Saturday, November 9, 2013

Supporting Boldness & Semantics Matter: My Interaction with Rick Wormeli

Have you ever had an experience with another person that for them was probably pretty mundane, but for you it was anything but?

A couple of months back we were discussing educational leadership in our Master's class. As a part of this we were tasked with crafting a set of questions that each of us in the learning community would use to interview an educational leader - we would then share back with what we learned. As we talked about who we would interview the usual suspects popped up - mentor teachers, assistant principals, principals, a superintendent here and there. Like most I initially thought I'd interview my principal. However, on a whim I sort of sarcastically said I was going to interview Rick Wormeli. I got a few chuckles and a couple eye rolls...and that's all I needed. Challenge accepted!

If you've ever had the opportunity to hear Rick speak you know a couple of things - one, you know he is awesome and two, he gives you his contact info...As in his home email and phone number. So, I figured if he gives it out publicly he has to expect that the occasional nut job will indeed contact him. It was my time to be that nut job. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

SMUMN - Action Research Abstract - The Impact of Bring Your Own Device on an 8th Grade Social Studies Classroom

Cross-Post for St. Mary's University Master's Program:

What are the impacts of a Bring Your Own Device policy on an 8th grade social studies classroom? As more and more districts look to find ways to increase the use of technology in tight budgetary times they turn to a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). BYOD allows students to bring in internet-ready devices and cell phones for use on a school-regulated WiFi network for educational use in class. Additionally, many BYOD programs provide supplementary devices for students without devices to use to ensure equity. 

This action research will focus on the the outcomes and impact of a BYOD policy on 8th grade social studies students. Students will be surveyed at least three times throughout the year to gauge their perceptions of the policy, a log of how and when the devices are used will be kept, and unit pre and post-tests will be given in addition to numerous formative assessments. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

SMUMN - Presence

Cross-Post for St. Mary's University Master's Program:

Our semester four theme will be 'presence'. After careful consideration of a variety of different posts and a little quick Googling presence means exactly what one would expect - being present. Having a physical and emotional presence in and out of the classroom. Essentially, to me, presence can be thought of in the phrase "Be here now." 

As teachers it is so easy to mentally be dozens of other places while we teach. Sometimes we need to be in those places, but in all reality I think it is important for all of us to "be here now." While kids are busy working, how many times do we find ourselves checking email, sending one off quickly, putting finishing touches on the next lesson, checking something at our computer, tidying up around the room, etc...? Sure, that's multi-tasking and sometimes we need to be doing all those things in order to keep our lives in order.

However, it is important that when students are present that we are present too. I know I'm just as guilty as the next teacher...but as I move into this fourth semester at SMU and a new school year I am making a conscious effort to "be here now" in whatever it is that I'm doing.

Monday, August 26, 2013

New Year, New Curriculum, New Policies...New Adventure!

I'll spare the fairly typical gushy feelings that most (all?) educators get about this time of year...if you're a teacher you understand and don't need me adding my two-cents...that said, I do love this time of year and find the work time and collaboration time that takes place during the lead-up to the school year to be some of the most creative and fruitful. I already have a "want to do" list about a mile long. Some of it will be shelved for next year, but some will take place right away!

New Curriculum
This past year Minnesota officially adopted their new social studies standards. In doing so they banded them to specific grade levels - American Studies to 7th grade and Global studies to 8th. After teaching US History to 8th graders for the past six years I'd be lying if I said that I was not pretty bummed to be giving it up. Part of the reason is do to my love of history and teaching it to students, but another part of it is because I'm still coming around to the idea of teaching geography Global Studies. 

The more I plan with peers and examine the curriculum the more I warm to it...but it's not quite the same level of passion (not yet!). That being said, more than ever I am passionate about teaching. Period. Beyond that, the three other teachers in my department are outstanding educators and the 8th grade staff I work with is second-to-none. Ultimately I had a say in choosing to stay with 8th grade and teach Global Studies instead of US History in 7th, and I know I made the right call. Heck, I even totally remade my class website for the occasion! Although, not sure how much use it'll get as I plan on diving in head-first with Schoology this year (more on that later...)...

Teaching Global Studies will be a new and fresh challenge. More than ever it is important that our students have competency about the world around them, and Global Studies will be the perfect vehicle to help them obtain that knowledge. My fear of teaching it is in part due to my previous experience with Geography classes...I shudder at the thought of 30 students mindlessly coloring maps and memorizing countries and capitals. There's so much more the the class (and the world!) than rote memorization. But, I digress...

New Policies
One of the things that I'm most stoked about for this upcoming school year is to be one of eight teachers in the district piloting a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy! About three years ago after hearing about the potential of such a policy I began pushing for it along with a few others. Three years, one committee, and dozens of meetings later and we've got the green light! We're naming the pilot "Project Phoenix " the phoenix name was a bit off the cuff, but at the same time we like to think of education as a whole as rising from the ashes of an old, out-dated, and ineffective model into something much more individualized and better suited for the challenges of the 21st Century.

As this is a pilot program, the few members of the school board that are very averse to this policy change will want to see and know that it works and that it benefits students. So, in addition to piloting the policy (and earning my Master's) I'll be doing an action research project on the policy in my classroom to try and determine the policy's impact...a key piece of the data will be a student survey (if you're feeling up to it, you can view the draft questions here - I'd love feedback). I'm looking forward to seeing what's to come and the effect on our students.

Anyway...not much insight here, just sharing some thoughts. My hope is to update my blog more regularly throughout the year with reflections on teaching Global Studies, Project Phoenix, and my goals for the year (more on that later)...until then, my mind is reeling with ideas and I can't wait to get started this year!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

SMUMN - Circles of Self Reflection

Cross-Post for St. Mary's University Master's Program:

The "Circles of Self" activity was really pretty interesting...We find ourselves placed in many different roles, categories, or 'circles' in our lives...some of these we do ourselves and we can control (teacher, etc...), some we are placed in by virtue of being born and we cannot control (brother, etc...). Some of these are defined by a relationship of our choice (husband) while others are defined by a relationship that we have no say in (son). In doing this experience it appeared that most of us quickly got rid of the more superficial labels in an attempt to hang on to much deeper, more personal connections. Many of us quickly abandoned the roles of "teacher", "student", "coach", etc...with the hope that we could hang on to our core relationships like "son", "husband", "father", etc...

