Sunday, December 28, 2014

An Attitude of Gratitude.

One of the wonderful things about being a teacher is that I get two times during the year (December and the end of school) to truly look back and reflect.  It is almost like a mid-year do-over twice a year where I can see if I need to adjust my heading.

Today, though, is not about changing course. As I was on my run today (one of my two resolutions that I kept this year) I was thinking about my end-of-year blog.  As I was composing these words in my mind (or thinking about my chocolate milk and pumpkin cookie that I promised myself for finishing all 10k) I noticed most of my thoughts were about how grateful I was for everything this year.   Being a more educational-themed blog, I am going to really stay focused on reflecting about my professional life over the past year.  That being said, I do want to take a moment just to say how thankful I am for everything in my personal life as well - a wonderful wife, two amazing children, incredible friends of all genres (hockey, gaming, professional, parents) - you each could get a post of your own and I'm thankful for each of you.

Professionally I have so much to be thankful for.  I am at an amazing school with a brilliant middle division team as well as fantastic leadership.  I have worked at schools where I got observed twice a year (maybe) for twenty(ish) minutes and was expected to put on the classic dog-and-pony show to ensure that all the little boxes on the clip board got marked off. Now I work at a school that encourages me to push my limits - to remember that we are here for the education of the whole student - to remember that teaching 'safe' lessons does not equate to good education - to remember that if I'm bored giving the lesson, the students will be spiritless in receiving it.  My administration encourages me to try new ideas, be creative, and challenge the students.  I'm not allowed to give formulas, can't provide reference sheets, or just hand out extra credit.  They back that encouragement with weekly planning time, development time, and collaboration time as well as financially supporting the staff to attend professional development workshops and conferences that apply to our individual professional growth goals.

That leads me to my second topic of thankfulness - The AMLE2014 conference.  I had the amazing experience and honor to both attend and present at this year's Association of Middle Level Educators national conference in Nashville. It kicked off with some great footwork from Dru (@DruTomlin_AMLE) and a live twitter feed.  During the three days I attended more sessions than was physically possible (I didn't bother eating lunch as the lines were crazy long) and learned so many new ideas and techniques that it would take me another decade of teaching to implement them all.  But just as important as the learning that occurred were all of the professional connections that I made.  I was so grateful that I attended a twitter session hosted by #mschat guru Todd B (@blocht574).  His session really showed me how to build a professional growth network through twitter.  Before his session I had a dozen followers and about as many tweets.  Now I'm in two to three twitter chats per week and have made more professional connections than I ever could have without this amazing resource.

Todd was not the only amazing educator I met while I was at #AMLE2014.   I attended Jackie H's (@jbhanlon) speed session on "Literacy Gone Wild" and was enamored by her energy and ferver.  I also got to be her plus-one at the #mschat meet up that evening where I met even more devoted teachers.  I am now a weekly regular at this chat for many reasons.  On top of the brilliant ideas that get shared on #mschat, the spirit and energy from the educators that post refocus me on my passion for teaching.  I'm also thankful for my other weekly chats: #ecet2, #edchat, #txeduchat, and of course Teach Like A Pirate #tlap - designed around the fantastic book written by Dave Burgess (@burgessdave).  Dave was one of the keynote speakers and amazed the crowd with his energy, magic, and math.  I attended his Teach Like A Pirate session as well and have implemented many of his concepts in my lessons.  I'm really thankful for his immense list of questions to help me truly cook my lessons perfectly.

I'm going to brag about my teaching partner for a bit for I'm really thankful for her as well.  She is one of the hardest working teachers I've ever seen.  Her lessons are creative, well planned, scaffolded, and thoughtful.  They are engaging and play to each students' strength while challenging the students at a perfect level.  She recently completed a "Survivor Island - Explorers" simulation that I will be blogging about next week which could be used as the template for getting students hooked and engaged for any social studies activity.  If you are having issues with student engagement, this is a post you'll really want to read.

There can be but one winner of Survivor Island

I really have so much more to say - but I'll just finish with this... Thank you to all that have made such a positive impact on my 2014.  Those that read the blog, please let me know how your year has gone.  I'd love to know what have been your highlights of 2014.   Have a save and happy new year!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

It's not break yet, but this protocol will get you one day closer!

