Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Goldilocks and The Three Teachers

Goldilocks and the Three Teachers:   
A Metaphor Story

Once upon a time, there was a student named Goldilocks. One day, she went for a walk (with a pass) through campus. As she walked, she came across three teachers.

She knocked on the door (and showed her pass) and politely entered the first classroom where the teacher was teaching.  Goldilocks decided that the learning looked appealing and sat down to get a taste of that learning.

But when she started to try to take a bite of the learning, she closed her mouth and shook her head. This teacher gave TOO MUCH support! Before Goldilocks had a chance to think, the teacher was telling the class the answers, pointing to the page, and lowering the thinking level to recall level.

Of course, there must be some bears, I mean, students who need that level of support. But not all of them! And certainly not Goldilocks!!

So Goldilocks politely took her hall pass and headed out of that “too hot” class with the TOO MUCH SUPPORT. She walked to the room next door, knocked on the door, showed her pass, and took a seat in the second class.  The teacher was giving instructions and Goldilocks thought that maybe this would be the tasty learning that her brain needed that day!

But when she looked at her materials to start learning, she closed her mouth and shook her head again! This teacher gave TOO LITTLE support! Where the first teacher was doing all the work for the students, the second teacher just handed out the assignment and then left the kids to figure it out on their own! Goldilocks didn’t know where to begin, so she just didn’t start anything.

Of course, there must be some bears, I mean students, that don’t need any support with their assignment. But not all of them! And certainly not Goldilocks!

So Goldilocks politely took her hall pass and headed out of that “too cold” class with the TOO LITTLE SUPPORT. She walked to the room next door, knocked on the door, showed her pass, and took a seat in the third class. Goldilocks thought that maybe THIS would be the JUST RIGHT learning that she needed!

In the third class, the teacher was giving support that was JUST RIGHT! Goldilocks sat and stayed all period and learned ALL the things! She learned so much and was so much more successful!

What did that support look like?
  • Written AND verbal directions
  • Incorporation of visuals with new concepts
  • Gradual Release of skills and procedures
  • Chunking content and work into manageable pieces
  • Differentiation (giving more support to kids who need more and less support to kids that don’t need as much)
  • Collaboration (the real kind, not just I-do-the-first-half-and-you-do-the-second-half)
  • Using sentence starters for ESOL students
  • Letting kids have productive struggle

It’s easy, like Billy Joel sings, to “go to extremes”. We all have done it from time to time.

It’s easy to either give TOO MUCH SUPPORT, where we do the learning FOR the kids and they don’t have to do anything. These are the days where we are exhausted because we run around pointing out all the answers, lecturing and telling all the kids what to know, and give them word-for-word notes. It’s TOO MUCH support for almost all kids.  They don’t learn much because we-the-teachers are doing all the talking, all the thinking, all the work -- and the kids aren’t doing the thinking, the talking, or the work. They don’t own it.

It’s just as easy (maybe easier?) to give TOO LITTLE SUPPORT. Where we just tell the kids to figure it out on their own, where we just won’t jump in and save them or even help them. The kids don’t learn much here either (except the personally, naturally-intrinsically-motivated kids). This is where even a kid motivated by grades puts her head down and decides not to even try. This is when we had out the assignment, the packet, the work and tell the kids it’s due Friday.

Giving JUST RIGHT SUPPORT is tougher, more “grey area”. JUST RIGHT SUPPORT depends on the kids. Some kids need more support, other kids need less. You have to know your kids -- by data AND personality! You have to adjust what you do a little for each kid, each class. It means that third period might need you to give them six questions and fourth period might only need four. It might mean that 7th period needs the directions written and verbal and choral read aloud -- but first period needs everyone to stop talking about the directions so they can get started and concentrate.  JUST RIGHT SUPPORT might mean that sixth period needs to do just the top half of the page, and then get together and check to see if they’re doing it right before moving on to the bottom half -- while second period just needs the time and the quiet to zoom through the whole assignment. Half of fifth period needs you to read aloud to them to help them comprehend the text and the other half doesn’t.

It’s tricky but SOOOOO worth it.

How can we be Goldilocks and give JUST RIGHT SUPPORT (not too much, not too little)?  How do you do this? How can you be more intentional about this? As always, I love to ehar from you! Email me at


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

What Are You Asking?

It’s not Duck Season! It’s not Wabbit Season!