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Culturally Responsive Teaching: Maybe I don't "Get it"?

I just finished reading "The Culturally Responsive Teacher" by Ana María Villegas and Tamara Lucas - originally published in the March 2007 edition of Educational Leadership. Though a Google search brings it up here. Anyway, this one didn't really seem to connect with me. In part I'm left wondering if I in fact don't "get it" in terms of culturally responsive teaching. 

It definitely covers an important issue and made good points. However, I was left feeling like ... I don't know ... that for starters it was too stereotypical? Belki is a "competent, responsible, enthusiastic girl" with strong math skills and good english speaking skills, but her closed-minded teachers view her as an "outsider" that was lazy. Curse those teachers! Seemed too artificial...but, I digress as I suppose for the sake of the article the authors had to write in extremes to make a point?

One of the things that has struck me in my years of teaching, particularly the last couple on the EL cluster team, is that what's good for struggling students - be it SPED, EL, or just plain struggling - is good for the whole. I know this isn't some earth-shattering revelation, but I've found it to be very true that the supports provided to struggling students benefit not just them, but most students. Basically, good teaching is good teaching. 

So when the article mentions the import of understanding how learners construct knowledge - yup, that's pretty important to know how our students learn. In some ways they're very similar, in others their wildly different. Regardless, we need to know how young people learn.

When it talks about learning about students' lives - again, you bet that's important! I don't care if it's male, middle class, and white Bob Anderson or not...if I can't connect with you as a student on a personal level, I'm not getting everything out of you that I can. 

Socioculturally conscious? Hugely important. I need to recognize that my worldview is just that - mine. I need to recognize that out of my 110+ students every year that there are 110+ different worldviews that are just that - theirs. We need to coexist, cooperate, learn, and grow together regardless of our backgrounds and views. 

Affirming views about diversity? That's great - as educators we need to know and believe that all our students are capable learners, and they need to be held to high standards all year. 

Appropriate instructional strategies? Or, as I like to think of it - differentiating our instruction so we best meet and serve the needs of all our learners. (Again, good teaching is good teaching.) If that means providing some extra vocab work for a student struggling with the language, then that's what we do. If we need to activate prior knowledge to help students make connections, then that's what we do If we need to provide leveled readings to engage low (and high!) students, then that's what we do. If we need to provide visuals and study aides to help students learn, then that's what we do. If we need to incorporate hands-on activities to help students truly grasp the material, then that's what we do. 

One thing that made me cringe a bit was when the authors write about how students from historically marginalized groups can be engaged. The thought that "Well, I have some students of African descent in my class, so to engage them I'll call attention to their difference by having them examine the chapter on slavery to see if the slave story is properly told...after all, that's your ancestry so you would know!" Yikes. Maybe the authors didn't intend it that way, but it's how it came across to me. But again, why not have all students examine various chapters and look for whose story is and isn't told - after all, that is a huge part of being a historian and "doing history" - analyzing perspectives, gathering evidence, writing "the story" of the past. 

Advocating for all students? Yea...there we go! Finally. That's really what it's all about - advocating for the needs of all students. Recognizing them as unique individuals with their quirks, foibles, strengths, hopes and dreams, views, and challenges. If we as educators (as a society?!) can do that - if we can empathize with one another and make an attempt to "know them" and what makes them tick, to reach out to them and expect the best out o them...well, then if we can do that I think we're making some great progress.

Maybe I'm the one not "getting it" (entirely possible!!!)...but at the end of the day I feel that good teaching is good teaching. Period. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Thoughts on Homework for Next Year

Recently I read a short article titled “Target Homework to Maximize Learning” by Ray Heitzmann. There wasn’t as much theory or discussion about the merits of homework, but rather the article was that targeted and thoughtful homework can in fact “contribute to significant achievement in the areas of knowledge, skills, and values.” Heitzmann notes that “practice” is the most common type of homework that is assigned, and also has the potential to be the most boring and most useless. Rote learning does have a time and a place, but overdoing rote learning can also have the detrimental effect of reducing the love of learning in a student. Though it is important for students to practice certain skills, I do believe that this type of homework should be limited. 

Preparation homework is something that I find myself assigning on a somewhat regular basis in my history class in the form of vocab work or a short reading with some questions. To be honest, the main reason I assign this type of homework (especially the readings) is because we have so much content to cover and I find it helpful to cover some of that content outside of class. Ideally we’d have less content to cover and I wouldn’t have to assign outside readings. One of the problems with assigning readings (or other prep work) is that you know that now all students will do the assignment, so right out of the gate it’s intended purpose isn’t being fulfilled. Beyond that, inevitably there will be a group of students that will complete the assignment, but they won’t “get it”, which again prevents the purpose from being fulfilled. My intent this year is to assign less and less of the "prep" homework.

Extension and Creative homework appear to be the most beneficial and useful types of homework, and they also appear to be the most enjoyable types of homework for students. In my years of teaching these types of assignments (projects, papers, etc...) have been a staple of my class and they’ll likely remain. Not only do these types of assignments challenge students to “operate at a higher level of thought” as they investigate the content, they also teach many of the so-called ‘soft skills’ that we want our students to develop. They will have to collaborate with their peers, think creatively to solve a problem, and efficiently manage their time. One of the arguments in favor of assigning nightly homework is that it teaches time management skills, however I - and many others - find a much more authentic way to teach those time management skills is to assign larger projects.