I hope everyone is doing well!  I have about a week until winter break and am guessing many of you are trying to stay focused on lessons and gradi... oh squirrel!

This week I'm presenting a definition review game.  For those familar with it, this is a kinestetic activity based on a Frayer model. This protocol get students moving about and has them critically thinking about vocabulary while interacting with each other.

Title: Definition Match Up

Quick Summary: Students will get in groups as they review vocabulary concepts.

Materials needed: Index cards (with pre-made sets)

Prep: Before you do this protocol, you will need to create sets of vocabulary cards. The cards will be grouped into sets of three as noted below:
  • One card will have the word or key phrase (for example, "primary color")
  • One card will have the definition (for example, "A color that can't be made from other colors")
  • One card will have an example (for example, "Red") 

Make a separate set of three cards for each term you would like to review.


1) Give one card to each student.  In typical #tlap form, I rarely just 'hand them' a card.  There is something a bit more to it.  "I have a secret message on this card. DON'T LOOK!"

2) On the go signal, have students look at the card.

3) Students have to then find their missing group members.  Eventually they will form groups of three and read each card ensuring they have one word or phrase, one definition, and one example.

4) While groups are moving I put a question up on the board such as, "What big plans do you have this weekend? Don't be shy - I need something to do!"  When groups find each other and are sure they are in their group of three, they discuss this question while other people settle in.  This allows there to be a minimal amount of behavioral issues and helps continue to build community!

I'm blogging between grading... and it is almost tomorrow...

Here is part of a set that I used for a biome unit:

biotic - a living part of a biome - trees
producers - species that creates its own food - flowers
carnivore - a species that eats other animals - tiger
resource - a substance required by all living creatures - water
interdependent - living things that rely on each other for survival - bees and flowers

Initially groups will make mistakes - that's good! Sit back, review the requirements (word-definition-example), but don't 'help' students out.  My group originally got into "flowers, bees and flowers, water," but when they asked "Which one of us is the word", they had trouble getting the other two into definition and example, and realized they needed new partners.


After groups are satisfied, and I know where the big party is on Saturday night,  we circle up while still staying in our groups of three.  Students read their cards in order: word - definition - example.  I might have students give a thumbs up or down (agree / disagree) or a scale to see how familiar they were with that term (1 finger for I didn't know it, 2 for I remember hearing it, and 3 for I remembered that term and definition.)  We also discuss if there are definitions or examples that could have been in different places.  For instance, in my example above students discussed how 'trees' and 'flowers' could have changed groups, but tigers could not have since there were no other carnivores.

Carnivore is such a misnomer!

I have used many variations of this activity.  You can reduce the difficulty by color coding the index cards (definitions on red, words on green, examples on blue) to allow students to visually see each part.  I've increased the difficulty by removing a few cards so that some people are only in a group of two.  Depending on how hard I want to make it, I may or may not tell students which terms have groups of 2 or 3.

I'd love to hear other variations that you come up with as you try out this protocol!  Have an amazing holiday break!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Food drive - Hunger Games Style.

If you are a fan of authentic student engagement, you'll really enjoy this blog.  If you happen to know anyone that doubts as to how authentic student engagement leads to better participation and results, please encourage that person to read this blog.

As most schools do this time of the year, our school held a three day food drive to benefit a local food charity.  Typically this drive raises between 50 and 100 items per classroom.  Students are encouraged to bring in two items, and get a dress down day if they do that (our students wear school uniforms daily.)  This incentive is the usual buy in for the students.

This year, my amazing teaching partner found an activity which turned the food drive into "The Hunger Games."  (Hunger Games, get it? Food dri... oh nevermind, read on.)

Here were the rules:

Our three classroom middle division was split into six districts.  Students supported their district by bringing in food items.  Items were counted and at the end of each day we had an elimination ceremony.  The district with the fewest items was eliminated from the competition.  Then, the item count for each district would reset to zero for the next day.

At first we were worried about eliminated districts no longer bringing in food (after all the end game was to support the local food bank, and this action could be detrimental towards that.)  To work around this, all districts that were eliminated could become sponsors and support districts that were still in the competition.  Basically, you didn't win, but you can keep your friend safe from elimination.

It's good to be the king.

