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Giving my students real-world application to their writing

This week I learned just how little I actually know about the political system and showcased my struggles with my students.

To begin, we spent most of the week reviewing the STOP writing strategy (suspend judgment, take a side, organize ideas, plan more as you write) and the DARE writing strategy (develop a claim, add supporting ideas, reject the other side, end with a conclusion). The goal was to give the students tools in their writing toolbox to formulate persuasive writing in a more cohesive manner.

This week’s topic was based on a Newsela article on the laws involving dogs riding in cars. The students read the article and then outlined whether or not dogs should be allowed to ride in cars. At the end of the week the goal was for them to write a persuasive essay.

Thursday night rolled around, and I started planning for the essay and realized something. In the 10 years since I left college I have never once written a persuasive essay in the real-world. I haven’t sat down to write a 5 paragraph essay about my views on year-round school or whether or not students should have cell-phones. It’s not a practical experience and won’t directly translate into something they might actually do after high school. I know there are some benefits of writing an essay like learning fundamental grammar rules and organizing ones thoughts in a coherent way, but I thought I might be able to cover those same topics in a more applicable way.

At that point I knew I wanted to take the lesson a step further, but I had no idea what I wanted the students to do. What could I have them do that they might actually do in the future? I decided someday they might feel strongly about something and want to notify someone influential that things needed to change.

I decided I wanted them to write to their legislature about the importance of creating a law (or not creating a law) banning dogs from riding in cars. The problem…I had no idea who they were supposed to write to. I started searching the internet for our local congress representatives and realized it was EXTREMELY difficult to find. I either found our national representatives or found a list of local representatives but no list of which district the school was in. After 7 or 8 different searches I finally figured it out. I found a great map of the districts in the area with a listing of each representative for that district.

When class started I told them about my struggles to find the information. I showed them the map and explained which representative represents their address (our school covers 3 different congressional districts). Then I had them write a letter to their representative. The next time I do this we’ll actually send the letters to the representative (I want more prep time before I feel comfortable doing this).

This was terrifying. I know embarrassingly little about the political system, but I used that as a teachable moment. The students watched me struggle through finding answers and the final product was something they might actually end up doing someday.

 

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Posted in education, Uncategorized

It’s time for some TweetUps!

In education it’s easy to get bogged down and let frustrations get the best of you. To counter that I’m constantly trying to find ways to build my students up. I tell my students why they’re awesome and try to encourage them anyway I can. Sometimes that isn’t enough. Sometimes my words don’t hold the same weight as their peers.

That is what spawned the idea of TweetUps. TweetUps are little slips of blue paper meant to look like a Tweet that students use to write positive messages to each other. They are a chance for students to put some positivity in the world, tell their classmates why they rock, and tell them they aren’t going unnoticed.

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Here’s how it works:

There is a box on one of my shelves for students to put completed TweetUps in. Once a week I pull all of the TweetUps and read them in a special edition of my daily announcement videos. The students love hearing Tweetups about them, about their classmates and also sneaking in some inside jokes.

Here is my latest TweetUps video. A student created the theme song, and another student is currently working on a logo:

It helps create a great classroom culture of building others up. Students can take credit for writing a Tweet or they can keep it anonymous. The nice thing about anonymous tweets is I can share some TweetUps about great things kids are doing, and they don’t know it’s from me. Sometimes it’s better that it sounds like it came from one of their peers.

Usually part way through the year I ask if anyone would like a list of students who haven’t received a TweetUp yet. There are always a handful of students who take the challenge and make sure that every student in class gets recognized. I’m always cognizant of the need for tact on this. I don’t want students to feel embarrassed about not receiving a TweetUp yet and I also don’t want them to feel like their TweetUp is insignificant. So far everything has worked out perfectly.

Once the TweetUps have been read on video they are hung up on a bulletin board. When the bulletin board is full or there is a good transition time (during Winter Break for example) I take all of the TweetUps down and hand them out. It amazes me how many students keep the TweetUps in their binder for the rest of the year.