Ultimately I want to move to more and more projects (PBL?) in my classes, and have the homework be much more authentic and engaging.Going forward I will most certainly continue to think about homework and practice, how much to assign, what type to assign, when to assign, etc...and I’m sure my views will continue to evolve. However, I will try and be more thoughtful and purposeful in what I assign, and in doing so I will also try to minimize the Practice and Preparation homework that I assign and increase the Extension and Creative homework. Additionally, one thing I would like to do is to prepare (or find online!) a “Homework Menu” where students can choose from a list of options based on their ability, skill-set, interest, etc...sometimes they could have free reign to choose, and other times I could limit the choices based on objectives and desired outcomes. One resource that I have already come across is this chart that offers “alternatives to traditional homework” located here.
Student choice is incredibly important, and something that I value in my classroom. While there are times that they do not have an element of choice in the work that they do, I try to make sure that students have that element of choice in most of the projects we do throughout the year. I’ve found that there’s much more buy-in and ownership, and higher quality work produced, when students have choice in what they do to demonstrate their learning. Creating a homework menu seems like a great way to offer that choice to students on a consistent basis. I want to spend some time this summer working with other teachers in my department to develop a homework menu that we can use in our classes this coming school year. It will likely be a work in progress, but it should be a great way to provide student choice, and to make sure that the homework is meaningful and beneficial to the students.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

SMUMN - Achieving Holonomy

Cross-Post for St. Mary's University Master's Program:

Original article: Cognitive Coaching - by Arthur Costa and Robert Garmson; Christopher-Gordon Publishing, 1994

Holonomy is a concept that essentially can be defined as the idea that someone can, and should, act as their own unique individual while at the same time participating in, and contributing to, the greater good of the group. According to Costa and Garsmton, there are five key components to a truly holonomous person - five states of mind - and all must be present. They are: flexibility, consciousness  interdependence, craftsmanship, and efficacy.  Though "consciousness" has been deemed by some as the most valuable of the five, all must be present in a a meaningful capacity for one to truly achieve holonomy. As it is not possible for one to achieve true holonomy without all five states of mind, no one state of mind is more important than the other. All must be present, and in relative balance.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Response to A Response to Five Common Criticisms of Flipped Learning

First, apologies for the wordy title. I struggled to come up with anything original that hasn't already been used in a title to a blog post about Flipped Learning. It's flipping hard.* 

I just read "Flipped Learning: A Response to Five Common Criticisms" by Alan November and Brian Mull of November Learning. I didn't set out today to find this article, but it was presented to me for a class I'm taking right now and I wrote a few thoughts on the article.

I’ll begin by stating that after much reading and discussion on the topic of Flipped Learning I am still firmly on the side of the skeptic, especially for classes like language arts and social studies. I don’t share all the same criticisms as those in the article. For example, I agree with the authors that, if done properly, the Flipped Model does not making teachers less important. Some fear that schools will become labs where students watch videos all day and teachers will be obsolete. Nothing will ever replace live, face-to-face instruction from a quality educator in a caring learning environment. No worries about Flipped Learning there. Additionally, I agree that the gap in technology can be overcome if teachers, schools, an communities make it a priority. There will always be exceptions, but I’m not overly concerned about by this criticism.

What really is a sticking point for me boils down to two (OK, three) key issues. First, there is a huge body of research that calls into question the effectiveness of homework, especially in the younger (pre-high school) grades. Call it what you want, but telling a class of students that they need to go home and read X for 15 minutes or watch Y for 10 minutes, and then submit a reflection and questions and areas of confusion before class tomorrow...that’s still homework. Now, you multiply that 20-30 minutes for science homework to include math, art, and history...and, well, that’s a lot of Flipped Learning homework. 

Second, and tangentially related, is the issue of accountability. The authors of the article idealistically claim that all it takes to ensure accountability on the student behalf is that they are required to post reflections and answers to thought-provoking questions. Just like that, apparently, students will answer the questions and reflections because they’re required to and the questions are thought-provoking. I don’t think I need to go into detail to explain why that’s just a little bit of wishful thinking. The suggestions offered do not offer true accountability. They will inform the teacher about who is and who isn’t doing the assigned work, but that’s no guarantee that students will feel the obligation to do the work.

Lastly, teachers need to be very careful that they’re not simply recording and uploading bad teaching and requiring students to endure outside of the 8 hour school day. Yes, the authors point out that it’s not ideal to record long lectures and have students watch them for the next day, yet many teachers seem to still fall down this hole. It is important that the teachers who choose to go the route of the Flipped classroom take seriously the considerations of why they’re doing it, and what they hope to accomplish.

All of that said, I do believe that there can be a place for a Flipped type of model. So much of social studies is the “doing” of History or the “doing” of Geography, which is much more than watching content. However, in math in particular, and to an extent some sciences and the arts, there are opportunities to use the Flipped model. On occasion it could be useful and wise to have students view materials about graphing linear equations, for example, before coming to class so the teacher can work on specifics that students are struggling with. However, some of my previous concerns are still there. Another way I see the use of video being used best is not so much as a Flipped model, but more of a support. 

Teachers can have videos (and other materials) available for students and parents to consult when struggling on their homework, or when reviewing for an exam, or working on a project. They can record videos and materials of their own, or they can (additionally) locate other materials online for students to use. I do believe that using video and the “Flipped” model in this way is ultimately more supportive of student learning. I myself have recorded dozens of these videos for my students to use to review, and the feedback from my students (and if YouTube comments are to be believed from students all over the world) has been generally positive.

So, yes I’m still skeptical. I haven’t completely written off the concept as I see the possibilities and the value. However, I have a ways to go before I’ll be firmly in the “supporter” camp of Flipped Learning.

*Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Screencast Your Sub Plans

I don't need to tell any of you how big of a pain it is to be gone from class for a day (or more) and all the reasons why it's such a pain...but there's one thing you can do that will ease some of that pain and streamline the process of being gone for the day. The process is pretty straightforward - Screencast you your sub plans for the day.

