Saturday, April 22, 2017

Moving away from mindless

Hello, colleagues!

I read an excellent blog post from Bill Ferriter. It really made me think about my curriculum; what is worthwhile and what is mindless. 
"Inane tasks are the norm rather than the exception to the rule in the lives of students. It’s reading truncated excerpts of obscure non-fiction works and answering multiple choice question after multiple choice question. It’s solving questions 14-33 on page 86 of the textbook and showing your work. It’s making YET another PowerPoint for YET another class — and then delivering YET another five minute presentation to your peers on some topic that you are going to forget before the end of the month. Worse yet, inspiring tasks are like white rhinoceroses: Oddities that are rarely seen, long remembered, and hunted by darn near everyone."
I have to say - no one is complete at perfecting their curriculum. No one "has it down" and no one is doing it right all the time. Every teacher knows that at some point, there will be mindless tasks in the classroom. But as Bill said it, it should be an exception instead of the norm. 

So this morning I was thinking about how I can change mindless tasks in American history into something greater. 
  • While learning about the federal government of the US, instead of just learning about the differences between a Presidential Proclamation and an Executive Order, have the students read and analyze two important documents: Presidential Proclamation No. 2537 and Executive Order 13769. Have students watch interviews with those interred in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II and with green card holders who were turned away at the airport in 2017. Then have students blog, create a Twitter thread, or design a Snapchat Discover story about how the federal government impacts an "everyday" American citizen.
  • Instead of making students memorize the fifty US states and capitals, have the students pick five states they have never visited. Students then use Yelp and TripAdvisor to see what they can do if they visit the capital. Students then design five interactive Google Maps with the five places they would visit in that city with information, reviews, and photographs.
  • When studying American Indians, instead of mapping the geographic cultures and doing a Venn Diagram on the similarities and differences, talk to students about how the Plains tribes would use every part of the buffalo in their lives. Talk about how each part was used, and if you have a local museum (like the Pioneers Museum), bring in artifacts for demonstration purposes. Then have students keep track of everything that they throw away for a week. Give students the opportunity to brainstorm and work together to repurpose the waste into something they could use in their daily life, or how they could remove that waste completely from their lives.
In the end, I think the goal of teaching is to interest and motivate our students. This does not happen every day, and it does not happen all the time. I deal with 110 beings every day, plus myself, and we have emotions and home lives that sometimes get in the way. However, if we can move them away from the mindless more often than not, then I think we're doing all right.

Thanks for reading. I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Thinking outside the box

Good morning colleagues!

My class is currently one week deep into a cross-curricular American Civil War project with Language Arts. The students have done some overarching research on important historical figures during the war, found the characteristic that this person best exemplifies, and have started designing their "improvement hour" project.

Yesterday I had the students fill out a Google Form about how they are doing on their project, and any stumbles that they had. I used the data results to guide the students needing to be spoken with immediately, which students I could meet with that day, and which students I could meet with the next day. It allowed me to prioritize my conference order.

One student had this answer, and it made me pause.

Though what she said is both encouraging and discouraging, I am happy for a few things. I am glad that I saved a project like this for the fourth quarter. Though my classroom style is not typical, my school is quite traditional. It took a lot of breaking down walls and barriers this year to get my kids ready. A project like this would have bombed in the first quarter. I am happy that I am doing this project at all. Those that read my blog often know that I am not having the best year. I refused to let myself get in the way of me having my students do something that benefits their present and future. I am glad that I am giving my students something with many choices. They are getting to decide what they do and how they do it. I had a quick spark of inspiration last week and also added that the students combine their project with something they are passionate about. I have seen more "buy-in" as the project as gone on.
I am happy that I have this on my wall. I never pointed it out to students, but I've been pointing it out a lot this past week (especially the "this is too hard"). I said to one student, "I know you never look at it." He said, "Actually, I've looked at it a lot." Boom! I consider that a win :)

I think where I'm going with all of this is that this project has been reassuring. I am glad that I decided to elevate the Civil War unit. It is a challenge, but it is pushing my students outside the box and is forcing them to think in ways that they might not have thought before. This is authentic 21st-century learning that demonstrates the relevance of history while preparing them for the future. This has been the most creative, innovative unit that I've created, and I am proud of my students, my teammate, and myself.