It’s almost Testing Season! The time of year when schedules get crazy and your pacing goes out the window!

One of my least favorite things about testing season is the post-game talk of the students. After the test is over, despite the fact that they swear that they won’t talk about it, they of course DO talk about it.

So they come in my class after a three-hour testing block and the kids start talking about the test. And invariably, some kid will talk about something and some other kid will say “holy $#@!! Is that what that part was about? I totally thought it was asking about blahblahblah”

Aha. Here lies the problem. It happens on my classroom assessments, in district assessments, on the FSA, SAT, ACT, ASFAB, GED, GRE, and any other alphabet-soup of a test.

Kids don’t understand what the question is asking for.

For example, the question asks kids to analyze, but they describe. Or it asks them to contrast but the kids compare.

I’d like to propose that over the next couple of weeks, as we get closer to testing season, that we explicitly teach what those “power words” are and what they mean and what a kid should do if given that word in a test.

It depends on where you take your words from, but the internet (which, I know, I know, is NOT the authority of everything) often uses the “12 Power Words”.

Every teacher does NOT have to teach every one of these words.

But when they come up in your class over the next few weeks (and they should come up frequently), STOP! And explicitly teach the word.  (Honestly, if your class is not tackling at least SOME of those words, then your class is not hitting a lot of higher order thinking.)

It shouldn’t take a lot of time. A couple of minutes, at most. Which is worth it if your kids are mastering Tier Two Vocab.

What do I mean by teaching it explicitly?

  1. Well, when that word comes up in an assignment or assessment or whatever, I will stop the class and see how many students can define the term with their shoulder partner.
  2. Then (because kids will so often tell us that they understand things when they don’t) I will either solicit a few student definitions or give them my own.
  3. I will have the kids practice  their acquisition of the term by having them do a turn and talk where each partner uses the word in a real sentence about anything they want. We will share those out, too.
  4. I will have each team practice using the term by making a content-related question.
  5. We will talk about the type of answer the question (the one we began with) is asking for. Is the question asking for you to compare? What would a compare answer look like?

For example: Based on the document, infer the author’s point of view.  
  1. Turn to your partner and see if you can explain what “infer” means! Who wants to share  with the class?
  2. Student A had a great definition! Infer means to get something out of words that isn’t “right there”!
  3. Turn to your partner and use the word “infer” about something in your life. Mine is “I can infer from the fact that you’re not answering my texts that you don’t want to talk to me”.
  4. Now, use the term “infer” about something regarding the Treaty of Versailles. “I can infer from the fact that Germany has to pay a bijillion dollars, that it’s kind of a punishment”
  5. Now, what would an “infer” answer look like? It should include us getting something out of the document/text/cartoon/whatever that isn’t “right there”.

How do you teach the “power words”? What steps do you take? How can you really hammer this home in the next few weeks?

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The good Stuff

The Internet is full of wonderful and amazing things.
Like this:   
And this:

But sometimes, you go looking for something amazing online and you end up with a fail. Like this:

Or this:

Or this:

There’s a lot going on online.

Just like you teach your students to be savvy consumers online who check sourcing and reliability and quality of their information, I think we-as-teachers need to remember those same guidelines when we go looking for teaching resources online.

Whether it’s teaching resource books from Amazon, student handouts from TeachersPayTeachers, or primary sources from -- there is a lot on the internet.  

A Lot. On.The. Internet.

But like the “Online shopping fails above”, I have seen some online teaching resources that look great -- but aren’t what quite you’re looking for.

So how do you sift through all the primary sources, teacher-created powerpoints, and resource books out there?

  1. Good resources target the benchmark (not the “topic”). There’s a big difference between Florida benchmarks, and, say, Kentucky benchmarks. Or New York benchmarks.  For example,
    1. Arizona standards say “describe the significance of the amendments to the US Constitution”,
    2. while Florida benchmarks have separate, specific benchmarks about
      1. “analyze the impact of the 13, 14, 15, 19, 24, 26 amendments”,
      2. “evaluate rights contained in the Bill of Rights and other amendments to the US Constitution”
      3. and even “explain the constitutional amendment process”
So while you might find something cool about “amendments” does it match our specific Florida Benchmarks? That’s hard to find.

