pushed their interest through the roof.
  • Being able to choose the final task and design their own contraptions and use their own materials helped in giving them the autonomy needed to persevere when things were not going well.
  • Then, having a real audience and a chance to see other's work helped them to self-evaluate and make revisions during the whole process.
I still had a couple of students who wanted to get on their phones and watch One Direction videos or play an app but those students have been disengaged in all of their classes and seem to be in my class because they don't want to do the work that would be involved in participating in band or orchestra or contest math or choir or art.  

That being said, a Rube Goldberg machine unit is a great way for students to practice some real world skills:  collaboration, using their imagination, developing critical and creative thinking skills, showing initiative, practicing resilience, and adapting to unexpected challenges.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Don't Quit When it Gets Hard

Public radio personality and producer Ira Glass offers some profound words on the struggles that confront those who live the creative life.

This is a short video that all students should watch.  The profound message is not to quit, keep working. Education often stigmatizes failure and the message that we, as educators, often inadvertently send to students is "get it right the first time or else!"

Earlier this week I was able to attend the 2013 Texas Association of Gifted Teachers Conference in Houston.  I was in a session on creativity with Janet Aaker Smith.  She shared a video about being stuck on an escalator.  It is a great metaphor for taking action towards making success happen.

Both are powerful words of encouragement for our students as they engage in a creative life.  But it got me thinking, how many students are engaged in a creative life?

Between sessions I was riding an escalator, standing behind an administrator from the Dallas area.  She was on the phone with her campus making sure the after school intervention groups and buses were cancelled in advance of the arriving cold blast.

I have planned those interventions before.  Studied the spreadsheets, sent out the emails asking for teachers to stay after school, sending home the notes to parents and hoping that those struggling students would reach their peek performance on just the right day in April.

Why do we do that?  If we are preparing children for an ever changing world, where everyone has access to the same information, why do we spend so much time riding the same monotonous merry go round?

What if intervention groups were on dance or singing or running or performing poetry or acting or building or anything but reading and math?  Wouldn't that intervention, especially with our low socio-economic students, have a more profound impact on our future society?

Just wondering, it seems like we have been stuck on the same escalator for awhile.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Great Lesson for Back to School

Is it really time to be thinking about going back to school already?  Have you really stopped thinking about school?  Chances are if you are reading this post then you are a lot like me and your class is always on your mind.  In this case, it would the class that is yet to come that you are thinking about.

School will be back in session before you know it and anxious students will be walking into your room with packaged paper, unsharpened pencils and clog free glue bottles.  I am a sixth grade teacher so my future students are anxious about starting in a new school, seeing new people, adjusting to seven teachers instead of two, learning a locker combination, making it to each class on time and, of course, who they will sit next to during lunch.

The purpose of this lesson is to utilize technology to show our future students that we are approachable, and, in the case of transitioning to middle school, that we understand their plight. There is a lot of talk about flipping the classroom.  Whether you are proponent or a naysayer of the idea, one thing cannot be argued, current technology tools make it easy for us to allow students access to classroom information at home.

The Lesson

First, find some photos of yourself.  I don't know where you keep your old photos, luckily I found mine in my closet.  Lucky may not be the right word as I remember the semi-depressing feeling last summer when I realized that it had been 30 years since I was a sixth grade student in middle school.

You want to show students that you understand what it was like to be a student and share some of your interests, to find common ground before they ever walked into your room.

The best place to start is by finding some photos of yourself around the same age as your current students.  I quickly scanned in these two photos and put them in a power point slide.

Next what are some of your interests or passions that you think would be appropriate to share with your students.  My rule of thumb here is that if you hesitate and wonder if it is appropriate to share then it probably isn't.

What books do you like to read, movies you like to watch, games you like to play, and the hobbies you enjoy?  All of these will serve as ways to make you a more three dimensional person in your students eyes and to give them the idea, at least in my case, that there is life after middle school.

Technology Layer

After you find the images and create the slides its time to take the project one step further.

If you have used a video editing program before (MovieMaker, iMovie, WeVideo) then you could plug your pictures into the editing timeline and record your voice.

I chose to use a screen recording program so that I did not have to worry about timing my slides to my narration.  Screencast-O-Matic is perfect for a quick project like this.  Pull up your PowerPoint, adjust the area you want to record and press record.  It was that easy, the program recorded my voice and the images on my screen.

When the recording is done you may save it to a personal YouTube channel, save it to the Screencast-O-Matic servers or download your new video onto your computer.  The easiest option, if you do not have a YouTube channel, is to save the video to the Screencast-O-Matic servers because you can then send a URL address to your students and they can watch the video at home.

