Thursday, June 25, 2015

Just A Little Less Worse

We, and when I say we I mean Joe and Troy, my buddies from GT Innovators, presented a couple of sessions to teachers last week in North Texas. And one of the most well-received pieces of advice we gave to the educators in the room was, "Your only goal for next year is to be less worse than you were this year."

A few years back, right before school started, I walked out to the portables to check on a brand new second grade teacher. I found her on the floor, crumpled and sobbing in front of her unfinished bulletin board. Surrounded by piles of bordette and die cut letters, she sat crippled by overwhelming indecision. She had no idea what to do next, what was important, or what she was going to do in five hours when twenty-two seven year old's bounced in to meet their teacher.

At that moment we did not need to delve into pedagogical discussions about reading groups or the best ways to use 10 frames to teach subtraction. She needed a room put together, procedures for collecting materials and some time to put on her "Welcome to 2nd Grade! I'm so happy your in my class" face.

With the help of the support teachers and her team leader, we stapled that room into a work of art. It turned out to be a good night for her.

The best thing I ever did for myself during my first year as a teacher was to forgive myself for my shortcomings in the classroom. And at the end of that first year, as I looked back on the two things that went well and 468 things that did not go so well, I realized that one summer was not going to be enough to improve on all of those shortcomings. 

So I came up with a plan that has served me well over the past two decades. Each year I would focus on one thing and make myself the best I can be in that one area. Even if that meant I taught one content area straight from the textbook while I worked on my craft in another area. I knew I could not become a great writing teacher and a great math teacher at the same time. There just was not enough of me to go around. 

Now, as June tumbles into July, my focus for next year, as it has been for almost two decades, is to be a little less worse than last year.

If you would like to read more about some of the lessons that time and reflection of helped to improve, please pick up a copy of Stand Up! Speak Out! The Social Action Curriculum for Building 21st-Century Skills available from Prufrock Press and Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

3 Research Processes to Engage Students

The beloved research unit. Often saved until the last few weeks of school, thousands of students invade computer labs to plagiarize text that is loosely connected to their topic in order to comply and complete the last major grade (in some cases double major grade) of the year.
How can we, as educators, step away from what are clearly outdated instructional modes to truly engage students in the research process and effectively adapt to the demands and requirements of the 21st-century classroom and world?

1. As a teacher, adopt a research philosophy by creating situations where students are curious to find answers to their questions in traditional databases, YouTube or the much maligned Wikipedia. Examples include scavenger hunts to find rhetorical devices, research the meaning behind literary allusions or finding movie trailers as examples of tone.

2. The often important, and much overlooked, strategy of putting the students in control of their topics. The most authentic research is born of students choosing their own topic and developing their own questions. This changes the process from merely reporting facts the dynamic act of real inquiry. Examples would include having students research different civil wars and then meeting in groups to discuss the patterns to the causes of civil war and the results over time to all who were involved in the conflict. Students choose the battles, discover the patterns and then choose how best to present their results.

3. The worst part of teaching the research process is having to actually read the papers students "write." Make sure the teacher is not the final audience. Our job as teachers is to make sure that student work does not end with our grade on the top of the paper. Examples may include public performances of persuasive speeches, screenings of documentaries, publishing work in community papers, creating a school-wide research journal or sending the work to an expert in the field to gain their feedback.

In a speech delivered at the University of Connecticut, Mortimer Adler said, "For the gifted person, the person who really wants to learn something, too much instruction is insulting." Our job as teachers is to insight curiosity, teach students how to investigate in our Google world and then show them how to share their work so the conversation continues outside of the four walls of the classroom.

For more in depth lesson ideas and full unit descriptions pick up a copy of Stand Up! Speak Out! The Social Action Curriculum for Building 21st-Century Skills available from Prufrock Press and Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Friday, June 19, 2015

Helping Shoppers Find the Perfect Pet

The question with our students who learn content quickly is what do we do with them next? How do we keep students interested in our class? The most basic answer is move the students from passivity to activity as soon as possible. Get them into the creation phase of Bloom's by applying their knowledge to new and unique situations.

An inspiring source might be this blog post from L.A. based humorist Jeff Wyaski who showed people the importance of reading the small print when he changed out the animal descriptions at a local pet shop.
These images could inspire some interesting cross-curricular lessons for teachers. After a quick search of life science objectives, I noticed that understanding environmental influences on organisms was a vertically aligned objective that built over several years in the science curriculum.

So what can we do with those students that understand and remember the basic facts about organisms? How do we differentiate for those who have already mastered the objective?

