Friday, September 26, 2014

Teaching with Toys and Tech- Keeping Students Engaged

 Keeping students engaged and on-topic is never easy, especially middle school students. But....there is something about getting to play with Legos that excites them.

Last year, I needed some Lego blocks for a lesson I wanted to teach. I only needed some basic blocks, but I put out a call to my parents asking if anyone had some they could donate. Thanks to an extremely generous donation, I now have a collection. (I could still use more if anyone has some they want to rid themselves of.)

Today, the students finally got to play with them. My 7th grade class has been working its way through various lessons on ancient Greece. Yesterday, we used a worksheet lesson I purchased from that had them learn about the four governments and create a film strip drawing and caption for each of the types of government. Good! I wanted to take it one step further and help the ideas cement with them.

Using the Legos, the students were asked to create a scene with the Legos to show each type of government and then use the Haiku Deck App ( to create a presentation of their work. The kids were energized.

The worksheets from the previous day had served as a form of graphic organizer to keep their focus and plan their presentation. They had to decide on a way to best utilize their materials to represent the key idea of each type of government. Working in small groups, they had to synthesize the ideas each had created the previous day into a workable product. Publishing the production using the App helped them put a finishing touch on everything.

I couldn't have been more pleased with their work. The students each came up with unique ways. They worked together, stayed on task, and demonstrated creativity and understanding of the types of government.

The next step will have them present their creations to the class. This will add one last learning objective to the lesson and work as a way of reinforcing the key concept with students.

In addition to helping the students stay focused and engaged, I was amazed with the ease of Haiku Deck. I had never used it before, but the students had for another class. They were excited to show me some of the features, and a few times, I had to ask them to show each other.

Most of all the projects looked great as I hope the pictures below show. I would love to hear from other teachers on how you adapt lessons to keep students engaged. I'd also like to hear some of your best apps for student presentation and creation.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hula Hoop Venn Diagrams- Bringing Multiple Pathways of Learning to a Lesson

I haven't blogged in awhile. Teaching, parenting, and adopting two new dogs have kept me busy with other things. (All that and the return of football on the weekends!) Today, I wanted to share an activity I did with my 7th graders.

As a teacher, I am often faced with the challenge of how to spice up the learning. Sometimes, this comes easy. I scavenger the Internet or sites like Teachers Pay Teachers and find the perfect lesson that integrates the arts, or a simulation that works well with my students, or an idea that excites. Some days, not so much.

Today, my 7th graders needed to learn about the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures as we began our unit on ancient Greece. I had a perfect handout and worksheet to help them pull key information from the reading and a great chart to help them compare and contrast these cultures. But how could I adapt this lesson to involve more pathways of learning for my students? How could I help engage them beyond the mundane worksheet?

Well somewhere at sometime, I had seen an idea about using hula hoops for Venn diagrams. Lo and behold, there were some hula hoops in the P.E. closet and the P.E. teacher said I could use them. 

Students discuss similarities and differences
in cultures
Here's what I did. I distributed my hand-out and colored slips of paper. I assigned each color either Minoan or Mycenaean and told them to read the handout and write characteristics of their culture on the slips of paper. Then each student grouped with students from the other culture and used hula hoops to create Venn diagrams. We went around and discussed and what could have been a boring in-the-seat lesson engaged my students.

The kinesthetic learners got to get up and move. (And what 7th grader doesn't want to get out of his seat at least once during a class period.) The students had to use their interpersonal skills to discuss and work with others. The students had to synthesize ideas to find the points of comparison. Everyone had to bring something to the group for it to work and the students interacted and mastered the content. Win-win for everyone!

What I like best about this, is it is easily adaptable for many lessons. I may not use it again with this grade, but I can use it to spice up other lessons where the goal is comparing and contrasting with the other grades I teach. And you can use it too! 

Please comment and share other ways to use this lesson. Or better yet, let me know quick and relevant ways you bring multiple pathways of learning to engage and educate students.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Teaching Using Paintings and Tableau

My sixth grade U.S. history class begins the year with the signing of the Constitution. As I began planning, I had a few goals in mind. First, I wanted an exercise that would be content rich, yet at the same time introduce them to the methods I like to use in my classroom. Secondly, I wanted to be able to early on integrate the arts in a real and powerful way. To do that, I chose to have them work with a painting and create a tableau of the scene.