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I can’t take full credit for TweetUps. Below is the PDF of the TweetUp form that I use. My wife designed it for her 5th grade classroom.

tweet ups

TweetUps are a quick way to make a positive change in the classroom.

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Our quest up Everest

Today marked my 3rd annual trek up Mt. Everest with my students. It coincides with our reading of Peak by Roland Smith and usually falls on a day about halfway through reading the novel. It is by far one of the most fun spins to a normal reading day.

It all begins with a hook…

Our journey began yesterday towards the end of each hour. I played a “voicemail” I just received on my phone the students “just had to hear.” The message informs them that they have been selected to go on a special excursion to ABC on Mt. Everest.

Then I passed out climbing permits for the students to fill out, which I collected at the end of the hour.

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The prep work…

After school the classroom transformation took place. To begin I put half of my desks in my reading corner (I told my students that corner was off limits because of a rockslide). This freed up a lot of my room for the students to set up their “camp sites.” Then I created a giant mountain out of construction paper. I also hung up some pictures of yaks and turned a couple of coffee thermoses into oxygen tanks (it’s the details that make the day fun). Finally, I created a mountain on my classroom door.

Climbing up Everest…

The students started in the hall waiting to enter Base Camp. I handed them their climbing permits and told them about the camps they could choose from: 3 pods of desks, a floor table, some comfy chairs, and the fave, a tent set up in the classroom. They were sent in one guild at a time to choose their camp site based on their guild standings.

Once the kids had their camps set up, I let them create a team banner for their campsite to replace their current guild crests they’ve been using since August. They also had a chance to create new names (my favorites were the YetiYetis and Blizzard Shakers).

While they worked on their banners I let them come over and get some hot tea to “warm up” like they do in the book. Many had never tried hot tea before. I let them add sweetener and honey to it. We also did a mini-lesson on appropriate responses when someone offers you a gift (only two responses: thank you or no thank you).

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The kids spent the rest of the hour reading the next chapter in the book at their camp site.

The finale…

The highlight was at the end of the hour I broke the bad news to the students. One of the groups in each hour got frostbite and unfortunately lost the fingers on one of their hands. I had a dramatic dice roll to determine which group would get frostbite. That group then had to spend the rest of the day not using the fingers on that hand. It was hilarious and fun. I saw kids in the hall all day trying to figure out how to carry their books and open doors with their missing fingers.

The cleanup…

The hardest part about the day is cleanup. This year I came up with a solution. To begin I let my homeroom students have a snowball fight with the paper snow on the ground. They loved it. Then I let them play paper basketball with the paper snow into the trash cans. It was great. They were having fun and cleaning at the same time. Finally, I bribed them with some more hot tea to help me reorganize my desks.

Overall, it was an exhausting but great day.

The future…

Next year I’m hoping to add more team building activities around the campfire, team chants and songs, and then have them share some campfire stories they write beforehand.

It’s things like this the kids remember.

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Our Flight to Tibet

Last night I was in the middle of a great Twitter chat with the #xplap crew about immersive engagement and planning out today’s lesson at the same time when I got an idea. Why was I talking about immersive engagement and not creating an immersive lesson at the same time? It seemed a little hypocritical, so at 9:30 at night I changed up all of my plans and this was the result:

We are 7 chapters into the novel Peak by Roland Smith. At this point in the novel the main character is on a plane flying out to Tibet to climb Mt. Everest. My original plan was to have the students do a flipped reading of the next 2 chapters (using EdPuzzle). To make this a more immersive experience I decided that we would fly on the plane to Tibet as well.

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To start the hour I had the students wait in the hall until the bell ring. I had a sign on my door that said Stock Air: Gate SFT1. When the bell rang I walked out in a suit and tie (not my normal attire). They asked me why I was so dressed up. I told them that Flight Attendants always dress up and asked them for their tickets. When they couldn’t show me their tickets I told them I had extras for them and proceeded to pass out a plane ticket to each student.

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I then tore off a portion of each ticket and welcomed them aboard the plane. My desks were lined up in rows to look like airplane seating. The next time I do this I’ll hang some sheets from the ceiling to make it narrower and look more like a plane.