2. Good resources are age appropriate. I lovelovelove John Green’s Crash Course youtube series, but I wouldn’t dream of showing those to a middle schooler. Those resources are too fast-talking, with too-complicated, technical SAT-style vocabulary. And occasionally the allusion to more mature topics. On the other hand, I wouldn’t give my high schoolers some of the lower level materials I find online. It wouldn’t be challenging enough for them.

3. Good resources come from credible places. I once went looking for resources to teach the Arab-Israeli conflict, only to find extremely biased content, from both Jewish organizations and Arabic and Muslim organizations. That’s ok -- if you use one of each to teach both sides. It’s not ok to choose a side in that ongoing conflict and teach that one side as “fact”. I also found completely non-credible materials on that topic, such as articles from conspiracy websites.
*Bottom line? Figure out what/who the author or organization is and who funds them. It’s not as hard as it seems. Go to the “about us” page on the website or google the name of the website/article to see if other places online have criticized/praised/mentioned the source you’re looking at.  As crazy as it sounds, there are even misattributed George Washington documents out there.

Note -- Just because it says “US History” resources or “Civics resources or whatever doesn’t mean it’s credible. There are plenty of people with political/religions/whatever agendas who make good-looking websites and resources that are not credible that are trying to achieve a purpose that is not YOUR CLASSROOM purpose.

4. Good resources do stuff better than what you already have. Don’t choose an extra resource that’s all lower level! That stuff is everywhere! Don’t choose a resource that’s just a lecture or worksheet you could have made up in two minutes. Choose something that’s worth the time it takes to research it -- something engaging, with higher-order thinking, collaboration, and student voice and choice. Choose something that helps you differentiate  -- but that doesn’t “dumb it down”. The last thing any of us needs is to lower the cognitive levels of learning in our classrooms.

There is nothing wrong with supplementing lessons with other stuff. Just make sure it's the Good Stuff. Make sure it's benchmark-specific, appropriate, credible, and high quality. Don't grab every book/power point/worksheet/document on the internet.

What's your favorite online resource? What is your best advice for colleagues about choosing resources? As always, I love to hear! Email me

Thursday, January 25, 2018

It's Aliiiiive!!

How asleep are your kids this week? Maybe it’s the rainy weather or the fact that a chunk of kids  are out sick this week. Maybe it’s just the January blahs.

Well, let’s wake ‘em up. Let’s get ‘em moving. Let’s make those little monsters come aliiiiiive!!!!!

So remember that I wrote last week about movement in class? It’s kind of a big deal.

Sooooo ....  let’s get our kids up, for just a minute. You don’t have to ask them do dance or jump or anything crazy. Just .... move to another partner and talk...
Here’s a quick, easy strategy that can work with any content. It’s called Words Alive, from Teacher Created Materials. It’s actually adapted from strategies to use with ESOL but because it involves movement, it should be useful with all kids.

How do I do this?  
  1. a. Before class, choose a text to tackle together and a list of terms from that text you want to emphasize. Try to be judicious so that you choose ONLY the most important terms. Try to keep the number of terms down to 5-10.
  2. Read the text together. This can be a document or a textbook selection or an article.
  3. Write the 5-10 most super-duper important terms on the board for your most struggling group. You can skip this scaffold if a particular class doesn’t need it.
  4. Give each kid an index card. Explain that they are going to create their own card. If you don’t have index cards, just cut blank paper in half.
  5. Explain to kids (with written directions) that on one side of the card they will write a selected term. On the other side they will draw a visual representation of the term.
  6. Give the kids a few minutes to do that.
  7. When they have completed their “Words Alive” cards, divide the kids in pairs or small groups. Explain that they will be working as a group to guess the words based on the visual representation, like pictionary.
  8. Students should only show the back of the card (the term written) until the other student has guessed
  9. Have students change groups/partners so that they get to guess another word from another classmate.
  10. Keep the cards to use later on in the unit/year and to increase the number of exposures to the terms.  
How do I keep my kids on task?
  1. Make sure they know what the terms mean before they make the vocab cards.
  2. Partner them strategically.
  3. Use a timer to keep things moving.
Why should I try this one?
  • It can be a valuable frontloading strategy to pre-teach vocab before a lesson.
  • Or, it can be used during/after a lesson to review, clarify, and solidify understanding. It works because the KIDS make the meaning. THEY make the images and THEY do the guessing.
  • They’re not passively copying vocab. They’re doing the thinking.
  • It gives the kids a chance to use the terms in a non-threatening setting (not a test or whole-class embarrassment)
What could go wrong?
  1. Kids could not understand the terms and therefore have misconception-oriented visuals.
    1. Fix by checking their visuals before they group up
2. Kids could get off task during the partner/small group time
  1. Monitor closely and use a timer

What do you think? Will you try Words Alive? I think it can be an easy, controlled way to use movement for a learning purpose (not for just stretch-breaks). Let’s make words come alive -- and in the process, let’s make our kids wake up and look alive. Will you let me know how it goes? As always, I love to hear about it! Email me!