On the first day, I began by showing them Howard Chandler Christy's Signing of the Constitution. We spend a few minutes studying and examining the painting. The students enjoyed this part as they all noticed different things in the art. At times, I restricted comments to one per student so that everyone had a chance to notice or comment on something they saw. The painting becomes the focus of our tableau. So after we examine it thoroughly, we discuss some of the situations that resulted in the Constitutional Conventions and some of the debates that occurred. My students would have discussed this the previous year in social studies, so it is a chance to review and refresh for them.

Next, I provided them with a diagram that lets them know who the people are. At this time, I ask them to let me know which names they recognize.   Now that we have names and numbers to correspond to the men in the painting, I ask them who they find interesting. Students have a chance to tell me with whom they most identify. At that point, I invite them to come and take their place in front of the room as we do our best to recreate the painting. (My class only has 10 students so we only partially recreate it, but this painting provides 40 possible individuals to use- so it meets the needs of both large and small classes.) 

[At this point, I stopped the class and we practiced some focusing exercises that help the students keep their positions during the tableau. Experienced theater students may not need this, but it helps me to teach some drama techniques alongside my academic content. ]

As the pictures of my two classes on the left demonstrate, some figures are included in both classes, while each class chose the people that interested them.  I allow them a few minutes to freeze in the positions and imagine what their individual might be thinking. They then get to take a minute to come alive and become the people from the painting. I challenge them to say whatever they think their chosen historical figure is thinking or saying in the painting. It really is fun to hear the students' imaginations come alive and the room gets a little loud. (Of course, I imagine it was loud in Independence Hall during the painting as well.) This part could be omitted, but I believe in allowing the students some creative play within the lesson.

I concluded class by inviting the students to use the iPads to research the individual they have chosen and learn about them and their role in the Constitutional Convention.

On the second day, the students are given two assignments. First, I instruct them to write a monologue given from the perspective of the historical figure they have chosen. (If needed this gives me an opportunity to teach monologue and the difference between first and third person.) The students use the iPads to conduct research and then write. Secondly, I let them make or choose a prop. For this tableau, we made colonial powdered wigs using cotton balls and painters hats. If I were in a hurry, I could omit that part, but it allows the students to work with their hands and create as I circulate and check progress on the monologues. 

At the conclusion of the second day, I assign any loose ends for homework and ask the students to review their monologues. Some students are happy with their creations and some will, of course, take their wigs home to perfect. At this point, it might be helpful to provide a rubric for grading the monologues if a grade is going to be part of the process. Since we were in the first week of school, I was grading on participation and did not provide a detailed rubric.
The third day was performance. For this project, our audience was simply the teacher and the class. One class had a few more run-through before the "graded" performance, while scheduling hurried my other class. 

One final time, we re-created the painting and froze in positions. Then, one by one the figures would come alive, tell his story, and then return to his position in the painting. 

For time's sake, I assisted with helping them structure and decide the order of the monologues and gave them some tips on staying frozen in tableau as their characters "come alive."
However, as each student read his or her monologue, I was impressed. Each had come away with a little knowledge of the role his or her historical figure had played in the creation of the Constitution- and combined the class gained active understanding in the issues the Founding Fathers faced. 

Practically, there are a number of modifications one could make to this task. I could provide handouts in lieu of using the iPads. A second useful changewould be to create a template for the students to use in creating the monologues. I gave mine a great deal of freedom, and as a result, the quality and length varied.

Finally, my goals in the assignment were simply to enhance learning about the signers of the Constitution by integrating arts into the lesson. If given time to revise monologues and rehearse, students could deliver monologues from memory and create a more polished performance. Those weren't my goals, so we completed the tasks in three days.

I've included a video of one of the classes below.

Teachers feel free to comment, leave suggestions, or mention ways you could adapt this to your classes.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Is It Really That Simple?

