Make it Work Moment #30daysofblogging

I am not sure where the time went…but it flew by this week. My students have been crazy busy working towards finishing our unit before the end of the semester. Currently, my students are working on creating an Instagram post from the perspective of a historical figure who lived on a manor during the Middle Ages in Europe. But because our district firewall is like Fort Knox, I have to constantly find workarounds…

But because our district firewall is like Fort Knox, I have to constantly find workarounds…

To get students to practice analysis and writing skills, I created a Life on a Manor Big Idea assignment. This series of tasks has students analyzing documents, using the CER writing formula to put together evidence, and then creating an Instagram post from the historical figure’s perspective. Students used a variety of technology tools: Padlet, GoogleDocs, GoogleSlides, and Flipboard. I created an Instagram template in Google Slides for students to use. Then when they are finished with choosing the perfect picture, developing two hashtags about the thoughts and feelings of that historical figure, and writing their post, they will take a screenshot and upload it our class Flipboard magazine.

The Flipboard magazine will act as our collective “Instagram” feed about life on the manor for the lords, ladies, knights, peasants, and serfs. I’ll share the links to the magazines tomorrow after students have commented on their peers’ work.

The district firewall is not a means to give up on finding creative ways to engage students. I know my students are on Instagram…they know how this site works…so why not figure out a workaround that will give them the sense of using a tool they already know?

I can’t wait to see their final projects tomorrow…


Collaborative Writing & Historical Thinking

Last week, a couple of colleagues and I hosted #sschat.  Our topic was collaborative writing and historical thinking – two things that we all believe are essential skills for our students to learn and practice in our classes.

Teaching writing is hard.  Teaching writing for history is a whole other ball game.  In the history classes, there is little benefit for students simply regurgitating information from the textbook or class discussions….which is why we make a concerted effort to create questions that require students to use higher order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.  

And I’m not saying that other history teachers don’t do the same.  

But we used to require less than we do now.

We’ve upped the ante.

Because we have our learning scales, our department has created leveled questions for students.  Level 4 questions require analysis.  Level 5 questions require synthesis and/or evaluation.

Currently my students are focusing on analytical writing.  They are starting with what looks like a basic question:

  1. The men counted in the land had to serve in the army (p. 303).  Should all men be required to serve in the army?  If not, then who should be excused.  Why?
  2. Top government officials were “given farmers to work the land” (p. 303).  What is the ethical issue here?  Explain.
  3. How should a hierarchy be organized?  Should it be organized based on power?  Wealth?  Importance/usefulness?  Intellect?  Explain.
  4. Should government jobs be passed down to a son or other relatives?  Or should one have to pass an examination in order to get a government job?  Explain the pros and cons.

But as they are writing on the GoogleDoc, I’m posing questions to make them think deeper about the topic. Students have a difficult time elaborating on an idea and explaining themselves. And they aren’t going to get better if we don’t give them practice.

The twist is that students are writing on a GoogleDoc that is shared with peers who sit at their table throughout the day. I like this option because it exposes students to different points of view and writing styles. It also gives them an audience and sets the purpose.

Tomorrow, students will select a peer’s response and review it for accuracy and clarity. Hopefully by reviewing a peer’s response, students will be able to reflect on their own post to see if they are not only answering the question, but utilizing analysis skills in their writing.