After everyone was aboard I told them that they would need to download the inflight entertainment by downloading the EdPuzzle app. I also told them that the airline would be providing headphones if anyone needed some.

Once everyone was situated and ready to go I played a safety video from the flight attendant:

https://youtu.be/cboLVVzxe2s

I then told them to prepare for takeoff and played audio of the pilot giving a message:

https://youtu.be/ajsO8roa-uQ

And that was it. The kids spent the rest of the “flight” reading their books. I put a picture of clouds on the screen to remind them that we were flying. They were doing exactly what I had originally planned, but after setting it up this way I had the greatest class period. The kids were engaged in their reading, I didn’t have behavior issues, and all of the kids got to work right away. Throughout the hour I would do things like ask visitors to the room how they were able to fly up to our plane and told kids leaving to use the restroom to be careful because of turbulence, anything to keep the illusion alive.

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When class was about over I asked them to put their trays in the upright position and clean up their seating area. Then I played an announcement from the pilot:

https://youtu.be/FiVLMsYsGMk

When the bell rang I thanked them all for flying Stock Air and asked them to consider Stock Air for all of their future travel needs:

https://youtu.be/sTIku2iCIj4

All of this came out of an idea I had at 9:30 the night before. Was it hectic trying to throw everything together at the last minute? Absolutely. Are there things I would like to do differently? Yep. I’m planning out all the ways I can improve this for next year. But those things didn’t matter to the kids. They enjoyed a new, unique experience.

Don’t be afraid to get out there and try something different even if you don’t have all the details worked out. Things have a way of figuring themselves out, and now I have an awesome idea for next year.

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My response to #gratitudesnaps

We’ve all had those days. You spilled your coffee on the way to school. The printer jammed so you don’t have the copies you need for your first hour class. Little Jimmy decided a fork and an outlet would make a great combination. Maybe your lesson wasn’t as elaborate as you wanted it to be. Maybe the students gave you blank stares when you tried to explain a new concept. Everything in your day just bombed. You start to spin into that negative space where everything seems like it is failing miserably.

I promise there is an upside in this post.

A few weeks ago I read a great idea in a blog post on Twitter, #gratitudesnaps. The hashtag was created by the queen of #booksnaps, @TaraMartinEDU and the culinary, gamified guru, @tishrich. The goal was simple, get out of that funk. There are amazing things happening all around us and sometimes we need to be reminded to look for those positives in our lives. Each day participants posted a picture of something they are grateful for with the hashtag #gratitudesnaps. It’s a great way to reflect on the good things in life when it seems like things are too negative.

You can read the origin story here: http://www.tarammartin.com/gratitudesnaps/

As soon as I heard about it I was hooked. I spent the day looking for things to snap, found one, and posted it to twitter. The next day the same thing happened, I found things I was grateful for and chose one to post a picture of. I was so excited to share what I was grateful for.

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And then I missed a day.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t grateful, I just got caught up in life and missed it. I promised myself I’d do better the next day and I did. I posted a couple more snaps the following days including extra snaps to make up for the one I missed.

And then I missed another day.

I was failing at this assignment that nobody required me to do, and I was beating myself up over it. I felt like I was doing #gratitudesnaps wrong and people would notice. They would go on my timeline and realize that my dates didn’t line up and I didn’t post a picture each day and they would judge me and the world would end. At least that’s what I told myself.

Later that week I was in the car stressing about what pictures I could take to catch up, and I realized something. I missed the whole point of the activity. The activity was meant to reflect on the good things in life. Instead of focusing on the positive, I was focusing on the pictures and how everyone would like them. I was focusing on how they would make everyone else feel instead of focusing on the way they would make ME feel.

It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of life and miss the bigger picture. It’s easy to take something fun like this and turn it into a chore. It’s easy to think that there is just one way to do something.

I’m happily days behind on my #gratitudesnaps. I had several days where I posted multiple pictures and days where I snapped a picture and kept it for myself. And days where I chose to enjoy the moment instead of taking a picture. I’m loving the activity. It’s reminding me what my priorities are.