Thanks for reading. I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Sunday, April 9, 2017


Greetings colleagues!

I was browsing Feedly when I stumbled across a post from Katie, a 7th grade English teacher, talking about what you are currently listening to, eating, etc. I thought this would make for an interesting post!

Reading: The Girl who Came Home: I'm only about a third of the way through this, but it's an interesting concept. There are two plotlines intertwined. The first part is a flashback to 1912 as a young Irish woman, Maggie, travels on the Titanic to the United States. She is joining family there and is planning on starting a better life. The second plot line deals with her great-granddaughter Grace in the "present-day" of 1982. I don't regularly read many non-fiction history texts during the school year as I deal with history every day. It is, however, a nice change of pace to read historical fiction that is well-written.

Watching: I just finished both Big Little Lies and got caught up on Game of Thrones, so I'm in a post-tv watching funk! I need to get caught up on season nine of Doctor Who before season ten starts in a few weeks!

Eating: It's 9:45 am Mountain time, so I just ate my "go-to" breakfast: southwestern eggs, rice, Cholula, mustard, avocado, and a little bit of cheese. It's my go-to breakfast because I can make it quickly, it's filling, and it tastes good (at least to my tastebuds).

Listening: As I'm blogging, I'm listening to my movie score soundtrack. Whenever I do anything school related, I cannot listen to anything with words. I'm too observant to not pay attention to my surroundings, so it either has to be silent where I am working, or the only sound is music with no words!

Loving: I recently bought a Charge 2 Fitbit, and I am LOVING it! I had a Fitbit in the past, but it was part of the recall because many people (including myself) were burned by the material. So I switched to a Garmin Vivofit. I've had it for the last three years, so I wanted something new and flashy! It is more interactive, plus the Fitbit community is pretty impressive. I have many friends here and family back home that have them, so we're in constant competition with each other. I enjoy the continuous heart rate monitor, the silent reminders (including a move reminder every hour), and that I can start different types of workouts (hikes, yoga, treadmill, weights).

Planning: One thing that I'm planning right now is getting my master's degree. I am still in the early stages, but I know I want my masters in educational/instructional technology. It just makes sense based on where I am in my career, where my focus has been the last couple of years, and where I see myself headed in the future.

Waiting: I am currently waiting on May 25th. This is not because it is my last day of school, but it's because it is the day my nephew is graduating from high school! My school district believes in family first, so I was hesitant to ask to be absent for the last two days of school. That is usually a big "no no" in school districts, but I was pleasantly surprised that my principal was supportive of my absence. I am quite excited to head back to Iowa and see my family, and celebrate with them for four days!

So there you go - you just got a little insight into my #currently moments! Thanks for reading. I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Designing an Interactive Google Map

Good morning colleagues! I was not planning on blogging today, but I wanted to share about my awesome Spring break while ALSO demonstrating how to create an interactive Google Map!

In Drive, create a new map

Title your map, then add a layer and title

In your locations layer, click the pin, search for your location, and add to map

You can change the color and icon of your location.

In locations, add a second location. You can add an image and text description of your location.

Click on the "directions" icon. This will add a new layer where you can search from point A to B.

Change your map sharing directions so that everyone can see it!

And of course, here is my map of my break. Enjoy!

I hope that you could see a way to use these maps in your classroom, and I hope this was helpful in walking you through how to create one. Thanks for reading. I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Creating digital stories

Hello, colleagues!

I have not had a great week. In fact, turning 33 hasn't been pleasant so far. We've had a rough week of testing, and I found out that I was not accepted to the Google Innovator Academy. Whenever I have a crisis of conscience, I like to reflect on myself, my curriculum, in this case, my application, and my future in education. It's hard not to be bummed even though I knew it was a long shot. It was my first attempt, and I don't think I presented how innovative I am as a teacher. One thing that became apparent to me is that I have to put myself out there. I have good ideas, but I need to present them. I can no longer let my introversion get in the way of my big and bright future. So with that, I am going to share a unit that I just finished with my students: creating digital stories.