If you're like me your sub plans fall into one of two categories - those that are done half way with some filler activity because it's quicker and easier for you to prepare, or those that you spend copious amounts of time writing out in excruciating detail so that any sub can follow what you expect them to teach. Option one isn't great because of a loss of valuable learning time, and option two isn't great because of the time factor. I present option three - which is really option two, except you record yourself to be viewed by your students, rather than write it out for your sub to deliver.

There are a variety of tools out there that you can use to record a screencast, but my go-to is Screencast-O-Matic as it is free and it runs right in your web browser. I've learned that on a Mac you do need to update Java and use Safari or Firefox - on the Windows side, any browser will do. Also, if you want to add a personal touch you can enable your webcam and have your face visible to your students (Note: The webcam might not be desirable when recording sub plans at 3AM after yakking up your dinner). There are other, paid options, that you can check out...but so far, Screencast-O-Matic has done all that i need it to.

Toss together a couple of quick slides that include whatever you want - specific directions, learning targets/objectives, question prompts, etc...and start recording! The first time through some security popups about Java might arrise, clicking "allow" will get you on your way. I still leave a formal note or two to my sub, but it's basically just telling them to watch the video, and show it to my classes, and maybe a couple other directions and pieces of helpful info. Much, much less than I used to write.

After you've finished you can publish directly to YouTube or you can export it as a video file. With a "Pro" account ($15/year) you also have editing options, the ability to draw/zoom on your screencast, and more upload options (Drive, Dropbox, etc...). However, you can easily accomplish what you want with the free account. Then, just email/leave the sub a link or directions how to  access your video and you're good to go!

Below is an example sub plan I used earlier this year. Because of the style of the lesson for that day the middle part (0:50-7:35) is part lecture, part question and discussion where the sub would pause the video to facilitate a discussion. Feel free to watch the intro for the Calvin and Hobbes reference, and then skip ahead to 7:35...or watch the whole thing...or none of it.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Bottom Up or Top Down?

Should pedagogical decisions be made from the bottom up, or the top down? Should what and how we teach be based on the demands of the "next level" - be it the next grade, college, a career, or anything else? Who should conform to who? Is the job of an elementary teacher to prepare their students for middle school, and a middle school teacher to prepare their students for high school, and a high school to prepare their students for a career or college?  

If college demands loads of outside homework and reading, and no re-takes on assessments, shouldn't high school follow suit? And if high school has to demand loads of homework, no re-takes, penalties for late work, then shouldn't middle school? If middle school is to prepare students for the demands of high school, shouldn't elementary schools reflect middle school?

In the world of education who is the driving force? Who should be? If we're sending our students off to college woefully unprepared - lacking in strong critical thinking skills as a product of over-testing, then what happens when we send these same students to college expecting flexible deadlines and the chance to retake tests and redo papers for full credit? 

Will colleges conform, or will our students struggle to adapt as they accumulate debt and spend more and more time in their pursuit of a degree? Will workplaces adjust as workers come in expecting more lax deadlines and second chances?

If we know that what we are doing as classroom teachers is best practice and what is truly best for the kids, but at the same time we know it's not fully preparing them for the 'next level', are failing our students? Should we sacrifice some of our beliefs about best practice if we know that those practices won't actually have them ready for the next level? Or, if we are doing what is best for the kids, regardless of the 'next level', then maybe we shouldn't worry about what happens 'next'?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

SMUMN - DRAFT Abstract: Online Discussion in a Middle School Social Studies Classroom

DRAFT - Cross-Post for St. Mary's University Master's Program:

The Impact of Online Discussion in a Middle School Social Studies Classroom

Ryan Canton
St. Michael-Albertville Middle School West, Albertville, MN

The purpose of this action research was to investigate the impact of online discussion in a middle school social studies classroom. In order to determine the effects of the discussion students were asked to respond to five discussion prompts using the online learning management system, Schoology. In addition to their response to the five prompts, they were to respond to at least two other classmate's responses for each prompt. Students were provided approximately 15 minutes in class to compose their responses. If students did not complete the assigned posts in that time they were to complete them on their own time outside of school.

The data collection process involved an analysis of the completion rates of student responses. Student responses were also analyzed for depth of thought and quality of the initial response to each prompt. Upon the completion of of the research students also completed a survey about the use of online discussion as an alternative to face to face discussion. Lastly, anecdotal evidence was collected to gain a more complete view of the impact of online discussion.

A conclusion will go here when the data collection and analysis is complete.

Friday, April 12, 2013

SMUMN - The Impact of Online Discussion in a Middle School Social Studies Classroom

Cross-Post for St. Mary's University Master's Program:

Implementation Plan

Classroom discussion is often important in most classrooms. However, it is one of the key components of any good social studies classroom setting. My students and I spend a lot of time having classroom discussions on a variety of topics. These discussions can be incredibly engaging and fruitful, and they are vital to the class. However, as often pointed out in the research, classroom discussions are often moderated question and answer sessions facilitated by the teacher. As much as I like to think that we have vibrant discussions, I know that I am guilty of leading a “moderated Q&A” more often than I’d care to admit. Most teachers will tell you that they would like their classrooms and instruction to be more student-centered, and I would include myself in that group. When it comes to discussions I would absolutely like to move away from a moderated Q&A toward a much more student-centered discussion. Beyond that, I’d also like to ensure that all of my students are participating in the discussion. Though many students very well might be engaged and listening to the discussion, it is nearly impossible to have all students fully participate in a full-class discussion. With that in mind, I hope to use online asynchronous discussion with my students to not only increase student participation, but to move away from a moderated Q&A discussion to a true discussion.

For this action research my students and I will engage in online discussion using Schoology ( We have dabbled in using Schoology throughout the year, so my students are already familiar with the platform and how it works. We have also had a couple of online discussions this year, so again students are familiar with what they need to do on Schoology. We will be studying the Reconstruction Era of the United States, which is the time period immediately following the Civil War. Throughout the chapter the essential question we will be exploring is “To what extent did Reconstruction bring African Americans closer to full citizenship?” 