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I saw Tara the other day at a Dave Burgess presentation and she mentioned that she created a padlet with all of her snaps and quickly saw some trends in what she values. That’s what I plan on doing too. I love this reminder of the joys in my life.

Sometimes we have to give ourselves permission to walk our own paths.

Today my #gratitudesnaps is to Tara and Tisha for encouraging people to put a little more positivity into the digital world.

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My first attempt at Facebook for the classroom

Social media is an ingrained part of most of our lives. Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, it’s hard to keep up. Adding to the challenge, as a middle school teacher I have to balance the effectiveness of social media for students, colleagues and parents. Each group has their preferred social media outlets.

Last year I started a classroom Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat account for my classroom activities. I posted pictures of the students actively engaged in amazing activities and shared about upcoming events.

Twitter was great for sharing my activities to other teachers and school personnel. But students and parents weren’t very active in this space. I already use it for my professional activities and this tied in nicely with that.

Instagram was great for engaging with students and sharing their hard work with their peers. Many of the students interacted in this space, sharing positive comments when students won awards and enjoyed reliving some of the craziness that is room 502.

I couldn’t get into Snapchat. The students are in that space and enjoyed my posts, but when I post something I want it to be more permanent than Snapchat which disappears after 24 hours.

This year my goal is to dive into Facebook for my classroom. I’m hoping more parents will be engaged in this space. Personally, I spend more time than I should checking my Facebook feed, and I think there are plenty of parents that feel the same way.

I created two Facebook pages, not accounts but pages. I made the mistake of creating a new account at first but realized this wouldn’t accomplish the right goals. A page allows you to control what people see and doesn’t give access to your personal Facebook account. I don’t care if parents see my personal account, but most of them are more interested in what’s happening in the classroom and less interested in the pictures of my adorable children I’m constantly sharing.

One page is a professional account for me to share my blog posts, interesting articles I come across and share the same awesome classroom photos that I share on my Instagram and Twitter accounts. In a future post I’ll share how I post to multiple platforms at once. I’ll probably share this Facebook page in more professional settings with other educators, when I present at conferences, etc. However, I’d gladly welcome any parent who would like to see my teaching philosophy.

The second page I created is a classroom page. On this page I’ll share the same Instagram photos from the other account. I’ll also post event information, announcements, etc. I’m debating posting some parenting articles I find too, but I don’t want it to come across as too preachy. The goal of those articles would be to encourage parents to read with their kids and keep them up-to-date on the technology their kids are using.

We’ll see how this goes. I’m hoping it will help me reach more educators, parents and students. If you’ve used Facebook for your own classroom, please share any tips or tricks to help make it successful.

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How’s your smoke detector?

At church today there was a marriage therapist speaking about relationships and one of the analogies she made really stuck with me. She described our emotions like a smoke detector. A smoke detector blares it’s alarm full blast if it detects smoke. It doesn’t matter if your house is on fire or you burned your toast. At the first sign of trouble the warning signs start sounding to let you know to get ready for a possible disaster.

 

Our brains are designed like this as well. We are made with a built in fight or flight response. As soon as we sense danger our natural instinct to protect ourselves kicks in. Our brains draw all the energy from the outer reaches of our thought processes to be used for basic protective functions.

 

This is probably one of my biggest weaknesses. My smoke detector often runs unchecked. As soon as I sense something isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, my alarms start blaring and I ratchet up to 11. I’m in full on attack mode before I process the threat. Sometimes it’s a decision I disagree with at work or something someone says that gets under my skin. I don’t always take the time to assess if my house is on fire or if my toast just got burned.

 

Our students get this way too. They don’t always know how to deal with complex emotions, so when trouble arises, they automatically shift into defense mode. When they reach that point their brains are no longer primed to hear what you have to say or learn new material. They need to de-escalate to process.  They also don’t always come to us with the skills needed to assess what an appropriate response should be.
Knowing this about myself and my students, this week I’m going to ask myself one question. Is my house on fire or did I just burn some toast…translation: is this problem worth getting upset about or is it something I should just move past? Hopefully I can teach my students some of these same skills.