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The power of music

11 Jun

I’m fresh off of the North Dakota Google Summit this weekend. Nothing can energize me more than spending a few days learning amazing things with other passionate people.  And while I’m in no way ready to start to form a cohesive thought about all of the incredible things I picked up this weekend, I thought I’d share something that I talked about with a colleague while at the summit.

ImageMusic.

It is many of our students’ lives! They would sooner go without water than their iPod and their new Beats headphones. Music can change the mood of a person. It can change the feel of a classroom, and it can change the atmosphere of a school.

Because of Monte Selby’s advice at a Nuts and Bolts Conference, I decided that I would harness the power of music and use it to my advantage to make connections with my students, start class off in a positive way, and sometimes change the mood.

After starting my class with music for the past four years, I’ll never go back. Not only does the music give the students a chance to get themselves involved in the class, but it is also a signal for students that, when it’s over, it’s time to get started. Let’s talk about some of the details.

I start with some of my own music as well as older music. Students may complain that Frank Sinatra isn’t quite their style, but when they ask if they can bring their own music in, you know you’ve got them. Of course they can! As long as it is appropriate for school and under four minutes long, it’s good enough for my class. Monte’s advice was to not push them to bring their own music, but to make them bring it up.

“As a teacher, you cannot be the keeper of what’s cool.  Let them decide.”  That is a memorable quote from Monte, and it is so true. Student choice becomes a big part of the music in my class, but they have to follow the rules. I haven’t had many issues with rules being broken, but if they do play an inappropriate song or if a song is too long, we can go back to my choice for two weeks.

I allow students to bring in a song or find one on Youtube. My colleague had the idea of using a Google Form to submit song requests. This would eliminate the few times I experience frustration in waiting for a student to come up with the song title. We have the list of requests, move through them, and class runs like a well-oiled machine.

Now music is great just for the atmosphere and feeling of the classroom, but it also has value in building routines and signaling our class. During the song, there should be a few things that must be done before the song is finished. These are up to you, but here are mine:

  • Have a sharpened pencil with you as well as your English notebook
  • Respond to the following ___ in your journal
    (I rotate this with a question, quote, fun/interesting fact, and various other short writings)
  • Be quietly seated in your desk before the song is finished

Other ideas include:

  • Fill in your planner or schedule
  • Have certain materials out
  • Tell someone something positive
  • Ask a question about a topic that we are involved in

The main point is that with this routine built in, my students don’t feel that I’m immediately talking to them and starting class. It almost feels as if they have a choice and some time to breathe. But once that song is over, it is our time together. When the song ends, I greet them as a group and we begin our day together.

Another great part of the music is that I have a chance to greet my students at the door, take attendance, and do any other last-minute things before we begin together. This allows me to be fully prepared and not waste time. When we begin, we are focused together.

One story that I remember Monte telling us was about a principal who played music in between classes over the speaker system. The music would start out soft, giving teachers a chance to finish up their classes, then play until the fade out began, signaling that it was time for class to start again. He said that seniors would dance their way to class. Talk about transforming school culture!

And that is the power of music – whether it is changing a moment, making a connection, or shifting an entire school’s climate. Putting a smile on someone’s face with music can change their attitude, and attitude is everything.

Hey students, tell me what you think

4 Jun

A few years back I mostly stole an evaluation that Larry Ferlazzo has his students fill out at the conclusion of his class.  By “mostly stole” I mean that I changed one question. Let’s have a look at the questions and my 8th grade students’ thoughts. What good is an evaluation without reflecting on it?

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 3.26.29 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 3.26.40 PMAs an 8th grade teacher, I am fairly pleased to see these results. I want my students to feel that they have examined their own writing and worked hard to improve it. My focus in reading instruction is for students to build their own love for reading. We do this through reading books mainly individually and discussing those books.

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 3.38.47 PMThat is 76% of my students who are doing what I hope to see, but there is definitely room for improvement here. I need to continue to find more strategies and activities that get students to engage with. Students try their best when they have authentic learning experiences and are depended upon by others. I’m at redesigning my blogging unit from individual blogs to creating group blogs. This would help those students feel like their work is important and necessary to the success of their group.

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 3.43.56 PM

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 3.44.05 PMIt isn’t a surprise that students enjoyed creating a short movie based on their creative writing stories was the most popular unit. It also shouldn’t surprise us that the other two creative outlets, creative writing and poetry, were the most popular. Students like to have a voice! And if we can get them to use their creativity, those writing skills translate into all of the writing that they do.

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 4.09.57 PMThanks!

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 4.10.15 PMI’ll take that, but there are always those students who it seems like it is impossible to connect. The answer? Try harder.