In years past after we have studied each major period of Reconstruction students have plotted on a spectrum (Limited Citizenship to Full Citizenship) where African Americans were, and then wrote a short justification for their assessment. Students then stood on a spectrum in the classroom to reflect their opinions, and we concluded each section with discussion of why students stood where they did. I’ve wanted more out of these particular discussions in a few areas. One, I wanted more original thought and less of students ‘parroting’ their peers, and two I wanted deeper and more advanced explanations. Additionally, these discussions never include everyone.

This year the process will be modified slightly. Students will still plot their feelings on the spectrum in their binders and write a short defense and explanation. However, we will not stand on the physical in-class spectrum until some online discussion has taken place. There will be five different opportunities for students to post online - after each section in the chapter. These online posts will replace the traditional class discussion They will respond to an online discussion prompt within Schoology. They will not be able to read their peers replies until they post their own. This will force them to give their own original thoughts and ensure that all students are involved. And, ideally, because students know that their peers will read and respond to their posts it will lead to higher-level discussion. The sixth and final discussion will not take place online, and we will have this discussion entirely in class. The final discussion comes at the end of the chapter - at the end of Reconstruction.

The question I will be hoping to answer is “What is the impact of using online discussion in a middle school social studies classroom?”

Data Collection Plan

The first method I will use to assess the impact of using Schoology and online discussion in my class will be to make note of the posting frequency. I keep track of what percentage of students post, which should help me to determine the overall participation of students in the discussion. However, I will also determine how many students responded to their peers, and how often they responded. This second metric will be more important as it will hopefully give me a better idea of how much actual discussion is taking place, as opposed to students just posting their thoughts without reading and responding to their peers. 

The second method I will use will personal notes and analysis of the posts. I plan to make notes on the depth and quality of the discussion, as well as other reactions that I have to the discussion taking place. Although I have no notes from previous years, this will help to give me some insight into whether or not the online discussion, on the whole, is better or worse than previous years in terms of the depth of the argument and quality of the discussion put forth by the students.

The third and final method of data collection will be a student survey given at the end of the chapter. Survey questions will ask students to provide insights into the online discussion and how it compares to normal in-class discussion. Questions will be quantitative as well as qualitative. This piece of the puzzle will be incredibly important to the entire process as it gives the direct insights and reflections of my students.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

SMUMN - Spring Conference

Cross-Post for St. Mary's University Master's Program:

 In mid-April all Year 2 students will be sharing the results of their Action Research to other Year 2 students, along with all Year 1 students. I selected five sessions that look promising and like they'll have a lot to offer. The subject of my first session will be all about differentiated instruction in a history classroom. Though I'm making a change to Global Studies next year, there will no doubt be many concepts and ideas that will transfer. The researcher examined different ways to differentiate - content, process, and product - and the effect of these different methods on student achievement. As the researcher points out, a one-sized fits all approach in education does not work. However, it also appears that differentiating in just one facet of teaching (content, process, and product) does not work either. I will be most interested to see what form of differentiation appears to work best for which groups of students, and which curriculum concepts.

Following that session I will attend a session about how best to give feedback to students in their written work. Though this session is geared toward a language arts crowd, there is an immense overlap between language arts and the social studies...or at least, there absolutely should be. One thing I have struggled with - and I know I'm not alone - is how to best give timely and meaningful feedback in an efficient manner while keeping my sanity. I've scoured the earth for a solution to this quandary and it appears there is no magic bullet. That said, the research and strategies presented here will add more tools to my belt and I look forward to what will be a highly relevant and important session.

Just before lunch I will attend a session that is right in my wheelhouse - that is, actively incorporating technology to enhance a social studies classroom. Technology in an educational setting is one of my strengths, despite being a school that lacks WiFi or any type of 1:1 program. I am always eager to see and hear different applications of educational technology. Even better, this session will the results of a focused research project to see the results. This should be a great session.

The fourth session of the day is probably the one I'm most looking forward to - it's all about how the use of primary sources in a history classroom can be used to further the learning of gifted and talented students. As a history teacher I believe it's important for students to "do" the work of historians by using primary source material to make judgements and assessments about the past. Not only is this more authentic, but it really challenges students to think critically and make arguments based on evidence. I am eager to see the results of this research.

The final session for the day will be about the use of blogging in a social studies classroom - particularly when it comes to covering current events. I have long wanted to introduce my students to blogging as a way to increase the frequency and audience of their writing. I am hoping that not only will this session discuss the costs and benefits to this, but that it will also provide some solid information from the results of the research.

Monday, February 11, 2013

State of the Union 2013 Bingo & Watching Activity

Every winter not only is it a tradition for the President to give his State of the Union address, but it is also a tradition for me and my students to do something with that it, discuss it, and even play bingo with it! Below is part of what my students and I will be doing this year for the State of the Union. All credit to the inspiration and concept of the first page goes to TCI, who prepared an activity that is very similar. You can veiw theirs, the original, by clicking here. If you haven't checked out TCI, you really ought to. Their curriculum and materials are outstanding! You can follow them on Twitter, or check them out online.

Live Viewing Activity
Here is a link to the activity for my students to complete while viewing this year's State of the Union. In addition to a close watching/reflecting of the address, they also get to have a little fun with State of the Union bingo! Students unable to watch it live will have through the end of the week to access the speech online (watch or read), or they can read newspaper accounts (print and online) to complete the actvity.

Live Viewing Online Discussion
I'm trying something new this year for my students and myself...I've long wished I could be there with them to help process and understand big live events like this. So this year I'll be hosing an online discussion for all my students using Schoology. We've had online discussions before, but never during a live event like this. It is optional, but I'm pretty sure I'll have more than a few take advantage of this. I'll post more of a reflection on how it went later...but in the meantime I'm hoping it'll be an innovative and unique experience for my 8th graders!

