Students are layers, cells, constellations…and so are we!

“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”

Anaïs Nin

This quote popped into my head recently in reference to my expectations of my students.  I worry and plan for ISTEP, our state’s standardized assessment, but I struggle to still teach the individual, whole child as a result.  Students, like us adults, are layers…cells…constellations.  They are all growing and learning unevenly both within themselves and in comparison to their peers.

So what do we do?  I don’t have any concrete answers for this, but this is one example that I think technology allows me to address the issue.  By occasionally creating individualized lessons and sharing them through our LMS, I free myself up to work together with a particular student so I can engage them in the content through their personal interests.

EXAMPLE:  River Valley Civilizations aren’t the most interesting topic in the world.  I think they’re awesome, but you get my point…  So I gave students options, and what happened blew me away!  A student chose to create his own online game using the HopScotch app to show his understanding of the lesson; one student created their own civilization in Minecraft; another student went home and examined arrowheads to better understand the Stone Age.  Bangarang!

I may want each and every student to develop a passion for history and geography, but the reality of the situation is that my real objective and deepest wish is that I empower students to do whatever they’re called to do–Shake up the world!

 

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Tech Timeout

Let me preface this post with the fact that I LOVE TECHNOLOGY!  I’m an Apple Watch wearing, Hour of Code learning, paperless classroom loving, GAFE obsessed, “techy” teacher.  But…over the past year (yes, the year it’s been since my last blog post here), I’ve practiced something I call a “Tech Timeout!”

zack-morris-timeout
Take a Tech Timeout to pause and reflect like Zack Morris would.

 

What led me to take a timeout?  My students.  I teach 7th grade Social Studies in a 1:1 iPad school district.  The iPad allows me to journey around the world with my students without leaving our classroom, but sometimes students need to move and experience the lesson instead of curating their information into the newest web tool or downloading the latest app in order to truly comprehend the meaning behind a lesson.  Our iPads let us explore the wonders of the world through Google Earth, access ancient artifacts in the British Museum, FaceTime with pen pals in Kazakhstan, etc…but there’s also value in our archeology cake excavation, tasting cultural foods, experiencing economic systems with Skittles, service projects etc!  Technology, like all the activities and simulations, is just a tool.

I’ve been much more intentional during planning to choose the tool that is best for students for this particular lesson.  I often skim over the SAMR model to help guide my thinking (I’ve included it below especially for all my Pumpkin Spice Latte loving teacher friends); it’s not perfect, but it helps me focus on whether tech will make the lesson better or just serve as a distraction.

 

Tech Time-outs have become one of my favorite things.  They allow more discussion and interaction in the classroom…I’d been blind to how isolated our iPad’s and my technology-based lessons made us.  Now tech lessons have become more about our individual practice, eLearning lessons, bell work…they are a piece of the puzzle that engages students and bring the classroom to life.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m still that Apple Watch wearing, GAFE obsessed tech nerd.  I’ve got data to prove that my students have done better in some units due, in part, to the tech tools we utilize…but there’s some truth to the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality.  Perhaps if all of us tech-loving Millenials slowed down a tad then our non-digital native colleagues would be more inclined to try out technology as a tool to engage.

Time In!

On the Countdown to “Back to School” and Being a Lifelong Student.

My parents often teased me when I was in college about being a lifelong student. I was constantly wanting to take more classes, get my Masters and Phd, study abroad etc. They called me a nerd, lovingly of course, and said they understand my love of knowledge and learning. Looking back, I have become a lifelong student, but I haven’t pursued any of those previous factors that would have classified me as such. I’ve learned that we are all students of life, and learning should never cease…no wonder I became a teacher right?!

So when “Back to School” countdown time comes I find it a little funny because I never really left. Physically I may not have been in our brick & mortar school everyday from 7-3, but my heart is always focused on learning and teaching. All summer I’ve had adventures, met new people, learned a lot, gone to conferences, traveled a bit, spoke different languages, read multiple books, watched countless movies (Thank you Netflix!) and dreamed dreams about lesson plans and the students about to embark on a year with me.

I did not become a teacher for summer break, although the freedom summer allows is a nice perk and lots of people that criticize education seem to think I’m only in it for that. I became a teacher to inspire, enlighten, and continue to learn. So as I countdown to our 1st Day of School at BHMS, I get excited for the new historians I get to learn with over the next year. I can’t wait to learn what their passions are, how they see the world, and what kind of difference they’ll make. I love my job. I love being a learner/teacher.