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 4.10.23 PMI noticed as I looked through these that the majority of the some of the times came from my 5th period class. Either I find a way to take a nap during lunch, or I find a better way to energize myself and come back ready to be my best. And the moral of the story? Kids notice.

 

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I feel that I need to continue to build class activities and routines that are easily identified by the students. Not just so that they can be recalled on an evaluation, of course, but because I want my students to know what we are doing and why we are doing it.

I was pleased to see that my students valued the individual conferences we had on their writing pieces. This, along with writing in class, is something that helps students receive immediate feedback on their work. I value this time very highly, so it was great to see that my students valued it as well.

Looking back at the information that I gained from this evaluation, there are still some questions that I’d like to hear answers to.

  • What was the most memorable part of this year?
  • What do you wish we would have done more of? In some of the questions I asked during the year, I definitely already knew that students wanted to make another movie or create a class movie. I think we would have to offer a movie-making elective to focus on script writing and even more of the details that could go into that type of class. I’ll teach that class if my principal is reading this!
  • What, specifically, could we improve as a class?
  • What else could I do in order to be better? This is such a general question, and finding a way to narrow it down for students is difficult.

And even though this isn’t specific to my class, it is information like this survey from Grant Wiggins that is so useful to us as teachers.

I am still left without some information that would be valuable, but it is such a great experience to hear from my students. There are a few questions that only my students who are with me every day could be able to answer – not me, not my supervisor. We can use our students as valuable resources in order to become better better teachers, or we can continue doing the same thing and thinking that nothing needs changing.

I’ll trust my students.

Let’s start a school…

2 May

where one of our main goals is to engage students in a meaningful unit of study that is completely based on student interest and ends with creating something authentic to be used in the world.

One of the things that made me connect so strongly with Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner was the importance of authenticity in schools. These innovative young people were not innovative when completing their worksheets. They didn’t display their empathy for the world in the isolation of a simple report. The question or problem was one that the teacher did not already hold the right answer to.

SchoolThe teachers that were featured were outliers in the sense that they saw themselves as peers of the students in the creation and learning process. So how about we try that in our new middle school? Here’s what I’m thinking:

We create an interdisciplinary unit that is similar to the genius hour or 20% time. Every Wednesday (seems like a good day) we have the students working together in groups to investigate and solve their problem. Teachers are available in their rooms throughout the day for students to have a chance to get feedback and just-in-time learning if needed. The students are able to move from the science lab where they are creating something to the English room when they need to write a letter or prepare for a speech.

What are the questions or problems? Ed Carryer of Stanford’s Smart Product Design Laboratory has one problem for his students to solve in his course. The example from Creating Innovators was “The world’s most dangerous jobs.” Students designed boats for crab fishing that harvested the crabs and brought them back to the dock to unload them. The project had competition, innovation, and fun, or “whimsy” as Carryer called it. One group played the role of Greenpeace and tried to set all of the crabs free!  Here are some other examples from Stanford which are high level, of course, but it might give you an idea.

It might be a good plan to start our unit with all students working on solving a problem together in order to learn how to think this way. It takes a change of culture to get students to be more innovative. Any ideas of a problem or question we should use to start?

Eventually the students can identify their own problems that they want to fix. Let’s say that the chairs or desks that they are sitting on are uncomfortable. A group of students might choose to develop a chair that is more comfortable and still cost effective. Math and science would be necessary for the design angles and weight distribution as well as the costs associated with the chair. The English teacher would be a help in marketing the chair as well as writing any letters and applying for patents. And the history teacher, although probably not her area of expertise, could help in the research of chairs for inspiration. That last one might include the art teacher a little more, but go with me here. I imagine students pitching their questions/ideas like that one to the class and recruiting their group. When the project is over, students could create their own TED Talk to showcase their genius to the world!

Think of the engagement that a project like this would offer! To create something and make someone’s world a better place is the reason people want to learn and innovate. The hope is that our classroom walls are no longer the limits. I would imagine this would lead teacher to continue to expose our students to other parts of the world in order to see what the needs are all over.

This could be done as a competition where ideas and projects are presented to a panel. Picture Shark Tank or The Apprentice coming to your classroom. One class even presented to fourth graders to be their judges. Students receive feedback and continue to grow and learn. The best part? There are no wrong answers. We try and fail? So what. Try again!

When I mentioned a culture change earlier, failure is a part of our culture that needs to be looked at. Students feel like they failed when they know there is no chance to try again or to use what they learned in order to improve. This type of system encourages failure as a learning tool with feedback and time to try again. And when the end result is something authentic that can help others, there is a reason to keep trying.

