Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Skim and Scan

My house if full of “talkers”. I know. You’re all soooo surprised.  

But in our house full of talkers, we all, on occasion, start talking without giving any context. I don’t know if my kids do it because my husband and I accidently model that? I don’t know if their little brains just start at the “good part” and forget to give us background?

But anyway, sometimes it’s hard to understand the story without the context.

And it’s easy for us-the-teachers to jump in and TELL the kids the context.

But if we believe that “the person doing the talking is doing the thinking”, then we know that the kids will think about it better and it will “stick” better (in their brains), if we let them come up with the context.

“But Tracy”, you ask, “if they don’t have any context, how are they supposed to make their own context? I mean, if they have never heard of the Haitian Revolution, then they have never heard of the Haitian Revolution. How can they have context if they have never even heard of it?”

Good question.

This is one of the best uses for your textbook (or related article).

This is when you use  ......  Skimming and Scanning!

No, really! I know we talk a lot about document analysis and close reading, but sometimes -- we just need to skim and scan.

You and I do this all the time in adult world. We skim and scan our email. Maybe you are skimming and scanning THIS email (Hey. I don’t judge.). You skim and scan student work sometimes. You skim and scan articles in the news and on social media.

You-the-educated-adult don’t do a close read on EVERYTHING that comes your way.

Neither do I.
Let’s get into the nuts and bolts of skimming and scanning.

How do I do skimming and scanning with my students?
  1. Project the text on a Smartboard or ELMO
  2. Model how skimming and scanning can build background knowledge by:
    1. Using titles and captions to activate/build background knowledge
    2. Look at images, people, maps, timelines, charts, graphs
    3. Look  at bolded or highlighted information or words
    4. Read sidebars or fact boxes
    5. Read first and last paragraphs
    6. Record “first impressions” and “fast facts”  
    7. Have students summarize and put those impressions in a summary statement or “final thoughts”.
     C. Ask students to practice skimming and scanning a short (chunked) piece of text with a partner, using steps i-vii above.
2. How do I keep my kids on task?
a.  Keep the text short.  
B. Use gradual release.
C. Correct misconceptions when kids think every word is equally important.
3. Why should I try this one?
  1. Because not all text was created equal. Some text is created for close reads – and some is just for background info. Kids need to know the difference and they need to know what to do with less-important (but background building) text. Students need context to be able to appropriately tackle a more complex text.
4. What can go wrong?
  1. If not well monitored and corrected, students can get confused and mistake essential  info for non-essential. That’s why gradual release is essential with skimming and scanning. Also, kids can struggle to stay engaged. That’s why timers and modelling and chunking text are so helpful.
  2. Also – your adolescent students are not as well educated as you-the-college-educated-teacher. Don’t expect them to get as much out of their reading as you do. And that’s ok.
Give them a chart like this to jot down their answers...
First Impressions
Fast Facts
Final Thoughts

Do you see how having your students do a quick 5 minute skim and scan can help them build background knowledge? Instead of having the kids read the textbook section before getting into the deeper content, have them skim and scan before getting to the document or the higher-order thinking activity. It teaches them to get an overview and it builds background knowledge.

AND -- it saves time!

Everybody wants more time!

Image result for stay strong thanksgiving break  memeChoose text to build background knowledge and have kids skim and scan. Don’t choose the really- important document that you need to dig into.
Choose the one you just need to use to build background knowledge.
Will you try it, judiciously?As always, I love to hear from you! Email me at

Have an AWESOME Thanksgiving. I am thankful for all the awesome colleagues I work with! Have a great -- and well-deserved- break!


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Frustration and Scaffolding

Do you live in a land of frustration (in your classroom)? I feel like many teachers set themselves up for failure and then get frustrated.

Their day goes like this.
  1. Assign higher level task (because my administrator/colleague/friendTracyNewman says I should.
  2. Watch students have non-productive struggle and give up -- OR watch students just do a really terrible job at the task.
  3. Decide that students can’t handle the task and next time give them really easy (lower level) tasks so they can be successful.
  4. Repeat -- or shy away from giving students challenging tasks for the rest of the year.

How do you feel about giving struggling students higher order thinking? Is it scary to you? Do you think it’s something only for OTHER teachers with OTHER students in OTHER classes or schools? Do you think that YOUR kids can’t handle it?

You’re completely right.

Your kids can’t handle it.

...unless you scaffold it.

“But Tracy”, you argue with me (it’s ok. I can take it). “I don’t actually know how to DO that. I think you think that’s easier than it really is. It’s not easy! It’s hard!

You’re completely right (again).