For the Love of Learning

I think that sometimes educators underestimate students’ desire to learn and better themselves.  And I’m including myself in that mix.  But I’m always trying new things in my classes to see which students will rise to the occasion.
The picture I included here is one that I also posted on our class Instagram account which was pushed out to Twitter.  I wanted to shout from the mountain tops that these students were writing JUST TO WRITE!
I’m not kidding.
I told all my students that they needed practice in how to write like a historian.  Meaning…they needed to learn to cite evidence to support their statements.  But more than that, they needed to be able to analyze primary and secondary sources in order to be able to effectively use them in their writing.
So I gave them three primary sources.  I told them that as a group (self-selected) that they had to choose which Big Idea they wanted to prove:  “The Tang dynasty used (ruthless/ingenious) methods to strengthen China’s government, expand its borders, and increase its economy.”  I pushed the assignment out through Google Classroom.  Then the students decided who was going to be the owner of the document and from there he/she shared the document with their peers.
The students then tackled the primary sources, annotating as necessary as they looked for evidence to prove their Big Idea.  Some students started with bullet points, but others delved right into writing a full paragraph.  It was a site to behold.
Now keep in mind, this was an optional assignment.  Students are typically not required to do Level 4 (analysis/synthesis) or Level 5 (evaluation) writing assignments.  Student choice for leveled learning opportunities is the crux of the history program at our school.  We use a revised version of Marzano’s learning scales so that it’s VERY clear what students need to demonstrate mastery of in order to earn a specific grade.  
Click HERE to go to a wiki resource that contains the learning scales for World History.
Students who want to earn an A or B in the history classes need to write and write well.  As I tell students on their first day of World History, “We don’t give a lot of extra credit in our class.  You will not pass this class with extra credit.  You will, however, pass this class with blood, sweat, and tears…not necessarily in that order.”  There’s always a bit of nervous laughter from students that follow.
The purpose of collaborative writing assignments is to give students practice in writing with their peers.  And not just writing individual sentences strung together, but actually writing together in which they are actually editing each other’s posts and leaving comments for each other.  This type of synchronous and asynchronous collaboration is exposing students to the 21st century classroom.  Not only are students learning how analyze primary and secondary sources, but they are utilizing the thinking skills of a historian as they find evidence to prove their thesis or in this case the Big Idea.  Students are not only practicing digital literacy skills but also History’s Habits of Mind.  And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Diggin’ Diigo

I was introduced to Diigo during the last year of my master’s program.  We were working around the notion of curating resources to share with our PLN.  We researched social bookmarking sites and chose the one which we felt most comfortable using.  I chose Diigo.

What I like about Diigo is that I can easily bookmark sites for later review.  It works much better than the reading list on Safari (sorry Apple, you know how much I love you)….but with Diigo I had access to all bookmarks, notations, etc. on all of my devices.

The best part?  I was able to add a bookmarklet to my iOS devices so that I could continue bookmarking to my heart’s content.  You know how that is…you go online looking for one particular thing and then two hours later you realize that you fell down a rabbit’s hole.  But I don’t consider the journey a loss…after all, that’s why I really like Diigo…I can bookmark sites, leave notations, and move on.

I’ve introduced Diigo to colleagues in my district.  I started with my department members, thinking that this would be an easy way to share websites.  But it never took off.  Well, it never took off for them.  I still bookmark sites, but whether they look at it or not I don’t know.

Then at my COE we decided to use Diigo as part of our roll-out of technology tools that supports Common Core.  We started a Diigo group and all teachers who came through our workshops enrolled in our Diigo group.  But after all of that work…it didn’t quite take off either.  Bummer.

But I wasn’t about to give up.  The daily updates I receive from Diigo gives me food for thought.  I like that other tech-minded educators are perusing and bookmarking sites.  Do I consider the Diigo community as part of my PLN?  Heck yeah!

So my next step was to introduce Diigo to colleagues in my district.  For the past couple of years, I have been asked to host a variety of technology PD.  Because of the push for Common Core, I made sure that my workshops featured technology tools that support reading, writing, and digital literacy skills.  Enter Diigo.

I pushed Diigo as a means to not only curate resources, but also as a tool where students could annotate sources.  In addition, I pushed Diigo as a way to build a PLN for teachers in my district.  And it kills me to say that even with a workshop focusing on curating and annotating resources that Diigo still didn’t take off.


I don’t know.

Whatever the case, I’m not about to give up on a tool that allows users to curate and collaborate on resources.  I’m.just.not.

Next step.

I created a Diigo group for my 7th graders last semester.  Actually I created the group a couple of years ago, but never got around to using it with my students (I suffer from the too many technology tools not enough time syndrome).

I bookmarked primary and secondary sources for them to use for our Japan Unit.  I told students that they could use those sources when working on their collaborative writing assignments in GoogleDocs.  I had about seven students sign up.  And though that doesn’t sound like a lot.  That was seven more students than before.  I told students that this is a tool that they can use beyond our class.  I told them that this type of tool is going to come in very handy as they move into high school and college when curating resources is very important.

Enter new semester of students.

