Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving Leftovers Have NOTHING on This Protocol!

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!  My family got to host Thanksgiving this year - the first time in quite some time - and while it was great to stay at home and skip the nine~ish hour drive to North Carolina, I did miss seeing my parents, sister, and all of my other crazy family members!  Still, we got to see some great friends, have plenty of food in the house, and I'm super charged to get back to my classroom!

This week's authentic student engagement activity is called back to back, face to face.  It involves students getting into and working in groups of two, so I figured I'd start this blog with some ways I create groups in my class.

Disclaimer: I feel one of the worst phrases uttered in a classroom is

(this may or may not have been me as a student)

In my experience this leads to management issues from groups of people you'd never want together, students feeling excluded, arguments of who asked whom first, and other emotional distresses.  To prevent this, There are a few tools I use to make partnerships a little more random.  If I'm looking to make groups quickly, I use a website called Instant Classroom.  This site allows you to have the computer generate groups, seating charts, or even pick on a student randomly.   I currently have one set up for each of my classes, and when I need groups or want to put students in the hot seat, I just project the site onto the white board and let the computer be the target of the students' ire.

Of course with any group or partner work, students have to have the classroom expectation of emotional safety.  I spend much of the beginning of the year setting up the protocols for getting into groups in both physically and emotionally safe ways.  We talk about how important it is to be a good partner and specifically how to be a good partner.  We talk about how partnerships are important and the purposes of partnerships.

Sometimes, of course, I want to avoid the randomness.  Other techniques I have used involve calling students up by birth month, the last digit of their phone number, handing students playing cards, or using clock buddies.   I've also done the popsicle stick draw, making groups as I go, editing as necessary :)

Hopefully your students are happier than these two are...

Back to Back, Face to Face

Quick summary: This activity has students discuss open ended questions.

Materials needed: None


1. Put students in partner groups
2. Have students stand back to back.  Be mindful of personal space.
3. Explain you will ask a question and to stay silent while you are thinking of your response.  Ask or post a question to the students.  Open ended questions work best.  These questions open up the student's curiousity about a topic.  It is also important that these questions use words that encourage thought and not competition - the goal is for students to learn from each other!
  • What is the most important piece of technology in existence today?
  • It is three years from today.  How is the main character's life different?
  • Are teachers heroes? 
4. Have students think about the answer - give wait time as is appropriate for your class or grade.
5. Tell students that they will turn 'face to face'.  Again, remind students of personal space and to be mindful.  Give a prompt so they know who will go first randomly.  Some ways I have decided who goes first:

  • Who has more siblings
  • Who lives further from the school
  • Who's birthday is the smallest number (the 4th is lower than the 9th)
  • Who's favorite color has the most letters 
  • How many Ohio State football games you've attended - most wins!
6. After the prompt is given, say 'face to face'.  Students should figure out who is first.  The first student talks for 45 seconds (again depending on the topic, age of students, and maturity.)  While this happens, the listener:
  • Must look at his/her partner
  • May only smile and/or nod
  • May NOT speak at all until the signal is given to switch roles.  This could mean that both people are standing silently at the same time.  
7. Give the signal to switch roles.  Repeat step six.

Depending on the student's abilities, I process in multiple ways.  In any case I start by having the words "I agree", "I disagree", "I'd like to add on",  "I partially agree", and similar I-phrases on the board.  Sometimes I give the students a third round where they can talk back and forth to process.  Sometimes I have them summarize their own ideas for the class.  Sometimes I have them introduce their partner, their answer to part 5,  and have them summarize their partner's words.  In any case, I refer them back to the phrases on the board to help them formulate their response.  

Kids won't take risks if they don't feel safe

Besides getting students to think about answers, another reason I use this protocol is to help build classroom culture.  Notice what I did in step five.  I could have said "whoever is taller" or "number yourself one and two", but by adding that prompt I got students to make a small, personal connection. Emotional safety is huge in my classroom, and helping students build those relationships leads to that emotional safety.  Again, in step six I want students working on those soft skills - listening while others are talking, and being polite, even if you disagree.  I will stop the procedure if students are being obnoxious with eye contact or while nodding.  We review what listening looks and sounds like.  These soft skills are crucial for relationship building in the classroom.  As a teacher, I can't get to the higher levels of thinking and learning if students aren't willing to share their ideas, and if they think their idea will get mocked, ridiculed, or ignored by others, then they won't take the risk.  

To finish this protocol (and any partner work they do), I always have them thank each other for being a great partner.  They shake hands (or fist bump, or do one of many goofy hand shakes we've developed), and I have them say things like, "It was a pleasure to see you again", "I'll have my people call your people", or "Let's do lunch!"

Or maybe Thanksgiving dinner...

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Getting in Shape One Math Problem at a Time

In my first of (hopefully) weekly installments, I will be introducing protocols that I have used in the classroom to help build authentic student engagement.  