What do you do?
It'd be great to hear about how you cover the State of the Union (and other big, primetime events) with your students!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

SMUMN - 21st Century Learning

Cross-Post for St. Mary's University Master's Program:

It's a little absurd, isn't it? We're over a tenth of the way into the 21st Century and we're still talking about what a 21st Century education is and should look like. Shouldn't we be there already? Shouldn't these have been conversations taking place decades ago? Shouldn't massive changes have already taken place? Why are we still talking about the whats and the hows of a 21st Century education? The talk needs to stop, the action needs to begin.

We live in a world that is constantly changing and growing, it is becoming more and more complex by the day. The rise of the internet and mobile communication has created many challenges. Tackling these new challenges will require critical thinkers to be able to identify and solve these problems. The students of today need to be equipped with the tools to think critically, to collaborate efficiently, and to understand the world around them. Our students need to master the 21st century knowledge and skills required to thrive as effective citizens.

The 21st century citizen must be proficient in the "Four Cs": Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity. Strong critical thinkers will not only be problem solvers, but problem identifiers as well. The master collaborator will have no problems reaching out to those around him or her to accomplish the tasks at hand. Of course, none of this collaboration will be possible without clear communication between all parties. Lastly, creativity means that students will be able to examine the world to find new innovative solutions.

The Four Cs will not be all that is needed, but they will be at the heart of being a 21st Century Citizen. They will also need the support to develop transferable skills that will prepare them for everyday life and future careers that don’t yet exist. These skills include the ability to quickly adapt to new environments, to take risks and rise to challenges, and to learn from failure.

This generation is the first in the history of the world to have nearly instant access to an almost limitless source of information. However, this access is useless unless we have the skills necessary to find what we’re seeking. We live in an age of instant news and information and our students will need the ability to identify the difference between bias and objectivity. The ubiquitous access to technology and mobile devices opens a world of opportunity, and problems. We need to make sure that our students know how to responsibly use this technology for good, and not evil.

What we need are students that are products of a new educational system. Our educational system needs to reflect the expectations and challenges of a 21st century citizen and needs to keep its eyes steadily fixed toward the future, rather than leave its feet firmly planted in the past.

So far I would say that my learning with St. Mary's has begun to reflect the expectations that we have for our students and the 21st century learning environment. We are asked to challenge ourselves and to really use the "Four Cs". However, so far I'm we haven't had to do much in the way of identifying problems and creating solutions. I suppose to an extent we are doing that with our action research. As we go forward it looks like we'll be doing more investigating and collaborating with the world around us.

Personally, I feel as if I know enough to teach and understand the challenges of 21st Century education. What I really feel I am lacking are two key components. One, is that my students and I aren't fully equipped to learn and teach in this new environment. For example, we currently lack even basic things like WiFi in our schools and our students are still prohibited from using their own personal mobile devices in the classroom. I know that both of these limits/policies are changing, but not fast enough for me or my students.

The other big limitation is the current educational system. We are still stuck in an archaic 19th Century (let alone 20th Century!) factory model where your age determines your grade, and you are essentially learning the same core material that generations gone by have learned. Sure, we jazzed it up by putting an iPad in our student's hands and a SmartBoard in every classroom...but really, what has changed? A couple of years back I had the chance to hear Ken Robinson speak at the TIES Conference in Minneapolis...he does a great job explaining this dilemma. If you haven't already, take a moment and watch the video below.

Friday, February 8, 2013

SMUMN - Future Action Research - Feedback

Cross-Post for St. Mary's University Master's Program:

There is hardly a doubt that providing timely and helpful feedback in an efficient manner to a student is one of the most effective things a teacher can do to help increase student learning and achievement. There is a plethora of writing that exists on the subject - blog posts, articles, even whole books - and all of this writing backs up it's importance. We know what it needs to look like, and we know how to give good feedback. What we don't know is how we give feedback in an efficient manner while keeping a shred of our sanity and free time. That is something I really want to explore - how can I arrange my class so that my students will receive high quality feedback in a timely and efficient manner.

I'm not really sure where to even begin with this one...but, I suppose that's half the fun.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Skyping With an Expert - Kenneth C. Davis

Recently a good friend of mine and coworker, Blair, let me know that author Kenneth C. Davis was offering to use Skype to connect with history classroom across the country. This sounded like a great opportunity to connect some of my students with a true expert. I submitted my name and crossed my fingers, and a couple of days later I received confirmation that my students and I would indeed get the chance to talk with Mr. Davis! Time and space constraints meant that not everyone would get a chance to participate, but that's the way it goes. The opportunity was open to any 8th grader (those on my team and on the other team) that had an interest in attending...predictably, almost all 8th graders showed some interest. In the end the list was narrowed down to about 28 students...below is a quick recap of the experience...

Mr. Davis began with a 10 minute or so overview of what he does (he even showed us his very first book on the Presidents, circa 1963!)...after that, he opened the floor to questions. My students had plenty to ask, so I was a bit bummed that I didn't get to ask him my question. On every history interview I've been in on we have asked the interviewees "Who had a more influtnetial impact on US history, and why - George Washington or Abraham Lincoln?" I suspect Davis would have said Lincoln...anyway, here is what he was asked...

If you could visit any era fromUS history, which would it be?

Was the Louisiana Purhcase Justifiable? (Note: We are studying Manifest Destiny, and our essential question is "How justifiable was Westward Expansion in the 1800s?" Pleased to hear this question asked!)

How long does it take you to write a book?

Was Andrew Jackson a Superman or Scumbag? (Note: The 8th graders tackle this question in a in-depth essay - read about it here - and we do address the "name calling"...)

Why did you become a writer?

Why do we celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July and not the 2nd, or in August?

How much post-secondary education do you have? (Note: This was a really interesting question/response.)

What is your favorite part of history?