 I've been spending the week leading "Untamed Games" at my church's Vacation Bible School. When you are in charge of the outdoor games, it gives you a unique perspective, I think. My role is basically to be a little crazy, somewhat loud, and help the kids have a lot of fun.
At some point every day, I get to try to tie the game or games we are playing into the big idea the children hopefully have been learning in all their other stations. That means I have all of 1-2 minutes to try to get them to understand a big truth- and surprisingly most of them get it. 

On Monday, we wanted the kids to understand how God loves us and protects us, but also how we can be God's love and protection to others.

As we talked about it, the children quickly realized how easy it was to get our feelings hurt, and without much prompting gave me real ways they could love those they knew at school and other places by being their friend and inviting them to play. When we extended that each day to talking about trusting God when we don't understand, the children quickly made the connection to being loving to those who aren't nice to them. We do not understand why God wants us to do that, but we need to.

Today, the children also learned that even when we break the rules, God still loves us. And because of that, we can love those who hurt us too!

Children, from grades K-4 figure it out pretty easily. Now, I know as we get older figuring it out is a little harder. What does loving my neighbor mean when the person is across town and in poverty? How much of my stuff do I need to give away to be loving? How much of my comfort and "protection" do I need to share to be that person's Jesus? It gets a little more complicated, or does it? If these kids can figure out, why can't we?

"He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 18:2-3

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Why I Love Vacation Bible School

Tomorrow morning (weather permitting), I will be out on the lawn at my local church leading a bunch of children in outdoor games. We will play all sorts of wild games, eat a lot of Popsicles, and in little bits learn about the love of God. You are probably thinking I'm about to tell you why that is great for the kids and that all kids should be a part of that. If so, you would be wrong. It's not that all that isn't true (I believe that it is; it's just not why I love VBS so much.)
But this story is how God used Vacation Bible School to change me and it is not a story from my childhood. Surely, I enjoyed VBS as a child.  I still recall getting snow cones at snack time at the VBS in the church I was raised. But this story is how VBS changed me as an adult. Six years ago, I was attending church sporadically- which means mostly when my wife made me go. I had traveled a journey that had left me burnt out spiritually and skeptical of churches, church people, and most expressions of religion. I had simply lost interest and had closed off both my heart and mind to it. But, my daughter Addie had reached VBS age. So, we signed her up. It was something fun to do during the summer.

So, here's where my involvement begins. Since I was a teacher, I felt guilty just dropping her off and going home. Something wasn't right in that, so I volunteered. I remember letting our education director know that I was willing to help, but I specifically asked not to be in a "teaching role." I probably used the excuse that as a school teacher, I spent all school-year teaching and just didn't want to do it. In reality, I was spiritually dry and did not believe I had anything to offer the children.  I was asked to assist another woman with leading group games. I accepted the challenge and played with the kids as best I could- and probably offered at least a minimum of spiritual guidance..."Jesus doesn't want us to cheat." It was the best I could do.

That was six years ago. God's still not through redeeming me, but I look back at that moment as the time he began to break through to me. I still do not teach, but now in my sixth year with outdoor games (though there was the one year it became shoe relay inside with a heavy dose of Simon Sez), I see this as one of my ministries. I look forward to using games to help children love each other and see God's love for them. I look forward to showing them God's grace while having fun. I look forward to helping them realize God is never finished with us. 
So, why do I love VBS? Because sometimes, God isn't just working in the lives of children. He's working on the crusty hearts of us grown-ups too!

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What They Don't Teach Teachers in College: You Can't Always Go When You Need to Go

They won't teach you this in college. In all likelihood, your supervising teacher during student teacher will not mention this. I haven't found this nugget in any teacher training text book, but this is something you need to know.  Training your bladder and bowels is of utmost importance. When you are responsible for a room of middle schoolers (or elementary or whatever you teach), you simply cannot just run to the restroom whenever you please. For me, that means, I can only go to the little boys room every 50 minutes, and then I only have 4 minutes to do what I have to do and return. Once my bladder and bowels get on this schedule, I have to very cautious not to anything that could upset the equilibrium.