What is a digital story? To me, a digital story is a story made digital. Seems simple enough, right? I'm not a Language Arts teacher, but I want to my students create historical stories. I want them to be creative but historically accurate. I don't want my students to retell history but instead present something in a new and different way. I'm not letting my students create stories over whatever they want, but they do have a choice in what they create.

So here is a quick and dirty version of creating digital stories in your American history classroom
1. Have the students choose a topic. In my class, they picked from a list of Colorado historical and modern topics. Students chose their top nine, and literally, everyone was able to get one of their top choices.
2. Have the students briefly research the subject (5Ws) in order to find three characters (real people) involved in their topic.
3. After researching further, have the students pick one person that they will investigate. This individual will be the students' narrator (does not matter if male or female).
4. Have the students find an abstract idea that best fits with their person. It could be a "good" or "bad" abstract idea; in the end, they are using this open-ended concept to create an essential question that guides their story.

5. Have the students design a plot line that tells a STORY, not the personal history of this person. I told the students that their story could take place over no more than five years.
6. Have the students design their script. The script is the expanded version of the plot line entirely written out in first-person. The idea is that the student embodies their character as the narrator.
7. Have the students research to find images that they will use in their digital story. Students were required to find a new image every ten seconds. A minimum of eight of their images had to be found from Library of Congress, the Denver Public Library, or our local Pikes Peak Library District.
8. Have the students upload their images to iMovie in which they will recite their script over the images as a narration.

These are some of my favorite projects over the years...

This is a solid project that my students have done for six years. They really enjoy diving into Colorado history, they love having choice, and they enjoy designing iMovies. But a word of caution...
Thanks for reading. Because of Spring break (for two weeks!), my next blog will be on April 8th! I'll see you then :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, March 11, 2017

A day in the life...

Good morning colleagues! As part of my #sunchatbloggers group, we were tasked with creating this week's blog about a day in the life of an educator. I actually voted for this topic because I thought it would be interesting to look at my day versus another teacher somewhere else in the United States!

My day usually starts at 5:00 am. I am a morning person, but I am slow to wake-up. The first thing I do is get on my phone (SHOCKING, I know) and read through the news. I have a Google Pixel XL that has Google Now accessible when I swipe right. I've curated my "interest feed" there, so I am getting the latest political, tech, and local news. Then I go to Twitter and Palabre (my RSS feed app) and read updates there. Then I get up and get ready for my day.

School here starts at 7:45, but we are expected to be in the building by 7:20. I try to get to school between 7:00 and 7:20 because I like to read and respond to e-mails before school begins. I am also pretty lucky because 8th grade has morning plan. That allows me to eat breakfast and drink coffee during first hour while grading or setting up my room. I outline my curriculum in advance, so I am not "planning" for my day unless I come up with a brand new idea that I want to use.

That is my typical schedule, but on this day, I didn't get a plan because I had other things that I needed to do. Our district was having staff development the next day with various types of training. One of the instructors asked if I would put together a "passion project" presentation for a "speed dating" activity. I spent my plan time putting together a presentation on my most recent obsession: Boomerang for Gmail.

We actually have two plans, but, usually, the second hour is taken up by meetings. I had an IEP meeting that was also a transition meeting for the student going to high school next year. This conference lasted until right before my third-hour class.

In class, I taught students how to find primary source images for their digital stories. I spent my day walking students through Library of Congress, local libraries, and Creative Commons images. I literally spent my whole day talking "at" the students while they searched for pictures. It was a process, but the students learned a lot (and will hopefully think twice before stealing images from Google Images).

I've blogged about self-care quite a bit this year, and part of my self-care regimen is leaving school at school. I've been good this year about spending only an hour after-school working. It has taken me much longer to grade and get work back to the students (still trying to figure out real-time feedback in an efficient manner), but my stress levels have gone way down.