Overall this was an absolutely outstanding opportunity that some of my students and I were able to experience. They students really enjoyed the conversation and were incredibly grateful for the chance to talk with Mr. Davis. Many have asked me (some, repeatedly!) when we'll by Skyping with another expert. If you ever get the chance to have an expert or someone from outside your class to connect with your students, then absolutely take the chance! Even if you have to adjust your or your students schedule and not everyone can participate, still take the opportunity. It was definitely one of the coolest experiences I've had while teaching! Thanks again to Kenneth C. Davis - it was a real treat!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Do You Share Your Political Views with Your Students? Should You?

Democrat? Republican? Other? Is it a secret to your students? Should it be?

Spend any time in a social studies classroom and you're guaranteed to witness an inquisitive student bluntly ask their teacher "So, who did you vote for?" And in a vast majority of the instances, the teacher will give a coy response - something to the effect of "Well, it doesn't matter, but I'm choosing not to tell you." This quickly leads to the discussion of why the teacher won't tell.

Many teachers proudly proclaim that they're so good at keeping their views a secret that students never know. They wear their ambiguity like a badge of honor. After all, our job isn't to tell students what to think, but how to think. I fully agree with that, and to a large extent I am that teacher. I don't openly and freely share my political views, but lately I'm beginning to question this more and more.

Is that where we are? That we can't openly and respectfully share our political views with our students? Let me be clear, I am not talking about advocating one set of views over another or about right or wrong, but I am talking about sharing something basic- just your views, your leanings, maybe who you voted for.

All too often we lament the severe lack of anything that remotely resembles civil discourse in our country, and rightfully so. And yet at the same time, promoting civil discourse is exactly what we strive for - what we expect - in our classrooms.

We do not tolerate disrespect in our classrooms. We work hard to have meaningful and respectful discussions in our classrooms. And we should. We bend over backwards to provide all viewpoints to a topic, and to make sure that every side is heard from. And we should.

So, it is with that in mind that I wonder...Why can't we, the responsible adults in the room, share our own views? Why can't we model the civic discourse and respect that we expect from our students? Wouldn't it be a powerful example to let them come to their own conclusions and form their own opinions, and then we share ours? After all, we know their views and opinions, and expect them to share them openly in the classroom. Isn't it the least we can do to return the favor?

Wouldn't it make a difference for us to show how we, as adults, can disagree without being disagreeable? To show how sometimes we do not share the views of our students, yet at the same time we still treat them with the utmost respect and equality? Wouldn't it be better for us to model how you can challenge the idea, but not the person.

I understand all the arguments against sharing personal views in the classroom, but the longer I teach the less and less I buy into them. As it is right now I don't announce my views on most issues, and I have yet to share who I voted for...but I think that time is coming to a close.

How do you handle this in your classroom?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Thoughts on an Ideal Teacher Evaluation System

Such a hot topic...and one that if you asked 10 different teachers I am sure you would get at least 23 different answers. I'm not 100% confident that I even know what the "ideal" evaluation model would be...but I am confident that it needs to include a combination of many different components...Also, one caveat - teacher evaluations should be done entirely with the focus of improving teacher performance so they can best serve our students. Evaluations should not be an exercise in trying to find the negative and punish, but rather we should continually work to improve our teachers through the evaluations. That's not to say that we can't remove teachers based on these "evaluations" - we can, and we should if necessary. We cannot tolerate inadequacy in our classrooms. However, we need to make sure that these decisions are not based on a couple of observations, or a few data points - we need the big picture, over time.

So, here they are, in no real particular order...

Test Scores
I'll go ahead and get it out of the way - we need to have accountability in all of our schools and among all of our teachers. Though "testing" is a four-letter word that most wouldn't utter in front of their grandmother, I do believe there can be value in the concept. However, I also strongly believe that our current system is so far out of whack and alignment, and that there is way, way too much of an emphasis placed on a few snapshot high-stakes test. That said, I feel there is a role for test scores in teacher evaluation, albeit a small role. How small? I haven't figured that out yet...but, quite small.

Multiple Administration Observations
I'm not talking about the full dog and pony show 52-minute observations that take place 3 schedule times a year. No, not those. Instead, if an administrator wants to know what's going on in the class and how a teacher teaches, well, then they need to get in on the action. Ideally, there would be 4-6 quick (10-15 minute) observations - and not all from the same administrator. The purpose of the observations is NOT to punish - but simply to get a feel for what's going on, and to offer critical advice..."Have you ever considered trying ______?" I feel that the "Danielson Model" for evaluating teachers is quite strong, and it would be good to continue to base observations and expectations around the Danielson Model.

Peer Evaluation
We all know the rock star teachers, the duds, the has-beens, the never-will-be's, and the average Joes in our building. We work side-by-side with them on a daily basis. There can be tremendous value in getting insight and feedback from your peers, especially when those peers watch you and work with you. Again, these evaluations need to be professional and completed with the idea that we're working to improve overall teacher performance...not to punish. 3-4 peer observations and some feedback (evaluations) at the end would be tremendously helpful in achieving this goal. As with the administration observations above, the Danielson Model would be effective here.

Student Evaluation
Like test scores, student evaluation should play a supporting role in teacher evaluation and should not be the most heavily weighted. However, our primary purpose is to work with our students, to teach them and help them grow. They are our number one customer. If we're not meeting the needs of our students, well, then something needs to change. There was recently a great article in The Atlantic that touched on this very idea, and I really feel there is plenty of value in hearing from our students.