Of course, it never fails, that once I have gotten everything trained for the school year, a well-meaning parent will stock the teachers lounge with goodies that I cannot resist, and suddenly I will have an unwelcome need of a bowel movement in the middle of third period. And nothing is more uncomfortable than needing to go and knowing you have 40 more minutes until the end of the period. And for those teachers who are preparing for standardized testing- those long test sessions do not always coincide with our perfectly trained bowels and bladders. Talk about living in discomfort!

I am actually a little apprehensive of the upcoming week. It's Teachers Appreciation Week at my school. Now normally, that's a great thing- it is! But I also know there's going to be treats and nice lunches. Well-meaning parents and students will bring breakfast and I will probably have that cup of coffee that I do not normally have- and somewhere during a lesson on the Fall of Rome, I will be feeling as if my entire intestinal empire is about to come crumbling down.

So, teachers everywhere. Before you partake in that nice looking muffin in the lounge. Think! Think hard!

You cannot always go when you need to go!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Dare to Teach Differently #1: Letting Students Figure It Out

Being a teacher is challenging. One of the biggest challenges for me is letting go. We as teachers often enter the classroom as if we hold the keys to the content. And then our job is to dispense that knowledge to our students. This is somewhat true, but there's more to it than that.

I've tried to change the way I teach recently. One of the ways is that I try to find different ways for my students to explore, collaborate, learn, and create. I look at what we are trying to learn and try to find new ways to do that. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I want my students to never know what to expect when they enter my room.

Last semester, my world geography students were studying Canada. In addition to "memorizing" Canada's geographically features, we were exploring where Canada's metropolitan areas existed and discovering why. I needed my students to realize this in a fun and unique way.

What did I do? I came into the room and told each class they had 20 minutes to come up with a way to show, demonstrate, create a map of Canada. I gave them no other instructions or requirements. I just stepped back and watched it happen.

Both classes decided to use their own bodies to create the map. One group involved the desks, the other didn't. One class used signs to label themselves, the other didn't. Either way, they all had to figure out what was important to show and what wasn't, they had to determine who would do what, and then they had to put it into practice.

Why do this? First, my bodily-kinesthetic learners loved it. Secondly,  they had a personal and active interaction with the learning. Finally, I got to see how they handled group dynamics of a task with very little boundaries. They had to work together because everyone had to be involved.

Teaching like this is risky. (Later I will do a post on how to prepare students for this type of learning.) It also will not work with every group of students. Students, as well as teachers, have to be willing to get out of their comfort zone to make things like this work.

But giving students an open ended task and letting them figure it out can be an exciting way to see how much they understand, a means of seeing how well they can critically think through a task,  and a challenge to them to figure out knew ways of learning.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Commencement Address I'll Never Be Asked to Give

I've always wanted to give a commencement address at a high school or college. I have no real belief that I ever will, it's just a dream of mine. Partially because I believe I have so much words of wisdom to offer those embarking on life at that point of time.

If I did give a commencement address, it would probably be a combination of my own wit and plagiarized elements I've "stolen"from somewhere.

It might look a bit like this-

As you go on to live your life, I'd like to share some things that might be of importance to you.

First, time is nature's way of making sure that everything doesn't happen at once. Imagine the chaos if everything happened at one time. It wouldn't work well, so we have to have time to help us there. Just don't waste it.

Secondly, don't be irreplaceable. if you can't be replaced, you can't be promoted. You need to think about that one a bit.

Another important thing to remember is before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you're a mile away and you have their shoes. It's always important to be far enough away from someone that they can't pummel you into the ground when you criticize them. And if you have their shoes, they might not be able to run as far and if they're mad at you for criticizing them, that might be a good thing.
A fourth thing I'd want everyone to know is if at first you don't succeed, skydiving is not for you. Failure is good in some endeavors, but at others, sometimes you might want to make sure you know what you're doing before you try. Trying again after failing to get your grandmother's spaghetti recipe just right is probably ok, but if you decide to be an airplane pilot or a heart surgeon, especially if it's my heart surgeon, you better have a little bit of certainty in your competency before making the first cut.

And in closing, always, always, always remember you're unique. Just like everyone else. So don't waste the you you are, but also remember that everyone else is just as unique and special as you are- treat them as such. Too many people in this world believe they are unique and special and then act like an asshole and treat everyone else like a mass of nothing. You are unique, which means you can do things no one else can- and there are others who are unique too. Remember that.