A bit of background: I currently work in a the middle division of a school that specializes in students that have one or more learning difficulties.  These students often have high energy levels and low social skills.  As a result, many of my lessons involve movement and student interaction.  They also involve a high level of fun because, seriously, if you are going to be somewhere 40-60 hours a week you better be enjoying it! :)

So with that, here is my first installment of authentic student engagement strategies - in which someone from your class may become the next Richard Simmons!

(showing a sweating to the oldies video is a moral imperative)

Title: Math Squats and Jumps

Quick Summary : This activity will have students use body actions to help one student guess the mystery answer from a math problem.

Materials needed: none

  1. One student is placed in the ‘hot seat’.  This seat is placed in the front of the room, facing towards the class and facing away from the board.
  2. The teacher writes a problem on the board.  This problem should have an integer number as an answer.  The hot seat student is instructed directly NOT to turn around.
  3. Students at their desk solve the problem.  Student in the hot seat waits.
  4. When a desk student solves the problem, the student stands up. 
  5. After all students are standing, the teacher tells the hot seat student a range that the answer is between (such as 50 – 500).
  6. The hot seat student guesses a number in the range.
  7. The students give a clue if the guess is too high or two low:
    • If the answer is too high, the students jump (large jumps = much higher!)
    • If the answer is too low, the students squat (lying on the floor could mean MUCH lower.)
    • If the answer is correct, the students clap.
  8. The hot seat student continues to guess until the answer is reached
  9. If a guess is made and students do conflicting actions (jump and squat, squat and clap, etc.) students that don’t agree must conference to find any errors.

Linda sits in the hot seat and faces the class.  Students (except for Linda) solve the problem on the board (424 ÷ 4).  All students except Linda solve the problem and then stand behind their space.  The teacher gives Linda a range of 30-400.  Linda starts by guessing 350.  Students squat down (a few even lie on the floor to let her know she needs to guess way lower).  She then guesses 100.  The students do a small jump.   Eventually Linda guesses 106 and the crowd cheers!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Maureen shouldn't deal with this - and neither should students!

Maureen is a 24 year old recent college graduate with a degree in Business Administration and Commerce.  She gets an entry level position at a local company an is put in the accounting department.  After her first day she is feeling pretty good - she has lots to learn but feels the skills are ones she can acquire.  After a month she has really learned the ropes and gets introduced to the data base and other higher level skills.  She's still unsure about how some systems work, but has a supervisor that helps her figure her mistakes.  After two months she has mastered most of the skills of the entry level position and is thinking about a raise, and possibly even a promotion.  She has a meeting with her supervisor:

Maureen: "I clearly have become proficient in the skills necessary to go to the next level.  I've learned how to use the database, and compile account information for dozens of clients, and have a 90% verification on my previous two evaluations. Clearly I have mastery of the skills needed."

Supervisor: "Yes, I see all of that.  However, your 90% verification score isn't accurate.  That is your most recent score.  As I look at your performance evaluations, you scored only a 25% on your first evaluation, a 65% on your second, and a 90% on your two most recent evaluations, meaning your overall score is only a 67.5%.  On our scale that ranks you as 'inefficient'.  Come back when your score is above 85%."

You seem to have a problem with your TPS reports

How would you react if you were Maureen?  Clearly she is now proficient at the skills needed to advance, but the system has her rated as inefficient.  It will take Maureen another 14 evaluations of 90% (Or 5 perfect evaluations) to hit the manager's 85% expectation.

When put into the real world, the averaging of evaluations becomes ludicrous.   If a company has an employee that is consistently scoring 90%, they call that employee a top performer.  The fact that the employee didn't do well when the skills were first introduced is expected.

So why do teachers use a system that clearly has no real world application?  What makes one assignment worth 30 points and another one 50?  Why does a quiz in September affect a student's grade in October? Averaging grades is one of the most atrocious acts in education. It promotes laziness in teachers, destroys communication, and turns grades into a negotiation. 

The idea of percentages is meaningless for communication.  Two students have a quarterly average of 78%.  What does this mean? Do they have the same skill set?  Another student has an average of 77%. Try to explain why he scored 1% lower.  What does that 1% look like?  Could the student raise her grade to an 80% with extra credit?  Those few percentage points turn a C+ into a B-, which means she'll get $30 from her grandma!

What if the learning target is using four major operations to compute fractions?  One student gets 75% on all four sections.  Another student gets 100% on three sections, but doesn't know how to divide fractions at all and scores a 0% there.  They both score a 75% on their report card, but again, do they have the same skill set?  What are we telling students, families, and other teachers with this system?  Who is more prepared to move on to the new skills?