On Wednesday our food drive began. Students came in and piled food into their self-decorated district boxes.   The initial results were encouraging as each classroom brought in an average of 65 items.  Remember, this food drive typically brought in a total of 50-100 items per classroom over the three days, so we were really excited to see that we'd already come close to our expected total.

At the end of the day we all went to a common room for the elimination ceremony.  As students walked in they saw the Panem flag projected and listened to the Panem Anthem playing.

We reviewed the rules - and how the district with the fewest items would be eliminated from the competition.  However, they can help their friend's survive by sponsoring them the rest of the week.

Then the students heard cannons go off... a total of eight cannons were shot and the losing district was displayed on the screen.  Eight students faces were shown to the middle division.

The cheering was enormous.  Students were genuinely excited to still be in the competition.  At first students started taunting the losing district, but quickly realized that those students were now their allies.  The buttering up and praise starting flying.

One district down, five to go.

Thursday came along... Our school starts with morning gathering - lower, intermediate, and middle school all gather in the gym for morning announcements.  That Thursday, there was an electrical buzz in the middle division section. Students were saying how many items they brought in,  showing swagger towards other districts, trying to get District One to sponsor them - they were fully engaged in the activity, and it wasn't even 8:00 am yet.

Little did they know that the Capitol had a special announcement that day.

Students brought in their items to their district leaders.  Students kept trying to find out how many items their district brought in and what place they were.  Teachers didn't budge - all results would not be made public until the elimination ceremony.  When we met as a division, we were shocked and thrilled with our day two results.  On Thursday alone each classroom brought in an average of 110 items.  Each. Classroom.  Again, this is a food drive that never brought more than 300 items over three days, yet here we were at 526 items after just two days.

District Four's Day Two Offering

The Hunger Game fever was so engaging that our middle division head of school as well as the school counselor decided to participate as well.  They announced that they would sponsor students that they observed following the rights and responsibilities (code of conduct) of the school.

Our Intermediate division was the group running the school food drive.  They were getting the typical 20-30 items per classroom.  Then they came to the middle division rooms.  It was wonderful watching the intermediate students' jaws drop when they entered our classroom.  They were not prepared to carry all of those items.

At the end of the day, students were again called together for the ceremony.  They heard the anthem, saw the flag... and students started saluting.

This was totally spontaneous. And a bit exciting.
(I do have authentic photos of this, but school policy prohibits me from posting student images.)  

It made the Capitol's announcement all the better.  Students heard the cannons go off, and started counting... but got confused.  Despite the largest district being eight students, 14 cannons went off.

District Five and District Six were shocked to see both of their teams on the screen... eliminated.

The shock on students' faces was replaced by smirks as their friends quickly started negotiations for their sponsorship.

Day three literally began with students bringing in bags full of items. The teachers were staggered as to the amount of food that we saw at morning gathering.  Again, district leaders took counts and recorded them on the google sheet.  Students petitioned adults to sponsor them throughout the day.

I also learned a valuable lesson.  Never try to petition a Manchester United Fan when you represent Chelsea.  Good student relationship moment, though :)

The final elimination ceremony came with another announcement from the Capitol.. and this one was much more kind.

You see - throughout this whole activity - throughout the announcement of the districts, the challenge, the eliminations, not once did we mention a winning prize for the final surviving district.  When we were occasionally asked about a prize, we just told them 'bragging rights' or 'a feast beyond your wildest dreams.'  Behind the scenes we had talked about buying cupcakes or other small treat for the winning district.  However, after seeing the amount of food and the positive engagement,  our division head had another idea.  She asked the middle division staff if a pizza party would be an appropriate reward for all the districts, even the eliminated ones.  We unanimously said yes.

Still, there had to be a winner of the games.

Fifteen cannons were fired and District Three and Four saw their faces on the board.  District Two was the winners of the Hunger Games.

However, the real winner was Homeless Families Foundation of Columbus.  In a typical food drive our classrooms raised a total of about 300 items over the three days. This year our three classrooms raised 1056 items in three days - three times the typical amount.

The amount of student engagement in this activity blew me away.  I have never seen so much excitement about a food drive (or any other charitible event such as penny drives or clothing drives.) The students excitement spread to other grades as well as other adults in the building.   So again I contend anyone that says authentic student engagement does not increase participation to  please contact me.  I have a special seat in the Capitol waiting just for them.