If you do not have the ability to e-mail your students before the school year starts then you can handout the URL address on the first day of school and they can watch your video for "homework."

Here is the copy of the video that I made last year:

You can make this project as simple or as detailed as you want to.  Here is a link to a very quick and easy version of this project that can be accomplished with tape, paper, a word processing program and some photos:   The Perfect First Lesson For Back To School

That's all there is to it, hopefully you and your students will find some common ground to start the year on and maybe, just maybe, share a laugh or two at the same time.  If you want some more ideas on how to start your first day of school check out this post I wrote last year.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Publishing Digitally: Sharing With Audiences Who Care

In a couple of weeks my sixth graders will begin their own Writer's Journey as they construct an original story using The Hero's Journey as a template for their writing.
Before we embark on that journey, I wanted the students to take some time to look at their writer's voice and how their unique voice came into being.  The initial idea for this study came from the book Parallel Curriculum Units for Language Arts, Grades 6-12.

I introduced the idea of writer's voice with a discussion of identity.  We started our investigation of voice with the following question:
  • What is the relationship between identity and voice?
From that discussion we looked at how a writer's identity influences their voice.  Before we looked at the literature, I pre-assessed my students with the following questions:
What are the parts of your identity that are constructed?
What are the parts of your identity that are innate?
Give an example of how your identity might change with a change in contexts.

There was a lot of confusion in the beginning about what is innate and constructed about our identities.  To help them understand the difference between innate and constructed we redefined the idea as "What is the difference between inheriting something and constructing something?"

Their understanding of innate and constructed identities became much deeper and interesting as students thought about their lives and the parts of their identity they inherited from their families (genetics and status) and the unique experiences that built their identities over time (broken arms, trips, competitions, pets).  Some of my classes even began to discuss their religious upbringing with some believing that religion is innate and others saying that it is constructed.  

With an understanding of innate and constructed identities, we started analyzing literature, beginning with a beautiful poem by George Ella Lyon titled "Where I'm From" As we read the poem we talked the parts of Lyon's life that were constructed and the parts that were innate. 

I then asked students to identify the part's of their lives that were constructed and the parts that were innate.  They listed 25 - 30 events or parts of their lives that were either constructed or innate.  I shared a few of my own stories about my identity to help get the ball rolling and to help the students feel more comfortable sharing personal memories and experiences.

Then the classes evaluated their lists, selecting the 10 -12 moments, events or things they felt had the biggest impact on their identity.  From there, we used Lyon's poem as a template to share that unique identity and voice.  Students did not have to use Lyon's poem as a template and could explore their own poetic structure.  But for many it was a nice scaffold to help them organize their thinking.

I knew from the beginning that the students needed to be able to share their poems beyond stapled copies to the wall.  The power of these poems lies in the connection family members can make to these children's lives.  How wonderful would it be to hear your child share their work?  How often does a grandmother or uncle or parent get to hear a child reading their work?  Especially an original work in which the student explores their identity and the most important moments that have constructed who they are.

I created a class account on Audoboo is a free app that can be downloaded on most digital devices but also has an online recording feature.  This worked for my classroom because some of my students have their own devices that they can use to record but many students needed to use school provided technology. Audioboo allowed everyone to record their poems regardless of device.

After the poems were recorded, I was able to paste the embed code from their recording into my class web page built using Weebly 

After the poems were posted I sent out a group e-mail to my parents and received nothing but positive feedback about the poems and the recordings.  Here is a link to the page where the poems were posted:

I hope you are able to have your students record and share some of their own writing this year.  Audioboo was an easy and quick way to extend my students writing to real audiences who cared about their work.


Friday, October 5, 2012

Tone and Mood in Literature - Moving Beyond Paragraphs

I slammed my hand down on the desk.

"What are you doing?" I bellowed.

Frozen, terrified students stared at me, looked at their classmates and back to me.  Shock swallowed their breath and turned every fiber of attention to me, the psychotic teacher, standing in the middle of the room.

I stood up, waited another moment and then asked, "How did my tone affect your mood?"

A collective sigh lifted the tension, numerous hands went to chests and a few "Oh my Gods" slipped into the growing murmur of relief.

That's how we started talking about the concept of tone and mood.  The key idea being that an author's tone can affect your mood.  Often times students confuse the two ideas because they are so closely related so I wanted a concrete, shared experience that we could all refer to if there was any confusion between tone and mood.

That was about two weeks ago.  The students still talk about my tone that day.  They laugh about it now, though I still notice a hint of nervousness in their chuckles.