Thursday, January 18, 2018

I Like to Move It, Move It

Happy New Year (still)!

When was the last time you sat in a long meeting, PLC, or training. Feel free to call me out on this one from some meeting or PD you were in with me (“Tracy! That's that one long meeting with YOU!”)

If I can ask a personal question, how do you FEEL after sitting for that long? Do your legs go numb? Does your foot bounce up and down? Do you change posture over and over again? Does your backside get too tired of those plastic molded chairs we find almost everywhere?

Uhhhhh, Trace? Pot? Kettle?

Yup. I’m not a superstar at incorporating movement in my instruction or my PD,  I admit it.

Sitting too long makes you tired. It makes your eyes glaze over. It makes you zone out. It makes your fitness tracker chirp at you. And if you sit there every day in 45-minute chunks (or longer!!) and rarely get to move ...

Your brain won’t work as well. You need oxygen to your brain, produced by body movement.

The average learner regardless of age (that means we- adults as well as our teens and tweens) needs to briefly move their bodies every 15-30 minutes If you’re in a 45 minute class, you need to have kids get up once in the middle. If you teach on block, you need to get them up multiple times a block.

Here are a couple of benefits of movement breaks:
  • Brain needs processing time for short term memory
  • As students return to content, their brains can refocus; movement re-energizes learning
  • If students are uncomfortable or stressed, the brain will not retain new information easily.
  • There is much less movement in today’s world of Ubereats, social media, and Shipt. Kids and grown ups need to move!
  • Our best ideas often come when we are taking a break.
  • Movement and collaboration heighten participation.
  • Movement can builds relationships, self-esteem and sense of belonging
  • Movement boosts listening skills and communication

  • Approximately 90% of the oxygen in our bodies are “stale” until we take a deep breath, yawn, or move.
  • Lack of oxygen results in confusion, lack of focus, and memory problems.

Yeah. It’s kind of a big deal.

“But Trace,” you say, “if I let my kids get up, they’ll go crazy!! (more likely in middle school) or “my kids will think it’s stupid and they won’t want to do it (more likely in high school)

If you’re worried your kids will get wacky, then set parameters, like you do with everyone else. Then don’t give them a “wiggle break” or a “stand and stretch” break. Instead, work it into your lesson.

Try things like
  • If you agree with x, stand up at your seat. Now sit down. If you think it’s y, stand up at your seat.
  • Please walk around the room to find someone who chose the same answer you did. See if you two (or three) can explain why you chose what you chose.
  • Please send one member of your group to me to check the answer.
  • Go post your response on a sticky note on the board/question when you’re done.
  • Do a gallery walk in small groups.
  • Graffiti challenge -- post prompts, misconceptions, or political cartoons on chart paper on the board. Have kids go respond to those question with graffiti. No chart paper? Have them write right on the whiteboard
  • Turn and talk -- but GET UP and find someone to talk to  ... (whose name starts with the same letter as yours, someone whose birthday is in the same month as yours, someone who as the same math teacher as you.. whatever)

One last note -- Movement is one of the 6 Ms of Culturally Responsible Instruction. When kids are up and moving, they are interacting with each other. When they speak and are heard by each other, they are being culturally responsive. And when they get up and move you-the-old-person-teacher (yes, even you, recent-college-grad. You’re old in their eyes), your Old Self is being responsive to their youth culture. And youth (children and teens) need to MOVE! It’s developmentally appropriate. So with movement, you are incorporating a small piece of CRI (Culturally Responsive Instruction)

And today, it might get the blood flowing through their frozen little limbs.

Try some movement. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Put some rules/parameters on it and give it a purpose. You’ll be surprised at how much it improves student learning.

And then, get up and move it, move it. (You’re welcome for that Lin-Manuel Miranda "Moana" earworm!)

Let me know how it goes. Does your class implode? I hope not! Email me to tell me!