Scaffolding is hard.

Where should we start? Here are a few strategies to help you get your kids moving UP to that task you’re hesitant to give them.

Quick Go-To Scaffolding Strategies!
  1. Chunk It: A struggling student may give up before he begins, if the task LOOKS daunting. Make it look less daunting by shortening the tasks or text into manageable chunks. If you’re giving them a page-long text to read, slow it down and give them one paragraph at a time. If you have ten steps to a task, give them one or two steps at a time. If you have twenty questions, give them the questions in groups of four or five. It is so much more manageable to chunk the text or the task to scaffold it for struggling kids.

  1. Remove the Content: (just for a minute!). If students are struggling with a skill or  concept, try to help them understand the skill or concept without the content. Then, add that content back in. If they don’t understand why any Colonist would have stayed Loyal to Britain, ask if they would want to stay if Florida and Georgia decided to leave the US. Or if Pinellas County became it’s own state. Then describe it WITH the content.

  1. Model It: Kids bomb their tasks a lot of the time because they don’t know what the task should look like. If you’re asking kids to debate, demonstrate some things the two sides might say. If you’re asking them to write, show them what their writing task should look like. If you’re asking them to track you visually, show them what it would look like to track someone.

  1. Gradually Release It:  If your kids can’t “handle” a particular task or activity, try modelling part of it first. Then, do part of it whole class, where you facilitate the learning but the 25 (or 35) brains in the room do the thinking. Then, have them try a part in groups or partners, where a few brains can work together. Then -- and DON’T forget this part! -- make them do (even a little) part on their own.

  1. Spiral It: Start small. Start with Level One (recall or “right there”) questions. Then move up the DOK or Bloom’s Ladder. LEAD the kids there by “spiraling up” the questions and tasks. Kids can get where you want them to go if you lead them with some very intentional, pointed questions.

  1. Sentence Start ‘Em: Kids don’t always know where to start or what the teacher is looking for. SHOW the kids what you’re looking for with a sentence starter. If you ask the kids, “What are the causes of _____?” then give the kids a sentence starter that says “The causes of _____ were 1)_____ and 2)____.”

Your kids can do it. I promise! Maybe not every kid every time, but a whole lot MORE kids can handle a whole lot MORE content and thinking with some good scaffolding.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Doc Dos and Doc Don'ts

Do you ever see those lists in magazines or online of “Dos and Don’ts”? Like, things to  DO when running (or doing a new hairstyle or shopping for a tablet or whatever) and things DON’T do when running (or doing a new hairstyle or shopping for a tablet or whatever).

I know that many of you are using tons of documents in your social studies classes these days. That’s awesome!  Hooray to you for making social studies authentic and for using complex text!

Now, it’s time for a little refinement. Let’s take it to the next level! Let’s talk about some Doc(ument) Dos and Don’ts, to make your classroom use of documents a little more effective, engaging, and authentic. The last thing you want is for kids to hate documents because they are something the kids find boring, insurmountable, and soul-sucking. Here are some ideas:

  1. DO be choosy about your documents. Not all documents are created equal. Just because it’s a document doesn’t mean that it’s right for your kids or your lesson.
DON’T choose a document just because it’s a document or because it’s mentioned in the text.
  • Is it something they HAVE to dig through to understand the benchmark, like the Declaration of Independence? It’s better to read excerpts of the Declaration than to read what someone else wrote ABOUT it...
  • Is it something the kids can make it through? Slogging through Beowolf or the actual Proclamation of 1763 can be too much (even for me!). If the kids can’t make it through the document, you’ll need to either scaffold it or find a better doc.
  • Is it somewhat engaging? If you’re going to ask kids to step into the past through the eyes of someone who was there, please try to make it something they can find something interesting. Otherwise, it will flop.

2. DO use excerpts of the document to make it accessible.
DON’T give the kids a whole document if they don’t need it.
  • Use ellipse ( ... ) to remove chunks that are not crucial to the understanding
  • Cut out sections that are not necessary to the learning target or are redundant
  • Make the document a manageable size for your students. Of course, 6th graders can’t handle quite as much as a high-schooler can. That’s ok. Make it age appropriate.

3. DO “tamper” with the document, when necessary
DON’T rewrite the whole document for the kids. That’s not a primary source anymore.  
  • It’s ok to put a synonym in parentheses so the kids don’t get stuck on a particularly tough term. For example, “We hold these truths to be self-evident (clear) that all men are created equal.”
  • It’s ok to put explanations in the text, too. For example “He (King George III) has called together legislative bodies unusual, uncomfortable, and distant...”
  • DON’T put the main ideas in bullet points for the kids. Let them do that!