The creativity and choice permutations seem limitless but you could start with the following framework:

Let students know they are opening up A Fantastical Pet Shop. A place where people can buy wondrous pets that will bring out the best in the owner's personality. The problem is we have no pets and when people come to the store we do not have ways to match pets to the owners.

Here is where it gets really exciting with possibility with cross-curricular connections to Science.

ELA connection:
You have a discussion about the metaphorical symbolism of animals. Dove's symbolize peace, owl's symbolize wisdom, bee's symbolize organization. Students create a new animal and write about the character trait their animal characterizes.

Students then draw a picture of their animal and create a description card that tells shoppers the essential information about their animal (bringing in the science objectives) and how this animal is the perfect match for a particular type of person.

Social Studies connection:
Students study the symbolic meanings of animals in different cultures. Students could research totem animals versus Native American animals versus animal symbolism from the Far East. This information would be used to develop a description of an animal that would meet the needs of many shoppers.

Use an existing animal but write a description that ties together two different cultural interpretations of that animals symbology. For example: Alligator - aggressive, adaptable, maternal, revenge-oriented and quick.  Students then write a description card for the alligator and the type of person who would be the perfect match for an alligator.

Open ended connection:
Hand out the pictures and descriptions from Wyaski, have the class discuss what they notice about the descriptions and the pictures. Students write down these observations on a graphic organizer.

Bring the students together and ask them to list the characteristics of what they notice from the pictures. Record these observations on an Anchor Chart.

Using these guidelines students will choose an animal that they like and create parody captions for their animal that include suggestions for who would be the perfect match for the animal.

Or, have students create their own animal and then follow the same writing pattern mentioned above. The creation of the animals could also include an Art connection as students draw their animal, or paint it, or make origami, or a sculpture, or whatever else you can think of.

This process is not complete without displaying the animals in the newly created Fantastical Pet Shop and then inviting other classes, parents, and teachers to visit and choose a pet they would want to buy. Then the students could keep track of which pets most people liked and the students could use the information to create new iterations of their creature.

No matter which option you choose, it is very exciting to think about what students can do once they know about organisms.

If you would like to read more about some of the lessons that time and reflection of helped to improve, please pick up a copy of Stand Up! Speak Out! The Social Action Curriculum for Building 21st-Century Skills available from Prufrock Press and Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Book Review: Ungifted by Scott Barry Kaufman

Ungifted: Intelligence RedefinedUngifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a teacher of students identified as gifted my enjoyment and appreciation of a book title "Ungifted" may seem ironic.

The children I teach are generally highly successful at playing the game of school. But some are not, including my own children. My oldest was very successful in public education until his sophomore year in high school when boredom and disinterest drove him to ignore his studies. He eventually, begrudgingly, rejoined the education game and is now doing very well in college.

My younger two children have various learning difficulties, including learning delays and dyslexia. But they are very intelligent in the areas of their passions. My daughter, due to her super power of dyslexia, has an amazing visual memory and taught herself to ride a bike and tie her own shoes very early in life. My middle son is encyclopedic in his knowledge of college and pro sports. It hurts that he can recall every starting QB and their number in the NFL but took eighteen months to learn that a dime and nickel make fifteen cents.

The one thing that Kaufman makes clear in his writing is that an IQ test will have very little determination on the future success of my students who are academically gifted and my own children who show high ability in traditionally non-academic areas. What is important, as Kaufman defines in his Theory of Personal Intelligence, is the dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals.

How come my son did not learn about money but had no problem remembering numbers of NFL QB's? He didn't care about money, it didn't match with his personal goal to be involved in sports.

Why does my daughter not like to read? It's hard, frustrating. Who wants to do things that cause your brain to hurt and your self-esteem to suffer? At the same time she is great working with younger children, and volunteers helping children with delays using hippotherapy at a local stable.

Success is not a test score. And that is important for all students to know, no matter where their dot falls on the bell curve.

The only point I disagree with is the use of the word Truth in the title. As Kaufman points out many times in his work, the truth is subjective and it changes. A century from now researchers may look on his work much like we look at the work of Alfred Binet and his IQ tests. At the time, everyone thought he had unlocked the secrets of measuring intelligence, when he was just a little bit less wrong in his thinking than before creating the test.

Ungifted is an important book for anyone who works with children. We cannot let the antiquated structure of the early 1900's still dictate what is considered successful in schools. Kaufman reaffirms and synthesizes the many ways we can all be great in our own lives, in our own ways. And a number on a test should not dictate our greatness.

View all my reviews

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.