Averaging of grades is fantastically easy.  Teachers use a scantron (or now a days quickkey or other similar apps), get a score, put it in the gradebook, and move on.  If they are particularly 'kind' teacher, they might allow students to 'fix' their mistakes and give extra points for corrections.  Sometimes after corrections they'll just add points to the original score.  Other times they will average the two scores and use that new average as the student's score (but of course they will put a cap of 89%, because clearly you can't get an 'A' on something if it wasn't done correctly the first time!) 

A percentage based system is the easy thing to do, but is it the correct thing to do?  Is it sound pedagogy?  Does it tell the student how to improve?

Ask a student what grade they got in a class.  They'll probably give you a letter or a number.  Ask them what it means.  They'll probably say something like, "I got some things right and some things wrong." or "I did pretty well."   They will not have an idea on HOW to improve or what skills they need to focus upon.  This is not the way to build 21st century skills.  Maureen needed to know what she was doing well and what she needed to learn.  She needed a mentor to help her learn the skills.  She gained new knowledge and reflected on mistakes as to not make them again.   It is how advancement and learning happens. 

I'll clean your board every day after school if you move my grade from a 79.4% to a 80.1%

One of todays gurus on grading (and teaching pedagogy in general) is a gentleman named Rick Wormeli (@rickwormeli2.)  I've had the privilege of meeting him twice and highly recommend every teacher attend one of his presentations.  He's an amazing speaker with incredible ideas and energy, and is an all around nice guy.  If you haven't read many of his works, I'd recommend starting with  this response to grading systems. He has a number of books I'd recommend as well.

The goal of any classroom or educational setting is helping students achieve mastery of skills.  When mastery occurs, students should be allowed to celebrate.  If mastery doesn't occur, teachers need to focus on the 'why' and adjust from there.

It doesn't matter - they all scored a 60 average!

I have a daughter in 8th grade.  This is a 100% true conversation I had with her recently.

Me: "
You're getting a 75% in (class).  What does that mean?"
Daughter: "I'm getting a C"
Me: "What does that mean?"
Daughter(stood there confused...) "ummm...."  (more confused) "I have to do better?"

After some coaching, I asked her to approach the teacher the next day and ask what skills she needs to work on to improve her grade.

Me: "What did your teacher say today?"
Daughter: "She said there wasn't anything I can do to improve my grade.  We have a test next week though."
Me: "I know you can't increase your grade by extra credit or anything, but what skills do you need to practice?"
Daughter: "I dunno.  She said there'd be a study guide and to know the stuff on that."

As a father, this conversation left me somewhat confused.  As an educator it left me frustrated.  If students - in this case a middle school student - is not sure what skills they lack, how can they possible improve?  As a parent how can I help her?  

My current school does a skill based report card with narratives.  Each quarter we have to write a detailed narrative with specific feedback for each student.  It is way more work than a traditional percent system (even those that have the pre-generated scantron comments), but I also know it is far more valuable information and far better teaching.  I mean after all, Maureen deserves that promotion!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

#amle = Amazing Mentors and Learning Experience!

So today was the day - Friday, 4:15 pm - presenting at a national conference.  Nerves and excitement abound, I went to the keynote speaker (amazing talk about drama vs. bullying) and my other sessions.

In the blink of an eye, it is 3:30.  I got to my session on time and set up all my materials.  Then of course, the waiting... for... participants.  I was so glad to see my new friend Jackie (@jbhanlon) as one of the first to show up!  Jackie had given an amazingly informative and vibrant speed session entitled Literacy Gone Wild the previous day.  She showed up to my session full of energy and one piece of advice... the ABSOLUTE NUMBER ONE secret to giving an amazing presentation:

I just laughed as saw her and raised her my bid:

(never leave home without it)

My session began and I introduced myself to the participants.  I don't know if other presenters get this way, but once I got into the actual presentation I was instantly back in 'teacher mode.'  I was presenting on protocols and activities that I had done many times in class.  I was able to answer questions and help educators figure out ways to modify the protocol for their specific situation.   I was teaching educators and I loved it.  

I got to do the same 20 minute presentation three times.  I presented four different student engagement protocols to about a dozen and a half different educators, and all of them loved the activities I taught.  I got so much amazingly positive feedback - how simple and effective they are, how little time they take to prep, how fun they are, how this should have been a 75 minute session, how easily they transfer to any subject.  How I should turn these ideas into a book.

I love my background in education.  I value all of the different experiences I have had.  I have taught  3rd - 9th grades, all major core subjects plus PE, advisory, and health.  I have been in public, charter, and private schools,  and taught in three different states.  I have worked in the Montessori and Expeditionary Learning educational models.  I have training in games and facilitation.  I have a melting pot of ideas and I hope to continue to get these strategies out to anyone who wants them.