I decided that this time I would post an invite to our Diigo group in Edmodo and invite students to join our group with the intent that this would help them when it came time to do the Level 4 (analysis) and Level 5 (synthesis/evaluation) writing pieces.  This year, my department (both World and US history teachers) have decided to work on collaborative writing assignments with our students.  We’ve been having them use primary and secondary sources long before the words Common Core were uttered.  However, now that we’re a GAFE district…the power of collaborative learning and writing has opened new doors for us.  Instead of having students write in isolation, we’re having our students write collaboratively.  It not only cuts down on the amount of essays that we have to grade, but it also mimics the type of writing that historians do today.  For who writes in isolation?  Well, I’m sure there are plenty who do so.  But all of the writing that I’ve done for publication has been done collaboratively.  We leave comments for each other, sometimes we’ll open a chat window in GDocs…but more importantly, we’re able to work when it’s most convenient for us.  Because of this experience, I decided that we needed to provide our students with this same type of experience and skill-set.

Where does Diigo fit in?  I’m hoping that I can get this semester’s set of students to use Diigo to not only bookmark relevant resources, but also to collaborate by leaving annotations for each other.  There will definitely be a learning curve for me because I’ve never done this before with my students, but this is something that has definitely been marinating in the back of my mind.  Wish us luck!

A Case for MI

I am a huge proponent of honoring MI.  From my early beginnings in education, I recall my teachers allowing us to experience the learning process in a variety of ways.  I remember being able to draw, sing, write, act…the whole shebang.  Learning was fun for me because it honored the way that I learned best.  And in my own classroom, I am continuing the process.

When I think about what I want my students to “experience” when they walk through the doors of my classroom, I look to the multiple intelligences to guide my lesson planning.  The purpose for this is to make sure that each and every student (at some point in my class) has a chance to shine in an area that interests them most.  I’ve given MI surveys off and of throughout the years and the trend for middle schoolers seems to lean heavily on visual and kinesthetic with a nice mixture between intrapersonal and interpersonal learning.

Yesterday’s lesson focused on visual, kinesthetic, and interpersonal learning experiences.  But it also included higher order thinking along with reading and writing literacy.  While all this might sound impressive…I must begin by giving credit to TCI.  I am lucky in that both middle schools that I have worked for have had a complete set of TCI materials for 7th grade World History.  TCI materials are awesome.  They focus on a range of skills for students to get them engaged in the learning process.  But because I rarely take things “as is”…I had to put a twist on the TCI Skillbuilder: Contributions of the Chinese experiential lesson.

Instead of having the students take a placard and run around the room to find the corresponding placard, I took all of the placards put them in a PPT and uploaded it to our HaikuLMS class.  Students shared iPads to view the PPT which forced them to communicate and collaborate with their peers (interpersonal).  The iPads also allowed students to zoom in (kinesthetic) to the placards so that they could see the most minute details.  In table groups (interpersonal) my students had to use their deductive reasoning skills (higher order thinking) to try to figure out which Chinese achievement was being depicted in the placard (visual).  In the first column of their chart, students had to write 3-5 characteristics (Keys to Questioning/Keys to Learning) that stood out to them.  In the middle column, students had to write what they inferred the Chinese contribution to be and then support their inference with evidence.  Students could have done this one of two ways: they could explain how the 3-5 characteristics led them to that conclusion OR they could go back into the textbook and cite the evidence that supported their inference.

The conversations that I heard throughout the day were amazing.  Students argued about what they were seeing, they questioned their tablemate’s inferences, they referred back to the reading to support their point…I mean, wow.  I wish that I could have recorded their conversations because it was a pretty awesome to witness.  Because students had to support their inference with an explanation or evidence, this activity will carry-over to Monday.

Come Monday, my students will fill out a GoogleForm with their inferences and then will be able to see if they were “seeing” the same things as their peers in other classes.  From there, I will reveal the Chinese achievements to them and they will fill in details/contributions in the third column of their chart.  But the activity doesn’t end there.  In table groups, students will go back to our HaikuLMS class and respond to several prompts about a particular Chinese achievement.  All of the prompts are connected to one of the Keys to Questioning/Keys to Learning.  This is where the reading and writing literacy comes in to play…

Gunpowder Example – WikiProject

Each table will be responsible to post their group’s response for one particular Chinese achievement in the WikiProject.  By the end of the day, students will have seven group responses for each of the nine Chinese achievements.  Do I expect them to read all of the responses?  No.  But the students who plan to do Level 4 for the summative assessment will no doubt benefit from reading what their peer’s have written.

This activity spans three (maybe four days).  And for a course that is allotted only one semester (don’t get me started)…it’s totally worth it.  The amount of skills that students are practicing and the fact that I’m also able to honor several areas of MI make this activity worth it in the end.

In fact, yesterday one of my students who saw the chart immediately smiled and said, “Oh!  I like this activity!”  And that’s, my friends, why I teach.