Another way to help my anxiety is by going to the gym or yoga studio right after my hour of after-school work. I've been pretty focused on going to the gym two days a week and the yoga studio four days a week. For the first time, I was able to do a difficult pose (camel position). I could tell my dedication to self-care is paying off!

The last two ways that I relieve stress after a long day of school is an hour of tv and a half hour of reading before bed (at 9 - I am a morning person, remember?). One of my favorite shows, Underground, just came back. If you are remotely interested in American history, it is a fantastic show, and the first episode was INSANE and unexpected! I haven't read any interesting books lately, but reading on my Kindle Paperwhite before bed has helped me read 14 of my 52 book goal for the year!

I finally feel like, after eleven years of teaching, that I am starting to figure out how to have a good day, both at school and home. Thanks for reading about my day as an educator. I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, March 4, 2017


Hello, colleagues!

I'm going to share an idea that I had this week that I'm pretty excited about. Every spring, eighth grade American history teachers partner with their Language Arts teammate to do a Civil War research paper. We've done this for the past eight years that I have taught here, and it's a unit that just doesn't excite me. I don't hate the project, but I am not a fan of the content or the fact that the students create a research paper. Civil War technology is not compelling; I cannot get excited about it in any capacity (and it includes photography, and I LOVE photography). I also don't want to grade 110 research essays after I've already had the students write three analytical essays throughout the year.

Every year I want to elevate the project. I'm not trying to make it better, but am more focused on creating something that works for my students and for myself. The lightbulb went off this week when I was thinking about my Google Innovator project. I decided that I wanted to do a "trial run" with this unit. If I do or do not become a Google Innovator, I believe in character education and want to continue to elevate my content.

So my plan is to have the students research a person from the American Civil War.

They will investigate the person and find a characteristic best demonstrated by this individual.

I then want the students to take this personality feature and try to emulate it in some sort of genius hour project. My thought is that it will lead to community building, whether in the classroom, in the school, or in the community of Colorado Springs. For example, say they choose Clara Barton who was a nurse. They pick the characteristic of selflessness. They emulate Clara Barton's selflessness by performing random acts of kindness for a stranger for a week. I'm still thinking this all through, but I want them to address my unit essential question: How can we emulate the best of the past? I'm also thinking about finding primary documents for them to access through Actively Learn, and they will continue with flipped learning.

This would only, however, take up my portion of the unit. So for my Language Arts counterpart, I was inspired by a colleague who sent me a Pinterest pin about a wax museum project. I asked my colleague if she would be interested in having the students research these people (together; we have a shared wall) then present their wax figure in her class. She just ate it up!

I tried to create an eclectic bunch of people to study because I'm hoping through this project that the students emulate the best of the past and also see themselves in history. I'm not sure if I could ask for anything more.

Thanks for reading. I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Self-Care: that's what friends are for...

Greetings colleagues!

Yesterday morning it was 15°F in Colorado Springs. On frosty mornings, we have indoor morning duty. I was standing in the gym watching students converse with each other, and it reminded me of my own friendships growing up. My friendships as a kid were the most important connections I had with other people. My friends were my life. As we grow older, those friendships end, new friendships form and new types of friends emerge. Adult life can be so complicated!

I've realized, over the past few years, how important my adult friendships still are. I have a family that I treasure and a husband that I love, but I value my friends in such a way that they are my family away from "home" (i.e. Iowa). After reading a rather interesting article about friendships, a professor of communication in Ohio said that the three expectations of friendships are "somebody to talk to, someone to depend on, and someone to enjoy." I feel like my current group of friends fit this bill quite well.

Part of my self-care regimen has been spending more time with friends. Most of my friends are teachers, so we spend quite a bit of time decompressing from school. But we have really opened up as a group over the last couple of years, and we share close, personal secrets with each other. It is so nice to have people that I can go to for advice and support, and it is nice to be wanted to give my own input and encouragement.

So in honor of my lovely, fabulous, and marvelous girlfriends, here is an all-female playlist! 

Thanks for reading. I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website