I ended last night in my first "official" twitter chat.  This came out of a fantastic session about building a professional network given by Todd (@blocht574).  I got to meet and interact with such a diverse group of educators - teachers of all subjects and experience levels,  published authors, principals, AMLE admins, and even a magician!  What I valued most about this session was that everyone's opinion was valued and nobody was 'the odd duck out.'  Even though many of these people had been chatting for months (or longer) on #mschat, I wasn't treated as a stranger.  

I love being in a community of educators and how willing we all are to share ideas to move education forward.  I'm looking forward to implementing so many of the 15-pages-of-notes I jotted down over the past few days.  

I LITERALLY came to this conference personally knowing nobody.  I leave with over two dozen contacts and so many personal connections.  Thanks to everyone that helped improve my teaching!  Talk to you online and see you all in Columbus next year!

Friday, November 7, 2014

And that was only day one!

Six sessions, over a dozen of presenters, and a night social at a local country bar. If I wanted to summarize everything from yesterday in one blog post I would easily win A Nanowrimo award this year.  So instead I'll sum it up in six words.

(none of these are them.)

My favorite full session was presented by Dave Burgess in a session called teach like a pirate.  With no background in his book I was not sure what to expect.  His energetic style was themed with one concept:  Passion.  Bring the passion - and not just the passion for your content ("WOOOH! WE'RE LEARNING ABOUT PROPER USES OF COMMAS TODAY!!!!!) but passion from your cause - your professional passion.  The reason you ARE a teacher... Your raison d'etre.

People can get lesson plans anywhere...

When I teach a lesson, I don't just throw them a burger and say 'here you go', eat it.   I make sure that burger is prepared.  It has toppings.  It has a side.  It's been cooked.   And if the kid is vegan, I've taken that into account.  I'm teaching at a school that encourages me to try new things, to fail at lessons, to push the limits of creativity.  And when those lessons do fail, going up to my department leader and saying, "well that totally bombed" is met with reflective questions, not lectures on wasting time... Just reflection on what flair I need to adjust.

So the six words.  They come from Dr. Cedrick Gray (@DrCedrickGray)

"Good is the enemy of great."

Don't do good work - do great work.  Don't make a good lesson - make it great.  Students don't remember a lesson - they remember it in the context of the experience.  

Especially if it is covered in flair... with a side of panache. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The things you notice when you leave headphones at home...

While sitting in the Columbus Airport about to get onto my flight to Nashville all I could think of was how am I going to get to all of the sessions that I want to get to (I won't) and how can I see all the amazing educators I want to learn from (sigh... I won't).

Digging through my backpack I found that I left my headphones back at the house.  However, it was only a one hour flight so I didn't worry about it much.  However, the short flight to Nashville sat me by some troubling thoughts.  The row behind me, both directly and kitty cornered, were filled with teachers also heading to the conference.  Through their loud dialogue I discerned they were from a local district... and their dialogue really disturbed me as an educator.

Here are some of their comments.  All names have been changed:

  • "Ashley is nice. She really tries hard.  Good thing she's so cute."
  • "Oh, Amber... That girl is a little <removed> .  I can't stand her."  "I agree, I hate that student."
  • "I hate when students just use the system. Just be good little students like you are supposed to!"

By this point I was glad there was only 30 minute of flight time left.  I continued to play Small World on my iPad

(I won but it was close!)

while really hoping that these teachers were just blowing off steam in a non-professional we all make mistakes way and glad they are going to a conference where they can get the professional help and pedagogy they need.

"... I mean I teach English.  It is impossible to differentiate in the classroom.  I mean I have two students in 2nd period that are dyslexic. What can I do with them?  It isn't like they can keep up!"

At that point I could only pray that this teacher would find the right sessions to help her gain the strategies she needs to help her students.  But here is what I realized As I searched through the hundreds of sessions being offered at #amle2014... I found this many sessions  by searching these words (teaching is big on data these days, right?) :
  • math: 41 results
  • common core: 48 results
  • reading: 50 results
  • dyslexia: 0 results

This is why I will be proposing that as a school, Marburn Academy should have a strong presence at AMLE 2015 - especially since the conference will be held in Columbus.

And especially considering that there are teachers local to the Columbus area that clearly need it.  

Countdown to AMLE 2014

Here I am two weeks from #AMLE2014 and I am dying from anticipation.  There are so many fantastic sessions and speakers, and then I sit back and realize... I'm a speaker.

Are you ready for the big time?
Is it ready for me?

Still, it is amazing - hundreds of middle school experts all converging in Nashville for three days of training, sessions, food, and fun. 

For those that don't know, I'll be hosting a speed session on Friday evening: Here is a link to my session!  My session will cover the topic of simultaneous engagement - how to get as many students actively involved in the learning and more specifically formative check ins during a class.  I've been practicing some of the strategies that I will talk about and am psyched to present them to the amazing professionals that will be in attendance.