Teaching is my profession and my calling. It saddens me to see articles about teacher shortages in my state. It’s a privilege to be trusted with the minds and hearts of my community’s children. I take it seriously, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to be the lifelong student my parents always knew I’d be.

“Getting Unstuck” – Ron Clark Academy Educator’s Conference 2015

I was not mentally prepared for my experience at RCA…but I’ll get back to that in a bit.

My principal introduced me to Ron Clark and the educator’s conference way back in September when I told her I’d won a PD grant that I had to use before July.  She quickly handed me Ron Clark’s book The End of Molasses Classes: Getting Our Kids Unstuck and I couldn’t put it down!  It validated so many of the things I was seeing and feeling as a middle school teacher.  So we signed up and went back to work.  I was energized and excited, but then, as so often happens, reality caught up to me.

I was new to the district.  I gave up coaching a sport I love and missed it.  Discipline problems, exhaustion, negativity…crept their way into my mind and heart.  I was not the best teacher I could be this year, but I persevered like so many of you reading this!  I crawled to the end of the school year after giving everything to my students I possibly could, and WE made it together.  The last day of school came and went…and then I found myself on a flight to The Ron Clark Academy.

It really is like Disney World for teachers.  Dragons are everywhere!  The Houses and cafeteria are designed like Hogwarts.  There are hidden passages throughout the building.  The classrooms embody the teachers’ personalities, and the hallways are covered in smiling students’ pictures and powerful quotations.  There is even a SLIDE!!!  Seriously! Beyond all that, the autonomy, teamwork, energy, and passion blew me away.  They struggle too, but as a school they are a family.  I want that!  I can see that happening where I work…but it’s going to take time.  I loved talking with the educators at RCA, but more so I loved hearing the students describe how and why they do what they do.  They’ve bought in…they feel loved…they’re excelling.  It’s not about the songs or the Djimbe drums I loved so much (I’m getting one this summer!!).   All those bells and whistles are awesome, but at the end of the day it’s about the FAMILY.  What I saw at RCA was a learning environment focused on high achievement and FUN!

FUN.  In her book THRIVE: 5 Ways to (Re) Invigorate Your Teaching, Meenoo Rami says, “The challenges that our students will inherit in the forms of poverty, global warming, access to clean water, and wars are going to require empathy, innovation, and creativity.” (This, btw, is the book club read I won the E-Learning grant for…)  Tell me how our students are going to be adults capable of solving the world’s problems with creativity and innovation if we don’t empower them to do that in our classrooms? The Ron Clark Academy does that.  Ron Clark, Kim Bearden, and the staff of RCA live that!  Their stories are our stories, and I saw so many similarities between those teachers, myself and my colleagues.  You can do what they do…subtract the huge investors and Oprah…those educators TEACH.  Take them out of that amazing facility, and they would still TEACH!  

What now?!  Now I take this fire I have in my soul and find a way to ignite the amazing educators I work with everyday to keep going!  We can do this!

I refuse to let myself get stuck. I will not make excuses.  FULL STOP!  

P.S. In The Ron Clark Academy, there is a wall with pictures of the staff and below each picture is a motto or mantra.  Our first night there I stood and read all of them, and I asked myself what my mantra would be.  Here it is – “Shake Up The World”  A Peace Corps friend of mine was told that by his father and even had a tattoo of it on his arm.  As a Social Studies/History teacher, that’s exactly what I intend to do everyday.  Create a ripple effect by shaking up the world for myself and my students to explore and change for the better!

Indiana Summer of E-Learning

Hey there!

I’m from Indiana, GO HOOSIERS!  Anyway, the IDOE Department of E-Learning does an outstanding job here offering summer professional development –it’s called the “Summer of E-Learning.”  Districts from across the state organize incredible conferences with Keynote speakers as well as un-conferences for those who prefer things to be a little more chill.  They offer a plethora of sessions and workshops in which most focus on EdTech to engage and challenge all learners (young and old) in the current education revolution.

Over the past two summers, I’ve been privileged to attend and present at several of these conferences to share and learn from all the rockstar educators, some of which I often converse with on Twitter!  #INeLearn  #sschat   This summer my topic is UnGoogle It!  Instruction and Assessment for the 21st Century Learner.  It was awesome to share my thoughts, but the reason I sign-up to present at conferences is because the educators you meet become the best resources imaginable!  It’s fun to put faces to the names of people you’ve been stalking on Twitter or in the blogosphere.  Professional Learning Networks unite!  We should have rings or something like Captain Planet.