Students in sixth grade have to analyze pieces of literature for the tone the author used in a particular piece of writing.  It is a skill that is often tested on our state assessment, as I am sure it is in other states.  Also, in seventh grade, students have to be able to create well written responses to prompts using text evidence to support their viewpoint.

This has been a difficult concept for me to teach in the past.  This year I mashed together a continuum of lessons that builds towards those ideas.  So far I am very happy with the results.  Of course it all started with a very concrete understanding.

Analysis of Art - Transmediation

To help children develop their creativity I look for ways to blend my content with other disciplines. With the internet it has become easy to share the art work of great artists with my students. Which makes it much easier to begin the process of transmediation, the process of recreating meaning of a text from one medium to another. In these lessons students will recreate meaning from a painting by observing, interpreting and creating their own art interpretations that display the tone of a written piece of text.

As with any new process, we have to scaffold the learning. My goal is not so much to teach them how to analyze for tone (important ELA skills) but to develop the universal process of observe, interpret and create. There are many beautiful pictures that lead wonderful discussion like these ones from Winslow Homer painted in the late 1890's.
The Gulf Stream, Winslow Homer, 1899, oil

After the Hurricane, Winslow Homer, 1899

A great way to get started is with this lesson idea from which introduces the students to the ideas of finding implicit and explicit details in art. 

Portrait of Dr. Gachet, Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

Students observe the portrait and interpret how Dr. Gachet is feeling.  His feeling, or the tone of the piece, is an implicit detail, the evidence to support that thinking are the explicit details.  The students often say that Dr. Gachet is sad.  The tone of the portrait is sadness.  That is an implicit detail, the students have inferred or interpreted that he is feeling sad based on their observations.  Then the students have to find the explicit evidence to prove that he is sad:  his frown, the dark colors, the hand on his face, his droopy eyes.

When students are finished they can begin to compose or create a short paragraph to describe the tone of the painting.  The implicit detail is the topic sentence.  The explicit details are the supporting sentences.  Very structured, well-thought out and meets the goals of our state learning objectives.  But with my students I wanted to continue to go deeper with the idea and to also show them that a well written paragraph is not always the end all be all of our class.

Analysis of Tones in Videogames

Motivating students often comes form tying into their interests.  Looking at outstanding art has its place, students need to be exposed to the work of the master artists.  But looking at still pictures can only hold their attention for so long.  (I wrote about keeping students attention in this blog post last year) So the next level of tone analysis tapped into their love of videogames, it could also include movie trailers as well.

The lesson comes from and requires students to watch video game trailers and analyze the tone of the trailer.

Using what the students learned from analyzing art, they watch the videos two or three times, use their tone word list to identify a suitable tone (implicit detail) and then find three explicit details from the video to support their thinking.

The Limbo preview leaves much more of an impact on them than Little Big Planet 2.  Some students will begin to put their hands over their ears when the musical dissonance increases towards the middle of the clip.

There is a high level of engagement when students are watching these previews and it is easy for them to remember their writing lessons from Dr. Gachet:  implicit is the topic sentence and explicit is the supporting sentences.

Analysis of Tone in Literature

The next piece was to take the concepts of tone and analyze written work; at least that is what the state wants us to do.  

Until now the students had been practicing in their notebooks with me walking around, spot checking their work.  I wanted a  quick way to gather data on their writing without taking home 140 sheets of paper. 

Thank you Google Forms.  I created a form and embedded it on my class website.  The form begins with a quick review of the concept of tone.  Then students read a short paragraph and write a well-formatted paragraph explaining their perspective on the tone of the paragraph.

When the students submit their form I get a spreadsheet that looks like this:

Now I can quickly assess how my students are doing with the concepts of tone and explicit and implicit details.

But like I said earlier, I do not want well structured paragraph writing to be the highest pinnacle of academic achievement in my room.  So enter one last piece to the puzzle:  humumet.  A concept I discovered while reading a post from

Students skim The Conch Bearer for passages that display obvious tones. Students identify the tone (implicit detail), and then identify words (explicit details) on the page that could be used to create a the tone. They circle these words and then use art to edit out all the other words on the page with a picture that matches the new tone and/or narrative.

Below are examples of some of the work done in my class. I think you should be able to infer the tone based on their art and the words they chose.

My students still need more practice with writing well structured paragraphs based on analysis of an author's tone.  But I can honestly say that my students this year have a much better grasp of the difference between tone and mood and how explicit details work to explain implicit details. 

It all ties back to transmediation the process of observing, interpreting and creating.