Self Evaluation
Lastly, I believe it is important that we evaluate ourselves on how well we think we are doing. We constantly strive for our students to be reflective and critical, and we as teachers are constantly reflecting and revising our work, so it's only logical that some form of teacher reflection on their performance is included in their evaluation

On the whole, my ideal teacher evaluation would take into account many different measures from many different people. Only then, I feel, can we truly get a fair and accurate picture of a good teacher. Sure, this is a lot of work, but I feel it's vital. Evaluations like this need not happen annually, as that might be too cumbersome. However, after the initial 3-year probationary period it seems reasonable that every 3 or so years our teachers are re-evaluated. During that time, should issues arise then we work to fix those issues. Should a teacher consistently prove that they are ineffective and that interventions and support are not helping the teacher improve, then we must take responsibility and remove that teacher? Our students' education is too important to be squandered by below average teachers.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Bloated Curriculum + Standardized Testing = Homework

Would you still assign homework if your curriculum wasn't so bloated and there wasn't a standardized test at the end of the year? I think not...

I'm certainly not the first to write about homework, and I'm far from the last. The topic of homework - whether or not to assign homework (and how often, how much, what form it should take) - is a topic that instantly elicits many emotional opinions from all involved. However, much of what I have read and heard in the debate has glossed over what I feel is a fundamental question. Why are you assigning it in the first place? 

If you were able to teach in an environment where the scope of the curriculum was truly manageable and you knew you'd be able to do it justice and cover it in all its depth, would you assign homework? If you were able to teach in an environment where you knew there wasn't a high-stakes test with serious consequences at the end, would you assign homework? 

I don't believe many of us would - and if we did, it would take on a drastically different format and purpose. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

My Teaching Philosophy

It's been a while since I have last written anything...but, I'm currently working toward my Master's (shout out to St. Mary's Teaching & Learning program!) and as a part of the program we're blogging, which I think is outstanding. So, to get back into the swing of things here's my philosophy on teaching...
I have wanted to be a teacher since I was a sophomore in high school, I still have clear memories of sitting in Mr. Litecky’s history class, and knowing that someday I would teach social studies.  Starting in the fall of 2007 I was fortunate to land a job right out of college teaching history to eighth graders, and I have been doing it with great joy ever since.  Teaching truly is my passion and my calling, and I feel incredibly blessed to have the career that I do. Over the years I have continuously worked to hone my skills, and in doing so I have really crystallized my teaching philosophy. Each and every day, in all that I do, I strive to prepare my students for an unknown future in the 21st century. The simple explanation for my teaching philosophy is that it is all about the students. However, I would be very worried if a teacher did not put the students first in their teaching.  For me it’s more than “being all about the students”, the goal is to enthusiastically provide a safe and engaging classroom that allows all of my students to grow, learn, thrive, and prepare themselves for their future.

The safety of my students is one of my main concerns.  If my students do not feel safe in school or in my classroom, then they will undoubtedly struggle to reach their potential.  Therefore we spend a little extra time at the beginning of the year creating a safe and cooperative learning environment.  For meaningful learning to take place students must be comfortable and feel at ease. They learn early on that not only do I care about them, but that my classroom is a place where they are encouraged to take risks, to challenge themselves, to put themselves out on a limb.  Might they fall? Absolutely. However, they also know that stumbling is OK. Much of what we do in my classroom involves working together, and that cannot be done if the environment is not right. Of course, when we’re outside playing capture the flag to simulate the American Revolution, or when dodge balls are coming their way as they duck under desks to examine primary sources as we learn about the Siege of Vicksburg during the Civil War, I must also consider their physical safety! Regardless, the reality is their safety comes first.

My students are not treated like sponges. They do not sit in my classroom and passively absorb knowledge that they will soon forget.  I firmly believe that students must be engaged in what we are learning, and that they must be challenged.  When students walk through my door on the first day of school many of them assume that my subject, history, is something that will be dull and right out of the textbook.  After all, how could someone possibly interact with and bring to life a subject that ultimately focuses on the past? However, they quickly learn that the class will be anything but boring. Instead of reading about the Constitutional Convention and the debates about what our government should look like, my students assume the roles of delegates at the convention and engage in the debates and form their own government, and we then compare their solutions and answers to the historical reality.  Rather than reading about industrialization, students engage in an assembly line simulation, and at the end of the unit they put people like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller on trial to determine whether or not they were robber barons or leaders of industry.

I am a self-proclaimed geek. I wear it as a badge of honor, a badge of honor that I encourage my students to earn and wear as well.  I have a passion for my students, my teaching, and my subject. I also happen to really enjoy technology.  Fortunately for me, and for my students, I am able to combine this passion for teaching with my love of technology.  I am lucky to be in a school that has some of the right tools to help engage and prepare my students for a future where they will be required to problem solve, to think critically, to collaborate, and ultimately to make informed decisions that will impact themselves and the world around them.

For better or worse, whether we like it or not, the world is changing at a rapid pace.  One of the driving forces behind this change is the ubiquity of technology. Cell phones, tablets, computers, portable video cameras, video conferencing, and internet access are just some of the many tools and technologies that our students will need to solve the problems of the future.  With that in mind, I make every effort to advocate for, and include, these tools and technologies in my classroom to engage my students, and to aid them in thinking critically, learning, and collaborating.  Rather than debate the merits of this historical issue or that, we use Skype to connect with another classroom. Rather than having three or four students sit around one computer to write a script for a video, we use Google Docs to have all students collaboratively write the script.  Students are provided with the tools, technology, and instruction that is necessary to engage them and to teach them the knowledge and skills that they will need in the future.

My philosophy for teaching my students has, and will continue, to impact my colleagues. I practice what I preach, I use the same tools I expect my students to use, and I collaborate with other staff. I work with the language arts department to help teach persuasive writing and about Andrew Jackson by having the students write persuasive essays about Jackson and whether or not he was a hero or a villain.  I also share what I’m doing with other staff members, I encourage them to try something new and different, and I seek out advice and ideas from others.  I am not on an island, but rather I work with those around me. It is a joy to not only share my knowledge and skills with my coworkers, but to learn from and with them as well.

Yes, I am and always will be all about the students. To me, being all about the students means providing each and every student with a safe, engaging, and challenging education that teaches collaboration and critical thinking, and that utilizes the tools and technologies of today and tomorrow to ultimately prepare them for an uncertain future.