Thank you for those that have shared your practices and passions at these E-Learning conferences.  Thank you to those that listened to mine!  Let’s keep our momentum going!

Trivial Pursuits?

For the past month, my students and I have been in some heated Trivia Crack competitions.  On numerous occasions, they’ve told me how much the stuff we talk about in Social Studies class comes up in the game and it got me thinking…

How much of the content I teach is trivial?  Does it have value and relevance to the futures of my students?

Have you ever felt this way?  Covering our state standards or Common Core can often become our main focus…and the passion and beauty of history get lost in our pursuit of minutiae.  Trivia.  That word has become a source of pride on game nights with friends, watching Jeopardy with family…and is often mistaken for intelligence.  What are we teaching our students?  Why are we teaching them about the Battle of Hastings, the capitals of Asian countries, the definition of GDP?

Don’t get me wrong; I’d argue that knowing each of those things mentioned above can be worthwhile and history teachers have an obligation to explain the value of the subject matter, but there are things worth more.  The people we hope our students will become typically doesn’t address any of those things.  Developing cultural intelligence doesn’t require you to memorize the capital of Mongolia….  Do our classrooms reflect that?

Leave the Googleable (Is that a word?) facts in the past and lets dig into skill development that will assist our students in becoming productive citizens of the globalized world.

 

Do you DBQ? (Middle School Edition)

DBQ’s…besides being a super cool acronym (Peace Corps forced me to love acronyms otherwise you can’t follow a conversation…), Document Based Questions are one of my favorite things to use in the classroom.

Background Information:  I was an AP World History teacher that recently took a job teaching 7th grade Social Studies in my hometown.  WOW!  Going from AP to grade 7 S.S. has been a culture shock, but it’s also allowed me to set high expectations for my middle schoolers in hopes that one day they’ll have the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills to perform at the AP level.  You’re probably thinking that not every student is an Advanced Placement student, and you’re right.  My high-ability license helps me identify and target gifted students, but I’ve found that ALL students have a gift.  DBQ’s have allowed me to discover some of these gifts, and ALL students can excel at a DBQ-type activity if it’s presented in the correct way.

Using DBQ’s:  Social Studies literacy is very important to me.  I believe all Social Studies teachers are also reading and writing teachers…but at the same time, 7th grade students are not the target audience of many primary source documents or inquiry-based lesson plans.  [This is changing thanks to some amazing teachers dedicating themselves to middle school students!]  Many lessons from SHEG for instance are meant for higher reading levels.  Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE SHEG!  But the readings are too advanced for most of my students.

As a result, I’ve found ways to engage my students in DBQ activities and empower them to construct content knowledge in their own ways.

  1. QR CODES ARE AWESOME!
  2. CIRCUITS/STATIONS
  3. CLOSE READING/ANNOTATING
    1. Reading Like a Historian
  4. Interdisciplinary Adventure
    1. Social Studies
    2. Science
    3. Language Arts
    4. Math

If you don’t DBQ, I hope you’ll consider giving this challenge a chance!

Thinking Like Historians – Murder Mystery style

I received a request via Twitter (thanks @KiplingEric) to detail my Day 2 activity for the beginning of the school year.  The first week for my 7th graders is dedicated to procedures and building our minds to THINK LIKE HISTORIANS.  I love using SHEG’s curriculum for Reading Like a Historian (and their push towards revolutionizing assessment), and putting their corroboration, contextualization, sourcing, etc. techniques into practice has been both fun and educational!  

A special thanks goes to Peter Pappas for inspiring my murder mystery with his First Day of School plans to jumpstart student thinking.

When students entered the classroom we discussed shows like Law & Order, CSI, NCIS…and how several different careers utilize the skills that historians also use regularly.  

 Screenshot 2014-08-12 21.12.24

This gave value to the lesson and was a great way for me to get the kids to really buy-in to what we’re going to be doing all year long.  After the hook, each student was given a clue for the murder mystery!  I used one of Mr. Pappas’ mysteries as a template to guide me in writing my own.  The students all recommended making it into a performance next time/year…have a chalk outline and use people in school or the community to participate!  I’m all for it!  

I’ve had some success with this in 7th grade Social Studies and World History in the past.  I like creating Law&Order style challenge-based learning projects to practice our Historical Methods.  In our Google world, content is important but the skills our Social Studies classes help kids develop are of paramount importance if we want them to be productive citizens of the world!  

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