Finally, it is easier to get forgiveness than permission. Just like I didn't ask if it was appropriate to use "asshole" in a commencement address. I'm guessing I will just get forgiveness late, because if I asked I certainly wouldn't have gotten permission and no word could accurately express what I wanted to say there. There will be times in life that you will have to follow convictions and beliefs. Waiting for permission to do that is too slow or cumbersome. It's your life, live it. God is always forgiving. If people aren't, well who cares!

And there you have, my preliminary "Commencement Address." So if you need a speaker for your graduation, I am happy to do it.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Pink Shoes

My grandfather was a veteran of WWII. He never talked much about what it was like over there, and as I've gotten older, I wish I had asked him more about it. I know he made sacrifices and one of my favorite pictures of him is my grandparents' wedding picture in which he's wearing his service uniform.

My mother was born in November 1945 while my grandfather was still overseas in Belgium. Before she died in November of 2012, she shared with me a few special mementos, including this telegraph my grandfather received letting him know of her birth.
It was folded in the exact shape of a pocket on a shirt. I do not know for certain, but knowing the man my grandfather was, I can only imagine he kept it there, maybe even until he was able to get home and hold her for the first time.

Along with the telegraph was a stack of letters all addressed "Dearest Edna and Carol," (Edna was my grandmother and Carol my mother) except for one which was addressed
 "Dearest Edna and Daughter."   This letter pictured to the right told of how my grandfather felt upon learning about the birth of my mother. His tender words melt my heart and leave for me a legacy of how to love my wife and children. There are more letters like this one and I cherish them.

 A final item left to me by my mother is a box of pink deer skin baby shoes. In the letter, my grandfather mentions these, the first baby gift for my mother. After reading the letter, holding the telegram, and finding the shoes- a poem was born. I wanted to share this poem as it helps commemorate my mother's life and discusses the love two men have for her- my grandfather as he looks ahead to a life of being her father and me, as I look back to her as her son.

Two men, from very different generations, both shared an immense love for the same woman.

Pink Shoes
It’s Belgium, 1945
An American soldier far away from home
Reads again from a telegram bearing news of his newborn daughter
He walks away seeking solitude
To cry- tears of joy for this baby girl he longs to hold.
Oceans away his heart longs to be with wife and child
Anticipation of birthdays, bicycles, balloons brings hope
Begins with a gift
Not much to buy there, but then he sees it-
Folded telegram pressed in front pocket by his heart
Tears again as he holds the box
A pair of pink shoes

It’s a bedroom, not too long ago
A middle-aged man in his childhood home
Looks again at photos chronicling the life of his deceased mother.
He walks away seeking solitude
To cry- tears of sorrow for the woman he wants to hold him one more time.
Worlds away his heart longs to be with momma
Memories of birthdays, bicycles, and balloons bring hurt
Continues with a chest
Too much to sort there, but then he sees it-
Faded photos pressed in hands by his heart
Tears again as he holds the box
A pair of pink shoes

Monday, March 3, 2014

My Advice to New or Yet-to-Be Teachers

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked about teaching by a pre-service teacher who had come with other yet-to-be teachers to judge for our social studies fair. I was pre-occupied with making sure the social studies fair was in order and, frankly, I was unprepared for his question. (Also- people should never ask teachers what we think of teaching in mid-February. We are too far away from either the beginning or the end of school not to answer without at least a touch of cynicism.)

After he left, I thought about his question. More so, I thought about the answers I wished I had given him. Though, I am certain he will never read this, to all new teachers, yet-to-be teachers, or anyone thinking about being a teacher- here are a few words of advice.

1. If you think you can do anything else, do it! Yes, I know that sounds full of cynicism and negativity, but I do not mean it that way. Teaching is hard. Whether you are teaching elementary, high school, or the abyss of middle grades, teaching is hard. Do not go into teaching for summers off (They are far too short), getting off at 3:00 (You will find, that while you may be able to leave work at 3, you will bring mounds of work home with you.), or because you think "How hard can it be?" (VERY!). If you teach long enough, you will at some point question your sanity. Furthermore, teaching is a career that nobody is all that great at his or her first year. (I'm sorry to all those early students that I muddled my way with as I figured this out.) Our students deserve teachers who stick with it and are willing to grow in the craft. So, make sure it is your calling!