A typical Easter conversation about grading

25 Apr

Over the Easter break I ended up in an interesting conversation with some family members. My brother-in-law (Bil) is a recent college graduate currently looking for a social studies teaching position, his girlfriend (Gal) is a college student majoring in business, and my father-in-law (Fil) is a school board member. Quite the variety of opinions!

The connection here is education, and the topic of grading and late work came up. These conversations can be a lot of fun because it is important to see different perspectives and philosophies.

I am a firm believer that the most important thing is that the student does the work and learns what is necessary. I do not knock off points for late work, and if a student wants to redo something and improve their grade, more power to them! I do give due dates for assignments, but if a student needs more time to finish there is no penalty.

Bil’s questions were along the lines of responsibility and expectations for students. He had experience teaching in a high school where students could wait to turn their assignments in at the end of a quarter, and some took advantage of that. That left the teacher in the position of grading a whole bunch of work to meet his own deadline. The argument was that if we do not have firm deadlines with penalties, we are not preparing our students for their future.

Gal’s point of view was different. She was thinking of this discussion from the student’s perspective, and a good student at that. She is upset when a fellow student, or competitor as she sees them, turns in an assignment late and still receives full credit. It isn’t fair that she has to work as hard as she does while other students have a free pass to slack off and get it done later.

We didn’t hear a whole lot from Fil besides encouraging this friendly debate.

To be honest, I hadn’t thought deeply about the point of view of a student as a competitor for college scholarships, awards, and all of the things that go along with grades. But that is where the whole conversation led me in my thinking: grades. What are they used for? Why do we have them? And what is the most important thing about them?

In the simplest sense, grades should be a report of what a student has learned and can do. Unfortunately we turn them into so much more. They have become all-encompassing measures of a student from their behavior, responsibility, and intelligence.

If we deduct points for each late day, or knock off a certain random percentage, what are we saying about the value of that assignment? Even worse, if we do not allow the student to receive credit for that assignment, are we saying that that learning was only valuable if it was done on this certain specific day? A student who proves he has learned something should get credit for that accomplishment. Just like when you pass your driver’s test, you can drive, whether it took you one try or ten.

But how do we account for the responsibility, especially in our competitive society that demands we have valedictorians and scholarship winners? Should this be left for our SAT or ACT tests to determine?

If we continue to grade the same way that we always have, it is safe to say that we will continue to have these discussions. When we start to assess student learning as an accurate measure against the standards, we are less likely to have to worry about everything that goes into a number or letter assigned by the teacher. Standards-based grading allows teachers to avoid all of the extra stuff that gets factored into a grade and focus only on whether or not a student has mastered a given standard. And if mastery of the standards becomes the focus, the assessments will change as well.

Will this help students learn responsibility? If we show the students the goal and allow them to prove that they have mastered it, they will be more likely to want to display that mastery and accomplish the goal. My hope is that they do learn persistence when facing a challenging task and a value of the work that we do in class.

Bil is going to ask me if I think this will work for every student. Probably not, but that is the case with most things. The next step is student engagement and authenticity, but that is a whole new blog post!

What Creating Innovators means for me

21 Apr

After finishing Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner for a book study, I was asked to write a reflection on ways I would apply the idea of teaching students to be innovative to my teaching practices. I also just read an interesting piece of advice about saving your keystrokes and posting to your blog instead of sending an email for things like this. So hcreating-innovatorsere is what stood out to me as I thought about teaching innovators in my English class:

First and foremost, I want to create even more authentic opportunities for my students. I currently blog with my students, but even that lacks authenticity because I am asking them to do it. They don’t feel like they have to have it in order to succeed or to accomplish something. There needs to be a problem or a question that they are trying to solve. “How can I make money with this blog?” or something like that. This is something that I’m going to keep working on to design a way for my students to possibly collaborate and create a blog with a purpose.

One thing that I already do in class is to create feature articles. These are research articles that follow models from magazines. For next year’s assignment I would like to create a class newsroom with students collaborating to create some type of magazine, either electronic or paper. The students would work as a team to create the content (stories, photographs, etc.), edit, assemble, and publish their work. If I want to add some friendly competition, there could be an ad to a link where students could vote for that group’s publication. This would give the students a chance to see what was most effective in communicating with their peers.

The idea that we have a certain amount of “whimsy” and fun in what we do is important. We are providing a place for students to play with a lot of different parts of their learning. I want to get students to collaborate more often in order to accomplish a goal. And that goal should be one that is created by students. “People who innovate care about what they do, care enough to take a chance, spend extra time, care about people they are working with. I also want them to feel that what they’re doing makes a difference” (p. 215). It is necessary to expose students to the various important things happening in the world if they are going to develop the empathy to want to change them.

