Saturday, April 29, 2017

You gave students choice... and it bombed... what? It's time for a reflection.

My co-worker and I just finished our cross-curricular project, and boy has it been a unit! We were quite euphoric with how it turned out, and were glad that the project was more of a success than we anticipated. One thing is nagging at the back of my brain - how did giving students choice work? Was THAT successful?

To answer that question, I am going to jump into "story time" and travel back to last summer. Right before the school year began, I attended a GAFE (Google Apps for Education) conference here in Colorado Springs. I was pushed by many of the attendees and presenters (in a good way) to update and elevate my curriculum this current school year. The big "buzz word" was choice: giving students a choice in your classroom. And I believe it, and I believe in it, so I tried to provide my students with choice (to give them a voice). It was a complete and utter failure.

Sometimes I wonder why teachers and teacher bloggers don't talk more about their failures, and, when giving advice, don't always talk about what might go wrong. I feel like I had a preconceived and naive belief about how choice and flexibility would transform my classroom. I would liken this to all the feels that teachers get when watching Robin Williams' speech in A Dead Poet's Society.

That was going to be my classroom this year... I was wrong. What I failed to take into account, and what I was never pushed to question, was who the students were that I had coming into my classroom. My students had eight years of traditional schooling. Often times, in my own opinion, I did not see rigor and high expectations in their previous classes. Students, in the past, did not have the option to make their own choices and did not have the capacity and maturity to make wise decisions on their own. This led to a very rough beginning to the school year (no Robin Williams moments here!) and a lot of reflection about what best meets my students' needs.

So... I gave my students choice... and it bombed. What are the next steps?

Number one: don't give up! So it didn't work this time. Why didn't it work? Figure that out, then don't do that again. It is okay to fail, but do not punish your students if the failure is one you.

Number two: figure out what your students need. Many options or open flexibility can be overwhelming if it has never been an option before. I know that when I start my next school year, I need to survey the students about their previous schooling. This will then drive HOW I teach in my classroom. I can decide how much choice I offer from the start.

Number three: start small to large. Start by giving your students two or three possibilities (not unlimited), then expand from there. I run a more project-based class so I can start with open selection when it comes to a type of project (Slides, Explain Everything, iMovie), then over time, students can have a choice when it comes to topics and content. Ideally, by the end of the year, the students have complete discretion in the classroom to display their voice.

Number four: take your time. If you realize that students still don't have the maturity to have choice, then do not give them that option. Make sure they are ready to move to the next step. Do not set up your students to fail.

As I said at the beginning, now that I've done this big project at the end of the year, was giving choice beneficial?


It was due to my failures at the beginning of the year and reflecting upon WHY there was failure. It was also dependent on me slowly adding in more choice as the year went on. I also feel like we gave students good options when it came to historical figures and project presentation options for this unit. 

Was it perfectly successful? No, not quite. Both my colleague and I learned a lot doing this project for the first time and have discussed changes that we will make. We still saw students choose the easy options, and I still need to figure out why they didn't want to push themselves. 

But I can see how choice works in my classroom and am excited to see it work even better next year. Keep the faith! Thanks for reading. I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

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