4. DO scaffold it.
DON’T decide your kids can’t handle it before they try.
  • Break up the text. Add asterisks (*) with necessary information below. Add questions in between sentences or paragraphs or sections to help kids build their way up to higher order thinking..
  • Give the kids the tools they need to work their way up to the understanding that you want them to get. Take away the big barriers. Instead of writing too much, make copies they can glue in. Explain context, vocab, and unfamiliar phrasing.
  • Add lower level questions that build up to higher level questions to help students work their way up one step at a time.

5. DO let the kids struggle through the document
DON’T just tell them what it means
  • The only way kids will get better at working their way through documents -- is to work their way through documents.
  • Let them struggle, productively, but not in a way that will make them want to give up.
  • Realize that their (adolescent) understanding will NOT be as solid as your (college-educated) understanding. That’s ok. They’re just beginning. But let them come to their own understanding. Don’t just give them your understanding
  • Don’t put the main ideas on the board for them to copy.

6. DO give the kids structure to their document digs
DON’T just give them a document and have them cold read it.

There are ways to use historical and political documents to increase literacy, rigor, and authenticity in your social studies class.  And there are ways to use documents to suck the enjoyment out of your social studies class.

What DOs and DON’Ts would you add to my list? How do you make using historical documents successful?

As always, I love hearing from you! Let me know!


Friday, October 27, 2017

Pop Culture is Like...

I used to pride myself on the cool, pop-culture connections I could make for my students.

  • Anarchy? The movie “The Purge”
  • Empress Theodora? I ain’t sayin’ she’s a gold digger. But she ain’t messin’ with no broke Emperor. 
  • Slavery? Have you seen the movie “Twelve Years a Slave”
  • Mansa Musa? He’s like Bill Gates. Throwing money to everybody.
  • Progressivism? There’s a giant metaphor in “The Wizard of Oz”
  • Queen Elizabeth I? There are some similarities to Taylor Swift
  • Her dad? Oddly, also some Taylor Swift similarities. 
  • Committees of Correspondence? Like bloggers and podcasters
  • Declaration of Independence? A break-up letter
  • Confederation? Look at Star Wars

As a former Wedding DJ (and middle school dance-DJ), I was generally pretty well informed into the music part of pop culture. Some consistent upkeep with Entertainment Weekly and  -- bam! I had pop culture references for my students all over the place.  I was speaking their language!  

I did okay for a while.

But I noticed this nagging question in the back of my mind.

As I consistently worked to make my social studies connections relevant and fun, I noticed that I was getting older. (How did THAT happen?)  

And despite all my research, I ended up spending more of my time explaining the pop culture connections AND the content.

It took twice as long to teach that way!!

That’s the OPPOSITE of what I was going for. I was hoping that the pop culture reference would let us get through things more quickly!!

So, I recently had a revelation that is so simple, it’s crazy.

Stop making the pop culture references for the kids. You’re not a kid. Whatever pop culture coming from Snapchat, indie bands, reality shows, school rumors, Youtube sensations, or whatever ... They’re not all going to speak to the kids.

You’re not in high school any more.

Not even you, the recent-college-grad. :)

Life moves pretty fast. Your trendy grown-up pop culture references aren’t always as timely as you think they are, Ferris Bueller.

INSTEAD -- have the KIDS make the pop culture references FOR you.

This has three major benefits.
  1. The kids are doing the thinking, therefore, it’s more likely to “stick” than me thinking for them.
  2. The kids will use what THEY are into, which will instantly make it more likeable.
  3. The kids will use references to what THEIR peers are more likely to get. They won’t get my Ferris Bueller references (or The Fault in Their Stars references) but they will get each others Riverdale references.  Or whatever they’re into.

It’s easy. You can even give them a sentence starter and teach the term “analogy”.

“__________ (concept) is like _______ (pop culture) because _________”

You can use this as processing -- OR you can use it as a formative assessment! Kick up your exit tickets and ask the kids to make a good pop culture analogy for you. It makes the pop culture more relevant and tells you whether the kids got what you wanted them to get. Plus, it makes the content “stick” in their brains better.

As you teach, ask the kids to make the pop culture references. Their pop culture is probably more likeable (by their peers) than yours are.

I know Homer Simpson is a perennial favorite. But most teens haven’t watched much (or any).

How can you use pop culture more? How can you have your KIDS do the thinking and making the references? How can you make pop culture work for you, even as you aren’t 17 anymore?
As always, let me know how it goes. Email me