Each year we do a Hero Project in my 7th grade classes. This is a fairly structured project where we choose five traits of their hero (someone in the student’s life) and write a paragraph on each of those in addition to the introduction and the conclusion. The project is then turned into a movie and is always successful and enjoyable for students as well as meaningful for parents, the most common recipients of the project as a gift. This year I am going to open it up a little more to my students. I am going to create an example using my grandmother where I interview her and use her voice and film of her to add to my project. It is usually the student reading over the picture of the hero, but the video would make the project go even more in depth.

Meaningful feedback for students is another part of the book that is important. I have played with some different forms of grading thanks to discussions with an English colleague, and using the standards as individual grades on a rubric has helped me to give better feedback to students. Instead of just receiving a letter grade or a percentage, students can see more of what actually made up the grade because I respond to them and point to evidence. This is in addition to the constant feedback during the writing and creating process.

And meaningful feedback should not just be for our students. I have done some videotaping of my teaching, but I want to continue and grow that habit. We do not always find time to reflect as teachers, and when we do it can be inaccurate. Using video is a way that I can analyze myself. It is also a way for teachers to share their successes and strategies. Instead of living in the bubble of our own classroom, let’s get out through the use of technology and see all of the wonderful things happening in our own districts.

Lastly, I truly want to be the educator that students see as passionate and worth being around. I want to push for continued improvement in all areas of teaching and learning. And I want students to feel that I truly cared about them as a person and gave them the tools to be successful in the world.

Plagiarism lessons with Vanilla Ice

15 Apr

Plagiarism is one of the toughest things to teach to a middle school student during a research paper or article. The words are there, right on the internet, and I can’t just copy them? No. You may not.

Here is my attempt to help students understand what they need to do in order to create their own work:

First, I want to blatantly give an example of plagiarism, so I copy and paste from Wikipedia.

High rates of gun mortality and injury are often cited as a primary impetus for gun control policies.[16][page needed] The question of whether gun control policies increase, decrease or have no effect on rates of gun violence turns out to be a difficult question.

Yes, this is plagiarism. You can see the citation still on there. I would never use some of those words!

Ok, good. We’re off to a good start. I then copy the first sentence and Google it to show that the exact website shows up, and that this cheating is easy to find. That, and it isn’t even creative!

So what if I change words?

High rates of gun mortality and injury are often cited as a primary impetus for gun control policies.

We’ll change that to:

High rates of gun deaths and injury are often seen as a main causes for gun control policies.

Is that OK?

Well, this is where things get a little tricky. Some students think that since we changed the words, we have avoided plagiarism. Some say that we didn’t change the format, and we’re basically saying the same thing, so yes, it would be plagiarism.

To help in this decision, it is time to turn to one of the great plagiaristic icons of our time, Vanilla Ice. We listen to the beginning of “Ice Ice Baby” to hear his version of the beloved beat.

 

And here is Queen’s version of the same beat in “Under Pressure”:

 

Was Mr. Ice plagiarizing? Another tough question for the students, but this real-world example gets them to really consider the issue. They want to know who was right and who was wrong in this lawsuit.

The best part about Vanilla is that he doesn’t sound too believable. And as it turns out, the courts say he wasn’t either. We discuss the penalties that he faced because of plagiarism as well as the penalties that students face in different situations.

So how do we avoid plagiarism?

I use the same two sentences that I copied and pasted. I read them in the document I found, and I write my version of what was said in front of the students as a model. My goal is to show the students how to take something and make it my own and say it in my own way. As writers, we need to sound consistently like ourselves.

The next step? A bibliography!

A real inspiration

8 Apr

IMG_0803One of the things that I have always struggled with when reading Elie Wiesel’s Night with my classes is that the students look at the horrendous crimes and acts against humanity like they are a work of fiction. Although there is an initial shock at some of the memories of Wiesel, it seems like the real always needs to be reinforced.

We were lucky enough to have Marion Blumenthal Lazan, a Holocaust survivor and author of Four Perfect Pebbles, come to our school and speak to our middle school students along with eighth graders from two other middle schools. Now that makes things real.

She spoke of hope, courage, humanity, the importance of being kind to others, and valuing what we have while working for others to ensure equality for all. Her message was moving and inspirational.

But most importantly with Marion’s visit, she made history real for my students. She made the terror and hate a real event. She made the soldiers capturing Jews, ripping them from their own homes, and packing them into cattle cars a real story. When we read Night in the coming weeks, these students will be able to make connections with their growing background knowledge.

Connections to these times in history are disappearing. As Marion said, “This generation is the last that will hear the story of the Holocaust from a survivor.” If we are going to count on our students to fight against inequality and hate, to believe in the good in others, and to stand up for what is right, Marion’s lesson is a crucial one. I choose to read Night with my students because of this lesson, and there is no doubt that this year it will be more real than ever.