2. Don't Worry if the Students Like You. This was the hard one for me. My first years of teaching, I wanted to be the favorite. I wanted my students to love me and celebrate me. (Honestly, part of me still wants this.) There's nothing wrong with letting the students like you. There's nothing wrong with being a likeable teacher. (I never bought into the no smile til November. I like smiling too much!) But, being liked cannot be something you aim for, it has to happen on its own. When you care too much about it, it will make you ineffective. Kids are like sharks with blood in the water; if they smell fear, insecurity, uncertainty- they will feast on you! Set your expectations for the students. Establish your boundaries. Teach and expect them to learn. They will see that you care and some may like you, and some may not, but don't worry about it.

3. Learn from Experienced Teachers. You may have more energy than the older teachers in your building. You may bring more knowledge of the "newest" techniques and ideas. Do not let that make you think you know more than those who have been there and done it. Let them share their ideas with you and share your energy with them. Teaching is about collaboration. If they tell you something probably won't work, you might want to hear them out. They were where you are once.

4. Love the students more than you love your content. Especially secondary teachers- many of us got into teaching because we love history, biology, mathematics (who does that?!!?), art, literature, whatever! That is great. Let your students see your love for what you teach, and many times that will be contagious. However, you must love them more than you love what you teach. Be interested in what interests them. (And yes, I've had to feign interest in One Direction- I teach middle school.) Be willing to cry with them, vent with them, pray with them, and laugh with them. When you love your students more than you love your content, you will want to see them achieve great things. Rita Pierson says "Every child needs a champion." Be that for your students. Not all of them need you to, but you may never know which one does.

5. Ignore the Myth of the Super Teacher. Do not try to be the next Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society, you will not conduct the next Mr. Holland's Opus, you won't coach like Coach Carter, and your students probably won't be the next Freedom Writers. Chances are you won't transform a class like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. And that's ok. Those stories are made for movies- based on a true story, but with clean plot lines that do not always play out in real life. Teaching is hard. You probably won't be a super teacher- I know for certain , I'm not- but, you can make a difference in the lives of the children you teach. . Teaching is the most amazing, frustrating, satisfying, heartbreaking, rewarding, disappointing, exhilerating, and exhausting profession- and often you will feel all of those in the same day- but, I cannot right now imagine doing anything else.

So, if you are a new teacher, or thinking about it, or training for it- these are only some of the words I would say.

And to that young man who asked the question- I'm sorry I didn't have all this to say when you asked- but thank-you for asking.

I'm back

It's been 18 months since I last made a post. I started ambitiously enough in the Fall of 2012 but life got in the way.

So, what all has happened since then?

1. My mother lost her battle with cancer. This happened in November 2012. The sting of the grief has gone away, but not a day goes by that there isn't something I want to tell her, a question I wish I could ask, or a joy I would like to share. Her illness and passing probably played a big reason in why I forgot to update here. And once I was out of the habit, this experiment in blogging fell by the wayside.

2. I left the school system I taught at for 12 years and moved to teaching a new subject in a private school. This move has been exciting and exhausting and exhillerating all at the same time. I have been able to incorporate some great things with my new students. While number one above is what likely led me away from blogging, it is this one that has probably brought me back. I want to share the cool things that are going on.
(In addition, the blog title is probably not appropriate any longer. I'm no longer in Room 213, but right now, I can't think of a better title, so I will leave it. Changing it can be a project for the future.)

3. My children keep getting older. I guess this goes without saying, but growing children can often take us away from other interests- like writing thoughts to people who may never read them.

That being said, I'm making a renewed commitment to update here. I hope I can cultivate a group of readers who at least will enjoy the sporadic ramblings of my mind. Furthermore, I'm out of school this week- so maybe I can post more than a few times this week.

As always- feel free to share ideas, thoughts, whatever in the comments!